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Posts tagged ‘research’

Occupational Hazards of a Crime Writer

 

You may think that being a writer means I have few, if any, occupational hazards.  Certainly I can avoid many of the difficulties and occasional dangers that surround “ordinary” working life.  For example,  I have a strong measure of control over where I work, when I work and I provide all my own equipment so if I get electrocuted by my computer it’s my own damn fault.  There are however a number of potential hazards that are unique to a writer, especially a crime writer.  Take an everyday situation – standing in a queue at the shop or sitting in a cafe.  Whilst others might look around, enjoy their coffee or gaze out of the window I find myself unexpectedly hacked on the ankle whilst my partner hisses, “Stop staring like that!”  Looking around I realize several other customers are watching me warily whilst a family seated at the next table are packing up, leaving their tea and juice half-finished on the table.   Absorbed in observing and trying to capture the pattern of their conversation I have gone very still and rather too intense for comfort.

Gathering information is fraught with problems and potential hazards.   Whilst shopping in town recently I was watching the butcher sharpen a particularly impressive knife.  He knows me well and was quite happy to chat about the size and thickness of Kitchen knivesblade best suited to separate a human head from the torso (he recommended using a cleaver to sever the spine) but a couple of customers left the shop rather rapidly.  A hardened hunter went a strange colour and retreated to the back of our local sports shop whilst I talked to a very knowledgeable young man about the composition of shot-gun shells.  He showed me the types of pellets commercially available and we discussed their likely impact.  It was when we wandered into self-made shot territory, looking at the effects of, for example, small hexagonal nuts, that we found the place deserted.  Hexagonal nuts, by the way, are likely to produce a result best described as “horribly mangled”, which was just what I wanted to know at the time.

It is on my trusty computer however that lurks my greatest occupational hazard.  God forbid anything happen to my partner but should they suddenly fall down dead and the police decide to investigate me as a possible suspect I am in rather a sticky situation.  My recent searches include photographs of an autopsy suite, stages of human decomposition, adders – including locations, habitats and the strength of their venom, a table of temperatures for spontaneous combustion of various materials, head trauma and the thickness of the human skull and identification of poisonous mushrooms.  My browsing history alone would probably be enough to earn me a week or so locked up as the prime suspect.

So never mind the more mundane problems of repetitive strain injury from using the computer mouse, eye strain and headaches, jitters from too much coffee and sleepless nights as deadlines loom.  The true occupational hazards for a writer come before the writing actually begins.  And linger long afterwards.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I really must clean out my browsing history…

 

 

Finding your “helpful reader”

One of the more interesting aspects of writing is the arrival of the “helpful reader”. Formally identified by Bernard Cornwall of “Sharpe” fame, the helpful reader is more knowledgeable and even more eagle-eyed than your editor at their best (or worst). Helpful readers abound in all genres and eras but they flock to historical fiction with the greatest enthusiasm. Enthusiastic and vocal, these amateur experts are attuned to the smallest slip-up and always ready to offer some helpful advice.
Now, I write books set in the 1980s which can be particularly problematic. Within living memory, the 80s have not had time to settle into the homogenized lump that is history. Those that remember the 80s all had an individual experience. Some never encountered a computer or the Internet at all. Many people flourished under the Thatcher government, enjoying new opportunities and a rapidly improving life style. We do not have history’s verdict on the 1980s and so any description, any story, must be based on individual experience.
This is not to say the research needs to be any less meticulous. I recently had the happy experience of reading a dozen submissions to a publisher and the range and depth of material was a delight but I was very disappointed by the lack of background knowledge in some stories. Perhaps I am a pedant in disguise – or a “helpful reader” held in check by the demands of my own work – but writing demands a certain cold analytic rigour if it is to be successful. Terry Pratchett once wrote it was fine to create a world with flying pigs but you’d better make sure there were a lot of umbrella factories on your planet and he’s got it right. I originally trained to work in the theatre, backstage doing lighting and sound. It was impressed on us all how important it was to get everything right. Theatre, like writing, depends on the willing suspension of disbelief. It’s not real and you have to help your reader accept the world you present. A sudden glaring error shakes them out of that suspension and you risk losing them for ever so please – check, double check and ask stupid questions – get it right!
And my own “helpful reader”? I have a gentleman who is concerned the fish in “Death of the Elver Man” don’t act the way his fish do. He would really like to take me fishing to show me what he means. I don’t have the heart to tell him I’ve never fished in my life (though I know a lot of people who do). I don’t think I’ll be taking him up on his kind offer but thanks anyway.