Thursday, 1 January 2015

The Trials Of A Crime Writer: When Research Becomes Unhealthy

The Trials Of A Crime Writer: When Research Becomes Unhealthy

One of the things that I don't like about my job, is the research that goes hand in hand with writing fiction. Some people say that you should only write what you know, but for me that seems to limit the imagination to only what you're sure about. With the need for more writers to expand their circle of characters to be more inclusive, it seems to be that writing is always going to include things that the writer themselves have not experienced. That of course, goes double for situations I write about that include crime.

I have never actually murdered someone, though like many other people, I have thought about what would be the "perfect crime". I have read various reference books in regards to crime, punishment and forensics, but that just makes sense to me given what my chosen genre is. In fact, I'm writing this piece just after completing some work on an introduction to forensics course that I took to give me more information about the process of catching a criminal. Of course, there are many crimes that you can research by talking to people who have been through the system, such as petty theft and possibly even some drug related crimes. Other more violent crimes tend to be hard to experience through talking with the convicted perpetrators and even if it  was possible, I'm not sure I'd want to go that far for authenticity.

One thing I have learnt in my forensic course is that there is pretty much no such thing as a perfect crime. Locard's principle sticks in my mind and essentially boils down to "every contact leaves a trace". Some of these traces are not even visible to the naked eye and unless you want to start carrying around a microscope and other heavy equipment, you're not likely to realise it's there. My main issue when writing a new book, or writing about a case Tara has been called to work on, is knowing whether or not it's something that the police would have picked up. Obviously, scientific discoveries have allowed the crime scene experts to know what to look for, and in that regard the police are pretty well versed in how to run a crime scene. The whole idea of some of my books is to think up something that they may have missed (such as during 
some of Tara's cases) or things that the killer has thought of and produced counter measures to make sure the police are lead in the wrong direction (as is the case with a couple of my books)

However, as I've mentioned before, there are only so many things you can learn from a course or a book and it's not unheard of for crime writers to act out, as much as they can, the exact scenarios they want their characters to go through. Although it's a work of fiction, a good example would be the ways in which Richard Castle in the TV series CASTLE, tests the strength and ways to break out of a zip tie. I've done similar things myself, and for the record, those bits of research I actually do like! For me it's the going through books and websites and videos to find the information I need that drive me up the wall. It's a necessary evil, but it has to be done if you want your reader to be able to believe that it's possible that the chosen scenario happened.

Yet, there is a line, I feel, for when you have to realise that all the research (and I mean book more than practical) in the world is not going to give you the information you want and therefore, you're either going to have to change the scene and use something else or you're going to have to find some hands-on evidence that backs up your story line. Research is all well and good so long as it actually helps you move on with the story. I do believe however, that eventually you have to stop reading the books and making everything perfect (or info dumping, which is something I'll discuss another time) and allow the story to unfold on its own. There is such a thing as too much research. While it is possible that knowing exactly how a DNA sample will be processed and the sheer number of statistics on your side as to whether or not the sample is individualised enough, there is also the possibility that your book will go from being a work of fiction, to almost like an essay on how wonderfully good forensics are. If you're going to keep the reader from feeling like they are doing research, you have to allow for some imperfection. After all, knowing how it should be done, doesn't mean that it is always done that way. Some of the best "mistakes" can make the most riveting reading!

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