This post originally appeared over on shortbreadstories.co.uk in support of the Million for a Morgue Short Story Competition. Russel is reposting here as he is still in the midst of redrafts. Normal service will resume shortly.
The best crime fiction – the best fiction – creates the illusion of
reality. That is, the writer throws in just enough real life to distract
from the bits he made up.
I suppose that’s what you call artistic licence.
Realism is rarely real.
But a good writer is always aware of what he is doing, and knows just
how much reality he can allow to intrude on his fiction. After all, if
all crime fiction were “real”, there’d be a lot more internal
investigations and far too many scenes of filling out forms for us to
care. Also, if crime fiction were an accurate reflection of reality,
then no one would go out of doors for fear of the pervert serial killers
who live at least three to a street in the fictional world of many
crime fiction writers.
So to offset all the unreality of what we do, crime writers have to
ground their work in some kind of reality. Val McDermid, of course
famously uses the expertise of Dundee’s own Dr Sue Black to assist in
upping the realism of her investigative procedures. By melding her own
gothic sensibilities with the rigors of Black’s knowledge, McDermid
creates a world that is at once artificial (the killer is generally
always caught, Tony Hill never quite succumbs to a full and crippling
breakdown that would mark the end of the series, the killer always has
razor-sharp motivation for their crime) and utterly real (her knowledge
of the terrible things that can be done to the human body, as well
as her razor-sharp psychological insights, allow the reader to buy into
Sue Black is, of course, one of the driving forces behind Million For a Morgue.
If you don’t already know, Dr Black and the team are looking to raise 1
million pounds to fund a “centre for excellence” in forensic research.
With the full force of the aforementioned Val McDermid and 12 other
bestselling crime writers to back them up, this is one serious
fundraising effort. The Morgue will be named for one of the 12 crime
writers. And its research will have a global impact, assisting law
enforcement around the world.
Not only that, but no doubt a knock-on effect of the project will be
to inspire crime writers, and perhaps even present them with new
challenges. As research improves on current forensic techniques, many
crime writers will have to consider how their novels are to straddle
that line between reality and fiction.
While it is possible to write a crime novel with little research, you
will be caught out by eagle-eyed readers if the research basics aren’t
even considered. It’s a lesson I learned early when I sent out first
drafts of my novel, The Good Son, to trusted professionals in
the industry. I found that I’d managed to confuse Scots and English
criminal law and procedure. In fact, the first print run of the book
includes a reference to a job that exists only in English law. That
mistake was subsequently altered for future editions.
I did not have to worry much about forensics for my first couple of
novels. Or police procedure. I was writing a private eye novel, and
thought at first that I could get away with making it all up. But I soon
discovered that this was impossible. Making my character an
ex-policeman meant he had to know certain things about the law. And
while PI’s are unusual heroes in UK crime fiction, they still exist in
this country. Check out the Assiocation of British Investigators, and
you’ll discover the profession is alive and well. During research for The Good Son,
I found myself calling on the assistance of one of the UK’s senior eyes
to help me get a sense of the world he saw every day. I remember the
first time I phoned him, I got very excited when he had to hang-up
mid-sentence due to being on a stakeout and needed to follow a suspect. I
think, for him, it was routine. For me, it was a momentary adrenaline
rush. I never did find out who he was following or why. But of course,
that’s standard: even private eyes have to maintain a client
A great deal of research can now be done online, which is perhaps why
it has become so important. If Joe Q Reader can look up some basic
blood spatter information, then you should be able to as well. And you’d
better, or the reader will call you on it and start to disbelieve
further aspects of your work. But of course, you only want to include as
much of your research as necessary in the book. If you put too much on
the page, you slow the plot, and lose the reader just as much as if
you’d made the whole thing up.
Research, then, is key for any crime writer. You don’t have to put it
all down on the page, but you have to know enough to make your world
ring true. You have to put in enough fact to disguise the outright
fantasy (or, as its more generally known, “dramatic license”). As well
as helping forensic research and law enforcement agencies across the
globe, a project like Dundee’s Centre for Forensic Excellence will
likely affect the way that crime writers approach their work. Its
discoveries may change the way we look at criminal investigation and in
order to keep their work plausible, crime writers like myself and the 12
bestsellers who have backed the project will have to work hard to keep
our stories “real”.