It is my pleasure to welcome my fellow author ond SpellBound stablemate, Mark Eklid back to the blog today. He explains how he researches modern crime fiction in his local area, and the problems that this can cause.
Thanks for having me back, Val. People often think that conteporary fiction doesn't require a lot of research, but I beg to differ. I can still see the look on the face of the assistant manager of my local Asda store.
She was plainly more used to dealing with irate customers than with some random bloke purporting to be an author who was asking to have a look around the store’s delivery yard. She wasn’t sure how to respond. Why on earth would anybody want to look around the yard? Moreover, would she be overstepping her authority by agreeing to such a strange request?
She was not willing to take the risk. “The manager isn’t in today,” she said. “You’ll have to get in touch with our head office. It’s a matter of data protection.”
It was becoming obvious I was not going to be allowed to take even the sneakiest of sneaky peeks around such an apparently highly sensitive area of the superstore’s operations. Not that day, anyway, and I couldn’t be bothered pursuing high-level clearance from Asda top brass, so I smiled politely and said thank you for taking the time to see me.
But I couldn’t resist the parting shot.
“To be honest,” I said, “I only wanted to figure out where would be the best place to dump a dead body.”
Her expression changed. She clutched her clipboard just a little more tightly to her chest. In her eyes, I could see she was wondering whether it was best to call security or just make a run for it. I smiled again and left.
I went to my local Sainsbury’s instead, where the manager was more than happy to enter into the spirit of such an unusual approach and answered all my questions. I had the information I wanted.
This episode happened while I was researching my latest crime thriller, Blood on Shakespeare’s Typewriter. I also had to phone a man who repairs vintage typewriters for advice on the best place to hide a small object on one of his machines, and I called a home security specialist to ask how someone might disable one of the systems he installs. I felt it necessary to assure him I was not the world’s most brazen burglar.
Writing my previous four novels demanded similar investigations. I spent a couple of days with a local haulage company for Family Business and tapped into the thoughts of an environmental pressure group for Catalyst.
I inadvertently almost caused a marital rift while writing The Murder of Miss Perfect. I had to find out what would happen when a teacher was found to have had an affair with a student, so I got in touch with a friend who is a very experienced educationalist. He told me he might not be quite up to date on the subject, but said his wife was a school head and that he would talk to her, to be certain. Sure enough, over dinner, he casually asked: “Oh, by the way, what are the current procedures when it comes out that a teacher has had an affair with one of his students?”
He said she gave him a very strange look and demanded: “Are you trying to tell me something?” He had to backtrack very quickly. “No, no!” he blurted. “I’m just asking for a friend!”
Research is a crucial part of the writing process. If you are creating a novel which is anchored in a real world, it has to be as faithful to the realities of that world as you can make it. There will always be scope for artistic licence, of course, and delving into too much detail should be avoided because that would just be dull for most readers.
But there is, I believe, no excuse for skimping on the effort to make your novel credible.
As authors, we take so much care to put flesh on the bones of our characters to make them believable in the readers’ eyes, so it makes complete sense to take equal care in researching what they do, what we do to them and where we take them.
My background is in journalism; 37 years of working in regional newspapers. From the very earliest days of my career, the importance of getting your facts straight was drummed in to such an extent that it is second nature now. It pains me that my former industry too often these days finds it acceptable to recirculate speculation without first establishing where the truth lies, but it was not like that when I was a young reporter. I could approach the editor with the best story in the world, but I knew that if I could not “stand it up” – verify all the facts of the story with authoritative sources – it was not going to be published. That remains a sound principle.
There is another legacy of my former career at play behind this motivation for seeking credibility. Nine times out of ten – actually, more like 99 times out of a hundred – I get very irritated when I see journalists depicted in TV dramas as furtive, scruffy, unprincipled stereotypes willing to sell their grannies for a story. To me, this highlights the dangers of pandering to preconception in your writing. That’s the way journalists are meant to act, right?
I’m certain other professionals feel the same way when they see their roles depicted in a book or on film. How many of them have read a passage in a novel and wondered if the writer has based their knowledge on how they’ve seen it done on the telly? Quite a few, I suspect.
If you are going to write a police procedural, surely you have to find out what police procedure is – and that means taking the time to ask someone who understands because they are part of that procedure. Forget about what you think you know. Talk to a police officer. If you don’t know someone who is or was a police officer, there may be a friend of a friend of a friend who is. Put an appeal out among your social media followers, is necessary. The same principle applies whether your novel demands knowledge of the police, medical issues, the judiciary, used car sales or emptying the bins. Talk to people who know. It’s the best way to find out how it really works.
It takes effort, it can be frustrating trying to locate someone with the right level of knowledge who is willing to give you their time, but it’s worth it. Most people, in my experience, are only too happy to help.
A word of warning, though. You might end up making life more difficult for yourself.
Once you’ve found your expert, it’s important you have an idea of what you need to know before you speak to them. I, for one, like to have a structure in mind when I set out to write my novels, so when I do my research I’m largely trying to fix in the details of how I get to where I want to be. I know, for example, I need my fictional detective to track down my murder suspect by tracing his phone to his address.
Not that straightforward, apparently. My actual former detective contact reminds me they have rules to follow. A trace has to be authorised by a senior officer and when you have that authority, the trace isn’t quite as accurate as you’d like. It can let you know the rough area but not the pinpoint location, so if your murderer is hiding out in a busy urban neighbourhood, it’s still going to take a lot of legwork to find him.
Ah! Fair enough. Might have to have a bit of a rethink, then. But like your fictional detective, you’ll get there in the end. It just takes some working out. Like it does in the real world.
What this example also serves to illustrate is the importance of doing your research in advance of writing. Don’t spend weeks finely crafting your first draft and then check out if you’ve got your facts right and all the correct procedures in place. Doing your research first can save you many hours of anguished rewrites.
Of course, not all research demands that you make personal contacts. The internet is a vast resource. A writer’s playground. Use it. It’s astonishing the level of obscure detail you can find through the internet, but don’t take everything you find at face value. If, for example, you track down anecdotal reference to a medical condition you’re researching on a web forum, make sure you are able to verify that information on, say, the NHS website. Just to be sure. Double check.
Another way the internet is invaluable is in the setting of your novel. Mine are all based in Sheffield, which is where I grew up and is a city I know well, but if I’m writing about a car chase through the streets, I want to be able to see where my characters are driving, so I’ll plan it out on Google Maps. Ideally, if possible, you should also drive the route yourself. Make mental notes of landmarks, busy junctions, hazards. It really helps you when you sit down to describe the chase – and it helps the reader see it too.
Likewise, if you’re setting a scene in a recognisable location – like a busy park, a landmark building, or a main street – visit it yourself. Walk the route your character might walk. Look around. Take pictures, if that helps. Again, it can only benefit both you and the reader.
That’s not always possible, I know. Not all plotlines are based in a tidy confined area and making long trips to scout locations can be hard to justify. There is a decent alternative. Google Maps street view is brilliant. It enables you to walk the route your character walks – only virtually. And more cheaply.
If I was to pick out one word to emphasise above all others to sum up my approach to research, it wouldn’t be accuracy – though accuracy is important. It would be credibility.
Again to go back to the police example, you don’t necessarily want your procedural novel to be completely accurate because a lot of police work is routine. A bit dull. Your novel is a form of entertainment. You can cut corners on the accuracy front because you don’t want to bog your readers down in every aspect of what the real detectives have to deal with every day.
But what you cannot cut corners on is credibility. It has to be realistic. As authentic as you can make it. The real detective might read your novel and wish their job was as straightforward as you depict it, but what you want them to feel is that your version is believable.
None of us are likely to get it right every time because we can’t be expected to know everything. By no means am I saying no one has read one of my books and thought: “That’s not what really happens.”
I’m satisfied, though, that I’ve tried my best to avoid being left open to that accusation.
That’s the least we can do.
Long before Mark Eklid first became a published author, writing was his living.
His background is as a newspaper journalist, starting out with the South Yorkshire Times in 1984 and then on to the Derby Telegraph, until leaving full-time work in March 2020.
Most of Mark’s time at the Telegraph was as their cricket writer, a role that brought national recognition in the 2012 and 2013 England and Wales Cricket Board awards. He contributed for 12 years to the famed Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack and had many articles published in national magazines, annuals and newspapers.
Writing as a profession meant writing for pleasure had to be put on the back burner but when his work role changed, Mark returned to one of the many half-formed novels in his computer files and, this time, saw it through to publication.
The Murder of Miss Perfect (July 2022) was his first novel for SpellBound Books, followed by Blood on Shakespeare's Typewriter (September 2023). Mark had previously self-published Sunbeam (November 2019), Family Business (June 2020) and Catalyst (February 2021).
All five are fast-moving, plot-twisting thrillers set in the city of his birth, Sheffield.
Mark lives in Derby with his partner, Sue. They have two adult sons and have been adopted by a cat.