You Couldn’t Make It Up

(Spoiler alert – some stories from the Sal Kilkenny series revealed here.)

The truth is always stranger than fiction and one of the spookiest things in being a writer is when something you think you’ve dreamt up turns out to exist in real life.  There are two particular times when this has really struck me.  The first was with my debut novel Looking For Trouble.  When I set out to write the book I didn’t know where it would take me and I was disturbed to find myself writing about organised child sexual abuse in children’s homes run by the local authority.  News was just emerging back then (1992) of suspected cases of  paedophile rings violating vulnerable children and young people but it was still very much under the radar.  Some time later I met someone who had worked in social services in Manchester City Council and who had read the book at the same time as an undercover inquiry was going on into exactly this type of crime in the Manchester area.  She almost sought me out, thinking I had some insider knowledge that they might draw on.

A second example was with Go Not Gently, the second Sal Kilkenny novel.  In this a number of unexpected and unexplained deaths in old people’s homes leads to a discovery of horrendous malpractice by the local GP who ‘cares’ for the residents.  Sometime after publication, news broke of the horrific crimes of GP Harold Shipman in nearby Ashton-under-Lyne.

In both cases it was complete coincidence that I had chosen these topics – or they had chosen me.   The stories emerged through the writing.  I hadn’t picked a topic, researched it and then given it to my PI as a case.  Perhaps there is an element of a writer picking up on the fears and rumours and speculation in the air at the time, on the undercurrents of anxiety and whispers of wrongdoing.  There’s also an element of writing about what you fear – and then real life showing you those fears are well founded.  In much of my work I write about what I dread – about my nightmares writ large.  And of course I sincerely hope none of them come true.  But life continues to be ever stranger, darker and more harrowing than fiction.

Research – A Story of Resentment

I hate research.  I think, as a writer, that’s probably a minority position.  Most writers seem to relish it, waxing lyrical about libraries and reference books, research trips and source material.

There are three reasons I hate it: it’s tedious, it takes me away from writing and it’s scary.

Tedium first.  I find it very hard to connect to non-fiction, my eyes glaze over and my mind wanders off.  It takes me a week to make it through Saturday’s Guardian – in small chunks at a time.  Practical research is easier than reading – visiting a location to check it out or meeting someone to talk about their area of expertise – but even so it is something I would avoid if I could get away with it. Because…

… My second point – it takes me away from the writing.  I want to tell a story, I invent the characters and a situation, I know roughly where I am going and that’s what sets my heart beating, that’s what gets me up in the morning.  Not another two hours spent on Google and Wikipedia or at the library.

And scary?  Because you can get it wrong!  Fiction is never wrong, it’s only a point of view, an offering which you hope will mean something to other people.  It might be badly written or unsatisfying but it can’t be objectively incorrect.  However research is about facts and figures and dates and procedures that are objective.  Mistakes are possible.

When I started writing I chose a private eye as my protagonist, I based her in Manchester and gave her the problem of juggling work and childcare.  That immediately let me off huge swathes of research as there were no rules whatsoever to being a PI, I lived in Manchester so knew the city well and I was steeped in my own real-life attempts to find a balance between work and home life.  But as I developed as a writer and broadened my horizons, I was drawn to tackling subjects that couldn’t be done without proper, careful research.  So, for example, recently I’ve written fiction or drama about assisted dying and life in a women’s prison, about the Mau Mau rebellion in colonial Kenya, and the way dangerous driving offences are investigated.  The writing couldn’t happen without the research (though I did persuade my partner, who is a history buff, to read some of the books about the Mau Mau for me and mark relevant sections).  The meetings I’ve had with solicitors and women prisoners have been incredibly useful and illuminating and I’m glad that the work I’ve produced is as authentic as I can make it.  But with each new project my heart sinks at the thought of yet more research.

DIY is one of my hobbies and I guess research is a bit like having to get all the gubbins out and prepare the space before you can actually get cracking.  An inescapable, necessary and unrewarding part of the job.