Tuesday, 10 September 2013

You don't know what you don't know

The evidence never lies, Nick

Mark Billingham tells a story about sharing a festival stage with a pretentious literary writer who spoke at length about how she felt her characters’ presence when writing and how they, rather than she, dictated the story. When the spotlight turned on Mark, he explained his own creative process thus: ‘I just make shit up’.  

I’m certainly of the making-shit-up school, but sometimes my imagination needs to be augmented with solid facts. I’m a big fan of research, not just because I don’t like to get things wrong, but because of what I call the ‘You don’t know what you don’t know' principle. While fact-checking, I regularly learn something completely different to, and often more interesting than, what I set out to discover. This happens most often when I involve people, rather than books or the internet, in the process. Here are three examples of how the YDKWYDK principle has helped me in writing No Stranger to Death.

CSI: Scotland
Writing my first novel started with a single idea: using a village’s Guy Fawkes bonfire to dispose of a body. This idea also presented me with my first challenge, to find out the extent to which that body would be destroyed. This was many years ago, when I was a mature student at Edinburgh University, so I made an appointment to meet with someone in the Forensic Medicine department. It was the first time I ever used the ‘I’m writing a novel and need to know . . . ‘ line which I’ve used many times since. Feeling sure they would assign me a student to speak with, I was amazed when it turned out the head of the department had made room in his diary for me, and then overawed when he told me he was used to talking to writers, in fact he often advised Ian Rankin!

This lovely man was so generous with his time and advice. The effect of fire on the human body, he told me, depended on many factors. He offered to show me photographs, but seeing the look on my face, thought better of this. Then he suggested the victim could be wrapped up in something like a carpet, because ‘that way she would be baked rather than burned’. Needless to say, I have used this, and I took great delight in having one of my character ghoulishly describe the dead woman as ‘Chrissie en croute’. In addition, as I got further into the novel, I realised wrapping her in that carpet provided yet another twist to my story, and solved a plot problem which had worried me for some time.

Who do you think you are?
I remember how I got the idea of a body in a bonfire: at a village Guy Fawkes party. But what on earth possessed me to make Kate Mackenzie, my ‘Dr Watson’ character, a genealogist? This was a job I knew nothing about. So, although Kate’s work isn’t vital to the plot of No Stranger to Death, I thought I should at least know what she would have on her desk and what she would spend most of her time doing.

I emailed a genealogist based nearby to find out if she would allow me to ask her a few questions about her job and we agreed to meet at the M&S cafĂ© at Berwick (oh the glamour of being a writer!). She made genealogy sound fascinating and deserving of so much more than a bit part in my stories. 
They'll never take . . . our freedom!

I learnt that many Americans, while keen to prove they have British ancestors, would much prefer to find they are of Scots descent over English. Apparently, some of them also like to believe they’re related to William Wallace, the 13th-century fighter for Scottish independence, but they have a bigger chance of being related to Mel Gibson, who played him in the film Braveheart! This gem set my pen scribbling, and is now a line spoken by Kate. I’ve also come up with a way of giving Kate’s job a far bigger role in Book Two.

Fight club
During my recent edit of No Stranger to Death before sending it to an external editor, I realised a scene where my main character Zoe Moreland fights off an attacker didn’t work. I rewrote it several times but it remained unsatisfactory and over far too quickly. John saw from my face that things weren't going well and asked me what was wrong. I tried to explain the problem, and the next thing I knew we were acting it out. Without the weapon, I hasten to add. And as soon as we did this, I knew how Zoe would instinctively act and how her attacker would try to prevent her from escaping. Better still, I came up with yet another way to obey this valuable piece of writing advice: think of the worst thing that can happen to your character, then make it even worse.

There is, of course, a downside to research: it can be far too enjoyable and distracting. When I’m struggling to write an awkward scene, it’s easy to kid myself that looking at pictures of tattoos or reading about the derivation of Scots words is a legitimate part of my creative process. Research is up there with Twitter when it comes to being a time-suck for writers, but also like Twitter, it can introduce us to people and experiences with the potential to enhance our writing and our lives.

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