For my Research Secrets slot in the #239 Dec 2021 issue of Writers’ Forum I interview retired chief superintendent, Simon Bowden, about the research he did to write his first crime thriller, Hidden by the Law.
Simon first had the idea for his novel back in 2013, but could never quite find the time to write. The coronavirus lockdown of 2020 provided him with the space and time to commit to writing Hidden by the Law, which is the first of the Seth Hannen stories.
Simon explains the books starts in 1992, when Seth, our protagonist is a young constable. Back then the radio’s and issued kit were very different to today and Simon recalled what kind of radios and equipment were issued and used by uniform officers. He still found he needed to check dates that things like the radio system changed from UHF radios to the current Airwave Tetra system, as he knew getting that kind of detail wrong would soon be called out by police officers who may read the book. He revealed the procedural parts of the book were fairly easy to write about as he has experience of interviewing numerous suspects over the years, so things like the police caution, or the opening to an interview remain indelibly printed in his mind.
Even so there was a lot of specific research he had to undertake for Hidden by the Law. For example, the first chapter finds Seth working the Royal Ascot horse racing meeting. He told me to ensure he got this correct, he needed to check the dates for the meeting that took place back in 1992, to ensure he chose the right day for ladies’ day etc.
He wanted his villain to be driving a new Aston Martin of the day, and there is a scene where Seth removed the keys from the ignition, while stood outside the car. So, he looked at photographs of the interior of the car to make sure the keys would be reachable from the window. If the car had a strange place for the ignition key, the scene would not have worked, and he would have had to choose a different car.
He also researched the lunar cycle for one of the characters who carried out a burglary on an evening of a new moon.
“It would be easy to make up a day and just say that it was a new moon, but I know some people will check that kind of detail. While the book is a work of fiction, the setting and circumstances need to feel realistic.”Simon Bowden
In another example, Simon told me he had one of his characters carry a gun in an ankle holster, and while he does not give too much detail on the weapon, he researched which guns would generally be able to be carried in that fashion, as it would not have worked having him carry a great big Magnum pistol on his ankle.
Simon revealed his characters are a mix of people he knows in real life. Only the cameo roles of a couple of my friends are real, the rest are based upon his own experiences of criminals or police officers. He researched criminals from online media sources to get the ‘feel’ of what they are like and how they could be portrayed. His personal knowledge of drug users and their habits came in useful, although he did also read some information from organisations that help drug users get clean to help him write the descriptions of what a drug user feels and goes through when taking drugs.
Simon’s tip to other authors wanting to write a crime series is to write what you know, so if you are writing crime, set it in a circumstance or place that you know well. That will help you find research areas more easily and allow a real sense of reality to your story telling. For example, if you work in telecoms in London, set the story in London and use what you know from your business to inform the plot. He warned there is a lot of misinformation online so suggests you should take extra steps to verify what you find.
“For me there is a fine line between fiction that is completely false, and fiction that takes place in a real setting, place, or time. I think had I set the book in a fictional town, then authenticity would be less important, but using a real place pushes you to make sure that it feels right, and that a reader could drive or walk through the town or village and recognise it from the book.”Simon Bowden
Simon’s second book follows on from the first, although it can be read as a stand-alone. It follows Seth in his first assignment after leaving the police service, so will have less of an epic timeframe. He used his knowledge of human trafficking and terrorism to create a credible story of someone born and brought up with committing an act of terror in mind.
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