Category Archives: Research Secrets

An interview with… Cliff McNish

In April 2009 I interviewed children’s novelist, Cliff McNish, about his love of research and how he believes it is essential for writing fantasy novels.

Cliff told me he loves research because it can spin stories in utterly new directions. He believes research is truly the ultimate lateral-thinking tool. He explained as writers we mostly tend to find our thoughts tethered to more or less the same highly travelled and well-worn themes, plots and characters, but research can shatter that dismaying truth.

For example, in his ghost story, Breathe, he needed to know what the average early 19th century rural English family ate. Whilst searching online he found some information about rural poverty in the 1820’s and how families in that era routinely saved one fifth of their wages purely to pay for funerals. This fact influenced the direction of his ghost story.     

“The big problem for fantasy writers is that as soon as you depart from the real world readers forever teeter on the edge of disbelieving your creation. Fantasy writers have a whole host of techniques to make our made-up things feel authentic and believable, but good research is probably the main one.”

Cliff McNish

For example, in The Wizard’s Promise he sent gangs of children to modern Tokyo. The children can fly and create spells, and terrorize the magic-less adults but was grounded in the reality of the urban city. To ensure this Cliff checked the street layout, the tallest buildings, other landmarks and even the food.

He explained that fantasy authors and readers have an immense hunger for details that are or at least feel real.

“It’s part of the fantasy author’s contract with his/her audience, really – I’ll make things up, but dear reader you will understand the rules, and I’ll keep them consistent, and when I do refer to real world facts I’ll have done my research, the information will be reliable, depend on it.”

Cliff McNish

In his novel Silver World there is an alien attack starting in frozen Antarctic waters.  To make it feel authentic Cliff checked which islands/ice floes the attacking creature would reach first and what animals and species of birds lived on them. This research personalized the story and gave him focus.

He discovered albatrosses live in those seas and they fly faster than any other bird over great distances. He then put himself in the position of those albatross and imagined he knew what was coming: death, unless they could outfly it. Cliff revealed he ended up becoming very absorbed in the lives of these birds, but the spark for the scene was research.

“Facts become emotions in the end, if they’re dwelled on for long enough by an active imagination. And research + imagination = creativity.”

Cliff McNish

Cliff’s teenage moral drama Angel, has non-religious guardian angels beating their wings across the skies. Research into angel ‘sightings’ showed one of the most commonly held beliefs amongst Angelologists is that when they visit us our guardian angel leaves as a calling card one of its feathers. Cliff decided that for his novel even after an angel dies (in his novel they are mortal), the feathers outlast them a little, and can still provide comfort for a short time to someone who needs it. Without research, he would never have thought of that.     

For his novel, Savannah Grey, he created a creature that arrived on our world three billion years ago. It was a predator and was seeking to hit the apex of the food chain to become the dominant animal, the ne plus ultra. He decided nature should battle this creature throughout time, which has meant a lot of evolutionary research. Not only to discover what natural enemies this creature would come across (starting with single-celled organisms), but what order those species would arrive in, when the first plants come to light, the first backboned fish, the first telescopic eyes.

In contrast his heroine has to a throat weapon and extraordinary eye-sight. To find out how throat consultants and optical technicians would investigate such aspects he interviewed hospital specialists in those fields . The result was a dark fantasy novel, for which the bedrock of the research makes it feel real.

To find out more about Cliff McNish and his books look at his website: www.cliffmcnish.com

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #91 Apr 2009 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Nikki Marmery

Last year, in the #224 Sept 2020 issue of the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum, I interviewed Nikki Marmery about some of the primary sources she used during her research for her novel On Wilder Seas: The Woman on the Golden Hind.

Nikki revealed she was pregnant when she first read about her protagonist Maria, the only woman on board the Golden Hind during Francis Drake’s circumnavigation voyage. A throwaway line in a popular history book referenced the ‘Anonymous Narrative’, an eye-witness account of the voyage, which states:

“Drake tooke out of this ship a pilate to cary him into the harbor of Guatulco and also a proper negro wench called Maria which was afterward gotten with child between the captain and his men pirates and sett on a small iland to take her adventures.”

She explained that pregnancy focuses the mind on the unique vulnerability of pregnant women, so perhaps this is why she found myself haunted by Maria’s story: a woman alone among men in the extreme environment of a tiny Elizabethan exploration ship, who was ultimately abandoned, just before the ordeal of childbirth, on a waterless desert island in the East Indies.

“I wanted to know everything about her. Where had she come from? How did she end up in this situation? How did it feel to sail into the unknown; to cross the Pacific – heavily pregnant? What happened to her after she was abandoned?”

Nikki Marmery

But she discovered the facts of her life are really scarce. Maria is not mentioned at all in the earliest published accounts of the voyage. All we know for sure is that she joined the Golden Hind on April 4, 1579 from a Spanish merchant ship off the coast of El Salvador, and that she was abandoned nine months later near the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

With so little to go on, her investigation started more as a crusade of curiosity than a writing project. No historian had written in any detail about Maria. Miranda Kaufmann later published an excellent book, Black Tudors, which discusses her – but more often in histories of Drake, she was unnamed or erased altogether. Nikki realised if she wanted to know more about the possibilities of Maria’s life, she would have to research it herself.

From the secondary sources, she discovered the original manuscripts of Drake’s voyage are kept at the British Library. But it never occurred to her she could visit the library to read them – until friends took her on a tour of the library for her birthday. This was a turning point for Nikki.

“After having read about Maria for so long, to see the handwritten testament of someone who knew her was incredibly moving. The browned and barely legible manuscript has pinprick holes where sparks from a candle have burned the parchment. Marks are drawn in the margin to emphasise key passages. “

Nikki Marmery

Nikki explained that Maria is objectified and dehumanised by every man who has written about her: from the two surviving eye-witness accounts, to 17th century historians such as William Camden – via William Shakespeare, who may have been inspired by her story when he wrote of the witch Sycorax, an African woman who was abandoned pregnant on a desert island in The Tempest – all the way through to modern historians.

Nikki in contrast wanted to imagine what Maria would say about herself – but examples of women’s voices from the 16th century are vanishingly rare. She was delighted to discover the book Afro-Latino Voices: Narratives from the Early Modern Ibero-Atlantic World, 1550-1812, edited by Kathryn Joy McKnight & Leo J. Garofalo, which reproduces the archival records of African women in the New World – crucially, in their own words.

Another book that helped her was Dangerous Speech: A Social History of Blasphemy in Colonial Mexico, by Javier Villa-Flores where she learned how slaves used blasphemy as a strategy of resistance to fight their oppression. By renouncing God, and denouncing themselves, a slave might invoke intervention by the Holy Office, which had the authority to remove a slave from an excessively abusive slave-owner. By threatening to blaspheme before a master inflicted punishment, enslaved people practised a form of ‘moral bribery’, by holding the master accountable for the sin of blasphemy.

Nikki’s novel unfolds against the backdrop of an enduring mystery of Drake’s circumnavigation voyage: where was his colony, Nova Albion. Drake and his crew lived there for five weeks in the summer of 1579. But when Drake returned home in September 1580, details of his American exploration were suppressed. The Queen did not want the Spaniards to know how far north he had sailed – nor that he was seeking the Northwest Passage, which would give the English a shortcut to the vast riches of Spain’s Pacific-coast New World colonies.

When researching Drake’s voyages, Nikki discovered that secondary sources that discuss the globes are misleading: they claim there are few differences between the two models. But the 1592 globe shows Nova Albion at 46˚N, while the 1603 globe shows it further north at 48˚N, with a redrawn coastline. This is hugely significant. Molyneux had made changes to his globe to receive royal sanction for publication in 1592. But the 1603 globe was made in Amsterdam – not London – thus free from interference.

This discovery, in addition to other unpublished 16th century maps, all showing Nova Albion above the 40th parallel north, gave her the confidence to set Nova Albion in her novel on Vancouver Island, rather than California. It also offered her the freedom to fictionalise more fully what happened there, which led to my suggestion of a far more shocking end to the colony than the sources suggest.

On Wilder Seas by Nikki Marmery

Find out more about Nikki Marmery on her website www.nikkimarmery.com and follow her on Twitter: @nikkimarmery and Instagram: @marmerynikki

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #224 Sept 2020 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Caro Ramsay

In my Research Secrets column this month, I interview psychological thriller writer, Caro Ramsay, about some of the research techniques she has used for her crime novels.

Caro explained

“I always like to do something different with a book, which is not easy within the constraints of a long running series. So I wanted to try a story line that covered two novels while each novel in itself can be read as a standalone; The Suffering of Strangers and The Sideman.”

Caro Ramsay

The inspiration for her main storyline struck her when she was sitting on the side of a Scottish mountain, in torrential rain, gale force winds – it was the height of summer – watching a single walker on the other side of the hill tackling the West Highland Way. She had a feeling the walker was female. Caro was aware in that glen, you are a long way from a mobile phone signal.

For her research, she uses location visits, then the internet, then newspapers on the internet. With regard to research and police procedural her job as an osteopath means she treats lots of police and criminal lawyers. She often asks them for truthful answers about work conditions i.e. short staffed, too much paperwork, inter office politics. Caro said it’s these seemingly mundane minutiae which lends a sense of realism, not the procedures being correct (within reason).

Her advice would be to ask a lawyer about how the cops work and vice versa, then you will get the nitty gritty truth. She explained saying ‘I’m novelist and I’d like to know x, y and z,’ will get you the textbook version, not what happens in reality.

For Caro, the location fires the imagination for the story. She lives in the west coast of Scotland so the scenery is very dramatic. But Caro revealed that she steals setting ideas from elsewhere. For example, she was at Prince Edward, Lake Ontario, Canada looking at the water, slowly just walking along the scrub on the shore, through a hedge with long grass and wild flowers, when she realised my feet were hitting something hard. When she kicked back the soil it revealed a black and white tiled dance floor. A quick internet search and a few questions in a local café uncovered the sad story of the hotel that used to stand there. Caro used incorporated this into Durness on the North West tip of Scotland for The Sideman.

Caro told me sometimes it’s more prudent to write it and then find out what you need to know. Although she admitted to driving around in her small campervan looking for body deposition sites.

“There’s a famous road in Scotland called the Bealach na Ba, the pass of the cattle. It has hair pin bends at altitude, steep drops etc. The top is like a remote moon landscape. While having a coffee in a pub close by I saw the insignia of the SAS above the bar and a little research told me they did indeed train there, and that’s an important part of The Sideman story. So I got somebody to lie down at the top and pretend to be dead! I also ask friends to act dead then I move them around until they can’t be seen.”

Caro Ramsay

Sparks of stories also come to Caro through ‘incidental research’. The best thing is to ‘reverse research’. Find out what you need to know, use it, end of. Avoid information dumps. Keep away from the rabbit hole of the internet. Good research peppers the story with authenticity, it should never be obvious. Bad research bogs the story down. Caro said:

“A good tip is to not stop typing when you feel you need a particular word. I type in the word ‘wombat’ and get to the end of the draft. I believe Ian Rankin does the same but he uses capitals. Then when the draft is complete do a ‘find’ and fill in the detail.”

Caro Ramsay

Chatting to people, anybody, eavesdropping on conversations, people watching, are good ways to inform your characters. Caro’s tip to other writers is to keep your ears open. Everybody has a story. Never throw away anything, buy books of lovely post it notes, never be without your notebook. The most inconsequential fact or photo can percolate at the back of a writer’s mind and become the germ of a novel. Caro said:

Find out more about Caro on social media:

Facebook: Caro Ramsay

Twitter: @caroramsaybooks

Website: www.caroramsay.com

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #228 Jan 2021 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Georgie Codd

For the December issue 2020 of Writers’ Forum, I talk to Georgie Codd about her research for her creative non-fiction book, We Swim to the Shark, published by Little Brown.

Georgie’s adventure began when a friend invited her to join her for a road trip around New Zealand, she wanted to stop at Thailand on the way home so she could learn to scuba dive to explore her fears of the sea and potentially come face-to-face with the largest fish of them all: the whale shark. But events didn’t pan out as she planned. More than a year after she left for Thailand, she decided to write a short essay about her thwarted efforts. Her agent read it, and asked her to transform it into a non-fiction proposal. By the time the book was commissioned, she was still looking for whale sharks, and was three years into her quest.

Almost all her research for We Swim To The Shark began online with basic, initial searches about where to go, when to go, how much things cost, etc. For extra detail, she would comb through the travel section in her nearest library.

When she became a part of the scuba diving community, she started to receive heaps of recommendations from fellow divers, which she jotted these down, asking as many practical follow-up questions as she could – which dive schools were best, who to contact, things like that – and soon she had a web of suggestions to explore.

Georgie explained that once you enrol on an Open Water course with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), you’re given access to a manual that covers various scuba essentials, including the physics of pressure and buoyancy. It contains several sections about dive equipment. She scoured through these before she went under.

“I’ve never dived without a qualified instructor. They would provide – and help me set up – my kit, would brief me on what to expect, and would guide me through each site.”

Georgie Codd

Her first port of call for UK-based research was a diving shop in south London, which many experienced divers tended to visit. Georgie told me that after emailing the owner, James, she received an invite to pop in. When she did, she was thrilled to hear James’s stories, and those of his expert customers. She asked if I could be his ‘writer in residence’ from time to time, sitting on a stool by the counter, seeing who came in. That put her in contact with all sorts of characters. Their stories added context and depth to the book.

This ‘residency’ also helped her discover, early on, that many of the experts had experienced moments of panic in the water. Hearing how they’d managed their fears gave me personal insights that she could put to the test, and eventually share with her readers.

When it came to face-to-face interviews, she mostly made quick notes in pencil, typing them up on her laptop straight after the chat while details like expressions and weather were still fresh in her mind. As time progressed, however, she discovered the slow speed of her note-taking held her back. So she bought an affordable dictaphone to record and transcribe conversations. (Only after asking her interviewees’ permission, of course.)

Her main preoccupation while researching marine life was the elusive, enormous whale shark. Much of her quest involved trying to learn more about these giants; separating the facts from the myths. To do this she contacted several experts, including Jason Holmberg, who created a pioneering programme called Wildbook, which uses NASA technology to map the sharks’ markings and identify them. Jason then told Georgie about the Marine Megafauna Foundation; a tip that unlocked a goldmine of knowledge, advice and humour from its co-founder, Dr Simon Pierce.

Georgie’s research tip for research relates to interviewing:

“Try, if your interviewee has time, to talk around your subject, as well as going all out on the topic you’re there for. More relaxed, open conversations often led me towards weird and unexpected connections. I found it extremely satisfying to explore those sudden tangents.”

Georgie Codd

You can find out more about Georgie and her adventures on her website: www.georgiecodd.co.uk and on Twitter: @georgiecodd and Instagram @coddities

An interview with… Simon Beckett

For my Research Secrets feature in the January 2010 issue of Writers’ Forum I interviewed crime writer, Simon Beckett, about how he was inspired to write fiction by a visit to the outdoor Anthropology Research Facility in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Simon Beckett
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Simon has written a series of novels about the fictitious forensic anthropologist, David Hunter. Before writing novels, he wrote for the Daily Telegraph Magazine. In 2002, he went to Knoxville, Tennessee to write an article on the outdoor Anthropology Research Facility, more commonly known as the Body Farm. They run a National Forensic Academy there, offering intensive – and exceptionally realistic – forensic training for US police officers and crime scene investigators.

In fact, there is no other research facility in the world where you can excavate human remains. They have training courses with staged crime scenes using real bodies. The bodies are donated, either by the individuals themselves or their families. The training and research undertaken has revealed a lot about body decomposition, the time it takes for hair to slough off a body, the role of insects on decomposition, even the differing effects that light and shade will have on the process of decay. This information is has proved invaluable for determining the time of death.

The academy goes to extreme lengths to ensure that their reconstructions are realistic. The theory is that the more life-like the recreations are, the better prepared the students will be when they encounter the genuine thing. It was a great privileged to be allowed in and I was hugely impressed.

During the five days Simon spent there, he watched the students put through their paces with a variety of simulated crime scenes, all recreated as closely as possible using actual human remains.

“One day I was cheerfully told to put down my notepad and tape recorder and help with recovering the two bodies that the students were carefully unearthing from a woodland grave. Sweating in the heat and dirt as the skeletal remains slowly emerged was a sobering, yet fascinating experience.”

Simon Beckett

Back in the UK, he was inspired by the idea of a novel based around what he’d seen and experienced in Tennessee. Gradually, the concept for Dr David Hunter took shape: a British forensic anthropologist schooled in the techniques and science being developed at the Body Farm.

“The research is everything in my books as there is loads of scientific background behind the plot. I like to find out the general principles of the crime so I do not come across any pitfalls where it would not be able to work out like that. Each book works out differently. I enjoy talking to people and this often leads to a re-jiggle in terms of plot.” (Simon Beckett)

Simon revealed he has a growing collection of forensic textbooks for anthropology and botany. He keeps a record of conversations and a lot are done by email so can look up who has helped. Sometimes it is friends and not necessarily a complete stranger. Most people are glad to help.

Simon explains it is possible to get too bogged down in the research. Don’t let the research dominate the stories and characters. It can be tricky what you use and what you cut out. The last thing you want is an info dump. When reading through the manuscript if you come across anything that is there for the sake of it get rid of it. It has to be there for the sake of the story.

You can find out more about Simon Beckett, his research and his novels from his website: www.simonbeckett.com

An interview with… Kit Berry

This month I have interviewed Kit Berry about the research she did into pagan beliefs for her YA series, Stonewylde.

Stonewylde is a five book series set in Dorset, in an imaginary setting, inspired by the beauty of the landscape and Kit’s interest in folklore and earth-based spirituality.  Stonewylde is a pagan community, with a beautiful stone circle where ceremonies are held at the eight festivals. 

“I wrote the series several years ago, starting the first book back in 2003. This was after a magical close up encounter with a hare one evening in local woods. My mother had recently died, and the hare stared deep into my eyes, sitting only a couple of metres from me, and stayed like that for a couple of minutes. I felt so honoured.  I went home and researched hares on my computer – and discovered their links to witchcraft and paganism.”

Kit Berry

Kit explained she was quite naïve about paganism and got involved with an online group, where a woman took her under her wing and told her how to cast a circle in my sitting room at the full moon. She was a single mum with three teenage boys, and also a school-teacher – so this wasn’t quite as simple as it seemed. The woman had told her she needed to be ‘sky-clad’, (naked) and was very prescriptive about how to set up the ritual space.  Kit has never been one for following rules, but decided to follow her instructions to the letter.  She banned her boys from entering the sitting room and cast her first circle.  When she’d finished, she went to turn the lights on again and fused the entire house.

Back in 2004, the YA market was just opening up, and although most of the editors enjoyed the story, they weren’t sure it was suitable for youngsters.  Kit’s agent advised her to self-publish. After selling over 20,000 copies of each of the first three books she acquired a new agent who got her a six figure deal with Orion Books under the Gollancz imprint– for the first three Stonewylde novels and two more, which she was planning to write.

Kit told me that for her research she picked anyone’s brains that she felt knew about ancient pagean sites. However she discovered quite early on that a lot of so-called knowledge is in fact pure supposition.

“Pagan people seem particularly prone to this – presenting an idea as fact, when we have no way of truly knowing how and what ancient people worshipped, nor how they conducted their rituals. So I had to use my imagination, but used facts wherever possible. For example, we know Stonehenge and other ancient circles have stones that align with the summer solstice sunrise, so I used this fact to add authenticity. The first rays of light at dawn on the summer solstice shining on one of the stones is a significant moment in the Stonewylde series.”

Kit Berry

The estate of Stonewylde is based on the Charborough Estate, which Kit used to drive past regularly in the 1990s.  This was at a time when there was a lot in the news about secret cults, and places cut off from the world with powerful leaders.  She told me how she would look at the long stone walls and the magnificent gates to this estate and let her imagination roam freely. Unfortunately, the estate isn’t open to the public so she couldn’t visit, although since the books were published she has done a charity event there, giving a talk and signing books.

Kit Berry at a book signing

Kit told me her most unusual research had to be the Villagers’ toilets. She did a lot of research into long drop/pit latrine toilets, because there’s no running water in the Village so obviously they wouldn’t have flushing toilets. 

Her research tip is not to take everything at face value. She suggests writers should look for several sources to check the authenticity of what you’ve discovered and especially be wary of people telling you information – much of it may be brilliant, but a lot of people do make things up, or base facts on very flimsy evidence and hearsay, or what they’d like to believe. So always use more than one source of information if it’s important; nowadays with so many search engines online, this is comparatively easy to do.

Kit explained that doing the research for Stonewylde was fascinating, and shelearned a lot but it’s so easy to get bogged down with research and feel you don’t yet know enough to start writing the story. It’s also a procrastination technique of course. Remember you can find out a lot about a subject, but you don’t want to overload the reader with too much of it. So stick to a few salient and relevant facts, and leave it at that.

You can find out more about Kit Berry and her books on her websites: www.kitberry.com and www.stonewylde.com

An interview with… Sahar Mustafah

For the October 2020 edition of the national writing magazine, Writers’ Forum, I interview Palestinian-American author, Sahar Mustafah about the research she did to build her characters in her novel The Beauty of Your Face.

Sahar told me she was interested in addressing the immediate threat toward the Muslim American community, as well as tell an authentic story about where we come from and the forces that bring us to the present moment. For her, story always comes first. She typically begins writing the narrative before supplementing necessary research and she is particularly interested in the humanistic details of her characters.

Sahar explained research aids description and builds setting. She wanted to first have a sense of her characters’ inner lives then flesh out any pertinent factual elements. She did not want to depict flat, contrived characters so she limited her research so as not to be trapped by a profile.

“In my preliminary research, I was very moved by Åsne Seierstad’s One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway. Though it’s a nonfiction, journalistic account, Seierstad offers a compelling narrative of the life of the murderer which doesn’t offer redemption or any sort of justification, as much as an understanding of how he had come to kill 69 young people and eight adults at a camp. It’s quite well-written though indelibly disturbing.”

Sahar Mustafah

Her protagonist, Afaf’s, storyline came, in part, from her personal background and the stories others have shared with her from her community. Her experience in Palestine allowed her to build that world when referenced in the novel in realistic ways, as well as having mostly lived and been raised in Illinois.

“After 9/11, my family and friends were experiencing near-daily incidents of harassment and discrimination at their local schools or on a trip to the grocery store.”

Sahar Mustafah

With every project, she begins a new journal or notebook in which I separate narrative notes from research questions/components. This allows Sahar to see her story arc clearly and flesh out characterization and outline plot without the distraction of technical, informational components. Sahar Mustafah’s tips to other writers when they are researching is to be wary of the rabbit-hole of research, i.e. clickbait and consumption of peripheral and supplementary information, which is presently so much more accessible via the internet.

“It’s easy to get caught up in informational or factual reading rather than the writing of story. I continue to find balance in my own writing practices. Research can be a quick and easy distraction for me so I limit its time. I tend to write in the morning so research in the latter part of the day is more productive for me.”

Sahar Mustafah
The beauty of your Face by Sahar Mustafah

As a lover of stories, Sahar explained she seeks out informal interviews with individuals relating to aspects of her research. She believes these help to preserve the humanity of the experience, in addition to providing technical facts and information. Her family members and friends who have provided time and interesting first hand accounts have been the seed of new stories.

You can find out more about Sahar Mustafah on her website www.saharmustafah.com or follow her on Twitter: @saharmustafah

An interview with… Peter James

In September 2009, I interviewed crime writer, Peter James, author of the international bestselling Detective Superintendent Roy Grace series, published in over 30 languages, spends a day a week out with the Police and has recently been made Patron of Sussex Crimestoppers.  He told me all about his research for, Dead Tomorrow, published by Macmillan, June 5th 2009. This was one of the most shocking and fascinating interviews I have ever undertaken.

Peter James 1 - Low Res

Peter told me that for him, research is as important an element in writing his novels as character and plot. He views each of these elements as an inseparable trinity.

“Each of my Roy Grace novels has its genesis in a true story or in research facts – as indeed do all of my previous novels.” (Peter James)

The central story of Dead Tomorrow is a single mother, Lynn Beckett, whose 15 year old daughter, Caitlin, is suffering liver failure.  Unless she gets a transplant within weeks she will not survive. Knowing the true fact that 3 people die every day in the UK waiting for a transplant, Lynn panics that the system will let her daughter down and goes on the internet. She discovers a German organ broker who can obtain a liver for her but at a terrible financial and human price.

He explained the spark for Dead Tomorrow came from a chance conversation at a dinner party, back in 1998. He was seated next to multi-award winning documentary film maker Kate Blewett – best known for the harrowing The Dying Rooms. She asked Peter how much he thought his body was worth as a soup of chemicals. Peter had no idea and Kate informed him it was worth about 50p. She then asked how much he thought he was worth in body parts as a reasonably healthy human being and stunned Peter by telling him the black market price for a healthy teenage or adult human is around $1m.

You can get up to $400k for your liver, the same again for your heart-lungs, $60k for each kidney, then your skin, eyes, bones, and a few other bits and pieces…. The reason being there is a world shortage of human organs, caused by improvements in transplant techniques, a reluctance for people to donate, and most ironic off all, by more people wearing car seat belts – which means they don’t die of head injuries so much any more, leaving their bodies – and internal organs – intact. As a result, three people die every day in the UK, waiting for a transplant. Around 20% of people on the liver transplant waiting lists will die before they get one – in the USA the figure is as high as 90%.

Dead Tomorrow

In the past decade a huge international market for human organs has evolved.  In some countries it is illegal in others, it openly goes on. China has been steadily lowering the threshold of the death penalty for several years running, executing prisoners with a single head-shot and selling their bodies to Taiwan. Manilla in the Philippines is now known as One Kidney Island. You can go there for an all-inclusive price of about £50k, and get a kidney transplant. In India, in some castes, women routinely sell one kidney before they get married, for their dowry, and are joyfully happy with the $250 they receive.  In Columbia, the mafia are making more money out of human organ trafficking in some parts of the country, than from drugs.

As a true example of the illicit trade, in 1990, eminent British kidney transplant surgeon, Dr Raymond Crockett, who Peter has interviewed, was struck off the medical register for nine years for illegally buying kidneys, for UK patients, from four students in Turkey.

James told me he wrote a story for HBO Television in the USA several years ago.  It was about an eight-year-old street kid called Juanita who was begging outside El Dorado Airport in Bogota, Columbia.  She was arrested by the police and handed to a care agency.  From there she was put in an orphanage, a beautiful home in the country, with other kids her age.  When she was fourteen, the parents of a teenage girl in the USA, desperate for a liver, paid the Columbian mafia $450,000.  Juanita, who was a match, was killed and all her organs were harvested. Peter said:

“I am sure you are think that as I write fiction, that story was fiction.  But sadly it wasn’t, it was true…” (Peter James)

For each novel, it is not just the lives of his villains and victims that he researches. Peter explained keeping current with the police and getting the correct police procedures right is absolutely crucial. Early in Dead Tomorrow, a dredger hauls up the body of a recently dead teenager from the seabed, just off the coast of Brighton. Peter needed to understand how a dredger works, and what it does, so he spent a day at sea on a working one, off Shoreham.  Then he needed to understand what the police would do in this instance, and was told a Police dive team – the Specialist Search Unit – would go out and search the seabed for clues. 

“The SSU kindly took me out to sea on a training exercise – and there I learned too much information…!!!  I always had a romantic notion that being a police diver must be a great gig – you get to swan around in scuba gear, getting paid to do what you love. Wrong! It was explained to me that the police almost always dive in zero visibility – in muddy canals full of barbed wire and rusting supermarket trolleys and jagged metal, or in sewers, or in weed-strewn lakes, or the bottom of the English Channel which is always churned up.” (Peter James)

In the interview Peter explained the procedure is to drop a weighted line down to the sea bed, then connected to the surface by a voice line and air line, they sink down, carrying a 200 metre cable over their shoulders, with a weight on each end of it – this is called a “jackstay”.  They then lay it out in a straight line on the sea or river bed, and swim back, holding the line in one hand and sweeping in the pitch darkness with the other.  If they find nothing, they move the weights a foot to the right or left, gridding out the bed.  When they find a body, under their strict procedures, they have to hug it, in case a current carries it away, and radio to the surface for a colleague to descend with an airbag to raise it to the surface.  They will have no way of knowing whether this body has been there for days, or weeks or months, and it is likely to be crawling with crabs.

Peter James next Roy Grace novel, Find Them Dead is due to be released July 2020.

Find out more about Peter James and his books on his website: www.peterjames.com

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #95 Sept 2009 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my latest Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Laura Wilson

In Oct 2009, I interviewed historical and psychological crime writer, Laura Wilson, about her research tips and techniques for my Research Secrets column in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum #96.

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Laura Wilson explained why for both historical and crime writers research is important. she said:

“There’s a standard piece of advice given to people who are starting to write fiction – write from your own experience. I would venture to suggest that if you are, like me, a writer of crime novels, it’s not very useful. What are you supposed to do? Go out and murder someone and then say, ‘Sorry, Officer, I was just doing it for research?’ It also rules out writing historical novels, science-fiction, fantasy, and quite a lot else besides.”

She explained that if you are not going to create a fictitious town or village, you can make your task easier by choosing to set your work in an area you know well. Laura often writes about the West End of London, as she lived and worked there for a number of years and is very familiar with it. However she did make it clear, a writer should always be allowed to take liberties. For example, she once moved a whole seaside town five miles down the Essex coast, although she pointed this out in the acknowledgements so the readers, if they choose to look at them, were forewarned and didn’t write her letters pointing out the ‘mistake’.

Another tip Laura gave in he feature to make life easier was give your protagonist a job you have done yourself. For example, Dick Francis, the ex-jockey, writes stories set in the world of horse-racing. Research for him must be comparatively simple, because he has both the knowledge and the contacts. Laura admitted sometimes too much knowledge can get in the way and hold up the action. The best piece of advice about writing she has ever come across is from Elmore Leonard, who says, ‘Leave out the boring bits’.

It’s always tempting to slip in factoids because you know them, forgetting that the reader wants a narrative, not a lot of information about coal-mining or dry-cleaning or how to put on a crinoline or whatever it happens to be.

She is adamant story-line must always be paramount, and don’t let anyone tell you different, as there’s a risk that research becomes a displacement activity that holds up the business of writing.  she explained there should be two main reasons for research: the first is to ensure that your story-line will stand up, and the second is to underpin your work with authenticity and truth.

she told me there are some practical steps one can take to find things out: the police and other experts are astonishingly helpful, provided that you are specific in your questions. Go to the library, do your homework, and work out exactly what it is you need to know first. Buying drinks or lunch usually pays dividends.

It’s important, too, to confirm things you think you already know – get it confirmed by another source. There’s a lot of debate about the efficacy of the internet as a research tool they need to be checked against something more reliable. People’s memories can be faulty, too. Nothing beats a spot of physical research – as Black Beauty said, ‘Feeling is believing’.

Research can bring your nearer to the characters. Laura said: 

“While writing my fifth novel, The Lover, I had great difficulty getting into the mind of the killer, Jim Rushton. The book is set during the Second World War and Rushton is a fighter pilot, so, after consulting the genuine articles, I booked myself a trip in the nearest machine I could get to a Spitfire, a Harvard Training plane which had been modified to seat two people.

I discovered for myself the amazing adrenaline rush other pilots had described to me.” (Laura Wilson)

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To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #96 Oct 2009 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my latest Research Secrets interview you can invest in a postal subscription from the Writers’ Forum website or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

For more information about Laura Wilson and her novels take a look at her website: www.laura-wilson.co.uk

An interview with… Matt Gaw

In this month’s issue of Writers’ Forum I have interviewed Matt Gaw about his research for his second book, Under the Stars, which was published by Elliott & Thompson in February this year. It is about moonlight, starlight and how the subtle shades of darkness are under threat from an artificially lit world, exploring through a series of nocturnal walks, our relationship with natural night.

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Matt’s inspiration to write Under the Stars came from something his son said when he was trying to get him to bed one night. He was 10 at the time and pushing to stay up. His son told him the average human spends around 26 years of their life asleep and felt like this was a waste of time. Matt realised that although he had been out at night – camping or toddling home from the pub – he had never gone out just to experience night.

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So when day after a heavy snow fall, he decided to do some research and walk in King’s Forest near his home in Suffolk. Matt was amazed at the changes that happened as darkness slowly began to rise, changes that affected both the landscape and his own body.

“I think I realised then how much natural light there is at night; how night isn’t a black bookend today, but a place of subtlety and shades.” (Matt Gaw)

Matt explained walking the different routes to research the book was an organic process. He started off close to home and then started to go further afield when he wanted to explore both darker and brighter landscapes because he feels it is important for people to experience the nightscape close to home.

“It’s about being honest I guess, showing people that there are problems but there is action that can be taken and beauty to be found.” (Matt Gaw)

Matt told me he realised he felt safer the darker it was as once your senses have adapted to darkness, it is easy enough to navigate.

“It’s strange really, in some ways your world is made smaller – you operate in this reduced bubble of visibility – but in other ways it is infinitely bigger. At night you experience not only space, but time; the light from the stars has often been travelling for thousands of years before it reaches your retina.” (Matt Gaw)

Matt explained that wildlife is most active at dusk and dawn and I was lucky enough to see an otter hunting in Scotland and had some memorable encounters later with a huge, galloping herd of deer in King’s Forest and nightjar on Dartmoor. He has edited Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s magazine for a number of years so has an excellent foundation in natural history, but discovered he also needed to do quite a bit of additional research.

The main thing was looking at how artificial light impacts on different species, so he read quite a few scientific papers and also interviewed academics working in the field. For example, Travis Longcore, one of the first people to write extensively about artificial light and ecology was very generous with his time and illustrated to Matt how our perception of darkness is a world apart from that of nocturnal species. He recounts parts of this conversation in Chapter 5, while exploring the night close to his Suffolk home.

His research tip to other travel writers is to read everything on your topic or location – local guides, national stories, folk stories, blogs, scientific papers – then rip it all up and write your own. Matt tries not to over plan his trips, he has a rough idea of where he will start and where he wants to go, but he prefers to be adaptable to prevent being  closed off to the actual experience. If you’re just marching from A to B Matt believes you will lose something.

Matt’s has also written The Pull of the River where he explores Britain’s waterways with his friend James in a canoe, to give a new insight into nature, place and friendship.

Pull of the River

To find out more about Matt Gaw and his writing you can look at his website www.mattgaw.com, and follow him on Twitter @Mattgaw and Instagram @mattgaw

You can read the complete feature in #223 2020, which is available to buy from Writers’ Forum online at Select Magazines.

To read my latest Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.