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How can experts enrich your writing? Part 1

Writing novels can take you into strange territory. I see the beginning of a novel not only as the start of a journey into my own imagination, but as the start of an adventure into the outside world as well. I’ve learnt that in order to give a novel enough credibility to see it published you can’t guess at the contributions a policeman, coroner, school teacher, or governor would make as characters in a story. You have to go out there and find out exactly what their input to a story would be. My most recent novel, An Honest Deceit  benefited from input from a cast of experts. These included forensic scientists, barristers, banking whistle-blowers and even the man who brought down the head of the corrupt footballing body FIFA.

In 2015 I was grateful to be awarded an Arts Council Grant For The Arts to research a novel on cover-ups and whistleblowing. The draft of the novel that I had at the time was based around the disappearance of a young girl, Marine. An early draft of the novel was a story of a family, how it came together and the pressures it experienced when it was affected by grief. This grant allowed me time to weave into the narrative the theme of cover-ups (a theme dominating the news at the time) which I hoped would give this draft of a novel a driving narrative that would grip the reader. The crime component of the novel is important to making it work. Without giving too much away, at one point in the story there is reason to believe a crime has taken place. I therefore needed to know how, in a given situation, the police would respond to an alleged crime, the evidence they would take at the crime scene, and how the legal procedure would play out. But I was most interested, strangely enough, in the drier aspects of these questions. I wanted to know at what point evidence could be covered up. This required me to gain an understanding of how miscarriages of justice had taken place and, in turn, how had they been exposed.

New Writing North were running a series of evening classes called ‘Crime Story’, in which experts in solving crime ran master-classes to a bunch of aspiring novelists. The first class I attended was by a Dr. Kelly Sheridan. It was about how textiles can help to solve forensic investigations. Dr. Sheridan had been involved in the development of technology that had allowed cases, such as the Stephen Lawrence case, to be solved many years after the crime once sophisticated analysis was developed. I learnt at her class that on crime scenes the attending officer is key in deciding how much evidence should be collected- from clothing to photographs of the scene. Most importantly, they decide who evidence can be collected from. Crimes can only be solved from whatever is caught in the net originally cast at the crime scene. For the purposes of my novel I learnt that a good officer casts their net wide when they first arrive on a crime scene. I therefore learnt that a less good officer could choose to overlook certain information. Therefore this expert knowledge was informing my narrative in a most direct way.

To get my deeper into the spirit of crime stories, I attended a class on ‘miscarriages of justice’ with Adam Jackson, senior lecturer in Law. To add authenticity to the class, it was offered in a mock courtroom that Northumbria University use to train law students. Given that I expected my own novel to contain scenes in court this experience was invaluable. I got to learn the geography of a Northern English court room, and where different people would stand at different points in the hearing. If this wasn’t useful enough, participants in the classes actually got to play the role of jurors, exploring how jury members are directed to consider the weight and veracity of different types of expert evidence. In my novel the decision of a jury is key the the outcome of the story, and in this class I got to sit in a jurors position and understand what decision a jury member would make based on what evidence. By asking questions of Mr. Jackson I got a sense of how a jury could be misled, or how the coroners decision could end up neglecting key information if that was how events played out. The integrity of police officers is obviously key to ensuring justice. From attending the class, taking diligent notes of other peoples questions, and from conducting a few little enquiries of my own, I learnt where the weak points are in the system. Later on, I would be exploiting these to develop my own villain, so I could see from his perspective how he would evade justice. Key plot points – such as the fact that a mobile phone can be tracked even when off – informed the details in my narrative.

One of the bigger lessons I have learnt over the course of writing the novel, was that master classes and the reading of books is secondary to having access to experts in the field who can offer you the exact answers you need. But experts in the field do not tend to offer their information to anyone who asks. They need to know what you will do with the information, and they needed proof that you are serious about the subject you are researching. I found that they also want to know they are not wasting their time talking to you and your novel will see the light of day. This is a classic chicken and egg scenario that I have encountered in researching a novel. You need expert input, and probably research funding to write the novel, but people will only offer such input if they know the novel will be successful. Which requires expert input and funding!

In the second part of this blog I will describe how I convinced the man who brought down the most powerful man in sports, Sepp Blatter, to offer me an insight into the work he was doing to expose corruption. I will look at what it took to convince such an expert to get on board with my novel and will strive to arrive at conclusions about what it is an expert can add to my creative writing.

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