|A little light reading in the name of research...|
But it isn’t so simple. Unless you write fantasy or science fiction, making things up still has to be achieved against a framework of fact and accuracy. If it isn’t, you lose your reader, and the last thing you want is someone pointing out all the flaws in your plot, even when the characters themselves are entirely your invention and you can do whatever you like with them. Readers like things to be correct — apparently Agatha Christie got letters complaining that she had the wrong timetable for the Orient Express.
I do check my ferry timetables, but sometimes the kind of fact you’re working with is just too…well, secret. In my current work in progress, a romantic suspense, my villain is an undercover policeman, my hero is his handler and my heroine is the villain’s former girlfriend.
Undercover policing is, by definition, covert. You aren’t supposed to know how it works. Take the definition further: if it’s successful, it remains secret so that we only ever find out about it when it goes wrong and someone is outed by a newspaper or a pressure group. Which means that the available facts are only part of the story.
Most of my research is based upon websites from pressure groups, along with a fascinating and informative book on undercover policing by a couple of investigative journalists. So far, so relevant, especially because the things that go on under the noses of the public are certainly the kinds of things you wouldn’t believe would happen. Talk about a licence to plot.
After a couple of not-very-thrilling papers on codes of practice and reports of the findings of police inspections (yawn) had furnished me with some of the basic information, I ran into trouble. While sources such as Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and the College of Policing are full of endless information on the legal framework, they don’t answer the questions that a writer needs to know.
My list of research questions is long and, to date, largely unanswered. If an undercover officer’s handler is in contact with that officer once or twice a week, what does he (or she) do for much of the day? Is he (or she) a uniformed officer or not? Work out of a police station? Work odd hours? (I did learn that the handler gets paid the same as the undercover officer, danger money and all.) Who keeps the safe house safe? Who has the keys to it? Who gets to use it and why and when? I could go on.
After much fruitless trawling of the internet, I sighed, read the accounts of what actually happens, looked in the newspapers to see some of the mind-boggling things our police really get up to… and decided that if I don’t know how things work, I’ll just make them up.