Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Making it up

A little light reading in the name of research...
I’m a writer. Making it up is what I do. Simple, eh?

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.

Jennifer Young

8 comments:

  1. I love research, Jennifer, and it definitely adds authenticity. You've chosen a fascinating area as a background - and, as you say, there are loads of plot opportunities. Can't wait to read the finished book!

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  2. It's more than fascinating, and gets more so at every turn. Today's research question: in which countries can you (legally) smoke dope?

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  3. Wow - you've obviously given yourself a tough job with that subject, Jennifer. Good luck with it - I'm too lazy to do that kind of in-depth research!

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    1. Rosemary, I'll let you into a secret...I quite often skip the boring bits of research, too!

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  4. I thin k the knack is knowing when to stop with research - there has to be enough but sometimes 'less is more'. If I'm reading something set in an area I know nothing about then I am happy to assume the writer does know ......book sounds more than interesting, good luck with it all.

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    1. I suspect the real life stories are more interesting that anything I could produce, Linda!

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  5. When I had to do research on my first historical romance - Royal Cowries set in the 1400s, I had to do extensive research. Although it was fun, I knew I couldn't just write or make up too much as I need to set things in context just in case some Bini historian decides to 'complain'. I 'cooked' up a great deal, only to find out that a variation of my imagination had actually happened in history. Coincidence!!! Afterwards, I just felt so fulfilled.

    I wish you the best with the undercover policing research. I would simply make up portions I don't understand, simple. Lol!

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    1. Stella, I'm consoling myself that if all the stuff about how these things operates is secret, then nobody will complain if I get it wrong. It's a win-win.
      I should add, some of the stuff that goes on that's been uncovered is totally unbelievable. And also I was cheered by how many undercover officers were actually discovered through coincidence, or a series of coincidences.

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