One question that is often raised when I’m at crime fiction conferences or responding to interview questions is: how do you choose where the facts end and the fiction begins?
When I was doing the research for the second in the Detective Kay Hunter series, Will to Live, I entered one of the darkest areas of my research to date.
To give this post some context, and to explain that statement, I don’t like horror films, and I don’t enjoy graphic descriptions in crime fiction. I think it’s because I have an overactive imagination to start with, so anything too gory gives me nightmares.
There have been a few bestselling books in the past year that have been recommended to me, and yet I’ve struggled to get through the opening chapter where the murder happens that kicks off an investigation – I simply can’t read about torture scenes, for a start. Personally, that’s not entertainment for me.
So, how on earth was I supposed to write about a serial killer who disposes of his victims by tying them to a train track?
Well, this is where the lines blur – it became a delicate balance of learning as much as I could about deaths on railways and the associated post mortems, but then sharing that information with readers in such a way that they wouldn’t put the book down in disgust.
I needed to hold a reader entranced within the scene through my characters’ point of view, peering through their fingers as their eyes devoured the words.
There were two areas of research I needed to explore in order to bring the story to life – that of a post mortem on a decapitated body, and then the subject of railway suicides. To this day, I couldn’t tell you which one was the more difficult to deal with.
I have a good friend who is a retired homicide detective in Canada, and who also worked as a coroner. Thanks to his thoughtfulness and insights, I was able to learn about the post mortem process and, specifically, how this changes when dealing with decapitation.
I learned everything from on-scene preservation through to odontology in the space of a week. I went from trepidation through to disgust and out the other side by way of “I didn’t know that”.
It was this thirst for knowledge that kept me going, even when some of the source material I was reading became too grim.
The post mortem details paled against the suicide statistics, however. Despite the best efforts of the authorities in the UK, railway suicides remain all too common, and typically amongst the male population. There are all sorts of studies into why and how, but by the end of my research, I was distraught.
We all have friends who have battled with mental health issues at some point, and I think we all know how stigmatised that these issues can be, despite best efforts to alleviate that. There simply isn’t enough being done to help people in these situations.
By the end of my research, I took at least two weeks to process all that I had learned before I could begin to think about how I could present it in such a way that it helped tell the story without belittling or glossing over the hard-hitting subject matter I’d been drawn to.
It’s something I’m learning the more I write crime fiction – the genre allows me as a writer to explore some difficult subject matter, and the effect this subject matter has on society (and, in turn, my characters).
I won’t shy away from it, but I will protect my readers from the more distressing information.
That’s where blurring the lines comes into all of this. Once Will to Live was complete, only about five per cent of what I had subjected myself to went into the story.
So, why put myself through it? Simply, in order to make the story believable to readers, I felt I had to write about these subjects from an informed point of view rather than just making it up and hoping for the best.
I needed to have that sense of reality so that when Detective Kay Hunter is shocked by what she is learning and becomes even more determined to solve the crime, so are my readers.
I hope I’ve achieved that.
From the reviews for Will to Live:
“Aside from the murder investigation, Will to Live also tackles a difficult subject with the underlying theme of depression and what can lead people to take their own lives. This is sensitively handled, showing the isolating effects upon those that suffer as well as the impact that it has upon those around them.” ~ Amazon.co.uk
“Amidst the investigation and all the tension and drama, the author skilfully tackles sensitive subjects like depression and suicide. As the plot thickens we're given a hint as to why the killer is doing what they're doing and even though I had my suspicions, there was no way I could have guessed the killer's identity.” ~ Relax and Read Reviews
“Suicide and mental health are briefly considered throughout this book and the police handling of family emotions was handled sensitively.” ~ Chapter In My Life book reviews
If the subject matter of this blog post has affected you in any way, please note the following helplines. There may be others available closer to where you live. Please do a website search, and talk to someone.
Samaritans UK: 116 123
US National Suicide Prevention helpline: 1-800-273 TALK (8255)
Lifeline Australia: 13 11 14
Suicide Prevention Canada: https://suicideprevention.ca/need-help/