Sunday, 27 July 2014

Making Research Count … by Gillian Hamer

Today my guest blogger is Gillian Hamer, author of a series of much praised crime novels. Here she is talking about research and the lengths she goes to achieve accuracy.

Making Research Count …
by Gillian Hamer

A thoughtful reviewer wrote this recently about my latest crime novel release, Crimson Shore:

Crime novels are harder to write than they are to read. The author must hold back, keep a twist for the tail without letting too much away but without leaving the outcome too far-fetched or disappointing. The ending has to satisfy. Not only that, but these days a crime author must remain au fait with the latest technology and the latest crime-fighting wizardry of the forensic pathologist.”

I am so glad someone gets it. Crime writing is incredibly difficult for a multitude of reasons, of which just a few have been mentioned above, but getting the research right must be up there at the top of the list. 

The easiest way, in my mind at least, of spoiling a crime novel, and losing the reader, is a lack of authenticity. Getting it right, whatever the ‘it’ may be, is vital. And the ‘it’ in this genre can be wide and varied. 

  • It can be setting the right atmosphere of tension and intrigue. 

  • It can be getting inside the mind of a twisted killer or the victim of a vicious attack. 

  • It can be correct representation of police procedurals, or detailed knowledge of a complex subject such as pathology or forensics.

And that is my chosen topic for this blog post.

In a couple of my books, I’ve relied heavily of pathology and forensic procedures, a topic that has long fascinated me. Reading books has never really been enough for me, I don’t seem to be able to absorb the information. I think it may be because I am a visual writer, so I need to interact more for research to sink in. 
So, three years ago, I enrolled on an entry level Forensics Science course, with the Open University. I’m proud to say I managed to pass although it was a hard years’ work, and I found a lot of the science-based chapters a tough challenge.

The research material supplied on the course is an invaluable asset to me even now, and for that reason alone, I’d recommend taking the plunge in something similar if you get an opportunity. 

The course work started with basic police procedurals such as crime scene investigation, fingerprint analysis, examination of blood and bodily fluids which then led into the more complex world of DNA profiling.

One of the chapters I have recently re-researched for my current WIP is forensic toxicology and drug abuse. I learned so much about toxicity and the analysis of drugs and poisons that I know I can write with confidence when my detective characters face these issues in the course of their investigation.

The most interesting subject I studied was forensic science and the legal system. The role of forensic science in a court of law is an interesting and ever-changing spectrum. With new technology and profiling techniques appearing year on year, UK legislation is constantly changing and adapting to take up the benefits of new developments. As a writer, keeping abreast of these changes is vital to keep your work authentic.

But despite all of the incredible new options that forensic science and pathology offer to the police and legal services, I was also amazed at just how hard and time-consuming it was to ensure the accuracy of the data collated. And the statistics for times when the evidence did prove unreliable due to contamination or foul-play was quite staggering. 
Many crime novels would have you believe that DNA is the saviour of policing. And yes, DNA analysis is a robust technique based on sound scientific principles that has revolutionised both policing and the legal system. But DNA profiling is not 100% accurate and can fall foul of human error with disastrous consequences. 

Example: For sixteen years, German police chased an elusive female serial killer known as ‘the Phantom of Heilbronn’, as the same female DNA was found at 40 crime scenes, including six murders. 

It was eventually discovered that the cotton swabs used to collect the samples of DNA had been contaminated by a woman working at the factory making the swabs, and that the crimes were not linked. If you want to find out more about this case, have a look at ‘DNA bungle’ haunts German police via BBC News.

It seems to me that not even the most up-to-date technology can ever be fool proof and that back-to-basics policing is still always required. 
So, my latest project is a move away from the science-based procedure and I have enrolled on a second OU course, this time examining the human brain in terms evidence. The course is titled “Forensic psychology: witness investigation. Discover how psychology can help obtain evidence from witnesses in police investigations and prevent miscarriages of justices.”

I’m only a few weeks into the course, but I already know it’s going to be hugely beneficial to my writing, not only by re-hashing much of what I learn into my detective team by choosing a character to undertake a similar course, but also my adding another layer of authenticity to my writing. 
Increasingly in many crime novels and TV dramas, we see a talented team of scientists rely on bloods and amino acids to catch murderers. Many more authors now focus on the use of forensic analysis of physical evidence to solve cases and identify killers. And yet, in the real world, understanding how the human mind works, particularly how our memory works, is a crucial part of any police investigation. 
The human element of any story, particularly the evidence provided by victims/witness remains a compelling component. In real life, cases are rarely straightforward because of human intervention and for many reasons there is more likely than not considerable uncertainty as to whether the person accused of the crime actually did it – and with any shred of ‘reasonable doubt’ in place in a courtroom, a conviction is always unlikely. Knowing how to evaluate evidence and how to improve eye-witness reports can be the key to solving the crime and seeing justice achieved.

From a writer's perspective, not only does this research and knowledge add another string to my bow and assist character development, but also it takes me one step closer to a real-life laboratory, crime scene investigation, or police incident room. Not only does this tick the all-important authenticity box, but it’s a great deal more fun – and a whole lot more realistic for the reader – than relying on a Google search or Wikipedia as sole source of our
Gillian Hamer


Gillian Hamer is author to Crimson Shore and three previous novels, The Charter, Closure and Complicit.

More information can be found at her website or you can keep up to date with her on Twitter @Gillyhamer.

Monday, 7 July 2014

JJ Marsh Guest Blogging today!

Today I am honoured to have the very wonderful JJ Marsh as a guest on my blog. Jill is the author of the acclaimed Beatrice Stubbs crime novels. Set in the UK and various European locations, these books are intelligent, witty and cleverly plotted. Find them HERE.

And now here's Jill riffing on all things poetic:-

I woke up this morning with a regret. 

Nothing unusual there. Yet this time, said regret was unconnected to a bottle of tequila, a roguish pair of eyebrows or another spectacular failure in a foreign language. 

I realise I told a lie. 

Yesterday, someone asked me if I read poetry. “Poetry? Not really my thing,” I said. “Much rather read a book.” 

That is an untruth. 

I met Poetry in primary school. We got on well. Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience lured me in and RS Thomas finished the job. Kiss-chase and rounders were neglected for lines such as these:
Men of the hills, wantoners, men of Wales With your sheep and your pigs and your ponies, your sweaty females How I have hated you ...

IMG_0552Secondary school led me to another Thomas. (Listen to this now and if you are not smitten in 90 seconds then you can stuff your Christmas card.) 

Here are words, looking for trouble. 

Here are words in a strange, ancient rhythm I already know. 

Here are words tumbling, effervescing, colliding, exploding with energy and lyrical power. 

Poetry made me laugh and cry. Poetry understood me. I swore eternal allegiance. 

Biology was one of my favourite subjects in Sixth Form. Kidneys are intriguing. But arts and sciences don’t mix so I did French Literature instead. Poetry and I went InterRailing and met Paul Verlaine. Green and the earthy passion contained in those words connected with a song I’d heard - Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man. Love as raw exposure. 

(I was only sixteen at the time and my poems were devoted to some public school twit I met on a sponsored walk. Still, his kidneys are mine now.) 

University’s Professor Turner turned me on to Wordsworth and the worth of words. His lecture on Nutting is still etched on my memory and caused one of my housemates to fall in love with his forearms. I kept reading French poets, not least to be pretentious, and bumped into Baudelaire. An encounter I’ll never regret. 

As often happens with childhood friends, Poetry and I drifted apart. I got in with a bad crowd (Crime), dropped out for a while (Literary Fiction) and messed about with one night stands (Short Stories). I knew where to find Poetry but wondered if we had anything in common anymore? In weak moments, I looked it up. Re-reading Robert Graves after The White Goddess: An Encounter, I recalled how poems of war carried a mightier punch than any footage or statistics. Raw words connected. Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds - a different kind of war – left me wretched and awed. 

One compilation CD in my car includes Nick Cave, PM Dawn, Suzanne Vega, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen (hello again) Alanis Morrisette and Joni Mitchell. I keep getting it mixed up with the others, so needed an identifying title. Why did I collect these singers/songwriters on one album? 

Because they use words in a way that shocks me, gives me shivers, sends me pictures, tells me stories and makes me think. Words doing things I didn’t know they could. Like Poetry used to do. 

Hello, Poetry? Are you on Twitter?   

Jill grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After graduating in English Literature and Theatre Studies, she worked as an actor, teacher, writer, director, editor, journalist and cultural trainer all over Europe.  

Now based in Switzerland, Jill works as a language trainer, forms part of the Nuance Words project and is a regular columnist for Words with JAM magazine. She lives with her husband and three dogs, and in an attic overlooking a cemetery, she writes. 


Beatrice Stubbs Series by JJ Marsh