Must crime writers experience their crimes to write convincingly? Amy Bird
Our Featured Author for April is Amy Bird and this is the first of four posts she will be writing for the CRA. Read more about Amy in her CRA author profile
How far should you go in the name of research? Where does thoroughness stop and obsession begin? For Dan, the crime-writer protagonist in my novel ‘Three Steps Behind You’, every last detail must not only be researched, but lived. He believes in ‘method writing’ – that you cannot write something until you have experienced it for yourself. A rather scary version of ‘write what you know’ where violence and murder are involved.
But how about off the page? The characters people read and become gripped by might be psychopaths, but – as Pauline Rownson made clear in her post on 14 February – their creators should not be. How far should authors go? There can be a fine line. At the Faber Academy course I took a few years ago, students were encouraged to ‘Kidnap a character’: rather than just people-watch, they had to fix upon a particular individual and follow them round London, taking notes of everything they did. We only did this for a couple of hours or so, and it was a really useful writing exercise. But clearly, if any students had taken that beyond the time period, or scared anyone by being a perpetual shadow, it would have been very different territory.
And few people will have forgotten the case of writer Christopher Langham who was arrested as part of an operation into credit card access to indecent child images. He initially stated the images he accessed were in aid of research – but the story changed. And Graham Elliot recently received a supervision order after images he stated for research were found in his possession.
Plainly, writers should not be doing anything illegal for their research. Doing it for your character – or even in character – is not an excuse. In ‘Three Steps Behind You’ Dan tries to tell himself that his research is to help him write brutal character Luke more convincingly. But the reality is that pursuit of art for art’s sake isn’t really behind his quest – it is a much more dangerous obsession with an old childhood friend, and the ‘method writing’ serves as an excuse to get close him.
For the rest of us, our moral compass must be a guide. If there is something that makes writers uncomfortable, they should not go there. For instance, I had to research gambling addiction for a piece I was writing. I made a conscious decision that although I would look at on-line gambling sites, I wouldn’t create an account and try to play myself – how should I know whether I would also fall prey to an addiction? More innocuously, when I had to write about fencing in ‘Three Steps Behind You’, I knew I wouldn’t be able to write about the rhythms in the sport in an original way unless I tried it, so I pottered off to my local fencing group for one class. The use I put it to is a lot less sinister than my character’s.
Outside these boundaries, writers must rely on their imagination, interviews, and (legal!) desk-based research. That’s why I’ll be leaving the true method-writing to Dan.
Amy Bird’s debut novel ‘Yours is Mine’ became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, taking the coveted No. 1 spot on the Amazon.com Women’s Crime chart. Her second novel, psychological thriller ‘Three Steps Behind You’ is out on 13 March 2014 from Carina UK, the digital imprint of Harlequin and is available to pre-order now. You can find more details at www.amybirdwrites.com and also find Amy on twitter @london_writer or on Facebook https://facebo