Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Calling all members of Lothian and Borders Police

***grumble grumble retyping this because blogger ate the last attempt before I could save it grumble grumble***

Some of you may be aware that my current work in progress is what might be termed the bastard son of a police procedural novel. I'm a bit lary about all these different genre titles, and tend to stick to the term 'crime fiction' as that's usually what the shelves in the bookstore are labelled. If this shows my naïveté, then so be it. There are crimes in the book I am writing, and the main protagonist is a policeman who tries to solve them.

Now, when Stuart first bullied me into writing I first decided it would be fun to try writing in the "crime" genre, I had to decide where to set my story. Setting is, for me, the most crucial element in a story. Everything else plays off it, and so it have to be believable and well-realised. In this respect it should be better, or at least easier, to base my work in a place I actually know.

I live in the middle of the countryside, and whilst we did have a major drug bust* just down the valley from here about a month ago, it's fair to say that rural life is not beset with the sort of criminal activity that makes for good copy. My nearest town is Aberystwyth, and it has been the subject of three excellent satirical novels by Malcolm Pryce. But Aberystwyth is a provincial little place, with small-minded criminals doing boring things like robbing the post office and knocking over old ladies. It is well suited to parody, but not so good as a setting for anything more violent than a drunken punch-up on a Friday night.

No, to do crime writing justice, you need a city of a decent size (I can't see a detective in St David's having much to do most evenings.) I have lived in just three cities in my life; London, Aberdeen and Edinburgh. I loathe London with a passion I cannot normally muster for anything these days. This is perhaps because the time I spent there - summer vacations from University temping in a series of dull admin jobs in even duller offices for a wage that didn't cover my living expenses until sometime around about Thursday morning coffee - was miserable and pointless. There's a time in the working week when you can look at your desk and say 'Now I am earning for myself. The taxman's had his share, the London Underground have had their cut, and so has my bastard Landlord.' That point should ideally be before payday.

So London's out - any story I wrote there would be too bitter, and it's close on twenty years since I last lived there (eek). So what about Aberdeen? That's a good setting for crime novels, after all, and I lived there for ten years. Well, if a certain friend of mine hadn't recently started up a successful series of crime novels based in the Granite City, I might have been tempted. As it is, Aberdeen's out, except maybe for visits.

Which leaves either Edinburgh, or making someplace up. RD Wingfield creates a believable place of Denton in his Frost novels, and Stuart's short story collection last Christmas convinced me that I never want to get stuck in Oldcastle. But I'm not sure I could carry that off with what I'm trying to do. I hate long passages of description; the setting has to be woven into the action, not painted as backdrop or slotted in whenever there's a gap. It's far easier to do this if you can readily visualise the place you are writing about, and so somewhere you've been is likely to come across better in a piece of writing than somewhere you're making up. This may seem an odd confession for a fantasy writer, but I think it's true.

So, as any of you who have followed my many links to my short story in the fall issue of Spintetingler will know, I decided to set my story in Edinburgh.

Actually, I had already established the main character in Edinburgh in a comic script I wrote about fifteen years ago, and I chose it then because the mood of the place suited the mood of the story. The same holds today, but the justification detailed above is just as good a reason.

But having chosen Edinburgh, and a medium perhaps a bit more demanding than a comic script, now the fun really starts.

Sandra blogged recently about how glaring errors of fact in a novel pissed her off. I don't think those were her actual words, but that's the gist of it. There are some things you can get away with, but in a novel based nominally in a real place and at a real time, you have to get some details right. In a police procedural, it's traditional to get the various ranks and job descriptions more or less correct, and it helps if you don't put the wrong people in the wrong place. Basic research is important; I understand that.

I have found out, over the last few weeks, a great deal about the internal mechanics of Lothian and Borders Police Force - stuff I didn't already know, that is. I know the force headquarters is in Fettes Row, and that the three main stations for A division - which covers the central city, are in Gayfield Square, Howden Hall Road and St Leonards Street. I've seen them all from the outside - I used to bicycle past Howden Hall Road and through Gayfield Square on my way to work, and St Leonards was just round the corner from my brother's flat - but I've never been inside any of them.

Then there's the arcane difference between the Scene of Crime Division, the Scottish Fingerprint Service and the Identification Branch. I've still not got to the bottom of that one, which is kind of crucial to the tale. Nor am I sure about the minutiae of allocating investigations to detectives and what resources they can draw upon. There are other questions that keep dragging at me as I write - I've taken to scribbling them on the edges of my plot map pages and marking them in the text using comments. But each time I hit one, I have to suppress the urge to jump on the internet and spend a couple of hours trying to track down the answer. That way lies ruin and never getting the first draft finished.

I also don't want the whole story to get bogged down in procedure, as it's not really very exciting. But neither do I want to finish the book and have everyone say 'but they wouldn't do that!' or 'they closed that station in nineteen eighty-six, you moron!'

If I still lived in Edinburgh, I'd do what everyone says you should do - make contact with the police and drop around sometime with a list of questions. Unfortunately I live many, many miles away from Edinburgh, and I'm not due to be heading back that way much before February, by which time I want to have this baby done.

So a heartfelt plea to any Scottish policeman who might stumble across this blog. I have questions you may be able to answer. It shouldn't take up much of your time, and I'm quite prepared to send them one by one as emails for you to respond at your leisure. In return for your privileged knowledge, I will credit you fulsomely in the finished book, and when I'm famous, you'll be able to tell your grandchildren** 'I helped him when he first started out, I did.'

* this is true. An enterprising fellow down on the Hafod Estate, about a mile from here, was growing cannabis in his polytunnel (we use ours for chillies, sweetcorn and tomatoes). The police swooped down in a dawn raid, following a tip-off, most likely from a disgruntled local user.
** well, it'll take that long.


Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Ah, it's only certain blunders that piss me off. Think of it this way. I've read all the Rebus books, but I know relatively little about the overall structure of the police department there and about any separation between the SOCOs and the fingerprint people.

I would make a bet that less than 15% of the population of Edinburgh knows much about it either. Probably less than 10%, maybe less than 5%, in reality.

Now, see, the hospital in my story was different. As part of the provincial government's massive cutbacks it was closed. It was covered on national news media as the fight to save the hospital went on, for an extensive period of time. This happened in a city of a few million people and was plastered across newspapers, the internet, the TV news, radio... The percentage of people living in the GVA who knew about it was significantly higher, and it affected people province-wide because this was a highly specialized hospital.

What it was that really pissed me off was that a) I knew the author, and b) they'd written up a paper that was published, talking about how to properly research your stories and get it right. They talked about their meticulous research. And they hadn't even nailed the specialty of this hospital, never mind the fact that it was closed.

Now, I am going to grumble a bit if someone relies on formulaic television shows for research as well. I think that is lazy. But mostly, if you pride yourself on doing all the homework, then the facts should measure up. And if they don't, at least I won't be as forgiving.

Here's what you do. You write to the police department (check and see if they have a website - some of this stuff you can find out online, you probably already have) but often there is a media contact person who can, and usually will, answer questions. I have found whenever I've written a request, explained the purpose of my questions, I've been phoned, met with, whatever, and people have been very helpful.

November 15, 2006 6:04 pm  
Blogger angie said...

Sandra's right about contacting the department, of course. Another approach would be to google Edinburgh police officers. I've actually come across a number of police officers in different states (US) that have personal websites and blogs and are open to answering questions.

Another possibility is to check out The Mystery Writer's Forum here:

They have a few police officers on the board from a few different countries who are all very nice about answering questions & pointing people in the right direction.

This dilemma, by the way, is reason number six hundred and fourteen why I don't write police procedurals. I'm way too chicken to ask questions I'm quite sure will be seen as totally stupid of strangers.

November 15, 2006 8:50 pm  
Blogger JamesO said...

Thanks for the pointers, both of you. Sandra, I reckon you've got the misplaced hospital all wrong. Obviously the writer in question put it back as a protest against it being closed;}#

Angie, I'm chicken too - this whole post is by way of girding my loins before actually getting in touch with a real live policeman (or woman, I'm not proud, though I might need to stop girding if I'm not to make the wrong impression.) I know I have to do it, but that doesn't make it any easier.

November 15, 2006 10:59 pm  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Very funny James. If that's what it was, I'm sure the hospital would have continued to focus on long-term geriatric care instead of stitching up hookers.

That happens at the hospital just down the road from the closed one. See, that's the additional kicker. There was a real hospital only a couple blocks away that really does do that...

November 16, 2006 3:50 pm  

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