Killing people, even in fiction, is hard work. You have no idea.
You’d think it had mostly to do with mechanics: the motive, the opportunity, the weapon. Slap them together, you get a murder mystery. Right?
Actually, mostly it is about research. Which I love.
I turned to writing novels only a few years ago. Before that, I had been an award-winning nonfiction writer and also a ghostwriter for people like Al Gore and Bill Clinton, among others. With clients like that, you can bet I cared about factual accuracy. I still do, even in fiction. It’s a passion.
When I begin a novel, I typically have only three reference points: a couple of characters, a setting, and some overarching theme I want to explore. I don’t outline. Outlining feels like a straightjacket to me. The greatest joy of writing fiction, to me, is the surprise each day’s writing brings. Characters show up out of nowhere. Scenes develop from thin air. Often I feel as if I am just taking notes!
But all that comes after the research.
Consider Harm None, the first in my “Davies & West Mystery series,” set in Cornwall, England. Cornwall is at the far southwestern tip of Britain. It is an ancient Celtic civilization where many traditions and beliefs still survive. You can walk across the tip of Cornwall from the gentle English Channel side to the wind-whipped Atlantic coast in a day and, along the way, literally trip over one after another Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age site: stone circles, standing stones, towering burial quoits, underground chambers, sacred wells, and even almost intact Iron Age villages. These sites are everywhere and, amazingly, they are still there, after millennia!
I already knew Cornwell deeply; I’ve written a three volume travel series called, The Best of Britain’s Countryside. But when it came time to write the first of the “Davies & West Mystery Series,” I returned and moved in for several weeks. I rented a flat on the harbor in Penzance and tramped all over the moortops among those prehistoric ruins, knowing at some level they would figure in the story. I interviewed and became close friends with detective inspectors from the Devon and Cornwall Police and their senior Scene of Crimes manager, now a friend. I met with and talked about my story with the director of the Royal Cornwall Museum and Cornwall’s chief archaeologist and received their support. I sat for hours with the region’s top forensic pathologist to learn how postmortems are conducted. I became friends with the mortuary director at the hospital in Truro. And I interviewed witches, because they are essential to understanding Cornwall and because one such character features prominently in Harm None.
This is all part of the process of setting your factual foundation. Build a strong foundation and stay true to these facts and your fictional story can develop as you wish, which, in Harm None, it most certainly did.
So when the New York Times bestselling author, Elizabeth George (The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, broadcast on the BBC) says, “For lovers of English mysteries with authentic settings and spot-on police procedures, North’s Harm None is just the ticket,” I reckon that means the book is both memorable and…well researched.