Not everyone is as fortunate as Val McDermid when it comes to researching the difficult forensics issues in their novels. When she wrote The Skeleton Road, a novel that highlights the difficulties of identifying a body in Edinburgh that has ties to the Balkan conflict, she was able to consult her friend Professor Sue Black, Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Athropology, who actually did some of the harrowing work involved in identifying the bodies of those killed in the conflict.
(There’s an excellent article by Helen Lewis in the New Statesman about Sue Black – do read it).
However there are some really wonderful resources available to us all. I’ve already written about the FutureLearn course, Identifying the Dead. There are also useful books – among them one by Val McDermid – Forensics : The Anatomy of Crime. That’s sitting on the pile next to my bed, waiting for my next encounter with insomnia. I may as well have a reason to be sleepless…
Sometimes, however, there is no substitute for being able to ask someone who knows the answer to some peculiar question. As an unpublished writer I am reluctant to ask for help – I’m not the pushy kind. But I have found some useful strategies.
I’m a member of the guppies – the great unpublished chapter of Sisters in Crime. So, as well as my wonderfully supportive critique group, I have access online to lots of people who have detailed knowledge of all kinds of strange things. That’s often a first port of call – not least because no one is at all surprised when one asks a question about how to get away with murder.
Some of the online courses also make it possible to ask questions of the course leaders – educational, and effective.
I’ve been introduced to people with specialist knowledge via Facebook friends, and I’m sure that Twitter would be another possibility.
Stuck on a forensics question in the middle of writing my last novel, all those strategies failed. A Google search discovered a UK based forensics science company, and joy of joys, an email address for a member of staff whose actual job it was to answer questions from the general public. And she was a star, and came back within hours with exactly the information I needed.
Of course it’s important to respect other people’s time, so I try to be brief and clear and I certainly don’t demand, or expect a response. But my questions have been answered more often than ignored. I have found that often people are happy to give a brief explanation, to direct me to some reading, or just to tell me that my idea isn’t workable.
Sometimes, an idea that doesn’t work, a line of research that leads to a dead end, turns out to be just as useful. Following tangents can be a dangerous time-sink though – especially for the procrastination-prone writer with a flibbertigibbet mind. Should such a person exist….
New Statesman : Where the bodies are buried by Helen Lewis – a fascinating article by Helen Lewis, which may provide some inspiration.
The Independent : How We Met: Val McDermid and Sue Black
FutureLearn : Identifying the Dead Not sure when the next presentation might be, but there’s a button to register your interest