Isn’t life strange? Nothing less than National Crime Reading Month could have prompted me to respond to a request for “500 words on any topic of interest” while waiting at one forty a.m. for a seven hour connecting flight to London, having just completed a four hour flight to Abu Dhabi. Yes, writing fiction has taken me into some unexpected places to research my books.
A lot of my research has involved talking to CID officers as my psychological crime novels also fall into the category of police procedurals, since my protagonists Geraldine Steel and Ian Peterson are detective inspectors. I’ve spent hours chatting to staff in mortuaries, visiting Metropolitan Police Serious Crime Command, sitting alone in a prison cell (voluntarily!) and passing an exciting afternoon with a Fire Investigation Team (yes, an entire afternoon, just me and a team of firemen!)
All authors follow their own processes but, for me, research follows the plot. I tell a story, aware that certain areas need research. Having completed the manuscript in draft, only when the story is in place do I fill in externally verifiable information. For me, the danger of conducting research before seeing the narrative through is the risk of being distracted. It is all too easy to inadvertently shoehorn material extraneous to the story into a book, just because the writer finds it interesting.
Herman Melville did exactly that, including pages of detailed information about whales in his famous novel, Moby Dick. These information dumps would have a place in Wikipedia. For any reader following the dramatic conflict between Ahab, demented captain of a whaling ship, and his nemesis, the great white whale that took his leg, the factual chapters are tedious.
My research involves meeting people from all walks of life, in all sorts of places: market traders, forensic anthropologists, race course managers, psychiatrists, prisoners in a closed prison, the Spanish equivalent of our CID in Barcelona, the British High Commission in the Seychelles – there is no place on earth where a crime writer might not find herself.
Not all my research has been fun. Watching a sheep’s eye being dissected was hardly enjoyable, although it was interesting. My worst research experience so far involved live maggots. I haven’t put that in a book yet. It was so gross I prefer not to dwell on it, even in my imagination.
Recently a new series has led me to overseas locations. I’m writing this on my way home from two weeks’ research on a tropical island in the Indian Ocean. Along with the beaches and the cocktails at sunset, I spent time at a local police station and the police headquarters in the capital – again voluntarily! – as well as checking out different settings in the book. After a few weeks at home, working on edits, I’m off again to Paris in July, Greece in August, and Rome in September…
Just time to send this off before I have to switch to airplane mode. It’s two a.m. in Abu Dhabi, and the flight to Heathrow is boarding…
Leigh Russell writes the internationally bestselling Geraldine Steel series, gripping “page turners” which explore the motives that drive characters, from detective to killer.
The first three books are set in Kent. In the fourth, Geraldine Steel relocates to North London. Published by No Exit Press in the UK, and Harper Collins in the US, the series is so far translated into French, Italian, Turkish, and German. Following the success of the Geraldine Steel series, Leigh is writing a spin off series for DS Ian Peterson which is set in York.
Leigh studied at the University of Kent, where she gained a Masters degree in English. For many years a secondary school English teacher, she now guest lectures in creative writing for the Society of Authors and universities and colleges around the UK, and teaches for the prestigious Writers Lab in Greece. Leigh is married, has two daughters, and lives in North West London.