I had to laugh – albeit in a groaning, semi-hysterical kind of way – when I saw Dusty's Faster! Faster! post from yesterday about productivity. I'm behind with the new Charlie Fox book. Way behind. I mean, lying awake at night and sweating about it, behind.
But, finally, the end is in sight. In fact, with good luck, a following wind, and half a dozen policemen, as the saying has it, I should have something completed by next weekend. It kind of helps that we've been snowed in again this week, and I've already had to cancel one photoshoot, which has meant more writing time.
Reaching the end of a book is exciting and frightening, both at the same time. I know what is going to happen, but I don't quite know how it's going to happen, not until I actually get there. And it's frightening because then I have to show it to people, and they're going to pull it to pieces and point out all the bits that don't work. But, better constructive criticism than no comments at all.
Endings, though, are a post topic all of their own, and that's not what springs to mind today.
You may recall that I did a post last October called Tricks of the Trade about all those little bits of inside information, which people in certain trades know automatically, and which can really add that authentic flavour to any work of fiction. People came up with some fascinating snippets, and I just love all that kind of trivia.
Before I begin a book, I research my main subjects carefully, because so often you find out something at this stage that really shapes or alters where you thought the plot was going. In HARD KNOCKS, for example, I knew at the outset that, after the handgun ban in the UK, most close-protection training schools moved to Europe, with the most popular destinations being France, Holland, and Germany. As I knew Germany better than either France or Holland, that became the location of the majority of the action in the story. And, having made that decision, various other aspects of that country – particularly the lack of speed limits on the autobahns, for example – became an integral part of the plot. Trust me, you haven't lived until you've driven at over 170mph on the public road … ;-]
But, by the time I've finished – or nearly finished – a book, I have a file called Queries. Queries could best be described as Matters Arising. It contains all the little nitty-gritty questions that have cropped up during the writing process. Rather than break off and go looking for the answers at the time, and therefore interrupt the flow of the story, I jot a note to myself in Queries, and come back to it at the end.
And, when I come to look at my Queries file for this book, there are some very odd questions. Nothing at all to do, you might think, with a crime novel. Of course, there were specific crime-related questions, but the kind of contacts you make in this industry are invaluable for answering those.
I needed to know about US police interview procedure, for instance, so I called on former cop turned mystery author, Robin Burcell. I also needed to know, among other things, how long a person's heart can stop for, before they incur brain damage, and for that kind of thing, mystery author and cardiologist, Doug Lyle MD is your man. (And for anybody scribbling in this field, I can heartily recommend copies of Doug's excellent books, such as FORENSICS AND FICTION: Clever, Intriguing, And Downright Odd Questions From Crime Writers.)
A friend in the travel industry answered my query about how best to fly a coffin home to the UK from the States, while Stuart MacBride, bless him, filled me in on the best hotel in Aberdeen - the Caledonian Thistle, in case you're making travel plans – and the name by which the locals refer to it – "The Calley".
Of course, back when I first started writing, finding out these answers involved a trip to the reference library. But now, with the wonders of the Internet, you can find out just about anything about … just about anything.
If you know what questions to ask.
For example, a chance conversation with another mystery author, Linda L Richards, at Bouchercon, brought up the name Synanon, and pointed me in the right direction for researching about certain cults in California. Without that name to put into a search engine, I would have been overwhelmed with hundreds of thousands of pages on the subject.
Sometimes, there's just too much information out there. And trying to describe something you've forgotten the name for, and then search for it, can prove a frustrating business.
I had a total brain-dump about the correct term for carrying a rifle with the butt in your cupped hand, and the barrel slanted back over your shoulder. How do you ask that in Google? (OK, finally remembered it's called 'slope arms'.)
And now, as I look down my list of queries, it seems a bizarre selection:
- How long does it take to go from LA to San Francisco by Greyhound (or similar) bus?
Are there free walk-in medical clinics in Manhattan?
Are California vehicles required to display a front licence plate?
What's the most common type of helicopter used by the oil exploration industry?
What wild animals – if any – do people commonly hunt with rifles in southern California?
Driving from Newark Airport into midtown Manhattan in the morning, what's the most logical route across the Hudson River?
What's the correct name for the air ambulance service in LA? (I needed similar info for New England and discovered it's called the LifeFlight helicopter, incidentally. People have a habit of being critically injured in my books and requiring emergency transport to the nearest trauma centre.)
Do late-90s' model Ford Econoline vans have one rear door, or two?
Does Interstate 405, which runs north-south through LA, have a High Occupancy Vehicle lane?
Do US schoolteachers specialise in a particular subject, ie, geography – and would that cover geology?
What is the likely temperature in LA in the early evening in February?
How would a US cop refer to someone he or she suspects is working for Homeland Security? (I would have thought this was "spooks" but I know the UK TV series about MI5 had its name changed from 'Spooks' to 'MI5', so I assume it has a different meaning over there.)
How does the door open and the steps unfold on a Gulfstream G550 executive jet?
Is Rohypnol, which is a brand name for flunitrazepam (a benzodiazepine sleeping and date-rape drug) a recognised trade name in the States?
Are there any oil refineries currently operating within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska?
Nothing exactly earth-shattering in that lot, is there? Nothing the entire story hinges upon, but all important little bits and pieces that help round out the story and settle it in its surroundings. Nothing a few Internet searches can't probably pinpoint without too much difficulty. At least, I'm hoping that's the case!
I should point out, by the way, that I have not put these up as an idle way of short-cutting my research – although if anybody does know the answers I will certainly not stuff my fingers in my ears and go, "La, la, la. Not listening!" There will be a nice mention in the Acknowledgements, of course ;-]
But, I just wanted to highlight what strange little bits of information go into writing a book. And, my question is, what's the oddest inconsequential bit of info you've required when you've been writing, and if you read a book where the answers to any of those questions – or ones like them – were incorrect, would it spoil it for you?
This week's Word of the Week is psychopomp (from the Greek, pompos, a guide) meaning a conductor of souls to the other world. And if I haven't finished this book by next weekend, I may need one …
Snow willing, I should be out on a shoot today, but will answer all comments as soon as I get back.