Undertaking research for a crime thriller: some useful tips

I am joined on my blog today by crime thriller suspense author, Helen Christmas, who is going to share some fascinating stories about some of the research she has undertaken for her decade-spanning series ‘Same Face Different Place.’ Following on from her first article, on the Chindi Authors website, where she described her journeys into research for Books 1 and 2, let’s hear about the time when she started Book 3 ‘Pleasures’, and things started to get really exciting… 

helen-arundel

Helen explains: “By the time I started writing ‘Pleasures’ the gloves were off. Readers of the early books were familiar with Eleanor, (heroine of the series) and knew who the bad guys were. Simply put, ‘Pleasures’ is a race against time to gather the evidence Eleanor needs to bring her arch enemy to justice, whilst protecting her loved ones from harm. Approaching the decade of the 90s, the younger generation are growing up fast, about to be swept into a culture of raves and designer drugs, where danger is imminent.

“I remember this era and was well into the music. I never went to a rave but there was plenty about them in the news, so this is where my research began. I wanted to depict my setting and to capture the environment of a rave.  No better place than YouTube to do just that. I found loads of useful stuff, including video footage of a rave, not just the music, but the fashion, haircuts and the dancing. There was a very interesting movie that displayed the fliers for the raves too, lots of computer generated art and fractals, which I loved.

YouTube

“But at the same time, I needed to delve deeper into the crime mystery of this series and was lucky enough to secure an afternoon with Andy Kille, (Ops Controller of Sussex Police for thirty years). Andy has advised many a crime writer, including Peter James. Being a friend of his wife, Marion, (author of the dark and gripping ‘Suburban Mystery’ series) I was extremely thankful to get his advice. Talking to him for an afternoon gave me a better insight into police procedures, forensics, linking a bullet to a crime and last of all, court procedures (from conviction to life on a remand wing.) He even suggested that given the nature of the murder trial in my story, it would most likely be held at the Old Bailey.

“Delighted with the notes I came away with, his suggestion inspired me to visit the Old Bailey. We’ve all seen it on the TV but let me tell you, being there is very different! You can’t describe the feeling… I even listened in on a trial or two, though the details left me slightly queasy. The building features eerie Gothic architecture on the outside but has a tangible sense of menace inside.

“All this research was vital in depicting the mood behind the trial in Pleasures, as portrayed in this small extract:

A taxi cruised into the curb outside the forbidding grey walls of the Old Bailey. Eleanor shuffled into the back seat and David followed, his intention to escort her to a hotel in High Holborn.

She stole a final glance at the imposing archway where a cast iron grill protected the entrance. An Ionic column towered above – a cloaked statue crouching between the two which reminded her of the Grim Reaper and as her eyes travelled upwards, they scanned the motto: ‘Defend the Children of the Poor and Punish the Wrongdoer.’ Eleanor turned away, unable to fend off a shiver.

old bailey

 The Final Chapter 

“I am not going give anything away, but  I continued my research along a similar vein for Book 4 Retribution (now in two parts).

“For anyone considering research, I cannot emphasis enough the value of talking to people in actual professions, such as my interview with Andy Kille, of Sussex Police.

“Here is another example.  Having served in the Territorial Army (TA), I decided that one of my characters would be an army officer. The TA nearly drew me towards a military career; but my own experience was nothing like life in the regular army. After an initial enquiry to the Army Recruitment service, they put me in touch with a colonel from the Royal Engineers Regiment. A few emails later, we enjoyed a forty-five minute chat on the phone. This was so helpful. He gave me a really good understanding, from postings to living in barracks, where much of army life revolves around training exercises.

“A huge section of ‘Retribution’ also concerns a crime where a different character is left in a coma. I needed to gain a better understanding of the aftercare of coma victims and when I asked my GP, she suggested getting in touch with a neurological unit.

“This was a much harder subject to get help so I put out an appeal on Facebook. Fortunately, a researcher from The Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in Putney got in touch and I succeeded in my request for another telephone interview. She gave me some vital facts about the care of such patients, eg, when they show signs of consciousness, auditory processing and eye movement. She even suggested a book.

“Further sleuthing on Amazon, using the same key words as the book she suggested, brought up other titles, where the novel, ‘Try Not to Breathe’, by Holly Sedan, enabled me to understand even more about the unconscious mind. Her book, a mystery suspense about a young woman left in a coma for fifteen years (and a journalist who finds a way of communicating with her, thus finding her attacker) was utterly compelling.

This is just some of the research I have been immersed in whilst writing ‘Retribution’ but there was so much more…

So in summary, here are my top five tips for research:

  • YouTube
  • visiting real places
  • interviews with people
  • telephone and internet enquiries
  • books on Amazon.

“A little detective work can go a long way but I really recommend the benefit of talking to people and get a first-hand ‘tell it like it is’ story to portray the reality.”

About the author

Helen has been writing her series of British mystery thrillers since 2011. A busy web designer (and creator of the Chindi Authors website,) Helen lives in a 17th century thatched cottage by the sea with her husband, Peter, their Border Collie and a fluffy white cat.

Helen has now completed her five book series, ‘Same Place Different Place’ and here are the links to her social networks:

 Social networks

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/author.helenchristmas/

Twitter:  https://twitter.com/SFDPBeginnings

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/helenxmas/same-face-different-place-beginnings-book-1-by-hel/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/helenchristmas7/

You can read more about her research on her blog: https://samefacedifferentplace.wordpress.com/

For information about her books visit her website: https://www.samefacedifferentplace.com/

You can download her first book, ‘Beginnings’ here: http://apn.to/prod/B0078L8858 

What makes a great author?

I’ve been finding out more about that wonderful Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie.  Having just read her biography, I have discovered some interesting facts about her.  Here are some of them:

  • her ideas for plots, characters and settings came in a random way – she filled numerous notebooks, but there was no order or organisation to her note-taking
  • she lived a busy life outside of her writing and was prepared to try her hand at all sorts of pursuits – even windsurfing!
  • she travelled extensively
  • she loved her privacy.

While reading about her I have tried to deduce what it was about her writing that made her as famous and well-loved as she was – and still is.

Here are some thoughts:

  • Agatha Christie lived for 85 years and was writing for most of those years – her first book was published in 1920 – when she was thirty years old, and she was still getting great reviews for newly published works in the 1970s – fifty years later
  • her books have been translated into numerous languages and have been read by millions
  • it seems to me that her focus was always the story – she loved the psychology of crime – creating twists and turns throughout to keep her readers guessing.

In the words of her biographer:

‘Agatha’s books last because they are good, if sometimes hopelessly improbable stories.  The reader, once hooked, wants to know what happens next.  They deal with myths, fantasies, obsessions shared by people of every sort: quests and contests, death, sex, money, murder, conspiracy, transformation, power, the triumph of the simple over the complex, the importance of the mundane as well as the cosmic.  They construct a pattern, assigning facts and emotions to their appointed place as problems are resolved and guilt and innocence established.’

‘Agatha Christie – A biography’ by Janet Morgan (published 2017)

So, how does all this help a rookie author called Isabella Muir, who has developed a fascination for writing crime mysteries?

Well, by delving into the life of Agatha Christie’s life I can see that she lived a full life – grasping opportunities to explore and to learn about people, places, experiences.  It seems to me that it was a life well lived.  Inevitably that spilled into her writing and her energy and enthusiasm meant that she just kept on going – writing and living.

I’ve been learning from Agatha, at the same time as Janie Juke has been learning from her hero, Hercule Poirot.  Janie has successfully solved two mysteries so far in ‘The Tapestry Bag’ and ‘Lost Property’, with her third – ‘The Invisible Case’ waiting in the wings for publication this June.  Janie and I have a long road ahead – but if we keep Agatha Christie in her hearts and in our heads then we are in good company!

The Invisible Case will soon be available for pre-order on Amazon – watch this space!

Follow Isabella Muir on Twitter @SussexMysteries for the latest news about the Janie Juke mystery series.

Dreaming of Italy!

If you are waiting for Janie Juke’s next adventure ‘The Invisible Case’, I can confirm that progress is good!  The first draft is complete and plans are in place for publication some time in June…watch this space…

Meanwhile, I can share with you that I have tapped into my Italian roots for Janie’s newest mystery.  It’s been wonderful recalling childhood memories of long train journeys to Rome, with all the excitement of our picnic breakfast.  It makes me smile now to think about how we downed our cornflakes with evaporated milk, as though it was a meal fit for royalty!  Fortunately, most of our trips were made as a family, which meant we filled a compartment, so no danger of annoying other passengers with our endless games of I-spy.

On our return journeys we spent hours munching our way through all the fruit that kind aunts and uncles had donated to us for our travels.  On one occasion I remember an uncle arriving at Rome station to say goodbye and to hand over a suitcase full of grapes!

My dad took us all on long walks around Rome and, even though my aunt lived quite a way from the station, dad insisted we walk to Roma Termini before we started any adventure.

Appropriate then, that Chapter 1 of ‘The Invisible Case’ starts in exactly the same place…

 

 

Tamarisk Bay!

At last, readers of the Janie Juke mystery series can find their way around Janie’s home town of Tamarisk Bay with the aid of this wonderful map.

For those of you who live in Sussex, see if you can spot some familiar landmarks!

Look out for the second edition of The Tapestry Bag and Lost Property which will include the map, as well as some tempting bonus chapters.

Many thanks to figurative artist Richard Whincop for creating such a masterpiece!

Agatha Christie’s secrets

I’m continuing to follow the trail of Agatha Christie!  (while channelling Janie Juke, of course!)

I have come across a fascinating book, entitled: Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks.  The author, John Curran, had the great fortune to have ‘unfettered access’ to all of Agatha Christie’s papers, as well as the hospitality of her grandson, Mathew Pritchard.  Curran then spent some four years delving into over Christie’s notebooks – over seventy of them.  He has done an excellent job, as the book is littered with excerpts from the notebooks, all of which give the reader real insight into the vibrant mind of the ‘Queen of Crime’.

It seems that all Christie needed in order to capture an idea was a blank page – it didn’t matter whether that page was within the cheapest exercise book, or, as Curran puts it:  ‘hard-backed multi-paged notebooks with marbled covers’ which seemed to be ‘more worthy recipients’.

My feeling is that the notebooks became a reflection not only of Christie, the author, but also of Agatha, the wife and mother.  Scattered in amongst her exciting ideas for novels and short stories are the more mundane essentials of everyday life, such as shopping lists and reminders for hair appointments.  It seems that there was little rhyme or reason to the order in which she made her notes. Curran explains:

‘In only five instances is a Notebook devoted to a single title. [otherwise, the] …use of the Notebooks was utterly random.  Christie opened a Notebook […], found the next blank page and began to write.  It was simply a case of finding an empty page, even one between two already filled pages.  And, as if that wasn’t complicated enough, in almost all cases she turned the Notebook over and, with admirable economy, wrote from the back also.’

(from ‘Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks’ by John Curran, published 2010)

For anyone who likes to gain an insight into Agatha Christie, the author, this book is a delight.  You can see how her mind was working when, for example, she devised the fatal seating plan for Sparkling Cyanide.  She plays around with various positions for each of the main characters, until she settles on the one that works best for the storyline.

From other notebook snippets we see how she devised her characters.  She tries out names and brief descriptions, amending her ideas later on within the same notebook, or even another notebook.  There is a similar process for her scene plotting, where she allocates letters (for example, A to L) but then moves scenes around until she reaches the one that, in her mind, will work best.

Having read through Curran’s fascinating book, what struck me most was Christie’s ability to juggle with so many storylines, characters, settings and plot twists and turns – with what looks to the outsider as little order or organisation.  It seems that she was literally bursting with ideas.  It is no wonder that she was such a prolific author and that her books continue to be just as popular more than forty years after her death – and almost one hundred years since the publication of her first crime novel: The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

Which brings us back full circle to Janie Juke’s first mystery: The Tapestry Bag, where snippets from this first of Christie’s novels provide Janie with a subtle helping hand.

More about Agatha Christie soon!

On the trail of Agatha Christie

In the Janie Juke mystery series, my protagonist, Janie, refers to her passion for Agatha Christie novels.  In particular, Janie loves the stories featuring Hercule Poirot and has learned many of her investigative skills from him.  As she tackles the mysteries occurring in Tamarisk Bay, she draws on many of Poirot’s techniques to follow the trail of evidence to solve the crimes.

So, I’ve been following my own trail!  With the wonders of the internet it’s easy enough to discover the facts and figures about Christie’s incredible writing career.  For example,  I learned that Poirot featured in thirty-three of her novels, whereas Miss Marple featured in just twelve.  This was despite the fact that Agatha herself described Poirot as an ‘insufferable’ man.

The statistics of Christie’s writing career are astonishing – her novels have sold more than a billion copies in English and a further billion or more in translation (in 103 languages).  In fact, a Wikipedia article suggests her books are second only in popularity to the Bible and Shakespeare.

But it was a story of another trail altogether that helped me to learn a little more about Agatha Christie, wife and mother.  In 1922, aged 32, she accompanied her first husband, Archie, on a ten-month voyage around the world – South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and Canada.  Archie had been invited to join a trade mission to promote the British Empire Exhibition, due to take place in 1924.  Agatha was determined to go with him, even though it meant that her two-year-old daughter had to be left behind, in the care of Agatha’s sister.

The Grand Tour is a wonderful collection of photos, newspaper cuttings, journal entries and letters and has been edited by Agatha Christie’s grandson, Mathew Pritchard.  Agatha frequently wrote home to her much-loved mother, telling her of all the fascinating places they visited and the interesting people they met.

Reading through the letters and anecdotes has given me a wonderful sense of Agatha as she was then, observant, intrigued, ready to take on new challenges.  Here is one snippet that made me smile:

‘I made a lot of discoveries about fruit.  Pineapples, for instance, I had always thought of as hanging down gracefully from a tree.  I was so astonished to find that an enormous field I had taken to be full of cabbages was in fact of pineapples.’

(from The Grand Tour, edited by Mathew Pritchard, published 2012)

Once they arrived in Honolulu she was determined to try her hand at surfing and with perseverance started to master the sport:

‘After ten days I began to be daring…The first six times I came to grief …[but] Oh, the moment of complete triumph on the day that I kept my balance and came right into shore standing upright on my board!’

(from The Grand Tour, edited by Mathew Pritchard, published 2012)

There are so many wonderful snippets in this book and it is easy to see how the things she experienced during her travels influenced her writing, helped shape her characters, her settings and her plotlines.

As authors, we are encouraged to ‘write what you know’ – well, a trip around the world certainly helped the famous ‘Queen of Crime’ to expand her knowledge, so that nearly one hundred years on we are still enjoying the benefits.

Feeling inspired

So much has happened over the last few weeks, all of which has helped to inspire my writing.

First off I was lucky enough to spend a few days in Denmark with my two writing buddies!  Spending hours talking and thinking about books is my idea of heaven, plus we got to see a beautiful country in stunning weather – a dusting of snow on the ground, but bright blue skies and no wind.  Perfect walking and talking weather.

IMG_3540

Returning from all that mental stimulation I was pleased to be able to throw myself into drafting the manuscript for Book 3 in the Janie Juke mystery series.  In Book 3 we meet Janie’s Aunt Jessica, who has been travelling abroad for the last few years.  She is returning from Italy and so my favourite country has once again been in my thoughts.  Just like in Lost Property, Book 3 has references to the Second World War, but getting the period detail correct is critical.

As every author knows, research is a fun part of the writing process, but can often be tricky.  Pinning down the right resource, or finding someone who knows the answers can often prove difficult and time-consuming.  So, I was very grateful to discover that my cousin (who lives in Rome) was able to provide me with wonderful stories, told to her by her parents, who lived through the Second World War.  What’s more, one of her grandchildren has been set the task of interviewing his 90-year-old great-grandmother to find out what she remembers about that time.  I can’t wait to hear the results!

My Italian cousin has proved to be a wonderful support, and not just with the new book. Over the past few weeks she has been steadily translating The Tapestry Bag into Italian! She says it has been a labour of love and she’s been enlisting every member of her family to check the translation.  So, I am hoping that later this year I will be able to publish an Italian edition of The Tapestry Bag, followed (hopefully!) with Italian versions of the other books in the series.

My final boost of inspiration during February is to see my five star reviews on Amazon continuing to increase in number.  There are now SIX for The Tapestry Bag and THREE for Lost Property.  It’s so encouraging to know that readers are enjoying the books and I am really grateful for all the support.

But for now, it is back to my drafting – hopefully it won’t be too long before it’s finished.  I’ll keep you posted!

A brave lady

I read an article this week that made me feel sad and inspired, in equal measure.  It was an interview with the daughter of the wonderful, and much missed, Helen Dunmore.

I have loved Helen’s writing since I first discovered her novels, maybe 15 years ago or more.  The first title of hers that I read was, A Spell of Winter, (published 1996) and since then I have gone on to read several more, including, The Siege; House of Orphans; The Greatcoat and The Lie.  

Right now I am in the middle of reading Exposure, published in 2016, just a year before she died.

I haven’t read any of her poetry, but it is her eighth collection of poetry, Inside the Wave, for which she was awarded a posthumous prize of the Costa Book of the Year.  Her daughter, Tess, and her son, Patrick, received the award on their mother’s behalf.

“Poetry was in Mum’s soul,” Patrick Charnley told the audience, thanking her poetry editor, Neil Astley, in particular. “This collection contains some of the most beautiful writing she completed in her life and it came at the time of her death. It is so personal and so wonderful, we hope it will touch a lot people who face this thing that we all do.”

(excerpt from The Guardian, 30 January 2018)

Two weeks before she died, Helen wrote a poem for her children.  She was creating even then.

Her daughter, Tess, explained how Helen had been so incredibly brave during her last months and weeks.  She said that her mother approached death with ‘such grace’ that it took much of the fear away.  Quite a gift to give someone when you know your time is up.

Her daughter explains:

“I think although her world got smaller, she couldn’t go out so far afield, she continued to just see the beauty in everything – which I find very inspiring.

“She just made the most of every single day until she died.”

 (excerpt from BBC News, 31 January 2108)

Tess is right.  Helen Dunmore has been an inspiration, not only to her family and friends, but to the millions of readers who have marvelled at her writing.  Let’s hope she knows what a difference she has made and how her legacy will continue.

Italian memories

The second book in the Janie Juke mystery series (Lost Property)  introduces Janie’s aunt, Jessica.  Jessica has been travelling around Europe for a few years and is now planning to return to Tamarisk Bay.

In the third book of the series we hear much more about Jessica and her mysterious Italian friend, Luigi.  As I’ve been drafting the third book, I’ve enjoyed immersing myself in happy memories of Italy.  Having an Italian mother, as well as cousins who live in Rome, I’ve been lucky to have the chance for loads of trips to that beautiful country.  I think I was about four years old when I first visited and since then not many years pass when I don’t make at least a flying visit.

One of my favourite places is the pretty port of Anzio.  Anzio lies just about an hour away from Rome and is a favoured resort for Italian holidaymakers.  There is a gentle buzz about the place, with wonderful fish restaurants all along the port and bars on every street corner.  In the centre of the town is Piazza Pia, with its marble fountain right in front of the Chiesa of SS Pia e Antonio.

Anzio Church and Fountain

My favourite holiday pastime is to sit at one of the bars, with my cappuccino, watching the Italians make their evening passegiata.  Looking at this photo, I can almost imagine I am right there, with the warm sun on my back and the happy chatter of Italian voices in my ears.  All good inspiration for the next Janie Juke book!

Spending time with friends

I first met Janie Juke in February 2017.  I was walking my Scottie dog, Hamish, along a Spanish beach and she came into my head.  But back then I didn’t know her name, I didn’t know that she would be a mobile librarian and I hadn’t met any of her family and friends.

Since then Janie has become a friend.  I have discovered a little of her likes and dislikes, her fears and insecurities.  I’ve enjoyed getting to know her dad, Phillip, who is a blind physiotherapist and her husband, Greg, who is her soulmate and stalwart supporter.  But I’ve still got a lot to learn about Janie and about my writing craft.

Anyone who has tried their hand at writing fiction will understand that moment when your character takes on a life of their own.  As an author you think you are in control, but once the words start to appear on the page, you discover that you are not.  Well, that’s how it feels to me.

So far, Janie has had two major adventures.  In The Tapestry Bag, Janie is desperate to track down a friend who has gone missing.  By solving that mystery she realises that she has skills as an amateur sleuth and in the early chapters of Lost Property she is surprised to learn that those skills can earn her money.  Just like many young families in the 1960s (or now, for that matter) any opportunity to bolster their financial coffers is grabbed with both hands.

3D 008 sml

The Janie Juke mystery series is set in the late 1960s.  I have loved the chance to look back at that era when The Beatles were breaking the mould of popular music.  Medical advances were coming thick and fast.  Attitudes were changing to sex, crime, women’s rights and family life.

In Lost Property Janie meets Hugh Furness, a Second World War RAF pilot.  She learns something about life during the Second World War, and the years immediately following it.  Researching this era has given me a taste for it and I’d like to spend a bit more time with Hugh.

So what happens next?  Well, I know there is a lot more I have to learn about Janie and her family and friends.  I’m pretty certain she is going to take me on more adventures and I hope you will come along with me…it’s going to be a busy 2018!