How to Hide an Iffy Search History
In my last three projects, I’ve searched for poisons, how government cybersecurity works, the best way to hide a body and tens of other things that would seem definitively ‘iffy’ if anyone were to take a peek at my search history. Though perhaps the one thing it has brought to the fore is that endless googling of any topic doesn’t always serve your time best as a writer. So today’s post, I will share some of the other places I go hunting for an answer.
Your Local Library
Now, if you live in the UK, you probably have a similar impression to me – my local library has been chronically underfunded for decades. It has nothing in it! The first time I went to the library just up the way from where I live, I walked in full of hope for that feeling that you only get when mounds of books surround you. Unfortunately, what I was greeted with was only enough bookcases to count on my fingers, practically empty and mainly filled with Richard and Judy’s book club reads. I think I entered with snobbery, that this monolith institution that had always been filled with answers was somehow catering to the masses. I am over that particular snobbery now, thankfully. However, one of the joys of a county-wide library system is that there are thousands of books not on the shelves of my local building, and I also had access to a librarian who was able to answer some questions, help with search terms and ordering those books in the system and not the shelves.
On occasion, your local library will not have the specialised knowledge you require, but did you know many University Libraries offer Reader memberships to the local population? This means although you can’t take books away, you can use their facilities and browse and read to your heart's content – great when you want to learn about how quickly corpses decompose and what the circumstances are that make them mummify instead. I live near the Unesco World Heritage site Durham Cathedral, which also gives me the bonus of applying for their library membership. It's filled with religious texts like Cranmer’s thoughts on the ascension or something like that, but it is a room straight out of Harry Potter, and there’s nothing quite like a space like that to fill your imagination… I would say though, take a jacket. As someone who has spent a lot of time in churches and cathedrals – they are never warm.
Experts in the Field
So when I was writing my spec script ‘Into Thin Air’, a psychological thriller about a ten-year-old boy who goes missing, I needed to know a lot about the police response to a child disappearing. I have a grandfather who was a policeman, but he retired many, many years ago, and so although he gave me a little guidance, it was talking to (well emailing) a current police person that meant all my little questions could be answered. There is something really great about giving the circumstances of your particular story and getting a genuine response that really eases the process.
It isn’t always smooth, though. In talking to the Police expert, it was flagged that there would be child psychology services involved. After my initial, shit another character panic, I was able to find a practising child psychologist to talk through the case. This set up another surprise for me – I had been assuming the child going missing would be the focus for a psychologist, but the psychologist was much more concerned with the difficulties of the child leading up to – which totally makes sense now I think about it – but it meant I had to think more long term about these psychological interventions. It was hard working incorporating these realities of ‘how things are done, but in incorporating it, I was able to add more layers, depth and ultimately, it changed the plot in small but tangible ways that I reckon are what made it so appealing to my agent in the end. And had I not contacted actual, physical human beings, I would have never gotten that insight. Yes, I could have googled and found a lot of that information, but I wouldn’t have been able to put it together and look at my story through the police or a psychologist’s eyes because I haven’t been trained to do that.
And it’s not as hard to make contact as you might think. Most people, especially academics, love talking about what they do, and if you throw in the offer of a coffee and cake, you can usually make a date to ask your questions. One important caveat to this, however, is that you should never expect people to do your work for free. If the person belongs to a marginalised community and you want them to explain what it is to be a marginalised person, then you should definitely be recompensing them for that time. Think of it as an investment in the project; you're paying a nominal fee now to make your work better, which will ultimately make it much more likely to sell.
Sometimes you just can’t find the information you want or a definitive answer about how something would work – take my amputee thriller story – if there is a one-legged spy out there, they aren’t publicising what they’re doing, and so I can’t just find out whether they leap fences in a single bound. Okay, I know that’s not true, but you get the idea. So sometimes, it's just about taking your best guess, the one that feels most right to you, and you write it up. Then you send it to your trusty readers, whether it’s a script editor or a dramaturg or a writer’s group, and you bite your nails and listen.
What these people can do, is point out your inconsistencies. For instance, if you have written a bad-ass disabled character to lead your spy thriller, have you said they couldn’t do an action in one scene, but have them doing precisely that thing in the next? Because, ultimately, your creating fiction, and you only have to accept reality when it helps you. However, if you are going to ignore the rules of the real world, you have to be consistent in the application. And the one thing beta readers of all types excel at is pointing out those flaws.
So don’t let googling make you lazy. The effort of finding experts in the field will pay off. But, don’t let knowing how something works to become an excuse for not writing. Keep the rules of your world consistent, and it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t quite match up to reality.