Sunday, 27 July 2014

Making Research Count … by Gillian Hamer

Today my guest blogger is Gillian Hamer, author of a series of much praised crime novels. Here she is talking about research and the lengths she goes to achieve accuracy.

Making Research Count …
by Gillian Hamer

A thoughtful reviewer wrote this recently about my latest crime novel release, Crimson Shore:

Crime novels are harder to write than they are to read. The author must hold back, keep a twist for the tail without letting too much away but without leaving the outcome too far-fetched or disappointing. The ending has to satisfy. Not only that, but these days a crime author must remain au fait with the latest technology and the latest crime-fighting wizardry of the forensic pathologist.”

I am so glad someone gets it. Crime writing is incredibly difficult for a multitude of reasons, of which just a few have been mentioned above, but getting the research right must be up there at the top of the list. 

The easiest way, in my mind at least, of spoiling a crime novel, and losing the reader, is a lack of authenticity. Getting it right, whatever the ‘it’ may be, is vital. And the ‘it’ in this genre can be wide and varied. 

  • It can be setting the right atmosphere of tension and intrigue. 

  • It can be getting inside the mind of a twisted killer or the victim of a vicious attack. 

  • It can be correct representation of police procedurals, or detailed knowledge of a complex subject such as pathology or forensics.

And that is my chosen topic for this blog post.

In a couple of my books, I’ve relied heavily of pathology and forensic procedures, a topic that has long fascinated me. Reading books has never really been enough for me, I don’t seem to be able to absorb the information. I think it may be because I am a visual writer, so I need to interact more for research to sink in. 
So, three years ago, I enrolled on an entry level Forensics Science course, with the Open University. I’m proud to say I managed to pass although it was a hard years’ work, and I found a lot of the science-based chapters a tough challenge.

The research material supplied on the course is an invaluable asset to me even now, and for that reason alone, I’d recommend taking the plunge in something similar if you get an opportunity. 

The course work started with basic police procedurals such as crime scene investigation, fingerprint analysis, examination of blood and bodily fluids which then led into the more complex world of DNA profiling.

One of the chapters I have recently re-researched for my current WIP is forensic toxicology and drug abuse. I learned so much about toxicity and the analysis of drugs and poisons that I know I can write with confidence when my detective characters face these issues in the course of their investigation.

The most interesting subject I studied was forensic science and the legal system. The role of forensic science in a court of law is an interesting and ever-changing spectrum. With new technology and profiling techniques appearing year on year, UK legislation is constantly changing and adapting to take up the benefits of new developments. As a writer, keeping abreast of these changes is vital to keep your work authentic.

But despite all of the incredible new options that forensic science and pathology offer to the police and legal services, I was also amazed at just how hard and time-consuming it was to ensure the accuracy of the data collated. And the statistics for times when the evidence did prove unreliable due to contamination or foul-play was quite staggering. 
Many crime novels would have you believe that DNA is the saviour of policing. And yes, DNA analysis is a robust technique based on sound scientific principles that has revolutionised both policing and the legal system. But DNA profiling is not 100% accurate and can fall foul of human error with disastrous consequences. 

Example: For sixteen years, German police chased an elusive female serial killer known as ‘the Phantom of Heilbronn’, as the same female DNA was found at 40 crime scenes, including six murders. 

It was eventually discovered that the cotton swabs used to collect the samples of DNA had been contaminated by a woman working at the factory making the swabs, and that the crimes were not linked. If you want to find out more about this case, have a look at ‘DNA bungle’ haunts German police via BBC News.

It seems to me that not even the most up-to-date technology can ever be fool proof and that back-to-basics policing is still always required. 
So, my latest project is a move away from the science-based procedure and I have enrolled on a second OU course, this time examining the human brain in terms evidence. The course is titled “Forensic psychology: witness investigation. Discover how psychology can help obtain evidence from witnesses in police investigations and prevent miscarriages of justices.”

I’m only a few weeks into the course, but I already know it’s going to be hugely beneficial to my writing, not only by re-hashing much of what I learn into my detective team by choosing a character to undertake a similar course, but also my adding another layer of authenticity to my writing. 
Increasingly in many crime novels and TV dramas, we see a talented team of scientists rely on bloods and amino acids to catch murderers. Many more authors now focus on the use of forensic analysis of physical evidence to solve cases and identify killers. And yet, in the real world, understanding how the human mind works, particularly how our memory works, is a crucial part of any police investigation. 
The human element of any story, particularly the evidence provided by victims/witness remains a compelling component. In real life, cases are rarely straightforward because of human intervention and for many reasons there is more likely than not considerable uncertainty as to whether the person accused of the crime actually did it – and with any shred of ‘reasonable doubt’ in place in a courtroom, a conviction is always unlikely. Knowing how to evaluate evidence and how to improve eye-witness reports can be the key to solving the crime and seeing justice achieved.

From a writer's perspective, not only does this research and knowledge add another string to my bow and assist character development, but also it takes me one step closer to a real-life laboratory, crime scene investigation, or police incident room. Not only does this tick the all-important authenticity box, but it’s a great deal more fun – and a whole lot more realistic for the reader – than relying on a Google search or Wikipedia as sole source of our
Gillian Hamer


Gillian Hamer is author to Crimson Shore and three previous novels, The Charter, Closure and Complicit.

More information can be found at her website or you can keep up to date with her on Twitter @Gillyhamer.

Monday, 7 July 2014

JJ Marsh Guest Blogging today!

Today I am honoured to have the very wonderful JJ Marsh as a guest on my blog. Jill is the author of the acclaimed Beatrice Stubbs crime novels. Set in the UK and various European locations, these books are intelligent, witty and cleverly plotted. Find them HERE.

And now here's Jill riffing on all things poetic:-

I woke up this morning with a regret. 

Nothing unusual there. Yet this time, said regret was unconnected to a bottle of tequila, a roguish pair of eyebrows or another spectacular failure in a foreign language. 

I realise I told a lie. 

Yesterday, someone asked me if I read poetry. “Poetry? Not really my thing,” I said. “Much rather read a book.” 

That is an untruth. 

I met Poetry in primary school. We got on well. Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience lured me in and RS Thomas finished the job. Kiss-chase and rounders were neglected for lines such as these:
Men of the hills, wantoners, men of Wales With your sheep and your pigs and your ponies, your sweaty females How I have hated you ...

IMG_0552Secondary school led me to another Thomas. (Listen to this now and if you are not smitten in 90 seconds then you can stuff your Christmas card.) 

Here are words, looking for trouble. 

Here are words in a strange, ancient rhythm I already know. 

Here are words tumbling, effervescing, colliding, exploding with energy and lyrical power. 

Poetry made me laugh and cry. Poetry understood me. I swore eternal allegiance. 

Biology was one of my favourite subjects in Sixth Form. Kidneys are intriguing. But arts and sciences don’t mix so I did French Literature instead. Poetry and I went InterRailing and met Paul Verlaine. Green and the earthy passion contained in those words connected with a song I’d heard - Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man. Love as raw exposure. 

(I was only sixteen at the time and my poems were devoted to some public school twit I met on a sponsored walk. Still, his kidneys are mine now.) 

University’s Professor Turner turned me on to Wordsworth and the worth of words. His lecture on Nutting is still etched on my memory and caused one of my housemates to fall in love with his forearms. I kept reading French poets, not least to be pretentious, and bumped into Baudelaire. An encounter I’ll never regret. 

As often happens with childhood friends, Poetry and I drifted apart. I got in with a bad crowd (Crime), dropped out for a while (Literary Fiction) and messed about with one night stands (Short Stories). I knew where to find Poetry but wondered if we had anything in common anymore? In weak moments, I looked it up. Re-reading Robert Graves after The White Goddess: An Encounter, I recalled how poems of war carried a mightier punch than any footage or statistics. Raw words connected. Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds - a different kind of war – left me wretched and awed. 

One compilation CD in my car includes Nick Cave, PM Dawn, Suzanne Vega, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen (hello again) Alanis Morrisette and Joni Mitchell. I keep getting it mixed up with the others, so needed an identifying title. Why did I collect these singers/songwriters on one album? 

Because they use words in a way that shocks me, gives me shivers, sends me pictures, tells me stories and makes me think. Words doing things I didn’t know they could. Like Poetry used to do. 

Hello, Poetry? Are you on Twitter?   

Jill grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After graduating in English Literature and Theatre Studies, she worked as an actor, teacher, writer, director, editor, journalist and cultural trainer all over Europe.  

Now based in Switzerland, Jill works as a language trainer, forms part of the Nuance Words project and is a regular columnist for Words with JAM magazine. She lives with her husband and three dogs, and in an attic overlooking a cemetery, she writes. 


Beatrice Stubbs Series by JJ Marsh

Monday, 30 June 2014

What if? - Guest post by Lorraine Mace


Today I am handing my blog over to the multi-talented Lorraine Mace. Not only does Lorraine write children's books, magazine articles and advice columns but she judges competitions and teaches writing as well. She also moonlights as crime writer Frances di Plino. Today she is being herself and giving us an insight into the creation of her novel for children, Vlad the Inhaler.

So without further ado, here's Lorraine:

What if?

As a creative writing tutor, I tell my students the most powerful tool in their writing box is the what if question. From the point of view of my own writing, nowhere is this more in evidence than in my children’s novel, Vlad the Inhaler.

Vlad started out in my mind as a bit part character in a children’s short story, which, by the way, never got written because of what if? Vlad was going to be one of a whole group of characters who lived in the woods and helped people when they were in trouble. He was going to be a good vampire, friends with a good werewolf and other good creatures going around doing good. Yeah, I know, boring, right?

But then I thought: what if Vlad is vegetarian? How could that happen? I needed to give him a human parent who made sure he never drank blood – and so the legend of hupyres was born (pronounced hew-pires). Vlad’s vampire father would fall in love with a human; he, in turn, would give up drinking blood and, with his beloved wife, raise Vlad as a complete vegetarian to ensure he never developed his vampire side.

Hmm, so what? That wouldn’t put obstacles in Vlad’s way. What if he was also asthmatic? And scared of the dark? And couldn’t turn into a bat?

But he had two loving parents who wouldn’t want him out in the forest in case he ran into danger – so they had to go. What if Vlad’s evil vampire relatives do away with his parents and take over his castle? What if they only keep Vlad alive until they find out where the treasure is hidden?

By this stage I realised I had too much story for short fiction and needed to think of a strong enough plot for a novel to send Vlad off on some scary adventures.

What if he escapes from the castle only to fall prey to a pack of werewolves? What if he has to overcome bounty hunters determined to bring in a hupyre – the rarest of mythical creatures? What if the people he thinks of as friends are really his enemies? What if the local townspeople think he is evil?

What if Vlad has to save his old nurse from the vampires? What if the only way he can do that is by using vampire traits?

As you can see, Vlad the boring creature destined for a short story turned into Vlad the Inhaler, hero of a novel for children aged 9 to 12. Judging by the feedback I’ve received from my young readers, asking what if has paid off. The question I get asked the most during school visits isn’t what if, but that’s okay. I get asked a much better question: when will the next Vlad book be out? Just goes to show the power of what if?

LorraineMace is the humour columnist for Writing Magazine and a competition judge for Writers’ Forum. She is a former tutor for the Writers Bureau, and is the author of the Writers Bureau course, Marketing Your Book

She is also co-author, with Maureen Vincent-Northam of The Writer's ABC Checklist (Accent Press). Lorraine runs a private critique service for writers. She is the founder of the Flash 500 competitions covering flash fiction, humour verse and novel openings.

Her novel for children, Vlad the Inhaler, was published in the USA on 2nd April 2014.

Writing as Frances di Plino, she is the author of the crime/thriller series featuring Detective Inspector Paolo Storey: Bad Moon Rising, Someday Never Comes and Call It Pretending.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Today I'm Guest blogging at Sue's place.


 See my guest blog over at Sue Howe's place

Many thanks to Sue for giving me the opportunity to talk about joining Triskele Books.


Monday, 16 June 2014



Today is the 110th anniversary of Bloomsday (16th June 1904) - the day the fictional but very real Leopold Bloom wanders around Dublin in James Joyce's Ulysses.

Leopold Bloom is one of my favourite characters in literature
- indeed he's probably my most favourite. He is a warm, flawed, self-deprecating auto-didact who is always ready with an interesting fact whether other people want to hear it or not. 

He's a more sympathetic character than the starkly intellectual Stephen Dedalus, whose peregrinations around Dublin criss-cross Bloom's as they meet and part and meet again. Stephen has the spikiness of youth; Bloom, the roundedness and maturity of middle age.

Bloom is a deeply sad man who deserves to be happier - and by the end of the novel there is some small hope that he might be. But Ulysses isn't a sad book. It's full of humour and ribaldry and life and sweat and physicality - and all of this is what makes Leopold Bloom so wonderfully human.

I can never understand when some people say Ulysses is unreadable. It most certainly isn't. Yes, there are parts that are obscure but the novel also presents humanity in a clear light that shows the solid earthbound fleshiness of it while delving into inner lives and private thoughts. This is what we are, Joyce tells us, and why should we shy from it?

If reading certain chapters proves difficult - I always found the Nighttown scenes hard to get a grip on - try the audio version. 

In the Naxos edition that I have, Jim Norton (aka Bishop Brennan from Father Ted, among many other things) does a great job of bringing the whole thing to life.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Creating Memes

Creating Memes

I often used to wonder how people created those personalised memes you see on Facebook and suchlike. You know the kind of thing - an image behind some snappy text.

I thought I could probably do it myself using Photoshop or some such, but it seemed like a bit of hassle.

I was delighted, therefore, to discover ShareAsImage - a neat little browser add-on that makes the whole thing quick and easy. Best of all, it's free.  

Of course there is a version with more features that you can pay for - but why not have fun with the free version first?  Here are a couple I made earlier:

Just go to the site, follow the easy instructions to add it to your browser and start wasting time immediately.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Sneak preview - Cover of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion

Here it is - the super-duper official cover for
 Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion.  

Isn't it wonderful? 

Created by JD Smith Design - feel free to shower praise in the comments section.

For news of release date and other information, sign up at the signy-up thing in the right hand column. No spam will ever come your way.