If you ask people what makes a great novel, they’ll probably tell you it’s characters or plot, thrills and suspense, maybe an unexpected twist or surprise, maybe the way the author told the story.
But underneath these responses lie some not so obvious reasons as I realised when I recently finished Looking Good Dead, by Peter James.
It’s the second of his Roy Grace novels. It has strong, believable characters, a clever, somewhat sinister plot with a few unexpected moments, plenty of suspense and he tells the story well.
I thoroughly enjoyed it because it had that realism and believability that enhances your enjoyment of the story. You learn something new and you trust the author. That matters more than you think, I suspect.
It’s called credibility.
Peter James works with the police. He researches in great detail, I imagine, and he’s been to the places he describes. He writes about the police with a confident voice, full of authority. You’re with him at the briefings, smelling the coffee and the stale, half-eaten supermarket sandwiches. You understand the procedures in the incident room and mortuary. And you sense the banter and concerns of the detectives are taken from reality.
That’s why I chose not to write a police procedural. While I’ve been in several police stations as part of my job and worked with officers, I have no real idea what it’s like to be a copper. I can guess, but that’s not the same.
I’ve also read police procedurals where authors seem to have based their detectives and stations on TV shows from the last century. I read one where the wrong caution was used. A quick search on Google would have prevented that.
So, on the few occasions the police appear in my writing, I want to be accurate and credible. I wanted my hero, Kent Fisher, to be interviewed by the police for an alleged assault on a child. (He actually rescued the child by lifting him out an animal pen.)
My interview room with small with no windows, painted brick walls, concrete floor, and a cheap table with two wooden chairs either side. It was in the bowels of the local station and had a stale, unpleasant smell about it.
Imagine my surprise when I was invited to the custody suite used by Sussex Police and found a modern building with a comfortable room, equipped with PC, DVD player and video camera. There were no unpleasant smells, a peaceful atmosphere, and fairly comfortable chairs.
You can read the scene in No Bodies, if you’re interested.
The sergeant also told me Kent Fisher would not have been arrested and brought to the custody suite as he posed no threat to others and no previous form. That left me with a problem, as I wanted him to be taken to the custody suite. The sergeant came to the rescue, telling me Kent could voluntarily give a statement, with or without a solicitor, at the custody suite.
Problem solved. Credibility maintained.
That’s why I write about what I know.
Kent Fisher’s an environmental health officer (EHO), who uses his contacts and skills to solve murders. (You can read about the skills that make an EHO a good detective in a previous blog, Being different is always the same or my guest post on Linda’s Book Bag).
To add to the credibility, the murders involve some aspect of his work, such as a dodgy caterer or a work accident where someone died. That makes it simple for him to get involved and investigate. After that, his naturally curious and suspicious nature does the rest.
In a forthcoming story, the police ask for Kent’s help with a cold case that involves a restaurant he once closed down. I wanted to know how much the police would tell him about the murder and spoke to a detective over a cup of tea one afternoon.
The police have strict guidelines and would only tell Kent what was in the public domain, the detective informed me. “Has that ruined your story?”
“Not at all,” I said. It means Kent will have to find out everything himself, which makes for a far more interesting and challenging plot. It also means my story will be accurate, authentic and credible.
Credibility matters. It means you’ve taken care, researched thoroughly, done your best to be as accurate as possible. It means readers can trust you.
And as I’ve discovered, it often leads to a better story.
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