Recently, husband and I were pleased to receive an invitation to a book launch, not in the tented village of the Edinburgh book festival, but not far from it in Waterstones, the well-known book shop, at the West End of Princes Street. Lin Anderson, Tartan Noir crime novelist and co-founder of the Bloody Scotland crime writing festival, was launching another book – None but the Dead – about her forensic pathologist Rhona MacLeod, the action of this book taking place on the small Orkney island of Sanday.
Lin’s book launch took place in the cafe area of the bookshop where we managed to bag good seats before the place filled, and sat sipping glasses of Prosecco, welcome on a hot afternoon.
Lin spoke of where the idea for her latest book had come from, all the while greeting people whose faces she recognised. As she spoke she mentioned her experts, many of them in her audience, people she relied on for information for her books. A pathologist, a soil expert, those knowledgeable on local history and customs, fishermen with an understanding of tides and boat hiding places, someone with expertise on buried and hidden bodies, and numerous others, with mention of an expert at Dundee University who reconstructs faces from skulls. Her book acknowledges a list of those providing information to her and to whom she sends appropriate pieces of her manuscript for checking.
Many authors manage to draw a coterie of such people around them, providing information without which the books could not be written in such a detailed and authentic manner – the smell of death, the cutting and sawing procedures followed at post mortems, the painstaking process of gathering and sifting forensic evidence for clues of how the victim died and who might have been responsible. The details that often add stomach-churning horror are carefully researched.
Even in our time of Internet knowledge at our fingertips, experts have become increasingly necessary as sometimes publishers allow errors to slip though the editorial net. I once heard a well-known author tell that after the publication of his highly acclaimed book (shortlisted for international prizes) he was told by a reader that the game which formed a significant part of his historical novel, had not been devised until many years after his book action took place. So without expert consultation gaffes can bedevil even established writers.
To reach the stage where it’s possible to have a team of experts to provide necessary information is a huge benefit. I know I have often struggled with facts or lack of them. What would happen if…? What’s the procedure for that? I’ve written what I think might happen but have I got it right? One of the reasons many writers find it easier to follow the old advice – write what you know about. So we choose scenarios with which we at least have some knowledge and understanding, though we must not allow this to inhibit us from pushing our writing boundaries through research and use of our imagination.
When I began to write it dawned on me just how little I knew about even quite basic stuff in the world around me. And yes, the Internet is an invaluable resource but with many things there is no substitute for consulting with those who are expert in their field.
I guess as writers become better known it becomes easier to attract help, though some, judging by acknowledgement pages, are lucky enough to have family and close friends to provide the expertise. Lin Anderson, for instance, had a head start in crime novels as her father was in the police so opening the door to contacts there.
Now what do my family and friends excel in?