I’m starting the Wednesday pontifications with a subseries I’ll call Greater Minds. I’ll be taking various articles, podcasts or anything else that looks relevant to writing, and discussing what I’ve learned from them. The discussion is not intended to summarise the resource. Greater minds don’t need me to speak for them, so please read, watch or listen to whatever it is before reading my commentary. That way, you’ll be able to tell if I’m talking moonshine.
First up is a podcast from BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week series, on the subject of mysteries. It should play from here:
If that doesn’t work, try the series archive and search ‘Mon, 13 Oct 14’, or just scroll down to it.
Anne McElvoy: Chair
Val McDermid: Crime novelist, best known for the Tony Hill / Carol Jordan series televised as Wire in the Blood. She’s also written non-fiction about crime and policing. She’s always a pleasure to hear on discussion podcasts, as her voice is distinctive enough voice that I don’t mix her up with other panelists!
Susan Hill: Prolific novelist and short story writer. Ghosts and the paranormal have featured heavily in her work, most famously in The Woman in Black.
David Clarke: Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University and author of several books on supernatural beliefs and UFOology. Don’t worry, he’s a sceptic!
Alex Werner: Head of History Collections at the Museum of London, including a new Sherlock Holmes exhibition.
We want to believe
Clarke says there’s something in the human psyche that wants to believe in the uncanny, whether it’s ghosts, angels, UFOs or the Loch Ness Monster. That desire is at the heart of appreciation of fiction. The most sceptical of us can pick up a story and allow it to carry us away to a place we can believe in because if we know it’s fiction, we don’t worry about whether the ghosts or dragons are real or not. We’re in the author’s world, not our own, and we can suspend our disbelief for as long as the author helps us to do it. As Clarke put it, ‘we are the same people we were 10,000 years ago’ and while our beliefs may have changed, our desire to believe has not.
Belief is tenacious. As Clarke puts it, if Loch Ness was drained and there was no monster floundering on the lake bed, believers would still come up with a plausible reason why not.
Trying as it is for those of us who habitually get into arguments with conspiracy theorists – the anti-vaccine lobby is my personal bête noire – Clarke is describing the impulse we speak to when we write fiction. We invite our readers to believe our stories at an emotional level, and by stating the stories are fiction, we relieve them of the need to evaluate them at a rational level.
Believe in the story world
The catch is that when we invite our readers into our fictional worlds, we have to make it easy for them to believe they’re actually there. McDermid and Hill agreed that if the setting feels authentic, the reader is more likely to believe any improbable events we place there. What McDermid doesn’t mention is that her Hill / Jordan series is set in a fictional city called Bradfield. She doesn’t violate the principal of authenticity because when I read her descriptions of Bradfield, it feels like a real place. The streets and the houses are as authentic as the streets and houses of her novels set in Manchester so it doesn’t matter to me that it only exists in the pages of a book.
What I learn from that is that a setting can feel authentic even if it doesn’t exist. A city floating on a cloud and populated by miniature dragons could be made to feel real if it’s well crafted.
Reality and fiction
McDermid made me think about the tension between the way things work in reality and the way things work in fiction. She is obviously comfortable moving between the world of real life policing and forensics in her non-fiction and prioritising a compelling story in her fiction. I suspect she give her readers a little too much credit when she says no one really believes police investigations are conducted in the way they are in fiction, but that’s by the by. More revealing is that while McDermid doesn’t set out to faithfully recreate police procedures and forensics in her novels, she can make her fictional investigations believable because she knows how real investigations work.
In my own attempts to write crime fiction and critiquing those of others, I’ve found it’s rarely a good idea to set a story around a modern police force. It’s certainly not a good idea for anyone who doesn’t know something about police procedures, because some of the readers will. Another problem is that the resources of a modern police force reduce the possibilities for tension. If a detective wants DNA analysis or armed backup, she knows who to call. McDermid makes the further point that forensic science is advancing so fast that stories that rely on it date quickly. Given the glacial pace of publishing for those of us less bankable than McDermid and Hill, there’s a good chance that a story that depends on forensics may look dated by the time it sees a bookshelf.
It comes across very clearly from McDermid’s commentary that she has immersed herself in the subject of policing and forensics to achieve her mastery of the police procedural. To me, there’s a cautionary message in there unless I’m willing to do that, it’s a form I should avoid.
For those of us who want to write mysteries but are ignorant of police procedures, Hill and McDermid suggest a way forward. We dispose of the police force. They discuss the ‘history mystery’, set at a time when law enforcement was not as professional as it is now. As Werner points out, Arthur Conan Doyle got there first with Sherlock Holmes, whose application of scientific and deductive principals kept him a step ahead of the Victorian police as long as the crimes were outlandish enough.
There are other ways of achieving the same end. A protagonist in a contemporary setting may have to investigate something but have a reason to avoid the police. Perhaps they are part of the underworld themselves, perhaps they have their own reasons for wanting to get to the perpetrator before the police, perhaps it takes place in a closed environment such as a ship or airliner, or perhaps it takes place in a country with no functioning police force. Futuristic dystopias lend themselves to the lone investigator as well, not least because investiga
ting a crime can give a protagonist a reason to poke around a society and reveal it to the reader as they go.
Why is the key
The biggest smile I got out of the podcast was when Hill described reading a stack of reports of ghost sightings looking for ideas only to be bored by the endless accounts of white ladies floating up and down stairs for no apparent reason. She and McDermid made the point that in fiction, the key question is not ‘who?’, ‘what?’ or ‘how?’ but ‘why?’. It’s very different to real life, where we are often left wondering why someone did something, and where courts of law concern themselves almost entirely with the who and the how.
McDermid’s murderers murder for a reason that is put before the reader before the closing page. I haven’t read Hill enough to know if she ever floats a ghost up a flight of stairs, but I’d be willing to bet that if she does, she gives the ghost a good reason to float and shares it with her reader.
It’s a profound point for a writer to take away from the discussion. The reader wants to know why, so we can keep them with us with the promise we’re going to deliver and
then satisfy them by giving it up on the last page.