The question we all dread: Where do you get your inspiration?
Attend enough writers' conventions and festivals, or watch enough author interviews, and eventually, somebody in the audience will ask the dreaded question "Where do you get your inspiration from?" The question has, somewhat unfairly, become a bit of a cliché - often the sign of somebody new to these events. Seasoned veterans of such gatherings tend not to ask, instead trying to think of something a bit different. (If you think I am being somewhat snobbish and unfair, I mean no disrespect and place myself firmly in this category. I too eagerly awaited the answer to the infamous question - before eventually realising that it is one of the most tricky questions you can ask, and steering clear.) But when it, or similar queries are asked, the response from the panellists is often the same - a deep breath, a pursing of the lips, followed by the apparently gallant "why don't you start us off...", with the person they have successfully passed it over to trying not to glare.
So why is it so difficult? Well the thing is, inspiration rarely comes with an audit trail. Even informal conversations between groups of writers in the bar - away from the pressure of a stage, microphone and audience - will often show that we rarely know where our ideas come from. They just appear. And if we knew exactly where they did come from, we'd all be camping there, armed with a notepad and a Dictaphone. The question "Where do you get your inspiration from?" can be deceptively overwhelming. For a start, what is the questioner actually looking for? A general feel for what we are doing when the magic comes? A curiosity about what led to some specific choices that you have made? Or are they a writer themselves, perhaps seeking guidance on where they too can find and bottle some of that wondrous elixir?
That's not to say we can't necessarily relate the genesis of a specific idea - the theme for a book or an individual character may well be born of a particular event or person that we met or read about. For example, my daily commute once involved driving along a wide, flat, open road across the edge of the Cambridgeshire Fens. Looking around me, the surrounding farmland seemed to stretch endlessly and on a quiet morning it was desolate and lonely. One day, the morning news bulletin on the radio was reporting on the arrest and conviction of a family that had enslaved vulnerable men for decades, forcing them to live in horrendous conditions on their remote farm and coercing them into working for nothing. At that moment, an idea was born. It percolated in my head for years, but I know with certainty that the seeds for one of my books were planted that morning.
Other ideas are more nebulous. One of the themes in Forgive Me Father concerns gambling addiction. I cannot tell you when my long-held, instinctive uneasiness with the general notion of gambling, and the industry that runs it, metamorphosed into something that I felt angry enough to write about. But eventually it did. So here is my advice: Questioners: Try and be more specific. Instead of asking "Where do you get your inspiration from?" try "Where did the idea for X come from?" That sort of closed question helps the author focus their thoughts and answer your question more satisfactorily.
Authors: Prepare some stock responses. If you have some generic answers that you can give eg "All my books are set in rural Ireland, because I grew up there and I know the people and the landscape..." that's terrific. If, like me, you would struggle to come up with something like that, then why not just pretend the question was more specific? "Where do you get your inspiration from?" "I started my career in research, and so when I came to write The Last Straw, I drew upon my years of working in academia..." If you are there to promote a specific book, then think about an answer that points back towards that book or perhaps another in the series.
But finally, let me try and answer that question myself. Ideas can strike anywhere, but as a writer of crime - and police procedurals in particular - there is one good source that has provided many a spark that has eventually grown into an idea. My partner and I watch a lot of true crime documentaries (perhaps too many...). As I watch them, I occasionally find myself jotting down an idea on my phone. But if you were to then read that one-line thought back, I defy you to work out how the programme I was watching led to it. Because it didn't, not really. Rather a stray comment or thought led to me thinking, "if that happened, then maybe this could happen. Which surely would mean this is possible and oooh, there's a thought, what if somebody decided to hide their tracks by using a..." And so there we have it. An answer that attempts to respond to the question that we all dread. Would it be satisfying or entertaining to an audience? Who knows? I'll let you be the judge.
So where do you get your inspiration from? Share your thoughts in the comments or on social media. All the best, Paul
To Bump Or Not To Bump Should You Kill Off A Character?
There can be few things more heart-breaking/satisfying/controversial* for the writer of a series to kill off a regular character. *Pick the most appropriate response.
Killing off a long-standing character happens regularly in TV soaps. The reasons for the decision can vary from the actor wishing to move on/being sacked for sexual impropriety, the character not engaging viewers, the story arc reaching a natural conclusion or the producers needing an excuse to get their flagging show on the front page of TV Quick. Most of those reasons don't apply to novelists, obviously, but there are still good reasons that a writer may decide that it is time to get rid of someone. There are also reasons why you should think carefully before doing it.
The Pros It proves that nobody is safe. One of the best TV dramas of the early 2000s was the BBC's Spooks. Not only was it full of lots of fun spy stuff and intrigue, they also made a very brave decision that stuck with me.
Spoiler Start - skip the next few lines if you've never watched the series!
The publicity for the first season centred largely on two of the main characters, Matthew McFadden's Tom and Lisa Faulkner's Helen. In the second episode, Helen is murdered, brutally, never to reappear. The series runners pulled a similar stunt for series eight, with Rupert Penry-Jones doing large amounts of publicity, only for his character to be killed off early in the first episode. Other series regulars also met grisly ends.
Spoiler End - it's safe to continue reading!
By killing off series regulars - with no warning - the writers sent a clear message. In Spooks nobody is safe; and when a character is in mortal peril, they might not make it. If you compare this to James Bond, we all know that ultimately, he will defeat the odds and save the day. His companion for that film might not make it to the end credits, but Bond will. In Spooks we really couldn't bank on that certainty.
It was incredibly powerful and it stuck with me. I wanted to recreate that feeling of genuine jeopardy in my series. Without giving anything away, there are major characters in the first books that are no longer in the later books. Hopefully, now when I place my creations in mortal danger the reader can't be sure if they will survive. I also place some of them in dreadful situations that may not be resolved happily. Not only do I want my readers to have the same response that my beta-reader Cheryl did when editing one of my books - she literally greeted me with "you bastard!" when she got to that part of the book - I also want my readers to find themselves thinking, "Is this all going to end badly? Because he's shown that he's a big enough git to do it!"
It's an opportunity to take the series in a new direction Killing off a series regular is like throwing a hand grenade into a crowded room. There will always be collateral damage. What will be the emotional impact on everyone left behind? Will that death have unforeseen repercussions, such as other team mates being blamed? Will it cause others to re-evaluate their priorities?
In literature, a number of really big authors have taken what seemed to be a very dangerous gamble and killed off a beloved character, often as a cliff-hanger at the end of the book. In fact one author even placed a hidden page on their website where they explained that yes, they had indeed killed that person and that no, they wouldn't be coming back. Another author killed the person that his hero loved most in the world and was the primary motivation for why they did what they did. It felt like a needlessly cruel ending to the series - until I looked online and saw that the next book was due out the following year. There was no way it could be a trick with the character not really dead, the series was continuing without them. In both of these cases I read the following books with a sense of trepidation, worrying that the author may have screwed up. In both of these cases, the series suddenly became turbo-charged; the fallout lead to the need for something of a reset for everyone and a wealth of new and exciting narrative opportunities.
It stops the series getting stale In neither of the previously mentioned series did I feel that things were getting stale. Which tells me that the author timed their bombshell just right; with hindsight, I can see that in their current configurations, the series' set-up might have started to get repetitive, and so I applaud their decision.
You can bring in fresh blood My series has a number of core and supporting characters that are there in every book. There is the team that work with Warren, and his family. By having characters leave, I am reflecting reality; death, promotion, illness etc. Warren has been in Middlesbury for several years now. It would be peculiar if nobody moved on. Every change brings opportunities. In Warren's investigative team, there are roles that will need to be filled. Do I do a straight substitution - character X leaves, to be replaced by character X version 2? Do I instead move an existing character into that role and use it as an opportunity to get to know them better? Do I rejig the whole set-up? What will new people bring to the ensemble? I have used the opportunity to bring in entirely new types of person, exploring different character traits.
Ambiguity - was the death final or does their shadow hang over the series? A character's apparent death, or disablement, doesn't have to be permanent. With enough foresight, you can write it so that they can return. But this may require planning. Somebody stabbed to death in front of loved ones is more tricky to bring back plausibly than somebody who drowns at sea, with their body never recovered. And what about that return? Will it be a surprise for characters and reader alike, or will their absence loom over the series? Are they really gone or not?
The Cons: It can really upset your readers! Readers become attached to characters, and there might be those that decide that with their favourite gone, there's no point continuing to read the series.
It can limit your future choices. You might have just scuppered your chances of writing a brilliant future story that the character was essential for. This is another reason why you need to think carefully before doing it. However, there can be ways around this. Flashbacks with the character, a short story released as a treat for readers, or even a prequel are potential options. Of course another option is to write the story about your character and then include their demise at the end. This is a potential double-whammy, as if the story is central to this person, then your readers will be especially invested when you bump them off at the end.
It may look desperate. Readers will forgive you if the next book in the series is really good, but killing the character off because you can't think of what else to do can be dangerous and readers aren't fools.
Their replacement isn't sufficiently different. Think carefully about how you will fill that void. If you just swap them for somebody almost identical, like trading your car every three years when its lease is up, then you may as well just have stuck with the original. Take the time to sketch out this new person fully. See it as an opportunity to bring something new to the series, not just a way of getting you out of a creative hole.
Of course, all of the above can be mitigated somewhat by careful planning. Killing off a character that you may have lived with for years can be heart-breaking and shouldn't be done on a whim - but do it right, and it may be one of the best decisions you ever make.
What do you think about killing off characters?
As always, feel free to comment here or on social media. Until next time, Paul.
If your books showed readers what detectives really did all day, no one would ever read them.
How many times have you seen a variant on that sentiment? Real-life detectives admitting that their day job is largely office-based and mostly dull.
If you were to write a story that truly documented the ins and outs of a murder investigation, it would consist mostly of teams of officers and support personnel staring at computer screens for hours on end, punctuated by team briefings. Interviews are largely conducted by detective constables and sergeants with specialist training, arrests are usually made by uniformed officers, many of the leads followed by the team are generated by the Artificial Intelligence that underpins the HOLMES2 case management system, and decisions about charging a suspect are made by the Crown Prosecution Service. Once the criminal is successfully apprehended and charged, there are months of work still to be done preparing for the upcoming trial.
If you watch one of the excellent fly-on-the-wall documentaries that follow a murder investigation from the emergency call through to trial and conviction or acquittal, one of the most striking things is just how long everything takes. Keep an eye on the timestamps that appear on screen periodically, and even in a relatively straight-forward case, you will see that the gathering of evidence prior to the suspect being charged or released can take months or years. Of course it is entirely possible to write a story that takes place over such a long time span, but if you write an ongoing series like I do, my detective and his team needs to solve a new mystery each book - which means that they need to have gone from murder to charging in the space of a few weeks or months; that way they have time to go through the pre-trial procedure etc (usually after I've finished the story), before discovering their next body on page one of the following year's novel!
That's not to denigrate what can be an immensely satisfying and rewarding career. Rather it a realistic description of what the job really entails. The same is true for any profession. TV series such as Educating Essex would have us believe that teachers spend most of their day teaching, and that lessons are non-stop teenage drama. In reality of course, teachers spend longer planning lessons, marking work, sitting in meetings, taking part in training, writing tests, making new resources, supervising detentions, doing break duty, running extra-curricular activities and swearing at their laptops than actually teaching. And much of that work is done in the hours before or after school, or at home in the evening or weekend. And most lessons, in my experience, are usually fairly low-key affairs. Sure there are some drama queens who like to disrupt everything (whether or not there is a camera to play up to) and there are fantastic lessons where the kids are dancing around with the teacher like something out of a Hollywood movie. But typically a well-taught lesson will have most of the kids on-task, most of the time. The atmosphere will be calm, professional and generally friendly and the teacher will be instructing, cajoling and admonishing in varying proportion. But that's boring telly!
The question is: How can we as writers weave a compelling story that is both realistic AND exciting? The aforementioned TV documentaries create a sense of pace by clever editing, deciding what to leave in and what to exclude, and how much detail the audience needs to actually see. As writers we can also do the same, and for fiction we have one big advantage that documentary makers don't - we can also use poetic licence to fudge what might really happen to make our story more enjoyable.
So what should you fudge? I once saw Lee Child give a talk, and he said that readers will accept one big implausibility (I paraphrase). For him it is that roughly once a year Reacher stumbles into a town that just happens to need an over-muscled stranger to solve a problem for them.
I ask my reader to accept that Warren Jones, a Detective Chief Inspector working in a small CID unit in a fictional market town, chases down suspects and interviews them himself. And that furthermore, he does so in Hertfordshire - a county whose police force merged all of its serious crime units with those from Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire so they could efficiently operate out of a single large HQ in Welwyn Garden City.
Unfortunately, I had already started writing The Last Straw when I found out about this consolidation, but for narrative purposes, I needed Warren to be part of a small team. He had to have some foot soldiers below him, and a senior officer directly above him and DCI seemed to fit that role. So I made Middlesbury a 'first response CID unit' - the location of my fictional town is geographically about as far from Welwyn as it is possible to be without crossing into the adjoining county, so they use local knowledge to deal with crimes on their patch, and call in additional personnel from Welwyn as necessary. The advantage of this fudge, is that Middlesbury CID is constantly under threat of closing; a useful source of narrative tension. I once asked a retired detective what he thought about my compromise and his response, accompanied by a shrug, was 'sounds like something we'd do.'
As to Warren Jones interviewing suspects - it is very unrealistic that an officer of his rank would do so. As Senior Investigating Officer, he would eventually visit the crime scene but long after it has been secured. He would lead briefings etc, but most of his time would be spent managing the highly-trained specialists that work for him. And he certainly wouldn't leg it after a serial killer into a darkened forest :-) . I'm certain it is possible to write a compelling story whose protagonist fits that criteria, but that's not the story I'm interested in telling. I want Warren to be the central character. So, like many of my peers, I break the rules.
So here are my thoughts and tips. Know the rules to break the rules Most readers (and in my experience, coppers) are pretty forgiving. They recognise that strict accuracy may need to be sacrificed to tell a good story. But you need to be careful which rules you bend or break, and which you should stick to. Day-to-day policing in England and Wales is covered by the Police And Criminal Evidence Act of 1984 (PACE 1984). It is an evolving piece of legislation, so double-check your facts are current for the time-period your story is set. It is a bit dry, but it is a gold-mine. You can easily find it online - in fact Wikipedia has a fairly good summary. The advantage of it is that it covers everything from arrest to charging, securing of evidence and the rules that police officers have to follow regarding searches and warrants etc. My advice, is that unless rule-breaking is a specific part of the story, follow this legislation. For example a custody or desk sergeant simply will not authorise your hero to detain a suspect without good justification, or to extend the legally-mandated 24 hour custody limits without the correct authorisation. This may seem arduous, but the good news is that these rules may improve your story - often authors are at their most creative when forced to work their way around a problem. The same goes for forensics. There are countless books, websites and documentaries that can help you write an authentic forensic scene. Make the effort - readers are forgiving but still discerning. A modern-day UK copper stomping all over a crime scene or using a pen and handkerchief to pick up a vital clue looks embarrassingly naïve these days. Follow the rules for your jurisdiction There are some excellent US-based documentaries out there, but they do things differently. It is common for a suspect to be interviewed without a lawyer present, and for the officers to be disappointed when they finally request one. In the UK, suspects are rarely interviewed without a solicitor (not a lawyer - use the correct language). In fact I was once told by a solicitor that he had seen officers shut down an interview and beg a suspect to take advantage of the free duty solicitor- it really is best for all concerned. If you are writing in the UK, don't forget that Scotland and Northern Ireland have slightly different rules and systems to England & Wales.
If you need to break a rule - consider meeting critics head on and explaining why. I explain (in the prose obviously), that Middlesbury is unique and that the approach of Warren's team is successful enough that they have been allowed to continue operating independently. I also make a point of mentioning at some point that Warren is probably the most senior officer in any force that still interviews - I've made it a plot point, with Warren sometimes questioning if he should still do it, junior officers keen to work in his team to observe him, or his peers expressing jealously that they spend all their days in the office. Do whatever sounds plausible.
Watch documentaries, not dramas for accuracy! Obvious really - if you are taking dramatic liberties, with a TV show that has itself taken liberties, then you are just playing Chinese Whispers.
Final Thought: Within reason, story comes first. If you were to nit pick everything to the nth degree, then some of most highly respected crime writers would fall short. Alas, you can't please everyone, so do your best and trust your instincts.
I hope this has been helpful. As always, feel free to comment here or on social media. All the best, Paul
Spend enough time hanging around on social media forums populated by writers, and pretty soon you'll come across some poor scribe moaning about receiving their edits. Your's truly has spent the past fortnight doing just that for this coming summer's release, DCI Warren Jones 7.
I've explored some of the ways in which you can trim your novel in previous posts (TuesdayTips 27, 28, 29 & 30) but I've never really explained what editing is, or what some of the different terms mean.
The process of editing varies between self-published writers and traditionally-published writers. Different publishing houses have different ways of doing things, and each writer will find their own way that works for them. There are also slightly different terms used to descibe the processes.
For the purposes of this article, I am going to assume that we are talking about what happens after you've typed 'The End' on your initial draft, read through it multiple times to polish it as best you can and are now satisfied that it is 'finished'. Traditionally, the manuscript would be submitted to the publisher (or sometimes your agent). If you are considering self-publishing, the following still applies, but I have addressed some of the specific issues towards the end.
Tip: ALWAYS start editing on a new version of your file. Storage is so cheap these days, that there is no excuse for not making multiple versions of a file (number them sequentially!). That way, if you realise that your changes don't work, you can just go back to an earlier version and start again.
The editing process can be largely divided into two different stages.
Structural Edits Terms may vary, but essentially, this is where an entirely new pair of eyes looks at your book and asks 'Does this work'? 'How can we make it better?' I am fortunate that none of my books have been rejected out of hand, but I still typically have plenty to do. For my publishing house, this feedback comes in the form of an editorial letter. Anyone who has ever seen marked schoolwork will be familiar with the format - it follows the sandwich model: Praise for what works. Ways to improve. A positive comment at the end.
The improvements in my editorial letters come in two parts: General structural comments. For example pacing - perhaps the middle part is a bit slow? Maybe the overall length could be shorter? Do I need so many interview scenes - could I instead have some take place 'off page' with the main points summarised later? Perhaps one character gets too much attention, whilst another is underserved? Do events take place in the best order? Should I space out the murders and the interviews, or perhaps bring them closer together to increase the tension?
I typically turn these suggestions into a list of actionable points, then read through the whole manuscript, and scribble notes on how to implement them as I go along. (I prefer paper and pen for this, but the comment function on Word can be used to great effect here). My notes are usually relatively vague - for example highlighting a whole section and writing 'shorten' or 'cut', or highlighting a paragraph or section and then finding where it needs to be moved to to improve pacing.
Tip: If you need to move a paragraph highlight it and then write a number in a circle next to it. Then find where you think it needs to go and draw that numbered circle in the margin. That way you won't get confused between different paragraphs and can find them easily when flicking through the manuscript.
Specific suggestions. These can range from small requests for clarification (page 265, is this the daughter speaking here or the mother?) to larger alterations (Page 341, I think you could cut this entire section - it doesn't add anything and slows the story down). Tip: Do these FIRST. Not only are they often low-hanging fruit, they frequently have page numbers attached - so do them before you move everything around and can't find what page they are now on!
Big tip: When making corrections to a printed manuscript in pen, try and use a colour that will stand out. But also place an asterisk in the margin next to the correction. It's easy to miss something as small as an added comma when flicking through the manuscript and transfering those corrections to the Word document.
Your manuscript may go through several rounds of structural edits. This is NOT a bad thing! An author and an editor are a team, and so as frustrating as it can be, stick in there!
Copy-editing/line-editing/proof-reading. Each of these terms has a specific meaning, and strictly speaking, they shouldn't be used interchangeably. In practise, this is where someone with a freakish attention to detail and obsessive knowledge of grammar, punctuation, spelling, correct word-usage and the pedantic requirements of publisher style-guides* goes through the final version of your manuscript with a finetooth comb. They are awesome! I have learned so much of the above from them over the years.
They are also the last line of defence between you and the reader. They are the person that (usually!) spots that the spelling of your main character's name has changed, that the suspect isn't wearing a tie at the beginning of the interview, but is wiping their spectacles on the end of it when the questioning gets difficult, informs you that the long, hot summer in your book was actually wet that year and that the radio station your hero listens to hadn't started broadcasting in 2002. Have I said how awesome they are?
If you are self-publishing, then you still need to do all this! If there is one thing you take from my rambling blog posts, it's that nobody can fully edit their own work. I submit all of my posts as evidence to support this claim.
Professional editors can be found online - I suggest joining writers groups on social media to see who is recommended; find one that specialises in your genre. Some editors will do a straightforward read-through and feedback, others may specialise in proof-reading, others may work as part of a small team that will work in partnership with you from that first completed draft to you uploading onto the Kindle Direct Publishing platform. There are also Manuscript Assessment Services or Critique services that can read through your story before you employ an editor to help you iron out any big issues.
Unfortunately, these services cost money; as the saying goes, you have to speculate to accumulate. Traditionally-published authors will see all these costs borne by their publisher. The downside of that is that the publisher takes a cut of the royalties. What works best for you will depend on your circumstances. I suggest getting a copy of the Writers and Artist Yearbook, it's full of really useful tips and tricks. But, please don't insult editors by trying to haggle with them or getting a freebie - they are skilled professionals, who do it to earn a living. You wouldn't argue with a plumber or an electrician or a gas-fitter, so don't push your luck with an editor. You may well think that editing your magnus opus will bring career-changing exposure for the person lucky enough to hitch themselves to your train - but most mortgage providers don't accept 'exposure credits' in lieu of cash.
Of course, no one is perfect. My books are 120,000 words long - I defy anyone to spot every error in a manuscript of that length. There are those that will airily proclaim on Facebook that the standard of proof-reading/proof-readers today is disgraceful; that authors 'who can't be bothered to proof-read deserve to burn in hell', and regard being a grammar Nazi as a public service. Dig a little deeper and you'll see that none of these keyboard warriors are themselves writers; as with all professions, we have to accept that there will always be those willing to stand on the sidelines and criticise us as we perform a job that they can't do.
Final thought: Ultimately, this is your story and it will be your name on the cover. Differences of opinion can and do occur with your editor. Don't be afraid; you are both professionals. I have taken to writing a short commentary alongside my editorial letter. In it I detail how I have implemented each suggestion, and justified why I may not have - sometimes I have a compromise. For example my editor may suggest that a section can be cut to improve pace. I have valid reasons that I feel it should stay, but have trimmed it down to make it more punchy.
Good luck! As always, feel free to comment here or on social media. Best wishes, Paul.
*Style Guides! These are an invaluable resource, but will also drive you mad! Many publishers have an in-house style guide that outlines their own preferences regarding spelling (s or z for example), capitalisation, punctuation, hyphenation, apostrophes etc. Be warned - it might not be exactly the same as what you were taught at school! It is the role of a proofreader/line editor to tweak your manuscript so it follows these guidelines, but I requested a copy of the HarperCollins guide, saving everyone time (and it has improved my spelling, punctuation and grammar no end!).
A Business By Any Other Name... Naming fictional organisations.
"You know, not every local business name in your book has to start with 'Middlesbury'." This was a comment made one of my beta readers, as she worked her way through the completed first draft of my next book. As always, she made a very valid point.
So the first question is - why bother making up a company name at all? Why not just have your book populated with familiar high street stores, well-known coffee shops and easily recognisable pub chains? Well there is certainly a good argument for doing so. If you write fiction set in real locales - or even made-up towns in an otherwise realistic setting - eg a fictitious borough of modern-day London, then sprinkling familiar names throughout the story helps ground the reader and adds to authenticity. If you are writing a story set in a specific time-period, then perhaps the inclusion of a couple of shops that no longer exist may add to the realism. References to Woolworths or BHS (or even British Home Stores if you set the book before its revamp) will help set the scene for a high street from a bygone age. Needless to say, you will need to do your research here.
But using real businesses isn't always possible. First, it might not fit the narrative. For example, your character might need to be a small business owner. Imagine a scenario where your character is murdered late at night whilst closing up their coffee shop. You could fudge it and have them as the manager of a franchised Starbucks, for example, but think of all the problems that then causes. What are Starbucks' procedures for closing at night? What about the security system and CCTV cameras? Would SB keep their shop closed for weeks, allowing your detective to return to a pristine crime scene days later to follow a hunch - or would SB have reopened as soon as they were allowed, probably after redecorating? Get this wrong and you risk some smug barista calling you out on your Amazon review page. Instead, give your character their own independent coffee shop, and within reason, you can do what you want. Second, there is the thorny issue of Trademarks. As a rule, you can usually get away with using real businesses, as long as you don't paint them in a bad light. But technically, the holders of a trademark can demand that you don't use it, and seek damages if you really annoy them. If you were to write 'The murder occurred around the corner from WellKnownCoffeeShop', you are probably not going to be bothered too much. If you write 'The murder occurred inside WellKnownCoffeeShop, exploiting their well-known lack of security', then they may well object if they get wind of it. Everything in between is a grey area. I was once told of an author who had to rewrite a passage in a novel when they mentioned the bouncers on the door of a well-known, highly litigious, US-based burger chain. Said burger bar's lawyers objected to the use of their trademark, specifically because they didn't like the implication that their restaurants might not be safe at night. The fact that the author could give examples of actual restaurants where they employ bouncers cut no ice. Remove our name or we sue for trademark infringement. Whether they would win or not is irrelevant, given that authors' contracts usually have a clause that basically tells them that any litigation of this nature is the author's responsibility to sort out (and pay for); the publisher isn't going to risk having their fingers burned. Choose your battles. Third, you need something really nasty to happen in your book to people associated with the business and you don't want to tarnish some poor innocent business owner. When I wrote Forgive Me Father, I spent a lot of time coming up with a plausible-sounding religious order from Spain. I took great care to ensure that there were no actual religious orders with that name, because the last thing I wanted was for some poor bunch of monks minding their own business to be associated with the unpleasantness in my book!
So how does one go about naming a business? Giving a fictional business a plausible sounding name that isn't currently in use can be quite difficult. That's probably because people with marketing expertise and plenty of time on their hands have already spent many hours trying to come up with perfect names, and a lot of the good ones are already taken! My get-out-of-jail-free card is that my books are set in a fictional town. As far as I can tell, there are no real-world towns called Middlesbury, so there are unlikely to be real-world businesses called 'Middlesbury Vehicle Rentals' or 'Middlesbury Security Solutions' or the 'Middlesbury Leisure Centre'. And this is where my beta reader's observation becomes pertinent. Using the name of the place where the business is situated in the name is quite common - but don't over use it. And of course it's probably not really possible in a big city like London, as there would be dozens of businesses using that name.
Needless to say, Google is your friend here. Almost all businesses have an internet presence these days, so you can easily test out potential names. Facebook search can also be used.
So here are a few suggestions:
Keep it descriptive and combine with locale. eg Middlebury Vehicle Rentals. This is what I often do, but don't over-use it.
Name it after a person eg Bob's diner.
Name it after a location or landmark.My fictional town has a ruined Abbey, so I sometimes reference this in place names - eg a street call Abbey View Terrace.
Keep it generic and look up traditional or common names eg Red Lion Pub. This works well for pubs etc but perhaps less well for other business types.
Look for common patterns when naming businesses. Company names don't always have to be clever and original. For example, look up nail bars and you'll find that a lot of them have very similar names, perhaps prepended with the owner's name. www.yell.com is a great tool for this. Search for your business type, in a broad location and then scroll through for inspiration.
Ask for suggestions on social media! I recently asked for ideas for a name of a brand of cheap cosmetics; pocket-money friendly, aimed at young teens, the sort they might buy for a couple of quid off the shelf in Claire's Accessories for example. I got loads of suggestions, which I then mixed and matched until I had something that sounded about right, and which didn't already come up in a Google search.
Have you got any tips for naming businesses? Feel free to comment here or on social media. All the best, Paul
I Spy With My Little Eye… Using CCTV in your novel (Part 3)
Hello everyone, and welcome to this week's #TuesdayTip! This is the final post in a three part-series looking at video surveillance and how it could be used in your books. The first post introduced some examples of CCTV and also dispelled some common myths. Last week focused on complementary technologies such as night vision and ANPR. Today, I want to look at some more recent innovations that may give inspiration for your work, including body-worn cameras, dashcams and Google Street View.
Body-worn cameras, public camera phones and dashcams One of the biggest changes to policing in recent years is the proliferation of cheap, digital camera technology. Many police forces across the world have adopted the use of body-worn cameras for front-line officers. They are used for evidence gathering purposes, as a deterrent (the hope being that violent members of the public may think twice about assaulting a police officer if there is likely to be evidence) and as a way of protecting the police against allegations of misconduct. Of course, the opposite can also be true, with the body-worn cameras of some US police officers providing evidence of excessive violence towards un-armed suspects . The rules surrounding these cameras' use, and the circumstances in which they are deployed, vary by jurisdiction and it is a rapidly changing field. You may wish to consider researching their use by a particular force if accuracy is important. More recently, members of the public have taken to recording crimes and major incidents on their camera phones. Similarly, it is becoming increasingly common for drivers to fit dashboard-mounted cameras to their vehicles. They can be useful when establishing the facts of a road traffic collision, for example if the other driver is denying responsibility. Some insurance companies incentivise their use. Some cyclists also have helmet-mounted cameras. However, these devices will often pick up other footage that may be used as evidence. In a recent murder case in the UK, a conviction was achieved, in part, when a neighbour who was parked a few doors down waiting to pick someone up, with their dashcam active, captured the victim's estranged husband coming out of the house where she was found murdered. The time-stamp on the footage established that he was at the house earlier than he claimed and it was subsequently proved that his alibi was false. It is now common for police to request any footage, in the same way that they will appeal for eyewitnesses. Google Street View I have included this as it is a technology that can be of use to police, but which is sometimes misunderstood. The search engine giant Google, along with other mapping companies, started producing basic map data for integration with GPS in satellite navigation technology, back in 2005. Some years later, these companies, in particular Google, started commissioning high-resolution photography from surveillance satellites and (more commonly) low-flying aircraft. This allowed them to produce top-down photographs of much of the Earth's surface. By combining this with the pre-existing navigation and mapping technology, Google Earth was born. Users can put in an address, or place of interest, and see aerial photographs of that area. Resolution varies, but it's not uncommon to be able to recognise your house, and perhaps even the car on your driveway. In 2007, Google went one better and started photographing neighbourhoods at ground level. They sent cars up and down roads with roof-mounted 360 degree panoramic cameras. Street View, allows you to virtually walk up and down areas and 'look around'. It is a great way of checking out a neighbourhood before visiting an estate agent, for example.
The police also use this technology. But it has important limitations. First, it is not the same as a spy satellite. The images used are often weeks, months or even years out of date. The police cannot call up Google Earth and look to see if a suspect's car is parked outside their house. That photo was probably taken months ago. However, it can provide the police with the basis for intelligence gathering or planning. For example, they may be able to identify entry/exit points to a property, permanent outbuildings such as sheds that they need to search, or the fact that the house (at the time the photograph was taken) has no garden wall for the police to hide behind when sneaking up before a raid. It's not a substitute for proper, eyes-on intelligence gathering, but it can certainly help.
New technologies Two emerging technologies that may be of use in your novel are Facial recognition and Gait Analysis. Long a staple of Hollywood thrillers and futuristic novels, facial recognition is starting to enter the mainstream. Anti-terrorism units and the intelligence services are already able to identify faces in real-time from a database of 'persons of interest'. As the technology becomes cheaper, and cameras continue to proliferate in public spaces, this is likely to become more common. More recently, private companies have taken to using the technology to identify football hooligans, or intercept known shop-lifters entering shopping centres. There is a vigorous debate over the legality of its use, its accuracy and privacy implications in a free-society. There are also questions over its accuracy for dark-skinned people, with suggestions that the historic tendency of developers to populate the system's 'training' database primarily with white, Caucasian faces leads to increased misidentification of people of colour. The degree of access that the detectives in your novel will have to this technology is changing constantly, so consider if it is appropriate for your book to feature it. If you are unsure, you could always hedge your bets and have your detectives request its use, but perhaps be rebuffed by a magistrate refusing a warrant, or the video surveillance unit not having the resources for this type of case. Of course the biggest obstacle in the current climate is the use of facemasks. Since some degree of mask-wearing is likely to be with us for the next couple of years, a person with their face covered in public will no longer elicit the same suspicion that it might have done. Could your perpetrators use the current pandemic to their advantage?
Gait Analysis is a relatively new technology that forensic specialists have been developing. There are some who believe that the way in which a person walks (their gait) is a unique biometric that can be used to identify a person on video footage. This claim is contested by others who don't think it is as accurate as some would claim. Injuries, carrying a heavy bag, different shoes, taking extra care on an icy pavement... all of these factors might change a person's gait. Needless to say, good quality video footage is essential for this purpose. The footage is analysed by a forensic podiatrist and is an example of an 'expert opinion'. From a legal point of view, it hasn't been rigorously tested in the courts, so relying on it as the strongest piece of evidence against a suspect would be risky. There have been several appeals against its use in recent years. However it may still have some use in the police's investigation. Imagine a scenario where a person is murdered in their workplace, out of hours. The killer is likely to be a co-worker (so they have legitimate explanations for physical evidence found at the scene), but everyone claims to have an alibi. Chasing down each co-worker would be a huge task for a large workforce. However, CCTV outside the building captures somebody with a distinctive walk (perhaps a limp?). The police then prioritise this person as a suspect.
Thank you once again for reading this far. As always, I hope that it has been useful, perhaps even providing inspiration for your own work. Please feel free to comment here or on social media. Best wishes, Paul
I Spy With My Little Eye… Using CCTV in your novel (Part 2)
Hello everyone, and welcome to this week's #TuesdayTip! This is the second in a three-part post looking at video surveillance and how it could be used in your books. Last week's post introduced some examples of CCTV and also dispelled some common myths. Today I will focus on complementary technologies such as night vision and ANPR. Pop back next week for a discussion about some more recent innovations that may give inspiration for your work.
Night Vision In recent years, the ability to see in the dark has moved from specialist, often military, applications to the mainstream. Peruse a catalogue of residential security systems and cameras with low-light or night vision are now the norm, even at the cheaper end of the market. So I thought it may be useful to explain what this is and how it works. But first of all, I need to clear up a misconception. Night Vision is NOT the same as Thermal Imaging. I am sure everybody is familiar with footage from TV of police helicopters chasing joyriders in the pitch black, late at night. The miscreants typically end up crashing or abandoning their vehicle, before leaving on foot and trying to hide in somebody's back garden. They can easily be seen as glowing heat spots against a cooler background. The police and dog teams chasing them are similarly visible. From above, the helicopter crew direct their colleagues on the ground towards their quarry. Thermal Imaging (or 'Heat Vision'), works because all objects emit infra-red radiation. The intensity of this radiation, which is invisible to human eyes, varies depending on the temperature of the object. Human beings are typically warmer than their surrounding environment, and so they standout against the background. Heat-sensitive cameras can detect this invisible radiation, and will produce an artificially-coloured image that can be seen by the operator. The infra-red radiation can be blocked by buildings etc, but hiding under a tree or in a bush won't work. This technology is also used by the military. Night Vision also relies on Infra-Red. Night vision, or low-light enhanced images also require infra-red, but work a little differently. Human beings can see a fairly narrow range of colours (referred to as wave-lengths, or frequencies). What we perceive as white light, or natural light, is a mixture of these colours. When we see an object, what we are actually seeing is the light reflected from a surface that enters our eyes. Light moves in a straight-line from a light source, and is then reflected or absorbed by an object, and it is these reflections that we see. The more light that our eyes receive, the better we are able to see. This is why we see more clearly when we turn up the brightness on a lamp, for example. However, because we can only see a relatively narrow range of wavelengths, the light that is invisible to us, such as infra-red, goes unnoticed. In low-light systems, the camera is able to pick up this extra infra-red and, after adjusting its colour to make it visible to human eyes, adds it to the image on the screen, so the picture is brighter with more detail. Your mobile phone camera uses this trick to make pictures taken in dim light brighter. This system is called 'passive infra-red'. It is simply collecting and using more of the light already available. Active infra-red uses the same principle as turning on a torch or a light to see in the dark. If I want to ensure that a security camera outside my house gets a clear image of somebody entering my back garden in the dead of night, then the obvious thing to do is flood my backyard with a high-powered light. That light will be reflected off any objects it hits and return to the camera, in exactly the same way that natural sunlight is reflected during the day. For obvious reasons, this is not desirable. Active infra-red systems work by shining invisible infra-red light, and then capturing the reflected infra-red light on a low-light camera. Because the infra-red light cannot be seen, the area remains pitch-black. As IR is not a colour that our eyes can perceive, the computer-generated images are grey-scale (black or white). The quality of the images generated can be variable. A close-up image of a person's face (such as a burglar!) can be good enough to allow them to be easily identified. Car license plates vary. Because the plates are coated in a reflective material, bright lights shining on them may make them unreadable, whilst paradoxically, those in shade may be more readable. I did a quick experiment and found that I was unable to read my own car's licence plate which is directly under the camera, but could see my neighbour's, which is parked at an angle to the camera. How could you use this in your book? Could the police be chasing a suspect at night with the aid of a helicopter (thermal imaging)? How useful is the night vision on a security camera? Is it good enough to identify a suspect or will you decide that it won't stand up in court?
Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR). The system works by automatically recording the licence plate of a vehicle, which a computer will then read and store or use immediately. As the computer systems get more sophisticated, the need for human assistance to read strangely formatted or dirty licence plates becomes less necessary. Examples of the system' use include: Law enforcement. The police have access to large numbers of 'traffic cameras'. These may be fixed surveillance cameras mounted on poles over roads or traffic lights, or mobile cameras attached to the dashboard of police vehicles. Local Councils. They can be used to help enforce civil penalties, for example monitoring the use of residential parking permits. Commercial operators. These might include councils, but would also include the owners of car parks - increasing numbers of car parks photograph the licence plate of cars entering and leaving and use this to calculate parking charges. Other uses of ANPR include filling-station forecourts, to deter and capture fuel thieves.
What happens next depends on the context in which it is used. For the police, the system might be tied in directly to the Police National Computer and systems such as the Motor Insurance Database. Cars that are associated with persons of interests or active investigations may then be identified, as would cars being driven illegally without insurance etc, or stolen vehicles. The camera network can also be used to track a vehicle's journey - either retrospectively, to work out where a vehicle has been eg when trying to solve a case - or in real-time, if the police are trying to find an suspect in an ongoing situation. For a car park, the system would usually be completely closed. The computer simply notes that a car entered, then notes the time that it left. If the police want access to that information, to either track down the whereabouts of a suspect or to determine if they were parked in that area at the time of an offence, they would have to ask the operators. Many car parks are operated by the same company, eg NCP, so a request for information can be applied to all of their properties.
For parking penalty enforcement, the operator would submit registrations for vehicles that they believe have infringed the rules to the DVLA (Driving and Vehicle Licencing Agency), who would then give them the details of the registered keeper which the operator will then chase down.
That's it for this week. Next week, I will conclude this mini-series with a look at the future and some other uses of video surveillance technology, such as body-worn cameras, dashcams and even Google Street View! As always, feel free to comment here or on social media. All the best, Paul
I Spy With My Little Eye… Using CCTV in your novel (Part 1)
Hello everyone, and welcome to the first #TuesdayTip of 2021! This is the first in a three-part post looking at video surveillance and how it could be used in your books. The articles will look at Closed Circuit TV (CCTV), Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) and dashcams, as well as more sophisticated applications such as night vision, body worn cameras and gait analysis. I will also highlight some of the myths perpetuated by TV and movies. For brevity, I will usually just refer to it as CCTV, unless detailing a specific application.
Scale and History The term Closed Circuit TV is simply a way of distinguishing between video that is broadcast widely and indiscriminately (eg television programmes) and video that is intended for 'private' viewing purposes and is not publicly available. CCTV of some description has been available from as early as the late 1920s, when it was used to monitor the comings and goings of visitors to the Kremlin. In the 1940s, the Nazis used CCTV to remotely monitor the launch of V2 rockets. From the 60s, it was used as a precursor to pay-per-view services - for example broadcasting sporting events to paying audiences in select theatres. Today it is widely used by governmental organisations, private companies and individuals for purposes ranging from security and law enforcement (criminal and terrorist activities), safety (monitoring motorways or public areas for accidents or potential accidents), efficiency (workforce monitoring, for example in factories and warehouses), evidence collection (police body-worn cameras or dashboard cameras) and deterrence (there is good evidence that burglars will favour properties that don't have CCTV). Schools may use CCTV to deter and monitor vandalism and poor behaviour and even the quality of teaching. Care homes also use CCTV to monitor the health and wellbeing of residents (and there have been upsetting incidences of staff abusing patients caught on camera). Video-enabled baby monitors (or 'NannyCams') are increasingly used by parents to keep an eye on their offspring (or even pets, when they are out at work!).
Estimates vary enormously, but it is believed that the UK has the highest number of cameras per citizen - state-run and privately-owned - of any country in the world, including totalitarian and police states. Residents of large cities going about their day-to-day business may be caught on upwards of 70 different surveillance cameras each day!
The first applications were live only; there had to be a person monitoring the camera feeds at all times. With the advent of video recording equipment, footage could be saved for later retrieval. Multiplexing allowed multiple camera feeds to be recorded at once, and the technology shifted from analogue recordings on cassette tape, to digital recordings on tape, to digital recordings on computer hard drives and more recently, cloud-based storage. Many modern systems allow the camera feeds to be watched remotely via the internet. Some systems have been criticised for poor security; for example broadcasting feeds over the internet with poor encryption, or easily-guessed passwords. This allows unauthorised access to what should be a private feed. How could you use this in your book? Could malign individuals use this to help them plan a crime or keep tracks on someone (for example a stalker or sexual voyeur), or could law enforcement exploit this to monitor a suspect?
Dispelling Myths The ubiquity of surveillance can make one wonder exactly how a crime writer can go about setting a crime in a large city, without their perpetrator being caught on camera, identified and arrested before the end of the prologue - but fear not, there is no need to move your novel to a remote island or set your books no later than the end of The Second World War.
The quality isn't always that good. We've all seen it; blurry, pixelated images or videos released by the police in the hope of identifying a suspect. How often have you looked at black and white images and found yourself just taking the police's word for it that the indistinct shape is even a person, let alone somebody you may recognise? The haunting images of the toddler Jamie Bulger being led away to his death by two young boys in 1993 were full colour, but other than identifying the colour of their clothes, probable ages of the two suspects and the time that they snatched him, the evidential use of that footage was more in establishing the events that happened than directly identifying his kidnappers.
For video footage, older systems in particular used lower frame-rates to squeeze more hours onto the recording media, therefore the video is jerky and the suspect may only appear in one or two frames.
Obviously, the specialist officers that spend their working days staring at such video are more practised than you or I, but sometimes you wonder how useful releasing such footage might be. However, the human brain is a funny thing, and whilst a stranger might not see anything of any use in such images, somebody familiar with the person on the screen may see something they think they recognise. Sometimes that's all that is needed; another name to throw into the mix. The police can then investigate that person and either eliminate from their inquiries or perhaps dig a bit deeper to find more compelling evidence.
Of course, modern cameras are light-years ahead of what was available even ten years ago. A couple of hundred quid can buy a high-resolution, full-colour system that can record easily-identifiable images, even in low-light. You can even buy smart doorbells that record footage of anyone ringing your bell, or can be triggered by anyone stepping within the camera's range.
Could your book feature a suspect caught near an area by a neighbour's CCTV? Although this is not evidence that they committed the crime, could it be used to prove or disprove an alibi, or show that they had the opportunity, as they were in the area at the time?
You can't zoom in. Contrary to what Hollywood would have us believe, you can't just 'zoom in' or magnify an image to gain more detail from previously-shot footage. Whilst specialist technicians may be able to 'clean up' images, removing static or adjusting the colour, ultimately, the laws of physics come into play. The recording can only display information from the photons of light energy that the camera picked up at the time. Take a car licence plate - if it is blurry or too small to read on the original image, then no amount of enhancement will magically make it readable. Images that are borderline might benefit from interpolation, where complex computer algorithms can 'guess' what some of the missing pixels may look like, maybe by comparing several different frames from a video, and perhaps using other sources of information to confirm those guesses (eg comparing the shape of the reconstructed image to a database to work out what the digits are most likely to be), but the options are limited.
Could blurred footage collected at the beginning of a story be used by your detectives later in the book to strengthen the case against a suspect? Could you use the need to send a tantalisingly blurred photo off for specialist enhancement as a way of controlling the pace of your story?
Video that has been recorded over is permanently destroyed/can be retrieved at will This subheading appears contradictory - and this is deliberate. Most video systems have a finite amount of storage. Typically, they are configured on a 'rolling basis'. When the recording media is full, the system copies over the existing footage, replacing the oldest footage first. So even if a CCTV unit has been running for twelve months, there may only be the most recent month stored on the system. And as it continues recording, the older footage disappears, so that only the most recent month is on there. Data Protection laws also dictate how long security footage can be kept for. For example, your local supermarket doubtless records customers throughout the store. Their data protection policy will determine how long they can retain that footage before they need to delete it. The exception of course is if they have reason to suspect that there is evidence of criminality etc on a particular piece of footage; then they are allowed to keep it until it has been used in court etc.
Whether this deleted/written-over material can be retrieved depends on the system used, how many times that tape, or that hard-disk sector has been over-written, the quality of the recording material etc. Forensic specialists might or might not be able to revive footage of sufficient quality to be any use. As a writer, this ambiguity is great! You can decide whether or not your story needs the footage to be retrieved and then write accordingly. 'Sorry, Sir, the footage has been recorded over too many times, we can't bring it back'. Or 'We managed to retrieve some of the deleted footage, you can clearly see the suspect's car.'
If you write it confidently, avoid naming specific systems or tripping yourself up with technical details, your readers will accept this. It helps if you foreshadow this when you hand it to your forensic specialists. 'Robertson looked at the CCTV unit dubiously. "No Promises, Sir, this system does a really good job of erasing older footage."' In this post I have only touched upon the basics. Next week's post will delve into the subject in more detail. I will cover night vision and Automatic Number Plate Recognition. The concluding article will discuss some more recent innovations that you might find useful when writing your novel.
Until then, thank you for reading this far. Feel free to comment here, or on social media. Best wishes, Paul
Christmas Special Including Festive Celebrations In Your Novel
It's Christmas!!!!! With the patron saint of December, Noddy Holder, screaming from radios across the UK for the past month, it's time to consider how to use festivals and holidays in your novel.
I will be taking a short break over the festive period, so this is an extra-long, bumper edition!
I've written a couple of books that feature Christmas and Easter. Note that these were not "Christmas Books", rather they were books where the action took place over the festive period. Writing books set over a public holiday opens narrative possibilities, but also imposes some restrictions that need to be considered.
You may also want to consider other holidays and festivals. Your characters may come from a background that routinely celebrate other traditions, both religious or secular. How do you to deal with these?
For the purposes of this article, I am going to assume that your novel is UK-based, with some references where appropriate to the US etc, where things may be different.
I'll look at other traditions later on, but given the date this is published, let's deal with the large, tinsel-covered elephant in the room first.
Christmas To celebrate or not to celebrate? The first question you should ask yourself is whether your character will be celebrating Christmas. Even if they are a Grinch, it's likely that most of the people around them will be celebrating. How does this affect your character? Is there a reason they don't celebrate? Do they resent others celebrating? Christmas may nominally be a Christian festival taking advantage of a pre-existing winter celebration, but in modern, multicultural Britain, it has long-since morphed into a mid-winter, family holiday, marked in some way by most people. Don't assume that just because a character is not a Christian that they ignore Christmas, the chances are they don't. After all, who doesn't enjoy a public holiday when the weather is miserable, where you and loved-ones are likely to be off work together, and there is an excuse to eat too much, party and watch TV all day? I've worked with Hindus, Muslims and non-Christians a lot over the years and everyone took part in the office Secret Santa and came to the Christmas meal. If your character has kids, then they are going to be just as keen to get free stuff off a jolly old fat bloke as anyone.
One thing you might consider is that police and other key workers will still need to provide the same service over the festive period, as they do on every other day of the year. In this case, non-Christians might sometimes be open to a bit of horse-trading regarding shift patterns. It's not uncommon for Muslim colleagues to work Christmas day in exchange for taking Eid off, for example.
How do your characters celebrate? The chances are that you have memories of childhood Christmases; traditions that developed over the years, making the festive period special. But the first time you celebrate Christmas with a partner's family you often realise that even if you are completely alike on every other level, their idea of Christmas may differ quite significantly from yours. Ask friends or co-workers about how they celebrate. Do they do something different? It was always a source of fascination to me that at our Anglo-Italian friends would turn-up to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve wearing their Christmas presents. Their tradition was to open presents on Christmas Eve. Some European countries have a large meal on Christmas Eve. Followers of the Eastern Orthodox tradition celebrate Christmas on January the 7th, rather than December 25th. How would your characters celebrate?
In the UK and many Commonwealth countries, December the 26th is called Boxing Day and is also a public holiday; it's quite common to visit family and friends. Canadians celebrate it but the US doesn't. Some European countries treat it as a second Christmas day. Don't forget to allow for this when planning how the story unfolds during this period - do your characters have the day off? Are they 'on call'?
Weather Despite the Hollywood and Victorian images of a white Christmas, most of the UK (especially down south) is typically grey, miserable and cold at Christmas, rather than blanketed in beautiful white snow. If you want to be historically accurate, you can find archived weather reports online. I once had a proof-reader comment that the summer I set a book in, rather than being hot and dry was actually rather wet. To avoid nit-picking by Amazon reviewers, if the weather is not crucial to the plot-line, why not look up the actual weather for the period in which your book is set, and write it into the story?
Joyous, domestic bliss and peace to all men? Contrary to what the supermarket Christmas adverts would have us believe, Christmas is not always a wondrous time spent with our loved ones. For many, it can be stressful and fraught with worry, not to mention expensive. The logistics of preparing a big, show-stopper meal for more people than usual, decisions on who to invite, who to visit and how to navigate separated or blended families are all sources of stress, but are potential goldmines for writers. What do you do when your niece neglects to mention that they are now vegan? Tragically, cases of domestic violence often spike over this period, especially where alcohol is involved. Does your character dread Christmas? Are they secretly relieved when their phone goes off in the middle of the Queen's speech, calling them out to a suspicious death? Or are they annoyed that they can't have a drink because they are on-call, and irritated when they have to miss Dr Who?
New Year's Eve In the UK, as with many other countries, Christmas celebrations often become merged with the upcoming public holiday on January 1st (and January 2nd in some countries). However, with Christmas and New Year's day falling on a different day of the week each year, you will need to check how that affects your story. What happens to the public holiday if Christmas day or New Year's Day fall over a weekend? Small details like that are easy to miss, especially if you move events in your story around to change the pace etc. As with Christmas, traditions also vary. The Scots famously celebrate Hogmanay, whilst in northern England 'first footing' as the new year is rung-in is common.
But what about other festivals or holidays? Hanukkah The eight day festival of lights takes place between late-November and late-December. Although a relatively minor festival (and NOT a Jewish Christmas), it's timing means that inevitably, some families take the opportunity to celebrate in a similar manner. Check the dates that Hanukkah is scheduled to fall in the year your book is set. Will your characters celebrate? Will they have a 'hybrid' Christmas/Hanukkah celebration?
There are also other Jewish Holidays, varying in significance. Is your character observant or secular? Again, check the dates that they are scheduled the year your book is set.
Easter and Passover The nature of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism is such that the two traditions often overlap. Unlike Christmas which occurs on a fixed date each year, the dates for Easter (and thus Lent and Holy Week) and Passover, are set by the lunar calendar, meaning they occur sometime within a period of roughly a month in the Northern Hemisphere's spring. Again, check your dates.
Ramadan and Eid If your characters are Muslim, they may observeRamadan, a month of fasting between the hours of sun-up and sun-down. Again, the date changes each year, as it is based on the Islamic calendar. When does Ramadan fall during your novel? What will the weather be like for those fasting? How long will the day be for them? To cope with a day without sustenance (including water, if it is safe to do so), Muslims have a pre-dawn meal, and then break their fast after sundown. This is often a social, family affair with rituals such as eating dates. How will this affect your character - might they be itching to get home to break the fast after a long shift?
At the end of Ramadan, Muslims celebrate the festival of Eid al-Fitr. There are many spiritual aspects to this festival, but it is also typically a day of celebration. It is a public holiday in many countries; in the UK it is not a holiday, but increasing numbers of organisations allow a day's leave. How a person celebrates will depend on their own cultural background, so in the UK, Muslims from different traditions or heritages will have their own way of marking the day. How would your Muslim character choose to celebrate? What is their heritage?
Muslims also celebrate a second festival, Eid al-Adha, roughly two months after Eid al-Fitr. This coincides with the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims hope to accomplish at least once in their lifetime. How will your character mark Eid al-Adha?
Diwali A festival of lights, it is celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs. It takes place over five days and also moves each year, typically falling between mid-October and mid-November. The five days each have significance, with specific rituals, and it is usually seen as a major celebration. How it is celebrated will vary depending on your character's cultural and religious background, so it is worth doing your research. As it is a festival of light, fireworks are common, which in the UK is convenient as the festival typically falls close to bonfire night (see below).
Weekly Observances Does your character observe any regular religious practises? Muslims pray five times a day, but Friday is especially important, with visits to the Mosque. Christians traditionally regard Sunday as 'a day of rest'. Whilst the numbers attending church have fallen significantly, the remnants of the UK's nominally Christian heritage can be seen in reduced trading times on Sundays and restrictions on alcohol etc (these vary between the four nations, so do your research!). The Jewish sabbath falls between sun-down on Friday and sun-down on Saturday, and for the most observant they cannot work or travel in that time (with quite strict interpretations of what constitutes work). How observant is your character? Do they follow these rules in their daily lives?
Non-religious public holidays or popular celebrations Thanksgiving. I am including this after finding out that some Americans don't realise that this (and July the fourth) are not celebrated in the UK! In America, Thanksgiving is at least as important (if not more so) than Christmas in the UK, and in fact the traditional Turkey dinner is remarkably similar to that celebrated by many British people on Christmas day. In the United States, Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday in November. In Canada, it is celebrated on the second Monday in October.
And whilst we're on the subject, Mother's day is also celebrated on different days in the UK and the US.
Public Holidays or celebrations Check the calendar to see when public holidays (bank holidays) fall. Do closed businesses cause problems for your main character? Don't forget that bank holidays can vary between the home nations. What about other celebrations? Halloween is becoming increasingly popular in the UK. It isn't a public holiday, but traditions such as fancy dress parties and trick or treating are becoming more common. November the 5th (bonfire night) marks the foiling of Guy Fawke's plot to blow-up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. Combined with Diwali, the setting off of fireworks can now last throughout much of October and November. Does this cause problems for your character? Are they sleep-deprived after being kept awake by late-night revellers or howling pets?
And finally, consider the dates of school holidays - this may have an impact on your character if they are a parent, or have a partner who is a teacher. DCI Warren Jones' wife, Susan, is a biology teacher. Depending on when the book is set, Susan may be off school.
Well thank you if you've read all of this! Hopefully it will tide you over until the new year, when I will start writing again.
As always, feel free to comment or share here or on social media.
Have a great Christmas, however you choose to celebrate it, and see you in 2021!
Getting Social The use of Social Media in your novel (Part 2)
Welcome to this week's #TuesdayTip. Last week's blog post discussed whether or not to use Social Media in your novel. It covered some of the issues to be considered and described some of the most common services and applications, focusing initially on the Facebook-owned services, including WhatsApp and Instagram.
This week, I am going to look at some of the darker issues raised by Social Media that may provide you with inspiration for your story.
After the read more cut, I will describe non-Facebook-owned services, such as Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat and some more niche services, such as Telegram and Signal. For accuracy, don't forget to check when these services became widely available (and where) and when they implemented different features. My earlier posts (34 and 35) on using mobile phone technology in your books can be read as a companion piece to this articles .
The Dark Side of Social Media. Social media, or social networking, can be a lot of fun. For many of us, these services provide an easy way to maintain contact with friends and loved ones, network with like-minded individuals, read and share media or news articles, and laugh at rude memes or pictures of cats. The enforced loneliness of lockdown has made these services all the more popular.
But it does have a dark-side.
Echo-Chambers and Rabbit holes The way that social media is designed to work, means that it can be an echo-chamber, as we tend to like and follow those we agree with. The network's algorithms will then serve up more content that it thinks we will enjoy. This amplifies views that we agree with and can distort our perception of what the majority of society think. Many people are shocked at the outcome of elections and referendums, because all the people that they interacted with prior to the ballot intended to vote the same way as they do, with those who disagreed hidden from view. YouTube is very good at predicting what videos you will most like, based on those you have already watched and others with apparently similar tastes have also seen. This can lead to bias and the amplification of conspiracy theories and disinformation. Search for videos on 5G conspiracies linked to Covid and after watching a couple of videos by conspiracy theorists, YouTube will soon start recommending other videos outlining outlandish theories, whilst steering you away from sources that debunk them. Anti-vaxxers have been especially good at harnessing this effect to spread myths and lies about vaccines. There is good evidence that hostile states and dangerous groups such as QAnon have used this tactic in an attempt to spread confusion and mis-information about everything from election results to vaccine side-effects; their motives aren't always clear, but destabilising public confidence in our democratic institutions seems to be one goal.
Could characters in your book be influenced by what they see or read on social media?
End-to-End Encryption and Self-destructing Messages. As mentioned last week, many messaging apps now use End-to-End Encryption. The encoding of messages to make them unreadable if intercepted goes back to ancient times; the Romans and Ninjas of ancient Japan routinely encrypted information before giving it to messengers to deliver. If the message was intercepted by their enemies, then they needed to work out how to decipher it before it was any use. The breaking of the Enigma Code by the Allies during the Second World War started the practise of using computers to break such codes. To counter this, the encoders made their ciphers ever more fiendish, requiring more and more computing power to break them. Despite the exponential increase in processing power over the past few decades, modern encryption is so strong that it would take computers an impractically long time to crack just a single code, especially given the billions of individual encrypted communications sent daily. Therefore the only way for governments etc to peek at an encrypted message is to demand (with a warrant) that the company that supplied the software or app used by the communicators hand over the digital key used to encrypt that message.
End-to-End Encryption has now stymied that. The message is encrypted by the device of the sender, the encoded stream of information transmitted over the internet through the messaging app provider's servers, and then decoded by the receiver's device. At no point does the provider of the messaging app have the keys to decrypt the message. Law enforcement can compel the company that runs the messaging network to hand over the message, but they have no way of decrypting it, and neither does the company. This technology has been a game-changer, for both good and ill. On the one hand, oppressed groups in police states can safely communicate with one another and we can use our mobile phones to pay for items securely or bank safely, but on the other hand, paedophiles, criminals and terrorists can plot and share information with no way for the police to track them.
How could your characters use secure communications? Are the police blocked from accessing valuable intelligence?
Self-destructing messages. Many apps now allow users to stipulate that a message 'self-destruct' after a set time, meaning they permanently disappear. For apps such as Snapchat, this is part of its core functionality. Sometimes it is possible to take a screenshot of the message before it vanishes for good, although the sender may be notified that the screenshot has been taken. Photographing the screen with a second device would circumvent this. Combined with encryption, this makes it extremely difficult for police to retrieve these messages as evidence.
Could your characters use this to plan their skulduggery? What challenges would this pose for your police or victims?
Cyberstalking The willingness of people to share lots of information about themselves publicly has played into the hands of people with dark motives. It is known that paedophiles use social media to harvest innocently-posted pictures of children, which they share with others to feed their fantasies. People who become obsessed with an individual can use social media to build a profile of that person and use it to work out where they live and work, stalking them online; inevitably, some will move off-line and try and make contact in the real world. Again, paedophiles are known to use the classic "standing in front of the fridge in the new school uniform" picture to identify which school a child goes to.
Geotagging is the way that mobile devices automatically add location data to posts. These days, it is a feature that you have to choose to turn on, and rightly so. You may as well just post a large sign outside your house saying "I'm on holiday in Greece, now would be a good time to burgle me." Plenty of fools do choose to turn it on however.
Similarly, many people use apps to track their running or walking. These use the phone's GPS and map features to plot your running routes, which you are then encouraged to share with other users. If you do this in real-time, they provide a helpful way for stalkers to follow you. But even if you don't, instead sharing them after you have completed your exercise, stalkers can learn your regular exercise routes and find a nice, quiet spot to wait for you...
Of even more concern is the use of social media by abusive partners to track down former victims. How many times have you seen a Facebook post imploring you to share the image of a missing person and let the poster know if you see them? These pictures can be spread far and wide, until eventually, a well-meaning person contacts the abuser and confirms where they now live. Unless the plea comes from the police or similar source, don't share. There are many legitimate reasons why a person may go missing, and this can place them in danger. Related to this, Face tagging is the use of Artificial Intelligence by a social media service to identify people appearing in photographs posted by others. In Europe it is turned off as a default. Again, this feature could potentially be used to track down former partners, perhaps by scanning posted images to identify new acquaintances.
Could you use this in your book? What sort of profile might an attacker build of their victim from publicly visible information? Might they use social media to track down a person?
Revenge Porn, recently made a criminal offence in the UK, is the dissemination of intimate images - gained either illicitly or with the subjects agreement - without the person's permission. It is often done to shame the victim and may be triggered by revenge after a break up, an attempt at blackmail, or for the sexual gratification of the poster. It can also be transactional, with the poster selling the images for money or payment in kind, such as using them as a de facto currency with others doing the same. Some closed groups for paedophiles or voyeurs only allow potential abusers to join them if they too share images.
Could this be a motive in your book?
Identity theft/Bank Fraud/Targeted Scams Social media is a gold mine for those wishing to impersonate a person, usually for financial gain. Dates of birth, addresses, full names, even online banking passwords can be gleaned from careless social media usage. Criminals will use a range of different tactics to gain snippets of information from millions of people. Taken in isolation, each of these pieces are of limited use, but the nature of social media is such that all of these pieces of information are indelibly tied to the person who originally posted them and can be pieced together like a jigsaw, until the criminal has everything they need to know about an individual. Even if you are careful not to fully complete your Facebook profile etc, you can still give away a lot of the clues necessary in quizzes etc. Remember this old favourite? Your stripper name is your mother's maiden name followed by the name of your first pet! Congratulations, you've just posted two of the most common questions used in a password reset for your online banking account!
Romance scams involve a criminal identifying somebody who is likely to respond to romantic (or more sordid!) overtures, then convincing them to meet up and, eventually, ripping them off financially. They can use social engineering to convince them that they are a like-minded individual by trawling information in their social media profiles and answers to quizzes. "Oh, you are a big Star Trek fan also, what a coincidence!" "That's my favourite album as well - what do you think of track 3?" "I can't believe were both in Alicante in June 2017, we could have been sitting next to each other in a bar and never even realised (although I'm sure I'd have remembered someone as handsome as you!)"
Could your victim be duped by their attacker using information that they posted online?
Cyber Bullying Bullying has always existed, and human nature is such that it won't be disappearing anytime soon. Years ago, it was possible to escape bullies by leaving the place where you normally interacted with them. Generations of school children have breathed a sigh of relief when they finally made it home from school, leaving their tormentors behind for the day. Unfortunately, the advent of mobile devices that make you always contactable have ended that. Even if you choose not to answer a phone call from a bully, social media applications will typically send you notifications whenever you are mentioned by someone - now you can hear people speaking behind your back. For the always-connected generation, a fear of missing out on legitimate interactions with friends, can make turning off the device difficult, and make turning it back on a source of dread. The practise of bullying a person by posting unkind content that they can see is an example of Trolling and when others join in, this is referred to as a pile-on.
Could cyber bullying be a motive for a crime? Or perhaps a way of identifying potential suspects?
Thank you for reading this far, I hope that you have found this useful. If you want to learn more about specific, non-Facebook-owned social media services, click below to read more.
As always, feel free to comment here or on social media. Come back next week for my Christmas special!