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Writing a Novel – Research

A Single Source of TruthThis post is part of a series of articles about writing my novel, A Single Source of Truth.

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Some people love to research. In fact, some love it so much that they can get lured into an obsessive trap, digging deep for weeks, months, even years, looking for those extra, neverending details to improve their work (that could be a sign of procrastination, derived from a fear of actually writing the thing that prompted the search in the first place!).

I'm not a fan of research because I'm very impatient. I just want to crack on with writing the thing in as fast a time as I can while riding a wave of seemingly unending inspiration and motivation. Yeah, right. Unfortunately, research is vital. Okay, maybe not so vital if you're writing a personal account of that childhood summer you spent in the Lake District, but if you're writing outside of your own life and comfort zone, in an area you don't really understand, then you need to research. A reader can spot implausibility a mile away. They can smell it.

In retrospect, I did fairly minimal (borderline fuck-all) research for the screenplay version of A Single Source of Truth. And why would I? I didn't need to know many of the details about anything really, I just use scene headings such as ‘CYBERCRIME DIVISION' and bada-bing, I'd let the production designer take care of the rest. And it's no wonder it didn't get picked up.

On the other hand, I had a bit of an advantage with writing A Single Source of Truth. I worked (and still work) in IT. I grew up in a household obsessed with computers, and I've spent most of my life tinkering with all sorts of techie things that Beckford and the likes might carry out my story (no, nothing illegal *cough*). Yet no matter how much technical knowledge I had, it wouldn't be enough to carry a full-blown novel, not unless John Beckford worked in IT, doing what I do for a living, which I'm sure you'll believe me when I say… isn't very entertaining at all.

No, Beckford worked for the Metropolitan Police, in a cybercrime division which, 10 years ago when I started writing the book, wasn't a widely publicised area.

The Deep Dive

Knowing where and when to start researching can be tricky. Some writers do a thorough investigation of their selected topics before putting pen to paper, a good way to brainstorm and gather ideas. Some like me will be more impatient and just write, and when you get to a point that needs some Googling, you either do it there and then, or you can skip over it and make a note to come back later. I can't skip. I have to get to the nitty-gritty of how something would work in real life before I can continue.

The good news is, research is now easier than ever. God bless the internet. I often wonder how long it must have taken writers 100 years ago to finish a book. That would have sucked. Nowadays, you just need Google (or your search engine of choice). If that doesn't get you what you want, you can turn to social media, because unless you're writing something outside of the realms of our known world (in which case you have very lenient creative license, so just make it up), you can probably find someone online who does – or is close to doing – what your characters do.

For A Single Source of Truth, a lot of my research involved Police procedure and criminal law. Ideally, I needed to speak to a detective working for the Metropolitan Police. So I tracked one down on Twitter and asked if they could help me out. Of course they could, he said. As long as I contacted their agent.

Ka-ching.

Yes, research may cost money, but back then I wasn't willing to invest any in that area, not when I felt I could get it for free. Instead, I turned to my friend's dad who was a retired police detective for over 25 years. He was much more reasonably priced (free), and over the course of writing my book, I sent him batches of questions that I'd built up. Almost all of his answers ended up going into the story.

The Infinite Library

My friend's dad worked in homicide, which was great for information related to murder investigations, but a big part of my book was related to cybercrime, and I scoured the internet for anything, and I mean anything I could find about it. For example, I needed to know about High Tech Crime Units (as they were, or still are, known), and how police handled computer crime. What were their procedures for dealing with software and hardware evidence, and not just computers, but phones, and pagers (remember them?).

I also needed to know where in London would my story take place, the police stations located, and where would my protagonist live? How long would it take someone to get from A to B by foot, car, bike, bus etc. There were hundreds, if not thousands of questions I needed answers for over the course of writing the book. Thankfully, the internet came up with the goods.

Books

Books are probably my go-to medium for research. You can find a book on almost any topic these days, and the best thing about them is they are condensed. No need to scour a million websites for a glimmer of information. It's all tailored for you. And while I didn't find much in the way of cybercrime in books, I still got a lot of value out of them. Below was my total reading list while writing A Single Source of Truth. They are all non-fiction unless otherwise stipulated.

  1. Traces of Guilt – Neil Barrett (I actually named one of my antagonists Barrett after this author, but the character disappeared between the script and the novel)
  2. The Crime Writer's Guide to Police Practice and Procedure by Michael O'Byrne
  3. DNA Evidence (True Crime) by T.R. Thomas
  4. Ten Most Wanted by Peter Bleksley
  5. Hard Landing (The Spider Shepherd Thrillers Book 1) by Stephen Leather (Fiction)
  6. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (Fiction – I loved this book and remember being inspired by the structure of the story)
  7. Ballistic Basics: A writer's primer on firearms and the forensics that track them by J. Gunnar Grey
  8. Police Special Constable: A Detailed Handbook For Volunteer Police Officer's by John McGrath
  9. The Good Guys Wear Black: Real-life Heroes of the Police's Rapid-response Firearms Unit by Steve Collins
  10. Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence by Roz Morris (not related to the police, but helpful in the quest of writing my first novel)
  11. Tooth And Nail by Ian Rankin (Fiction)
  12. The Snowman by Jo Nesbo (Fiction)
  13. The Filth: The Explosive Inside Story Of Scotland Yard's Top Undercover Cop by McLaughlin/Hall
  14. Hide And Seek by Ian Rankin (Fiction)
  15. Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris (Fiction)
  16. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King (a must-have for any writer)
  17. A Dark Redemption (Carrigan & Miller Book 1) by Stav Sherez (Fiction)
  18. Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott (another must-have for writers)
  19. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr
  20. Crossing the Line: Losing Your Mind as an Undercover Cop
  21. Confessions of a Police Constable (The Confessions Series) by Matt Delito
  22. Untouchables: Dirty cops, bent justice and racism in Scotland Yard (Bloomsbury Reader) by Michael Gillard, Laurie Flynn
  23. Trust Your Eyes by Linwood Barclay (Fiction… think this was quite similar to my idea actually)
  24. Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground by Kevin Poulsen

Audio

Back then I struggled to find any podcasts or radio shows related to police procedure and cybercrime. I did find this one radio drama, however, which covered the main topic of the Studio's plight.

Noble Cause Corruption Drama By Fin Kennedy

Internet/Documents

Documents. PDFs. Lots of official reports and lengthy, eye-drying policies. This is where I unearthed most of my cybercrime stuff. In reviewing this list again, it just highlighted to me how much information is actually out there if you go looking. Perfect for writers. Here's the list of files I found useful. I've listed them in order of when I searched for them, which highlights trends in topics that I was obviously looking for at the time of writing different sections of the book.

DocumentPagesDescription
PostNote – THE NATIONAL DNA DATABASE (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, dated Feb 2006)4A high-level document reviewing the National DNA Database (NDNAD), how the DNA is captured, stored and extracted, and any ethical issues arising from it.
National DNA Database Annual Report 2007-200956What it says on the tin. In the early stages, the story was heavily focused on the NDNAD, so I did a lot of digging.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-essex-11388669 1Article about a couple of people who met in an online forum and formed a suicide pact. I don't think this influenced my direction of how Nikolai dupes Joseph Winterburn into killing himself, but reinforced it.
The Police National DNA Database: Balancing Crime Detection, Human Rights and Privacy.58A 2005 report on the NDNAD by a company called GeneWatch
United States v. Albert Gonzalez
Criminal Docket No. 08-160(S-1)(SJF)
12A court docket for a computer fraud case involving hacker Albert Gonzalez.
ACPO – Good Practice Guide for Computer-Based Electronic Evidence72In-depth guidelines for how the UK police deal with computer evidence. This was a bit of a goldmine if I remember correctly.
Global Energy Attacks – Night Dragon19A report by security company McAfee regarding a cyberattack dubbed Night Dragon.
Scott & Bailey Production Notes21A document detailing the production of police TV drama Scott and Bailey. I figured, if I'm writing a fictional police drama, I should look at other fictional police dramas.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/8713194/Hundreds-of-police-officers-caught-illegally-accessing-criminal-records-computer.html 1Article about police officers who gained unauthorised access to the Police National Computer. I needed any information like this to build an idea of how corrupt officers did what they did.
UK POLICE REQUIREMENTS FOR DIGITAL CCTV SYSTEMS2A brief document outlining the Police requirements for quality CCTV footage. I had many elements of my story surrounding CCTV and video footage, so this came in handy.
CCTV Policy Statement – February 201112A document detailing the usage and access policies of CCTV for the London Metropolitan University. Very useful for me, as Nikolai lived in University dorms and Beckford gains access to their CCTV.
Barnsbury ward Profile 40Facts and figures relating to the residents of Barnsbury Ward. Not sure why I got this, but I presume I was going to use the location in my novel for either the university or where Beckford lived.
ACPO eCrime Strategy 200928A very useful breakdown of high tech crime units and their procedures when it comes to computer crime. Another gem, this one.
Retention Guidelines for Nominal Records on the Police National Computer236Massive document. Certainly a lot of information on how files are stored on the Police National Computer, one of the main systems that the Police use. I'm almost certain I got a few things from this, but at 236 pages I probably skim read it!
ACPO Firearms 200319A document detailing the usage of firearms by the police. I needed Beckford to have a gun, but it's not like the US police force, British police need to be designated armed officers to officially use one.
THE MANAGEMENT, RECORDING AND INVESTIGATION OF MISSING PERSONS – 201099I needed to look into MISPERs (Missing Persons) when I realised that Joseph Winterburn would be the actual body in the dorm room and that he would be filed as missing by his mother. This document gave me some good stuff.
THE MANAGEMENT, COMMAND AND DEPLOYMENT OF ARMED OFFICERS Third Edition – 2011140I must have got this document when planning the raid on the Bell Tower hotel.
THE MANAGEMENT OF POLICE INFORMATION Second Edition – 2010190More swathes of information I could skim read and pick any bits out.
THE EFFECT OF POLICE ORGANIZATION ON COMPUTER CRIME225A vast document on computer crime. I'm not sure I looked at this one much. Might have been a bit too much for me at the time.
Stockwell One Investigation into the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell underground station on 22 July 2005170I started looking at this case when I was planning Michaels' shooting of Peltz and the Armed Officer. I had no idea what would occur following a situation where an officer is involved in a situation like that, so wanted to study any real-life events that could be compared.
Corruption in the Police Service in England and Wales First Report38Obvious reasons why I'd be interested in this one.
Corruption in the police service in England and Wales: Second report – a report based on the IPCC’s experience from 2008 to 201160And again.
Local to Global: Reducing the Risk from Organised Crime44I was beginning to think about the Studio. Initially, the script revolved around a small number of people being corrupt, but when I started to look at the idea of Noble Cause Corruption, I branched out into a larger, organised gang and thought that was even more of a shocking twist.
Stockwell Two – An investigation into complaints about the Metropolitan Police Service’s handling of public statements following the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes on 22 July 2005142More information about this case.
FORCE PROCEDURES – Post Incident Procedures: Deaths During or Following Police Contact40Again, this was related to Michaels' situation once he was involved in the Bell Tower shooting. What would happen to a senior officer being the only witness at the scene of a shooting?
Operation Kendall – Investigation into the forensic activity undertaken by Devon and Cornwall Constabulary in relation to a DNA sample obtained as part of a rape investigation which occurred in 1989.35A detailed report about the use of NDNAD for a real investigation.

As you can see, there's a ton of material up there. And with a ton of material comes the danger of bogging your story down with too much detail. Only those who are really fastidious get fascinated by extreme detail (like John Beckford… hmm, I wonder who I modelled that on *cough*). However, I was writing a fictional book after all. A book that was supposed to entertain more than inform. But I reckon it's better to have too much research than too little. All that stuff up there gave me a good foundation and, more importantly, made me believe in the world I was creating.

As I said at the beginning of this article, I'm one of those writers who'll look up the detail when I need it. The majority of the research above happened on an ad-hoc basis as I was writing, but the danger here is, research can take you by surprise. It can prove or disprove something you hadn't thought of, or unearth a multitude of new ideas. And when you've written yourself down a long road and get derailed by research, you may find it too difficult or nigh on impossible to shoe-horn it in. Invariably, you'll have to dig up that road and start another… and taking out big chunks like that hurts*.

*By all means, keep hold of those extracts! I create a new file called “SCRAP” and everything I removed from the book I just cut and pasted in. You'll never know when you need to refer back or steal bits from it.

Stay tuned next week where I'll be getting down brass tacks: the actual writing the book!

If you have any comments or questions, please post them in the box below.

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