Wednesday 24 June 2015

Hunting for Facts

Sir Tim Hunt would be a poor scientist if he did not focus on facts, and clearly he is talented in his field. He won a Nobel a Prize. In claiming that women are more likely to cry than men, he was stating a fact. Women are more likely to cry when emotional. So what? Men are more likely to resort to violence. Of the two, I know which reaction I deplore. 
Sir Tim's communication skills are perhaps not so impressive. Maybe he would not be employed as a diplomat, or a counsellor. He might struggle as a stand up comedian. Because, let's face it, his way of expressing himself can be clumsy. He's the typical unfunny after dinner speaker, a bit tipsy, a tad nervous, We've all heard them, and it can be embarrassing, painful even. At best, inexperienced after dinner speakers are dull. Thankfully Sir Tim was only invited to give a toast, not a whole speech. What could possibly go wrong? 
What went wrong, I mean seriously eminent-lifelong-career-wreckingly wrong, was that three journalists tweeted his pathetic joke out of context. A transcript of the full speech has now been leaked by an official, completely exonerating Tim Hunt of misogyny. The worst criticism that can be levelled against him is that he made an unfunny joke. His admission that he was joking was omitted from the tweets. Two of the three tweeters have now retracted, claiming they "could not recall enough" to comment further. 
Forget about the victim's eminent career. A man has been forced to quit his job, in a "resign or be sacked" ultimatum, on the basis of a twitter frenzy provoked by a misrepresentation of the facts, at best a misunderstanding of what Sir Tim said. 
I believe in democracy. But if we are to countenance mob rule by social media, let us proceed responsibly.
This kind of stupidity is counterproductive. At least one feminist sympathiser is now a feminist sceptic. Issues like fair representation, for men as well as women, and free speech, are more important than any perceived snub to feminism. I'd go so far as to say the feminist response here was emotional and irrational. It makes me want to cry that not one of these tweeters and retweeters paused to ask for the facts. 

Wednesday 3 June 2015

The Benefits of Research

In Transit...

Isn't life strange? Nothing less than National Crime Reading Month could have prompted me to respond to a request for "500 words on any topic of interest" while waiting at one forty a.m. for a seven hour connecting flight to London, having just completed a four hour flight to Abu Dhabi. Yes, writing fiction has taken me into some unexpected places to research my books. 

A lot of my research has involved talking to CID officers as my psychological crime novels also fall into the category of police procedurals, since my protagonists Geraldine Steel and Ian Peterson are detective inspectors. I've spent hours chatting to staff in mortuaries, visiting Metropolitan Police Serious Crime Command, sitting alone in a prison cell (voluntarily!) and passing an exciting afternoon with a Fire Investigation Team (yes, an entire afternoon, just me and a team of firemen!) 

All authors follow their own processes but, for me, research follows the plot. I tell a story, aware that certain areas need research. Having completed the manuscript in draft, only when the story is in place do I fill in externally verifiable information. For me, the danger of conducting research before seeing the narrative through is the risk of being distracted. It is all too easy to inadvertently shoehorn material extraneous to the story into a book, just because the writer finds it interesting. 

Herman Melville did exactly that, including pages of detailed information about whales in his famous novel, Moby Dick. These information dumps would have a place in Wikipedia. For any reader following the dramatic conflict between Ahab, demented captain of a whaling ship, and his nemesis, the great white whale that took his leg, the factual chapters are tedious. 

My research involves meeting people from all walks of life, in all sorts of places: market traders, forensic anthropologists, race course managers, psychiatrists, prisoners in a closed prison, the Spanish equivalent of our CID in Barcelona, the British High Commission in the Seychelles - there is no place on earth where a crime writer might not find herself.

Not all my research has been fun. Watching a sheep's eye being dissected was hardly enjoyable, although it was interesting. My worst research experience so far involved live maggots. I haven't put that in a book yet. It was so gross I prefer not to dwell on it, even in my imagination. 
Recently a new series has led me to overseas locations. I'm writing this on my way home from two weeks' research on a tropical island in the Indian Ocean. Along with the beaches and the cocktails at sunset, I spent time at a local police station and the police headquarters in the capital - again voluntarily! - as well as checking out different settings in the book. After a few weeks at home, working on edits, I'm off again to Paris in July, Greece in August, and Rome in September...  

Just time to send this off before I have to switch to airplane mode.  It's two a.m. in Abu Dhabi, and the flight to Heathrow is boarding...