Write what you know…
Writers often trot out this piece of advice to new writers, with no context around what it means. Other writers try to explain that it’s not a literal command, but rather to do with feelings, emotions, and human instincts. That to write what we know is an emotional knowledge, because how otherwise could we write about fantasy or science fiction if we were only writing what we physically knew?
Last month I released Blood Stained, the first book in a new series with Joffe Books. It’s a crime novel based in Sheffield, focused on DI Claudia Nunn and DS Dominic Harrison. They’re hunting a serial killer. And searching for a missing cop. But are the two things related?
In writing Blood Stained I was writing what I knew. Up until a few years ago I was a serving police officer, having served fifteen years in total, the last eight years as a detective in a specialist unit. This has provided me with the ability to offer a unique authenticity to my work. I won’t guarantee that the procedure is spot on because, well, let’s face it, police work is really boring when you get down to the nuts and bolts of it. For every fifteen minutes of excitement there are months of paperwork to go with it. No one wants to read a novel where your detective is tied to their desk tapping at their computer. And believe me, there is a LOT of computer work (as opposed to paperwork).
The advice is good though, about using your emotional knowledge, because it is this emotion that keeps a reader attached to the book. Keeps them turning the pages. Drives them forward. So I try to bring the reality of what it really feels like to work in a policing environment to my police procedurals. I can attest to the impact of crimes that hurt people. I will never reach into memories of real people and use them for my own ends, but I can say how a team is affected. How they pull together when it’s really needed. I’ve started shifts at six in the morning and not finished until two the following morning because a job has demanded it. These are the realities of the types of crimes that readers love to read about. Cops really do go that extra mile, not just in fiction.
I find it quite difficult sometimes with the procedure, because I think my knowledge hinders me. I have to tread a fine line, between giving readers that insight into what it’s really like, and boring them with the detail. Readers love procedurals because they can see how the police work, but if you tip over the edge and have too much, you can lose their interest. Bore them and they close the book. And having worked the reality and knowing this stuff I do find it a difficult line to walk. But I hope I have found that middle ground and have infused my work with the real information that makes it authentic, and kept enough back so that the story keeps moving forward, using the emotional detail to keep readers invested. After all, that’s why we pick up a book, because we love a story and we’re attached to the characters. The police work, it comes in a close second.
Rebecca Bradley is a retired police detective, author of the DI Hannah Robbins series, and the DI Claudia Nunn series. She lives in the UK with her family and her two cockapoos Alfie and Lola, who keep her company while she writes. Her latest novel Blood Stained is out now.