‘Write about what you know.’ Not bad advice for new writers and certainly that’s what I did in my first crime novel, Dead Letters, set in a fictional Cambridge college. I taught in Cambridge myself, so the university setting and the city were very familiar to me and I hardly had to do any research.
But four novels later I began to feel that better advice would be ‘write about what you’d like to know.’ Because just as I gave some of my best lessons when I was only one or two steps ahead of my students, there is nothing like writing about something to make you really get to grips with it. Total ignorance need not be an impediment – as long as you are prepared to put the hours in.
I’ve always enjoyed novels that give an insight into the world of work. Emma Lathen (really two writers, Mary J. Latis and Martha Hennisart) set her series of crime novels, featuring banker John Puttnam Thatcher, in a whole range of work environments, from a fast food franchise to the motor industry. Dick Francis’s novels also drew on a range of working environments, not just the world of horse-racing and those glimpses into the business of, say, the wine merchant or the professional photographer, were part of their appeal.
So I decided to set my new novel, Deep Water, somewhere completely new to me: a medical research lab. Looking back, I can only wonder at my temerity. What was I thinking? ‘Hot air rises.’ That was literally all I could remember of three years of secondary school physics. Chemistry was not much better. Biology I did at least do to ‘O’ level, but still . . .
I had some cards up my sleeve: a sister-in-law who is a haematologist and a friend from university who was a patent lawyer. And I had connections in the University of Sheffield. One introduction led to another.
People are often happy to talk to a writer about their area of expertise and what it is that they do all day. In no time at all I was donning a white coat and joining researchers in the lab. I love hearing about what people do all day. What are the best and worst aspects of the job? What are the other people like? Where do they have lunch? I was fascinated by stories of work being sabotaged, the creepiness of working alone in the lab at night, or the sheer manual dexterity required to carry out some experiments and frustration when – for no apparent reason – they unexpectedly fail.
A leading transplant surgeon explained the odds of finding a donor and helped me sort out a knotty point in the plot. A feisty young woman answered questions about living with an inherited blood disorder. Over a series of lunches with my patent lawyer friend I learned about intellectual property rights and the difference between US and UK patent law.
The research I did for Deep Water extended my scientific education and I enjoyed every minute.
So will my next novel, featuring some of the same characters, be set in the same research lab? Of course not! Where would be the fun in that? This time I will be going to a remote base in Antarctica – not in person, sad to say – so I’ll be picking the brains of people who have wintered over.