One of the best parts of working in book publishing is that some of the most gifted, talented, fun and just generally great people form the majority of the workforce. We are all united by the love of the written word, but each person has such a wide variety of skills and knowledge that even if you’ve worked with someone for years, they’ll still surprise you with a little nugget of wisdom when you least expect it.
However, now that the whole world has effectively moved to working from home, I thought it would be lovely to reach out to the publishing community and get to know some of my colleagues in the industry a little more – albeit over a Zoom chat, rather than the lunches and coffees that publishing professionals are known for.
I specialise in crime fiction, thriller and suspense, revelling in a shocking twist and gripping mysteries and narratives. However, although I can help you with suspense, your plotting, character development, and keeping your reader hooked, when working on a police procedural novel, sometimes I need to call on help for the more technical matters. Because if there is one thing that we know about crime-fiction readers is that they’ll pick up on where you haven’t got your facts right. Which is why I’m delighted to welcome Crime Fiction Advisor Graham Bartlett to my virtual couch to chat all about things police procedure, and how to get the technical side right, whilst still maintaining a great story.
Get Your Facts Right: Police Procedure in Crime Fiction
with Graham Bartlett, Crime Fiction Advisor
Graham Bartlett was a UK police officer in Sussex for thirty years. He mainly policed the city of Brighton and Hove, rising to become its police commander. On the way he was a homicide senior investigating officer and led on managing dangerous offenders, sexual offences, domestic violence, child protection and hate crime. He was a qualified strategic firearms and public order commander, leading the policing of many armed operations, large scale protests and sporting events.
Since retiring, he has become a police procedural and crime advisor helping scores of authors and TV writers (including Peter James Mark Billingham Elly Griffiths and Dorothy Koomson) achieve authenticity alongside their drama. He works flexibly with authors at all stages of their writing career and adopts an ethos of ‘creativity with credibility.’ Graham runs a series of hugely popular online courses and workshops under the banner of ‘Crime Writing: Making it Real. He is also a best-selling crime writer, with two non-fiction books – DEATH COMES KNOCKING and BABES IN THE WOOD – to his name and a crime novel in the pipeline.
Graham, welcome! Thank you so much for joining us here today. So you started off in the police force, but what made you change from real crime to fictional crime? Tell us a little bit about you and your journey to becoming a crime fiction advisor.
Thanks so much for inviting me to take part. I feel deeply honoured! My writing journey was one of complete happenstance. I’d known Peter James, the best-selling author, from my days in the police when we used to help him develop his plots.
When I retired, he suggested we write a non-fiction together, telling the real stories behind his novels. After the initial shock, and three years of hard tutorship, we produced Death Comes Knocking – Policing Roy Grace’s Brighton, which ended up as a Sunday Times Top Ten Best Seller. Then came Babes in the Wood, a gruelling true-crime story of two families’ thirty-two-year fight for justice following the brutal murder of their nine-year-old daughters.
In that time, people asked me if I could help them with the policing aspects of their stories as they knew I worked on Peter’s books. It just snowballed from there and now it’s a full-time job, advising around seventy crime novelists and TV writers on their police procedure, characters and plots and running online crime writing courses.
It seemed natural then to start writing fiction myself. My debut is with my agent and I’m nervously waiting her red pen!
Authenticity is so important in a crime novel. So, what are the most common aspects of policing that writers get wrong? And how can you avoid these pitfalls?
There are so many! Simple things like getting ranks and roles wrong, right through to messing up all the evidence by trampling the crime scene or fiddling with the suspect’s computer. Anyone above the rank of detective sergeant interviewing a suspect is a particular bugbear.
I have a list of Bartlett’s Bloopers, some of which appear here, but the best way to avoid them is to ask someone who knows and watch as many fly-on-the-wall police documentaries as possible. I do, and still learn loads.
But would you agree that telling the most compelling story is the most important aspect of writing fiction? So how much artistic license do you think writers should have with regards to police-investigation procedure and other aspects of law enforcement?
I couldn’t agree more. The story and characters are everything, after all no one wants a policing textbook, do they? The job of the advisor is to give as much of the real world as they can, suggest creative ways around problem areas and allow the author, armed with that knowledge, to take an artistic decision on how much to veer from what they now know. However, they can’t do that unless they know the detail first.
The job of the advisor is to give as much of the real world as they can, suggest creative ways around problem areas and allow the author, armed with that knowledge, to take an artistic decision on how much to veer from what they now know. However, they can’t do that unless they know the detail first.
Pushing this idea a bit further, having worked on many cases over your time in the police, it must be tempting to use real-life cases as the basis for your fiction novels. But do you think it is right to you use real-life investigations for entertainment in this way? E.g. The Girls (Emma Cline), The Long Drop, (Denise Mina), Room (Emma Donoghue), The Search (Howard Linskey).
Fictionalising true crime is a tricky area, especially where there are living victims and relatives who may read it. Done well, it can be stunning, but I would always urge those who aren’t sure they can treat the dead and those left behind with respect to steer clear, or at least make the cases unidentifiable.
Are there any tropes in crime fiction that you are enjoying seeing explored?
I’d like to see more focus on family liaison in crime fiction. Given that most people who are murdered are killed by someone they know, family liaison officers are often the ones to uncover the truth. Far from being hand-holding, tea-making counsellors, they are seasoned detectives who rarely miss a trick and are hugely influential to any enquiry – they’d make great characters.
Are there any stereotypes/tropes that drive you nuts when you read them?
- Hard-drinking, womanising, corner-cutting mavericks – that would get you the sack rather than promotion.
- Promotion for a job well done.
- Detectives with no or a shattered home live.
- Shouty, bullying, narcistic senior officers.
I could go on!
With so much US crime drama around, are you seeing a lot of Americanisation slipping into UK-based police procedurals? Is there a huge difference in how the police forces across the pond work?
Yes, it’s almost unrecognisable from the UK. And each US state has different laws and procedures too. I’m often asked to advise on American procedure but run a mile! There’s a great Facebook group, Cops and Writers, which can source free advice on US procedure.
So what are the best places, routes and methods of researching police procedure that you’d would recommend to writers just starting out on their crime fiction journey?
Read, read and read some more in your genre. Aside from that, watch TV fly-on-the-wall documentaries, read true crime and come on my courses. You will get everything you need from those, and you can ask me, or people like me, to work 1:1 with you to sculpt your novel into an authentic, yet thrilling crime drama.
One area that most ‘civilian’ writers (who haven’t had the pleasure of being held by the police) aren’t familiar with but is integral in crime fiction is being interviewed by the police. These are often the most intense times in an investigation, with emotions running high and the pressure mounting. Do you have any tips of how crime writers can get their interview scenes right?
I run one-day workshops on this very subject. The short answer is to not drag the interview out too long. They actually go on for hours, days even, but you don’t want that – or at least your readers don’t.
In the UK, everything is videoed, solicitors are almost always present and there is no shouting, lying or promises made.
Simply put there are three phases of interview –
- The First Account, where the suspect is allowed to just talk.
- The Clarification, where the police use a series of open and closed questions to get the suspect to fill in the gaps.
- The Challenge, where the police slowly reveal all the evidence which blows the suspect’s account out of the water.
This final stage is where the drama is. That said, most suspects make no comment, but that can be dramatic and evidential in itself.
Speaking of pressure, they say in a murder investigation there is the ‘golden hour’, whereby the first few hours after an incident are critical to making progress in a case. Creating a race-against-time is a great way of increasing tension in crime fiction, but is it always like that in the real world? Is there ever a case for slow and steady wins the race?
Oh, indeed. Those first few hours are frenetic in understanding what’s actually happened, to whom, why and when. It’s like casting a massive net and then sifting what you have.
‘Slowly does it,’ certainly comes in to it. Early arrests are not always good, as you may want to build a case first, put the suspect under surveillance or wait for forensics. Once you arrest someone, you show your hand and that might clam everyone up.
How do you think the increasing use of technology will affect policing, but also crime fiction? Will the detectives be replaced by techies (God forbid!)?
So much detective work is technological these days, I’d say it’s happening now. People run their lives online, so that’s where their secrets are buried. Few major crimes are solved these days without some kind of digital evidence, so detectives need to be up to the mark.
So how can you help writers with their crime fiction novels? Tell us a bit about the process.
I work one-to-one with some authors developing their plots, characters and procedure from the start. That’s an iterative process which I love as we see the authenticity and drama develop in tandem.
Some prefer to send me a list of questions, or ask them over Zoom, and I, or one of my team of experts, will answer them and find creative ways round problems.
Some send me full manuscripts, which, while late in the process, is really useful as I pick out things they would not think to ask. I also get to know characters and the whole story better so can advise what would be likely in each scenario and with each person, as this can differ.
Are there any things that a writer should consider when planning their books that will help them make it feel authentic as possible?
I’d say do your research then wear it lightly. Learn as much as you can about how police approach the crime you’re writing about and where you’re setting your story, then use that to pepper, rather than flood, your story with what you know.
Peter James does that brilliantly. He will never bore the reader with unnecessary procedure but with a word or two, or a sentence of dialogue, we all know what’s happening could happen, even if it’s unusual.
“Do your research then wear it lightly. Learn as much as you can about how police approach the crime you’re writing about and where you’re setting your story, then use that to pepper, rather than flood, your story with what you know.“
When is the best time for a writer to come to you for advice, and how can writers prepare their manuscript or novel idea to make the most of working with an expert?
Ideally come to me at the start. I love the question ‘I’m thinking of writing a story whereby …., can you help?’ Then we start on a journey together.
That said, I’m equally happy for people to come to me when they’re stuck, midway through or even right at the end. Everything is fixable even if you are days away from a deadline.
You’ve got a whole team of experts that you work with, but have they ever been stumped by a question?
“I would like to know the basics, perhaps the different ranks in the Moroccan police, the procedure involved, questioning of witnesses to the crime, etc.” That was met with a deafening silence. I was gutted to let the author down.
You explained your writing career earlier, but also mentioned you’re working on something new. And can you share any exciting sneak-peeks about your fiction book with us?
My novel explores the devastating consequences when savage police cuts lead to state sponsored vigilantism and summary justice takes over whereby criminals are maimed, kidnapped and murdered rather than arrested? The bodies mount up and the human toll is irreparable.
Do you think there is a very different approach with regards to writing crime when its fiction as opposed to non-fiction? Do you have to actively change your thinking when you switch genre?
They have there own unique challenges. Writing accessible non-fiction is all about the research and keeping the story flowing. You need to get it right yet it’s tempting to include everything, but that would bog the reader down. Conversely, you can’t play fast and loose with the narrative. The hardest part of Babes in the Wood, aside from the emotional strain of the subject matter, was writing the scientific evidence. It was unbelievably complex and I had to find a way of getting how damming it was across without bamboozling the reader. I hope I succeeded.
Fiction, is another trial! At least in non-fiction the stories and characters are fully formed. Novelists have to create them all from scratch, avoid plot holes, leave no loose ends (despite there always being some in real life) and keeping the protagonists in peril. At least with fiction, if you don’t like someone you can kill them off!
And a three final quick-fire questions:
What novel would you recommend a budding crime writer read?
Anything by Peter James or M W Craven. They are both stunning, but very different, writers who really know their stuff.
Most importantly, what’s your favourite writing snack (assuming not doughnuts 😉 (I know, I watch too much US crime drama!)?
Custard Creams and, in case you didn’t know this, if they are broken, they are calorie-free. Have that one on me!
Do you have any final tips to share with our aspiring crime, suspense and thriller writers?
Never give up reading, and never, ever, ever give up writing. All first drafts have huge problems, but you can’t edit a blank page so get the story down and fix it later.
To find out more about ensuring your crime fiction novel is both accurate as well as gripping, get in touch with Graham and his talented team at Graham Bartlett – Crime Fiction Advisor, and they’d be delighted to help you on your crime writing journey!