Last month I reviewed Colette McBeth’s second novel The Life I Left Behind, a gripping and exciting psychological thriller. I enjoyed it to bits and it made me want to read her debut novel Precious Thing as soon as I can fit it in. When I got the chance to be part of a blog tour for The Life I Left Behind I jumped on the chance to learn more about the way Colette goes about her research. Colette wrote the following wonderful guest post. I hope you enjoy it and that you pick up The Life I Left Behind, because it’s a brilliant read.
Keeping it real; researching forensics
Authors have wildly different approaches to research. I recently asked one, who writes brilliant police procedurals, why she hadn’t thanked anyone at the end of her novel for helping her. She told me she didn’t need to. All her research was done on the internet. Others make it up. Why wouldn’t they? It’s fiction after all. Each to their own, we all do what works for us. In my case I prefer talking to experts directly, mainly because I’m always on the look out for distraction but also because I’m a gossip and invariably they slip something in to conversation that’s far more interesting than my original query.
In fact The Life I Left Behind would have been a very different book without the handful of experts who willingly gave their time and advice. It might not have been a book at all. There’s barely a chapter where I haven’t drawn on my research. Even the flower in the story, the hibiscus syriacus, was suggested by a palynologist (someone who studies pollen) given it blooms in late summer and sheds pollen easily.
In my first novel Precious Thing Rachel was a TV crime reporter, a job I was familiar with having worked for ten years as a TV correspondent. I knew exactly what would happen in each situation, I knew how she would speak on air, how people speak to each other in newsroom. But Eve, although a TV producer, worked in a sphere I knew little about. I had never investigated a miscarriage of justice. Thankfully Louise Shorter, a former producer on the BBC’s Rough Justice, offered to help. Over the years Louise has helped overturn several wrongful convictions and more often than not forensics have been at the very heart of the cases she’s put together. Louise told me how she approaches a potential case, the questions she asks, what she looks for, how she would request samples and files from police. She also recommended I speak to an academic at Oxford University, a forensic sedimentoligist whose work had recently helped her clear two men who were serving murder sentences. He studies soil and grain in the investigation of murder, rapes and assaults.
I wanted to know if it were possible to tell that a body had been in two different locations from a few microscopic samples of soil taken from a victim’s clothing.
Apparently it is. Not only that, a grain of soil found in one location could have entirely different properties to one found only a mile away, he said.
He also came up with an extraordinary offer; if I could tell him the two locations I had in mind in my novel– locations where Melody was taken and later Eve – he would do the soil analysis for me. So the results of the soil samples you see in The Life I Left Behind are the exact results for those geographical areas. They’re also his words, not mine.
The downside for all of these experts is that they’ll get no peace from me now. The story possibilities are endless. Fiction has succeeded where GCSE chemistry failed, finally convincing me science is fascinating after all.
Bio: Colette studied French and Spanish at the University of Liverpool, something her children find hilarious since she can’t speak French any more. She started her career as a trainee reporter on The Journal in Newcastle before moving to Sky News in London where she worked as a deputy news editor. Deciding she missed being on the road she landed a job at the BBC as a news reporter and for the next ten years spent endless hours shivering outside courts, standing in muddy fields and filming on windswept beaches. By consequence she is an expert at applying make- up in the dark on next to no sleep.
She has reported on many big stories and crime cases but her friends remember her for the coverage of the invasion of killer crabs in the sea around Norfolk.
Colette started her first novel, Precious Thing, while she was still working at the BBC and finished it on maternity leave with her third child.
She now writes full time and lives in London in with her husband and children.