Does reality matter in crime fiction?

Crime Writing: making it real – who cares?

Who really cares if you get a few details wrong when writing your police procedural? Here, retired police officer and author advisor Graham Bartlett, who teaches our Crime Writing: Forensics course, talks getting the facts right, and why it’s essential for your story.

Graham Bartlett
Graham Bartlett

Confession time!

I know nothing about resecting a bowel or removing an inflamed appendix. Why would I? I’m a former detective, not a surgeon. What I suspect, though, is the best time for a lead surgeon to break the news to her junior that she is the mother he never knew about is not while performing major surgery on a critically ill patient.

That really happened. Well, not really, but that was a scene too far for me in BBC’s Holby City last year. I had been prepared to suspend reality in pursuit of my addiction to the long-running hospital drama for years, but this tipped me over the edge.

But, then again, does reality matter in fiction? Specifically, crime fiction. As someone who makes a living from advising crime authors and TV writers – from novices to Diamond Dagger winners – you might be surprised by my answer: Yes and no.

What readers want

As with any writing, crime authors must think of their readers. What do they want? What do they need? What will keep the story going? Many are genre-loyal, so will expect you to know your stuff. However, there’s a difference between you knowing it and regurgitating it on the page.

I remember one balmy summer evening, when I was watching my sons play cricket in the local park, my friend, co-author and best-selling crime writer Peter James called me up. He was in the middle of writing a scene in Dead Like You and wanted to know how offenders are supervised on release from prison.

As ever, I asked him what he was looking to achieve, then spent an hour taking him through the Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements – or MAPPA for short. I related it to his story and characters, then wondered how he would make something so intricate engaging.

That hour was reduced into one paragraph of pithy prose that showed he knew what he was talking about without overloading the reader.

By contrast, when I took a novice author through the hoops to enable a particular officer to interview a suspect, she pasted the whole lot into her manuscript – as dialogue. I pointed out to her the trick of wearing your research lightly. Know the detail, write the minimum.

I say to writers, ‘You don’t have to get it right but don’t get it wrong.’ That’s not contradictory. What it means is that feel free to gloss over the detail, but never into a procedure or describe an activity unless it’s spot on.

– Graham Bartlett

Details aren’t so devilish

People ask me why they should bother. If they don’t know how police officers address each other, behave off duty or scour a crime scene then, the chances are, neither do their readers.

Wrong.

A friend, fellow author and advisor Neil White – a practising criminal law solicitor – lists, at our Crime Fiction Masterclasses, those who will catch you out:

  • Thousands of police officers
  • Every solicitor, barrister and judge
  • All the court clerks
  • All the staff in defence firms and the Crown Prosecution Service
  • All who have previously worked as any of the above
  • Countless criminals!

Add to that those who read well-researched crime fiction and you start to get a flavour of why authenticity matters. I say to writers, ‘You don’t have to get it right but don’t get it wrong.’ That’s not contradictory.

What it means is that feel free to do as Peter James did and gloss over the detail, but never – never – plunge your reader into a procedure or describe an activity unless it’s spot on. You’ll be found out and your book flung to the TBP – To Be Pulped – pile.

The message is: Don’t guess. There are plenty of people you can ask. I do all the time if I’m not sure. Some, like me, provide a professional service moulding the procedure to authentically fit your story. Others will just answer the odd question like:
Which is higher, inspector or superintendent?

It’s superintendent, by the way.

If your detective switches on or fiddles with the suspect’s computer or phone they are compromising all the evidence. Real cops leave it alone & call in the experts.

– Graham Bartlett

Bartlett’s bloopers

Here are some of the classic faux pas people make when they think they know. I call them my #bartlettsbloopers – the literary equivalent of fingernails down the blackboard:

  • Police officers cannot, by law, be made redundant. If you want to get rid of a cop, say they have been sacked for gross misconduct, resigned, retired, posted departments or transferred forces. Never laid off.
  • If your detective switches on or fiddles with the suspect’s computer or phone they are compromising all the evidence. Real cops leave it alone & call in the experts.
  • In England, Scotland and Wales your murder detectives would never be armed. I know plenty in real life – I was one myself once – and trust me, they are the last people you want carrying guns!

So, if you want to avoid those Holby moments, keep your loyal readers or just have professional pride, then research, filter, then write.

I’ll be running some courses with the Professional Writing Academy very soon which will help and guide you in all things crime fiction, but equally I’m happy to help you on a one to one basis. Just contact me through www.policeadvisor.co.uk and sign up to my newsletter while you’re there.

Happy sleuthing.

Graham Bartlett

Author and Police Advisor

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Meet your Course Director

Graham Bartlett

Graham Bartlett

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, Anthony Horowitz, Mark Billingham, Elly Griffiths and Dorothy Koomson) achieve authenticity alongside their drama. He has worked on numerous TV dramas and receives wide praise for his approach to blending his guidance with story and character needs.

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 his novel Bad for Good (June 2022) introduces the much anticipated Chief Superintendent Jo Howe series.

More about Graham Bartlett

Crime Writing: Forensics

Harvest the evidence from your fictional crime scenes.

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