The truth cannot hide...

True Lies – The Art of Collaboration


 

by Margaret Murphy

EVERYONE LIES has had rave reviews from book bloggers around the net. For more on the novel, and links to reviews click here. Between June and December 2013, EVERYONE LIES twice reached the top ten in Amazon Kindle. Many reviewers liked the forensic elements of the novel, and the fact that it came out of a collaboration between a writer and a forensic scientist.

 

Linghams 500

So, how did the writing collaboration happen? It all began in 2008. During Liverpool’s year as Capital of Culture, the city hosted the BA Science Festival. The Macaulay (now the Hutton) Institute wanted to organize a panel discussion, open to the general public, examining the science behind crime fiction. Dr (now Professor) Lorna Dawson explained that they needed three writers willing to have their work scrutinized, explained, and potentially ridiculed by a panel of six (yes, six!) scientists. Did I know anyone brave (or foolhardy) enough to take part? I persuaded Val McDermid and Peter James to face the ordeal with me. In the event, the scientists were kind to us, and we got off fairly lightly,  Murder, Mystery & Microscopes was a double sell-out, and has since become a staple of public science lectures.

Fast forward to the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival 2010, and another Murder, Mystery & Microscopes event. This time, the two novelists under the microscope were Ann Cleeves and Mark Billingham, and the forensics expert was Dave Barclay, whom I’d met during the inaugural presentation. My agent knew my science background and said she’d love to get the two of us together on a project. We met over gin & tonic and Dave and I had our first formal meeting in August 2010 to agree our respective contributions.
Dave came up with three ten-point plots and we chose one that had the potential to build into a satisfying thriller. From there, we exchanged ideas, and talked about the characters with Dave advising on scientific and procedural elements.  The writing is my job, so when we felt we had enough, I spent a couple of weeks structuring how I thought the story might work. We had the two main protagonists, forensic scientist, Professor Nick Fennimore, and DCI Kate Simms. We had also worked out the main plot – an unexplained blip in the number of overdoses among north Manchester’s heroin addicts, which Simms suspects is something far more sinister. Being science trained, I could do some forensic research myself; when a question arose that was beyond my experience, Dave would provide briefing notes or a PowerPoint presentation – or we would have a Skype conversation.’

Are there any CSI-style cheats or inventions in the novel? Fennimore is a forensic scientist, which means the science has to be right, but EVERYONE LIES is, after all, a work of fiction, so the characters had to have depth and complexity to engage the readers, and as a thriller, the story needed both tension and pace. My science background came in handy in unpicking the more difficult scientific/statistical concepts and making them work dramatically, but the plot outline wasn’t a rigid formula we stuck to. The writing process is organic, apt to change as the story develops, which means that while the outline is a guiding structure – it’s not prescriptive. We added in storylines and characters and scratched out others along the way. Characters will do unpredictable things, against the better judgment of the writer, and in these instances, Dave would deal with the scientific consequences of my untidy creative mind. On one occasion, I reordered some of scenes to increase the tension, and found that DCI Simms needed DNA results faster than I thought possible (cue CSI theme).  I knew that “fast tracking” DNA results can speed up the process to a 24 hour turnaround. But Simms didn’t have that sort of time – or the money to pay for it. I Skyped Dave: was there any way we could get those results in less than 24 hours? He told me that with new equipment and techniques they can be processed in half a day – it’s the backlog of work that holds results up. Fortunately Prof Fennimore was owed a few favours so he got bumped to the head of the queue!

A lot of readers are asking if there will be more of Fennimore and Simms. Happily, the second novel is now finished and edited. Fennimore and Simms go stateside, on the trail of a serial killer. That was fun to research, and I intend to blog the trip in the run-up to the release of the second novel.

 


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