I enjoy doing research and I love learning new things, but that means I can spend so much time researching that I get very little writing done. I can disappear down a research trail for hours or days, and enjoy every minute of it.
It’s a common joke amongst writers that we don’t want anyone tracking our online research history. I’ve researched the Iraqi war, illicit drug trade, poisons and dangerous drugs, mining activities, weapons inspections, oil refining processes, and political scandals. I’m sure my computer’s search history could get me into serious trouble. I’m glad no one is looking at it.
How much research is required for a novel or story?
US author, Tom Clancy, said:
“The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.”
So how real do fictional stories have to be?
After all, there’s only so much information you can put into a story before it becomes boring or bogged down in unnecessary details. What I learn from research can be sprinkled lightly to add context rather than simply dumping in facts. You’d be surprised how much research it takes to provide a taste of real life, a feel of accuracy, or an authentic atmosphere for a story.
While I was writing my latest mystery suspense thriller, Lethal Legacy, it became clear I needed to have a stronger grasp on how illegal bikie gangs operated. I’d read up on them, researched them on Wikipedia, and spoken to law enforcement officers about them. They all provided great insights but I still didn’t have a feel for the people who join gangs, their motivation or their experience.
Before Covid and all its accompanying restrictions, I visited the Adelaide Supreme Court. No, the police hadn’t looked at my online search history, thankfully, I was there to observe a trial and get a feel for the court processes.
I’d never been inside the Supreme Court before and I showed up not really knowing what to expect. I’d scanned the online daily schedule but it only listed the names of the accused and didn’t identify the charges. I’d hoped they’d have more information on their noticeboards.
Once I explained why I was there, the Court Sheriffs were wonderfully helpful. They steered me away from a ‘boring’ trial and towards an ‘interesting’ one. It was just what I was looking for, perfect for my plot line and research needs.
Four bikie gang members were charged with kidnapping and assault of an ex-bikie member. And, since it was only just starting, I was able to follow the proceedings from the pre-trial Voir Dire process – hearings to decide what evidence will be admitted during the trial – to the selection of the jury, through the hearing of evidence. and to the final verdict.
Being inside the courtroom was nerve-wracking, especially when coming face-to-face with four burly men who’d lived by a violent code. They were hardened criminals who traded in guns, drugs, and any other illicit substances they could get their hands on. Their activities disregarded any responsibility or consequences.
It gave me a lot to think about.
During the Voir Dire process, the Barristers jostled and bickered to gain the advantage. The Prosecutor wanted to use all the evidence, concrete or hearsay, to achieve a conviction, and of course, the defending Barristers tried to have as much of the evidence dismissed as they could. The Judge questioned and interrogated each piece of evidence and then ruled on what would be admitted and what wouldn’t, to ensure a fair trial. It was a long and tedious process with lots of repetition.
I’m sure TV courtroom dramas had coloured my expectations of what a trial was like. I’d expected the Barristers to be immaculately presented and very articulate, even passionate. Instead, the Defence Barristers wore crumpled shirts, smelled of cigarette smoke, and even their robes and wigs looked worn. Generally, their arguments lacked passion or any emotion, they were usually repetitive and sometimes, frankly, dull.
For this trial, each of the four gang members had their own defence Barrister, but there was only one Prosecutor.
I wasn’t able to attend every day, but I spent a few days each week observing and I filled an entire notebook with notes. I learned so much.
I heard evidence about their club hierarchy and the different roles within the club. I learned about their rules and their initiation processes and heard about aspects of the bikie world I would never have found through other forms of research. It was valuable information that I could use to provide context when developing a character who becomes involved with a bikie gang.
I also learned that despite these men being callous and tough, they were strangely incompetent. They were arrogant, and their arrogance led to their downfall. They’d thought they were invincible.
It was intriguing to watch others at the trial. After all, people-watching is one of my favourite pastimes, and this presented a rare opportunity to observe the behaviour and reaction of others in a very different environment.
The local paper carried photos taken of the four accused before the trial. What a transformation. Instead of the rough, unkempt bikies, clean-cut young men sat in the dock. Especially the president. His cold eyes, hard facial features, scraggly beard, and long, greasy hair had been tamed and he now looked like an office worker or accountant.
It was also hard to believe that the Sergeant at Arms, the man responsible for maintaining obedience in the gang, was the same man whose mother brought him a freshly ironed, clean shirt, every morning. She handed it to the Court Sherriff every day, just before her son was brought into the courtroom. She and his sister attended most days and it was clear that his mother hadn’t known what her son had been involved in.
I watched the gang president’s wife/girlfriend become agitated as damning evidence was presented before the court. She protested any accusations against her partner. The president’s father sat silently beside her while his son avoided his gaze.
As a writer, my imagination was filling in the scenarios and history that had brought them here.
I attracted the attention of Police observers, journalists, and law students but once I explained my reasons for being there, they were helpful and willing to answer my questions. They even asked me about my impressions and thoughts.
Despite the amount of time I spent at the trial, researching and observing, and all of my copious notes, the trial scene in Lethal Legacy was removed in the last edit. I’d gained a lot of contextual information, so the research was still worthwhile, but some of these notes may have to wait to be used in another book. I don’t know yet.
I love drawing on real life, but it’s a jumping-off point. All the research in the world can’t make a plot work, a character resonate, or a scene intrigue.
I’m a keen observer of people and an avid consumer of news and political commentary. I have a work history, I’ve studied, I’ve travelled extensively, and I have life experience that blends to imagine plotlines, evoke settings, and draw characters that I feel I know.
My characters are not real people, that would be too limiting, but I do bring together characteristics to make a compilation character.
But beware, everything can be categorised as research. A snatched conversation, a strange encounter on the street, a person catching my eye with a gesture or an interesting fashion flair. They are all filed away and find their way into stories as I write. You never really know where a particular detail will come from.
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Where to find H.R. Kemp’s books:
Lethal Legacy: https://books2read.com/u/4jPQ5l
Deadly Secrets: https://books2read.com/u/bzoZVZ
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