Sunday, 9 March 2008

The Pleasures of Research

When I was at work on The Arsenic Labyrinth, the research in Coniston was great fun (the BBC TV regional news even filmed me wandering around the jetty, where the climactic scene takes place.) I was also fortunate to be shown around the Bagshaw Museum in Yorkshire, which provided me with ideas for the fictional Museum of Myth and Legend, which I plonked down on the main road into Coniston. The curator at Bagshaw is Kathryn White, wife of Sherlock Holmes expert David Stuart Davies; it’s a marvellous place, and I recommend a visit if you are ever in the area.

When I was researching into the history of arsenic labyrinths, I received help from an archaeologist called Adam Sharpe, who has been involved with the restoration of the labyrinth at Botallack in Cornwall. In the story, historian Daniel Kind is working on a book about John Ruskin, and the director of the Ruskin Foundation, Howard Hull, gave me some very useful info about Ruskin’s relations with the people of Coniston. CSI experts Helen Pepper and Andy Barrett gave me a lot of help with forensic stuff, Roger Forsdyke guided me on police procedure and John Prest, a former Balliol history don, gave me insight into the world of historians that helped me to develop Daniel. I didn’t know John when I was a student, but I got to know him after I contributed an article on Balliol’s detectives (e.g. Wimsey and Gideon Fell) and crime novelists (too numerous to mention) to the college magazine, which John edited. And as a result of that article, Tim Heald – about whom more in the future – got in touch.

But I digress. The point I was trying to make is that, before I gained experience as a writer, I thought of research as a chore, and something to avoid. I was wrong. It’s not only hugely enjoyable, it’s a way of getting to know people and places you would never otherwise encounter. And, like many other writers, I never cease to be amazed by the generosity of the people whom I consult. When watching the latest news on tv, it’s easy to become despondent about the way some individuals behave, but the reality is that the vast majority of people are decent. Trouble is, you can’t write a crime novel with a cast of entirely decent suspects….

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