Keeping fiction real

My next stop is at Carol McGrath’s Writer’s Hub.

Join me in my musings about fiction writers staying in touch with reality to keep our stories relevant to our readers.

Even fantasy is rooted in history. So why not crime fiction?

It goes without saying that a historical fiction writer will channel their energies into researching the period in which they set their books. They will explore fashion and language, society structures and the customs of the people who inhabited that period. They will have to paint that long-gone reality for their readers in order to transport them in time. And to complete the picture, they will also have to reference major events that defined that era, be it the Barons’ Rebellion in Carol’s The Damask Rose or the Norman Conquest of Britain in The Daughters of Hastings.

I am not a historian. I write contemporary crime fiction, but I think it would be a mistake to assume that contemporary fiction is to be written entirely out of the context of events and trends that shape our modern-day reality and which will, in time, become history. Yes, modern romantic fiction is about the ups and downs of two people falling in love, thrillers are about the blood-curdling ordeals victims of crime or abuse are subjected to, and crime fiction is about tracking down that illusive criminal. But an important ingredient of great fiction – be it historical or contemporary, and whatever the genre – is that broader canvas. If it isn’t there, characters will be suspended in a vacuum and their stories will be stifled.

Nobody exists in perfect isolation from the world, and fiction needs to reflect that.  A few months ago, someone advised me not to set any of my books in the time of the Covid pandemic because that risked them becoming obsolete and irrelevant to my readers when the pandemic was over. And on top of that, who would want to read about the bad times? I couldn’t disagree more. Taking the challenges of the pandemic out of our fiction is tantamount to sanitising our writing and detaching ourselves from reality and a wealth of experiences that we have in common with our readers.

Great fiction is timeless because it interacts with reality and presents us with relatable life experiences. Readers love The Tattooist of Auschwitz  or The Kite Runner precisely because the emotional human drama is set in dark times and that stimulates greater empathy in the reader.

In my DI Marsh crime series I often include themes about difficult contemporary issues that my readers and I have lived through. For example, my lead character in Sandman (2020) is an Afghan war veteran who turns to terrorism to right the wrongs done to him and his family; the mass refugee crisis post-2015 is the backdrop of that story. In Conspiracy of Silence (2021) I touch on the subject of the so-called alt-right movement and the ways of far-right extremism capturing the minds of our youth.

My new series, The Shires Mysteries, falls into the cosy crime category, and indeed the books ripple with good humour, loveable characters and quaint settings; there is no gore, no excessive forensic procedures or violence there, but I still insist on placing them firmly within the context of our times. In the first book of the series, Death Comes to Bishops Well, tentacles of the Cold War reach into the idyllic village of Bishops Well, and in At Death’s Door there are references to illegal arms dealing in war-torn regions of Africa. My third book in the series, Cause of Death, which is out on 14th April, tackles difficult themes of recent European history and our own domestic scandals that reshaped our values (though I can’t say more for fear of spoilers).

Cause of Death (Headline Accent) can be pre-ordered now from all good bookstores. It can be read standalone but if you catch up on the whole series it reads even better.

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