Friday, May 15, 2020

Stick to the Facts

Posted by Abir

We're in the strangest time many of us have ever known right now. How do you decide how much of the outside world to include in your work?

Welcome to Friday, everyone. 

This week’s question is a good one and I’m going to try to answer it in two parts. First, I’ll talk about my own work to date, and then I’ll set out my thoughts regarding recent events that we’re all no doubt familiar with.

Starting with my own work, as all of my books date are set about a hundred years ago, they’re blissfully free of the need to keep things current. There’s no COVID-19 and, just as importantly, there are none of the banes of the modern world which make life difficult for the crime fiction writer. I don’t have to worry about mobile phones, which while useful in the real world, are a real pain in the backside when the knowledge that the serial axe murderer is waiting for you inside the house can be relayed to you instantly, thus saving your life, but more importantly, destroying any tension you’re trying to build. Similarly, I don’t need to worry about forensics and science, which, while brilliant, aren’t the sort of things I want to write about. And finally, I don’t need to keep up to date with all the developments in technology – I still have no clue what a Snapchat or a TikTok is and I wish to keep it that way. After all, by the time I get familiar with them, they'll no doubt have become staggeringly uncool and been replaced by something else. 

That’s not to say my books exist in a bubble, devoid of the outside world. Each of them incorporates the real history of the period I’m seeking to explore. My debut, A Rising Man, is set in the week of the infamous Jallianwala Bagh massacre, in which British troops mowed down and killed hundreds of unarmed men, women and children in the city of Amritsar in 1919; and the third book, Smoke and Ashes in the series highlights the secret mustard gas experiments carried out by British scientists on Indian troops. The stories may be fictional but they are hung on the bones of real facts.

More recently, with book four in the series, Death in the East, and book five, which I’m currently writing, I’ve tried to use the books as allegories for present day issues. Death in the East, whilst being a locked room mystery and my tribute to Agatha Christie, is also my commentary on the key issues of immigration, integration and what it means to be British. Book five, which is out next year, can be read as a commentary on the increasingly divisive and populist policies of right wing religious nationalists in India. 

So when it comes to the outside world, I’d have to say, it’s becoming increasingly relevant to what I write, even though I write stories set a century ago.

Moving on to the second part – I guess we need to talk about the elephant in the room. Or do we? Personally, I don’t see myself writing a book incorporating lockdown or utilising the COVID 19 virus in some way, not in the near term at least. It’s too soon, and for another, I don’t know if I want to. I like to think that I write in order to bring out an unusual perspective that most readers won’t have considered. In order to do that, I need to have a certain insight or angle on a subject. When it comes to Coronavirus, I’m not sure what I would have to say that would be unique or couldn’t be done far better by other writers.

A linked question, and one that is more of an issue for me, is whether to incorporate aspects of the lockdown in anything that I’m writing in the current timeframe. As I’ve mentioned here before, my next project will be to write a contemporary thriller set in the UK and US. I’m asking myself whether I should set it against the backdrop of the lockdown, but my gut is telling me 'no'. I’m not sure what it would add to the book and I don’t know if people will necessarily want to read about lockdown while this virus is still a threat. So for now, I’m just going to write as if it never happened.

Take care, everyone. Stay safe and look after each other. 

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