Alexander Pope famously said, ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing’. Until recently, I would have disagreed strongly with Mr Pope. Without learning, I would never have escaped Manchester’s worst council estate and a life of low expectations. Yet, as I rack up the years as a published author – sixteen books and counting – I’m beginning to wonder if all learning is necessarily good.
Writers often joke that they’re waiting for that knock on their front door from GCHQ, thanks to research taking them to the more lurid corners of the web. Certainly, for authors writing in the crime fiction genre – my natural home – it’s rarely even said in jest. My debut crime thriller, The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die, touched on topics such as Islamist terrorism, bomb making, arson, autopsy, sex trafficking, prostitution in Amsterdam, acid attacks…oh, and digit removal (and I’m talking chopping off fingers, not solving the Countdown mathematical conundrum with Rachel Riley). I’d looked forward to writing a twisty crime tome for years, but I hadn’t factored in the nature of the research required and the toll it might take on my mental health.
In The Girl Who Broke the Rules – the second book of that series, featuring a Cambridge University criminologist who freelances for the beleaguered Dutch police – I wrote about organ harvesting and organ trafficking on the black market. After many decades without any great intellectual strain, it was refreshing to return to the world of academic writing. I found myself reading article after article, taking reams of notes on techniques to keep the blood pumping around the body while organs are removed in near perfect condition. I learned about Cytokine Storms years before COVID brought the term to public attention. There was more to be learned about post-mortem examinations and more photos of cadavers on the pathologist’s slab to be winced at. At this stage, I was so enthused about my new field of learning, I tried to arrange the observation of an autopsy. I got permission from the head of forensic pathology at Manchester Royal Infirmary, but we hit a brick wall with the Coroner’s Office. I was so disappointed!
Book three, The Girl Who Walked in the Shadows, demanded yet more sinister research: this time, looking into child trafficking rings and studying the media coverage of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance. When the story initially hit the headlines, I too was on holiday with my pretty, blonde four-year-old daughter and my tiny toddler son. Understandably, I became emotionally invested in Maddie’s tragic case and have kept abreast of developments since. I felt I wanted to write a thriller that was inspired by her disappearance and the subsequent ill-treatment of her parents by the media and public alike. The Girl Who Walked in the Shadows was it. But, to write my Netherlands-set story of a couple whose two toddlers vanish from the family home, I had to imagine their parental plight in such vivid detail that I realised I had internalised their pain, albeit the phantom pain of a fictional couple. It didn’t help that, at the same time, I was dealing with the terminal illness and passing of my own mother. I was surrounded by death and destroyed lives — in my research, on the page and in real life.
Sometimes, two authors pick up on the same zeitgeist. I discovered that I wasn’t alone in writing about the disappearance of small children. My imprint-mate, the million-selling author, C. L. (Cally) Taylor had penned a story in a similar vein, published only a week or so apart from mine. Her psychological thriller was called The Missing. It was a huge hit. Cally told me that,
When I wrote The Missing about a missing child, I read lots of real life accounts…including the Jamie Bulger book by his father…I couldn’t sleep for weeks because my mental image of his (Jamie’s) torture and distress was so vivid. My son wasn’t much older than Jamie Bulger at the time, and I decided there and then that the missing child in my book would be a teenager, rather than a young child, and that I would never research child murder again, or ever write about it.
Cally has also written in the generally lighter-hearted genres of young adult and women’s fiction. Unsurprisingly, her research for those books has had little negative impact on her well-being.
I started researching and writing my crime-thriller debut in 2009, but it wasn’t finished until 2013, with publication coming two years later. I wrote the rest of that series between 2015 and 2017. I’ve had four more crime novels published since. If you reason that a book takes over a thousand hours to write, I must have spent thousands of hours researching those nine works of crime fiction — perhaps five thousand hours, spent combing through articles and websites on gruesome subjects. How to maim and kill; how to dispose of a body; how a body decays and the flora and fauna that make a corpse their home, post-mortem; violence and abuse; murder most foul. All that time, I’d been drowning in grief and horror, yet I didn’t realise until some ten years later that it was having a negative effect on my mental health.
I’ve experienced regular, sustained spikes in my anxiety — unsurprising, since I have been spending every day of the week for years with death. How much of that anxiety, the collapse of my marriage in 2016 and some stress-related ill-health has been the fallout of all that grim research and vicarious suffering? Nowadays, I’m glad I never got permission from the Coroner to observe that autopsy!
International bestselling crime writer, Patricia Cornwell, who does have extensive experience of post-mortem examinations, says she has PTSD as a result of her research. She told BBC HARDtalk in 2016,
I have post-traumatic stress type stuff…I have images and things that are like malware…And if I write about it, that’s at least something I can do with this really morbid, rather horrible database that I have in my head.
It’s now 2021, and I’ve recently been writing historical sagas under a pseudonym, alongside my crime fiction. The first in a trilogy, Nurse Kitty’s Secret War, was published in December 2020. My alter ego, Maggie Campbell, gets to research nursing in WW2 Britain, Park Hospital in Manchester, the start of the NHS, tasty recipes using rations, 1940s fashion, poor housing, the women who worked in the Ford factory in Trafford, 1940s cars, and so on. It has been a joy to swap dismemberment for demobbing. Still, my experience hasn’t put me off. I’m about to embark on an entirely new, exciting serial killer series for a new publisher, but finally, I understand that there is a personal price to be paid for the acquisition of nefarious knowledge.
Again and again, my crime-writing colleagues report similar experiences to Cornwell, Taylor and myself. Cesca Major, who fictionalises real-life mysteries, agrees that researching dark topics like a massacre in a small French village or
…the depressing state of a lunatic asylum in ’40s New Zealand…definitely takes its toll. It is vital for the book but because the stories I’ve read happen to real people, I can’t help [but] find it distressing. I still think about them.
Like so many established authors, Cesca also writes in a second genre. Research for her women’s fiction, written under the pen name Rosie Blake, thankfully bears rather different fruit:
I have interviewed all sorts of people, spent months researching the concept of Hygge, hung out at life art classes, found out funny stories from friends — that research always cheers me up and brings me closer to people.
Yet Sunday Times bestselling author, Rowan Coleman, who writes historical crime series the Brontë Mysteries as Bella Ellis and women’s fiction under her own name, conversely said this about the impact that research has on her mental well-being:
My Rowan Coleman books tend to be soaked in grief and challenging personal themes…rape, child abuse, terminal illness and although they are ultimately, ‘uplifting’, they take a toll on me personally. So, actually, although the Brontë Mysteries cover dark themes…maybe because they are in the past, and I counter the dark with the love and humour between the Brontë sisters, I find they are much better for my mental health!
It would seem, then, that a little learning can be a dangerous thing, if you are researching and writing about the darker side of human experience, without respite. Even so, research remains my joint-favourite part of putting a book together, along with the magic of crafting that first draft. For me, the thirst for knowledge will always be acute. Perhaps I just need to find a little balance between the sweet and the sour as I quench it.