Making It Realistic – What Do You Leave Out? By Rebecca Bradley

Before I start, can I thank everyone at Means, Motive and Opportunity for giving me this – rebecca-bradleyopportunity, to write a post for the blog, thank you. Though I must admit, I did find it difficult to come up with a topic after doing a blog tour last year, I wondered what I had left to say that might be remotely interesting. I took to Twitter to ask for help.

Let me first tell you a little about myself. I’m a crime writer, but before that I was a serving UK based police officer. I served for sixteen years before retiring on medical grounds. Eight of those years were in uniform and eight were as a detective in a specialist unit – sexual exploitation.

So, when I took to Twitter, I was asked the question(s), how much of the real information do I leave out, how much is made up and do I feel as though I have a sick mind? All this from one person!

The truth is I leave it all out. The real information that is. Because real people and real cases, the ones I’ve dealt with, in my eyes, are not there for me to make stories out of, to benefit from. If I’ve entered their life, then it wasn’t a good time in this person’s life. Be they the victim or offender. Yes, I could change the names to protect the innocent and change the incident slightly, but I’d know and I can’t do that. So, I make it up. Like any storyteller.

This isn’t to say that crime novels aren’t sometimes based on true events because they are. Crime writers get their inspiration from all different places and some of those places are news reports. They’ll hear or read a report and it will spark that creative juice, but it will still be a creative endeavour. It won’t be a copy of the event. That would simply be a retelling and not a story. Not fiction. And that’s what I’m writing, fiction. So, though I want my books to be realistic, I don’t want them to be a non-fiction narrative.

But, as readers, we want authenticity. We want the world to feel real, to be believable, to feel as though we are there. So, what is it about police procedurals that people pick up those books in their droves for? Because crime novels are the books that are borrowed the most from UK libraries. Is it just for the made-up world that the author has created that the reader keeps picking up time and again? In part, yes. But, I think there must be a level of authenticity in the book for our intrepid reader, for two reasons.

One – because otherwise, if it doesn’t feel realistic, if it feels wrong, it throws the reader out the world, out the book, and you as a writer don’t want that to happen. You want the reader to be immersed. To stay in the story as long as possible. To not put it down.

And two – I believe readers want to live that exciting life that they have no knowledge of, vicariously through the books. They’re not in the police (yes officers do read crime, I did, but most crime readers are not cops.) and it’s a world that fascinates them. So, reading a police procedural gives them a look, a feel, of that life. It takes them onto the streets, into the police stations and into the claustrophobic custody blocks. They want to feel what it’s really like out there.

And, that’s the real I put into my work. The procedure as well, the emotion that dealing with the difficult jobs can bring for you and the relationships between staff. Because one thing that I’ve noticed in some crime novels is that they have officers referring to each other by their titles, when in reality you call each other by name. For instance, as a DC I wouldn’t say to a colleague, ‘DC Jones could you pass me that pen?’ I’d say ‘Jo, pass that pen please?’ Even if they’re a rank higher, if it’s one rank, you’d call them by their first name or boss. Unless of course you’re in public or a meeting then you’d be respectful and use the rank. This of course depends on the level of rank, the higher you get the more you expect the people below you to call you Sir/Ma’am.

As for how sick is my mind? I think this part of the question relates to crime writers in general and the dark places we tend to go. To be honest, I find my mind a lighter place now I’m no longer policing. It was all very real back then, especially in the world of sexual exploitation, and people’s lives were affected. Now it’s all make believe and I am happy with that.

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11 thoughts on “Making It Realistic – What Do You Leave Out? By Rebecca Bradley

  1. Lovely to see Rebecca here! And what a fascinating post! I think it is important to have some authenticity in one’s writing. But, as you point out so well, it’s possible to do that, and still not write about real people you’ve encountered. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks Margot. It was really great to be asked for a guest post. It’s such a fabulous blog! And yes, I do feel strongly about not using the people I’ve come into contact with. Their lives have been altered by their contact with me/us so it wouldn’t be right to use it. But there are plenty of other ways to use my experience.

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  2. Hi Rebecca, welcome to MMO. I am so glad you agreed to come by and post. It’s wonderful to have your point of view. I agree with you that crime writers, and mystery writers in general, do have dark minds, but it is important that we don’t cause further hurt to real life victims. a point you so well make!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for having me! It’s a real honour to have been able to write this post. Even if it did take me a while to sort it out. And yes, we can easily use our experience, without using the people. With our imaginations, we don’t need to 🙂

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  3. Wonderful insights, Rebecca–thanks so much for sharing with us here at MMO! I’m guilty of using actual events in my fiction, although I try my best to “protect the innocent” and/or other players involved with the event. I draw from life. That’s simply what works for me. There’s a quote from the Bible, I believe it’s found in the Book of Proverbs: “There is nothing new under the sun.” If I must plead my case, I’ll draw upon those words. 🙂

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    1. Thank you for having me! I don’t think you need to plead your case, I think we all do what works for us. I worked with a lot of children in the latter years of my career and the men who would hurt them. Some cases dragged on for so long that I got to know the families quite well and it was just something I personally couldn’t do. But, we’re all made differently, we all process events differently and that’s what makes us unique. 🙂

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  4. Great post Rebecca and I think people should have some privacy too. It is certainly possible to write without exposing people who have already been hurt to further scrutiny in fiction. Reading is by nature a vicarious activity and we learn and fling our imaginations way out there through the books we read. It is a safe way to experience new and sometimes troubling subject matter. As for the darkness or sickness of the minds of those who write about crime – life has a lot of dark areas that really should be explored. Declaring any area of life off limits excludes light from shining on it. People do like to read about crime. They like to read about horror too and be frightened while entertained. Maybe it is just a need for excitement in what can be a ho-hum life, maybe more. There are varying degrees of darkness to be dealt with and people generally find books that go along with their tolerance for a walk on the wild side. I do think elements of what is real are necessary and what possibilities spring from that make for an entertaining read as you point out. I like your post.

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    1. Thank you. And it’s true that fiction can shine a light on dark matters. Bring subjects to the fore rather than have them hiding in the shadows. For me, these subjects can be done fictionally without using the real cases I worked on. On the other hand, there are some great books out there that are blatantly based on true events, but fictionalised.

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