Each week, we invite our Crime Cymru writers to tell us a bit about themselves and their writing. This week, Eamonn Griffin gets himself into a bit of research-related bother.
Writing What You Don’t Know by Eamonn Griffin
One of those often-repeated maxims about writing is to write what you know. That fiction is informed in part by experience and expertise, and that it makes sense if the writer can draw on this in the creation of their worlds, characters, and stories.
And to at least some extent, this is true of the writers who huddle under the Crime Cymru pub garden umbrella. There are folks who’ve got expertise in clinical psychology, there are people who’ve got backgrounds in policing and the criminal justice system. There are folk who live and work in and know an awful lot about Wales.
There is at least one member of the Crime Cymru crew who – when not working on novels which may or may not involve serial killings – is adding to their already-extensive back garden patio, upon which they host expansive barbecues showcasing many different cuts of what is assumed by their guests to be a somewhat spicy but nevertheless delicious home-butchered pork.
We each have our specialisms, in other words, and some of these fit into our stories.
But this is a post about what to do when you don’t know. A small example to indicate the lengths to which a writer may go to explore details in their fictional worlds.
I’m a sucker for this kind of thing. Research can be fascinating, detailed, and excellent displacement activity. If a writer wants to put off doing any actual writing, then there are many creative ways in which research needs might be generated and then investigated.
Part of the project of being a writer is knowing when to research, when to trust one’s instincts, when to prepare in advance by cramming on a topic, and when to leave notes in the draft manuscript reading something like ‘detail goes here’.
In the past, for example, I’ve been able to just justify several weekend breaks as ‘research related activity’, have acquired more books on odd topics than perhaps training necessary, and at one point bought a blank-firing replica flintlock-ish pistol from a Civil War re-enactor to get a tactile sense of gunplay in the 17th century for a book set at the outset of the Great Fire of London.
The book I’m working on at the minute – with a provisional title of The Folly – presented a research need for its opening pages. I’m not going to go on about the story aspect of this in any detail right now, but suffice it to say that our protagonist finds themselves handcuffed as the story begins: one of the first problems that they face is how to get out of said restraints.
The story is set in the present day, and is set in the UK. So, this gives me certain parameters to work with. I can draw on contemporary police and Security Service issue materials, I can do a spot of Googling, or I can throw a brick through a shop window, get myself arrested, and take an experiential learning approach. In other words, my experience of handcuffs is limited. I’m not an ex-copper, I’m not admitting here to a baroque private life, and I’ve never been nicked. I need to find out how this feels, in other words, and what’s possible to be done.
Two research questions presented themselves. First: what’s it like to be handcuffed? Second: how might someone with limited resources and no prior experience themselves (like the lead character in the novel-in-progress) find a way out of the same restraints?
Naturally, I went shopping.
After thinking about precisely what kind of cuffs might be used in the situation in hand, the logical choice for this context appeared to be zip ties. Not the things that you get from the garden centre to attach sunflowers to bamboo poles, and not the flimsy kind the electricians might tidy wires together with. Nope. What I needed were some proper plastic restraints. The kind of kit that you might storm Congress with, or use to keep your hostages in place.
Ebay felt an obvious place to start.
Three days and less than ten quid later, a plain brown package arrived.
Plastic restraints are essentially a sturdier version of the sorts of zip ties that might get for domestic use. Each tie is a single length of plastic, not unlike a belt. However, the two ends of the plastic are grooved with notches, each of which may be fed into a simple ratchet style system at the centre of the length of plastic, which acts as a locking mechanism. The captor loops the ends into the ratchet mechanism, pulls each one tight around their wrists or ankles of the captive, and there you have it. The suspect or victim is restrained. Alternatively, one loop goes around the wrist or ankle, the other around something sturdy like a cast-iron radiator, and they’re not going anywhere.
There were two sets of qualities about the ties that I was particularly interested in. First, could the plastic be bitten through or otherwise abraded for escape purposes? Second, could the locking mechanism be broken or otherwise subverted?
In answer to the first question, no. The plastic used to make these restraints is tough. Really tough. Lee Marvin tough. I’m not saying that it couldn’t be bitten through eventually, or it couldn’t be rubbed against something sharp to sever it, but this would take a really long time. Longer than practicable for the purposes of the story that I’ve been writing. You really need a bolt cropper or similar to snip these open: they are properly heavy duty.
So, second. Can the restraint be undone?
This is where I learned about chafing.
I studied the restraints, and considered what would be available to use by the person in the story. this meant a detailed consideration of their environment, their physical and psychological resources, and story-related elements such as what other characters in the story space might be doing.
Each of us may have seen or read those annoying kinds of stories where are hero or heroine escapes from awkward or improbable situations through a mixture of luck, stupidity on the part of their opposing forces, or through some awkwardly-foreshadowed handy bit of equipment being made available to them.
What I was trying to get to was something that was plausible, would work in a real-life situation, and be seen to be achievable by the character in their current situation. I was more than happy to consider an alternative where the restraints stayed on. There are many annoying stories where things happen because the plot requires them to occur rather than because they make any kind of sense. The number of escapes or heists in movies which rely entirely on unobservant or sleepy security guards stands as testament to this. No, if the cuffs couldn’t come off without their being removed by the captor, then fair enough.
Back to the chafing, though. Even after I had worked out a viable method of getting out of the handcuffs without cheating, I had to put this into practice. I’m told that this makes perfect. And, inevitably, I restrained myself with the cuffs.
And yes, the method that I had worked out to effect an escape paid off. Not straight away, I’ll admit. The restraints are well-made: the locking ratchet thing won’t bend, give to pressure, or magically pop apart. There was a minute or so where I thought I had made yet another poor life choice, and that I’d have to make some kind of awkward phone call of the kind that ends up as an anecdote told at Fire Brigade retirement parties.
I managed to rub my wrists a bit raw, but I got out. And equipped with this knowledge and experience, I was able to write the scene in a way that I am so far happy with.
There’s an idiom: that God is in the details. Sometimes its attributed to the writer Gustave Flaubert, other times to the architect Mies Van Der Rohe. I daresay others have said something similar. The point from a research perspective in writing is this: you’re God here, so exercise your deity privileges in those same details. No waving of magic wands of the “and it took a long time but eventually the plastic wore through and she got free” kind. Find out what’s possible, work within that, and have these kinds of constraints provoke creative solutions.
A final point: these zip tie things hurt. The plastic is hard and unforgiving, and skin is flexible but thin. If they’re pulled tight, the cuffs bite. If you struggle, you’ll get bruised, torn. Best get out of them, basically. Good luck!
Eamonn’s latest thriller is East of England, published by Unbound (2019).
The Great Fire of London book mentioned? That’s called The Prospect of This City. The Folly, or whatever it ends up being called, will be along in due course. You’ll learn how to get out of these cuffs in the book, I promise.