Thursday, June 21, 2018

COLLABORATING IN (FICTIONAL) MURDER IS FUN! Guest post by collaborating debut writing team Ashley Dyer

I love our Partners in Crime feature here on Mystery Fanfare. Today I welcome Ashley Dyer. Ashley Dyer is the penname of Dagger-winning crime novelist, Margaret Murphy, working in consultation with forensics expert, Helen Pepper. Their debut novel, Splinter in the Blood, sold in multiple competitive bids across Europe and the US. It’s out now in the US, published by William Morrow.

Ashley Dyer:
Collaborating in (fictional) murder is fun! 

The writer’s perspective 

How we met 

Helen and I had known each other for many years on the crime conference circuit. She’d been advising Ann Cleeves on the Vera and Shetland series from the outset, and Ann and I are friends and fellow Squaddies (members of Murder Squad, a group of crime writers based in northern England). Ann loved working with Helen, so when I started looking for a forensic adviser, I naturally approached her.

How it works 

I will come up with a story idea and usually write a short, two-to-three-page synopsis. After that, we bat ideas back and forth, talking about story, forensic procedures that might come into play, police approaches to particularly categories of crime, and so on. I mull for a bit, then start on the full outline, which may be up to 40,000 words long.

The forensic adviser’s perspective 

Helen: Usually I start talking to the TV scriptwriters at the ideas and storylines stage, checking that they are actually feasible. Once the script writing is properly underway I’ll receive queries that normally start with “what would happen if . . .” or “how can I make this happen?”. Later, I check draft scripts to for procedural inaccuracies. 

Working on the Ashley Dyer novels happens in much the same way – only more intensively. Margaret (Ashley) has an idea for a book and we’ll talk through the themes of the story and discuss the forensic elements we might exploit. She will write a detailed outline, which she sends to me for comment. Then she disappears into her office to write. We stay in touch by e-mail and phone about the work in progress, and she’ll send me batches of completed chapters for comment. This can be quite agonising, as I may have to wait several weeks for the next installment! 

Favourite forensic-type TV series? 

I can’t watch any of them. One of my main bugbears is the clothes TV CSIs wear: Pencil skirts and stilettos are really not going to work well on a building site or in woodland. 

Does it matter that you get procedural elements right? 

We think it does – but then we would, wouldn’t we? However, Splinter In The Blood had some rave reviews in the run-up to the release, receiving a coveted ‘starred’ review from Publishers Weekly, and PW, Booklist and Kirkus reviews, as well as from bloggers and authors. Pretty much all of them commented on the procedural authenticity and power of the forensic elements.

Inspiration for the story: 

Margaret: My earliest jottings on Splinter In The Blood date back to April 2014. It began with an image: a woman with a gun standing over a shooting victim. I wrote, ‘She looks down at him and feels anger and contempt, but also regret.’ I was mystified. She must know the man – you don’t feel such a conflicting mix of emotions unless you know a person – but I had no clue how. I was even more baffled when she began systematically to destroy and then recreate evidence at the scene. It turns out that this is Detective Sergeant Ruth Lake, and the shooting victim is her boss, Chief Inspector Greg Carver.

We learn that a serial killer dubbed the ‘Thorn Killer’ has abducted and murdered five victims using an ancient and excruciatingly painful method of ‘thorn-tapping’. I’ve traced that macabre little detail back to an exhibition at The Wellcome Trust in London in 2010. I was in the city for a meeting, and had a few hours to spare before catching my train home, so I popped in. ‘Skin’ told the story of ritual skin-marking (including tattoos) in pictures, etchings, and even samples of human skin. I was both repulsed and compelled; it haunted me, and I suppose it was inevitable that tattoos would eventually find their way into a story.

Helen: Given a couple of hours to spare in London, I might think, “Oh, good – time for shopping”, or “Mm . . . coffee and cake!”. It’s telling that Margaret’s first thought is to go and look at an exhibition of flayed skin… 

After the shooting, Carver wakes from a coma with a form of synaesthesia. Commonly, a person with the condition might associate a particular word with a colour. Say “envelope”, and they might see yellow, for instance. But numbers, days of the week, sounds and even tastes can trigger colours for a synaesthete. David Hockney, Vladimir Nabukov and Billy Joel, are (or were) synaesthetic. Researching the phenomenon, I found that a few brain trauma survivors do see auras, so I felt okay about having Carver read body language and mood as colour and light. The notion was partly inspired by my own experience: in my early-to-mid thirties, I’d suffered several TIAs – mini-strokes – as a result of a flare of Lupus, after which I experienced, among other things, phantom aromas and distortions of visual perception, one of which is termed the ‘Alice in Wonderland effect’, after Alice’s strange growing and shrinking bouts.

Pros and cons of collaboration 

Pros: I have privileged access to up-to-the-minute advances in forensics and policing, plus a reduced risk of making a complete fool of myself! Helen has attending many thousands of crime scenes, so she knows how they are dealt with, and how people behave, too – so her knowledge also informs character and situation, as well as procedural details. Helen will always go the extra mile to find ingenious solutions to procedural problems, and a big bonus is we’ve had lots of laughs working on the Carver & Lake series. Touring is a lot more fun when you have someone to chat and relax with after all the buzz of a gig.

Cons – None for me as the writer, but I’m not the one who has to deal with a temperamental author…


Website: For all you need to know about Team Dyer 
Facebook: @AshleyDyerNovels Visit us here for microblogs and videos on the novels, forensics and writing 
Twitter: @AshleyDyer2017 – for quick updates, banter, and events 

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