As crime writers, we have to take the worst events that ever happen to people – murder, bereavement, torture, pain – and make them into a story. That story has to be entertaining or people won’t read it, no matter how much we also want to make a point or debate social and moral issues. Sometimes, as a writer, you find yourself wondering if there are any boundaries, things you should not write about, either because you don’t have direct experience of them, or because they’re too close to real life.
I write a series of crime novels set in Northern Ireland, where I grew up, in a town that’s very similar to my own small hometown on the border. My main character, forensic psychologist Paula Maguire, is about the same age as me, and like me, left Ireland for university, only to return. So there are obvious parallels already. I was so concerned about reflecting real life that I changed the name of the place to a fictional town, which is roughly, but not exactly, in the same place.
I often have the experience of writing about an extreme, unusual, or brutal event in Irish history, and then finding out the same thing really happened, or even worse. I’ve covered the Magdalene Laundries, child abuse, the IRA Disappeared, foetal abduction, cults and faith healing, the Church selling babies for adoption, and more. All of these things have really happened. At times I’ve thought I’d made something up, only to discover afterwards that, unbeknownst to me, it was real.
At the moment I’m writing about the after-effects of a devastating bomb on the survivors and families of those killed. I’m doing my best to keep a distance from real life, when there were so many such tragedies in Ireland, such as the Enniskillen bombing and the Omagh bomb, which happened when I was 16. I ask myself all the time am I exploiting this real grief and pain for entertainment, or is it important to write about what actually happened to people? One thing I want to show is that a bomb like this could very easily happen again – there are around 300 bombs defused in Northern Ireland every year still. But there is definitely a worry about upsetting people. Often, I will deliberately change details to keep it as far away from life as possible. Being sued is also a real issue, and when I’m writing about real places, I have to be careful not to refer to say, local politicians, who could be real people and get annoyed. Especially as my books tend to be pretty full of scumbags – I’d hate for anyone to think I was writing about them!
In a wider sense, I’m very concerned about the way I write Ireland, making sure that, as someone who’s been away for 13 years, I get it right, but also that I don’t transpose from life to closely. I also worry about getting the facts wrong about policing, since I don’t live there anymore, and making sure the voice is authentic. It’s often a difficult balance to strike. I try to tell myself that above all it’s a story – and if the story is good it will hopefully allow me to make important points in a subtle way.