Article originally published on Britain's Next Bestseller.co.uk
When I began writing Hellbound, I made one huge mistake. I carried out no research whatsoever.
Steve Alten had taken me on as a writing coach client where he would act as a mentor of sorts, editing each chapter as I went along and offering narrative suggestions where appropriate. Upon discussion of Hellbound’s general plot, I opted to write 5 pages of the first chapter off the top of my head. This was immediately met with justified criticism because, as he rightly said, I was lacking research and perspective. Who was the antagonist? Why was I opening on him? His name didn’t work, it wasn’t creepy enough and sounded more like a rock star’s. Where was the prison? Was it real or fictitious? I hadn’t written anything that would hook the reader, which is probably the most important aspect of any book.
I quickly realised I was writing what I thought I knew about prisons and prisoners, but I actually knew nothing. I needed to learn it and then write it.
As an example here is a sample from the opening of Hellbound before and after research being carried out:
Blacktower penitentiary currently housed two hundred and eighty seven prisoners who were awaiting execution for their various crimes, though it had the capacity to hold more than three hundred. It was divided into 3 levels, each self contained with its own amenities and individual security measures. The upper level housed the murderers and rapists of the country; the middle level catered for those criminals with particularly exotic tastes in crime, such as contract killers and assassins who had had the misfortune of being caught in the act or just after. These criminals were awaiting the death penalty due to the nature of their crimes, which had either been performed for financial motivation or were their actual careers. This differed from those criminals on the first level, as it could be argued that, however repulsive their crimes may well have been, theirs were also crimes of passion and instinctual, and not necessarily premeditated.
However, it was the lower, third level which held the piesta résistance of the criminal world. This was where, in virtual solitude and isolation, the country and possibly the world’s, most dangerous and unrepentant criminals resided as they awaited their day of reckoning. Here you could expect to find the serial paedophiles who took joy in murdering their victims and disposing of their once, innocent bodies in the most abhorrent of fashions. You may also expect to see the serial killers who had used new and unusual methods of taking their victims lives, which ranged from simple dismemberment to more extreme examples of culinary and gastrological cuisine.
The being that Harrison Maybrick was coming to watch die today was of those people. He was known only as Erebus.
ADX Absolom was unofficially referred to as Alcatraz of the Blasket Islands. The maximum security prison was situated on the Dingle Peninsular, an archipelago at the most westerly point of Ireland. Known to the Irish as An Fear Marbh, the land mass resembled a sleeping giant. To the guards who worked behind its stone walls, it was simply called “The Dead Man.”
The prison covered thirty-seven acres and contained four hundred and ninety cells, each one reserved for men convicted of the most violent crimes in need of the tightest control. Each inmate would spend their life sentence in their cell – essentially a concrete box with a four-inch wide sliver of window. Furnishings were limited to a concrete bench built into one of the walls, a toilet that stopped working if blocked, a shower that ran on a timer to prevent flooding and a sink missing its plug to prevent it being fashioned into a weapon. In return for good behaviour, the prisoners had the opportunity to have a polished steel mirror bolted to the wall. A radio and a television – all controlled remotely so the inmate did not actually come into contact with them – were additional rewards to be earned. Only recreational, educational and religious programming was permitted by the warden.
The man he was waiting for on this occasion was being prepared in a room adjacent to the death house. He had been transferred from Sector 17 – a group of cells designed to hold the most dangerous of Absolom’s prisoners. It currently held two prisoners. After this day was over, there would only be one.
The first draft was sloppy, rushed and lacking anything that remotely resembled reality, despite the fact the story is fictional. The final draft was tighter, grounded, detailed but not overly so, and most importantly, believable.
If you establish even the most fantastical elements of a story in some reality, the reader will follow you anywhere.
Take Jaws for example. Peter Benchley didn’t think that audiences would buy the shark being killed by a gunshot to an oxygen cylinder. Steven Speilberg said that if he could keep them for the first hour and a half, they would buy the last five minutes. And it works. Due to the intricate and detailed nature of Brody, Quint and Hooper’s characters and the idilic and homely setting of Amity Island, you buy Brody’s herioc last ditch attempt to kill the shark with a rifle.
Research is where Hellbound, any novel, begins to become something more than you originally envisioned. It is in this process that your story goes from just words on a page to a living, breathing world, populated with characterisation, locations that come alive and scenes that make the reader feel as thought they were there with you as you wrote them. After all, you cannot shortchange the reader by ‘telling’ them what it’s like; you have to ‘show’ them. They need smells, terms and atmosphere.
They need to feel as though they are there. After all, they are going to hopefully want to spend more time in the worlds you create, so it pays to ensure that your world, the one you wish them to join you in, is as real as the one we live in now (though with all the research on my computer relating to serial killers and executions, Kelly is starting to worry!!)