I never thought I’d see the inside of a police cell. If anything I feared the idea, what with my claustrophobic tendencies and my inherent need to be the good girl. Stepping into a cell wasn’t part of my plan and it certainly didn’t fit with the ‘teacher, writer, nature appreciator’ bio I was cultivating. Yet here I am, writing about my experience of hearing that heavy steel door slamming shut on me, leaving me standing cold and alone in the middle of a bare, lifeless, 8×6 space of nothingness. Let me explain…
When I’m writing, I tend to focus on things I know or have experienced or can easily imagine by asking myself the ‘what if’ questions. It’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to writing women’s fiction: I can relate, and therefore write with more authenticity. I can use the emotions known to me as a woman, the issues which impact on us at different stages of our lives and the commonalities which bond us to underpin any number of plots and story twists. Sometimes, however, along comes a story-line which demands a different level of knowledge and understanding. And that’s when the life of a writer becomes interesting; it becomes an opportunity for growth and a chance to experience the lives of others.
When I finally accepted that my current work in progress (book 2) was going to involve the police, an arrest and some time in a police cell (I don’t want to give too much away here) I knew I was going to have to approach the local police and ask for some advice. After an initial enquiry to Police Scotland I found myself sitting face to face with a police Sergeant who patiently answered all of my questions, indulging my creative whims and wonderings as he walked me through protocols, procedures, logistics and legalities. I took copious notes, and as one question was answered another was asked. It was a fascinating couple of hours which not only helped me make sense of my own story-line but which also sparked numerous ideas, spinning a web of possibilities for my characters and their lives. It was the first time I had really done any ‘professional’ research and as we talked I realised that I was absolutely exhilarated by the discussion: I was in my element. I admit, there probably aren’t many writers out there who don’t like talking about their work, but talking about it and realising that you’re developing knowledge and opening yourself to new ideas at the same time is altogether different.
As our conversation ended, I was asked if I’d like to see the holding area, where people who have been arrested are processed and interviewed. I had a sudden rush of imposter syndrome, wondering if this was the moment when I’d be accused of imitating an author, only to find myself guided gently by the elbow into a cell as they quietly closed the door and went to call for a psych evaluation. It’s a very real fear, imposter syndrome, and let me tell you, a police station isn’t the place to have it. I decided to feel the fear and do what I had to do anyway. For my art, you understand.
Know this: f you haven’t ever been arrested keep it that way. The cold harsh reality of the police desk, the small interview room with no windows and the unrelenting formality of it all is not for the faint-hearted. It was quite the eye opener. As I walked through each different area, hearing what happens at each stage, I tried to walk as the character in my book, putting myself in their shoes, imagining what they would do and say and feel. When we reached the cells, the Sergeant talked me through what it would be like when it was busy, on a Saturday night for example. He spoke about what I would hear and see and experience, details which I frantically wrote down in my notebook : it was research gold. Then came the question which stopped my pen mid-word.
‘Would you like to experience what it’s like having the door shut on you?’
After an initial thanks but no thanks reply he very kindly pointed out that it would be great from a research point of view and that he’d be right outside all the time: the door would only be closed for a few seconds. He was right. I stood in the middle of the cell, feeling cold and alone and decidedly apprehensive as the thud of the heavy steel door reverberated around the space. True to his word however, the door opened just a few seconds later and I made a quick exit.
A couple of things came out of this for me. First of all, I was struck once more by the kindness of strangers. The police Sergeant I met with didn’t have to be so generous with his time and so engaged with my research. I was blown away by how helpful he was and how interested he appeared to be in my writing process. I think he appreciated that as a writer of fiction I was determined to get it right; to raise real issues and handle them with authenticity. The second thing I learned was that real life research, i.e. not surfing the internet, is one of the most dynamic and energising aspects of being a writer. It connects us with other worlds, other lives, other possibilities. It helps us grow our minds and open our hearts as we explore what we don’t yet know. And let’s face it, as a writer, that’s exactly what we want to do for the readers who open our books and step into our worlds.
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