I looked out of a front room window the other day to see two Police Community Support Officers* staring in the direction of my house. Yesterday I could swear a man was following me as I walked down our village high street. I stopped at one point and stared directly at him, only for the man to smoothly enter a shop as if it was his intended destination all along. Why should this bother me, you may ask? Well here are a few Google searches I have made recently **:
- How to make a bomb
- The range of a sniper rifle
- The inside of 10 Downing Street
- Standard response to a terrorist threat
I’m not stupid. I realise how this looks. I must have pressed every MI5 hot phrase as I’ve researched various topics for my latest book, a contemporary thriller in the mould of The Day of the Jackal. I initially thought about searching via a proxy server, or the TOR network to disguise my identity. It was a brief thought. I can’t think of anything more suspicious than searching these subjects anonymously. So I searched via Google, not even using the private browsing settings, safe in the knowledge that however suspicious it may look, my behaviour was entirely innocent. Except now I’m worried that GCHQ and the NSA may think that I’m running a double bluff, hiding my ‘true’ intentions in plain view. This is what writing a thriller does to you, and I haven’t properly started yet.
All this raises the question: how do thriller authors research their subject without ending up classified as a terrorist threat? In the old days life was both more difficult, and so much easier. If you needed to understand a subject you had to either go to a library or speak to somebody who knew. Frederick Forsyth spent years cultivating contacts in the military and security services. David Cornwell, better known as John Le Carré, used to work for MI6. Nowadays nearly everything you need to know is available on the internet, yet as we now know from Edward Snowden‘s revelations, there is very little that takes place on the internet that isn’t monitored.
The thing is, I have no interest in the detail of how to make a bomb. What I need for my writing is to know are the basic components, what they look like, their smell and feel; the risks if they are not handled correctly. It’s the same for the inside of 10 Downing Street. I’m not interested in the layout because it is highly unlikely that the majority of my readers will ever step foot in the place (can you see what I’m doing here, imagining thousands of readers. That’s positive thinking for you). What I would like to know is what’s the ambient temperature inside? Is it a busy building with lots of comings and goings or is it quiet for the majority of the day? I need touches to make what I write plausible. What I don’t want to do is bog the reader down in unnecessary detail (or give schoolboys bomb making tips).
I’m shortly off on a fact finding trip to London, to scout out a few locations I’ve already identified with the help of Google Maps. It should be a fun day, except I’m worried that I’ll be demonstrating exactly the same behaviour of the 7/7 bombers. The thought of taking a backpack is a non-starter, and then there is the question of what I should do if I think somebody is following me. Should I take double lined jackets and different hats that I can quickly turn inside out to lose my tail? Should I jump off tube trains just as the doors are closing? Should I steal a motorcycle, ride it over the roof of the Grand Bazaar before jumping on top of a train which I’ll wreck with a large digger? Maybe not.
So, if you are reading, guardians of our democracy, I’m just trying to write a book. I love my country and am a pacifist unless severely provoked, where I turn into a sprinter. Of course, if any of you would like to give me a call so i can pick your brains about where you work, I would be extremely grateful. You know my number.
*My oldest son asked me if PCSO’s were policemen. I said no. He asked what they were. I replied “Well you know Santa has elves, well these are to policemen what elves are to Santa.
**Actually, they were more detailed than these, I just don’t want to give the plot away.