“Writing the Believable” by Alex Clare

Hey everyone! Matthew here, we have a special Friday post for you!

You may remember Alex Clare as the author of He’s Gone, a mystery novel starring the transgender detective Robyn Bailey. Almost two years back, we read the novel and were impressed by Clare’s storytelling and ability to tackle a complex contemporary issue, to the point that we published an excerpt on our site. As well as an interview.

Well, good news! There’s a sequel, She’s Fallen, available on Amazon and Waterstones. Not only that, but Alex Clare herself has provided a Metaworker-exclusive blog post talking about her writing process, as well as how she did her research. All would-be novelists take note, because this is some educational stuff. Check it out.

Writing the believable

When I began writing, I thought it was all about words on a page, getting the counter as high as possible. Then, after I joined a writing group and began sharing my work with others for the first time, I realised that the only purpose of writing is reading – all those words have no value if they are never seen. Letting others into the world I had created came as a shock – images and scenes that were so clear in my mind could be given as many interpretations as there were people in the room. Accepting these views as valid took a little time – how could these people know my characters better than me – but what I came to realise was the points they raised was where something jarred because it wasn’t believable, interrupting the flow of the story in the readers’ minds.

When writing my novels, I made life easy in one area by setting my novels in a fictional town and had a lot of fun drawing maps and working out how a place would evolve. By making my main character a trans woman detective inspector however, I had set myself two challenges: to get the police procedures correct and to create a believable character where their life experience is very different from my own.

Establishing the mechanics of the police investigation was relatively easy. My extensive reading of crime novels (or as I liked to call in ‘research’) was supplemented by fly-on-the-wall documentaries, newsletters and unofficial police blogs. My local force ran a ride-along day, where you spent a shift with officers. Even though no crimes were committed and the team made no arrests when we were out, I saw at first hand the insidious effects of mental health and drugs. As we cruised around the town I thought of as a quiet backwater, they would point out spots where a person’s existence had been ripped apart: an assault, a rape, a robbery. I took copious notes but what came from it was not the names of forms but the officers’ tone and approach. With every situation being an unknown hazard and with the expectation that a lot of people will offer you nothing but lies and evasion, there was a calm pragmatism that looked to the best that could be achieved in each situation. I’ve tried to bring that mood to my police team, together with the black humour that helps to dissipate the tension that comes of putting yourself into dangerous situations on a regular basis.

When writing my main character, there was far more at stake here than some smart-alec pointing out that I’d called a police process by the wrong acronym or that my description of a city has a one-way street going the wrong way. The idea came from a what-if question prompted by watching the Equal Marriage debate in the UK Parliament in 2013 where I was shocked by the some of the views expressed which appeared to write-off a person based on just one aspect of their biology. I asked myself what if a person with such rigid, intolerant beliefs had no choice but to deal with someone they didn’t believe had the right to exist? This person would need some authority and be in a role where there is no substitute: a detective inspector in a small town was ideal. I wanted to use the character to hold up a mirror to show how behaviour can be discriminatory and as I was meeting her in my mind, the fact that she was trans became obvious.

To help my ideas, I wanted to get first-hand experience and I began by talking to people in my immediate circle. A trans author friend wanted to help other young people and had just started their autobiography to let people learn from his experiences. Over mutual feedback sessions, I learnt about what he had experienced which ranged from loving acceptance, to outright hostility and plenty of shades in between. From him, the most vivid lesson was that organisations are made up of individuals: just because something is written in a policy, will not guarantee a positive experience. Similarly, good people will follow their consciences and treat all with respect. The majority of people however sit in the middle, perhaps being quietly appalled when they see discrimination but unwilling to raise their voice against it.

The next step was to get some more examples of the type of discrimination my character might suffer. My primary source was Twitter, where trans people shared examples of encounters in their daily lives and I saw how difficult things I took for granted could become if people didn’t accept you as you saw yourself. In particular, the reactions of some families was heart-breaking: parents refusing to acknowledge children; siblings no longer speaking and, in one case, refusing access to a dying mother’s bedside because it was claimed the daughter’s transition had caused her mother’s illness. I was in the odd position of having to tone down real life to make my fiction believable.

When my prose was taking shape, I wanted to test whether I had got this right. I picked the key paragraphs which defined the character and reactions to her and asked the new trans friends I had made to read them. This was different from any work with a professional editor – this was generally done over lunch because I wanted the experience to be as close to real people’s lives as possible.

I’ve been delighted with the reactions to the books. Jennie Kermode, the Chair of Trans Media Watch said:

As Chair of Trans Media Watch I was invited to read Alex’s book to provide feedback on the central character, who is a trans woman. Although we have had interesting discussions about how the character might yet develop, I found that there was very little in this book that invited criticism. Robyn is a beautifully developed character, realistic and representative of the experiences many trans women go through yet with plenty of individuality. The book has been warmly welcomed by many trans readers and will be of particular interest to those with family or friends in this position who want to deepen their understanding but don’t want to ask too many potentially annoying questions. Importantly, this is more than just a gimmick to Alex, who weaves Robyn’s experiences into the story and uses the questions Robyn is still asking herself – as someone who is going through a learning experience too – as a means to explore certain aspects of other characters’ lives more deeply. What emerges is a warts-n-all picture of small town England unafraid to level criticism where it’s due yet just as willing to celebrate those small moments that reassure us of the goodness in human nature.

As Jennie asks, where next for the character? I have to make sure her experiences are consistent, both as she moves down her chosen path but also as society changes. With greater visibility of trans people in the media and potential changes to legislation, I have to make sure my knowledge is up to date so that my fiction can be credible. Which I’m looking forward to because, of all the ways I’ve tried, by far the most fun way to do research is to go out and talk to people.

If you’re interested in seeing more from Alex Clare, follow her.

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