by David Beckler
Some authors love research, but I have an ambivalent attitude. On the one hand, I resent the time taken away from my writing. You can spend days researching a subject and it translates to, if you’re lucky, one or two paragraphs. On the other, I love finding out things and often find myself diving deeper into a topic, which eats up writing time, even though I know I won’t use the knowledge acquired for this book.
Another plus with research is it stops you looking too much of an idiot by making sure you discard ideas that turn out to be impractical. But again, this can screw up your plot.
For A Stolen Memory, the idea for the central premise came while I was listening to a programme on BBC Radio 4. They were discussing new techniques for removing troublesome memories and implanting new ones. Like most authors, we hear something that interests us and ask, what if?
I already had an outline for book two in The Antonia Conti series. I wanted her to address events from her past, some of which came to a head in book one, A Long Shadow—the shadow being incidents from her childhood. The question I asked was, what if she could remove her most damaging memories? This threw up more questions. Would she still be the same person? What would happen when you remove a memory? Would existing memories expand to fill the space, or would her mind create fresh memories?
Memories are so important to our sense of self. They also connect us to others, shared memories being a key part of our friendships and relationships, even if we don’t always have the same version of events stored in our memory banks. I’m sure you’ve had those discussions with family members and old friends where your recollections don’t quite tally, which suggests our brains automatically curates our memories.
I found the subject fascinating and after consulting a friend, a psychologist who happened to be studying memory in dementia patients, I went out and bought the books he recommended. Once I started researching the subject, I found myself drawn in. The only problem was I had a tight deadline and the answers to my questions weren’t straightforward. With such a complex subject and research so recent, there were many grey areas—pun unintended. I also needed the plot to work, and this uncertainty came to my aid. Where I could exploit any doubts in the science to my benefit, I did.
As I was writing a thriller, things needed to go wrong, especially for Antonia, our heroine. Once I had a rough handle on the science, I had to ask story questions. What if bad actors used the techniques to their own ends? How vulnerable would Antonia be to an attack on her psyche rather than a physical assault? I needed to construct situations to expose her to risk, without stepping outside the bounds of possibility. She’d already proved herself more than capable of dealing with violence, but she’d hinted at psychological vulnerabilities. In A Stolen Memory, I could confront them head on and throw her to the psychological wolves.
It created added complications when the attacks on her memory affected her interaction with the people around her. The supporting characters play a vital part in my novels and their relationships with each other, and with Antonia, have a big impact. I asked myself the question, how would changes to a friend’s ability to remember affect you? Many of us, with older family and friends, have experienced this to some extent, but what if it was happening to a fit and healthy twenty-three-year-old?
Once I’d finished the manuscript and had a working thriller, I sent it to my friend to check I’d understood the books I’d read. It was almost as nerve-wracking as sending it to my editor, but to my relief, he came back with a few minor changes and clarifications. Luckily, my editor loved it, so I could throw myself into book three, A Nuclear Reaction, which focuses on corrupt politicians. I had an even shorter deadline, but fortunately for me, most of the research for that came via news reports.
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