A writer's (worrying) browsing history - all in the name of research
Whenever possible, I prefer to conduct my research by talking to real people. Whether I'm seeking guidance from a professor of forensic medicine, a police detective, or someone working in WH Smith's, so far everyone I have approached has been really helpful. Many of the details included in my books are barely noticeable. Nevertheless, they are important, because they help create an illusion of reality.
A market trader in one of my books has a stack of banana boxes in her front room. Only someone working in a market would know that these are the boxes favoured by stallholders, because they are strong. Although readers might not be conscious of that tiny detail, the scene would seem authentic to any market trader reading the book. This is just one example of the care I take to create the illusion that the world of my books is real.
Like anyone involved in writing, I also research on the internet. It never ceases to amaze me how much detailed information is readily available online. In fifteen easy steps, with pictures, you can learn how to handle a gun. You can find out how to blow up a car, or rob a safe, or how to obtain fake documents.
Browsing the internet feels safe, but in reality the activity is a two-way process. Recently a man was, quite rightly, prosecuted for posting a racist comment on twitter. If the comment had been made in a pub the speaker might well have been punched in the face, but he certainly wouldn't have ended up in court. We've probably all said something offensive, in private, but posting an offensive comment online is very different. It's out there in the public domain and you can't take it back, or claim to have been misunderstood.
So what is the position with browsing histories on computers? What I do at home is my own affair. It's no one else's business. My browsing history is private, and hidden from other people. At least that's how it seems. But it remains accessible to anyone who wants to look for it. Even if it's deleted, the information can be retrieved. Like leaving invisible traces of your DNA just by breathing when you enter a room, every search you make on a computer leaves a footprint, some of which might, potentially, land you in trouble.
Of course it's possible to click on an unsavoury website by mistake. Although it may not be not easy, it's possible. But what about a browsing history that shows its user has regularly searched for questionable material? From poison to paedophilia, guns to gambling, torture to terror, homicide and horror, murder and misery, drugs trafficking, people trafficking, my browsing history includes research into many seedy and illegal activities.
Writing this post has started me wondering... What if someone put a writer in the frame for a crime that involved material the writer was researching? The police might reasonably treat the writer as a suspect. Perhaps, on balance, it's safer to carry out research by speaking to real people!
And now I'm off to delete my browsing history on my computer, as fast and as far back as I can...