Today's guest blog is by Emma Kavanagh whose debut novel Falling is published today. A former police and military psychologist who trained firearms officers, command staff and military personnel in the UK and Europe she also has a Phd in psychology.
They say that you should write what you know. I’m not so sure that this is an absolute myself, but I do believe that when you know a world, when you understand it, then your writing of it can come to life, can be real in a way that would be difficult for someone who hasn’t experienced it. I spent seven years as a police and military psychologist, providing training to police forces and NATO officers throughout the UK and Europe, and I can say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that what I write is fed by what those years have taught me.
I have always been fascinated by the way in which normal people react to highly stressful environments. A gun battle, an airplane crash, and a terrorist attack. These are challenges that, whilst common fodder for the world of the crime writer, are quite rare in the life of the average person. However, for the individuals that it was my job to train, these threats were worryingly real. What interested me was the way in which, in situations like this, you see people’s behaviour change, turn into something you wouldn’t have predicted from them.
I’ll give you a little bit of the science - don’t worry; I’ll keep it brief. When a person is under a great deal of stress, the blood flow in their brain changes. What you see is a decrease in blood flow to the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that deals with logic and reason, and an increase in blood flow to the limbic system - the older, far more instinctual part of the brain. What that means for us, in a nutshell, is that, when you are under stress, instinct and those behaviours that are so well rehearsed as to be essentially instinctual are in charge.
This is a powerful bit of knowledge. It is understanding this basic fact that has allowed us to adapt police and military training so that the kind of behaviours that we need to see in people when they are under stress is drilled into them, again and again and again. We make the behaviours we need them to replicate almost instinctive, so that when the frontal lobe isn’t working so well and they start relying on the limbic system, they have the right kind of response just sitting there waiting for them.
My job was to teach this, to police officers (from PC to Chief Constable), to soldiers and officers, because the more we understand how the brain works, the better we can predict and explain the kind of behaviours that we see in life threatening situations. And that is part of the reason why I love writing, and why I think novels are so critical for us as a society. We very rarely get the chance to experience in real life the kind of things that we read about in crime novels (thankfully!). However, the brain is an incredible learning tool, and it will take its knowledge from anywhere it can get it. You don’t need someone to hold a gun to your head in order to learn from that situation - reading about it will generate the same kind of neural activity (albeit on a substantially reduced level). What this means for us is that reading about characters in life threatening situations gives our brains a template, a way to respond should we ever find ourselves in a similar situation. Essentially, novels can help us learn how to handle the world and the myriad of people in it.
I’m not very nice to my characters. These people truly are put through the mill. They are forced to deal with horrendous and desperately traumatising situations. They don’t always deal with them well, but what I do try to do is ensure that their responses - whilst sometimes ineffectual and downright annoying - are psychologically genuine, based on who they are as characters and the kind of things they have been exposed to.
Novels are important because people are able to see themselves in them, to identify with the characters, their quirks, their talents, and even their failings. And that matters. That matters hugely! As humans we are deeply social creatures. It is important to us that we are not alone in our experiences, that others have gone through them, have reacted in a similar way. In essence, that we are normal.
In my role as a police and military psychologist, I found day in and day out, that one of the greatest stressors for the people I was dealing with was the sense that there was something wrong with them, that they were somehow abnormal, because they had behaved in a way that they weren’t expecting to when their life was in danger. And often all it took was an explanation of what it was their brain had been experiencing, an understanding that at that time their actions were dictated by their biology. That was my job then, to give people an opportunity to see themselves in a new light, one that hopefully made more sense to them. And it’s still my job now - providing readers with a cast of fictional characters, all of whom are forced to deal with tough situations, all of whom react differently, but all of whom will hopefully allow the reader to see themselves, and to ultimately see that they aren’t that different after all.
You can follow Emma Kavanagh on Twitter @EmmaLK
Shots review of Falling can be read here.
FALLING by Emma Kavanagh is published by Century on March 27th, hardback £9.99