Lots of people don’t realise that although you may see work by a certain author on the bookshelves in your favourite shop, many writers still hold down a day job in addition to penning their next novel. In this series, we talk to writers about how their current – or previous – day jobs have inspired and informed their writing.
Today, we have Robert Parker discussing how his occupation helped inspire his crime writing. I first met Robert on the Crime & Publishment course in 2016 and he’s a top chap. Robert has, however, chosen to retain his anonymity – I’m sure you’ll understand why soon…
Thanks to him for sharing his experience with us.
You are now twenty times more likely to be a victim of cyber crime than you are to be mugged in the street. It makes a lot of sense, from a criminal perspective. Why would you bother to actually mug someone these days? Why take all the risks; the chance of someone calling your bluff, the chance of someone mugging you right back, the chance of going to jail, if, like me, you harbour a suspicion that you might just be a bit too pretty for that? Why take the gamble when you can sit on a couch in the comfort of your underwear, with a laptop, eating food that probably came in a bucket, scrolling, clicking and punching in the odd stolen card number.
That’s where we come in. Online fraud is big business these days and as time goes on it’s only getting bigger, more complicated and harder to spot.
I wound up in my job almost by accident. Almost. It isn’t something you can fall into. There’s a bit of commitment required. Competition for jobs can get fierce. It isn’t an option you just settle for. But I didn’t know it was something you could do until about a year before I shoehorned my way in.
It was 2010 and I was working two jobs at once, waiting on tables in the family-owned coffee shop and fitting cattle mattresses (yes, really) for my step-dad’s agricultural engineering business. I was living away from my fiancée during the week and driving the hundred and thirty dark winter miles to and from Edinburgh either side of the weekend. I needed to spend more time where I supposedly lived. I knew I would have to find something a bit different. They don’t do farming in the big smoke. I’d never worked in an office. I thought I could give that a go. It had to be warmer than a byre in January. How hard could it be?
I failed the data entry test (yes, really). That sounds like it would be hard to do. In my defence, I didn’t know my way round a keyboard, much less a clunky, chunky, nineties relic, mothballed in the damp basement of a recruitment agency. They were prepared to take a chance on me. They were counting on me. I couldn’t let them down, I was told, by an overly earnest man who had to be ten years my junior.
I was sent to the offices a of a tech firm who needed me to enter data for two weeks. It meant I could spend some time with Caroline, if nothing else. I remember thinking then that there must be something more interesting than data entry going on inside the offices of a travel website. I just had no concept of what that might actually be.
I didn’t get to do any data entry. I managed a tour of the city centre office, a coffee and slack-jawed stare at what must have been an expensive view of the castle, before someone in the contact centre got fired for looking at Facebook.
That’s how I wound up in a contact centre. A couple of weeks later I overheard a conversation between two of my new workmates in the pub, one asking the other “How are you finding the fraud department?” That was the light bulb moment. That was when I knew I’d found the something more interesting. It took me another twenty months to get in, but I’ve been here ever since.
So how has it contributed to my writing? In a lot of ways that I might have seen coming and a few more I didn’t.
First of all, there’s the day-to-day. I’m a fraud analyst, part case-by-case investigator and part long-term strategist. We deal with the fraud as and when it arises, working individual cases, catching people in the act and hopefully stopping them, but we also follow patterns, predict trends and take steps to counteract them. Where we can, we help the police, build cases and compile evidence, with a view to putting people safely away.
The first thing you learn is that it isn’t quite as glamorous as the expectations of your friends and family. My mum seems to think my day job is something like cyber CSI, and it is, but like a real life CSI. It’s methodical. It involves hard work and you don’t actually get to chase, or even see the bad guys, not in real life, though ironically for the girl whose job I originally stole, I do spend far more time on Facebook than can ever really be healthy.
It isn’t something you could write a book about, not a thriller anyway. Man-gets-mildly-excited-and-spills-cappuccino-after-left-clicking-and-discovering-some-fraudulent-transactions or man-deals-with-brief-existential-crisis-after-opening-an-intimidating-Excel-file doesn’t make for a particularly compelling elevator pitch. Or maybe it’s just a bit too literary for me.
It’s all relative though. You can get lost in the data for hours and you do get a buzz when you uncover a web or a pattern. But it’s the stuff I’ve learned as a consequence of my job that inspires and informs plots, research and characters.
So much of our lives today happen online. Like it or not, you leave traces of yourself wherever you go. Even a Google search records multiple pieces of information, all of which affect what you’re shown next time around. Police investigations naturally have a higher emphasis on our online, connected lives as time goes on.
It isn’t just fraud that has moved online either. The dark web is a one-stop shop for anything you want. Feel like ordering up a kilo of heroin? An Uzi? A human being? It’s all out there, lurking below the surface. You just have to know where to start digging. And the customer service is better than you’ll find anywhere else.
You learn about these things when you come into contact with the right – or wrong – people, when you’re trained by the right people. It’s the stories you hear that stick in the mind. The public consciousness seems to have fraud down as a victimless crime, but a conversation with the police would quickly convince you otherwise. Fraudsters are pretty often the same people committing the more serious crimes, with the proceeds going to fund the drugs, guns and human traffic.
Different gang cultures have different hierarchies. With the world getting smaller there are clashes. That thought led me to the plot of my first novel, Snow Storm. Throw in a conspiracy theory, a few bodies, add a twist or three and hopefully you’re halfway to a decent story.
Sometimes though, inspiration can be as simple as dumb luck and geography, like my wife dropping me off at work, bleary eyed and achy after the office Christmas party, next to a lamppost someone had hung an oddly shaped bag from.
“Do you think there’s a head in there?” I heard myself say, through a boozy haze.
And the opening of Snow Storm landed, fully formed, between my ears.