True Crime Writing

One of the January submissions I had hoped to submit to was Mango Publishing Group’s Small Towns True Crime anthology. I’ve always been interested in true crime, and was drawn to the fact that the publishers wanted their contributors to select a little known local crime to be the focus of the submission.

I live in Lancaster, UK, and while we have many infamous historical tales to tell (the Pendle Witches were held and tried at the castle at the top of my hill, for one), the crime that I hoped to focus on for my submission piece was the 1866 murder of Elizabeth Nelson. There is a plaque in honour of Elizabeth on the grounds of the university stating that she ‘died in defence of her chastity’. Elizabeth’s murderer was never caught, and a local rumour may shed light on the sinister reason.

Before I explain more about Elizabeth’s death, I should disclose that I never did manage to submit (the deadline was January 31st). I soon realised that I needed to give far more time to researching Elizabeth’s life and death than I could offer the project, and made the decision to shelve it before I began. I was inspired by YouTuber Shauna Rae, whose channel I stumbled upon while falling down the rabbit hole that is Brandon Lawson’s disappearance. Since watching her measured, articulate, and considerate report on Brandon’s case, I have become a huge fan of her channel.

I immediately respected Shauna’s meticulous timelines, her careful representation of the human behind the victim, and her scrutinisation of all potential suspects with care and compassion for victims, potential criminals, and family members. I realised that I would not have time to give Elizabeth the case report that she deserved with only a month to go until deadline. And I also realised that there may be far more to her case than the details that were reported. Shauna often states in her videos that she gives greater weight to facts stated by locals of the area where the crime was committed than to those that are reported by the press. And there is historically a good reason for that.

Elizabeth was found beaten to death. When the police arrived at the scene, they reported that they believed she had suffered a seizure and immediately had her body taken to a public house up the road to be carefully washed, removing any evidence that might have remained on her body. Local legend has it that Elizabeth was found with a police button in her hand. I would love to research more about this. Why would a woman who had died ‘in defence of her chastity’ and was found covered in bruises have been assumed to have had a fit? Why is it only local word of mouth and not the newspapers that ever spoke of the button found in her hand? And surely the police records would have shown which officers had to order a replacement button for their uniform? Of course, the button is only a rumour, and the police may have had nothing to do with this long-cold case…

I’m glad I made the decision to cross the submission from my diary and not rush through the available facts to cobble an article together for submission. That just wouldn’t be right. But one day I hope to set aside the appropriate amount of time to shed some light on Elizabeth’s story, and perhaps unearth some long-forgotten secrets that are only whispered about in Lancaster’s old cobbled streets. Victims should never be forgotten. And as writers it is our job to present the truth, no matter how much time has passed.

A More Organised Writer…?

Did you guys make any writing related New Year’s Resolutions? We’re almost a month in to 2020, so how have you been getting on?

This year, I chose to focus on streamlining my writing process with a view to keeping my stress-levels low and my productivity high. So far, it seems to be working. I filled a diary with upcoming submission calls for short stories, and the two that stood out with deadlines at the end of January are almost complete. Having the diary has helped me to focus my attention on where it is needed, instead of constantly having ideas floating around my head without any order!

In between submission calls, I’m looking at working more methodically on my novels and full-length scripts. There are a couple of works that require some editing or plot-development before I can take them any further, so I’m blocking out time in between deadlines to work on those. When I have them mapped into my diary, I can forget all about them in the meantime, which is definitely preventing me from panicking or experiencing plot overload!

In terms of my horror novel, I am still plot mapping at the moment. I’ve drafted a few of the key chapters, but want to make sure I have the full structure worked out before I take it any further. I’ve been working to the Save the Cat plotting method which was developed by Blake Snyder, and found that his structure pretty much fit my basic plot plan for this particular work in progress. Having the template in front of me is helping me to focus my ideas and stick to the most important elements of the story. I was pleased to find that I was on the right track according to Snyders development plan, and so it was surprisingly positive to shift from being a complete pantser to a plotter! I’m going to book a solid week or two off work later in the year to finalise the finished draft. Knowing that I’ll have that time in a few months to worry about the finer details is helping me to take a steadier pace this time around. I am training myself to stop charging through the process, and I have to say I am enjoying the change of tack.

I hope that if you made any writing resolutions that they are working out well for you so far. If you did but haven’t been able to utilise them for whatever reason, I hope it’s given you a helpful insight into what may work for you in the future. If you hate making resolutions and already had a positive writing structure going for you, then long may it continue into 2020! And, finally, if you hate making resolutions but still don’t have a writing schedule that works for you, don’t give up on yourself. It will come in time.

Wishing all my fellow writers a positive and productive year ahead.

Inspired to write in Copenhagen

I love city breaks. For me, the perfect holiday involves endless sights, peculiar statues, and oddities galore. When I first looked at Copenhagen I was surprised to find only a handful of myths and legends discussed online. When I asked the locals about this I was informed that the Danish are proud to be practical, and that many of the local tales of the paranormal were phased out over the years.

I admire the scientific approach, and take as much pleasure from discovering that a peculiar event has been debunked as I do from my imagination running wild at tales of ghouls and monsters. But the horror writer in me will always seek out the weird and will take solace in the fact that there are some things in our hustle-and-bustle world that can’t be easily explained away.

I ended up downloading a Monsters and Myths private walking tour on my phone and set out to discover the paranormal delights of the city. With the crisp blue January sky above me I loved hearing about the trolls, mermaids, and ghosts of Copenhagen’s past. Granted, the mermaid turned out to be a giant squid, the troll an explanation for the glacial stones in the countryside, and ghosts…well, the devil appearing in Laksegade in the 1800s and throwing belongings into the street was certainly a great tale.

For me, though, the true horror story was one experienced by Hans Christian Andersen, and documented in his diaries. Witnessing a boy plagued by epileptic fits, the cure at the time was thought to be drinking the blood of a corpse. Andersen was mesmerised by the potential power of the macabre treatment, and, because the fit passed over as the blood was administered, believed in its wonders.

As a horror writer, it is important to consider the human condition and the reasons for our superstitions, paranoia, and neurosis. Seeking out myths, legends, and ghost stories helps me to understand the mindset of those who had no access to scientific textbooks. It is the basis of human fear. And, in my opinion, it makes it more real than anything Hollywood’s scare fests can throw at us.

I often wonder how to balance the fantastical with the real in order to tell a convincing story. Copenhagen allowed me to consider the horrific with a practical mind, and I hope I can apply that to my writing in future. That’s not to say that I don’t believe that there may be some oddities and monsters out there that can’t be explained away by science! I love to keep an open mind. I don’t believe the human race can possibly know all there is to know.

Where would be the fun in that?

Making Time to Write

It’s early in the new year and I’m right where I need to be. I’m sat at my kitchen table with my laptop open in front of me, notebooks and diary notes strewn around me. I’m in my happy place. It’s a Sunday and I have nothing to do but write.

That’s not to say that the day hasn’t been filled with other essentials. The bathroom and kitchen have been cleaned. There is a wash load turning in the dryer. I watched the final episode of Cheer in bed with a cup of coffee this morning because I just had to know if Navarro won the division championship before I could even think about writing a word. But that’s okay. Those were not wasted hours. Because now I can shake off the day, focus on my words, and breathe.

My plan today is a simple one. Write a blog post (hi there!), write a rough draft for entry into the Tales from the Moonlit Path ‘Love Gone Wrong’ horror short submission, and add to my chapter plan. It is three attainable, satisfying goals, and all three will set me up for the week on a stronger footing than I would be without them. My resolution for 2020 was geared around me maintaining productivity without becoming overwhelmed, and I’ve come to realise in the last two weeks that I am finally able to breathe. Metaphorically – and often literally – I hold my breath while I rush through the motions of being a writer. My brain races through ideas spanning ten chapters, while at the same time considering social media and blog posts, potential short story submissions, and query letters. And then I wonder why I fail to work to the best of my abilities.

January has been a much-needed huff of oxygen to my writing practice. I’m organised. I’m pacing myself. I am allowing myself space to breathe. I trust in my inactivity, just as I trust in my ability to write the damn novel. I just needed a little space to fill my lungs.

And now I’m right where I need to be. Writing.

New Year, New Writing Me…?

Welcome to a new year, my writing friends. A new decade, to be exact. I already feel as though this will be a year of change. A change in practice. A change of habits. Renewed motivation and drive. I took a couple of months out to re-charge my batteries and shake off the technological burn-out I’d been experiencing. A hectic and challenging few months at my day-job had left me unable to enjoy time at the computer at home, and fighting to summon up the enthusiasm to post cheerful insta pics and remotely positive blog posts.

A break has done me good, I’m happy to report. I have something of a plan going into 2020. I am determined to organise my time and to ensure productivity no longer goes hand-in-hand with burn out. I have identified my problem – I’m an ‘all or nothing’ kind of person. In the past I have had no problem writing thousands of words, zoning out and immersing myself in my imaginary worlds, fingers flying over the keyboard and my brain working overtime to catch up to the images being acted out by the characters in my mind. But then comes the edit. Picking apart the plot holes and rectifying lazy setting descriptions. And then, inevitably, comes the loss of confidence. The spark dries up. The project gets shelved for a shiny new idea and off I go again, hurtling towards exhaustion but ultimately getting no closer to my goal of becoming a novelist.

2020 will be different. I’m determined to get a grip on my writing practice to ensure I move steadily towards my goals. I’ve bought a diary and have entered upcoming short story submission opportunities that I might like to try. This will hopefully allow me to manage my spare time more effectively and give me plenty of opportunities to build my short story portfolio while simultaneously completing my novel. I’ve set time aside in January to carefully plot my chapters and I’m ditching word-count focus until I know exactly what I need to write.

And one final vow going into 2020: To take it easy on myself. As writers we demand so much of ourselves. Of our time. Of our energy. Of our lifestyles and headspace. We aren’t superhuman, at the end of the day. The year has begun with nothing but negativity in the news of the world around us, and it can be disheartening. It’s hard to focus on our goals when the lives we live sometimes feel so perilously out of our control.

So, this year, take a breath. Allow yourself the time you need to be brilliant. Enjoy the small steps that you can take in order to achieve your goals. No matter what is happening around us, our writing is the one thing we do have control over. If you’ve been struggling to motivate yourself, just as I have, think of a plan that will take some of the pressure off your shoulders. Get back to doing what you love. And look after yourselves this year, my writing friends.

October Writing

October was a pivotal month for my writing. As I mentioned in my last post, I decided to brand myself as a horror writer, focusing only on the horror genre and beginning work on a full-length horror novel. It makes sense, as most of my short stories have been published in horror anthologies, providing me with a spook-filled portfolio to approach prospective agents and publishers with when the time comes. Happy belated Halloween, by the way!

As of 5th October, it isn’t only short stories in my portfolio. I was over the moon to have the No Sleep Podcast pick up one of my shorts, Better Than Mardis Gras, and turn it into a segment on their incredible show. It features as the second story in Episode 16 of Season 13. Hearing three talented actors perform the story gave me goosebumps. It felt even better because this was a story that has faced rejection in the past. It reinforced the idea that you should never shelve something just because you get a few rejections. One day it may find a home, and a perfect one at that!

I have to admit, there was one glaring error in the story – a dreaded hanging adverb! There is no writing mistake that stands out more than an adverb at the end of a creepy sentence, read out by an actor, with atmospheric sound effects in the background, followed by a dramatic pause. Believe me, now I know. But hey, I cringed. I moved on. If I hadn’t have spotted that as a mistake, maybe I should worry (and yes, I wish I had spotted it before I submitted it!). But we live and learn – that’s what writing is all about. It’s a comfort to me to know that even though our work may not be as perfect as we’d like, we still get these chances to showcase and improve.

So, I’m chugging away at my horror novel. I’m not taking part in NaNoWriMo this year, but I’m enjoying seeing participant word counts growing on Insta! I’m currently on 20k and hoping to hit 30 by the end of November (definitely not enough to make the Nano grade!). Good luck to all of you who are participating. I can’t wait to hear about your successes.  

Who’s afraid of the big bad edits?

A few weeks ago I received a rejection email with a twist. On this occasion I was fortunate enough to have the editor come back to me with my story marked, suggesting that if I make some changes he would reconsider the submission. I was blown away by this opportunity, as I know how rare it is to get a second chance when it comes to submissions!

I went back to him asking for a latest date that he would expect me to return the altered manuscript, stating that I knew that this was no guarantee that I would make it into the anthology even after the edits, and thanking him for the opportunity to try again. He then wrote back to me thanking me for my response to his suggestions, stating that not all writers take the offer of edits quite so well.

This struck me as crazy! Here was a professional, who whilst considering my story had made edits in track changes, without me paying him a thing, and had offered me a second chance at publication if only I follow his advice. For a story that I wrote for his anthology. Who in their right mind wouldn’t snap his hand off, I wondered?! I mean, I know that your own writing is precious, and that having someone turn around asking for changes is like someone saying your baby would be cute if only it had brown eyes and curly hair. But I know I would have had to have paid a fortune sending it off to an editing company for the same pleasure. And his suggestions were completely valid: There was too much description before the action began. There were too many characters for a short story, and some of them had to go. I did need to ramp up the connection between the two main characters, and – damnit – the ending would be better if the narrator actually made it to safety!!

So I sat down to work through the changes, taking each point and scrutinising how to make the edits successful without losing my voice and my original intentions. Sometimes it’s difficult to take criticism, but thankfully this editor made both positive and negative comments with a considered, encouraging tone. I’ve received other edits by more brutal readers in the past, and this was a cake-walk in terms of bruised ego aftereffects! I was dreading making the edits, because I do hate editing. But this was kind of a fun experience, much to my surprise. I learned more from his suggestions that I ever have from courses or classes. I am grateful to him, and glad I learned a while ago to keep an open mind and listen to the experts (probably the most difficult but most important step in my writing career).

All I can say is, no matter how much it hurts, if someone offers you the chance to make edits to improve your story to their publishing standard, don’t let your pride get in the way. You’ll become a better writer from it. Fast-forward a month and I’ve made it into the publication! I am over the moon about it and can’t wait to see the book published. So, here’s to second chances, and expert advice.