I’m writing a series of police procedurals under the new pen-name, JJ Sullivan. Book 1, Drawn to Murder, is already complete and when I went to bed last night I was 17,000 words into Book 2, Westwood, but I don’t plan to publish until I have three books ready to go.
Most people who read mysteries probably read them to find out who the killer is, and why. It may come as a surprise to readers who are not themselves writers to find out that that’s also why I write them. I want to know who the killer is, and what motivates him or her.
I say, “him or her,” because Drawn to Murder features two serial killers working together – and they are both women. I must have written 15,000 words of that book before I realised that the male serial killers I was writing about couldn’t have done what they were supposed to have done and the killers must be female.
What that tells you is that I’m a pantser and not a plotter. When I start writing the book, I know very little about what’s going to happen. Westwood starts like this:
Jensen Bartholomew was Zooming with his brother, Cedric. A stranger sharing Jensen’s screen would have taken it that Cedric was not doing too well – the room he sat in was poorly furnished and Cedric himself looked as though his next full meal would be his first for some time. Cedric had just finished the first ten minutes of a series of moans about his predicament that experience told Jensen was likely to last for some time when the door behind him opened and a figure entered covered from head to foot in a black gown and wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. As Jensen watched, the figure wrapped something around Cedric’s neck and pulled it tight. Cedric half rose from his chair. His hands struggled to free himself and his feet were stamping a furious tattoo on the worn lino beneath them, but the figure did not relent. In less than a minute, Cedric had sunk out of sight, to all appearances dead. The figure leaned in close to the screen and pointed through it at Jensen. In a deep and gravelly voice, it said, ‘You’re next.’ Then the screen went as dead as Cedric.
And that’s all I had. I didn’t know who killed Cedric, I didn’t know why he needed to die – I knew almost nothing. But I did have the confidence that comes from having written a large number of books, most of them published under other people’s names, to know that the characters would help me out. The most extreme case of that was when I was writing Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper. I wrote the first sentence:
All I’d said was, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in her knickers.
I didn’t know where that sentence would take me – but Billy, the lead character, extracted himself from the story and stood over me as I wrote. “Poppy wouldn’t have said that.” “It didn’t happen like that, it happened like this.” “Don’t forget to tell them about the anger management.” And so it went until the book was complete. You could say Billy McErlane wrote that book and not me – and Billy McErlane doesn’t exist.
Something very similar happened today. With a quarter of Westwood written, I still had no idea who had been doing the killing (the body count by then was three) and nor did I know why. And then, at 4 o’clock this morning while I was still in bed, the killer announced himself. ‘It’s me,’ he said. ‘And this is why I’m doing it.’ He’s been in the book from the start and he hadn’t for a single moment been a suspect in my mind – but as soon as he identified himself, it made complete sense.
I’ve spent the day first in rewriting work already done and then in adding 3400 words to take account of what I know now and didn’t know before. This is the stage at which I know for certain that the book will be finished.
When it is, you’ll be the first to know.
Life is precarious, and our hold on it uncertain. That’s always been true, but it seems that people have forgotten it. We have medication that keeps people alive with conditions that, only a few years ago, would have killed them. It’s easy to believe that threats to life have been overcome; those in their teens today may even believe that they’ll live for ever. They won’t.
Life in the eighteenth century was a lot less certain
A lot of research went into my James Blakiston series, some of it to do with the ages at which people died and what it was that carried them off. Illnesses that we now know as TB and flu were rife. Here is a passage from the first book in the series, A Just and Upright Man:
On the fourth of February in a winter that was taking no prisoners, Blakiston might have expected to find everyone clustered around the fire – and that is exactly where the aged Benjamin was, being fussed over by his wife who was twenty years younger than he was. His two sons, however, were hard at work in the biting cold. Blakiston watched them, struck by the single-minded intensity with which both young men worked. Then he returned to the farm house to take a dish of tea by the fire with the old man and discuss how they would manage the change from a three crop to a four crop rotation.
As he prepared to leave, Blakiston said, ‘You have two good sons.’
‘Aye, Master. They’re good lads, both of them.’
‘It is a pity that both cannot inherit the tenancy. The younger boy…Tom, is it?’
‘Aye, Master. Tom is the second born.’
‘From what I have seen he would make a better farmer than many who are already tenants. But it cannot be. This farm is not large enough to divide. We need bigger farms, not smaller.’
‘Well, Master, God’s will is God’s will.’
‘Do you say so? Tell me, Benjamin Laws, have you any other children beyond those two?’
‘A daughter, Master. Henrietta. We call her Hetty. She is a scullery maid at the Castle.’
‘And how comes it that a man of advanced years has sons so young?’
‘Twas the influenza, Master.’
‘Ah. I am sorry.’
‘Aye, Master. I had a wife and five bairns before what you see me with today. And then the influenza came, in 1735 I think it was, and in three weeks all were gone but me.’
‘A sad story.’
‘It was the same for many.’
‘And that, too, was God’s will?’
Blakiston saw the startled expression in the old man’s eyes and realised he had better take this no further. ‘Well, Uncle, I shall keep you from sleep no longer.’
That was how life was, and the people knew it. Cholera and typhoid were other killers and it was not so many years before that that plague halved the population of England. And these killers did not respect rank – a king or a bishop had almost as much chance of dying as some farm labourer in a hovel.
Those 18th-century killers are still at work
That isn’t the case now, and it could be that the reason that Covid-19 is getting so much attention when tuberculosis (and, if it comes to that, measles) kills far more is that most of the people dying from TB are not white and not middle-class and have very little buying power and are therefore of little interest to our western media. If the virus serves no other purpose, perhaps it might be useful in bringing home to all of us a lesson that, once, did not need to be taught: that life is precarious and our hold on it tenuous.
Passing the time in self-isolation
If you are observing self-isolation, you may find that this is a very good time to spend with a good book. You’ll find the first in the James Blakiston series here and the second here. If historical fiction is not your bag, and you’d like to take a look at the way people live now, try this one or this one.
Elmore Leonard was a writer’s writer. When he died recently, he left some good advice behind him.
A number of readers have asked me just how accurate the historical detail in A Just and Upright Man is. Well, it’s a work of fiction. But that doesn’t mean it’s all invented.
It happens in a real place, but I made up the events and most of the people. The Greener and Laws families have been in and around Ryton for a very long time, but none of them did what their namesakes do here. A lot of other names were common in Ryton – Bent, Cowan and Saunders, to name only three of the more prominent ones – but they never did me any harm and I have left them alone. There was never a Rector there called Thomas Claverley. There was a Blakiston, but he was not Lord Ravenshead’s farm agent. If it comes to that, there was never a Lord Ravenshead – I have changed the name from Ravensworth (though the real Baron never had a son called the Earl of Wrekin). The Blacketts, on the other hand, really were the Blacketts. They did live at Matfen Hall and Hoppyland was one of their estates.
There really was a Sticky Bainbridge, and he really did get his nickname because he had a wooden leg, but I have moved him back in time 150 years and relocated him from South Moor to Ryton. The original provided the occasion for one of my Great Uncle Jot’s celebrated one-liners, repeated through three generations, which is how I first heard of him. Martin Wale was never Curate in Ryton. There really was a James Batey in Bolam and he really was a boot maker of repute as well as being my 4 greats grandfather; there was never a blacksmith in Hexham called James Meader.
The story of the disputed tithe on turnips is true. Ambrose Crowley really was the philanthropist described in these pages, though he was a businessman first. The Ryton Church bells really were cast and fitted when I said they were, the total eclipse happened exactly when I say it did, the Piper of Wall really did marry Jean Middlemas when he was ninety and she was twenty-five and the extravagant claims for his physical performance really were made. If someone could make their way here from the Ryton of the 1760s they’d find nothing to question in my description of the food they ate, the furniture they used, the houses they lived in or the clothes they wore. (I’ve actually had emails challenging the suggestion that women in 18th century England wore no underwear below the waist; I assure you, it’s true.
Oh, yes–and their really was a Kate Greener, too. If there hadn’t been, there wouldn’t now be a Me.
I could go on. What it comes down to is: If it is part of the story of murder, mayhem and love, I made it up. If it isn’t – if it is external to all that – it’s true. Whatever true means in this context. History is a fertile ground for the followers of every creed, whether political, religious or sociological. They’re all right, and they’re all wrong. There is a widespread belief that primary sources will take us back to ground zero and show us what really happened. Sometimes that’s so. And sometimes it isn’t. For example, “everyone” knows – and it’s certainly in all the text books I’ve come across – that there were no workhouses in rural parishes in the north east of England till after 1835. But go back to the primary sources and read Ryton parish’s Account Book of Overseers, including Assessments of Poor Rate, Receipts and Memoranda (Durham Registry Office, EP/Ryt 7/1). Woodside Poor House is there, starting in 1759, and the poor were given the choice of entering it or going without assistance. As so often, what everyone knows to be true is, in fact, wrong.
You can, though, read all the primary documents there are and still come up with differing versions of the truth. A Just and Upright Man is mine. Please. Feel free to see things otherwise.
If you want to discuss this, use the Comment space at the foot of this post. Or you can email me on firstname.lastname@example.org