I’m still whizzing round on the publicity merry-go-round for the new book this week. Today started off with back to back interviews and a reminder that even when you’ve a few interviews under your belt at a time like this you can still get that curve ball thrown at you when you least expect it.
My second interview of the morning was with Declan Meade on the Morning Show on East Coast FM. I’d been in to talk to Declan when Devil came out so it was nice to be back. at the end of the interview he asked me a question that had honestly never occurred to me before (an achievement since I’ve been eating, breathing and sleeping this book since the trial in January). Why, he asked me, had I referred in the book to Celine Cawley as “Celine” while referring to Eamonn Lillis as “Lillis”.
When you write a true crime book there are a lot of things to take into consideration. Quite apart from the fact you have to make sure you get the legal end of things absolutely right and double, and triple check all the factual details there are other, more subtle considerations. The language you use must be evocative but you’re not writing a work of fiction, it’s a record of an event, a tragic event that has traumatised all those touched by it and that has to be taken into account.
One of the most basic things that you have to decide on are what to refer to the principal characters as. In a court report of an ongoing trial there are conventions that you tend to stick to. Witnesses, the deceased and the accused are all referred to by their surname with the appropriate title before hand. Sometimes, to avoid confusion, say if numerous members of the same family are giving evidence you might resort to first names for clarity but for the most part its the formal title followed by surname.
When you’re writing a book or even a more fluid kind of article this form of address doesn’t always work. It can sound clunky and artificial. So you’re left with a choice. Do you use first names or surnames. Forenames can sound overly familiar but can feel like a natural choice when you’re talking about the victim, someone to be viewed with sympathy and compassion whose place in the story is to have a tragic ending.
For the convicted however it’s the flip side. Once they’re marked a killer by the decision of a jury they often lose their title, to be referred to ever after by their surname only. Referring to them by their first name just wouldn’t sound right, so they become the surname with an extra dose of ignominy.
It’s not a hard and fast rule of course. It can depend on the house style of the publisher or publication you’re writing for, sometimes everyone gets the surname approach although it’s generally not the other way around.
When I was asked the question I wondered briefly was I actually calling Celine Cawley by her first name because she was a woman. I know that when I was writing Devil and when I’ve written about both cases on this blog it’s been first names all the way. I don’t think it’s as simple as that though. I frequently refer to people who’ve played principal parts in the trials I’ve covered by their first names, mainly because I write in a more informal style here and it just sounds better.
There might be an element as well of the fact that when I’m writing about a case in depth it’s very hard not to develop a distance from the subject as you chisel the words into shape. I know when I’ve written true crime I think about the people and situations I’m describing in much the same way I would think about characters and plots when I write fiction. I’m aware that I’m talking about real events but to shape them into book form I need to treat them in the same way I would the raw material for any other kind of book.
It was a question that really got me thinking – always great when that happens. I’d love to hear what you think on the subject, weigh in with your own thoughts please – I’m perhaps too close to the subject by now and can’t see the wood from the trees.