Writer and Author

Tag: Crime Fiction

The Baser Appetites

I watch the search terms people use to arrive at this blog with interest.  Every blogger gets some weird ones but I get more than most. It kind of goes with the territory when you spend most of your time writing about murder, rape, abuse, death and the media.

I write on a fairly niche subject so I end up high in the results for searches for Irish legal or criminal matters.  There’s a couple of weird ones – I get a LOT of hits from Japan for naked caricatures since I posted on the paintings of our esteemed Taoiseach in the nip that appeared in a couple of galleries in Dublin a while back using a full frontal image from Galway cartoonist Allan Cavanagh. And recently I seem to have become a go to place for those looking for the recipe for ricin (though since I’ve written extensively on that very subject I brought that one on myself).

Today I got an unusual one, a sentence that took me aback when I read it in the list of Google searches.  Someone had found my blog looking for the phrase “Abigail Rieley is scum”.  I know that people sometimes have very strong views about what I write here and that’s why I have comments enabled on every post.  Blogging is a social form of writing and I believe people should have the freedom to express their views.  I won’t allow comments that will cause unnecessary offence or break the law but if someone has a rational case to make they can make it freely.

But it got me thinking.  I write, for the most part, about death.  I earn my living following the stories of some of the most violent deaths we have in this country and I comment on them.  I’m aware that I can’t please everyone if I come down on one side or another in a trial but I will always try to be as fair as I possibly can.  But however fair I am there is always the risk of upsetting someone.

That’s the problem with this line of work.  As a court reporter specialising in criminal trials I am feeding one of the oldest appetites for news.  It’s the same public hunger that demands public executions and fights to the death for sport.  It’s the side of humanity that watches the pain of others with a bright glint in the eye.  Before you recoil in disgust stop a minute – it’s a lot more common than you think. 

It’s the same side of us that laps up crime fiction and violent movies.  Just because it’s make believe doesn’t mean it’s a different urge.  It’s the same sneering little voice that laughs at the audition stages of Britain’s Got Talent, willing dreams to be dashed and hopes crushed and will continue to watch even though psychologist have warned of the dangers to the more vulnerable auditionees.  But what I write about doesn’t have the sanitised gloss of entertainment.  It’s real life, real death.  The raw explosion of emotion that leads one ordinary person to take another’s life. You realise very quickly when you work down in the courts that the average person on trial for murder is not a psychopath or evil or depraved.  They’re just like you and me.

With every trial there are people who have lost, families who must listen to their loved ones reduced to an echo, a cipher who was at the centre of a storm and is now in front of the court as a a series of figments; forensic samples, perhaps a few photographs taken after death and the inevitable post mortem.  It’s shocking in it’s mundanity.

I’ve seen the looks the family of both the accused and the deceased give us journalists as we file in to the front of the court.  We’re usually seen as vultures, vermin scrabbling for the juicy titbits left over from a tragedy.  I know how it looks, we all do.  But the reality of the situation is that we are there to do a job and to feed an appetite for this kind of news.  It’s easier to cover a trial when you aren’t emotionally involved and that distance tends to show itself as an increased cynicism and an outward callousness.  We’re there to tell a story and allow the audience that same remove.  We’re feeding an interest, crime and politics have been filling newspapers since they were just a bill pasted on a wall…at least we don’t write ballads about the more infamous trials these days.

I would argue though that court reporting’s not all base emotions.  We’re witness to the carrying out of justice, one of the basic pillars of society.  Without the courts we’d have anarchy, or something similar.  When we write about murders we’re giving a voice to the dead and seeing their killers brought to justice – most of the time.  Maybe the reason why there’s such an interest in crime stories is just that, because it puts the bad guys in their place and makes the world less scary.  There will always be those that just see the sleaze and think what I do is sordid and perhaps even exploitative but all I can do is try to show them otherwise.

The Work Has Begun!

I’ve been trying to get down the first scene of the new book for the past week and a half.  The blank page is always a little scary but I think I was thrown by starting something so completely new.  My characters were waiting in the wings ready to start the action and I knew where that action was going to take them but the opening sentences I’d tried up until today just didn’t set the scene I wanted to set.

So I fell back on that old reliable – a change of scene.  This morning I packed myself up and headed into town determined to banish the blank page and make a dent in Chapter 1.  I love writing at my desk at home, surrounded by all the the junk that I like to think are prompts when the muse is stubbornly absent.  I’ve had the desk since I was school and it’s always been a little oasis where I know I can work.  This summer when, for various reasons, I couldn’t work there to finish my last book I spent a week going absolutely distracted as I got used to my new surroundings.

But sometimes the old familiars just don’t work.  It’s nice to have the luxury of a writing space at home but as a journalist I’m used to working wherever there’s desk space if a deadline is looming.  With fiction I’m a little more picky, I have bolt holes that I know will always have a condusive atmosphere to get me over a hump, where I can sit undisturbed and write, preferably with a handy plug socket for when the laptop battery starts to die.

When I headed into town today though, none of the usual haunts appealed.  This new book is very different to the fantasy I’ve written up to now (that’s in terms of fiction…not journalism) The character who tells this story had his own demands and I ended up in Starbucks upstairs in BT2 on Grafton Street. As I said before, I tend to be a little bit method when I’m working on a new character.

Normally the clatter of the ladies-who-lunch and the students from Trinity yattering over their lattes would keep me at bay unless there was a particularly pressing deadline.  Today though it was what was needed and the words soon started filling the page.  By the time I’d finished my non-fat latte (well, when in Rome and all that) I had 1100 words of an opening.

It’s only a first draft and will probably go through numerous permutations before I’m happy with it but there is no longer a blank page and the story is suddenly a concrete thing, a real “work in progress”.

Which reminds me.  Having written two books using Word I decided to try out some dedicated writing software this time round.  I’ve been using Word all my working life and it’s second nature but negotiating your way around a100,000 word manuscript can be a bit cumbersome to say the least.  I’ve also been caught on numerous occasions when my computer crashed when I had been caught up in the flow of a scene and hadn’t saved.  Even with Autosave I’d usually lose the last paragraph at least.

I use Twitter a lot these days and it’s a great place to keep up with the more techie things that are going on in the world.  It hadn’t occured to me that software existed for writers – I’d heard of programmes that helped you plot a novel that seem to be marketed to all those desperate to write the next generic blockbuster but a programme that simply existed because writers aren’t necessarily best suited for the standard office word processing programmes.

I decided to investigate and found PageFour.  There are a lot of these programmes out there these days but I’m happy with this one.  You write directly in the programme and your work is saved as an Rich Text document.  This means that your formatting will show up in whatever programme you export to when it’s time to print or send it off (in my case this will be the old reliable, Word).  There are all kinds of handy little features like a search for words you over use and an easily accessible word count.  But the big thing I like about it is that whenever the programme shuts down, whether you’ve closed it or it or the computer have crashed, your work is intact.  When you open the programme again it’s there down to the last letter.

I’m using a trial version at the moment but I think I’ll be getting a license.  I don’t normally plug stuff here but I’m surprised at how handy the programme is so I thought I’d share.  I won’t be ditching Word, it’s what I use for journalism after all, but it sometimes pays to be open minded.

OK sales pitch over and I’m heading back to my chapter but it’s a good feeling to know that I’ve finally made a start and the new book is underway.  Now the real work begins.

Jungian Psychology & MP3 Playlists for Building Characters

So I’m starting the new book.  For the first time in years I’m building my characters from scratch and I’m remembering all the techniques I’ve used over the years to flesh them into believable people who will help to form the plot I’ll build around them.

I grew up the child of actors and I’ll admit my approach is a little bit method but it’s always worked for me.  When I first start work on a character I know them as a gut feeling, the bare bones of them.  I know what they’re capable of and how they think but the surface stuff like dress sense, hair colour, height etc, etc, etc just isn’t there yet.

So there are two techniques I use again and again.  They help to give a framework to the instinctive stuff that all the rest can be hung on.  It might sound a bizarre or, heaven forbid, pretentious way of going about things but it works for me.

Jungian psychology mighsound a bit involved but really I’m only talking about a psychological tool used extensively by recruiters, team building coaches and their ilk.  I spent a few months many years ago working for a crowd of occupational psychologists.  They liked to know what made their staff tick so we were all made to do all kinds of psychometric tests, including the MBTI.

Now despite the fact that the detailed analysis of the types has always reminded me of horoscopes, the test can be a handy for building characters.  Apart from the fact that, to get it, you have to answer a detailed set of questions as your character – which is always good practise before you start putting words in their mouths – it also gives you an overview of what makes your character tick.  Each of the 16 types has a detailed definition which covers what kind of worker they are, what kind of romantic partner, their strengths and their weaknesses.  If you don’t know them already, a detailed read gives you all the buttons you might want to press (if you’re planning on giving your character a hard time.)

I wouldn’t necessarily do the test for every character but certainly all the main ones. There are readily available free versions of the test online.  The actual MBTI test is trademarked so the free versions that you find (like this one or this one) will not correspond exactly but despite what is said about them they give much the same results.  Once you have the personality type that fits your character then the definitions are widely available with a bit of Googling.

I also make playlists for my main characters.  I’m used to working with noise around me so I’m not one of those writers that needs absolute silence to get the words down.  I always have music or the radio on while I’m working and listening to music that my character would listen to rather than my own personal taste helps to get into their heads.  We all listen to music for so many different reasons; because of memories, because we identify, because we are fitting in with the herd or standing out from the crowd.  Listening to their choice of music helps me see through my characters’ eyes, not to mention get into the right mood to write them.

Everyone has different ways of working.  These are just two things that work for me.  As of today my two main characters are personality typed and playlisted.  Now the real work can begin.

Starting Again and Getting to Know New Characters

I haven’t been writing here much recently.  There are a couple of reasons for that.  Firstly the courts have been extremely quiet since they went back at the start of October so I haven’t been covering any trials (which I write up here as well as cover for the Sundays).

The second reason is that after finishing the novel I’ve been working on all summer I’ve been taking the time out to think about what to do next.  The novel was something I’d been working on for years and finally finishing it and saying goodbye to the characters I’ve got to know better than some of the people I know in real life was a bit disorientating.  The feeling was a little like the one when you’re suddenly torn away from a book that you’ve lost yourself in but more so.

I’d spent all summer living in a world of my creation and the realisation that the book was finished, the changes made and the story at an end was rather sad.  These are the first characters I’ve ever fully formed, they’ll be back in sequels but never as they are in this first book.  When I write them again they’ll be older, wiser, different from the innocent kids I’ve been writing about for so long.  I like the way they’ll be in the next book and I’m looking forward to continuing their story but it’s still a strange feeling.

A lot of writers describe feeling down when they’ve finished a book so I presume my feelings are normal but for the moment I’ve nothing to base it against.  I spent so long writing this book when it was just a dream, something I hoped to some day find a publisher for but that I was still only writing for myself.  It was a welcome break from newsroom life and a story I had first come up with many, many years ago but finding a publisher was simply a dream.

This summer I came back to it as a published author.  Devil had been on the shelves for some months and I had since signed up with an agent.  Suddenly my private project had become part of the day job and that brought it’s own differences in the way I worked.

Now it’s finished.  My agent is subbing it around publishers and all I can do is wait and turn my attentions to the next project.  Not going straight back to court meant that while I was deciding on that next project there was nothing else to distract me.  For the first time ever there is no manuscript to tinker on and whatever I start on next will be a completely fresh start.

I had been tossing around several different ideas since I sent off the manuscript but nothing really felt right.  Then last week, having an end of the week pint with the husband we started talking about what ifs.  One thing led to another and an idea started to form.  By the time we had finished dinner there was a plot, two main characters and several supporting cast members.  I knew my protagonist as if he was someone I’d just met and had an interesting conversation with, his female counterpart was sashaying across my mind like a memory.  I knew how the story opened and the main twists the plot will take.  It was an idea that excited me and that I could see had the potential to grow into a book.

So after weeks of having very little of sense to say here I finally have something new to write about.  It’s going to be a bit of a departure, crime fiction instead of true crime, a genre I’ve not ventured into up till now but these characters are insistent and already feel familiar.

As I said it’s been a long time since I was at this stage with a story.  I started the novel I’ve just finished almost seven years ago and back then was learning as I went.  I wrote a first draft without any kind of plan, worked out that is not a method that works for me so went back to the drawing board.  My characters for that book grew organically.  By the time I sat down to give them a more formal planning it was like filling in a magazine quiz on a friend.  It was the same with the plot.

My new characters are just that.  Brand new.  I’ve only had them in my head for a little over a week so now as I sit down to write I realise I don’t really know them well enough to let them run the story (yes I know that sounds a little bit loopy but honestly that is how it feels when the writing is going smoothly, as if you are simply watching events unfold).  So my solution is to start from scratch and slowly get to know them.

The time honoured way is to be able to answer detailed questions on the character.  This is the stage where you build a character with far more detail than you’re ever going to use in the book itself.  I like having a strong character to start with, otherwise I find myself at crossroads in the plot and having to stop and decide what the character would do in that situation rather than simply knowing instinctively.  So for the next week or so I will be answering questions about my characters that sound like security questions for Internet banking.

I’ll know what their favourite pet was when they were a kid, how they felt when it died (if it died), were they the kind of child that would pull the wings off flies, what they would be like as a date, what books they like to read, what music they listen to, favourite films…you get the idea.  It’s a little like the getting to know you stage in a romantic relationship, when you’re both staying up all night comparing tastes.  At the moment I could pick my characters out of a crowded room, by the end of this process I should know exactly what they think of the crowd.

I’ll post again when I’ve got a bit further with all of this, if not sooner. But now I’m off to start getting to know my leading man!

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