Ask Augustus

It’s not long now until my second book is published. Fatal Evidence is the first book-length biography of 19th-century forensic scientist Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor, MD, FRS. Readers of my first book, Poison Panic, may recognise his name, as will anyone who knows anything about Victorian crime.

Augustus, the professor’s assistant (well, ok, me in Victorian drag) will be filming a questions and answers session. It will go on YouTube, and any questions I don’t have time to answer in the video will be answered on this here website.

May I invite questions from all of you out there – who was Professor Taylor, why write a book about him, how can one identify Prussic acid in a dead person, and just what’s a chap to do when he finds a partial skeleton in a carpet bag? That sort of thing.

Don’t be shy. But don’t ask me What’s the best poison to kill someone with? Even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you.

Please email your questions to contact@helenbarrell.co.uk by Friday 16th June. (Let me know what name you’d like me to use. First name only, full name, your cat’s name, or random made-up name.)

A writer wrote a thing

A typewriter surrounded by bottles of alcohol and sweetie wrappers.

A still from the video of “Slash Fic” by The Ritas.

It’s hard to know sometimes (often, perhaps) if online articles are sincere or if they’ve been skewed for clickbait.

That’s what I thought when I saw Stephen Hunter’s article for the Daily Beast, “If You Want to Write a Book, Write Every Day or Quit Now”1)Please google it, I don’t wish to link to it. (which I read in my mind to the tune of Manic Street Preachers’ “If You Tolerate This, Then Your Children Will Be Next”). He’s a Pulitzer-prize winning writer, ffs! (Not that I’ve ever heard of him, but that’s by the by2)He sure as hell won’t have heard of me.). He’s a WRITER. He’s an AUTHOR! He sits atop a column, and when he wants to feel superior (which going from his article, appears to be fairly often), he will gaze down on the lowly would-be scribblers below.

Write every day, he says. Or just don’t bother.

Now – there’s plenty enough wrong with such a statement. Yes, I take the point that writing regularly, like playing an instrument, is how you’ll hone your craft. But every day? Some people can’t write everyday – life gets in the way. A full-time job, studying, family, going outside the house sometimes (and changing out of pyjamas). Sometimes health gets in the way, sometimes you have days when you just can’t write.

This happens to me. I’ll think, I must spend this evening writing, and I won’t. I’ll fiddle about, never quite finding the word I need that will start me off. But then, the next evening, I will write. And words will come out of me in such torrents that I’m writing with my notepad by the hob as I cook the dinner. My words are garlanded with mashed potato.

That’s just how I am. I don’t feel guilty about it, I don’t read Mr Pulitzer-prize’s article and think Holy crap, there must be something fundamentally wrong with me! I’m not really a writer at all! I am now thoroughly discouraged and must give up at once. But it concerns me that some people may well feel that and throw down their pencils. Forever.

Sod that, and sod his article.

And especially sod his dreadful attitude towards other authors.

Writers I know on Twitter have rightly been pointing out that this “write everyday or give up” business is a load of claptrap. But what particularly grates – for me – is his sneery view of other writers.

In order to publish [my novel], it has to be better than [those of other people starting to write a novel on the same day as he does]. So, forgive me—I pretty much hate them.

And:

I will beat them all, however, and I will do it on one strength they lack, the poor, good-looking devils.

I will finish and they will not.

I read this with my jaw banging against my desk. Every writer I’ve ever met has been gracious and encouraging and kind to other writers. Even if Hunter’s comments are meant in a half-joshing manner (I’m not too sure though), I take great objection to his envy and Schadenfreude.

My own experience of meeting other authors has been almost entirely positive. The only other people on Earth who understand what writing is like are other writers. We stick together. We commiserate rejections, we celebrate triumphs. We are a community.

When I first met up with authors, I was actually terrified. I thought they’d all be haughty, that they had discovered a magic formula which they would cling to at all costs. Their haughtiness kept that magic a secret, an invisible wall around the border of Being A Writer.

But those were not the people I encountered: perhaps because I had not encountered Stephen Hunter.

There are two things, then:

  1. There is no magic formula. Do whatever works for you. Don’t be put off writing because your words don’t spurt forth in the same way as another’s do. If the words end up being written, and they’re good words, then… who cares how it got there? Took the motorway, or the scenic route? Hopped on a train? Walked in stout shoes? Puffed through the skies in a hot air balloon? Great. You got there in the end.
  2. Find the nice writers who will support and encourage you. We exist, they exist, I promise you.

 

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Please google it, I don’t wish to link to it.
2. He sure as hell won’t have heard of me.

CWA conference – Edinburgh, April 2017

A view of Waterloo Place in Edinburgh's New Town, showing the stunning Georgian architecture.

This was where I stayed. Shame I didn’t have either of my 19th C costumes with me, quite frankly.

I need very little excuse to go to Edinburgh. I love it. I love it because it’s got loads of old stuff, it reminds me a bit of Granada (the old town with a castle on the hill, the new bits cascading away beside), and it is stuffed full of history, much of it involving coffins. And it’s quite a cheerful place, too.

Graves and a castle at Old Calton cemetery, beneath a blue sky

My hotel was almost opposite Old Calton cemetery.

I had never been to a Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) conference before. In fact, I’d never been to weekend-long writers’ conference before, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I needn’t have worried, however, as everyone was really friendly.

I met up with Sarah Ward, who I’ve met before as she’s convener for the Midlands Chapter of the CWA, and is also great fun. I met for the first time the extremely affable Vanessa Robertson, an Edinburgh-based bookseller and author; and authors Leigh Russell, Kate Ellis and Paul Gitsham. And lots of other people too!

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Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2017

Me in a top hat, trying to look like a Victorian professor, in front of a large sepia print photo of a street scene

I’ve been rather busy over the last couple of months, zipping off to the Essex Book Festival for the Criminally Good Afternoon Tea, zooming off to the NEC for Who Do You Think You Are? Live, and then getting drunk in Edinburgh at the Crime Writers’ Association conference.

I was at Who Do You Think You Are? Live on two days. The first, I was dressed as Helen Barrell, the librarian who writes books about Victorian crime. I signed copies of Poison Panic at Pen & Sword’s stall, bought some acid-free storage equipment (that excited me quite a bit, because I am a massive nerd), and went my rounds of the stalls. Thanks to the good people of Peterborough & District Family History Society, I discovered two new ancestors – the parents of my 4 x gt-grandmother Susan Jones. I never thought I’d get anywhere with her background, assuming that anyone called Jones would present insurmountable problems. But no – her surname was actually quite unusual in Peterborough at the time, and I was delighted to find out that Susan, who was born in about 1813, was the daughter of a farrier in the Scots Greys! Did he go to Waterloo, I wonder, and did he shoe Ensign Ewart’s horse? I helped out at the “Ask an Expert” stall – I’ve always loved pointing people in the right direction to find out more about their family tree.

“They’ve found another body? Fetch my test-tubes and don’t spare the horses!”

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Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2017

Who Do You Think You Are? Live logo

It’s a week until Britain’s biggest family history fair, Who Do You Think You Are? Live, kicks off at Birmingham’s NEC.

There’s a wealth of family history societies, genealogy companies, and DNA-testing businesses hoping to catch your eye, and there lots of talks and workshops and goodness knows what else for you to sample.

If you’re planning to seek out some help with the trickier corners of your family tree, make sure you bring print-outs or even original documents.

I’ll be there on two days.

Friday 7th April

  • 2.20pm – 3pm: I will be giving two “Ask an Expert” sessions. My areas are old handwriting, wills and (no surprises here) Essex!
  • (And when not doing that I’ll be buying archival storage materials and checking out the CDs that the family history societies have to offer)

Saturday 8th April

  • 11.15am-12pm: my workshop session Turn your family tree surprises into a book will be taking place in Theatre 2. I’ll be talking about resources you can use to enrich your research, and the many way there are to share your writing.
  • 12pm-2.30pm: I’ll be at the Pen & Sword stall (number 290), where you can ask questions about my talk, and… well… let’s just say there’s books available to buy. Lots of them.
  • 3pm-4pm: I’ll be giving three “Ask an Expert” sessions.

Sunday 9th April

  • Collapse into an exhausted heap.

 

Essex Book Festival’s Criminally Good Afternoon Tea at the Golden Age of Crime Weekend

In the 1950s, my grandad was a Special Constable, working the streets of Southend-on-Sea. He told me that he’d often be approached (perhaps “set upon” is more accurate) by gangs of drunken women, and when he came home from his shift, my grandma would be furious at the lipstick he was covered in. Drunks are one thing, of course – poisoners quite something else, and that was my subject for the Essex Book Festival’s Criminally Good Afternoon Tea at Southend’s Park Inn Palace Hotel.

The tea was part of the Golden Age of Crime Weekend, so you could stay in the elegant Park Inn Palace, overlooking the longest pleasure pier in the world and, amongst many things, you could enjoy a talk by Sophia Hannah on Poirot, there was Simon Brett,1)Somewhat ironically, I was at his crime-writing masterclass at Birmingham Literature Festival last year! Frances Fyfield, and Jill Paton Walsh discussing Dorothy Sayers, you could pit your wits against other Golden Age of Crime boffins at the quiz night, and new crime writers (Fiona Cummins, Aga Lesiewicz, David Young) were talking about their books. And there was also… me.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Somewhat ironically, I was at his crime-writing masterclass at Birmingham Literature Festival last year!

Thoughts: To Walk Invisible

****ing h***!

I’d seen the trailers – this Brontë biopic promised an accurately short Charlotte, and an Emily who doled out physical violence when enraged that her poems were read without her permission. This is the version of the Brontës that seems most plausible to me, and when the warning came up on iPlayer – Guidance: Contains some strong language and some scenes which some viewers may find upsetting – recommending it for viewers of 16 and over, I was hopping up and down on my sofa with glee.

I have to say, it didn’t disappoint. Continue reading

And that’s the first draft

A black and white photograph of the River Colne at Wivenhoe. A Thames barge in full sail is in the middle of the photograph; a square rigger is to the right in the distance. On the left, the masts of many boats can be seen, and a jetty is in the foreground.

The River Colne at Wivenhoe. 19th century.

You will go to the devil, die when you will, you will go to a rare place when you die.1)Purloined from a real trial that you’ll find out about in Fatal Evidence, put into the mouth of a character in my novel. Because if you’re going to threaten someone, *that’s* the way to do it. Especially if you’re a Victorian.

I’ve always written fiction, so being commissioned to write non-fiction has been quite… surprising. But in a good way.

The trouble is that all the research that went into Poison Panic and Fatal Evidence stoked my fiction-writing brain-muscles. For the whole time that I’ve been writing those books, stories and characters began to take shape. It’s a bit like watching a candyfloss machine – the sugar spins round the stick, and what was air and granules becomes a novel.

Initially, it was a short story based on suspected poisoner Mary May. There was going to be a detective sent up from Scotland Yard, there was going to be a plucky governess, there was a to-do with some bottles, and there was a blacksmith…. And I wrote a tense dinner scene, and had no time to write more. So I carried on with my non-fiction and started work on the biography of Victorian forensic scientist Alfred Swaine Taylor. And Taylor decided to nose his way into my fiction. He wanted to be in a novel. He demanded it. I told him this was churlish behaviour, considering R. Austin Freeman had already based his detective Dr Thorndyke on him. But Taylor wouldn’t leave me be, so I let him wander about at will. But all he did was stalk back and forth past a flimsy theatre set of a north Essex village; a flint-covered church and a timber-framed pub. He didn’t look very pleased. I wasn’t either.

But it was a documentary about Scottish crime writer William McIlvanney, father of “Tartan Noir”, which helped me see the light. The setting for his gritty tales were the shipyards on the Clyde. And there was a shipyard and a dock where I grew up. In fact, if it wasn’t for that shipyard, I wouldn’t exist: some of my family only moved to Wivenhoe, a village on the River Colne in Essex, to work on the shipyard.

I’m not enough of a daftie to claim that the Colne and the Clyde are interchangeable, but that idea of the crime novel and the river, the shipyard and the dock was the moment that the vague, floating idea was forced into sharp focus.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Purloined from a real trial that you’ll find out about in Fatal Evidence, put into the mouth of a character in my novel. Because if you’re going to threaten someone, *that’s* the way to do it. Especially if you’re a Victorian.

Events

Sunday 12th March 2017, 3pm-4.30pm
What: Essex Book Festival 2017. Criminally Good Afternoon Tea. In the county where the poison panic took hold, we’ll eat scones and I’ll tell you about the lives of Sarah Chesham, Mary May, and Hannah Southgate.
Where: Park Inn Palace Hotel, Church Road, Southend-on- Sea, SS1 2AL
Entry fee: TBC. Booking details to follow.

Saturday 8th April 2017, 11.15am-12pm
What: Who Do You Think You Are? Live. Workshop: “Turn your family tree surprises into a book.”
Where: NEC, Birmingham.
Entry fee: Workshops are £2 in advance, or £3 on the day. There is a ticket required to enter Who Do You Think You Are? Live as well. Book in advance.

From The Bridge to Hinterland at the Birmingham Literature Festival

Hans Rosenfeldt and Ed Thomas

Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge) and Ed Thomas (Hinterland)

A perfect chaser for the talk by Walter Iuozzolino, he of Walter Presents, had to be the talk given by crime drama writer-creators Hans Rosenfeldt, of Swedish/Danish production The Bridge (Bron/Broen), and Ed Thomas, writer-creator of Welsh/English crime drama Hinterland (Y Gwyll). Walter curates subtitled drama, but what goes into writing – and indeed, creating – dramas which are filmed in two languages? This fascinating talk was hosted by Lisa Holdsworth, who has written for New Tricks, Robin Hood and Midsomer Murders, amongst others.

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