Category: Writing

Who was R O Gilmore?

The frontispiece of the book showing the book's title, an engraving of showing the pub where John Parsons Cook died, and a stamp in the top right-hand corner which says R O Gilmore.

Ward and Lock’s “Illustrated and Unabridged edition of The Times report of the trial of William Palmer…”

Among the many adventures I had writing Alfred Swaine Taylor‘s biography, I decided to track down the previous owner of a book.

I work at a well-stocked library, and was able to borrow or consult most of the books I needed for my research. But I knew of two books on William Palmer which we don’t have, both of which were opportunistically cranked out by Ward and Lock just after the trial.

Their Illustrated Life and Career of William Palmer of Rugeley uses mainly old engravings which must have served time in many other books; only one of them isn’t a stock image, but is the portrait of William Palmer at the races which appeared in the Illustrated Times newspaper. The tale of Palmer is told in near-novelistic style.

Their other book, the frontispiece of which you can see above, contains transcripts of the trial at the Old Bailey, taken verbatim, and apparently nicked wholesale from The Times. It’s full of images which appeared in the Illustrated Times – which, despite the name, isn’t connected with The Times newspaper.

I managed to buy both books online, and most of the engravings in Fatal Evidence‘s plates section are from the Illustrated and Unabridged Edition. It’s a wonderful piece of history to have on my bookshelf, but I wondered, when I saw the neat owner’s stamp on the frontispiece, who was R O Gilmore?

A stamp in faux Gothic lettering, saying R O Gilmore.

The name inside the book

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Real-life ecclesiastical sleuths: Reverend Wilkins & The Tragedy at Wix

A vicar is seated in a pew with a plain-clothes detective in a brown raincoat standing beside him. They are in a church and light pours in through a window behind them.

A vicar and a detective, Rev Sidney Chambers and DI Geordie Keating, from ITV’s Grantchester

Ecclesiastical sleuths are not unknown to crime fiction and drama – there’s Father Dowling, there’s G K Chesterton’s Father Brown, and James Runcie’s Reverend Sidney Chambers.

But what about in real life? A priest has a pastoral duty to their flock, and who better than a priest to try to grasp the effects of good and evil. Members of the clergy inevitably find themselves on the cusp of crime. Whilst they might have to counsel family affected by violence, do they ever join forces with the police and help to solve mysteries?

In my research of nineteenth-century crime I’ve found two clergymen who found themselves drawn into investigations. In part 1, you’ll meet Reverend Wilkins from Wix in Essex, who suspected that one of his parishioners had met his death “by unfair means”. And in part 2, read about Reverend John Henry Cancellor, who found himself investigating the suspicious death of his own brother.

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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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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!

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.

Walter Presents at the Birmingham Literature Festival

walter-portrait-284x300

The annual Birmingham Literature Festival is run by Writing West Midlands, offering a programme of events about the written word – talks with writers, and workshops. This year, I attended something a bit different – a talk by screen-curator, Walter Iuzzolino, the real person behind Channel 4’s Walter Presents.

First of all, yes, Walter is a real person. Perhaps I am so jaded by the fakery of modern life that I thought, cynically, that he didn’t actually exist, and was just a marketing construct to put a human face and personality on Channel 4’s world drama picks. There he is in the trailer, a bespectacled, whippet-like figure, watching lots of DVDs – he’s watched 1,000s of hours of telly, to pick only the best for Walter Presents. But how can he watch all that telly and retain a physique like that? And yet, it slowly dawned on me that Walter is a real person – so when I found out he was talking at the BLF, I wanted to know more.

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Historian? Author? Writer?

11201494_10152981552955458_6544259474373077054_n

One day, Rebecca Rideal wrote a history book, intended for the general, non-academic reader. You know the type – the sort of person who is interested in history, wants to know about the world they live in and what shaped it, but doesn’t want, isn’t interested in, perhaps hasn’t had the sort of education where they can handle, a dry academic monograph. We should be glad – after all, back in January, we were told that ‘Popular history writing remains a male preserve.’ Good ol’ Rebecca, doing her bit to redress the gender imbalance!

Rideal was interviewed in The Guardian, and The Guardian pulled out some exciting-sounding quotes, because, well, it’s a newspaper, and that’s what they do. Especially now that online newspapers are obsessed with lacing their bylines with as much clickbait as possible. ‘The time of the grand histories is coming to an end,’ Rideal declared. It’s a headline that makes people sit up and take notice, and sit up and take notice, they most certainly did! The Guardian is no doubt raking in much advertising from Rideal’s interview, but unfortunately for Rideal…. well…. Some people on Twitter got upset.1)It’ll be a cold day in Hell when I’m able to say 5 minutes have gone past without some people on Twitter not being upset about something, but there we are.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. It’ll be a cold day in Hell when I’m able to say 5 minutes have gone past without some people on Twitter not being upset about something, but there we are.