Killer Women dispatches #1: Historical crime and how to get inside a killer’s head

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 22.39.21Today in London – the historic Shoreditch Town Hall, no less – the inaugural Killer Women Crime Writing Festival took place. As usual with these sorts of things, there were panels packed with crime writing talent, as well as the odd, super-interesting guests connected with crime drama. I was lucky enough to attend, and this is what happened…

The Killer Women group was founded by writers Louise Millar and Melanie McGrath, who were quickly joined by other friends and colleagues. This festival was the fruit of months of hard work, and it was great to see so many incredible, talented women in one place.

The History And Mystery panel

The first session I managed to catch was History And Mystery: Writing Murder In The Past, which featured chair Alison Joseph talking to Kate Colquhoun, DE Meredith, Kate Summerscale (who wrote the Mr Whicher books), Andrew Taylor and Ripper Street historian and consultant, Fern Riddell.

It was a fascinating discussion, not least because it was taking place in the very room where the inquest into the Ripper’s last victim took place.

DE Meredith said something very interesting: that there was an appetite for real, social history these days, stories of real people and their circumstances. Fern also said that Ripper Street tells stories about 18th-century women you wouldn’t see in documentaries.

The thorny question of research also reared its head during the session, which is fair enough (this was historical fiction we were talking about, after all). Andrew Taylor said you can do too much research, and that going down a historical wormhole, as fun as it can be, may not be the best thing for the characters. He also said that the more you look at the past, the more you realise how historical records are inconsistent. Kate Summerscale agreed and said that it’s all about the order in which you reveal the story, and that history dictates how a detective would uncover the facts.

So the message was clear: historical research is all well and good (and necessary), but only up to a point – it’s always the story and the characters that come first.

But Fern made a very good point when it comes to Jack The Ripper in particular: we talk about him constantly, but not about the mothers, daughters and the women he killed.

There were lots of really excellent workshops throughout the day – standing room only in those, by all accounts – featuring agents and publishers, as well as authors (like Erin Kelly) talking about everything on how to pitch an agent to how to actually get published.

I managed to catch the last 15 minutes of the Martina Cole chat (hosted by Melanie McGrath), which was, as you would imagine, good fun, and then a bit later, I attended the Inside The Thriller’s Head session, which featured Jane Casey, Tammy Cohen, Kate Medina and Emma Kavanagh (and hosted by Kate Rhodes).

The Inside The Killer’s Head panel

How do you write psychopaths is always a question you hear asked at crime lit festivals, and with good reason – how can you write something so at odds with your own personality?

The resounding answer was that it was good fun. The message here was that reality is far worse than anything that anyone could come up with. There were stories about which of the panelists’ characters that scared them the most, how and where they write these ne’er do wells, and Kate Rhodes recounted a story where she taught a writer’s workshop in a prison. She chatted merrily to a very personable lag, who, it was later revealed, had once driven to a bungalow in the middle of nowhere and shot a mother and child… just because he wanted to see how it felt to kill someone. He then went off on his merry way and bought himself some fish and chips.

They were right: reality is much worse than stories on the page.

Paul Hirons


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