Earlier this month, I attended the Brisbane Writers Festival which is always a great opportunity for like-minded people to connect and discuss what they are passionate about. This year’s theme was The Big Issue (the big stories and the little ones in between) – exploring how writers create fictional and real worlds through their voices and stories.
As a mystery writer, I checked out the Morbid Minds session with award-winning thriller writer, James Phelan, and Sarah Schmidt, author of one of my favourite books of 2017, See What I Have Done. James and Sarah were interviewed by Paul Barclay from ABC Radio National about the fascination people have with murder and gruesome crimes.
I’ve always been interested in murder mysteries – for me it’s the puzzle and the challenge of trying to work out ‘whodunit’. I need to know the truth. What really happened?
As James said, “… through fiction you can get to a truth you can’t get though any other medium.” The role of fiction is writing about the world around us and making sense of it; using writing to figure something out. For most, murder is an incomprehensible act. Writers can use fiction as a way of providing possible answers to questions beyond the realm of our understanding. What drives a person to kill? What was going through their mind at the time of the murder?
For others, the fascination may be purely voyeuristic – revealing a person’s secrets and seeing things you wouldn’t normally be ‘allowed’ to see. In Emily Maguire’s 2016 novel, An Isolated Incident, crime reporter May Norman contemplates how a murder opens up private lives in an extreme way. The respect usually given to a person who died of natural causes is often disregarded when someone is murdered, and it is deemed almost helpful or necessary to make public the private life of the victim and those close to them.
“The squishy, reeking black truth of it was that reading about murder thrilled her in the exact same way, she supposed, that it thrilled the masses who snapped up true-crime books in the millions and watched cheesy crime re-enactment shows and moody, gritty cable dramas. It was just so intimate.”
As part of the discussion, Paul Barclay noted that recent studies have shown more women are reading and writing crime fiction. He posed the question to Sarah, who agreed that yes, “women do things”. (Amazing, but true). Sarah said part of the reason Lizzie Borden was acquitted was because the jury could not fathom a woman, let alone one who was white, wealthy and a Sunday school teacher, being capable of such a violent act. Sarah also raises an interesting point in this interview with Sisters in Crime – why are violent women often viewed as worse than violent men? How much have things changed since Lizzie Borden’s trial in 1892?
In her historical fiction workshop, Sarah asked – what is your story really about? For example, See What I Have Done is much more than a novel about the Borden axe-murders. Although Sarah speculates upon what really may have happened that fateful day, the truth she is really exploring is – what happens in a family where there is no more love? For this particular family, the consequences are horrifyingly violent.
It’s not a nice thing to think about. But as Sarah said: “If you can make your reader feel uncomfortable then I think you’ve done a good job.”
Many people are fascinated by murder, but the main message, or the ‘big issue’, that I’ve taken away from attending these sessions is writing to get to the truth, to make sense of the world. This is something that doesn’t only apply to crime fiction or stories about murder and violent crimes, but to all stories, across all genres of fiction.
So, what is your story really about? What truth are you trying to make sense of?
Buy See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt here.
Learn more about and buy copies of James Phelan’s books here.