Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Writing Regional Murder and Crime by Janet Cameron

When they hear about my murder books, people sometimes say, ‘Why is it women love writing about murder?’

Well, it wasn’t really like that for me. I didn’t choose to delve into all that gut-wrenching material from England’s colourful and bloody past. I began, innocently enough, with a serious history book, Canterbury Streets, having been introduced to the commissioning editor of Tempus Publishing through my good friend Sylvia Kent, herself a prolific history book author. My Streets book was followed and outsold by another book which practically wrote itself, Haunted Kent. (Never assume the writing at which you work your hardest is synonymous with the writing that sells the most copies.) 
Local history publishers tend to plan their titles in series and these are then taken up by regional authors. The Murder and Crime books were simply part of a series currently underway, so I was invited to write for Kent.I started off with Murder & Crime – Dover then it was Murder & Crime – Medway. The format was the same for both, the emphasis a little different. Dover lent itself to amazing stories of smuggling, wrecking and press-gangs while the Medway book focuses on the area’s military past, dockyard crime and the awful and fascinating history of the prison ships which lay in the Medway estuary. Both books cover crimes from murder to immorality, sheepstealing, highway robbery and drunkenness.
I researched in the reference libraries of Dover and Medway, working my way through old newspapers for relevant stories. For Dover, I discovered a tragic report about a poverty-stricken mother who murdered her boy twins. It was the hardest piece of writing I have ever done and I cried in the library and lost sleep at night, yet I felt it was important not to ignore the truth. I felt glad to know Dover a little better and understand something of the complex social history that made people behave the way they did. In this way, I believe, we understand ourselves more fully.
Besides a text of around 30,000 words these books also require around 50/60 images, some of which should be old photographs. It’s imperative that the photographs are either in the public domain (copyright free) or that you secure written permission from the copyright owner to use them. Although many copyright owners are generous asking for only a signed book or two, others demand £70 to £100 per image; amounts which are unaffordable for most local history writers.
When this happens to me, I try elsewhere or sketch the picture I want. Usually I sketch it as large as possible and ask the publisher to print it in a smaller size so flaws won’t show. (However hard I try, I just cannot draw arms properly. Faces, legs and hairdos, yes – my arms always look like twigs.) My ambitious efforts have always been included by my publisher and so far, no one has complained about the arms. When the text is ready, I code each image and note where it should be positioned. I send Tempus hard and an electronic copy of the text, plus an electronic copy of all the photographs.
I love writing local history books. I think it’s a real service to the community to preserve those precious links with the past and the pleasure in unearthing something from a new, fresh angle always gives me a real buzz.

Murder & Crime Series – Dover, Tempus Publishing, ISBN: 0-7534-3978-2
Published: 2006
Murder & Crime Series, Medway, Tempus Publishing, ISBN; 978-0-7524-4541-0
Published: March, 2008

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