H. H. Holmes’ victims: a woman, whose name has passed from my memory

So we’ve already established a few different things about Holmes: he likes to write. He was very willing to change his story when it suited him. And he was a con man who made use of all available resources. He certainly wasn’t above lying, or making up victims when it suited him, or “forgetting” what those victims’ names were.

His nineteenth confessed victim, known only as “a woman, whose name has passed from my memory,” certainly qualifies as this last. And, since she can’t be identified, her existence cannot be proven. But, like in his description of his eighteenth victim, Holmes once again introduces the idea of a likewise anonymous accomplice.

Both the woman and the male accomplice were Holmes’ tenants. When the first arrived at his Castle, the second quickly became smitten. However, the man was already married, and apparently his wife knew of his infatuation with the other women. The married couple was already fighting, and seeing her husband make eyes at another woman did not increase marital bliss. The man, in his distress, turned to Holmes for help.

It seems that the man and his wife were tenants elsewhere, and that the wife could be convinced that her husband had gone off on a trip of some kind, because Holmes suggested that the man come live in the Castle with the other woman as though they were already married. (The very same way, you may recall, Holmes said he moved in with Minnie Williams.)

Apparently Holmes even presented the idea that, if the mistress didn’t satisfy the man, then she might be murdered and the man and Holmes would divide her wealth. It certainly seems like something Holmes might plan, considering how many people he claimed to murder for their money (whether or not they were actually dead) but just think about it for a moment: he’s supposed to have told an infatuated man not only to commit adultery in such a way that apparently his wife has no clue, but has also casually said that the two of them could murder the mistress.

The man agreed. On both points, apparently. He moved into the Castle with the woman, quickly grew tired of her, and called upon Holmes for that next step in the plan. Holmes administered chloroform while the man “controlled her violent struggles.” Then, apparently, they split up her money and the man … what, went back to his wife? Holmes isn’t exactly concerned with that particular outcome, but he admits that the murder occurred in 1893 and that a “long coffin-shaped box” had been seen being taken out of the Castle. It seems that the police had been notified of this event, and this is Holmes’ attempt to once again make use of previously-published headlines.

It’s really just a quick blurb, but think about it for a minute: a man unhappy in his marriage isn’t simply given the opportunity to live with a woman who has caught his eye, no strings attached. Holmes offered them the space to live as husband and wife, apparently without drawing attention from anyone who would have known the man – and realized that the woman wasn’t his wife – but that wasn’t all. The offer also came with the suggestion that, when the man eventually got sick of his mistress, as apparently all men do, Holmes had a ready response: murder. So apparently he said “Oh, come and live with her in the Castle for a while, then, and when you get tired of her, we’ll murder her. What do you say?”

So, uh … exactly how many men in the world do you think would have agreed to that prospect? Did Holmes actually find someone who did this, or is he trying to create a character even worse than himself?

Not Your Mary Sue – the book trailer is here!

H. H. Holmes’ victims: Rogers, a wealthy banker

The eighteenth murder in Holmes’ confession has a few more twists and turns than some of the others, but I think you’ll still recognize some of his preferred tropes.

Rogers himself is described as “a wealthy banker” from a Northern Wisconsin town, who had to be enticed to come to Chicago. But not by Holmes. In this murder, Holmes works with an accomplice.

This accomplice was a young Englishman who met Holmes in 1891. (Maybe. We already know Holmes isn’t that great at dates.) This Englishman was a fine partner in Holmes’ usual real estate scams, and apparently he was good at the patent scam, too. In fact, this Englishman was such a good criminal that Holmes, somehow, decides to withhold his name completely. He starts off coy, arguing that said Englishman couldn’t be arrested simply on his own say-so, and simply refuses to give the Englishman a name.

It was, however, the Englishman who convinced Rogers to come to Chicago, not Holmes. The Englishman must have been just about as clever as Holmes, because he made sure that none of Rogers’ friends or family would know why, exactly, Rogers had come to Chicago. Those back home in Wisconsin wouldn’t be able to say who Rogers had gone to meet.

Holmes and the Englishman got Rogers to go into the Castle by saying they had patents in there for him to see, and at first Rogers – wisely, you might think – refused to sign the “checks and drafts for seventy thousand dollars” that were there instead. Granted, either Holmes of his incredibly criminal English friend could have forged them once Rogers was dead, but that’s apparently not how Holmes worked.

You’re probably figured out which room Rogers had been led to.

Holmes used the gas hookups in the room to nauseate Rogers – which probably wasn’t much of a trick, since Rogers had been in there long enough to starve – to convince Rogers to sign.

Now, here’s another of those things that readers today might not swallow: Holmes writes that Rogers signed the securities, “all of which were converted into money and by my partner’s skill as a forger in such a manner as to leave no trace of their having passed through our hands.”

Yeah. His partner was a skilled forger, but they still lured Rogers into the gas chamber, starved him, and hit him with the gas in order to get him to sign them. Did Holmes and his friend not already have exemplars of Rogers’ signature? Why couldn’t they just have gotten Rogers to Chicago, killed him, and forged everything without the extended torture?

Once the signatures were obtained, Holmes and his English friend apparently had a standoff about what to do with Rogers who was, at that point, still alive. Each tried to wait the other out so he didn’t actually make the suggestion of murder himself – although clearly they couldn’t have followed through with getting all of the money and still let Rogers go – but it was only when Holmes started getting ready to let Rogers leave that the Englishman made the murder suggestion.

And, in spite of the fact that Rogers was in the sealed room with the gas, Holmes made the Englishman kill Rogers using chloroform. Granted, Holmes was an accessory to murder, but he makes it clear that he did not kill Rogers himself, even though Rogers is counted among his 27 victims. The Englishman then left Holmes to deal with the body and apparently gambled away much, if not all, of his money before dawn.

So what we have here is Holmes presenting his readers with an unnamed stranger who is an excellent forger, willing to commit murder, and who had regaled Holmes with tales of “all other forms of wrongdoing, save murder, and presumably that as well.” By the end of Holmes’ recounting of Rogers’ death, the Englishman clearly is guilty of murder. But, just as he does with all other mentions of accomplices, Holmes refuses to give a name.

He instead teases his readers with the story of a man who is worse than Holmes himself, and who apparently gambled away $35,000 in a single night. Not only was Rogers murdered, but half his wealth didn’t even go to the murderers. Instead the three other men playing cards with the Englishman apparently became the big winners, and they didn’t need chloroform, either.

Holmes is, however, as untrustworthy when it comes to large sums of money as he is when it comes to timelines. The far more likely explanation is that he didn’t name the Englishman because there simply wasn’t an Englishman. He was simply trying to spin a tale that incorporated some of the more interesting headlines about himself, and perhaps didn’t want to attach a real name to a fake murderer, the way he has to fake victims.

Really Holmes is trying to be Bundy a century before Bundy rose to infamy. Bundy wanted to threaten people with the fact that, as bad as he was, he wasn’t the only one out there. They could send him to the chair, but that wouldn’t really save anyone. And that’s what Holmes is doing here, too: taunting his readers with the idea that someone just as bad as he is currently still walks free. Holmes could tell the man’s name, but he simply refuses. And what could they tempt him with, anyway? His execution was two weeks away.

So Rogers from Wisconsin is likely another of Homes’ made-up victims, the way his Englishman seems to be a made-up accomplice. But it’s not an effort to remove his own guilt, because Holmes counts Rogers as one of his own victims. It’s simply Holmes proud to have manipulated someone else into doing his bidding, the way he lived his life as a con man.

What do you think? Could the Englishman be real? Did Holmes go to his death without revealing the names of other criminals just as bad as he was – or worse?

What makes you put a book down without finishing it?

The other day one of the writing discords I’m part of asked us what makes us stay up too late reading, and I had trouble actually answering that one. What is it, exactly, that makes me keep turning pages? Compelling characters and situations, yes, but I’ve finished plenty of books where I didn’t actually like the main character, especially not at the beginning. (Wally Lamb writes some very angry men, for example.) I’ve also finished things where the ending or ending explanation is disappointing. (Sorry, Stephen King, but we know you know.)

A screenshot of Stephen King’s cameo in It: Chapter Two where he insults the author character’s endings.

But those are all books I’ve finished in spite of not loving them completely, not books I DNF’d (did not finish). Looking back, though, it takes a lot for me to DNF.

Take We Need to Talk About Kevin, for example. It’s epistolary, for starters, which isn’t usually my thing, and the POV character’s voice really grated on me. She seemed snooty and just … who writes letters to her husband like that? I slogged my way through quite a bit of it before I made a strange (for me at that point, at least) decision: I went to Wikipedia for the plot summary. (Gasp! Who does that? Don’t all good readers finish everything they start, one page at a time?) And, in this case, knowing the ending meant it was worth finishing.

I can’t remember the title of another book I truly DNF’d after going through the same process: slogging through because everyone says it’s good, going to Wikipedia, and then …

Here’s my cardinal sin: when it’s the author screwing with you instead of the characters.

What I found in that Wikipedia search (and really it’s probably good I can’t name the title or the author) was that the jarring POV change I’d just hit was the author purposefully obscuring the truth. Making it seem like the POV in the first section was a specific character when in fact … it wasn’t that character at all. The author jerking you around and yanking your chain and (I imagine) feeling pretty darn clever about it. (Can you tell this is seriously my pet peeve?)

I love reading thrillers. Can’t get enough. And I love unreliable narrators. Gone Girl is awesome. It’s not Gillian Flynn playing the deception, though – it’s her characters, all working to deceive each other in-book, and therefore deceiving the reader. Gillian’s not the one feeling pretty darn clever about it – [character’s name redacted in case you haven’t read the book yet] is the one feeling pretty darn clever about it. Because [character] wants to fool everyone, and the reader just happens to be part of everyone.

I love thrillers with unexpected twists. I also read a lot of thrillers, so more often than not, I can guess the twists. The cool ones leave two or three options open so I’m still not sure. The awesome ones still manage to surprise me. But even when I can guess an ending, I can enjoy how the author takes us there and how they present the story … as long as they don’t get in their own way while doing it.

Clearly the answer to this one is incredibly personal and subjective. What about you? What’s the point where you mark a book as DNF and pick something else up? (Also: what are your favorite thrillers? I could stand to add a few to my TBR pile.)

H. H. Holmes’ victims: Mr. Warner

This one takes a little bit of explanation. Readers of Holmes’ confession, published in April 1896, had already likely followed the progression of his case. The strange circumstances of his arrest in November 1894 and the huge amount of publicity leading up to his murder trial – including the publication of his memoirs – meant that anyone picking up the Philadelphia Inquirer wouldn’t be coming to the case cold.

Part of what had been followed in the media after Holmes’ arrest and prior to his trial was the excavation of his “Murder Castle.” This was a building Holmes had had constructed by hiring and firing workers at such speed that he didn’t have to pay them. Popular legend says he also did this so nobody knew the entire layout of the Castle, leading to secret passages and the like, but Adam Selzer found sources where clerks in the first-floor shops admitted to sleeping in the secret passages, so … they weren’t exactly so secret.

But there were discoveries in the Castle’s basement – and some real ones to go along with the horrific headlines that ended up being retracted later, in fine print, buried somewhere deep inside the newspapers. Yes, there were human remains found (but not nearly as many as the legend suggests). And there was also a strange kiln.

It was, as reported, a glass-bending kiln, and therefore built for a specific purpose. Holmes is meant to have used it as a sort of personal crematorium to aid in the disposal of his victims, at times claimed to be over 250 in number. (That’s a Devil in the White City claim. Adam Selzer’s H. H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil blows it out of the water.) However, there was some sort of brick oven found in the Castle’s basement, and it did seem to be about the right size to fit a human body.

In his April 1896 confession, Holmes writes that it was in fact a glass-bending kiln, although it wasn’t his. It belonged instead to Mr. Warner, no first name given, “the originator of the Warner Glass Bending Company.” Holmes doesn’t explain how or why the kiln had been built in his own basement, although it was apparently meant for Mr. Warner to exhibit his patents. (As far as I know, nobody’s found any records of anyone going into the Castle basement in order to view any such thing.)

Also according to Holmes, the kiln was much bigger than initially published. It was, in fact, much like the room-sized, airtight (but not quite soundproof) safe he’d had installed in one of the Castle’s other rooms. On the day of Warner’s death, both men had gone inside the kiln, ostensibly so Warner could show Holmes something about its workings. Holmes left, shut the door, and turned on both the oil and steam that, Holmes writes, made the kiln “so intensely hot iron would be melted therein.” (For the curious, that’s approximately 2,800ยฐF, around the temperature at which glass melts. Maybe he figured more people would be familiar with molten iron over molten glass. Standard cremation furnaces reach around 1,800ยฐF so, if all claims were true, then yes, the kiln could have been used for body disposal.)

Holmes admits to having used the kiln this way just once, for Warner himself. Many of his other victims, as he wrote earlier, were sold for profit.

There’s another interesting point here that once again shows Holmes’ issues with keeping his own timelines straight: he writes that there had been a coat discovered outside the kiln during this excavation, and claims the coat belonged to Warner. So apparently this random coat had been in the basement for years, without being noticed, stolen, or moved – in spite of the fact that the kiln had been meant for exhibitions and that its inventor had gone missing.

Once again in keeping with Holmes’ usual motivations, he killed Warner in order to get at his money. Apparently Warner had written Holmes two checks, written apparently freely, but Holmes doctored them by adding the necessary zeroes and the word “thousand” so that, according to the man himself, he very nearly cleaned out two of Warner’s bank accounts. It seems that Holmes feels more regret about not quite getting all of the money than murdering 27 people.

It’s a good sort of scary story, making full use of what the newspapers had already published about the Castle and the discoveries underneath it, but Warner had something in common with Miss Kate Durkee: he was still alive at the time of the written confession. There might have been some sort of kiln discovered in the Castle’s basement, one that quickly found its way into Holmes Lore, but Warner wasn’t killed in it.

At this point, can we believe anything published in this confession? Why do you think Holmes told so many lies?

Nitty gritty: narrative timelines

So this post isn’t about how much time it takes to write something, or caring about a project for months, or about planning your writing schedule. It’s about the timeline within your writing. How much time passes from the first page to the last? How much in a chapter? And how can you make it clear?

I’ve read books where the chapter titles are dates or even, in the case of Rewind by Catherine Ryan Howard, timestamps. (This is especially useful for books that aren’t presented chronologically.) But of course you don’t have to do this to indicate how much time has passed. You can work it into the text via either the characters or the narrator – say, the way The Princess Bride uses “What with one thing and another, three years passed.”

We’re going to think about this one for a moment.

If you’ve never read or seen The Princess Bride, it’s a book-within-a-book scenario. William Goldman presents it as the book his father read out loud to him when he was sick, so he’s never actually read it himself. He tracks it down for his own son, who deems it boring, and that’s when Goldman finally picks it up … and decides to publish his own “good parts” edition because the book is boring. In the “original text,” for example, those three years of Buttercup’s life and her training to be a princess are explained in excruciating detail. Goldman, therefore, writes what his father said as he skipped over all those pages: “What with one thing and another, three years passed.”

S. Morgenstern, the “original author” of The Princess Bride, should probably have listened to Elmore Leonard:

I try to leave out the parts that people skip

Elmore Leonard

But the question is: what are those parts? How do authors know what to skip?

For Not Your Mary Sue, I have some Very Important Plot Points that happen in June, all close in a row. There’s pretty extensive coverage for a couple weeks, and then … well, the next part I really wanted to write was almost a year later. But it’s not as easy as just writing the parts we want to write. There had to be snapshots of what happened in between in order to set up the proper emotional situation for the almost-a-year-later section.

In my initial draft, I had a bunch of information there. New places, new relationships, new activities. And it was helped along by timeline cues: references to seasons or holidays, which is easiest in the fall and winter. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas New Year’s, Valentine’s Day … they’re easy touchstones because I imagine most of the people interested in my writing would know when they happen, so I don’t have to explain.

Now here’s the tricky part: I actually edited out a bunch of that myself before sending out the full manuscript. Trying to leave out the parts I thought people would skip, you know? Keeping some of the timeline touch points and making it clear time was passing, but … not in as much detail as those first few weeks, or the days covered almost-a-year-later. Those, I figured, were the interesting things.

Well. On the plus side, I still have all those scenes hanging around for when I was asked to put more detail in that middle section. By leaving all of them out, I’d whacked off the opportunity for emotional investment and therefore weakened some of the things that happened almost-a-year-later.

So, if you’re sitting down to plot out or write a story, what are some things to consider about timelines?

  1. Sketch out a calendar. I’ll print out the months my story covers because I tend to use real time, but even giving yourself seasons works. This helps me see when things are happening that will be important to the plot or offer that emotional connections for readers, and what time can be skimmed over. It also helps me make sure I’ve put in all necessary clues and foreshadowing so nothing that happens later should feel like a trick – the seeds should be there.
  2. Use signposts for readers (and yourself). If real-world things like “It was almost Halloween” aren’t going to work, then consider opening a scene or chapter with “It had been three weeks since she’d seen him” – something to help your reader know that yep, there was a time skip. Nothing important happened. (Or, if something did, it’ll come out in the dialogue when she sees him again.)
  3. Don’t be afraid to add too many details to that first draft if you’re not sure. And, when you cut them for a new draft, keep your old draft intact, or cut-and-paste things to a separate file. Don’t ever fully delete your work or kill your darlings, just in case they’re going to be useful later. Go ahead and take your time with the important plot elements – those can expand to fill more pages. Take the time that needs to be taken during your first draft, because you can always massage it later.
  4. Have someone else read it. Get more eyes on the page than just your own. Can they follow what’s going on and when? Do they have enough to form the emotional attachments you’d like them to? Are there in fact parts your beta readers would like to have skipped? (Are there parts that need more emphasis earlier on?)
  5. If things still aren’t working, draw out the timeline again, this time based off what you’ve actually written (and not what you’d planned to write). I like color-coding these and tracing them across characters so that I know what all the important people are doing during a certain week or month, even if they’re not currently “onscreen” in the novel. It can especially help when considering characters’ motivations and their actions: did they just come off of an emotional moment? Or have they had weeks to adjust to something?
  6. And of course remember that your rough draft is a rough draft. It’s for you. Nobody else ever has to see it. This is where you can try to cram in as many clues as possible, or cover that “boring” day if you think it’s important to show changing character relationships, or meticulously explain that cool thing you know how to do just because it brings you joy. Then, when you’re revising, you might sigh and take those things out … or leave them in and see what your beta readers have to say about them.

We’re never going to get it right for everybody – there will be parts people skip, and parts people wish you’d said more about – but paying close attention to your timeline (and not just your plot outline) can help guide you, your characters, and your readers through the story.

Do you think about timelines during your writing process? Is it part of your planning, plotting, revision … or not even on your radar?

Nitty gritty: tense and POV

Last week’s writing post led into a conversation about creative writing courses and how they don’t always teach the actual basics of writing. So I was mulling over what I could say about the subject without getting too bogged down, and how it might relate to my life, and … well, I’m currently shifting a novel from first person present tense to third person past, and I’ve got some Thoughts about that.

Tense

Some people have Very Strong Feelings about books written in present tense. (She sees the dog. The dog looks up at her. She stretches out a hand.) The first time I picked up a book in present, I was thrown. We’re generally used to past tense, depending of course on genre and trends. (She saw the dog. The dog looked up at her. She stretched out a hand.)

Why I like present tense: it’s immediate. The characters don’t know what’s going to happen, either. They’re living through it and we’re trailing along over their shoulder.

Okay, granted, your character doesn’t have to be writing in past tense from an advanced age, meaning she clearly survived the encounter with the dog. I specifically remember reading Sir Apropos of Nothing by Peter David, which is told from Apropos’ point of view as an old man recalling his life, and thinking “Okay he’s going to survive everything” because clearly he already had. The tension there is in how he got out of all of those impossible-sounding situations, not if.

Depending on what genre you write, you might be more pressured to pick one or the other. The main thing, though, is not to mix them. (She saw the dog. The dog looks up at her. She stretched out her hand.) If it’s present, keep it present. If it’s past, keep it past.

Here’s a fun thing about past tense, though. (Can you tell I’ve taught grammar before?) Take a look at these two examples:

a) He had a cat.
b) He’d had a cat.

The second one is further in the past than the first. Weird, right? If you’re writing in past tense, sometimes you need to reference things that happened before the thing you’re writing about – things that are even paster than the past. So, if he owned a cat when he was a kid, but doesn’t now, you might get something like:

Chris looked at the cat and wrinkled his nose. He’d had a cat once, but once had been enough.

In the moment of the story, he’s looking at the cat and wrinkling his nose. Before the moment of the story, he’d owned a cat. Cool, right? (Or weird and complicated. It’s okay. You can say it.)

POV

Point of view is when you decide where your camera goes. We’ll start with first, second, and third.

  • First person: I. This is when you’re deep in someone’s head. You can hear all of their thoughts without them having to say “I think” or “I wonder.” It’s just “Whoa, Jenna’s skirt’s a bit north of the knee” or “What the heck did that mean?” So your first person would be: I saw the dog. The dog looked up at me. I stretched out a hand.
  • Second person: you. This one isn’t very common outside of choose your own adventure books. (And don’t get confused – the book You by Caroline Kepnes is actually in first person. The POV is inside Joe’s head. He just talks to Beck in his head. A lot.) You saw the dog. The dog looked up at you. You stretched out a hand.
  • Third person: he/she/they. This one’s outside of everyone, and comes with more choices: how many of your characters do you want to follow around? Whose shoulder does the camera peek over? How many people’s thoughts can you hear? How often are you going to move the camera to follow someone else? They saw the dog. The dog looked up at them. They stretched out their hand.

I tend to think about POV as how limiting I want to be. If I stick to first person, then anything that happens without my POV character in the room can’t be shown. Will that work for the plot I’ve got in mind, or do I need to see some of that other stuff? Is there going to be enough tension that way, or does the reader need to see the bad guy getting up to something?

If I’m going for third person, then how many (or really, how few) people can I follow? Younger Me really, really loved pulling a Stephen King, writing up a few dozen characters, and then trying to follow all of them. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn’t. For multiple POVs, consider how quickly your readers will be introduced to them; how easily it’ll be for them to follow the switches; and make sure you don’t head-hop in the middle of a scene. (Jenny thought that was a bad idea. Jeremy wondered if it might work. That’s two heads, right in a row. If Jeremy is the POV character, he’s stuck with what he can see, unless he can read minds: Jenny wrinkled her nose, but Jeremy wondered if it might work.)

It can help me to color-code my scenes so I know which POV I’m following and how often I’m switching. Some books alternate chapters between two POVs; others jump all around and cue readers in with the character’s name as the chapter title. The important thing is to make it clear to your reader whose eyes they’re looking through and whose thoughts they’re hearing. Even if it’s meant to be the Mysterious Bad Guy chapter, make sure your readers knows it’s the Mysterious Bad Guy.

What can be seen? Who sees it? Who gets to think about it, analyze it, and interpret it for the reader?


One important thing to keep in mind in all this is that you don’t have to worry about it in the first draft if that’s going to trip you up. You can even switch tenses and POV partway through a draft if what you’d originally picked isn’t working. It’s not exactly fun to go through and change things into a different tense or POV, but it’s a lot easier than starting from a blank page. At least you’ve got the story down and a firm place to start.

What’s something you wish had been covered in creative writing class that nobody ever thought to mention?

H. H. Holmes’ victims: Miss Kate Durkee

After a sort of weird diversion with Holmes’ supposed murder victims, we’re back to his more usual motive with the stated murder of Miss Kate Durkee: she had land and money. Holmes wanted it. So he killed her to get it.

In his confession, Holmes refers to her solely as “Miss Kate” and describes how he “acted as her agent” when she came to Chicago from Omaha. He talks himself down a bit, admitting that he’d used multiple names to hold property, act as a notary public, and carry on general business, just to name a few of his activities, and it’s another instance where he actually tries not to talk too much. Even though it’s his confession, he writes that this has all been written about before, in such detail, so … he apparently doesn’t have to actually go into it himself.

According to Holmes, he’d made contact with Miss Kate before she’d even come to Chicago. He said he had a good deal for her, so he should help her convert everything she had to cash. She agreed and then came up to Chicago to take her money. Holmes gave it to her and had her sign a receipt, which was apparently also dated, because he was thinking ahead. He’d need proof that he’d been honorable in his single dealing with Miss Kate, because she was about to become the next victim of his room-sized vault.

She died slowly, but Holmes doesn’t seem to have been overly affected by it, even though “her prayers are something terrible to remember.” He didn’t care – he had the forty thousand dollars, and he had the receipt she’d signed to prove he’d given it to her. Oh, but he also adds in a coda that he didn’t actually kill Miss Kate’s sister, as had been rumored. And that’s the end of it.

Although printing that Holmes had murdered Miss Kate Durkee led to an issue: she wasn’t actually dead. In fact, in 1896, after the confession was printed, she gave the statement โ€œI have never been murdered โ€“ not by HH Holmes or by anyone else.โ€

Adam Selzer has a great write-up about Kate Durkee – I love how enthusiastic he is about her as a person. (Adam’s the one who wrote H. H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil. If you loved Devil in the White City, don’t read it – you’ll be sad that Holmes wasn’t half of who that book says he was. But, if you’re interested in the truth behind the myths …)

He explores more of her character, backing it up with a transcript from one of Holmes’ lawsuits. Kate Durkee’s answers to the questions put to her are … let’s call them “cagey.” She admits to having known Holmes for four years at the time, so it wasn’t a single instance of interaction, and it’s difficult to tell if she was attempting to play Holmes or if she’d gotten suckered by him like so many other people had. Miss Kate hadn’t lost forty thousand dollars by being locked in Holmes’ vault – her name had been on multiple property papers, including that of the Murder Castle.

So why did Holmes claim he’d killed her? The rumor that she’d become a victim had started after Holmes had first made headlines. She was no longer in Chicago, and there was a time when Holmes was named as the explanation for any possible wrongdoing that could be connected to him. Kate Durkee had been known to associate with Holmes; Kate Durkee hadn’t been around for a while; so therefore Kate Durkee had been murdered by Holmes. It was rumored, and Holmes was going to hang in two weeks, anyway, so why not use his confession to claim it?

(The alternate explanation is, of course, that Holmes himself didn’t actually write the confession. Whoever did would have heard the same rumors and used Kate Durkee to boost the number of victims. And again, it didn’t really matter – the papers sold and the uproar would have just drawn more attention to it. Holmes was set to hang, anyway, so it wasn’t like a false confession was going to make things worse for him.)

Miss Kate Durkee stands out because she can be proven both to have been a real person, and also not to have actually been his victim. But again, the reason Holmes gives for murdering her – money – falls in line with a number of deals he was known to have made. Holmes wanted money, and he wasn’t overly choosy about how he got it. In fact, it seems to have been more fun for him to swindle people than earn it honestly.

In Holmes’ confession, Miss Kate is reduced to just another victim too foolish to be careful. According to Adam Selzer, she’s not only feisty, but also perhaps a bit of a black widow – far more interesting, especially when she’s at the center of her own story instead of a side character in Holmes’.

Why do you think Holmes’ confession lists “Miss Kate” as a victim? After a lifetime of swindling (and at least a few murders), do you think he cared about a lie?

What role does the setting play in your plot?

It’s one of the requirements for writing a story: where it all happens. You can have amazingly detailed and dynamic characters but, unless they’re floating in the vacuum of space, they’re not enough. You need to know where they are, and what effect that “where” has on them and on your story. Your setting doesn’t necessarily have to be a character in and of itself, but choosing the right setting matters.

Setting matters for characterization

Think about how the places you’ve lived have affected your own life. They’re going to influence your way of speaking, even when you’re not aware of it. I’ve seen lists of things about the Midwest that other people find weird and of course aren’t strange to me, but it’s important to know all of those “natural” things you say, do, or expect aren’t universal. If your characters say “Ope,” drink pop, or look for a corn maze in the fall, then your setting is going to have to support all of that.

Setting matters for plot

Also think about the challenges you want your characters to face. Should they be able to run to Wal-Mart any hour of the day and buy things to solve their problems? Do they have access to Internet and cell service? Are they living on top of each other in an apartment block or way the heck out there in the middle of nowhere? If there’s a family emergency, how quickly can they be at their parents’ side? If they have a medical emergency, where’s the closest hospital? Your setting will have an effect on all of these plot elements.

Setting matters for believability

Yeah, I know we can argue about what, exactly, is meant by “Write what you know,” but if your story is set in the real world – even if you’ve made up your own town, like Derry, Maine – your familiarity with the wider setting can really help make things seem believable (even when a killer clown comes out of the sewers). Stephen King is from Maine, so his stories set in Maine have a certain verisimilitude because of his personal experience. When he mentions Yoopers, though – he’s done it twice so far, in 11/22/63 and Billy Summers – it’s … not quite right. (Look, I’m impressed he even knows what the UP is, but Traverse City isn’t in it.)

If you choose to mention real places and you’ve never been there, you run the risk of alienating readers who have. Take Traverse City, for example. I was born and raised there, so King’s reference to TC was cool, but … wrong. There’s also Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes, which messes with the city’s geography in ways that (sorry, Lauren) could have been fixed with a simple google search. Granted, how many people in the world are going to know where there is (and isn’t) a Mailboxes Etc. in Traverse City? Well, say the 15,500 or so people who live there, but … if you don’t know TC, you probably don’t even remember it’s ever been mentioned.

Still. It’s something to think about.

So how do I bring this all together in my own writing?

Not Your Mary Sue opens on an island in Lake Superior. I don’t name it – it’s just … a private island. The actual location along the coast doesn’t really matter. What does is the fact of isolation. I wanted my two characters completely stuck with each other for the first half of the book.

I’ve lived in the UP since 2007, so I know the area. The way Superior looks when it’s the only thing on the horizon. How to warn people if you’re going through certain dead zones because no, your cell phone won’t work – you know you’ve come out the other size when you get a whole slew of notifications. I wanted my characters to have the isolation in Misery but to somehow make this happen in the 21st century, when cell phones and Wi-Fi make that difficult. It’s hard to be a kidnap victim for weeks on end when you can simply dial 911.

Lake Superior as seen from Eagle River

My male main character is from the UP, and my female main character grew up in the Midwest and has done a bunch of traveling, which means I can use either my normal speech patterns or the way my friends talk. I don’t have to try to make sure that someone’s always from Brooklyn, for example, because they’re from the places I know.

For me, the setting and initial situation – two characters in isolation – occurred together. I’ve never tried to put Jay and Marcy anywhere other than their rocky island out there in Superior. (Unnamed island, remember, so nobody can tell me I got the number of pine trees wrong.) It just made sense, based on my own life experience.

What’s been really interesting, though, for someone who’s lived in Michigan most of her life, is remember that not everyone knows what it’s like to look out over Superior. How that view can change drastically depending on the weather.

Lake Superior at Agate Beach

Superior isn’t a main character in the book, but she’s certainly a presence. They’re literally surrounded by the water, isolated because of it, and any thoughts of escaping have to take the lake into account. In Not Your Mary Sue, the setting plays such a major role in that first half of the story that it couldn’t be picked up and transplanted anywhere else.

How do you think about setting when you write? What makes your settings necessary to plot and characterization?

H. H. Holmes’ victims: Miss Anna Betts and Miss Gertrude Conner

Holmes opens his confession in the Philadelphia Inquirer with a lament that his physical self has now, finally – post-trial, that is, when he was still claiming innocence – turned as monstrous and twisted as his inner self. Now, the illustration at the bottom of the front page doesn’t exactly illustrate it, but some of his offhand descriptions of his supposed murders certainly do.

“Holmes Writing His Confession.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday April 12, 1896.

Holmes admits to murdering two young women in a row, Miss Anna Betts and Miss Gertrude Conner, solely so he might be called to witness their deaths. That’s really the entire story. He even remarks that Miss Conner’s death “is so similar to the last that a description of one suffices for both.” That’s all she gets.

Apparently Holmes substituted poison for the women’s prescriptions. They each lived near enough to the Castle that he hoped he’d be the physician called to witness. However, Miss Betts was attended by her own physician, and Miss Conner had returned home to Muscatine, Iowa, before she died.

Let’s pick this apart a little.

As a pharmacist, Holmes purposefully turned two prescriptions into poison. In a row. They might not have been filled back-to-back, but he places these women as murders 14 and 15. Apparently he went on streaks of how he preferred to murder instead of mixing things up, or maybe he didn’t get what he wanted from Miss Betts, so he had to try it again.

Second, Miss Conner didn’t die until she’d returned home to Iowa. Fine, maybe he wanted the poison to be slower-acting to put some distance between its purchase and her death, but my first thought was “How bad do you have to be at poisoning someone for them to last that long?”

Third, Holmes notes that Miss Betts’ prescription is still on file in case authorities want to see it, since apparently her death was thought to “reflect upon Miss Betts’ moral character.” That’s one way to plant suspicion that might not even have been a rumor previously. Plus he not only murdered a woman, but apparently let her name be slandered after her death. (What kind of prescription would clean up questionable moral character? Anything that meant she wasn’t either being treated for a sexually transmitted infection or died as a result of an abortion, I’m guessing.)

Fourth, he writes, so casually, that “these two cases show more plainly than any others the light regard I had for the lives of my fellow-beings.” Uh, yeah. He poisoned two women in Chicago just to watch them die … and then didn’t even get to watch them die.

The thing is, so many of Holmes’ confessed murders have some sort of concrete cause. He wants money from them, either because he’s robbing them or because he’ll sell their corpses; they’re his mistresses and he’s tired of them; or they caught him doing something he doesn’t want made public knowledge. It’s a theme of self-preservation, and Miss Betts and Miss Conner break this theme. They didn’t annoy him, threaten him, or come with the promise of money or land. They simply lived near enough to the Castle that he thought he’d be the physician summoned if they took deathly ill.

The thing is, phrenology and atavism were strongly-held beliefs back then. Bad people were supposed to look monstrous. It should be easy to glance at a man’s face and tell that he should be avoided. But then this image is printed on the first page of the article, with Holmes calmly rattling off this entire list of murders he committed … and he doesn’t look like a monster.

This isn’t news to anyone today – Ted Bundy, anyone? – but Holmes, who gets frequent billing as “America’s first serial killer,” was a shocker. A well-educated, good-looking man killed so many people, was sentenced for one of those deaths, and then comes out with this confession of 27 murders (and six more attempts) two weeks before his appointment with the gallows. Someone like Holmes should not have been able to do such horrific things without it showing on his face, as some divine punishment … although someone who looks like the average man would certainly have more opportunities to continue to commit murders.

Even if Holmes never actually murdered Miss Anna Betts and Miss Gertrude Conner – even if they weren’t actually real people – this casual description certainly sounds monstrous. Being only two weeks away from his execution, what do you think he had to gain from it? Considering how his final words were a complete and total retraction, was Holmes just seeing how far he could push his infamy? Or did he have some other motive for this newspaper confession?