Most of us tend to rather narrow in our definition of “serial killer.” We think of people like Jack the Ripper or Ted Bundy who killed for sexual pleasure. The sorts of murders that include mutilation and an up-close involvement. These killers are categorized as lust murderers, and yes, most of the “famous” serial killers qualify. H. H. Holmes, though, isn’t one of them.
You’ve probably noticed by now that his range of victims is pretty broad. He doesn’t just stick to killing women, for example, or even killing women who’ve been his mistress and are now apparently annoying. Holmes seems to have both no scruples and no people skills. If anyone’s continued life could threaten him in some way, or if their death could benefit him, he’s all for murder.
Robert Latimer had worked for Holmes as a janitor for many years when Holmes apparently decided, out of the blue, to kill him. The justification he offers is that Latimer knew about some of his insurance scams, but the confession states that all of that had happened “some years previous.” It wasn’t something Latimer had recently learned. It was something he’d apparently kept to himself for years, but apparently being a janitor didn’t pay well enough. Latimer wanted money from Holmes.
Money never flowed away from Holmes if he could at all help it.
Holmes murdered Latimer and then boasts about selling his corpse for a profit, like it’s mildly amusing instead of murder. He also very casually mentions that he trapped Latimer in a secret room in his Murder Castle and then slowly starved him to death. The room was, of course, soundproofed, so nobody could hear Latimer’s cries.
Apparently Latimer wasn’t dying fast enough or quietly enough, since Holmes needed the room for something else and “his pleadings had become almost unbearable.” Since this was the secret room equipped for gas, he could murder Latimer much more quickly. Except Holmes only did so because he was annoyed.
Considering this confession is in a newspaper and has to cover 27 deaths, there isn’t much room devoted to any single victim, but this one is particularly creepy. Think about it: oh, this guy tried to blackmail me for my past illegal actions, so I locked him up so he could starve to death. Think about how long that would take. Granted, it’s probably the lack of water that would actually do it, but we’re still talking days. Possibly over a week. Long enough for Holmes, who seems so blasé about so many things, to get annoyed. (And apparently the soundproofing wasn’t total, if he could hear Latimer’s increasingly weakened cries.)
Then there’s this final point: Holmes concludes his discussion of Latimer’s murder by pointing out that others had already noted some of the brick and mortar in that room had been pulled up. He notes that this “was caused by Latimer’s endeavoring to escape by tearing away the solid brick and mortar with his unaided fingers.”
Holmes moves right on to his next victim, but let that sink in. Someone’s alive long enough, and desperate enough, to start trying to tear down a brick wall with his bare hands. This makes it into the paper in a very offhand way, by a man who had previously claimed there was nothing monstrous about him. Now that he’s confessing, though, he seems ready to take it as far as he can and give minute, yet gruesome, details along the way.
Remember that, two weeks later, on the gallows, Holmes claimed all of this was a lie and he’d only accidentally killed two people in his life while performing surgery on them. Still, it’s there in print: he wanted to starve a man to death, but it was really too inconvenient to him to follow through.
I was looking through 101 Author Interview Questions for some inspiration (and a distraction from my current writing to-do list), and came across this one. If you’ve been following me for a while, you probably already know how I feel about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), but just in case …
First, what is NaNoWrimo?
At its strictest, NaNoWriMo asks you to write 50,000 words during the month of November. That averages out to 1,667 words a day. You can’t start your novel until it’s officially November 1 in your time zone, and if you have to submit your final word count before the calendar ticks over to December. NaNoWriMo is also traditionally for new projects, partly so you’re not bogged down on trying to get it all “right.” The point is to get your first draft down. You can fix it later.
Traditionally it’s for fiction – single long works, since “Novel” is part of the name – but I’ve also used it for my nonfiction: drafting, revisions, editing, and proofreading. There are two “Camp” sessions in April and July that let you pick your own goal, but November (and 50k) is the main event.
What’s it cost you?
Nothing. You sign up for free and pick your screenname. Create a project – you can choose whatever filler title you want, or go all out and pick not just a title, but make a cover – and update your word count during November. Nothing happens if you don’t hit 50k. If you make it, you get sponsor prizes … and a first draft of a novel. Your own.
What are the negatives?
Well, November can be a busy month. You might get bogged down. Americans have Thanksgiving thrown in there, which usually comes with family commitments. And if you’re like me, you don’t pay attention to how many words per minute you write. Until I did NaNo, I had no idea where I fell along the fast vs. slow continuum. So you might not know how long it’ll actually take you to write 1,667 words.
There are lots of tips for time management floating around out there, specifically related to NaNoWriMo. Food prep, for example. Setting your schedule and taking advantage of even 10 minutes of down time. Following @NaNoWordSprints on Twitter for the prompts and the feeling that you’re writing along with other people. I’ve seen people talk about how they wear a special hat while writing to cue other household members into the fact that this is a Do Not Disturb time, especially when they don’t have a room with a door that can be closed.
I’ve also seen a lot of “Pfft anything written that fast can’t be any good.” Generally by people who wouldn’t dream of participating. And the thing is … you’re not going to turn around December 1 and query what you’ve written. What you’re doing is drafting, which is one very had and amazing step, but not the last one prior to querying. But think about it: you’ll have this draft by the end of the month, and you can’t edit a blank page. (Thanks, Jodi Picoult.)
What do you stand to gain?
Community. There are events during NaNoWriMo for everyone who’s made this commitment. You’re not alone. Other people are out there doing this too, struggling and succeeding and asking for advice. All 2021 events are going to be virtual, so check out the region closest to you to see how many writers there are and what platform events will be on. (I’ve been one of the co-leaders of the Michigan :: Upper Peninsula Region since 2012, and we’re on Discord. You don’t have to be a Yooper to chat – visitors are welcome.)
Accomplishment. Starting out is scary. Trying to write one word, knowing you have to somehow pull out 49,999 more to follow it. That you’re supposed to craft some sort of story, with a through-line and a beginning, middle, and end. But every single word you write is one that wasn’t there before. Whatever you’ve got at the end of the month, you made all that.
Writer, know thyself. It’s not just a learning experience about getting the words on the page, but getting to know yourself as a writer. Do you like to frontload the month and get a ton of words down as padding? Are you a steady 1,667-words-a-day sort of writer? Does the panic of the final week make your word count jump? There’s also the chance to talk to so many other writers to figure out what they did, and whether it might work for you. How much prep work do you need? Do you do character sheets and maps? Or do you just wing it?
The thing is, I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo – Novembers and Camps – since 2010. The first half of Not Your Mary Sue is barely changed from my original draft in 2017 (so take that, “Pfft anything written that fast can’t be any good.” You’ll never know unless you try). I love writing, especially writing fiction, and the level of energy that happens during NaNoWriMo is just amazing. I get all antsy throughout September and October, wanting to start my novel but putting it off until my laptop clock tells me it’s officially November, and it just all builds up and floods out. I absolutely love NaNoWrimo, and if you’re looking for that nudge to finally write a novel, it’s totally worth it.
Have you ever tried NaNoWriMo? Will you be joining me this year?
One of the questions that frequently comes up about serial killers is how, considering their large number of victims, they were able to get away with it for so long. Wouldn’t they have been caught trying to dispose of the bodies? (Holmes says he wasn’t, because apparently he knew who to sell them to.) Weren’t there any cases where someone tried to escape? Well …
After his successful murder of Emeline Cigrand, Holmes claims that he tried to murder three young women who were then working at his restaurant. Apparently he would have received $90 from his agent, had he delivered all three bodies, but Holmes’ hubris interfered. He admits to attempting to chloroform all three at once. Apparently he couldn’t even manage to drug one of them, since they all “ran screaming into the street, clad only in their night robes.” (He doesn’t clarify where, exactly, he was trying to administer the chloroform.)
You’d think this sort of spectacle would get Holmes all sorts of unwanted attention, but all he says is that, though he was arrested the next day, he wasn’t prosecuted.
It’s not entirely unheard of for serial killers’ intended victims to escape, or even for the police to go ahead and deliver them right back so they can then be murdered. When 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone escaped Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment, that’s exactly what happened. Dahmer convinced them they were witnessing a lovers’ spat. But Holmes doesn’t go into any detail about the consequences of this failed triple murder, or even how he managed to avoid prosecution. It’s simply noted between the murders of Emeline Cigrand and Miss Rosine Van Jassand, and lamented because of the boost it would have given his overall body count.
Rosine Van Jassand was initially employed in Holmes’ fruit and confectionery store, but this was only Holmes’ initial gambit. Once she was there, he forced her to live with him, “threatening her with death if she ever appeared before any of my customers.” (Clearly he had enough employees to keep the buisness running without her, although he doesn’t mention if anyone asked what had happened to the newest recruit.)
Holmes doesn’t say why he killed her. He kept her hidden from other people, forcing her to live with him, and one day simply killed her with poison. Holmes apparently didn’t think this through, though, since he admits it would have been suspicious for a large box to be seen leaving the store, so he simply buried her in the basement. Since the Castle had been undergoing excavations to look for human remains, Holmes taunts his readers by saying he expected to hear that similar investigations would have been undertaken at the confectionery store, as well.
Was this woman even real? Holmes had spent his entire trial insisting that he had only been married to one woman, and that he had been faithful to her, and yet this tantalizing story reveals a forced mistress. Even her name is questioned, reported in other papers as Anna instead of Rosine. Perhaps she could have disappeared easily without questions, but how easy is it to bury a body deep enough in a cellar so that the smell won’t put off potential customers? Holmes claims he murdered Rosine “with more caution” than he showed with his previously attempted triple murder, but he still didn’t plan far enough ahead to sell her body to his agent and make any sort of profit off the situation.
Is Holmes just trying to pad his numbers (while including his story of the failed triple murder to make it look like he isn’t)? Or was he honestly so heartless that this story takes up a bare few lines and it’s time to move on to the next one?
It’s a fairly common piece of writing advice. Neil Gaiman’s got a few quotes about it. For example:
Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.
I general like Neil’s writing advice. We seem to have a lot in common. So, do I obey Neil and always finish everything?
I’m going to be optimistic and say “Not yet.”
Recently I found a CD of my fiction from 2000 through early 2007 and, out of over 70 files, maybe a dozen were “finished.” Call it a completion level of less than 20%. Or … is it?
A lot of those partial documents were attempts at what, in November 2010, became my first NaNoWriMo novel – a completed story. Each individual document is incomplete but, because I kept trying, I eventually completed it. How do I count that one?
In 2011, I stared a NaNoWriMo project that ballooned into a multi-part epic fantasy. I wrote 180k that month and then … stopped, both because the month was over and because I’d written myself into a corner. For over six years, that story was incomplete … until Camp NaNoWriMo in April 2018, when I’d figured out the ending and was able to finish it.
There’s at least one idea left on that CD that I want to revisit, so it’s still in the category of “not yet,” although … that still leaves a bunch of files that aren’t finished. And, at this point, that I don’t think would be worth finishing.
I’d say, like any rule, it’s a bit flexible. You can bend it. Finish things, yes, absolutely – if you never finish things, then that’s an issue. But it’s also okay to look at something, nod to yourself, and agree to put it aside for now. Because you’re not ready for this story, or because you need time to figure out how to get your characters out of this bind. It’s okay to set things aside for later. (The key here being the plan to indeed come back to it later.)
What I see when I look back on these files (from high school and college – go ahead and do the math) I can see both my determination to get it right this time and my acceptance that certain approaches just … weren’t working. The ability to sigh, hit save, take a step back, and try a new path in. (Note that “save” is an important step – save your work! You never know when your ideas will catch on again, or be able to see how far you come, if you get rid of all the evidence.)
There’s also a sense of seeing value in your ideas even when they aren’t working right now. The thought that it’s still worth pursuing, even if this isn’t the right way to do it. The fact that I even saved everything, all my half-pages and random ideas, means I figured I’d want to remember them. They might not be worth anything to anyone other than me, but … I count, right?
There are absolutely lessons you learn from finishing things that you don’t get from abandoning them, but the reverse is also true. Although again, when you save something and set it aside, remember it’s really “for now.” Keep up the idea – or maybe the polite fiction – that this, too, will be finished one day. Maybe all it takes is the right spark, and those can come out of nowhere.
Plus it can be fun to look back on who you used to be, as a writer, and compare it to who you think you are now. (Then check in again, another 20 or so years down the road …) Keeping the old files helps you map out your literary journey in a way abandoning them won’t.
And who knows – maybe some day you’ll finish that one idea that still hasn’t let go. It’s just not done … yet.
How do you approach writing? Do you finish everything you start?
There are a lot of rules that go into writing, and a lot of advice books out there. Mind your grammar, to start with, and remember the punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. Use complete sentences, always finish everything you start, hit this plot beat by this manuscript percentage … if you’re not sure about something, Google it and I’m sure someone, somewhere, has a rule. How do you keep them all straight?
I … don’t. At least, not while I’m writing.
If there’s any single piece of advice I’ve adhered to, even before I read it, it’s Stephen King’s “Read a lot and write a lot.” I just found this CD I’d burned in January 2007 with fanfiction and original fiction dating back to 2000, and there were over 70 individual documents on it. A lot of them were various starts instead of complete plot arcs, but there were still a good number of “complete books.” (Hey, I was 15 in 2000. I wasn’t writing 80k, but I was completing plot arcs in things longer than short stories.)
Mostly because of the “read a lot” part, my grammar and punctuation is good, even back then. When you’re exposed to it on a regular basis – especially when it’s a regular, fun basis – you see how it’s done, so it’s easy to imitate. I don’t remember anyone explaining how to write dialogue because, by the time someone probably did, I would’ve just tuned it out. (My parents let me read anything and everything I wanted from a very young age, with one exception: they said Pet Sematary was too scary for a second-grader, even though it had a kitty on the cover.)
Now, is my grammar perfect? Nope. Have I taught multiple college-level grammar courses at this point? Yep? And still …? Nope. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t have to be. People hardly ever speak with perfect grammar. Plus, if you really need it to be polished and shined for a specific, that’s what revision is for.
And this isn’t just about my fiction. When I’m writing my nonfiction, I might try to shift the voice in my head to Full Academic, but … I don’t bog myself down by worrying about it too much on the first pass. The main goal of writing is, for me, to get the darn words on the page, however they’ll come. Jump around, sketch some notes there, plop something in the middle and figure out how to connect it later … whatever. Just get the ideas down.
The “rules” are for revisions.
The first draft of something for me is play. We’ll turn to Shannon Hale here:
I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.
And, for the record, my approach to that first draft is “shovel allllllll the sand!” Things can always be deleted later – plot beats, random characters, that one cool point I really want to make but probably doesn’t fit … shovel it all in. Get it all down. The hardest step is putting something on the page, so don’t worry about all the things that’ll just make me freeze and leave it blank. Shovel that sand.
Now, like all writing advice, this doesn’t work for everyone. I have friends who, somehow, meticulously plot out books – or even series – before they start shoveling sand. My revision process is a lot more intense than theirs because I’m still organizing my sand and they’ve already got it placed in neat little blocks with turrets and gables and other architectural flourishes from the start. Some of them started out working that way, and others started more like me and got bogged down in the revisions, so they backed up and changed their approach.
I think the number one rule about writing advice is that not all writing advice will work for you.
My biggest struggle is drafting, not revising or editing, so I’ve formed my approach to make that hardest part the easiest it can be for me. When I sit down to write, I throw the rules out the window. Just get the words on the page – form the sense of it so it can be massaged and perfectly shaped later on. Some days are easier and I can pay more attention to the rules, but others … they get thrown out the window.
The first draft is playing. I’m just shoveling sand. Then, once I’m done shoveling, I’ll switch tools and start shaping, matching tenses, paying attention to singular and plural, messing with punctuation, and knowing that, no matter how much I try, by the time my mom reads my proofs, there’ll still be plenty for her to catch. (I get emails like “On page 6, I know you meant x instead of y” and “On page 10, that’s a gerund, so you really need to …”)
So the short answer to whether I consciously think about rules and advice while writing is no, and the longer answer is “Because I come back to that later.” Plus I’m not the only one who considers it. Editors, proofreaders, peer reviewers … lots of people have the chance to catch the rules I’ve missed. It never has to be just you, trying to remember all the rules.
What about you? Do you think of specific grammar or writing rules when you’re tackling your first draft? Are there specific things you know you need to focus on?
I’ve got a writing buddy who’s working on his dissertation, and his coach just told him that writing every other day isn’t enough – he’s never going to finish it. She wants him to write every day. Well, every weekday, at least. We’ve been meeting two hours a day, three days a week, so we’re going to start meeting every weekday morning. Which is fine, because whether or not we’re zooming, I set my mornings aside for my own work, but my dad asked “Wait, do you actually write every day?”
The snarky answer is “Define ‘writing.'”
As a process, writing isn’t solely “putting words on the page.” It’s a necessary step, but not the only one, and usually not the first one for me. There’s reading, both nonfiction research and fiction in various genres; outlining; planning; editing (and deleting); and so on. Do I try to do at least one of those steps each weekday? Yes. Does that mean I actually do them? Not always.
But I do set aside the time for it. I’ve got a two hour block open for it. Some days I know it’s not going to happen, and I ignore it. Sometimes I work on the weekends. And sometimes I put in more than one writing session in a day. For me, two hours is the optimal amount of time: long enough for me to get into it, but not so long that my concentration wanes.
The more you write, the more you’ll figure out what block of time works best for you – and whether you can trust yourself to give yourself “days off” or if you need to be sterner and make sure you sit down and do it. (I set my own writing deadlines for my dissertation and could make myself stick to them, but my office mate told her advisor that she needed someone to take a firm stand and not budge. If you know which one of us you are, you can negotiate the tools that you, personally, need so you can finish a project.)
One of the things it’s taken me a long time to accept is that there are some days when even sitting here in front of the laptop isn’t going to get me more words. Days when I need to take a break and do something else. Days when that means recharging instead of avoiding. Sometimes it’s a shorter break, and sometimes it’s an “until tomorrow” break, but the important thing is that it’s only ever a break, not quitting. I set the next writing time in my mind and let myself ignore all writing things until then.
I also do my best to write down ideas as soon as they hit, whether it’s in my little writers’ notebook or on my phone. “I’ll remember it later” doesn’t always work, no matter how big the idea seems – write it down. Make a note. On your break times, this helps you get back to whatever else you’re doing. If you’re working on one project and a lightbulb shows up for another project, you can write it down and then get back to what you were doing.
Does “getting one good idea and writing it down” count as writing for the day? I don’t know, but that’s just one place where “Do you write every day?” gets tricky.
The thing is, when I’m working on a project, or even when I’m between projects, I’m frequently thinking about it. Letting it churn over in the back of my mind. Coming up with these ideas and scrambling to write them down before I forget. Piecing things together or figuring out a way through the latest plot snarl. Sometimes this happens years later – I only finished my 2011 NaNoWriMo epic fantasy in 2018 after finally figuring out how to wrap everything up – but hopefully it’s faster when I’m on a deadline. I’ll think about characters and plot bunnies from ages ago, either to work them into a current project or to see if I can actually do something with them.
But that’s not as easy to track. It doesn’t fit neatly into my two-hour block of time, and I don’t have a word count increase to show for it. Some people might label it “useless daydreaming.” But it’s still a necessary part of the process.
If I’m going to wrap it up and try a concise answer, I guess I’d say “Yes, I write every day, but it doesn’t look the same every day.” That’s not my process. It’s changed over the years as I develop and grow as a writer, but that’s who I am now: writing every day, even if “writing” doesn’t always look like writing.
What about you? Do you have a writing schedule? What works best for you?
Aesthetic Press has posted this audio of me discussing my inspiration for my novel Not Your Mary Sue and reading the opening pages. Click the video to listen, or read the transcript below.
Hello everyone. I am Rebecca Frost. I am the author of my debut novel Not Your Mary Sue, which is coming out next June from Aesthetic Press, and I’d like to start out by telling you a little bit about what inspired me to write this book so you can kind of see where I’m coming from.
I wrote my dissertation about American true crime, and this was something that I seriously had to limit so the dissertation itself only looks at American true crime – it doesn’t look at any other countries – and it only looks at written true crime because I already had enough to go through from about the 1600s to the present without including television shows or podcasts or movies or any of that kind of thing. And it was already a couple of hundred pages long and my committee didn’t want to read any more than that. But what that really means is that I can pull these facts off the top of my head.
For example, if you yourself read a bunch of true crime, you’re probably already aware that the book will usually open with what’s called “the body discovery scene.” The crime has already happened, somebody has already been murdered, and it’s the description of somebody walking in and realizing what has taken place. Now this is not a recent phenomenon, actually – it dates back to 1783, something called The Beadle Narratives which tells the story of how William Beadle murdered his wife and children and then committed suicide. And it’s the first time that one of these written stories brings you into somebody’s private home and introduces you to the scene as the very first thing.
So, as you can probably tell at this point, I’m lots of fun to have around at parties because of those tidbits.
The other fun thing that happens it that somebody will come up to me and ask me “Oh, so you do true crime, so you know about Ted Bundy?” and the answer is “Yes, I know actually a lot about Ted Bundy. Do you want to narrow that down a little bit?” And one of the more fascinating things to me about Ted Bundy, which has bearing on my book Not Your Mary Sue, is the fact that one of the most well-known true crime authors got her start writing her book about Ted Bundy.
Of course I’m talking about Ann Rule. And if you walk into a bookstore nowadays and you take a look at the shelves of true crime, her books take up more than a single shelf. It just keeps going, all of these books by Ann Rule. She kept writing up until her death, and it’s just really fascinating to me because the origin story of Ann Rule becoming such an essential true crime figure is entwined with Ted Bundy.
In case you didn’t know, Ann Rule’s first book is called The Stranger Beside Me, and it was first published in 1980, so this was after Ted Bundy’s trial but she wrote it with different updates, for example after his execution and that kind of a thing. Ann Rule herself had been writing true crime beats previously – she’d been using a pseudonym – but this was the first time anyone had asked her to write a book.
What happened was, there were these murders happening in the pacific northwest, and they were called “the Ted murders” because of an event on Lake Sammamish where somebody heard this guy give his name as “Ted.” This was the day when two women disappeared and they were assumed to be victims of this so-called Ted character. And so Ann Rule was asked if she could write the book about these crimes. She knew she couldn’t finish it until the guy was caught and put on trial and all the rest, but she went and she was able to tell her friends and her family and, say, her former coworkers that she had this book deal. And one of her former coworkers worked with her at a crisis center hotline, and this friend was named Ted Bundy.
So what really you get in this book is the fact of how Ann Rule’s whole life changes when she discovers that her book about “the Ted murders” is actually about her friend. And so it’s not just the story about Ted Bundy and his crimes, as horrific as they might be. It’s how she knew him and he even knew that she was writing this book prior to even his first capture. (Of course one of the things about Ted Bundy is that he escaped from prison more than once.) And so she knew him and she had this expertise then because she knew Bundy before he was the Ted Bundy. Before he made headlines. Before all the rest of this.
And so that has been really interesting for me because you’re seeing how the true crime genre really works around this idea of the author having privileged knowledge of the subject, right? It’s not – you’re not just reading books about the person. You’re not just reading the newspaper reports. She actually knew him, you know – they went to Christmas parties together. She had sort of the inside view. And it’s somebody that you would think, being in the position of writing a book about the Ted murders and having her policing background, you kind of wonder “Well, shouldn’t she have known?” But the answer of course is that well, hardly anybody knew. The suspicion had to build. It really took a while before Bundy could be identified and then captured.
And so The Stranger Beside Me is really instrumental for me not just in writing the dissertation but in coming up with the idea for my own book. So we kind of put a pin in the true crime thing for now and switch over to another of my favorite authors in discussing the fiction side.
So this would be … Stephen King is one of my favorite authors, and in 2010 he published a novella called “A Good Marriage.” And in this story a woman discovers that her husband is a serial killer. And in the afterword to the story when Stephen King is talking about what inspired him to write it, he mentions the real-life serial killer Dennis Rader, also known as BTK. Rader picked this nickname for “Bind, Torture, Kill.” He wrote multiple letters to the police, he was in constant contact with them, he would taunt them … and he had also been married for decades at the time he was caught.
And so Stephen King looked at this case and he said “All of these people are really upset with the wife. Why didn’t she know? How could she have been married to this man for so long over the course of so many murders and not know about it?” And so he sort of did his own “what if?”, okay, taking on the point of view of the wife. What if you were a woman who discovered this about your husband? And this is even a case of a woman who hasn’t even been following the murders that closely. She knows the nickname but it takes her a little bit of time to connect everything together. But how would you feel and what would you do if you encountered this serial killer?
After reading “A Good Marriage” I ended up giving my first conference presentation about Stephen King’s relationship to seral killers. So this wasn’t just about his fictional [I meant supernatural] serial killers. IT is a fictional [supernatural] serial killer, whatever IT is – alien, monster, creature – that’s killing children, but I was looking specifically at any of King’s realistic stories of serial killers.
One of them that kind of gets ignored a little bit because the serial killing isn’t the central part of the story is his book Misery. It’s one of my favorites of his. And like I said, the serial killer isn’t specifically central to the story, because if I’m summing it up for you – if you’ve never seen or heard of Misery – it’s basically … an author gets into a car accident and his rescuer basically decides to kidnap him and keep him in her house. She’s a nurse so she sort of binds his wounds the best she can and then keeps him prisoner in this isolated Colorado house for months.
And she only discovers after she gets him home that he’s actually her favorite author. She’s reading the most recent story that he’s written about his main character, Misery, and he is very glad to be done with Misery because he killed Misery at the end of that book and he is so happy that he never has to write another Misery novel in his life. She, unfortunately, does not like this. Misery is her absolute favorite character and so she tries to strike a sort of bargain with him: if he can write her the next Misery novel, then she will let him go. And he’s very much a prisoner in this because both of his legs are broken. He eventually gets access to a wheelchair, but there’s no way for him to leave the house. Even if he could leave the house, it’s all muddy.
So you have this story that’s basically these two people. You have the author and the nurse who’s kidnapped him. They’re stuck in a house together and they’re sort of battling over this written document. She wants the story. He doesn’t want to write it – he wants to be done with it.
You find out later on in the book that Annie, the nurse, is a bit scarier than she’s even already appeared because she is a serial murderer. As a nurse, working with children … she killed a number of old people and a number of babies. She was caught and put on trial for the murder of these babies, but never convicted. So Paul, our poor author, is stuck and slowly realizing exactly how bad a situation that is.
And so I was kind of thinking about just this really interesting situation of [how] you only have these two people. It’s just these two people and the four walls of this house. How can you tell a story like that? How does that really work if you only have these two voices to tell? Maybe you can focus on the book that’s being written.
But then I sort of combined that with this idea of Ted Bundy and Ann Rule, right? So if you have two people together, one of whom is a serial killer, what if that serial killer knew he was about to be caught? And what if he had a very clear idea of how he wanted his story to be told? But he also knows that he’s not a writer. He doesn’t know the genre. He basically knows about Ted Bundy and that’s it. He doesn’t have any other information or any other knowledge.
And so, instead of accidentally kidnapping his favorite author, what if he purposefully tracks somebody down and kidnaps her so that she is stuck with him so he can tell her his life story? And his whole goal is that, when they leave the island, whenever that’s going to be, when he’s arrested, what if she can then go and write his story and turn it into a bestseller?
So that is how I came to this thought experiment for writing Not Your Mary Sue. And I’m going to read you the opening pages of Not Your Mary Sue.
I groan and clap a hand over my eyes. Stupid hotel room curtains. You can never get them closed. But at least it’s light enough that I’ll be able to find my way to the bathroom, because I really need to go.
I swing my legs over the side of the bed, but I’m tangled in the twisted blankets. And it’s not a hotel room – it’s my own private island getaway, except …
My hands drop from my eyes, and I freeze for a second, because it’s not just the blankets. There’s a manacle around my right ankle, attached to a chain with a small padlock. The chain snakes off to the door of my bedroom and disappears underneath it, which is curious. There’s a space for it. Either the carpenter who went to work on this place made a mistake, or it’s all part of some master plan.
I can’t ponder this for long, though, because my bladder tells me I have bigger problems right at this very second. There’s a door on the other side of the room, this one standing open, and I can see the toilet from here. The chain is long enough for me to stumble inside and sit down, but the door doesn’t close all the way. It has the same gap as the bedroom door, so it can clear the chain, but I didn’t push hard enough. Which really doesn’t matter right now, because it feels like I haven’t gone to the bathroom since …
Wait. This is the dress I put on yesterday. Dress and coordinating cardigan on top. Yesterday, when I first came to this island. At least, I don’t think it could have been more than yesterday. I’m weak, and shaky, and I bet my bladder was at full capacity, but I didn’t wet the bed. At least I made it all the way over here, so I can flush and wash my hands like it’s any other day.
Except … my toothbrush is in the wrong spot. I always put my toothbrush on the right side of the sink. Everything is here – toothbrush, floss, toothpaste, comb – but it’s on the wrong side. I reach for a towel, still frowning at my toothbrush, and then fumble for the light switch to get a better look around.
There’s no tub, and the shower is weird. It has a curtain on a curved rod, and there’s a rubber lip on the floor to keep water from going everywhere, but it doesn’t seem like a proper shower. It looks more like a thing you might find in the hospital.
A thing someone who did the doors might choose. The chain can slip under all the doors, and I can easily shower without having to pull it up and over the edge of the tub. I’ve crossed my arms without realizing, broadcasting my feelings in a moment of weakness, but I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around this. I’m in a luxury cabin on a private island where the doors don’t touch the floor and the shower looks like it belongs in a hospital.
It makes little sense. I can change my dress just fine – that comes off over my head – but what about my underwear? Is someone going to come in every morning, unlock the cute little padlock, and wait for me to change into fresh panties? Ridiculous.
My shampoo, conditioner, and body wash are all on a shelf in the shower. The curtain’s pulled back, so I can see them. I slowly turn around and open the cabinet under the sink, trying to do a quick inventory of everything that’s there.
I don’t remember putting any of it there.
And my toothbrush is on the wrong side.
There’s a plastic cup sitting next to the faucet, and I fill it up with water. I have a headache, and I don’t think it’s only from dehydration, but I can pretend for a while longer. Pretend, and try to think, but this headache …
I remember the pontoon boat, and the man who had his three sons help me with my luggage. I’m here all summer, stuck on this island, so I ended up bringing quite a lot with me. They met me at the dock, or the pier, or whatever you’re supposed to call it, back on the mainland, but I don’t actually remember arriving here. Seeing the bedroom somewhere other than in photographs on the website.
The manacle. The chain. Neither of them makes any sense. I’m supposed to be alone on this island, and I can’t swim. It’s intended to be my own private retreat for meditation and healing, surrounded by Lake Superior and nothing else.
If I have everything I brought with me, though, then maybe … Still in a daze, I go back into my bedroom and start looking for my knitting supplies.
I’m cross-legged on the floor, the skirt of my dress pulled down to be as demure as possible, when I hear someone turning a key in the lock. And then undoing another. Apparently the one in the doorknob wasn’t good enough. I don’t look up, though, because I’ve almost got the padlock freed and I need just another moment of concentration.
There. The little lock was simple, and it comes off in my hands. I look up – and up; this man is over six feet tall – and recognize Jay Michael Robinson, the caretaker of this place. His picture was also on the website. “Have you already written the ransom note?” I ask him. My voice is a little rough – I could use some more water – but it comes out cleanly enough. Even if he doesn’t quite seem to know what to say. I remove the manacle and set it aside. “Or,” I suggest, throwing him a lifeline, “did he pay you extra to do this?”
It’s like his mouth has forgotten how to close.
I get to my feet, automatically smoothing my dress to make sure it doesn’t ride up. “Which is it? Is he paying extra for everything” – there are even bars on the bedroom windows – “or are you hoping he will?”
This man, whom I suppose I must’ve met yesterday even if I don’t remember it, keeps staring at me. In the website photos, when he’s posed and confident, he looks attractive, but right now his reddish hair is messy instead of purposely tousled, and he’s still having trouble with the hinge on his jaw. Then he takes a breath, straightens his shoulders, and nods once. “There’s no use in trying to escape. We’re on an island and you can’t swim.”
I blink. It’s like he’s reciting a line from an action movie. And also like he thinks I’m stupid. “So … he did pay extra? This is part of a package deal?”
“This …? No, you …” He shakes his head like he’s trying to find his spot in this carefully prepared mental script. “I’m your caretaker. Jay Michael Robinson.” Then he bows, putting one hand on his stomach and the other on the small of his back as though he’s recently re-watched The Three Musketeers and I’m handmaiden to the queen of France. “You are my guest.”
Maybe he thinks that whatever he gave me to knock me out has scrambled my brains. “Yeah, you inherited this place from your uncle. You rent it out over the summer to pay the taxes on it. Lots of rich people stay here.” I tilt my head. “Funny, though. None of the reviews mentioned the chains.” Maybe I shouldn’t be joking with him, but these things slip out when I’m nervous.
He gestures suddenly, a quick jab at my hands. “What’s that?”
I hold it up, a short wire with a loop on one end for a handle. “The key for my interchangeable knitting needles. It’s how you hold the cord steady when you screw the tips on. And look,” I add, bending to put it away so I don’t lose it, “I already know I’m stuck here, okay? Three months of nothing but rest and reflection, no cell phone service and no Wi-Fi, not to return to civilization until I’ve had a nice long time to think everything over.” And yes, the fact that I can’t swim absolutely factored into his choice of an island.
Jay blinks. “What do you mean?”
Oh, this could be bad. I look at him, not entirely straight on because I’m only 5 foot 4, but as directly into his blue eyes as I can manage. What does he know? It seems like he doesn’t know what I think he should know, if I’m waking up in chains, but then … what other reason could he possibly have for this? I’ve said nothing that could betray the secret – I haven’t had time to say anything – but if he doesn’t know, and that’s not the reason … “Why don’t you tell me why you went through all this trouble for me?” I suggest, slowly feeling my way through the words.
“Because you’re the last one. The most important one.” And he smiles, which lights up his entire face. He takes a step forward, bending down at the same time to lessen the height difference between us. “You’re where this all ends.”
So that is the opening of my debut novel, Not Your Mary Sue, out next June from Aesthetic Press. I really look forward to introducing you more to Marcy and Jay and exploring some of my beloved Upper Peninsula of Michigan, even if it’s just a tiny little island surrounded by Lake Superior. In the meantime, while we’re waiting for next June, if you want to get in contact with me I am krakengoddess on both Instagram and Twitter and my website is rebeccafrostwrites.com. Thank you.
I don’t know that we can say there are acceptable reasons for a serial killer to commit murder, exactly, but there are certainly reasons more common than others. Even Holmes himself follows a pattern: he meets someone, discovers they have money, and murders them to get it. Sometimes he murders someone to keep them from telling other people that he murders people. But, in this case …
Lizzie (no last name given) was apparently under Holmes’ employ in the Castle restaurant. He doesn’t say exactly when this was, since most of his confessions don’t include a year. What he does say is that his janitor, Quinlan, was paying far too much attention to Lizzie, and Holmes just couldn’t have that. Apparently Quinlan was far too valuable to Holmes to get distracted because … he might reveal that his employer was a serial killer? Holmes doesn’t actually say.
Quinlan completed suicide in 1914 and left a note saying simply “I couldn’t sleep.” His surviving relatives said that he’d been haunted by the ghosts of Holmes’ victims in the months prior to his death. Because Holmes had killed so many under his nose and he hadn’t known about it? Or because he had? Quinlan was never officially accused of participating in any of Holmes’ crimes and by this point I think we all know better than to take Holmes’ word.
Instead of firing Lizzie, Holmes decided to kill her. Apparently he was worried she’d simply find other work nearby and continue to entrance his janitor. It’s that crass and that simple: he no longer wanted to employ her, so he decided to murder her.
Holmes says Lizzie was the first victim to suffocate in the by-then-infamous vault in his Castle office. He doesn’t explain how he lured her inside or how long it took her to die. Perhaps suffocation in a sealed vault was supposed to be interpreted as a peaceful death.
In a technique that he claims to use again and again, Holmes made Lizzie write letters before she died, explaining her sudden absence to her loved ones. Did he get her to hand over the letters and then shove her back inside to seal her up and wait for her to die? Or did she calmly allow herself to be suffocated without thinking that she could tear them up and ruin his plans? Clearly readers aren’t supposed to concern themselves with such grisly scemantics.
Holmes even attempts to end this description of murder on a lighter note. The prosecutor in the Pitezel case apparently offered to track Lizzie down, based on the letters she had sent, believing she was still alive. Somehow proving that Lizzie had actually gone west as her letters claimed was meant to help Holmes defend himself in the case of Benjamin Pitezel’s death by proving that he was not, in fact, a murderer. Holmes seems both amused at the notion and pleased that his ruse worked so well … although again we’re not supposed to wonder how his innocence in one case is supposed to prove his innocence in another.
Is this a serious confession so that Holmes can go to his execution with a clear conscience or a criminal gleefully crowing over his crimes?
This question can be approached from a few angles and is kind of hard to tackle, which is why this is the fourth first sentence I’ve written for this blog post. So let’s just dive right in.
Angle #1: I don’t talk about my WIPs (works in progress) because I don’t want someone stealing my ideas.
That’s the fear, isn’t it? If we share our work in writing groups or online, it’s not just the emotional vulnerability of putting ourselves out there. Plagiarism is real, and nobody wants to lose years of work to someone who swoops in and scoops our best ideas. So … do we just never talk about our work at all?
Angle #2: If I talk about my WIP, then I lose all the joy and momentum. Writing it feels like chewing my food twice.
If this isn’t you, then you probably know someone like this: they’ve got the backstories and world building and character design all planned out. They talk about it all the time. But as far as actually getting words down on the page and writing it … it’s not happening. Talking is joy. Maybe talking is less work. And once you’ve said it and gotten an audience reaction, what’s the point of writing it down for an audience you won’t actually see?
Angle #3: I don’t talk about my writing because nobody’s interested.
Maybe your topic’s too niche, or maybe you don’t have writing friends. You don’t want to talk about your WIP because it’s not a conversation – it’s just the other person waiting for you to run down so they can have their turn.
… or maybe a bit of all three?
I’ll say straight off that the people I talk to in real life get a lot more details about my projects than anyone online, possibly because of all three of these reasons. If all I tell you about my novel is “a serial killer kidnaps the woman he wants to write his bestselling biography,” we’re never going to write the same story. Even if you somehow stumbled across my summary on the NaNoWriMo website years ago and spent all this time working up your own version, it’s not my book. (And even that summary is pretty darn vague.)
But do I keep my WIP talk vague solely so nobody steals the idea? No. That’s not the only reason.
Part of it is Angle #2: if I already tell people all the interesting bits, what else is there? You’d know the climax (which should be, of course, the most interesting bit). You’d know who lives and who dies and how it all comes out. So … why read it if you’ve already been given the CliffsNotes version? Don’t people get those so they don’t have to read it?
And yeah, part of it is Angle #3: I know not everybody cares about my work at all, much less half as much as I do. I don’t want to bore people with long info-dumps. That’s not a conversation – that’s a monologue. So I’m careful even in person, when I’ve got body language and such to judge when someone’s attention wanders. (Here on my own blog I get to ramble as much as I want, I guess. You can always click away.)
There’s also another aspect to it. Maybe not a full angle, but at least a partial one: I don’t want to jinx it. I don’t want to get all publicly hyped about an idea only to have the project fizzle out at a later step and never actually appear. I’m talking one of the later steps in the publishing process nobody wants to think about: contract signed, manuscript delivered, and still something falls through. Complete superstition, I know, but it’s still totally there for me.
So online I’m incredibly vague. In person, if we don’t really know each other, I’m the same level of vague: unless it’s been officially announced, I deflect. But, if you’re in my writing group, or if you’re my husband …
Yeah. They get the CliffsNotes. The questions. The rambling “I don’t know if x or y should happen” and “I’m thinking of killing Z.” The people who are there for the process get to see the entire thing – the excitement, the frustration, the internal debates. My writing group gets weekly updates because everyone gives weekly updates. They want to know about the comments I get back and how I’m either going to address them or argue against them. They’ve heard about so many manuscripts I’ve completed that will never, ever see print.
(They’ve argued that, someday, a library will want to collect all of my unpublished manuscripts and people will actually read them.)
So I guess the short answer is that, for most of you, I’ll talk very little about my WIPs. I’ll wait for official announcements and share exactly that much information. Which is all a personal decision about what feels right for me – you don’t have to do that part.
What I would encourage all writers to do, though, is to find community. In person, online, however it comes. Find the people who’ll celebrate each step of the process with you and who understand it – the ones who make you feel safe to share without prefacing something with “Okay nobody steal my idea seriously I mean it.” The people who’ll remember your characters’ names and ask if you’ve decided their fate yet.
I like talking about my writing, but mostly I just like writing it.
How about you? How often do you talk about your projects?
We’re used to serial killers doing what Holmes usually writes about: killing one person at a time and gradually building up his victim count. After all, it’s hard enough to get rid of a single body without coming under suspicion. But even the smartest serial killer has to adapt to the given situation.
Holmes writes that a Mr. Frank Cook moved into “the Castle” in 1888. When he married Sarah, Holmes himself was present at the wedding. He apparently even lived with the couple in his own Castle for a while. There were many threads connecting him to them, which of course means danger even for the most intrepid serial killer.
Miss Mary Haracamp, a niece of Mrs. Cook, also came to Chicago in order to work for Holmes as a stenographer. (He seemed to have a bad habit of killing the young ladies who came to Chicago to work as his stenographer.) In this case, though, it wasn’t because he was having an affair with her (or her aunt). It was because Mrs. Cook and Miss Haracamp somehow got their hands on a master key and happened to walk in on Holmes while he was “busily engaged preparing my last victim for shipment.”
Like Bluebeard, Holmes cannot let the women live once they’ve unlocked the wrong door. Unlike some of his previous murders, though, the solution isn’t a single blow to the head. No: Holmes managed to get the women into his large vault and then forced them to write a letter to Mr. Cook telling him that they were sick of life with him and were going away. Never coming back. Don’t follow. Etc.
And then he killed them, presumably by keeping them sealed in the now-infamous airtight vault. Holmes does admit that he only got the letter out of them by saying he’d let them live if they did actually leave Chicago, never to return, but of course he lied. Presumably he got the letter from them and gave it to Mr. Cook, although he would have had to open the vault to do that, risking their escape. Leaving it inside with them while they died would have meant they could have torn it up and left him with nothing.
Holmes doesn’t discuss how Mr. Cook took either the women’s sudden absence or their letter, but he does end this short segment with a very interesting sentence: “These were particularly sad deaths, both on account of the victims being exceptionally upright and virtuous women and because Mrs. Sarah Cook, had she lived, would have soon become a mother.”
Well now. Holmes really likes this long sentences, and he’s packed a lot into this one.
He’s got a bit of a Dexter thing going on when he rates these murders as “particularly sad.” Apparently killing rascals doesn’t tug at the heartstrings (although none of the previously described murders have been of particularly bad people). Is he trying to appeal to the masses by telling readers what he thinks they want to hear? Showing some sort of remorse to prove he’s not entirely a monster? Simply tossing in some flowery language to pad his word count?
Then there’s the fact that he counts Mrs. Cook’s unborn child as one of his 27 supposed victims. It’s long been theorized that the murder of Julia Conner might actually have been an accidental death during an illegal operation – that is, an abortion. Granted, admitting that he’d had an affair with one of his tenant’s wives would not have been a good look for Holmes, who’d married three women under three different names without ever divorcing any of them, but it’s still an intriguing question. Holmes counts Mrs. Cook’s unborn child among his victims, boosting the number, but makes no mention of Mrs. Conner’s possible unborn child, which he could have used to push the count to 28.
Is Holmes still somehow trying to protect his honor in the middle of a confession to 27 murders? Prior to his trial he certainly clung to the idea that he had only one wife and he’d never been disloyal, to keep Georgiana Yoke from testifying against him during the Pitezel murder trial, but this confession came after the death sentence had already been handed down. It was meant to be Holmes finally telling the truth about everything and owning up to being the worst criminal monster the world had ever known … although apparently even criminal monsters don’t want the world to discover exactly how morally monstrous they are.
If Mrs. Cook had been a real person, it seems that Mr. Cook – and anyone else who knew her – would have known she was pregnant and could then have pointed this out after Holmes’ confession was published. If he’d omitted it, the world would know. However … Holmes made up a number of murder victims from whole cloth, and confessed to murdering people who then made it known they were still alive, so clearly he wasn’t above lying or padding his confession. So … why, then?
What do you think this account of murder tells us about H. H. Holmes?