What’s the best way to keep notes for your writing project?

One of the most important things I learned early on in grad school was to simply keep my notes. All of them. Because, at some point, I’m going to remember a keyword that could lead me to an important quote … if I can find it.

Finding it is usually the problem. Past Rebecca was good about making notes, but she also tended to write them longhand. Take a look here – these are my notes from my independent study course on Jack the Ripper’s victims from way back in 2011. The box is full. That’s a lot of information. And at least it’s divided by subject, with sources up front, and at least Past Rebecca had neat handwriting, but … that’s not the easiest thing to search. It’s a nice physical representation of the research that went into that paper, which turned into my first conference presentation and then my first book. Still, it’s not very user-friendly.

At the time I wasn’t thinking about future projects or what all it might become. I was focused on getting through the semester, so it was all fresh in my head. I hadn’t yet made the shift to thinking long-term. What if I want to come back to it? What if I have a vague memory of a certain phrase from a certain book? At least all the cards are labeled by source, but …

Digital. Digital is your friend. Digital is how you make sure Future You doesn’t curse your name.

IMG-1578Oh, I still print things off. Here’s my notebook that I worked from while writing Ripper’s Victims. You can see some of my quirks – teeny font, two columns, printed sideways and then stuck in sheet protectors so I can scribble over it with markers. I find it’s easier to have the pages sitting by my laptop when I’m working on that specific section, and if you know me, you know I love my colored pens.

But all of the files with notes from all of those books on my shelf – over 100 of them – are saved in a single folder on my computer, and there’s that lovely search function. Now when I just know someone called Mary Jane Kelly an “Amazon queen,” I can type the phrase in and pull it up, no sweat. (Cullen, Autumn of Terror, 1965, page 166: “It was among such flotsam that Mary Kelly drifted on Thursday night, 8 November, borne along by the tide, yet remaining aloof, as befits an Amazon Queen.” Boom.)

And they’re saved in multiple places, too. I’ve got the printed version as a sort of fail-safe, but it’s also on my computer and in the cloud and on a USB stick. Part of taking the time to make the notes is also making sure you won’t ever have to repeat the same task again.

Now, this doesn’t mean that I won’t ever go back to the books themselves. When I took these notes, I took them for a very specific project, with that project’s focus. Even trying to narrow things down like that, I’ve got a very full binder. But, if I want to look at a different angle of the same topic … I’ll probably have to go back to the books and compile more notes with the new research question in mind.

Digitally, of course. I have to look out for Future Rebecca’s research needs.

But haven’t they used DNA to identify Jack the Ripper?

When the Ripper murders happened in the fall of 1888, police had very little to use in the form of forensics. This was before fingerprints – and long before DNA – at a time when murder victims were rarely even photographed at the scene of the crime. It was also at a time when people thought that taking good, close-up photographs of people’s eyes would reveal the last thing they had ever seen. Forensics in 1888 definitely did not look like an episode of CSI.

But we’re in the 21st century now, and we do have access to a lot of forensic technological advances. DNA was first used in a criminal investigation in 1986, and since then advances mean that we could certainly test the Ripper’s DNA – right?

Well, so far two people have tried.

If you’ve only read one book about Jack the Ripper, chances are it’s Patricia Cornwell’s 2002 Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper – Case Closed. Here she is on the back, examining a document carefully while wearing clean white gloves to apparently indicate she’s in an archive. Known for her fiction, especially her series about medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, Cornwell decided to use her personal wealth to investigate the Ripper crimes. Her research, which was updated first in a Kindle single and in a 2017 follow-up book, directed her toward accusing artist Walter Sickert as having been Jack the Ripper.

Although Cornwell did buy a number of Sickert’s paintings – and have to defend herself against accusations of wantonly destroying them in her search for evidence – her source of the Ripper’s DNA came from some of the Ripper letters. (We’ve talked about those before …) By swabbing the flap of the envelope and the stamp, Cornwell hoped to collect the Ripper’s DNA to compare it directly to Sickert’s.

There are a couple issues here, in spite of how cool she might look on the back cover of the second book in her Matrix-style coat. First, her methods assume that the Ripper himself licked the stamps and the envelopes. This means both that the letter wasn’t handed over to an employee who sold the stamp and did the honors, and that the Ripper actually wrote the letters. And second, because of the age of the letters, only mitochondrial DNA could be tested. At best, mDNA showed that Sickert could not be excluded from the tens (or possibly hundreds) of thousands of possible people who could have licked the envelope. Cornwell’s experts told her she had narrowed the Ripper down to about 1% of the Victorian British population, and in her book she translates this as indicating that yes, it was Sickert.

So mDNA from the likely hoax Ripper letters not excluding Sickert from the possible thousands to have licked it does not prove that Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper. (Cornwell also has the difficulty of explaining how her chosen Ripper was meant to be in France at the time of the murders, on top of her theory that Sickert wrote most, if not all, of the Ripper letters himself. As an artist he was apparently amused by disguising his handwriting.)

The second example, most recently hitting headlines as the results were published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, involves a shawl. This shawl was supposedly removed from Catherine Eddowes’ possessions after her murder and never officially recorded as having belonged to her. A police officer is meant to have taken it as a gift for his wife (since somehow it avoided being covered in blood) but then, mysteriously, the shawl passed from hand to hand and traveled through the decades … without ever having been washed.

In 2007, Russel Edwards bought the shawl at auction, believing the story of its provenance when other Ripper scholars present scoffed at the idea. Like Cornwell, he had DNA tests run, this time checking for matches to two people. (Again, note the CSI-style photographs.) Edwards concluded that the blood found on the shawl could indeed have come from Catherine Eddowes, and that the semen did not exclude his personal choice for Ripper, Polish barber Aaron Kosminski.

But we’re left with the same sorts of issues. Edwards’ expert, Jari Louhelainen, was also limited to testing for mDNA. His results were like the ones Cornwell was given: they did not exclude the people Edwards was looking for, but it’s hardly a conclusive test when it only narrows the pool down to some thousands (again, in a range that might be from tens to hundreds). The shawl itself, like the letters, is questioned, since there’s no trail that actually connects it to Catherine Eddowes and it has a lot of traits that mean it probably didn’t belong to her. (The dye was not water-fast, for example, making it an unlikely possession of a woman who frequently slept rough. On top of that, Eddowes’ boyfriend had just pawned his boots so they could eat, while she supposedly hung on to this elaborate shawl long enough to die wearing it.)

Edwards’ book came out in 2014 and I spent a week greeting people with “Yes, I know about the shawl.” The journal article came out in 2019 and I gave a talk on Jack the Ripper and the limitations of these DNA tests to hopefully cut down ont he number of people who asked me about it. These books certainly sound good, with all this talk about 21st century science and the greatest criminal mystery of all time, but, in spite of their expense and the photo opportunities, these tests are far from conclusive.

No, DNA evidence has not identified Jack the Ripper.

5 tools for dealing with the slow writing days

Some days – the good days – writing seems to fly. The next word is waiting right there for you and you have a laser sight guiding you down the path of your argument. You don’t have to wait around for a thought because they’re lined up in a row for you to knock down like dominoes. Those are what I call “the fast days” because I can churn out my word count with no sweat.

But the other days … the slow days …

Those are the days when Anne Lamott’s famous KFKD radio station plays in your head. You suck. This was never a good idea. There’s not enough here to make any sort of point. And come on – you think some editor somewhere will want to read this? Nope. You’re delusional. And definitely not a writer.

So, to borrow from another of my favorite writers – Stephen King this time – we need hedges. Hedges against the dark.

Today I’m going to share five tools I have in my writing toolbox especially for those slow writing days.

Here are two of mine in one convenient photograph. The rest is just desk clutter that’s migrated to the same spot (and makes it look like I might have set up some sort of shrine to the writing gods).

  1. My stuck duck. I got a whole bag of novelty rubber ducks last fall before National Novel Writing Month and my writing group each picked one out. Mine is named Abra Cadaver, and when I get stuck in my writing, I explain to Abra why I’m stuck, and why I’m stupid, and why it’s never going to work. She doesn’t judge. Her expression never changes. And, when I tell her why it’s not working, usually I figure out what I then have to do to fix it.
  2. My writing candle. I have a few different kinds, all from Frostbeard Studio because they’re book-themed and just fun. (One of the scents in “Gatsby’s Mansion” is “Daisy.”) By lighting a candle within my line of sight even on the good days, it helps set up the mental association: when the candle is lit, I’m supposed to be writing. It helps with the focus.

IMG-1490 3. A progress keeper. This one is for Book Four, which is due to my editor in October, and it’s super pretty because it’s so consistent. Most of mine aren’t, but it’s important to keep track of your progress no matter what. When you’re just putting words into a computer, the only evidence that you’re actually doing anything is that you have to scroll a bit further in the file next time. I make up these little charts where each square is 500 words and I color it in at the end of the day to give myself that visual proof that I’ve at least done something.

4. A break. Sometimes, as a wise woman once said, you need to simply sit there with butt in chair and fingers on keyboard. But, other days, I find that I actually need a break. I don’t have a strict writing schedule so I can always get up and go for a walk or do something else for a while, and then come back later, once my thoughts have had a chance to sort themselves out. The important part, of course, is that you do have to actually come back later. You can’t just get up and walk away forever. It takes some time to recognize when you need to force yourself to sit and when you can let yourself take a break, but writer, know thyself.

5. A new document. This one is probably the strangest because the blank page can be so intimidating when I start out, but I find that, on my slow days, I’m worried about “ruining” what I’ve written so far. I know it’s all in a computer and I can cut and paste to my heart’s content, but sometimes I still get a block. So I’ll open up a new file, name it something inconsequential, and start writing a section there instead. Once Abra and I have talked it through, it usually gets inserted into the working document, and then I can color in a square or two of my chart.

Whatever tools you use to keep yourself writing, don’t forget to back up your work. I email myself the file at the end of the day, no matter how much or how little I’ve written. This is especially important on the slow days when you’ve worked so hard to make any progress.

What do you do to help yourself through the slow writing days?

Why do we say “the Canonical Five”?

Honestly it seems like just another phrase that’s supposed to separate “those who know” from “those who don’t.” What’s the point in saying “the Canonical Five” when we’re talking about the Ripper’s victims? Can’t we just say “Jack the Ripper’s victims” and be done with it?

Well … no. We don’t know who the Ripper really was, so we also don’t know how many people he actually killed. Depending on which book you pick up, he’s credited with anywhere from two to nine – and, at times, possibly more. The real truth is, there isn’t much we actually know about the case.

So let’s change the question slightly: who do we mean when we say “the Canonical Five”?

Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, murdered on Friday, August 31, 1888.

Annie Chapman, murdered on Saturday September 8, 1888.

Elizabeth Stride and Catherine “Kate” Eddowes, both murdered on Sunday September 30, 1888.

Mary Jane Kelly, murdered on Friday November 9, 1888.

Were there women murdered in Whitechapel before Polly? Yes. One of them – Martha Tabram, murdered on August 7, 1888 – is frequently put forward as another of the Ripper’s victims. Another woman reported to have been murdered earlier in 1888 was later discovered to have been a newspaper invention. And there were murders after Mary Jane Kelly, some of them brutal enough to be grouped in with the Ripper murders, but for multiple reasons the case has largely been distilled to these five.

Part of it is the timing. The five women were murdered in such a short time span – a matter of weeks. The murder locations were also close together. After Mary Jane Kelly’s murder, the story was quickly taken out of the headlines – and, since she was the most gruesomely mutilated, it made sense to conclude that the Ripper had escalated and then finished. The fear and terror that had overtaken not just the East End but all of London was quickly brought to a close.

So they’re the Canonical Five not because we know for sure that they’re the only ones murdered by the Ripper, or even that he murdered all of them, but because it was concluded early on that these five deaths were related. Here’s just one of my bookshelves with Ripper books – I’ve got too many to all fit on here – and you can bet that each of them mentions Polly, Annie, Liz, Kate, and Mary Jane. Even the earliest English language Ripper book, published in 1929, agrees that all five names need to be mentioned. 

The biggest thing to remember about the Ripper case is that there is so much we simply don’t know. Because he was never caught, we have no confession, and therefore no idea how many people he actually killed. The term “Canonical Five” is handy because it indicates that yes, these five women have historically been grouped together, but we also acknowledge that maybe five isn’t actually the right number. 


How can I proofread my own work?

It’s easy to proofread someone else’s work.  Each sentence is new and fresh, and it didn’t start inside your own head. You can read it far more objectively. But when it’s your own writing …

You already know what you’re talking about. You understand the concepts, for one, and all of the background information that you might not have actually included here. You can throw in phrases like “the Swanson Marginalia” or “the Macnaghten Memoranda” because hey, you know what they mean. And when your eyes rove over your own sentences, your brain is more than willing to argue that it’s actually read all of the missing words.

The best option is clearly to have someone who’ll carefully read over your writing and find all of those pesky mistakes. Editors and peer reviewers can help you catch the major things. But for a piece that isn’t either edited or peer reviewed, when you have to make sure it’s presentable all on your own … what can you do?

  • Let it sit. If you have time between when you finish writing it and when it’s due, let it sit. Print it off and make sure it’s saved in a couple different places so you can’t lose it, but put it aside for as long as you can. You can never come back to your writing with entirely fresh eyes, but at least you won’t be as caught up in the actual writing of the piece when you come back to it.
  • Make Word read it to you. You can force yourself to go slow, sentence by sentence, and even read it out loud to yourself, but you can still skim over missing or similar words. Word has “Read Aloud” (under “Review”) and while it’s not the most expressive reader, it will only read what you actually have on the page. This is a good way to catch similar words, missing words, or that pesky sentence that just doesn’t make sense.
  • Read it one sentence at a time … backward. This is time-consuming and I’ve only done it after editors have signed off on the overall flow of a piece so I know it makes sense, because this isn’t reading for sense. It’s dissecting your work so that you can’t fall into a flow and anticipate what comes next. Working backward means you have to concentrate on this sentence and just this sentence.

And of course, if all else fails … go back and read what you wrote after you hit “submit.” After all, we’re all bound by Gaiman’s Law:

“Picking up your first copy of a book you wrote, if there’s one typo, it will be on the page that your new book falls open to the first time you pick it up.”

Why do we call him “Jack the Ripper”?

It’s not a real name. Usually we call serial killers by their real names, like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, or Jeffrey Dahmer. Sure, there are exceptions – we still call Dennis Rader “BTK” or Gary Ridgway “The Green River Killer” because more people know their nicknames than their real names, but their real names usually make it in there somewhere.

Jack the Ripper doesn’t have a real name.

The writing on the Saucy Jacky postcardThis is a replica of a postcard that was sent to the Central News Agency on October 1, 1888. It’s come to be known as the “Saucy Jacky Postcard,” and there are a couple interesting things about it. First, it wasn’t sent until very late that fall – after (at least) four murders had been committed and people were already talking and reading about the crimes. The second is what it says:

I was not codding dear old Boss when I gave you the tip, you’ll hear about Saucy Jacky’s work tomorrow double event this time number one squealed a bit couldn’t finish straight off. Had not time to get ears off for police thanks for keeping last letter back till I got to work again.
Jack the Ripper

This postcard – well, the real one; not the replica that comes in Jack the Ripper: The Casebook by Richard Jones – gave the killer his name. Before this, he was known as the Knife or the Whitechapel Fiend.

Reverse of the Saucy Jacky postcard with the address showing

Here’s the address on that postcard. It was sent to the Central News Agency in London, not to any police station. Instead, the sender picked a news distribution service known for sensational stories and undercutting competitors. Basically, if someone wanted this postcard to become front-page news … and, perhaps, to revive a flagging story and sell more papers … this is where that person would send it. Letters had already been sent claiming to have been from the killer – the postcard references them – but this one was the first to be signed with “Jack the Ripper.”

At the time, police claimed they knew that a journalist had sent the postcard, but they didn’t give any names. In 1931, Fred Best, who worked for one of the newspapers, claimed that he and a colleague sent the postcard. It regenerated interest in the story, certainly, and gave the killer his name – but it also opened the floodgates for more “Ripper letters.”

More than 300 letters were sent – to the police, to newspapers, and to the Central News Agency – claiming to be from the killer. There are entire books devoted to these letters, like Jack the Ripper: Letters from Hell by Stewart P. Evans and Keith Skinner, and stories of young women being arrested for being caught sending them. The letters are interesting, having both kept the murders in the news and given the killer his name … but are any of them real?

The most likely answer is “no.” They’re written in different handwriting, with different levels of penmanship and grammar. With known cases of people writing and posting their own “just for fun,” its highly unlikely that any of the letters were ever touched by the real killer. The possible exception is the one with the return address “From Hell,” likely a familiar phrase even if you’re not familiar with the letters … but that is a story for another time. 

We call him “Jack the Ripper” because that was the name that stuck in the headlines, and no one was ever caught to give Saucy Jacky his real name. Hundreds of people have been accused, though. Do you have a favorite suspect?

“How do you outline a book?”

Sticky notes. Seriously. I’ve even framed the outline for Ripper’s Victims because honestly, how pretty is that? They’re not just sticky notes – they’re COLOR CODED sticky notes. I had some issues because you can see how one of the chapters exploded and took over a few more columns at the bottom, but that, my friends, was a labor of love. There was a yardstick involved.

I use sticky notes because the blank page paralyzes me the most when I have absolutely nothing to work from. Whether it’s the pen getting all hot and sticky in my hand or the cursor endlessly blinking, it’s just too intimidating. If I’m doing sticky notes, then I can only mess up in small ways and have to toss a single note instead of a whole sheet of paper. (Erasable pens help there anyway, but I love the feel of a good Sharpie.) Plus the whole point of a stick note is to be movable. You can put it one place, change your mind, and move it to another. For some reason the cut and paste function in Word just doesn’t work the same way for me. Typed things look far too official and assured for the outlining stage.

Color-coding also really helps me. In the Ripper’s Victims outline it means you can still tell what fits into the 1990s chapter, and it also gives a good visual of how the text was going to unfold: the first couple chapters cover two decades each, with only three sticky notes, and the last three are all since the year 2000. It gave me an idea of how much had to fit into each chapter, as well as how much work I still had to do. There’s a little X in the bottom corner of each sticky note. One slash meant I’d read the book, and the second meant I’d typed up the important notes from it.

Now, Ripper’s victims was actually pretty easy to outline once I’d gotten the concept: a survey of full-length single subject books about Jack the Ripper, focusing on what they had to say about the murdered women. That outline is literally just a list of book titles sorted by decade. It still looked like a monumental task, but I could cross off a number of books right away and then read them in publication order, since I didn’t necessarily want to put them all in conversation with each other until the conclusion. For Words of a Monster, the focus was different (and there aren’t nearly as many books about H.H. Holmes as there are about the Ripper). That one is more thematic, trying to catch all the broad strokes that made up the person I was seeing him present himself to be.

Sticky notes are also great for jotting down ideas as they come to me when I’m reading or even when I’m thinking about something else entirely. If it’s a good idea, I want to get it on paper before it can fly away. Right now I’m trying to keep all my notes together, but even a scrap of paper will work for a few words. They usually take the form of either a more general idea or a specific example that would fall under one of those ideas, and – again – the sticky note/scrap of paper method means I can move them around before figuratively cementing them in place.

Stephen King says that “You must not come lightly to the blank page,” but it’s a lot less stressful to come to a blank sticky note.

[originally shared on my Facebook author page]



Hello and welcome to my author page! I am a writer who has a PhD in Rhetoric, Theory and Culture, but when people ask “So what does that mean?” I tell them that I’m interested in how we talk and write about crime, both true and fictional.

It started with my dissertation, “Identity and Ritual: The American Consumption of True Crime,” which looked at the way Americans have been writing about crime since the very beginning – Puritan execution sermons printed in the 1600s. (Librarians are wonderful at helping you track down the only surviving copies of execution sermons, although many of them are hard to read.)

I’ve written about multiple true murderers — like Jack the Ripper, H.H. Holmes, and Steven Avery — and also fictional murderers written by Stephen King. I’ve been presenting on King at the National Popular Culture Conference since 2014 with other amazing researchers who like to geek out over the Master of Horror. It’s a good bet that I’ve pre-ordered his next book as soon as it’s announced.

In my free time, when I’m not writing or reading about the history of true crime, I like to knit. There aren’t many serial killer-based knitting patterns (for some reason …) but I’ve got an awesome pair of mitts that look like the carpet in some famous horror movie. (I used to have a hat, too, but I’ve lost it somewhere …)

Thanks for stopping by. It’s good to have you along for the ride as I explore more about the history and rhetoric of true (and fictional) crime.