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?
An academic friend of mine asked me this after my novel was announced. She’s familiar with how much work (a lot) goes into academic writing, and she wanted to know how fiction compares. It’s a good question, but I don’t really have a short answer.
My upcoming novel deals with a serial killer. Generally writing about characters who are nothing like you takes a lot of research. However … that is my research area. I’ve read true crime documents in the hundreds, from the cheap paperback, read-it-on-the-beach variety to textbooks used in training courses. That includes execution sermons from the 1700s, newspaper articles from the 1800s, the best-selling books from the 1900s, and Netflix documentaries from this century.
And that’s just the nonfiction. I also read widely when it comes to books generally shelved under thriller or mystery. True, there are some I put down before I finish them, but I still make it through most of them. (Usually I google the plot of something I’m not sure is worth my time, just to see if it’s worth finishing. Sometimes the twist or reveal makes me keep going just to see how the author pulls it off. Other times I put the book down because it’s the author playing with the reader instead of the characters doing the concealing – it’s a small difference, but a deal breaker for me.)
I picked up a lot of the true crime specifically for my academic side, but I generally want to just be able to enjoy my thrillers when it comes to fiction. I want a book I’m going to enjoy and want to finish because I care enough about how it’s all going to come out, whether it’s written “well” (whatever that means) or not. I want a story that’s going to pull me through to the end and then, only after I’m done, will I sit back and start to pick it apart.
(Side note: it kind of sucks making your passions into your research. You can’t just read things for fun anymore.)
So when I think about research for my fiction, I’m including not just the shelves upon shelves of true crime, but also all of those novels on my “have read” list. The novels don’t really feel like research, and the research is usually directed toward my nonfiction writing … but it all plays together when it comes to writing fiction about serial killers.
I tend to set my fiction in places I’ve lived so I don’t have to spend too much time figuring out the literal lay of the land or the sort of people who live there. I don’t need to look up “common Midwestern sayings” because it’s the sort of stuff that just comes out of my mouth, or to wonder about what sorts of restaurants are available to my characters. I’ll bring up the website and double-check the menu, but I already know where they’re eating.
I don’t usually stop in the middle of writing to look something up, but then, I also put off actually starting the writing for months at a time, letting things swirl around in my head. Not Your Mary Sue was initially drafted during NaNoWriMo 2017, in November, but I had the idea going since February that year. Instead of drafting on paper, I was putting things together in the back of my mind, examining them, and taking them apart, all the while reading things and adding to my general store of knowledge. I had a very solid idea of who my serial killer was – his motivations and his personality – before I sat down to write him.
So when I look back on it, the answer is “A lot. Seriously a lot.” That’s a ton of research I’ve been over and over, all sorts of words from both killers and authors, perspectives from killers to prosecutors to researchers to surviving family members of victims, all piled up and put into my writing. I mean, I wrote my dissertation on the history of written crime narratives in America and then came up with a situation where someone’s demanding his own written crime narrative. The two things can’t easily be separated.
So really, if you’re considering writing fiction, I’d suggest starting by taking a look at what you’re already reading and what you already know. The areas where yeah, maybe you need a little more exploration on some specific details, but you’ve already got the broad strokes handy. It’s not so much “write what you know” as “write what you’ve read,” especially when you’ve already done so much work to learn about your passions. Not every tiny tidbit of information is going to make it into a novel, but it can inform a lot, from plot to characterization to setting.
How about you? How much research do you do? Do you write fiction, nonfiction, or both?
Not all of H. H. Holmes’ murders occurred within his Murder Castle in Chicago, even after he’d begun killing people there. And not all of his murders are worth more than a couple paragraphs. The two we’re discussing today, a man only referred to as Rodgers and a man named Charles Cole, have very little information attached to them.
Holmes confesses to murdering Rodgers as his fifth victim in 1888, even though his previous murder – the double murder of Julia and Pearl Conner – took place around Christmas 1891. Wait, what?
Similar things happened in Holmes’ previously published autobiography, Holmes’ Own Story, where the timeline jumps around as though the reader won’t notice. It’s entirely possible they won’t – although Holmes opens Rodgers’ tale with the year, the only date he includes in his short discussion of the Conners is in reference to when the newspapers caught the story. The casual reader, eager to snap up the Sunday edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, wouldn’t be looking for such inconsistencies.
Apparently murdered in 1888, although now of course in doubt as to his standing as fifth, Rodgers was murdered in West Morgantown, Virginia, while Holmes was “boarding there for a few weeks.” Why was he in Virginia? Holmes doesn’t say.
What he does say – and what tracks with some of his other stories – is that he found out Rodgers had money and decided to kill him for it. Holmes invited Rodgers on a fishing trip and killed him with his near-trademark single blow to the head, this one on purpose and using the boat’s oar. Although Rodgers’ body was found about a month later, Holmes writes that he wasn’t suspected until after his trial for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel. Apparently upwards of fifty people in Virginia recognized Holmes’ picture in the papers and therefore suspected him of the then-unsolved murder.
Because Holmes wasn’t home in Chicago, with his usual method of disposing of a body, he apparently had to leave it. How much money he took from Rodgers, and what he did with it, is left up to readers’ imaginations.
Charles Cole suffered a similar fate, although he met his death in Chicago. Cole was a Southern speculator who had been corresponding with Holmes for some time and had finally been convinced to come visit the Castle. Cole died because of a single blow to the head, yes, but there’s an added wrinkle here: Holmes didn’t strike him. It was apparently his job to distract Cole while “a confederate” wielded a pipe and “crushed his skull to such an extent that his body was almost useless to the party who bought” it.
Holmes, in writing his final confession to be published mere weeks before his execution, tells the world that he didn’t act alone in all of his murders. In the case of Charles Cole, he both lured and distracted the man, but someone else killed him. Someone Holmes refuses to name. He simply teases readers by observing it was likely the other man’s first murder, but that the unnamed other man is even “more heartless and bloodthirsty” than Holmes is when Holmes is awaiting execution and confessing 27 murders … but he doesn’t name him. He’s just dropping hints that hey, there’s still another murderer wandering around Chicago, and he’s probably got some help, too.
In other words: dear reader, this doesn’t stop with me.
Holmes may not have been much for keeping his timelines straight, but he was an accomplished liar and teller of tall tales. He knew how to capture other people’s attention – usually in person, but in writing, too. His confession, real or fake, was written in order to sell newspapers, and Holmes added his own flair. A flair that Ted Bundy would repeat almost a century later when he threatened “We serial killers are your sons, we are your husbands, we are everywhere. And there will be more of your children dead tomorrow.”
These contrasts exist throughout Holmes’ confession: the reassurance that all of his victims died suddenly, as the result of a single blow, so he’s actually less of a monster than he might seem … followed by references to his accomplices and helpers, people who have killed for him or kept his secrets, and who are still anonymous and out there, ready to strike again.
At this point it seems ridiculous to ask if Rodgers and Charles Cole actually existed, and if they were murdered the way Holmes claims. Instead, let’s focus on the storytelling aspect. Knowing he was two weeks away from his execution, what do you think Holmes was trying to accomplish? Did he only write these things so he could entertain, or was he hoping for a stay of execution while people fought to get those names out of him?
I’m working on knitting a sweater right now. It’s far enough along that I tried it on to check for the sleeve length and posted a mirror selfie, and one of my friends commented that the body is a perfect fit. Which meant I made a list of all the steps I’d gone through to make sure of it. And then got me musing on knitting patterns and writing books.
Bear with me.
When you buy a knitting pattern, you get instructions on how to make the exact object in the photo, sometimes in different sizes. Let’s focus on a sweater. You choose your sweater size off the bust measurement – how big around you want to make it – and go, right? Because all the information is right there. Nyoom! Sweater!
When you walk into a store and can try on clothes, they’re sized. You know what one to start with and what generally fits, but if it’s more expensive, you’ll take it back and try it on and see how the standard measurements actually look on you. So yes, you can make a sweater following a pattern exactly – and that’s the easiest way to do it the first time – but … it’s not just about customization. It’s about apparently commonly-known tricks and hurdles that patterns often leave out.
If you’re just knitting on your own, without a community, you might wonder why the heck your armholes always end up holier than they should be. Maybe it’s just you. It takes communication with other people – people willing to show the mistakes and oopsies, even – to learn that hey, actually, lots of people have that issue with armholes, and here’s an easy trick to fix it.
Or, until you knit more than one sweater or talk to other people, you might not consider all the ways you can customize a sweater. Neck, sleeves, shaping, length … top down or bottom up … seamed or in one piece … you can adapt the things you like about a pattern and swap out the things you don’t like.
Patterns also use shorthand like “take time to check gauge” for things that actually take a lot of work. The sweater I’m knitting right now, for example: I’m not knitting the size of my actual measurements. I’ve got another sweater using the same yarn and needles (which, for the record, is very important when you’re using it to do the math) and I measured that, plus a couple other shirts I own that are similar in construction to the pattern I’m knitting (and which I like to wear), and I did a lot of math. Like … a lot. That’s before I even started knitting. But a normal knitting problem doesn’t tell you all that. It assumes you either know about checking gauge and substituting yarn, or you’ll google it on your own.
Non-knitters, you still with me?
Thinking how much gets left out of knitting patterns – how much knowledge you’re assumed to already have at the ready – started me thinking about writing advice. What do writers leave out when we’re talking about writing because it just seems so essential to us, so much like habit, that we forget we once had to learn it? Is there advice out there like “take time to check gauge” that tells you plenty if you already know what it means, but is confusing and overlookable if you don’t?
So much of writing is invisible to the reader, if the writing’s good. All of the stuff that goes behind “take time to check gauge” – measuring the already knit and washed garment in multiple places to calculate stitches and rows per inch, and then measuring clothes of a similar style that give me a good fit, and doing the math to figure out circumference, and then making sure things like armhole depth aren’t going to be completely out of whack, and remembering that my own gauge changes when I knit flat versus knitting in the round …
Do we always share all the stuff that we, personally, had to learn the hard way? (Pro tip: make the sweater that looks like the sweaters you’ve already got in your closet. You know you’ll wear it. And you won’t put in 50+ hours of work on something that looks different and you won’t actually wear.) Or do we just internalize it and think everyone else already knows it, too?
I’ve had some good conversations lately with my writing buddy and a friend of mine who asked me things about my writing, both the nonfiction and the fiction, and I’m compiling a list of those questions to answer in blog posts moving forward. Things that other people want to know, and not just the things I think other people want to know.
If you have any questions about the writing process, or things you’d like to hear me muse about, please share them! I love talking about my research, and I love talking about writing, so if there’s something you’ve always wondered or wanted to ask … now’s the time. Let’s de-mystify the writing shorthand.
(Oh, and the part about how you can change up a sweater pattern to add your favorite sleeves or preferred shaping? That also goes for writing advice. It’s not one size fits all. You pick what works for you, and maybe set some pieces aside to look at more later, and move on from the stuff that doesn’t. The more you read or talk about writing, the more options you’ll have.)
You may recall that Holmes’ first alleged victim, Robert Leacock, was also a doctor. Leacock was “a friend and former schoolmate” whom Holmes killed in for his life insurance. (If you’re at all familiar with serial killers, you know that choosing a victim who’s actually connected to you is just a bad idea if you want to stay out of jail.) Holmes’ second confessed victim, Dr. Russell, was a tenant in Holmes’ so-called Murder Castle.
It seems that, while Holmes plotted and intended to kill Leacock, Russell was in fact a mistake. He had been behind in his rent and, when the two men argued about payments, Holmes “struck him to the floor with a heavy chair.” This single blow was enough to make Russell stop breathing.
Since the men had been in Holmes’ office, he locked the door and then thought quickly. He had a second body on his hands and no planned means of disposal, and his first thought – handing the body over to a Chicago medical college to be used for dissections – was apparently foiled, although he doesn’t say how. Instead Holmes sold Russell’s body to a man he refuses to name, although he hints that he’s told other people the man’s name in the past.
Holmes spends more time talking around this anonymous buyer than he does about Russell’s murder. He informs his readers that this man paid between $25 and $45 for each body and that, when Holmes doesn’t explain how he disposed of his 27 victims, he sold their remains to this man. Even though Holmes is writing and publishing this confession mere weeks before his own execution, he refuses to name this man.
There is also nothing in Holmes’ confession about how he covered up this supposed murder in other ways: cleaning out Russell’s apartment, or fending off concerned friends and relatives, for example. He only writes about – or rather, around – getting rid of Russell’s body before moving on to the murders of Julia and Pearl Connor.
Unlike Julia and Pearl, whose mysterious disappearances had been noticed and connected to Holmes prior to his newspaper confession, Dr. Russell does not seem to have been a true victim. His name and the scant details of his death, very much mimicking the fictional death scene of Nannie Williams in Holmes’ Own Story, seem to have been added to boost Holmes’ supposed body count.
The speed of Russell’s supposed death after the single blow with the heavy chair is suspicious, although there wasn’t enough time left for anyone to question Holmes about it. He simply presents Russell’s murder as part of his argument about how, now that he’s taken a human life, it’s so much easier to do it again. Leacock was killed for money, but Russell was murdered accidentally in a moment of high emotion. It was a mistake, yes, but Holmes was able to respond in such a way as to remain free – and free of suspicion – in order to enact 25 more murders.
The main argument about Dr. Russell’s death seems to be that killing is a slippery slope, and that Holmes had found his preferred means of body disposal early on in his career. Nothing exists of Russell but his last name and he’s quickly bypassed as Holmes moves on to two better-known victims his readers will have already heard about.
As of yesterday, I can finally – finally! – announce that my debut novel, the psychological thriller Not Your Mary Sue, will be published in June 2022 by Aesthetic Press. *throws glitter confetti everywhere* I’ve been sitting on this news since this spring, and really, the entire backstory to the book story is one of waiting.
I drafted the novel during National Novel Writing Month in 2017, which means I was vaguely plotting the novel since the beginning of that year. I had the idea based off of one of my favorite Stephen King novels, Misery, where the two characters are stuck together in a house. The author character is held prisoner and forced to write. I substituted Ted Bundy for King’s captor and the novel just flowed.
(Fun fact: you can look back at any of your NaNoWriMo stats if you’ve entered the project into the site. I finished the draft on November 27 that year.)
So I’ve known this story and my characters, especially my main two, since 2017. In fact, the part where they’re stuck together – on an island instead of a house in Colorado – hasn’t changed all that much since 2017. I’ve known this story and these characters for years, but only a few other people had any idea about them.
So first there was waiting while I let the story settle so I didn’t still think it was already absolutely perfect in every way. Time to gain some distance before tackling the revisions on my own. And then more waiting when I started sending out queries.
Lots of waiting.
Do you get the waiting part yet?
I was seriously querying for over a year when I got the request for the full novel. (Queries generally ask for the query letter, a synopsis, and the first three chapters or so – check before submitting, but keep those documents on hands for when a rejection comes in and you need to send them out again. Getting a request for a full is A Big Deal. It’s not a guarantee, not yet, but incredibly exciting.) More waiting. Then the offer. Dancing! And more waiting.
I’ve been sitting on the news of the deal for months, because publishing is allllllll about waiting. You still don’t get to see the cover – not yet. You have to wait until mid-September. And the book itself? Wait until next June. (No, this isn’t weird for publishing. Yes, this is how it works. And yes, it’s hard to wait!)
But then – then! – I’ll be able to talk about my story and my characters with more than just my dad and my husband and a few friends. We can have more in-detail conversations about how Misery and Ted Bundy inspired things. Maybe argue about what happens.
I can’t share too much more right now, but I can leave you with this teaser from my publisher.
A not so classic girl meets boy story begins when a televangelist’s adult daughter, Marcy, journeys to a secluded island resort where she awakens a captive of the handsome, charming, notorious Fresh Coast Killer who requests she pen his autobiography explaining all of his intentions and crimes in detail. She finds herself horrified that she is intrigued by him and maybe even…infatuated by him. He has more control than she realizes as he slowly begins to brainwash her just as the autobiography is completed. Once she is rescued and he is arrested, Marcy begins to pull her life back together only for her captor to escape and her brother becomes a new suspect in a cold case that alters what she thought she knew about her family.