Do you think about writing rules or advice while you’re writing?

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.

Shannon Hale

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?

H. H. Holmes’ victims: Dr. Russell

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.

1 like = 1 fact about me as a writer

I did this last week on Twitter, and wanted to compile them and share them here. I got 17 likes, so here are 17 random facts about me as writer.

I did this last week on Twitter, and wanted to compile them and share them here. I got 17 likes, so here are 17 random facts about me as writer.

1. I wrote my first novel-length original fic at age 15 because I couldn’t get my plot to work as a fan fiction.

2. My favorite of my published books so far is Ripper’s Victims, because that’s the work closest to my heart. (My mom’s favorite is the one about H.H. Holmes.)

3. I keep track of how much I write each day, but not always in the same place. Sometimes it’s on the NaNoWriMo website, sometimes a sheet of graph paper, and sometimes in my daily planner. (I’ve written over 300k so far this year.)

4. My writing schedule varies wildly. Some days I write 0 words. Others I’m up and at the computer immediately and forget to take breaks for real-life things. It all balances out.

5. In 2020 I decided to complete NaNoWriMo (50k words) in two days, simply because I did it in three days in 2019. I hit 50k by 8pm November 2. And had to baby my wrist for months afterward because … people aren’t meant to type 50k in two days.

6. Because of 5, I taught myself how to dictate my writing, both academic and fiction. I didn’t think it was possible for me but really it’s just the learning curve I didn’t want to tackle.

7. I started lighting a candle when I write as a signal to my brain that it’s time for words, and somehow it’s grown up into this entire thing.


8. The proposal for an academic book is the hardest part for me. I love having swirling ideas and hate forcing myself to commit to a very specific outline. I’ll put off writing the outline as long as possible, even when I know what I want to propose next.

9. I got the contract for Ripper’s Victims because my editor saw my published dissertation and emailed to ask if I had anything she might be able to help me with. (Put yourself out there!)

10. When it’s time to edit, I prefer a hard copy to a screen. Considering the usual length of my manuscripts, this generally means going somewhere to have it printed, since our elderly printer isn’t up to the task.

11. Printing things off means I can use my custom stamps. I get tired of writing the same thing over and over on my first drafts so … I had these made. And of course they’re red.


12. When I’m writing fiction, I tend to “cast” actors as my characters. It especially helps when a character is very much not like me – say, when I have someone whose speech patterns are very calm in moments of stress. If I can picture the actor saying it, it helps.

13. I frequently right click to find synonyms for words I’ve used in my own writing that I’m pretty sure mean what they think they mean, just to be positive. Sometimes I realize I’ve used a word that doesn’t mean what I think it means …

14. I used to write all my “novels” by hand, in pencil, and super teeny – two lines of writing per ruled line on college-ruled paper. I did NaNoWriMo by hand in 2013, but otherwise I type the first draft these days.

15. I used to say all my dialogue out loud as I typed it. My brother laughed because he could hear me arguing with myself. I can write out in public now because I don’t have to do that anymore … but some days I still find myself muttering things as I type them, dialogue or not.

16. I don’t like doing book titles, chapter titles, or heading titles. They’re usually last-minute things I put in before I have to deliver something. It’s rare for me to have a title early on in a project.

17. When the words are flowing and the writing is good, I write fast. Really fast. Which makes the slow days feel agonizingly slow.

Share a random fact about yourself below!

Ripper suspect: a Jewish slaughterman

One way of getting around naming an actual known person as having been the Ripper is to propose an occupation. In this case, I’m looking at the idea that the Ripper may have been a shochet, or a Jewish slaughterman. It’s a theory Robin Odell covers in the 1965 book Jack the Ripper in Fact and Fiction, but also one that appealed to newspaper readers in 1888.

Why pick “a Jewish slaughterman” as a Ripper suspect? Let us count the ways.

  1. Antisemitism was rife in London in the late 1800s. If you see a Ripper suspect described as a “foreigner,” chances are the person was using the then-common description for “Jew.” Not allowed to settle in other parts of London, Jewish immigrants gathered together to form their own communities and cared for each other with social programs not available to anyone else, because the government didn’t provide them. Rather than respond with frustration against the government, the people turned their anger against the Jews.

    It was also a major concern in the case on the night of the so-called Double Event because of graffiti chalked on a wall along the path the Ripper is thought to have fled after murdering Kate Eddowes. Called “the Goulston Street graffito,” the actual text was washed off before there was enough light for it to be photographed, and variations are all we have left. It said something along the lines of The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing and has been interpreted, variably, as either blaming the Jewish people for the Ripper murders, or having something to do with Freemason legends.

    At the time, Police Commissioner Charles Warren recommended that the message be erased before it could be seen by too many people because he suspected it would be interpreted the first way. The police were already struggling because they had arrested a Jewish man named John Pizer (nickname: Leather Apron) for the crimes but then had to let him go since he was in custody as they continued. This was also a time when mobs would descend on people, claiming they were the Ripper, causing these victims to turn to the police for protection. It was very easy, then, for East Enders to combine their fear of the Ripper with their antisemitism.
  2. It was already suspected that the Ripper had some knowledge of biology. The common image of the Ripper in a top hat and cape also has him carrying a doctor’s bag for this very reason. The killer was reported to have removed specific organs from his victims and worked very quickly in conditions of poor lighting, to the point where physicians commented that they could not have done the same thing in the given amount of time.

    Aside from causing actual physicians to frantically replace their usual bags with ones that didn’t carry the Ripper’s stigma, this also started a debate. Did the Ripper honestly have anatomical knowledge, or was he just lucky? Could he have gained such knowledge somewhere other than medical school?

    There were numerous slaughterhouses in the East End, so the Ripper could have come from any of them and gained whatever anatomical knowledge he might have had from his work there. As a bonus, it was a common sight to see men walking around covered in blood because of their work. A slaughterman could easily have escaped after the murders without necessarily having to clean himself thoroughly because he would have been expected to be in such a state, anyway.
  3. Unless someone was rather famous, it’s difficult to find records and therefore attach a name to a suspect. Rather than accusing someone famous, whose descendants might have something to say about that, it’s easier to look at a group of people who have the same presumed skill set and say “There were thousands of them. We’ll never know which one.”

… and that’s very likely true: we’ll never actually know who the Ripper was. We’ve narrowed it down to “someone who was alive in 1888 and at least near the East End,” but, other than that … we’re left grasping at straws. True, if we think that the Ripper did in fact exhibit some anatomical knowledge, a butcher seems to be a good candidate, but what about the men with proven medical training whose names have also been put forward?

What do you think? Does this theory belong on the books or in the bin?

Ripper suspect: George Chapman

George Chapman – no relation to Annie Chapman; birth name Seweryn Kłosowski – is one of the oldest Ripper suspects. Although he was arrested, tried, and hanged for three poisonings, police at the time thought he may have been the Ripper. Let’s see if we agree.

Chapman was born in Poland in 1865. At age 14, he was apprenticed to a surgeon, and in October 1885 he enrolled in a brief course in practical surgery at the Warsaw Praga Hospital. It’s unclear exactly when he left Poland for England, but he was working as a doctor’s assistant in Warsaw until December 1886, and a receipt from February 1887 still places him in Poland. He settled in the East End as a hairdresser’s assistant in either late 1887 or early 1888.

So far Chapman seems to be a plausible Ripper suspect. The Ripper was thought to have anatomical knowledge that could be attributed to being a butcher or a doctor, and Chapman had medical training. He had also moved to the East End shortly before the murders began and records can prove he was there during the Autumn of Terror. On top of this, he was a known serial killer. So what’s the hesitation?

Jack the Ripper killed women on the street by cutting their throats and then mutilating their bodies with a knife or knives. There is no known connection between these women, although various people have done their best to hook them together in a conspiracy.

George Chapman murdered his mistresses by poisoning them with tartar-emetic. He had a string of relationships with women who presented themselves as his wife, and while some of them left Chapman because he was violent, three of them died because of him. Chapman’s first known murder was of Mary Isabella Spink in 1897; his second, Bessie Taylor in 1901; and his third, Maud Marsh in 1902. Reports at his trial indicate that he was physically abusive to all three, as well as the other women – some mothers of his children – who left him, perhaps before he could murder them, as well.

Suspicions were high enough after Marsh’s death for the bodies of Spink and Taylor to be exhumed, as well, in order to prove poisoning. Chapman was charged with Marsh’s murder, brought to trial, convicted on March 19, 1903, and hanged on April 7 with his motives still unproven. Although he inherited a legacy from Spink, there was no monetary reason for him to have murdered Taylor and March.

No less than Fredrick Abberline himself considered George Chapman to have been Jack the Ripper. When he spoke to the policeman who arrested Chapman, he’s reported to have said “You’ve got Jack the Ripper at last!” During the initial investigation Abberline had interviewed Chapman’s “wife” at the time, who apparently reported that he was out and about at all hours. However, Chapman – who was then still going by Seweryn Kłosowski – was not named as a suspect in 1888. It was only his arrest for serial poisoning that put his name on the short list.

So: we know that Chapman in the East End at the proper time, and that he was violent toward the women in his life. He had medical training. And we also know he was a murderer, but the question remains: would the Ripper have switched from using a knife to using poison? From killing strangers who could not have been connected back to him to murdering his own “wives”?

What do you think? Did they really capture Jack the Ripper at last?

Ripper suspect: James Maybrick

Remember back when we were discussing Montague John Druitt and we learned it’s bad luck to have died shortly after the Ripper murders were “finished”? James Maybrick, a Liverpool cotton merchant, had some of that same luck, except “died” doesn’t quite fit here. His wife was convicted of his murder and sentenced to death.

Florence Chandler was 18 when she met 42-year-old Maybrick on a sea voyage to Liverpool. It lasted six days, which was long enough for the couple to go from strangers to being engaged. They married in 1881 and had two children by 1886. He had multiple mistresses; she had at least one affair. He sickened suddenly in late April 1889 and died 15 days later. The inquest declared it was arsenic poisoning. Florence became the key suspect.

The trial was sensational, especially since this was an American woman, and the judge’s conduct in particular likely led to her death sentence being commuted to life in prison. In 1904 the case was reexamined and Florence was released. She was the more interesting Maybrick until 1992, when “the Ripper diary” hit headlines.

The provenance of the book is confusing, especially since the story has changed a few times. The contents aren’t really any more enlightening, since the author of the diary never gives his own name. He claims responsibility for the murders of the Canonical Five, as well as two others. And apparently this anonymous author is supposed to be James Maybrick.

The “diary” surfaced in 1992 and has been subjected to multiple tests to determine whether the ink could have been used in 1888. The book itself is less controversial, since the binding and the pages are apparently of the correct vintage, but someone could have found the book and then written the story themselves much later. Some of the details “the Ripper” provides about the murders are inaccurate, but align with oft-repeated parts of the story that someone who was not the Ripper might have heard in the decades since. In fact, the owner of the diary made a statement in 1995 that his wife actually wrote the diary while he dictated. (His solicitor submitted a repudiation of this affidavit, and then he withdrew the repudiation. Just to make things even more confusing.)

The idea seems to be that James Maybrick embarked on the murders as a reaction to his wife’s infidelities, even though it seems that she only began her affair after he had continually cheated on her with multiple women. I suppose we can counter these double standards by arguing that she murdered him when she found out he was murdering other people, even though a twenty-first inquiry into the case revealed that Maybrick was taking multiple medications at the time of his death, most of which were poisonous. It’s highly unlikely Florence Maybrick killed her husband, and it’s also highly unlikely that James Maybrick was Jack the Ripper.

But the diary isn’t the only piece of evidence that surfaced naming the previously unsuspected Maybrick. In 1993, a year after the diary was presented to the world, a man named Albert Johnson bought an antique pocket watch with a strange etching inside. Someone had scratched in the initials of the Canonical Five women (not including the two unidentified women from the diary), James Maybrick’s signature, and the words “I am Jack.” Separate examinations determined that the scratches were not recent – say, if someone had come across the diary story in 1992 and decided to fake them on an true antique watch – but the timing is still puzzling. If Maybrick was a Ripper “nobody” until the diary surfaced in 1992 because it reached the hands of a new owner, how coincidental is it that the pocket watch also changed hands and came to light a year later?

The diary made a splash in the 1990s with books arguing both for and against its authenticity, but it – and James Maybrick – has been largely dismissed by those studying the case. If the Ripper had left a diary for us to find, that would have been big news indeed – even bigger if he’d gotten all the details right and actually signed his name. But the diary goes the way of the shawl and the letters: an interesting splash for experts to argue over, but ultimately not the key to unlock the mystery.

Have you heard about the Ripper diary and the pocket watch? What did you think when you first learned about them? (Does Jack the Ripper strike you as the type to keep a diary in the first place?)

Ripper suspects – Joseph Barnett or George Hutchinson

It’s been a while since I’ve shared some of my research instead of my writing musings, so let’s jump back in to Jack the Ripper and consider a pair of suspects: Joseph Barnett or George Hutchinson. These are an “or” pair instead of an “and” pair, because nobody’s (yet) suggested that they worked together, but the story behind them is very similar.

Both Barnett and Hutchinson are connected to Mary Jane Kelly, the last of the so-called Canonical Five victims of Jack the Ripper. Choosing either Barnett or Hutchinson as the Ripper clearly makes Mary Jane Kelly the last. It actually positions her at the center of all of the murders.

Joseph Barnett was Mary Jane Kelly’s boyfriend. The two of them met in April 1887 and decided to move in together on their second encounter. The vast majority of what we know – or think we know – about Mary Jane Kelly comes from Barnett’s testimony at the inquest after her murder. He lived with her until the end of October 1888, when they quarreled and separated.

Barnett had been living with Mary Jane Kelly at 13 Miller’s Court when they separated. It was a very small room, with only a single bed, and one of the reasons for the separation seems to be that Mary Jane was letting other women sleep there. Since this was the Autumn of Terror where women were being murdered in the streets, and since Mary Jane had a steady room that wasn’t in a lodging house, it seems like it was a kind thing for her to do.

Another instigating factor for their separation also seems to have been the fact that Barnett had lost his job as a fish porter, resulting in Mary Jane Kelly’s return to sex work. Barnett apparently disproved of this as much as he did of her offering their small, shared space to other women, and so he left her. Their separation was the reason why Barnett was not also sleeping at 13 Miller’s Court the night of November 8-9, and why Mary Jane Kelly was alone and murdered there.

Barnett was not a suspect at the time. In fact, Inspector Fredrick Abberline personally cleared him after a four-hour interrogation, which included an inspection of Barnett’s clothes. No blood was found, and Abberline, at least, was satisfied.

The same cannot be said for Bruce Paley who, in 1996, named Barnett as the Ripper. According to Paley, Barnett decided to become the Ripper in order to scare Mary Kelly off the streets and force her to stop making money through sex work out of fear of being murdered. On the one hand, Barnett’s plan seems to have worked if Mary Jane Kelly was worried enough to allow other women to sleep indoors with her. On the other, he apparently couldn’t scare her enough to stop. Thus, Paley argues, Barnett was driven to kill the woman he loved because he couldn’t save her otherwise.

George Hutchinson also became a Ripper suspect not in the 1880s but in the 1990s, this time in a 1998 book by Robert Hinton. Hutchinson was known to the police at the time because, after Mary Jane Kelly’s murder, he made a statement to the police about a man he had seen with Mary Jane Kelly shortly before her murder. Hutchinson, unemployed, apparently had plenty of time that night to hang around Miller’s Court and get a good look at anyone who passed by.

Abberline also interviewed Hutchinson, although he was considered only as a witness and not a suspect. Hutchinson had known Mary Jane Kelly for three years and his incredibly detailed description of the man entering the room with her was explained because Hutchinson thought the man looked “foreign,” which piqued his interest and concern. After all, women were being murdered, so of course he would memorize every detail about any man who seemed to be going into his friend’s room as a client.

Although numerous skeptics have doubted Hutchinson’s description of the Ripper, he wasn’t accused of being the murderer himself until Hinton. And here the story sounds very similar: angry that Mary Jane Kelly was supporting herself through sex work – and not relying on him as her sole sexual partner and source of money – Hutchinson orchestrated the Ripper murders, hoping to scare Mary Jane Kelly into stopping.

Hinton suggests that Hutchinson, after seeing Mary Jane Kelly take that client into her room and that client later depart, snapped. Hutchinson therefore went into 13 Miller’s Court himself, shook Mary Jane Kelly awake – or tried to, considering the reports that she was very drunk that night – and was confronted with the reality of the woman she was instead of the apparent perfection he had preciously imagined. With this ideal shattered, Hutchinson lashed out and killed her.

So: two men who knew Mary Jane Kelly, and were known to have been close to her at the time of her death. One of them was cleared as a suspect by Fredrick Abberline, and the other never even considered to be one. More than a century after the Ripper murders, each in turn became accused of being the Ripper to turn Mary Jane Kelly away from sex work … and into his arms.

What do you think? Was there something in the air in the 1990s? Would a man ever actually turn to serial murder as a way of pursuing the “perfect” woman? Or should we let Barnett and Hutchinson rest in peace?

Interview with Grab the Lapels

Melanie over at GTL has interviewed me for her Meet the Writer Series. Go on over and check it out! If GTL is new for you, Melanie explains:

Meet the Writer is a feature for which I interview authors who identify as women. We talk less about a single book or work and more about where they’ve been and how their lives affect their writing. Today, please welcome Rebecca Frost. 

She starts off by explaining a bit how we met. She tracked me down through this website and we emailed back and forth for quite a while about true crime, books, reading … the good stuff. And then we realized we actually have a friend in common.

Melanie asked if I’d like to be featured in her Meet the Writer series, and I jumped at the chance. Head on over to her blog to see what I have to say.

About handling multiple projects again …

I had a virtual conference this past weekend and I was talking to some friends I haven’t seen in over a year. This is usually how it goes for me: someone asks what I’ve been up, to, and … I realize I need to start counting things off on my fingers. Which inevitably leads to another question of “How in the world do you do it?”

Right now, in this very moment, I’ve got three book projects going. They’re all in different stages, but they’re all currently in progress. Some of the progress of getting a book published is actually “waiting,” which is helpful, because I can fill the “waiting” time with other work.

It’s also something I rather seriously compartmentalize. Two of the projects are currently in the “waiting” stage. I’m waiting for one of them to get me proofs, and for feedback on the other, so currently I don’t really consider either of those as “active.” I don’t know exactly when they will be “active” again, but, until they hit my mailbox with the next step and a new deadline, they’re basically snoozed.

A downside to the “waiting on other people” can be that multiple things hit your inbox at once. There was that one memorable year when I wrote three chapters for different collections, plus a book, and things just kept hitting my inbox with tight deadlines and a lot of tasks. That’s when I had to step my compartmentalization up to the next level, assigning each project a block of time per day instead of a block of days.

This is also the time when anxiety can kick into higher gear and imposter syndrome can rear its head, because people are actually reading what I wrote, or they’ll soon be able to. They can pick it apart and tear my argument down piece by piece. (For some reason anxiety never worries that the publisher won’t be able to keep up with demand and people will complain about that.)

And usually when you get feedback, there are at least some positive comments in the mix … but you’re not concentrating on those. You’re looking at what you have to change, and how you’re going to do it, and whether you’re going to be able to keep to your main goals and ideas secure while responding to outside influences. (This is why it’s nice to only have one project in the feedback part of the process at a time, if possible, so at least you can retreat to something else for a break.)

And honestly, it’s only when I have to catch someone else at my life that I step back and see the forest for the trees. I know that’s usually meant as something people should do, because otherwise they miss things, but … for me, at least, focusing on one project at a time (and strictly outlining what those times should be) helps me block out the wider anxieties and put as much of my energy as possible into the project at hand.

How do you deal with working on multiple projects at once?

Jack the Ripper and hypnotism

At the beginning of the year, I was contacted and asked if I’d be interested in writing the foreword to a book involving hypnotism (the author’s area of study) and Jack the Ripper (mine). I’ll admit that I was a little dubious even after I agreed, since I tend to avoid fiction about the Ripper but, once I had the proofs in hand, I was fascinated.

Donald K. Hartman collected two Ripper narratives from 1888 and 1889, both of which use hypnotism in their explanation of why the Ripper killed. Hartman also makes a case for both stories as having the same author, with one written under a pseudonym, and goes on to detail the life of Edward Oliver Tilburn. That’s an adventure in and of itself, but I’m going to stick to the Ripper here.

As I mention in my foreword, the obsession with the Ripper story isn’t just about discovering who the Ripper actually was, but also explaining why someone would kill like this. It’s a question of motive, and we ask it of every serial killer. It’s comforting to have an answer – for example, to say “Ted Bundy killed women who looked like the one who dumped him in college,” since that makes his choice of victims somehow explicable and also means that women could do something as simple as changing their hairstyle to keep themselves from becoming his next victim. (It is, of course, always up to women to keep themselves safe.)

The question was especially prevalent in the 1880s because the existence of someone who killed strangers for his (or her) own devices just seemed so foreign. This wasn’t the era of serial killers and CSI – there was no handy term to use for such a person. The backstory that seems done to death in 2021 didn’t exist in the late 19th century. There wasn’t the Crime Classification Manual or interviews with violent offenders to form a framework. The question of “What sort of person would do this?” didn’t have even a vague, profile-heavy answer.

Hartman provides us with reprints of two stories that respond to the question with “Well, hypnotism’s involved, so that explains a lot.”

Twenty-first century readers might have to force their eyebrows down over the hypnotism specifically, but the two stories here have much in common with contemporary narratives. One of them has so many similarities to NBC’s Hannibal that it’s almost a Ripper AU fanfic. There’s no cannibalism, but an innocent younger man crosses paths with an older man whose obsession is dangerous and immoral, and the two of them begin an intense, destructive relationship.

Once the author (or authors) establishes that at least part of the Ripper was due to hypnotism, it clarifies a lot for the Victorian audience. Already the Ripper is involved in something dark and mysterious, on the edges of society, that really shouldn’t be touched. Once a hypnotist is involved, there’s really not much of a stretch to include murder. One outsider easily becomes another, and the danger of the hypnotist is that of Charles Manson: he doesn’t have to be present at the murder to have caused it, and his powers are so great that he can influence someone who’s otherwise innocent to transgress enough and commit murder simply because he wanted them to.

Neither of these stories intends to actually explain who the Ripper was – that is, to honestly name a suspect or explain the crimes. They’re entertainment, and Ripper scholars can pick out all the details the author(s) gets wrong in the telling. But the really fascinating thing to me is how they’re so similar to serial killer fiction we see produced today, and how many themes and tropes we still share with the late 1800s.

What do you think – does a Hannibal-esque retelling of Jack the Ripper pique your interest? Is there value in reading these old attempts to explain the Ripper through outdated fears of hypnotism and control?