But what does it actually mean to “kill your darlings”?

It’s a common piece of writing advice that is frequently attributed to William Faulkner: “In writing you must kill all your darlings.” And it sounds cool – a little bit of murder, a little bit of love. But … what does it really mean? Is it just for novelists who need to off their favorite character somewhere within the story?

That’s the most common misinterpretation of the advice: that it calls for a literal – or at least literary – death. That aspiring authors need to read up on fight scenes or medical terminology and autopsy reports. That well-loved characters need to be offed and then mourned, perhaps in the spirit of reaching a word count goal. It’s actually a bit more brutal than that.

Your darlings are the things that make you not want to hand over your work to an editor. The parts you know you’ll resist changing, even if the comments come back and make it clear that no, this won’t be publishable until you do. The words, phrases, or ideas you’ll cling to because yes, this does indeed seem like a fine hill to die on, thank you very much.

Sometimes the comments you get back tell you about other people’s darlings. I had a manuscript returned that asked me to get rid of every single instance of “Therefore.” There were only two, but someone, somewhere, had killed this person’s darlings in the past and it was a lesson he remembered. Therefore (I know, I know) he had to make sure no one else allowed his darlings to live.

Other times it’s a lot harder than searching your document for a single word and finding substitutes. Your entire proposal can be a darling, and it can be rejected outright. Or, of course, there’s “revise and resubmit” in which you’re confronted with a list of changes, and you have to get out your ax. Or at least your red pen.

It’s a balancing act. Clearly whatever you wrote will not be published at this venue exactly as it is, but presumably you want to see it in print there, since you submitted it. Usually, upon first read-through of the comments, some of them even seem reasonable. They might feel like easy changes. Yes, of course I can do A, B, and C. A change here, a tweak there, and you’re working your way down the list exactly like you’re supposed to. Until …

Your darling.

Now, you don’t always have to accept and implement the comments and suggestions with 100% agreement. There is space for a conversation here: I understand where you’re coming from, but I made these choices for this reason. But, more often than not, there’s still some sort of issue that has to be changed. The sticking points where you’ll just be told to revise and resubmit again – or take it elsewhere because clearly you’re refusing to play the game according to the rules – unless you do something about it.

That. That’s your darling.

I, for one, am a fan of copying and pasting my darlings into a separate document where I can pretend they live out a happy life. On a farm in the country, perhaps. Where I could totally visit, if I really wanted to. And where they can live on, unchanged, while I negotiate the feedback and do my best to keep my ego in check (because just look at how darling my darlings are!).

Kill off your characters if you have to, but they’re not your only darlings.

What about you? Do you know your own darlings? Are any of them absolute sticking points?

Ripper Suspect: Charles Allen Lechmere

Last week we talked about one of the oldest named Ripper suspects, Montague John Druitt, who died via an apparent suicide in late 1888. Named by one of the men involved in the Ripper case, and refuted by another, Druitt is frequently mentioned but not often actually accused of having been the famous murderer. Charles Allen Lechmere’s name is a more recent contribution to the hundreds of Ripper suspects, and although he might be a better choice than Druitt, his guilt is impossible to prove.

Lechmere enters Ripper lore under the name Charles Cross, a meat cart driver who discovered Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols after her murder. According to recorded testimony, Lechmere was passing Buck’s Row on his way yo work around 3:40 am on August 31, 1888, when he saw a woman lying on the ground. Another man, Robert Paul, also on his way to work, saw Lechmere, who immediately called Paul over. The two men didn’t see any blood or mutilations and left Polly Nichols where she lay, reporting an apparently drunk or unconscious woman to a constable they found on the way.

At the inquest, Lechmere gave his name as Charles Cross, using the surname of one of his stepfathers, and that seemed to be the end of it. The testimony of “Charles Cross” helped establish the likely time of death, and “Cross” and Paul both testified that they saw no one else in the street. The inquest verdict was willful murder by person or persons unknown, and that was the end of it.

Until 2014, that is, when the documentary Jack the Ripper: The Missing Evidence named Lechmere as a suspect.

Journalist Christer Holmgren and criminologist Gareth Norris build the case against Lechmere, starting with the fact that he did indeed give a false name. They were able to connect “Charles Cross” to Charles Allen Lechmere and find more information about this apparent witness. Tracing “Charles Cross” had proven futile, but information about Charles Allen Lechmere seemed to point toward likely guilt.

Holmgren and Norris make use of geographic profiling in their argument for Lechmere’s guilt. This is a newer method that relies on psychological information about serial killers, combined with the locations of their crimes, to help make predictions about future murder locations and the killer’s “home base.” It involves questions of how far a killer would willingly travel in order to commit a crime, while still feeling relatively safe because he knows the area, as well as marking an area closer to the killer’s home as being unlikely for future murders. To oversimplify, a killer’s “hunting range” looks vaguely like a donut shape, with his home in the middle surrounded by an area of inactivity.

This range, though, is affected when a killer becomes comfortable in new areas. A man who has moved around a lot as a child knows multiple neighborhoods. One who has to walk a distance to get to work learns still more. A killer’s comfort zone expands as his life develops and he moves through more of the world, leaning which areas would be “safe” for him to kill in.

lechmere2Holmgren and Norris not only point out that neither Lechmere – seen here in a photograph from 1912 – nor Paul mentioned seeing any other person in Buck’s Row, even though the murderer must have still been nearby, but map out Lechmere’s life against the murders of the Canonical Five and a previous victim, Martha Tabram. Each of these sites corresponds with Lechmere’s walk from home to work in the autumn of 1888, or to previous homes his family occupied, or earlier jobs he had.

They theorize that Lechmere was not merely bending over an unresponsive woman’s body when Paul spotted him, but was actually interrupted in the middle of the Ripper’s trademark mutilations. Lechmere, according to Holmgren and Norris, attempted to cover his tracks by first pretending to discover Polly Nichols’ body, and then by giving a false name.

Beyond this, though, there is nothing to either link Lechmere to the Ripper or to prove that he conclusively could not have been. The documentary argues that Lechmere would have known the area, yes, and can place him at the scene shortly after one of the murders, but the Ripper’s identity is still unknown – and, 130 years after the murders, we’re still pulling out new names and trying to assign guilt.

The Craft of an Index

It’s one of the last steps needed before a nonfiction book can be published, but it’s also tedious … annoying … and incredibly necessary: the index.

I recently finished creating the one for my most recent book, Media and the Murderer: Jack the Ripper, Steven Avery and an Enduring Formula for Notoriety, and I got a lot of surprised responses: wait, a person has to do that? Why?

There are a number of reasons why it takes a human to sort through a book to make the index actually … useful.

For example, I reference the Duke of Clarence and Avondale; Prince Albert Victor; and Prince Eddy … and they’re all the same person. A computer could be asked to search for and categorize all proper nouns, but someone along the line has to recognize that they’re all the same person. (And add in the cross-references in the index to make sure that someone who knows him as Prince Eddy can find all the references.)

The proper nouns are probably the easier ones to find, too. When I’m scanning through a page to see what to underline for the index, the capital letters help.

This time around I settled on four colors to help me sort through what was going on and keep the ideas in mind as far as what I was looking for. Green was general; blue referred to the murdered women; yellow was names of secondary importance; and prink referred to Jack the Ripper and Steven Avery.

There’s another rule of thumb here: if it’s mentioned in your title – as the Ripper and Avery are – then they’re on a lot of pages and they don’t get their own entry. The Ripper mentions got divided into their own categories (although there’s always the chance that this might get changed once someone at the publisher has a look and maybe a chuckle – things have been consolidated before) but what happens with Steven Avery, the main subject of Making a Murderer?

He gets his name, yes, but not a list of pages where he’s mentioned. If you know anything about MaM, you know he’s got a wrongful conviction and an exoneration – and those two categories go under his name with page numbers to follow. Instead of just being one big blob of Steven Avery mentions, he gets categorized.

The same thing can happen with some of the people I label as secondary figures. Ken Kratz, for example, has a “press conference” category, and Brendan Dassey has his “confession.” So even when it’s an easy search for someone’s name, there’s still some parsing going on. What do I think people who pick up this book might be looking for? How can I make it easier for them to find it (and therefore cite me)?

But it’s a pain. I groan at my past self for making all sorts of connections to serial killers both factual and fictional, because each mention is another entry in the index. Zac Efron, Mark Harmon, Johnny Depp … they’re all in this one. Hannibal Lecter is on multiple pages. Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer … they all go in the index.

Aside from the proper nouns, there are certain themes that happen to appear in my work. Some of them were major players in my dissertation: Puritan execution sermons, trial reports, and the explanation of why the adversarial trial matters. Some are specific to this book.

And the reason you do it yourself, as opposed to hiring someone else to do it, is that you know from the start what your important parts are. So therefore I knew that execution sermons had to make it in, even from the very first mention. That got underlined.

I can use the search option to go back through and make sure I’ve gotten all the pages for a certain term, as long as I remember that profiling, profiler, and profiles are all possible terms to file under “psychological profiling” … but I still need to make all of those connections so that someone who wants to use my book can know exactly where to look.

Ripper suspect: Montague John Druitt

Jack the Ripper was never caught. He murdered five women in the fall of 1888 – or more, or fewer, depending on which story we want to tell – and then, to be melodramatic, he slunk back into the fog without ever showing his face. Anyone who was arrested under suspicion of being the murderer had to be released, and the police file was closed in 1892 without any public declaration of his identity. This, of course, has left the door open for any number of suspects.

One of the earliest Ripper suspects was a young lawyer named Montague John Druitt. We’ve seen him before as part of my favorite, and very convoluted, Ripper theory, but why was he considered a viable suspect in the first place?

druittIIDruitt was a young lawyer who committed suicide in late 1888 after the murder of Mary Jane Kelly. He had been working at a boarding school in order to supplement his income, and was dismissed from that post in late November. There is no evidence supporting a reason for this dismissal, but Druitt killed himself not long after. His body was found floating in the Thames on December 31, 1888, and had been in the water for some time.

What evidence is there that Druitt was the Ripper? Honestly, none.  Some authors – again, see my favorite theory – try to place him near Whitechapel and give him a motive for the murders by tying him to the Crown and other conspiracy theories. Druitt even caught the attention of Melville Macnaghten, who rose to the position of Assistant Commissioner and, years after the crimes, penned the “Macnaghten Memoranda”: a list of three people Macnaghten thought likely to have been Jack the Ripper.

(It should be noted that, if you really want to get into Ripperology, you need to be familiar with terms like “the Macnaghten Memoranda” and “the Swanson Marginalia.” This means knowing who Macnaghten and Swanson were, their connection to the case, and when and where they penned their various notes. It’s rather confusing and frustrating, especially since said notes were not made in 1888, but years later, and are jottings and therefore fragments.)

Macnaghten’s Memoranda even confuses the issue by naming a Mr. M. J. Druitt and calling him “a doctor of about 41 years of age.” This Druitt, though, was a barrister and school teacher, and 31 years old. Macnaghten was likely working from memory instead of notes, and simply recalled that someone had drowned himself in the Thames after Mary Jane Kelly’s murder. The timing meant that Macnaghten could argue Druitt’s mental health was deteriorating and that, not long after this final brutal murder, he could no longer live with himself and took his own life.

Montague John Druitt was not, however, experiencing mental health issues. He was still working at the school and as a barrister through the end of November. Although Macnaghten  argues that Druitt’s family believed he was the Ripper, there’s no evidence of this outside of Macnaghten’s statement. Even the way Macnaghten words it makes it seem as though he heard it thirdhand at least, and not directly from the family members themselves.

But, because Druitt’s name appears in the Macnaghten Memoranda, written by one of them involved in the case in 1888 and who had risen further to a respected post, his name has been tied to the murders. It doesn’t matter that he had no known connection to Whitechapel or that Inspector Fredrick Abberline went on record saying that there was nothing to incriminate Druitt – from the timing of his suicide, likely a reaction to losing his teaching position, Druitt’s name must always be brought up when discussing Ripper suspects.

The Curse of H. H. Holmes

We’ve already spent a lot of time covering the real-life events of one H. H. Holmes, “America’s first serial killer.” If you missed them, check out Holmes story Part I, Part II, Part III, and the murder castle discussion. But maybe all of those are too depressing, considering the man didn’t actually murder 250 people in his custom-designed building. Maybe I’ve taken all the fun out of it.

So. Let’s talk about Holmes’ curse.

We already know that Holmes had his body placed in an extra-large coffin and encased in cement so that no one would be able to dig him up and use him for medical experimentation. He was eventually disinterred for an episode of American Ripper, to dispel the rumor that Holmes himself had snuck away and a lookalike was executed his place, but that just prevented people from reaching in. It did not, apparently, prevent Holmes from reaching out.

The death of anyone who had any connection whatsoever to the Holmes case was considered suspicious … and another victim to add to Holmes’ list. Holmes was said to have “the evil eye” – have you counted how many times Erik Larson mentions his eyes in Devil in the White City? – and, in the two decades or so following his execution, around 30 deaths were attributed to it.

The Superintendent of the Indianapolis Police Force, responsible for the invesigation into Howard Pitezel’s death, was thrown from his horse during a parade. He was, perhaps, lucky – he didn’t die, but he dealt with the effects of his injuries for the rest of his life.

One of the coroner’s physicians who had testified against Holmes at his trial suddenly dropped dead from blood poisining.

The trial judge and lead coroner both died suddenly from previously undiagnosed illness.

The prison superintendent at Moyamensing Prison, where Holmes was held and executed, committed suicide.

The father of one of Holmes’ victims was horrifically burned in a gas explosion.

Frank Geyer, the detective who had finally tracked down Alice, Nellie, and Howard Pitezel, was struck with a sudden illness. He did recover.

The office of the claims manager for the insurance company Holmes had cheated caught fire and burned. Apparently the only untouched items inside were a framed copy of Holmes’ arrest warrant and two portraits of Holmes.

The fiancee of one of Holmes’ defense lawyers died suddenly.

An occupant of Holmes’ Murder Castle committed suicide.

The jury foreman was electrocuted.

Marion Hedgepeth, who had informed on Holmes’ insurance scam, was shot and killed during a holdup.

The Murder Castle itself was mysteriously gutted by fire.

Holmes’ caretaker committed suicide and left a note that said “I couldn’t sleep.” His relatives said he had been suffering hallucinations and may even have been “haunted.”

The list goes on.

It reads rather like Holmes’ own confession to 27 murders, with a variety of people from different walks of life, with various connections to him, and different causes of death. They would never have been linked together at all if not for the name of H. H. Holmes … or for the rumor of the curse that Holmes himself began before his death.

What do you think? Is each and every death on this list completely explicable? Or was Holmes working to increase his body count from beyond the grave?

5 tips to get yourself writing

Even if you’re good at writing – even you say you like writing – there will be some days when you don’t want to do it. Days when you have to use every trick up your sleeve to make yourself get words on the page. (Days when you write a blog post rather than work on your current project, even …)

Days when you’ll seize any conceivable distraction.

So what can you do to keep up the momentum?

  • Schedule your writing time. Block it out in your calendar. Tell other people that it’s your writing time. Granted, you’re not going to be writing at top speed for every minute of that time, but you’re making it a clear intention. When I’m distracted during that time, I’m distracted from writing. It’s like what they tell you about meditation: acknowledge the fact that your mind is wandering, and then bring it back to the task at hand.

  • Recognize what parts of the project are going to be most troublesome. This is absolutely a personal thing, but right now I’m about to “start” something. The start is my struggle. It’s not just the start of a project, but the start of a section – a chapter or something under a new heading. The way I usually get around it is to never end a writing session at the end of a section – at the very least I’ll give myself a few notes to go on.

    You can’t always plan it that way to be nice to yourself. Today, for example, is my first day back at the project since writing and sending in the proposal. I had other things going on and didn’t want to continue writing it without knowing if the proposal might be rejected, so I have to get over this hump. But, whenever possible, I do what I can to make Future Rebecca’s life easier.

  • Remove distractions. I have a specific writing desk. There are books in the room, yes, but I don’t bring my knitting in here – one distraction down. There’s no door to keep the cats out, so that’s a wash, but there’s also no tv. I rarely turn off the wifi when I write – I’d rather do a quick search and put the proper date in now instead of later – but I’ll turn on the Forest app on my phone and put it on the harshest setting: you can’t leave the main screen until the timer is up, or else your little digital tree dies. I’ve even got the comments customized so it tells me to keep on writing.

    Do I mean “Bore yourself into having to write the thing you’re putting off”? I might indeed.

  • Give yourself a carrot. Set a reasonable, achievable, goal and then tell yourself you can’t do something fun until you’ve reached it. Dickens used to tell his servants not to give him his clothes until he hit his daily word count, so he’d be naked and confined to his study until he got there, but it doesn’t have to be that extreme.

    It also doesn’t have to be mean – this isn’t “I can’t get up to use the bathroom until I hit 500 words” or “No refills on my coffee until I finish this section.” You don’t want to make writing harder because you’re ignoring bodily needs or running low on caffeine. It’s a reward: once I hit my word count, I can have some candy, or spend 20 minutes working on my fun knitting project, or get lost in an internet search of nothingness for a while.

  • Write something – anything – else to get words flowing. You can hop to another section of the project, or start making notes about what’s bugging you about the project, or write something else completely – it doesn’t have to be connected to the project you’re putting off. You can also switch it up and get out a pen and some paper instead of using your laptop. This is your chance to use different colors, or to write down the other things that are bothering you, or to get a quick shopping list out of the way. Once you start writing, it makes it easier to switch the flow of words back to your original topic.

The more you write – the more you follow your schedule – the better you’ll get at forcing yourself to focus simply by trial and error. If something works for you, hang on to it. If one of these tips doesn’t, then reject it and start searching for another.

What do you do to help yourself focus on writing?

But what about H. H. Holmes’ murder castle?

I can hear you: “Rebecca, you’ve spent three weeks talking about H. H. Holmes, but you haven’t mentioned his murder castle.” It’s the coolest part, right? Man gets his medical degree, moves to Chicago, and starts to build this mysterious three-story building with a “glass-bending oven” in the basement that was totally used to cremate his victims and all sorts of mysterious rooms where he can lock people in vaults or let gas inside. Plus some sort of chute to get people from the second to the first without heavy lifting. During the World’s Fair he killed hundreds of people, so why hasn’t this been mentioned yet?

devilIf you knew about Holmes before – and especially if you’ve been eagerly anticipating the murder castle discussion – I’m guessing you learned about him from Erik Larson. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. Larson interweaves Holmes’ story with that of the Columbian Exposition, paralleling the construction of the Fair with the construction of Holmes’ murder castle. The story bounces back and forth until the Fair is over and Holmes can have the pages to himself on his final, strange, itinerant spree, but, during his time in Chicago, Larson depicts Holmes very much as the happy serial murderer, using his mysterious Castle as a human version of a roach motel.

In his notes, Larson explains that he did not use the internet during his research. Instead he used a lot of newspapers … and newspapers wanted to share the lurid, the outlandish, and the scandalous so they could sell. It makes a for a good story, sure, but the papers already did a ton of extrapolating and connecting the dots before Larson got to them and constructed his own narrative. It’s a good story, but if that’s your only source on Holmes, you’re missing a lot.

selzerThe counter to Larson is one I tell people not to read if they were so starry-eyed over Larson’s Holmes that they can’t picture him any other way. Adam Selzer’s H. H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil pulls back the curtain and explains that, well, the murder castle really wasn’t all you thought it was. He describes clerks from the shops on the first floor napping in those “secret” rooms and passageways, and argues that it really wasn’t used as a hotel, after all. When a fire broke out in the middle of the night during the World’s Fair, there weren’t nearly enough people on the street to argue that the third floor was actually being used that way. (Selzer also gives talks and tours, and you can catch him online, although I’d recommend acquainting yourself with the case first, either through his book or some of your own research – he can jump around a lot for people who come in with only the faintest idea of who Holmes is and what myths need to be debunked.)

So: what’s up with the so-called murder castle?

We know that Holmes had it built. We also know that, as a con man, he had a practice of hiring workers, refusing to pay them, and then hiring more. This wasn’t so that no single person would know the entire layout of the building, but so he simply didn’t have to pay them. We know there were shops on the first floor – and that one of his mistresses and likely victims was the wife of one of the men employed in said shops – and that much was made during the excavation of the basement. Newspapers reported in large headlines that bodies had been found … and then days later, in smaller print hidden somewhere other than the front page, that really it was maybe only a single body.

All of this suspicion and excavation happened while Holmes was in Philadelphia, making headlines because of the Pitezel case. Remember, at the beginning Holmes was wanted for a single murder: Benjamin Pitezel. But, the longer he sat in jail and the longer the police puzzled over his mysterious story, the mystery continued to grow. He was now suspected of murdering Alice, Nellie, and Howard Pitezel, too.

And so, Chicago asked itself, if the man had been living here before that … couldn’t we make something of it, too? Instead of writing postcards to the papers claiming to be the killer, Chicago reporters took what they had and let their imaginations run with it, increasing the myth of who Holmes was, what he had done, and how many he had killed.

Not, it seems, that Holmes minded, considering his confession of 27 murders and the fact that many of them were made up out of whole cloth. Holmes the con man would be thrilled to know that people think he killed 250 people or more – and got away with all of them until he slipped up with Benjamin Pitezel. As someone who participated in his own myth-making while he was alive, Holmes would be happy to know he’s still being discussed so long after his death.

How do you deal with rejection?

Okay, we don’t really like talking about this part: rejection. Putting your work and ideas out there means giving other people the chance to say “No thank you.” Or “I love this but it doesn’t belong here.” Or “This is a form email.” (I mean, I kind of assume most of them are, but I got one that proclaimed it loudly.)

A couple weeks ago I got three rejection emails. Within seven days. That’s not very fun. On the glass-half-full side it means I’ve been putting my stuff out there a lot, but when you do that … you open yourself up to the possibility of three rejections in a week.

If you want to get published, you run the risk of rejection. So: how do you deal with it?

rejection

I have someone that I text with every single rejection. This started because he teased me that I didn’t have enough rejections, so I decided he had to know every single one. It’s not just about annoying him with texts – it’s about how he reacts.

He “judges” the rejection on whether or not it “counts.” Form letter? Yes, okay, that’s a “real” rejection. But if it’s got any sort of encouragement in it, like a revise and resubmit, it doesn’t. He focuses on the good parts and shoves them in my face and makes me go “Yeah, okay, fine, I don’t suck as much as I first thought.”

He also gets any good news texts, too, and this might be the more important part: even if he’s envious of my good news, he cheers me on. Lots of people just … can’t do that. So if you’re going to annoy someone with your rejection texts, make sure it’s someone who’ll be excited for you if you get a response that isn’t a rejection.

I also have a group who gets updates on a more relaxed schedule – usually about once a week. I can whine and complain and sort of get the “failure” idea out there so it’s not such a big deal. (They, too, are more apt to be “Wait how many things have you sent out???” and not secretly keeping a tally of my shortcomings.)

So: have your crew. Have the people who respond to your rejections the way you need – snark and dismissal work best for me, honestly. Then it’s not such a big deal. It’s just all part of the process, and they’re all rooting for me to get the successes. (Seriously, this can be difficult to navigate. Lots of people respond to good writing news with something like “Oh cool. My cousin is published.” Which totally deflates you because then it’s not special anymore. You want the people who will cheer for you, however small the steps, because man, sometimes they feel really small.)

The other important thing here is the fact that these are not general announcements to the world (or my social media). Have you ever heard “Don’t make it public unless it’s permanent”? Good advice. You don’t want to annoy someone who comes across your twitter feed, for example, and get them in a bad mood when you might end up proposing something to them in the future. And even good news, especially good news with a long processing time, might not stay – you don’t want to announce something eagerly and overshare, only to have to retract it later. Even with an offer, not everything works out.

So basically I follow two rules when it comes to rejection: 1) I don’t keep it to myself, and 2) I don’t announce it to the world. I’ve got my people, my team who’ll soothe my ruffled feathers and tell me to bounce up and get back out there so that, eventually, I can do the big public “Look what I did!” announcement.

Rejection is part of the process, even we don’t like to talk about it much – my support staff is a small group, thanks – and it’s something we all have to deal with. The important part is figuring out what approach is going to work for you and help you keep moving forward.

 

Who was America’s first serial killer? Part III

H. H. Holmes has already taken us on quite the adventure. We know he got accused of committing insurance fraud with his mysteriously absent friend, Benjamin Pitezel; that three of the Pitezel children were also missing; and that he (eventually) accused his friend Miss Minnie Williams and her new beau, Mr. Hatch, of killing the children. His October 1895 trial resulted in a single guilty verdict for the death of Benjamin Pitezel, and Holmes hanged for it.

But he didn’t simply quietly wait out the rest of his life.

Let’s take a peek at the headline of the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday April 12, 1896.

headlineHe’s bumped up the number, certainly. At the trial Holmes was accused of a single murder – even the deaths of Alice, Nellie, and Howard Pitezel were not mentioned, since they did not happen in Pennsylvania. Now he’s progressed to “the greatest criminal in history” with 27 murders.

Granted, this is a newspaper headline. “The most awful story of modern times told by the fiend in human shape” is clearly meant to sell copies. They had advertised it in advance, too, to make sure they’d sell. Holmes had been paid for his story, and naturally the paper still wanted to make money on it. But we only know about Benjamin, Alice, Nellie, and Howard Pitezel. How did he get to 27?

victimsFirst, he lied. Some of the people Holmes named actually came forward before his execution two weeks later to inform the world that Holmes had not, in fact, murdered them.

Second, he made other people up completely, either borrowing parts of names from people he did know, or not naming them at all.

And third … remember Miss Minnie Williams, who was supposed to be with the Pitezel children? Previously Holmes had said she was on the run for the murder of her sister, Nannie, but this new confession has Holmes murdering both of them. (Since neither sister had been seen since going to Chicago, these two seem to be likely instances of the truth.)

Holmes also used the paper to confess to murdering some of his mistresses, as well as one mistress’ young daughter. He varies the method from death to death, including suffocating unsuspecting victims in a large, room-sized safe that he had in his Chicago “Murder Castle.” So … Holmes completely qualifies as a serial killer, right?

Well …

He wasn’t done yet. After two spoken confessions, a written autobiography, and a further confession in the newspaper, he spoke his final words on the subject while on the scaffold. In spite of the 27 murders outlined in the Inquirer, Holmes’ final confession was only to two deaths, one of them a woman who died during an abortion. He argued that the real killer of Benjmain Pitezel had not been brought to justice and still needed to be found.

Then, after he was hanged, Holmes was interred in an extra-large coffin that had been half-filled with cement before he was laid inside. He had a clear fear of grave robbers – one that has been continually linked to his own role as a medical student and the ways cadavers were likely procured for lessons – and refused many offers of money for his brain or his body after his death. Once he was laid inside the coffin, more cement was put over him before burial.

But of course, the story didn’t end there. The world was far from done with the story of H. H. Holmes.

How can you be sure your ideas are good enough to be published?

It’s the most common slash dreaded question for all writers: “where do you get your ideas?” And it might seem simple, but there are layers to it. It’s not just “where do you get your ideas?” but “where do you get ideas that are good enough to be published?” Really, how do you find an idea that someone else is going to look at … and then agree to put in the time needed to work with you on it?

I’m with Stephen King on this one, or at least on half of his advice for fiction writers: you have to read a lot. In grad school they tell you to look for the gap – the thing that nobody’s talking about – but it’s a bit trickier than that. You have to make sure it’s a real gap and not just that you haven’t personally read about it yet. So you can’t identify a gap, stop reading, and immediately start investigating it.

IMG-1924What I’ll do is write the idea down immediately. I’ve got plenty of notebooks – this one is actually a cover for four different notebooks (and my husband added the engraving on the front for me), which can help me keep my ideas separate – and when a lightbulb goes on, I’ll write it down. And then keep reading. Both of those are equally important, since I don’t want to forget my brilliant insight … but I also want to make sure it is indeed brilliant before telling the world. (Or at least before writing up a proposal.)

The next step is usually some serious time with Google. I remember going to propose an early Stephen King paper for the Pop Culture Conference and thinking “There’s no way nobody else noticed this!” This is the connection between Rose Madder and Mr. Mercedes that ended up as a chapter in The Modern Stephen King Canon, and even up until the Q&A session at the end of my presentation, I was sure someone was going to stand up and tell me of course they all knew it. They just weren’t talking about it because it was so darn obvious.

The thing is, even if I can’t find someone who’s made the same connection I have, I’m still never convinced that my idea is actually original. If little me could think of it, then someone else more brilliant has to have already come up with it … right? So I keep looking, and even when I send out a proposal, I’m waiting to hear back that actually, of the 20 people who responded, 15 of them had exactly the same point, sorry, thanks for your time.

IMG-1923This is my other notebook. It’s a Leuchtturm 1917, and a gift from my husband. He said he picked it because he’d seen Neil Gaiman call it his favorite. (The leather cover is completely custom – my husband printed it all over with a map of Whitechapel.) It’s my more recent notebook, and you can see from these pages that it’s set up to almost force you to do what I’m already doing: keeping a lot of notes on a lot of different things, but trying to stay organized.

All the pages are numbered so you can fill out your index as you go or as new ideas occur to you. This helps me take it a step further beyond “having an idea” and “being pretty sure the idea is original” to “brainstorming more about the idea.” By putting the main thought at the top of the page, this leaves a whole lot of open space to be filled. Then I can shift to having more thoughts about the idea, supporting it and making more connections as I continue to fill in the gap.

Again, we’re back to that difficult step: you won’t actually know for sure if your idea is interesting enough to other people until you actually show it to other people. But you can take your time in developing it to make sure that the gap you think you see actually exists, and isn’t simply a gap in your reading.

If you ever come across someone asking “Why isn’t anyone talking about this?” the answer is usually “Because you’re not reading the right people.” Once the idea strikes – as you write it down before it can get away – your job is to make sure you’re not missing out on that conversation. You Google, and you comb through bibliographies, and you talk to people, and you satisfy yourself as well as you can that you’re not just missing it. Then you develop that idea – use your lightbulb to look into all the corners of the room, maybe – and take a deep breath and put it out there.

But mostly … you read a lot. And then a lot more.