Researching A Book: Writing Crime Time

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A slightly edited version of a post first published on The Great Raven.

Having been reading and enjoying the History Girls blog for some time, I thought perhaps I might do a History Girls-type post here, about how I researched a book I wrote, and perhaps when you’ve read it you might like to check out the sample chapter I have on my book blog, The Great Raven. It’s the story of the April Fool’s Day bungled robbery, of which more later.

About four years ago, I decided to take a term off from school, on long service leave. I had no special plans, except a bit of travel and some writing of articles and short fiction. I was just about to start my nice long break when I received an email from Paul Collins of Ford Street Publishing. I had written some short fiction for Paul before, but he knew I had written a lot of non-fiction(in fact, I’d recently completed an article about forensic science for the NSW School Magazine, at their request.)

Paul explained that his partner Meredith Costain had done a book called Fifty Famous Australians and he had an idea for a book on fifty infamous Australians. Would I be interested in writing it?

Is the Pope a Catholic?

When you write non-fiction for children, you have to be prepared to write about anything, and I had been doing that. Sometimes I suggested the topic; more often I was commissioned. I love writing about something unfamiliar, because I learn something new.

I did know a little bit about crime, due to my forensics article, and all the Underbelly gangland stuff in the newspapers. I’d read about it over the years. Who hasn’t heard of Ned Kelly? And then there was the gruesome story of the Batavia, mutiny and murder.

But there was a lot to do here, not merely the fifty, but a whole lot of snippets for “Did You Know?” boxes. I prepared a long list of possible entries and visited my publisher to be briefed and discuss. This was a book for children. As such, it had to be written carefully so that there wouldn’t be anything too detailed in the descriptions of the crimes. I knew that, Paul didn’t have to tell me. At the same time, this was a history of crime, children Iove gruesome and I was adamant that this was not going to be a book to help with homework. Potentially it could help with homework, but it was for entertainment. Anything called Fifty Infamous Australians would sound like homework material. In the end, I didn’t come up with the title Crime Time: Australians behaving badly, that was my publisher Paul Collins, but at least it didn’t imply homework!

There had to be a mixture of men and women, grim and humorous, scary and quirky and a vague historical timeline. I would start with the Batavia incident, when a Dutch ship was wrecked off the coast of Western Australia in the seventeenth century and while the captain was gone for help, members of the crew mutinied and murdered passengers and anyone who wouldn’t join them.

In the end, though, I wrote the entries in no special order, deciding to sort them later. I knew a book on Australian crime without Ned Kelly would be like a history of women in science without Marie Curie, but I also learned that there was a Kelly brother, James, who lived to a ripe old age as a pillar of the community. And with the other bushrangers there was a lady called Mary Ann Bugg, the wife of Captain Thunderbolt, who was brave and strong and who kept them alive in the bush. I devoured books about Australian crime, from the Batavia to the present day. I read the newspapers for contemporary crime stories, including those I could use for the “Did You Know?” boxes.

Australia is rich in crime stories, the only problem being how to choose among them. There were some who,like Ned Kelly, couldn’t be left out. Paul requested some and I duly researched them.

Because I understand how history writing works, I made sure that each of my entries had at least two, preferably more, sources. I remember one Internet source about the Hoddle Street massacre was suspiciously sympathetic to the murderer, for example. Likewise, there were articles protesting the innocence of one of the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub fire bombers and those declaring the innocence of Martin Bryant, the Port Arthur killer. I had to be careful to get it right. Even newspapers vary in their reporting of the same story, and one book I read, by two respected crime historians, declared that Carl Williams left school at the age of eleven! (It was Year 11 at high school) A typo, for sure, but if you don’t check it, you can end up with egg on your face.

I’d written a stack of stories about serial killers and murderous baby farmers and my poor editor was groaning at the horror of it all, when I decided it was time to get into the humorous or at least quirky. I appealed to my friends for suggestions. My friend Chris Wheat, a workmate and fellow YA novelist, told me about the April Fools’ Day robbery, when two would-be thieves, Donna Hayes and Benjamin Jorgensen, attempted to rob the Cuckoo restaurant in the Dandenongs, and escaped with a bag of stale bread rolls.

Thank heavens for the Internet! I went to the Google News archive and found a stack of articles about the robbery. In the course of the stuff up he accidentally shot her. The newspapers couldn’t agree on where she had been injured, so I mentioned them all, saying the papers had found the incident amusing and some had said this, others that. There are times when you have to make a decision; this wasn’t one of them. In any case, you can read all about it in that chapter mentioned above.

Around this time, I also asked Kerry Greenwood, author of lots of crime fiction, if she could suggest something that wasn’t serial killer grim. What she suggested was a murder, but a quirky one. It was, she said, every crime writer’s nightmare: the story of Snowy Rowles, who, in the 1920s, was working with novelist Arthur Upfield on the Rabbit-proof Fence(even in those days most writers had day jobs). He used an idea proposed for a perfect murder in one of Upfield’s novels and very nearly got away with it! In the event, he was caught, bits of the novel were published alongside the newspaper stories and the author suddenly found himself a bestseller, but that’s a story for another post.

I travelled to Central Australia during all this and, one night, met a lovely grey nomad couple in a pub. Over dinner, I told them about my book and about Caroline Grills, the arsenic-and-old-lace poisoner who killed relatives with afternoon tea treats in the 1950s, whom I was currently researching.

“Oh, Caroline Grills? I knew her,” the wife said casually, adding, “She was such a sweet woman!” She had been a nurse at Long Bay Jail, where Grills spent her last years. What more could a history researcher ask for? Even if I doubted she could be described as sweet, it did tell me how she appeared to others, if she could make herself liked even by the prison staff, who knew what she had done.

My final chapter was about Tony Mokbel. Paul had asked me to do a chapter on him and I was wondering how I could do this when I went out for coffee and opened a newspaper to find a large spread on his escape from Australia, which was a wonderfully quirky and funny story in its own right, without needing any major background. I had my final chapter!

There were other humorous stories, too many to recount here, but I loved the stories of con artist Murray Beresford Roberts, of the Russian librarian who hijacked a helicopter to spring her boyfriend from jail and then was caught out because of some overdue video library loans and “Dumb and Dumber”, the two Australians working in the US who robbed a bank wearing their work IDs and escaped using their staff passes on ski lifts and Mary Wade, the child convict who robbed another child of her underwear in the toilets and became a pillar of the community here, the mother of about twenty children and the ancestress of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. It’s amazing how many of these stories were in the papers while I was researching, even the Mary Wade one. And recently, one of our Year 9 students asked me if I had anything in the library about Mary Wade. Proudly, I pulled my book off the shelves. She used it in researching her history presentation and commented that it was the example of how anyone could raise themselves here if they wanted.

The book was published in 2009, but I’m still fascinated by crime and read every crime article I can find in the papers, including things that happened to some of my villains after the book came out.

You never know when it will come in handy!

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