12 Hours with True Crime Writer Abigail Rieley

Writing.ie | Magazine | Crime | Interviews

By Abigail Reilly

It’s not every gig where putting a foot wrong will land you in front of a High Court judge but with court reporting that’s what happens if you make a mistake.

It’s a very precise form of journalism but one that is a fantastic way to learn how to tell a story. I’ve been working in the courts for the past five years. It’s not something I ever thought I’d find myself doing but I love the job. It’s drama at it’s most real. I remember being told in school that all drama revolves around a conflict and it’s that that sits at the heart of any murder trial.

I became a journalist because it was a way to earn money while I was writing. It took me a while to become a print journalist, I spent almost a decade working in radio news, but I never stopped writing. But it was only when I found my way into court reporting that the way opened up to writing books.

Working in the courts is one of the most civilised reporting gigs you can get. Proceedings don’t generally start until 11a.m and continue until 4 so it’s not a particularly strenuous day’s work. It’s only after courts finish for the day that the real work starts and I can go through the pages of notes to try and find the hook to hang my story on.

When I first started out in the courts I was working for a news agency. There are two  agencies based full time in the courts and they divide the work between them. One agency covers rapes and Circuit Court criminal trials, the other murders, the High Court and the court of criminal appeal. There’s a smaller agency that covers the childrens’ courts and the district court.The agencies cover almost every trial that takes place in the courts complex, regardless of how much press attention they actually get. Not every trial hits the headlines but they all have to be covered and that’s the main work of the agency.

You might find yourself the only journalist in a trial, it can be frustrating if that trial is happening across the hall from the latest “trial of the decade” but it’s fantastic training. Every trial that finds it’s way into the Central Criminal Courts, which deals with all the rape and murder trials, is somebody’s story. The facts of the case might be brutal and brief and somehow inevitable but the job is to find the story and organise the depressingly familiar facts into the drama that’s in there somewhere.

I’ve covered a lot of trials over the years and many of the early ones did not get much press coverage. But each one was a story. Each one was a tragedy, a bloody moment in time that will irrevocably change the lives of everyone involved. You see human nature at it’s most primal, the most basic inhibitions stripped away and an action that can never be undone.  It’s basic story telling.

It’s a fairly natural progression to write a book. I was still working for the agencies when I covered the case that was the subject of my first book, Devil in the Red Dress. It was obvious from the day the jury was sworn in that this was going to be a trial unlike any other in the Irish courts. It’s not often the witness list in an Irish murder includes millionaires, a Las Vegas poker dealer and FBI agents. As the trial unfolded it sounded more and more like a film plot, writing a book was a natural progression.

Writing a true crime book, especially one based on a high profile trial, is a pretty pressurized experience.The book needs to come out as soon as possible after the end of the trial to capture the public interest before it moves on to something else. Unfortunately, there’s no way to guarantee the book can even be written until after the jury have brought back a verdict. If that verdict is an acquittal then the book can’t go ahead. Even if there is a guilty verdict there can be problems because a successful appeal can mean a conviction is overturned, which means the book will have to be taken off the shelves until a new trial has taken place.

The end result of all of this is that the book needs to be written quickly, so that it can be published quickly and have as much chance of success as possible. It’s a hectic way to write. You’ll usually have less than two months to complete your research, deliver a manuscript and source any pictures that are going to be in the finished book. It can be frustrating, terrifying and exhausting but  it teaches discipline like nothing else. Any deadlines longer than three months seem like an eternity and it does wonders with putting the dreaded writer’s block into perspective.

These days when I’m not working on finishing a book I write mainly for the Sunday Independent.  Working for a Sunday paper has meant a different way of working. In the past I’ve always worked either for radio or for daily print so I’m used to deadlines being a pretty immediate thing. With a Sunday paper the rush comes at the end of the week, up until then you’re just preparing the ground. I had started a blog just before Devil was published, mainly to help publicise the book and to develop an author presence online. When I started freelancing I started to use the blog to write about the trials I was covering. It helped to put the facts in order so I wasn’t left with a mess of quotes to put into some kind of order with a deadline looming at the end of the week.

Blogging is completely different to any other writing I’d done. It’s more immediate, less formal. It’s a prefect medium to convey the every day drama of a trial. The human moments that often get left out of a final piece. Because it’s a more personal style of writing I can be less clinical in the way I report what happened. It helped me to write more fluidly, something that has had a knock on effect with the more straightforward journalism I write as well.

A lot of my fellow journalists have asked why I continue to blog. I don’t get paid for what I write and I face the same risks I would as a traditional court reporter but if I make a mistake it’s down to me, there’s no editor to step in and no legal backup. It’s certainly taking the safety wheels off but court reporting is a precise skill anyway, this just sharpens that skill.

The Internet has opened up so many opportunities for writers and journalists alike. As well as blogging about trials I’ve started to Tweet live updates from court, if the interest’s there and I can get a signal in the new Criminal Courts of Justice building. Tweeting opened the way to my second book. Back in January 2010 I was covering the Eamonn Lillis trial for the Sunday Independent, as well as blogging about it and Tweeting from the court. When the trial started I had about 400 followers on Twitter, by the end of the first week this had jumped to over 1000.

Live tweeting a trial that high profile is an extraordinary experience. You are bringing your audience into the events as they happen. I don’t know a better way to convey the unique mixture of edge of the seat anxiety and total boredom that marks the jury wait than regular live Tweets chronicling every knock on the door, every false alarm and the moment that anticipation peaks when the whisper goes round that there’s a jury and everyone so slowly reassembles.

By the end of the Lillis trial I could see exactly how much interest there was in the case and a second book became something of an inevitability. Death on the Hill was published this summer and I’m now looking at writing a third book…one that will hopefully not have such a tight deadline.

There are times when the proximity of so much death can be oppressive. You need to develop a distance to do this job but there are always details that stay with you. It would be easier to treat each trial as an academic problem, a story that’s playing out in front of you, no different from any episode of CSI. But this isn’t fiction, it’s real life. There’s no way of distancing yourself from people’s grief when it’s all around you. I write about some the bleakest points in peoples’ lives. If it didn’t touch me I’d have lost too much and I wouldn’t be doing my job properly.

My first love has always been fiction and it’s something I’d like to go back to one day. But anything I write now is far darker than it was before, death creeps into everything. For the moment I’m happy to write about real events and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into something that’s not as frenetic as writing about a recent trial. There’s a lot of snobbery against True Crime as a genre. I know some people see what I do as being exploitative. But all I’m doing is story telling and these are stories that deserve to be told.

As with any form of writing the act itself is done in isolation sitting at a keyboard but with true crime gathering my source material is a far more social experience. The courts are a curious place to work. There’s so much tradition, so much formality. Even the tools of the trade are more traditional here. I take notes of each day’s proceedings in shorthand with a fountain pen. I can’t afford to make mistakes in anything I quote so fast note taking is vital. The smoothness of fountain pens allow that little bit of extra speed which can be a life saver when the evidence is flowing quickly. You’re not allowed to record court proceedings so good notes are the only option. At 4 o’clock the court finishes for the day, unless we’re waiting for a jury to return a verdict which can delay things by a couple of hours. I’m lucky enough to live a short walk from the courthouse so I work from home even when there’s a deadlines looming. I write up my blog and whatever article’s need to be filed then I’m free to work on everything else. During the court holidays I get to write full time. The summer break lasts for the whole of August and September and that’s when I finish books. Since 2008 I’ve finished a book a year, including my as yet unpublished novel (which is with my agent at the moment). For the next book I’m trying to do something with a more relaxed time frame. I’m looking at doing something historical.

Writing the kind of stuff I do is a full time job. The courts might not always be sitting but you never stop keeping an eye out for the next big story. I spend a lot of time researching upcoming trials and keeping on top of the latest legal developments. Twitter is also a fairly full time commitment. I’ve made a lot of friends in the Twitterverse but while it’s fun to chat to people you know it’s also a networking tool. I try to share links to interesting trials around the world as well as quirky stories that interest me. I’m not trying to put out an image that’s not me.

The last two years, since Devil came out have been extraordinary. I became a journalist because I wanted to be a writer but it’s only now I feel more of a writer than a journalist. Through building a presence online I’ve found some amazing opportunities but as always, it’s down to perseverance and damned hard work. I’ve been extremely lucky to find a niche that fits. Long may it continue.

About the author

Abigail’s books are: Devil in the Red Dress and Death on the Hill

Abigail was born and spent her childhood in London but has lived in Ireland for more than 20 years. She’s been a journalist for over a decade and has been a court reporter for almost five years. Her first bookDevil in the Red Dress was published with Maverick House in 2008, and is based on one of the trials she followed. Her second, Death on the Hill was published in 2010 with the O’Brien Press looking at the high profile trial of Eamonn Lillis, who killed his wife in Howth in December 2008.

She also writes about the courts and life as a writer on her blog at  abigailrieley.com and is currently working on a new book. Before working in the courts Abigail worked in commercial radio news and has also covered environmental and health issues as well as reviewing films. In a non journalistic capacity she’s worked in a hospital, a stockbrokers and for a government committee. She also spent stints working as a genealogist, running an antique stall and working as an assistant stage manager. She lives with her husband Michael, a photographer, and the obligatory cat, in Dublin city.

Copyright Abigail Reilly for writing.ie

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