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From Headlines to Front Lines : Sandra Mara

Writing.ie | Magazine | General Interest | Interviews | Non-Fiction
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By Sandra Mara

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Sandra Mara was Ireland’s first female private investigator, following in the footsteps of her father Bill Kavanagh, who started Ireland’s first detective agency in 1947.  An international investigator for over twenty-five years, she acted for government agencies, multi-nationals, professional bodies and media outlets around the world.

Sandra was on the board of the International Security Investigation Service (ISIS) – the Swiss based PI equivalent to Interpol and was a founder member and former President of the Institute of Irish Investigators.

Sandra has been a member of the FSS (the Forensics Science Society) since 1986, the professional body representing Forensic Scientists, Academics, Researchers and all those working in related fields in the UK, Ireland and internationally.·The FSS is one of the oldest and largest forensic science organisations in the world.

Sandra was the recipient of several awards and was voted International Investigator of the Year by the World Association of Detectives, travelling to Singapore to accept her Award.  She also won the Irish Security Industry Association ‘Innovation Award’ for ‘outstanding work in raising the standards in her specialised area’.

Sandra holds a masters degree in journalism from DCU and was an investigative journalist with Magill magazine for four years, exposing political and other scandals such as the Donegal garda story.

Sandra has written three books:  No Job For a WomanDead Men Talk and To The Limits of Endurance One Irishman’s War, here she gives you her tips for writing non-fiction:

In many ways writing non-fiction can be a lot lazier exercise than writing a novel.  There are no sleepless nights worrying about the storyline, trying to ‘think around corners’, devising twists and turns in the plot to keep the reading dangling and wanting more….

Truly great fiction grips the reader from the very first opening line, making them want to read more NOW.  It’s the book that fights against the need for sleep, demands snatched glimpses of the next page, and can induces wanton abandon in the most disciplined reader, with work, studies or other responsibilities relegated to another time and place.

Though a lover of fiction, as a journalist and writer I find it an easier task to write non-fiction stories.   How I would love to master the tricky art of holding the reader in the palm of your hand. I already have the story – writing it is another thing, so for now, I will stick to the easier task of writing non-fiction.

Writing a true story, whether it is a news item or any kind of book requires certain disciplines.  The dreaded word limit often imposed by newsroom editors or publishing houses can cause havoc if you are passionate about getting in every detail. The trick is to use the KISS method, keep it simple,whilst making use of the golden rules of storytelling that operates in both print and broadcasting media: WHO WHAT WHERE WHEN AND WHY.

Tell your reader what happened, where, when and why it occurred and most importantly, who was involved. Having an inside angle or a different ‘take’ can make an ordinary story an ‘exclusive’ bring deep joy to a newspaper editor, so always look for that extra piece of information or insight that no one else has. There IS always another perspective and sadly too many journalists trot out the same old story written in a different dialect depending on whether it has been written for a red top or a newspaper of note.

If you can catch your reader’s attention and tell them the story as succinctly as possible, you are onto a winner. If you have the luxury of a longer article you can develop the story with colour pieces, describing the ‘players’  – the characters in the story, a celebrity, a government minister or a human interest story of the ordinary man or women in the street, bringing the piece to life. This is where good headlines and punchy ‘strap lines’ (the sub-heading) come into play – grabbing attention from a possibly otherwise disinterested public.

Headlines and straplines catch the both eye of the man in the street and the editor, and this applies whether you are a staff or a freelance writer or journalist working on a commissioned piece. Some publishers write their own headlines, but if you have already come up with a catchy one in your article, they will use it, which can give you the edge over other freelancers in getting future work, whether for a magazine, newspaper or even an advertising campaign – after all, everyone has to start somewhere even if your early efforts are not in a  front-line publication.

Tricks of the trade such as catchy titles, headlines or straplines can be used across the board but must be tempered to the style of the publication you are writing for.  A red top tabloid newspaper will require dramatic headlines such as ‘Guinea Pig behind murder’ as recently appeared in an Irish newspaper. A curious person would buy the paper to read how a Guinea pig could possibly commit murder. Read on, and you will learn that the villain’s nickname was Guinea pig, giving the poor innocent animal a bad name! A terrible crime but it sells papers.

Other publications such as the Irish Times and other respected publications expect a more businesslike approach targeted at their specific readers and a journalist or writer must adjust their style to the publication’s house style and requirements.  This can be quickly established by reading back copies, speaking to the editor or sub-editor if you are unsure exactly how they want the piece treated, or in some instances certain publications will send you a copy of their ‘house rules’ on  virtually everything.

I have always had a sneaking affection for a cheeky headline and strapline and have also made good use of them when writing, particularly in books, even to the point of using black humour in an otherwise heavy topic. I see them as a ‘teaser’, something that makes you want to read more. I make liberal use of them in non-fiction writing and have been known to have chapter titles such as ‘Florence Nightingale was a Man’ or ‘Stolen drink and drugs as the Padre turns a blind eye’ and even the oxymoron of ‘Brave Deserters’, despite the book being the war memoirs of former Labour Senator Jack Harte from Dublin, who ran away at 15 to join the army. He endured appalling hardships, was eventually captured and spent two years in a German prisoner of war camp twenty miles from the notorious Belsen before finally being liberated  by the Allied forces *

You make think ‘how can you possibly use humorous chapter titles for such an horrific story?’

In that particular case the man himself had and still has, a wicked sense of humour –  squaddie humour that is still the norm in military circles today, no matter how grim their situation. To sanitise the story by changing the slang words used or by editing the black humour robs the reader of the real character of these men. Their irreverence, black humour and colourful language was exactly what kept them going when all hope had failed.

It epitomises the individual character and indeed the characters that soldiered together, both then and now.

The language used in the story has to be credible and reflectively individual to the characters, something which I had to fight my corner for with my publisher.  Even then, having vetoed their changes and insisting and agreeing that the  original text was to be  kept as it had been written, sanitised alterations were sometimes made which changed the nuances of the situation.

Compare this to writing a story about for example, criminal gangs, not as an outside observer but giving, in as much as is possible, the inside track into their lives. You are writing their story through their eyes and in their words.

If they are involved a turf war with a rival gang, they are unlikely to say ‘please refrain from entering our area’, their mode of ‘conversation’ will probably be delivered through the barrel of a gun. The pages MUST speak to the reader, leading them further and further into the story. It should enthrall them and leave them wanting more.  I’m still searching for that elusive talent. It is something every writer ultimately aspires to but few realise.

When I was first approached to write Jack Harte’s war story I was a reluctant author. War stories were not ‘my thing’ and I didn’t really want to do it. Eventually persuaded, to my great surprise I became totally enthralled by both the man, whom I’d known for many years, and his heroics which were a revelation. It was an education in itself. It was an honour to have been asked to write his true story. I would be now less inclined to dismiss a storyline as not being ‘my style’. That particular experience turned out to be an amazing journey and I was privileged to have been allowed to write it. The lesson learned is to rule nothing out – you make miss a wonderful opportunity.

All non- fiction requires thorough research. In that story I was merely the writer, the subject matter was not within my personal experience, as others stories had been. I had to try to understand what Jack Harte, the man, went through, to get inside his head and see things from his perspective, while doing as much research as possible to ensure that his memory was 100% accurate which amazingly, despite his age, it was.

I researched through international news stories relating to the countries he’d served in, the archives and secret files of the fledging SBS/SAS, the undercover work, all while trying to grasp the sense of real danger, boredom, death and destruction, the loss of close friends and all that goes with the trauma of a war that lasted six years, whilst never having experienced a war myself.

Visiting the grave of Jack’s commanding officer and close friend in a military cemetery in Greece made me cry, as I looked at line after line of graves, all young men in their early twenties who never came home. It gave me a real understanding of his story and hopefully helped me to tell it as it truly was. Research didn’t end there as the ‘glamorous’ side of writing kicked in. Digging up war records from the UK military archives, researching the background of people he served with, interviewing comrades or their family members were all essential leg work. I contacted museum curators to establish certain facts right down to the type of military equipment used and I even visited some of the Greek Islands and other places he fought – a dirty job in summertime but someone had to do it and I volunteered!

Though now 90 years old (and still driving) retired Irish Senator Jack Harte still exudes the wit and black humour that kept him going. To write his story any other way would not have been credible, particularly as a female writer untouched by war, writing a soldier’s very personal war story.

I have been contacted by many readers, including past and present soldiers  some still serving in war zones saying how much they related to that soldier, Jack Harte, though their battles were 60 years apart.

That insight and feedback both surprised and pleased me. It taught me to be true to the character, a case of tell it like  really it is, or was – bearing in mind the legal limitations and potential for libel in all non-fiction writing. Some people are litigious and though you may be telling the truth, there are occasions where proving it may not be possible for numerous reasons. This is particularly true when writing a memoir and some stories are airbrushed from history for legal reasons.

Even where the subject is not necessarily an emotive one, a good headline, title or strapline’ can make all the difference in ‘selling’ your idea or story to an editor.  A serious subject like Law or Forensic Science can be made an easy read for the general public. Even the most squeamish can learn how forensic scientists can solve crimes and they can be ‘hooked’ into reading about it by curious titles such as I have used in Dead Men Talk – ultimately, complicated tales of murders mayhem and crime can be simply explained.  A chapter entitled Busted by Bugs explains how everyday crimes are solved, how long a victim had been dead, and shows the process of investigation – did they die where they were found or elsewhere? Common insects or flies such as bluebottles or worms play an essential part . Playing with Fire makes understanding arson easy, while the Bullet Catchers is a DIY introduction to guns, ammunition and ballistics, all otherwise complicated forensic science subjects, a catchy title catches that fish or in this case, the audience every time, be they publisher or reader and television programmes such as CSI or other genres from history to cooking all add to the public’s interest in your article or book.

The feedback I’ve had time and time again from readers is that the title or chapter heading made them curious and left them wanting to know more, even if it wasn’t their usual type of book. The additional benefit of an unusual title, headline or strapline is that it immediately attracts the broadcast media’s attention and you, your newspaper or publisher will get wide coverage across the airwaves. This exposure is a great bonus while the free advertising will increase sales and keep your editor or publisher very happy.

That said, it is important to find your own style. Don’t write to a formula, it has been done before and one book can start to look much like another. My style when writing books is very different to when I’m writing a hard news article. When writing a book or indeed an article like this, I prefer to ‘talk’ to the readers, have a ‘one to one’ conversation with them, I wasn’t initially conscious of this and only realised that’s exactly what I do when I got a lot of feedback from readers, some who knew me personally, others whom I’d never met – they all told me they felt it was like having a personal conversation with me. If so, that makes me very happy, as I want to engage with my readers.

Different genres demand different approaches and each writer must chose what suits them best, Over time they will evolve and arrive at ‘their’ style and hopefully chose a style which they are comfortable with, is marketable and appeals to a broad audience.

All writers have different approaches to writing. Some may work for a specified time each day, others keep writing while the ideas flow, while a few make notes and write to formulae. I write as I go along, whatever comes into my head, I write what I think, get as much down as possible and go back later, axing, or more properly – editing  – it if is necessary. Sometimes the first draft is not bad, others – well, what can I say? Nothing is a waste of time, as even on a bad day you will get a nugget of inspiration from your writing and if not used for that specific story, may prove useful later.

If you hit a wall, run out of ideas and want to give up, just remember Oscar Wilde. He said:  “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it in again”.

The secret is – there is no secret. Just patience, persistence and writing about what you know, if you don’t know your subject, learn about it – you can’t get away with writing about something you have no knowledge of, particularly if there is a technical content. You’ll be found wanting and it won’t be published. Most of all, enjoy what you do and remember it will always be a learning curve, no matter how far up the publishing ladder you may go.

We are never too old to learn new tricks so get out there reader, and let the writer in you Publish and be Damned!

* To The Limits of Endurance One Irishman’s War. Liberties Press

About the author

You can find out more about Sandra on her website www.sandramarawriter.com

©Sandra Mara for writing.ie

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