There is fact in every fiction. I remember reading a short story at a literary event and, afterwards, an elderly woman approached me with tears in her eyes. She said she thought I’d been writing about her and her son. We didn’t know each other and there was no way I could have had prior knowledge of the small detail in what was for her a deeply personal story.
Perhaps, because I’d investigated fatal traffic accidents at home and on military service abroad, that I became acutely aware of the minute realisms associated with this type of tragedy. But the lesson of that reading taught me this about my writing; what I write about has happened to people, is happening to people, and will happen to people. Be it in a fiction or a non-fictional sense.
Deadly Confederacies is a short story, the title of my latest collection, and I’m frequently asked is it rooted in fact. It is, to a degree. None of the characters in the story are real people; yet the horrible things that happened to them are real. There is a blurring of lines between what is and what isn’t real. A dozen witnesses will give you 12 different statements of an event each had witnessed…because even standing a foot away from another person lends you a different perspective.
Some say that what we write about, the stuff that intrigues and haunts us, is to be found in the earlier years of our lives. I don’t fully entirely subscribe to this theory, but…
A woman was murdered in the 1972 at the location mentioned in the story: a y junction almost opposite a golf course. At the time, the area would have been considered a relatively remote distance from town. The murder is older now than the unfortunate woman had been at the time her life was stolen.
It had been the first murder in very many years in the town; indeed, I think in living memory. I was 14 at the time. And I remember detectives doing the rounds with their questionnaires, and the palpable fear and sadness in the town. Fear that a killer was about, and sadness at the brutal death of one of the town’s inhabitants. The population back then, was probably about 2,000 or less. Many women would have cycled that way in to and out of town, to the market, to the shops, to Mass…the killer could have singled out any one of them.
Years later, I spoke with a detective who had been close to the case, and he told me that a former soldier had admitted to the crime, but they were far from certain that he was the murderer, as he was deemed to be mentally unstable and therefore not a reliable witness. The case was dismissed against him for lack of evidence and later on he took his own life.
Fast forward to 1979, to another murder in the Curragh. This murder happened at Colgan’s Cut, on what was then the main Dublin Limerick road. Colgan was a 19th century highwayman who used to hold-up the mailcoaches and make his getaway across the Curragh plains, hence it’s known as the ‘Cut.’
Suspects were asked to ‘voluntarily’ supply blood samples in order to eliminate them from their enquiries. The samples did not provide the investigating team with conclusive evidence and so were carefully stored, and left to sit as silent accusing fingers for 20 years. With the re-opening of the missing women files, Operation Trace, and advances made in the capability of DNA analysis, the original blood samples were sent to England for DNA testing. These returned a ‘positive’ sample. A ‘lock’ on a suspect.
A few years ago, while renovating the town square, the skeleton of a woman was found in a well that had been filled in. It is thought that the well was covered up because the water had turned poisonous. This was a discovery that I put in a short story in my first collection, ‘The Mango War & Other Stories.’
‘How much of ‘real’ should we put into ‘story?’ I think it’s a question of how far does a writer want to go in bringing his story alive, to bring it beyond the cage marked out for it by statistics and factual accounts. I think as writers we have a responsibility to dig between the lines and excavate…work the ‘What if?’ Do we risk hurting the living, those who knew and loved the victims, if they can draw parallels with the story? They already live in perpetual hurt, can a written piece add to their pain?
Imagination, self-séance, research, helped me to formulate my fictional story. Also, research on the mind mechanics of these everyday seemingly ordinary men, married and settled, with kids, provided another ingredient. But writing it and stepping in to the shoes of a remorseless killer, was an exacting process. I wanted to write a story from the viewpoint of a man who had no remorse. I risked the reader disengaging with the central character because there isn’t a hook for her in which to have empathy for him, nor indeed, an understanding. It’s a chilling story, designed to be no less. The action in the story is at a remove from the ‘real’ incidents, the former less so, I suppose – but I think this first a murder forgotten about, and while we have roadside markers for those killed in traffic accidents, you’ll find few dedicated to the site where a person’s life had been brutally taken from her.
My characters are fictional, but it’s my job to make them ‘real’. Utterly believable, living in a world beyond mere stats.
(c) Martin Malone