Much of what is written and discussed about the ‘process’ of writing usually refers to the writing of novels. Discussion about fiction writing is all about inspiration, plot, voice. But the writing of non-fiction also has its own process, though perhaps not as mysterious as that of the art of fiction.
I have written four history books and undoubtedly with each the greatest challenge for me is how to deal with boredom. Because much of it is what other people would define as tedium – sitting at a desk poring over documents and newspapers, most of which will contain nothing of interest, or editing the umpteenth draft of a chapter – is the very essence of writing. It is not glamorous, or often enjoyable, but if your brain can live with this life then you can write. Fortunately mine can.
Each of my books – Mountjoy: the Story of a Prison, Hanged for Ireland and Croke Park: A History – had its own distinct challenges and problems.
With Hanged for Murder the greatest problem turned out to be a self-imposed deadline that, if not impossible, was fairly unrealistic. But I was eager to have another book out. I had not had a book out in my own right for eight years. Though I had written books for my day job, Heritage Officer with Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, and was instigator and director of the Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival for three years I still felt the need for another book. For a time I had worked on a novel but came to the conclusion that if it was going to go places it required considerably more time and effort (and possibly other things that I might not be able to supply) and I was becoming impatient. So I went up to the attic and took down heaps of material on the executions that I had amassed while I was researcher for Midas Productions for four series of Ceart agus Coir on TG4.
There was no reason for an autumn 2013 deadline. There was no anniversary to tie in with. But I wanted a book back on the shelves and felt it was doable. However, it was the hardest of all my books to get out in time and put huge pressure on my family life. However, the upside is that it is done now.
Hanged for Murder tells the stories of the 29 people who were executed by the state for murder between 1923 and 1954. Such subject matter presented particular challenges.
One was that each of the stories, each of the chapters, were all obviously going to start and end in the same way – someone was going to be murdered and someone was going to die in Mountjoy Prison’s execution chamber. With no mystery of suspense getting to the end of each chapter in a way that was not repetitive was key. But fortunately, for the writer anyway, there was plenty of variety in the cases. Each had their own unique background stories based on envy, love, sex, greed and rivalry. These were not gangland murders committed with the dispassion of a contract killer but human interest stories writ large.
A particular challenge with this book was being fair to each of the protagonists involved – the murdered and the executed. This was difficult for a number of reasons.
In the various files most of the material relates not to the murder victim, but to the murderer – once the murder is committed the person who was killed becomes secondary as all attention focused on their suspected attacker. This skewing of information was an insurmountable difficulty.
To those who, like me, are against the death penalty the tendency could have been to treat the convicted murderer as a ‘victim’ of the Mountjoy hang house. However, I tried to avoid this by taking no stance on the form of their punishment – capital punishment was the law of the land at the time and it was not for me to impose my views.
I was also careful not to be sympathetic to the murderer just because time has passed and they are no longer a threat. I approached each case as though they took place in the present and asked myself how I would feel and what I would think had I read the details in today’s newspapers. I hope this approach brought a healthy degree of impartiality to the cases.
Finally, what might have been thought the most difficult part about writing Hanged for Murder, the disturbing nature of the material, was not difficult at all. These were all murder cases and some were gruesome in the extreme. There were decapitations and dissections (three of them!), stabbings, beating, shootings (one of whom had their face shot off). While I could only glance at some of the often horrendous crime scene photographs I found trying to understand the background to the cases and the ‘truth’ – or as close to the truth as I could – of what happened compelling.
When State Pathologist, Professor Marie Cassidy, launched my book we laughed about our interest in such things. I am very squeamish and know I could not confront physical crime scenes like she does on an almost daily basis, but I had no problem reading about them in court files, garda files, pathologists reports and newspaper accounts. I did not find it in the least bit disturbing. But maybe that in itself is disturbing? Mmmm…Best not to think too much on that.
(c) Tim Carey