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Writing Non-Fiction and Historical Crime: What I Learned by Dean Ruxton

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Article by Dean Ruxton ©.
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I could have picked the archivist up and spun him around. The book was saved.

An early lesson I learned while researching for When the Hangman Came to Galway was a disarming one; you have to get lucky. Perhaps “lucky” isn’t the word – the more time you spend researching and the more questions you ask, the “luckier” you will be. In my case, I had just about given up on finding quite an important file for one of the book’s key murder trials. The staff in all of the archives I visited were extremely helpful when dealing with my multiple requests for the same thing, and in this case, my hope was gone. I’d satisfied myself that the file had been lost.

But it wasn’t lost. I hadn’t asked enough people enough questions. I discovered that during a chance encounter with one of the older archivists on the way into the building one morning.

“That file wasn’t there in the end,” I said to him as we walked to the reading room.

“Really?” he asked, “It should be.” Twenty minutes later, I was poring through a yellowed folder bursting with glorious, essential detail. I asked many more helpful people many more simple questions after that.

The type of writing I usually do – journalistically for The Irish Times Lost Leads series or in Hangman – follows a similar process. For those looking to write a book in the historical non-fiction/true crime genre, here are some things I’ve learned.

Prepare to do lots of research. Lots and lots.

Before you start, or pitch, a full-length historical true crime book, you have to be sure there’s enough to maintain a long project and keep readers interested. That means research before you’ve started researching. Subscribe to online newspaper archives, visit libraries and register for readers’ tickets for archive reading rooms. Then, read.

Become the reader

On the first pass of the main reports – before you’re a researcher or a writer – you’re a reader. You want to really be captivated. Once that’s cleared, your job is a straightforward one; retell the story accurately and preserve whatever it was that made it captivating to you the first time out. Be patient – the first story you find may not be the one, nor the first ten.

Picking the right detail

When you’ve decided on your story, the research begins. You’ll need patience. You may end up researching a detail for a day, only to eventually glean a half-page of writing. Or nothing. Other times, a half-day will yield a document that builds thousands of words.

Your job throughout is to prioritise the right details. That’s not easy when it’s the minutia – physical descriptions, historical weather forecasts, local planning issues, family lineage – that can provide nice colour and cannot be ignored. Equally, long passages of transcribed text from an important deposition can be tempting to include wholesale. (Do the latter as sparingly as possible, it’s a speedbump for readers.)

When to write

Do you research the whole lot, then start writing? Or is ‘research-write’, ‘research-write’ a better method? The answer here is vague; writers differ. But I found the work frontloaded with research. The writing came later.

One benefit of finishing most of the research before writing, I find, is the ability to avoid stumbling upon something that would make redundant words I already have in the can. It’s tempting to dive into writing, but it’s important to take your time with the research material.

That said, you will ideally have a broad chapter structure quite early on and if there are parts you’re sure aren’t going to change heavily, you can get a start on those. I don’t advise using your wordcount as a direct measure of early progress, but you can derive a small confidence boost when the number rises above 0.

What to write

Your style is your own, but I like to try preserve the language of the sources I’m reading, where reasonable. The language is part of history itself. In general, writing will be easier if you’re closely familiar with the research material, stick to the the facts, and have a clear idea of overall structure.

Recognising ‘invisible’ labour

The physical act of typing isn’t the only component of “writing”. To that end, the most valuable advice I received at university was: “Thinking is working.” By the time you come to write, ideally you’ve mentally turned over the story to the point that there are chapters already sketched in your head (and in many, many word documents and notebooks.)

Organisation

The book is the sum of small components. Devise a system to keep track of records viewed and any chapters or passages written. This makes life easier when you come to the assembly stage. Google Sheets is your friend. Buy some notebooks. Go wild.

Climbing the mountain

It’s a privilege to illustrate the past for a new audience. There’s something indescribably cool about holding a handwritten document more than 100 years old. But the scale of the project can be daunting. I found it helpful to not think of yourself as working “on” the book, but rather “alongside” it. Try to remember that mundane tasks are contributing to the overall work and early progress in research-heavy projects is harder to quantify; 8 really productive hours in a reading room might go unnoticed immediately in your wordcount. That’s to say nothing of transcription, reading, photo-sourcing and editing.

Letting go

When you can say to yourself that you looked in the right places and wrote the story in an engaging way, hit send. You could arguably research indefinitely, so the book may not feel “finished” to you. But that’s alright. Onto the next one.

(c) Dean Ruxton

Dean Ruxton is a writer and journalist from Dublin. He worked with Hot Press magazine, before joining The Irish Times as a digital journalist in 2014. Since then, his byline has appeared in nearly every section of the site, but his name is mostly associated with the Lost Leads archive series – a retelling of some of the lesser-known stories that have appeared in the paper since 1859.

About When the Hangman Came to Galway:

Galway, the winter of 1885. The violent murders of John Moylan, killed in a dark boreen, and Alice Burns, shot dead in the dining room of the Royal Hotel, have shaken the county. Now, following painstaking investigations and charged courtroom drama, justice beckons for the guilty parties.

James Berry, the notorious executioner who ended the lives of over one hundred criminals in Victorian Britain and Ireland, has come to town. The paths of a secret paramour, a jilted lover and a reluctant hangman are about to cross.

When the Hangman Came to Galway is a chilling true story that delivers a meticulously researched, eye-opening portrait of Victorian Ireland and a spine-tingling tale of love, revenge, murder and retribution.

Order your copy online here.

 


Dean Ruxton is a writer and journalist from Dublin. He worked with Hot Press magazine, before joining The Irish Times as a digital journalist in 2014. Since then, his byline has appeared in nearly every section of the site, but his name is mostly associated with the Lost Leads archive series – a retelling of some of the lesser-known stories that have appeared in the paper since 1859.