Thursday 21 August 2014

On second thoughts ...

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about a real-life murder that happened in my own backyard. And I beat myself up about it, believing I had missed a good opportunity to write a true crime book and reveal a horrendous crime to the world.

Today I'm happy to report that I've changed my mind.

After finishing Virginia Peters' book HavYou Seen Simone? about a murdered German backpacker in Lismore (pictured, above), I am left with an empty space, in my head and my heart. And I've passed the book on to my Mum. She's welcome to it.

It's not that I didn't like the book. It was well written although the editing was a tad dodgy and it took me a while to settle in. Peters wrote a first-person account which is unusual for this genre, so I had to get used to the fact that it was as much about the author, Peters, as it was about the poor dead backpacker, Strobel. Eventually I did get used to that but what I will never get used to are all the question marks it left dangling, like a hangman's noose, at the end.

Who the hell dunnit?!

This is true crime and worst kind of true crime—one that's unsolved. There are no neat endings here, no final reveal over glasses of sherry in a room full of jittery, well-dressed suspects. Just a deep, long wondering that has left me feeling deeply frustrated.

It's not Peters' fault. It's the nature of the crime. The police have their suspicions, so, too, Peters, although she stops short of saying whodunnit (not that it's stopped her from being sued for defamation the poor thing). But that's not really my issue because, quite frankly, she doesn't know. Not for sure. Neither do the police who investigated or the families who are involved.

And it haunts them all.

Simone Strobel's murder is an enigma that, for now, is unsolved. May never be solved. Might always be left dangling, hanging over everyone's heads including the weary author who dedicated seven years of her life to the book.

And it frustrates the bejezus out of me! 
I write crime fiction, I read it with pleasure. But I don't do both things because I'm a gory, blood-splashing sadist. I love crime fiction becasue I love a good puzzle. I love to be handed all the clues and given a fair crack at solving it, preferably before the detective (or my annoyingly savvy readers ;-). So when a puzzle has no neat ending, when no one is cuffed and locked up for the crime, it makes me a little cranky.

And it makes me realise just why, deep down, I didn't do the Simone Strobel book.

At first I thought I ignored the book idea, handed to me on a platter by a criminal lawyer friend, because I was too chicken-shit, too relcutant to bring such darkness into my life. Now I wonder whether it was really because the case had not been solved, and there would be no answers at the end.

So what was the point of that? 

Does it help Simone Strobel or does it just rake over her grisly death for no good reason? I'd love to hear your thoughts, drop me a comment below or email me directly.

Happy reading everyone!
xo Christina

Sunday 17 August 2014

Slam, bam, thank you, Ma'am!

There's an old adage amongst crime fiction writers that the first murder has to come quickly, preferably in the first 40 pages or so. 

Try it free

Sample the beginning of this book for free

I've heard this advice repeated at crime fiction workshops and on the podiums at writers festivals, and I usually scoff and sneer and think that's so cliche. Can't we just kill people when and as it's required?

As I've said in an earlier blog, I hate stereotypes. I loathe so-called rules and regulations around any kind of creative pursuit, but especially around writing. Shouldn't writers try to break the rules, push the envelope, surprise world-weary readers?

I like to think so.

However ...

Now that I publish ebooks, I have begun to feel the imperative to kill, and kill fast, more than I care to admit. And I blame it all on Amazon.

You see, the thing about digital books—which I love, and which have given me a career I could never have dreamed of, let alone a tremendous source of cheap reading— is the free sample stuff. Today, browsers get to download a sample of your book for free, usually the first 30%. That way they can have a small taste test before they cough up the full amount.

It's a great idea in principle and I often use it myself when deciding what to buy. In turn, I get a lot of people downloading samples of my books, a hell of a lot more than actually go on to buy them.

But here's the kick: of those who download samples, I doubt most of them will even get to the 30% mark. I suspect, from my own reading habits, that most will read the first three pages, perhaps even just the first three pars, or even the first three sentences, to make up their minds.

This means I need to grab them fast!

I know these things should not matter when constructing a great story, and I truly wish they didn't, but sadly they do. The faster I grab people's attention, and encourage them to buy, the more 'great stories' I get to write. Purchases mean freedom to keep doing what I love, and what I know some readers enjoy.

It's a tricky balancing act— grab 'em quick without prematurely rushing the drama.

As my books have progressed, I think I have the balance right but it's hard to know. What I do know is, I never want to forfeit good plot and storyline for a quick buck. But do I pull it off?

Let me know what you think, about this and other topics.

And happy reading everyone!
xo Christina

Tuesday 5 August 2014

The one that got away

Book Cover:  Have You Seen Simone?: The Story of an Unsolved MurderSeveral years ago I was having dinner with a criminal lawyer friend who suggested a non-fiction book idea to me which I promptly ignored, and am now kicking myself about.

Back in 2005, a German backpacker had been found murdered, her body left under palm fronds near a Lismore caravan park, and her case has gone largely unsolved, despite several good leads and at least three suspects. My lawyer friend, Tracey, who also happens to live near Lismore, knew about the case and thought it would make a fascinating book.

But did I listen to her? No I did not!

Then, last weekend, while planted in the packed audience at a true crime session of the Byron Bay Writers Festival—a popular annual event that I NEVER miss out on—I had the great good fortune of hearing three writers speak about their work.

One of them was about a German backpacker who had been found murdered, her body left under palm fronds near a Lismore caravan park. What? No! Not only was the tragic story of Simone Strobel fascinating, the author, Virginia Peters, had such an incredible tale to tell of researching and writing the book, and the audience was captivated by the excerpt she read out.

After the session I rushed out to buy the book.

While I'm yet to finish Have You Seen Simone? (Penguin, 2014)—freelance work, why do you plague me so?—I am enjoying it thoroughly. And I can not help wondering, what if ...

What if I had listened to my lawyer friend and written the book myself?

One step removed
I recall at the time Tracey suggested it, I was intrigued. I've always had a macabre interest in true crime, devouring Who/People magazines' crime articles weekly and reading real crime stories in daily papers with the same gusto that my heroine Roxy Parker does. (Although, unlike Roxy I do not cut and paste them in a Book of Death. I'm sick, but not that sick!)

Yet I made a deliberate attempt to ignore my friend's advice. I like reading about true crime, I love writing crime fiction, but both things afford me a distance that writing true crime would not. Mine are one step removed. Safe and cosy. To do this book I would need to do as Virginia does, and not only immerse myself in the real crime, decaying flesh and all, but I would have to meet and interview the suspects. I would have to look a potential murderer in the eye.

It felt like a step too far. Did I really want to invite that kind of vermin into my life? Back then, I decided, not.

Living brave
Now, flicking through this book and remembering the wide-eyed audience who clung to the author's every word at the Writers Fest, I wish I had been braver. I wish I had taken a risk. And I wish I had written about an important story that needed to be told. Maybe if I had, it would be me sitting up on that podium, keeping an audience entranced with a story that breaks your heart.

Oh well, Tracey, you tried. Next time I'll heed your advice!

Happy reading everyone and kudos to you, Ms Peters.
xo Christina

POSTCRIPT: Despite not pointing the finger directly at any one suspect, author Virginia Peters is currently being sued for defamation. For me, this only underscores the importance of this story and the author's utter bravery.