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Monday 19 December 2016

Killer Women

The First Killer Women's Crime Writers' Festival
Shoreditch Town Hall, London, October 15, 2016
Report by Radmila May

This first Killer Women Crime Writers' Festival was held in the impressive Shoreditch Town Hall in the heart of London's fabled East End. What is more, the Assembly Room in which some of the sessions were held is the very chamber where the inquest on the last of Jack the Ripper's victims took place. The Festival was originally the idea of the crime writers Melanie McGrath and Louise Millar and their first inspiration was the short story collection. The Killer Women Crime Writers' Anthology, eds. Louise Voss and Helen Smith. The idea was not only to celebrate women crime writers but to do so in London which until now and in spite of the numerous crime writing festivals springing up all over the British Isles from the South Coast to Shetland, has not had its own festival.

Melanie McGrath writes the Alaska-set Edie Kiglatuk series. (M/P).
Louise Millar's latest title is the Edinburgh-set City of Shadow (M/P).
Louise Voss (with Mark Edwards)
writes the Detective Lennon thriller series (M/P).
Helen Smith writes the Emily Castle series (M/P).
(M/P denotes that one or more books by an author have been reviewed in Mystery People.)

The programme was diverse and included interviews with well-known writers such as Val McDermid and Martina Cole, discussions on such topics as historical crime fiction, the psychology of fictional murderers, non-fictional subjects like the relationship between violence and mental illness, a panel of new writers, and a number of workshops for those interested in writing crime fiction. Throughout the day there were sessions running side by side culminating with five side-by-sides in the late afternoon. The day ended with one event, the presentation and analysis of a fictional murder. The fact that the events were simultaneous meant that I could not go to them all and so the reports in this feature concentrate on those that I could get to and two that a friend (Anne Toovey) who came with me kindly covered. In addition there was quite a bit of overlapping so that, for instance, I had to sneak out of Val McDermid's interview to go to something else (sorry, Val). I have put the names of the speakers I did hear in bold and have given where I can their latest title and indicated whether any of their books have been reviewed by Mystery People. And I have listed the names of the crime writers I didn't hear at the end: their books can be researched on Amazon and on Mystery People. Apologies to those writers but it was inevitable.

Val McDermid's latest title (of many) is Out of Bounds (M/P).
Martina Cole's latest title is Betrayal.

After registration the parallel events began.

History And Mystery.

Six writers of historical crime fiction and historical crime non-fiction were on this panel: Andrew Taylor, Kate Colquhoun, Kate Summerscale, D E Meredith, Fern Riddell, and Alison Joseph (chair). They discussed the impossibility of getting everything factually correct and said that while authors must do their best it is essential not to let research overburden the narrative or prevent the author from getting on with the writing. As for dialogue, Victorian-set stories are comparatively easy with trials in particular providing a useful template for how people actually talked (as opposed to novels where the dialogue is often unrealistically flowery). Earlier periods such as the 17th century are more difficult: dialogue should be comprehensible to today's readers but not jarringly modern (eg no text speak!).

Alison Joseph's new series features Agatha Christie as a detective.
She has also written a number of present-day-set novels in two series (M/P).
Andrew Taylor's latest novel,  Ashes of London, is the first of a series set in the 17th century (M/P).
Kate Colquhoun's Did She Kill Him? tells the story of a real-life Victorian murder.
D E Meredith's Halton and Roumade stories feature Victorian forensics (M/P).
Kate Summerscale's latest book is The Wicked Boy, another of her true-life Victorian crimes.
Fern Riddell has written the non-fiction book The Victorian Guide to Sex, Desire and Deviance in the 19th Century

The Confessions Of Thomas Quick.

Anne Toovey writes: Barry Forshaw chaired a fascinating discussion with filmmaker Brian Hill about this feature documentary, the subject of which was ‘Sweden’s Only Serial Killer’ and which included clips from the film. There is a huge twist in this compelling real life story, which has much to tell about the power of suggestion, and the capacity of the establishment, notably the Swedish police and the judiciary, to believe what is convenient and to ignore evidence which does not fit into the chosen pattern. The full version is now available on Netflix. It will be of interest to everyone interested in crime, policing, fashions in therapy and in criminal justice.

Fresh Blood.

There were four new authors on this panel who talked about their journey to publication. Paul Burston's first crime novel is The Black Path and is a 'domestic noir', a tale of love and lies, obsession and betrayal. After his earlier non-crime novels he has been described as the LGBT Jane Austen. Former journalist Michelle Davies's Gone Astray is a police procedural with a family liaison officer as protagonist. Swedish crime writer Agnes Revatn's The Bird Tribunal is the first to be published in English (M/P). Chris Whitaker was once a City trader; his first crime novel is Tall Oaks and is a missing child thriller set in a small U.S town.


There were a number of workshops throughout the day. Altogether there were seven. In the afternoon I went to three. All the speakers were warm and friendly in their manner which created a pleasant atmosphere. I have listed the workshops I couldn't get to at the end of this section with their participants.

How To Self-Publish A Best Seller.

This workshop was given by Rachel Abbott, who is both self-published and enormously successful (M/P). She told us that her first self-published novel, The Back Road, at first achieved only modest sales, but that she then produced a marketing and promotion plan derived from her own previous experience as the founder of two successful companies, and followed it through. It was an impressive, whirlwind talk which covered many subjects, too many to include in this brief note or even to get down coherently. But it did seem to me that many traditionally published writers, in these days when publishers only really promote their top authors and leave the rest to chance, might also benefit from her example. Rachel has apparently been asked to write a book based on her marketing expertise; it would be good if she did so. Her latest book is Kill Me Again. Like the previous titles it features Detective Chief Inspector Tom Douglas.

Writing The Psychological Thriller.

This workshop was given by the authors Amanda Jennings and Tammy Cohen. This currently popular genre has certain special features, they said. They are written mostly, if not entirely, from the point of view of the main character, usually (but not always) a woman. Her motivation for being involved in the story is crucial so there should be considerable introspection with a natural internal conflict and difficulty in making choices increased by the flaws in her (or his) character. The setting should be immediately relatable to the reader so domestic settings are often the obvious choice. There must be suspense and tension throughout with a mounting sense of dread to which cliff hangers at the end and in the middle of chapters contribute while short sentences, short paragraphs, and short chapters add pace and drama. There should be twists and surprises throughout with perhaps a major twist half way through but plausibility is vital. Psychological thrillers can be standalones, in which case the classic story are is fundamental, or follow-ons  which will give characters even more space to develop.

Amanda Jennings's latest title is In her Wake (M/P).
Tammy Cohen's latest title is When She Was Bad,
 a suspense story which centres round an office: unusual for crime fiction but sounds pretty good to me.

How To Write A Crime Novel.

The author Kate Rhodes told us how she approached writing a new novel. Start Now, she said, with The Idea. But the idea is only 10% of writing, the other idea is 90% Self-Confidence so Have Faith in Yourself. Then The Tag ie. the line which appears on the front cover of a published book which epitomizes the idea and seizes the browsing customer's attention. Then a Mini-Synopsis, with one sentence setting up the story and the next asking the big question.  Then The Plot ie. a detailed 400-500 synopsis, including the beginning, middle and ending, focussing on the main character and including stand-out features e.g specialist knowledge of antiques. Then The Planning.
Kate felt this was essential for her and she strongly advised it for new writers. Begin the planning, she said, with character outlines for the main personages. Then chapter outlines for at least the first five chapters, with perhaps only 1-2 sentences for each. Then take a deep breath and Start!

Kate Rhodes's latest novel is Blood Symmetry in her Alice Quentin criminal psychologist series (M/P).

Other Workshops were How to Pitch a Novel by publisher Sam Eades of Horizon and literary agent Nelle Andrew from PFD; How to Write a Successful Book Blog by Isabella Costello of The Literary Sofa and Ayo Onatade of Shotsmag; Building Suspense by author Erin Kelly; Eight Ways to Get Published by author Louise Millar; Making a Murderer by author Laura Wilson.


Is Crime Fiction Misogynostic?

Anne Toovey writes: this debate was chaired by India Knight. The panellists were Sam Baker, Julie Bindel and John Connolly. This proved a controversial topic, but there was general agreement on a number of points. The first is that it’s a very bad idea for an author to kill off a cat or a dog – that’s seen as being beyond the pale. It was generally agreed that good crime fiction looks at the interface between crime and justice, and that there is something of a backlash about explicit descriptions of violence. John Connolly commented that he feels it is not necessary to shock his readers. He is more interested in the effect of a murder on society and on individuals than in the murder itself. There was some discussion about the origin of misogynistc attitudes which it was suggested stemmed from the aftermath of World War 2 and the fact that men were then valued for their ‘fighting’ qualities rather than anything more empathetic. Some suggested that female crime writers had a duty to depict male violence/coercive control, others supported the freedom of writers to choose their subject matter and how they choose to deal with it.

Who Killed Eddie Glass?

This was the last event of the day. It was the presentation and analysis of a fictional murder. Helen Smith was the narrator while four women crime writers – Erin Kelly, Colette McBeth, Kate Summerscale and Kate Rhodes were the four suspects, and Mark Billingham the investigating police officer. I have to admit I didn't enjoy this as much as most of the other sessions: I didn't find it particularly gripping, and by this time I was fairly exhausted and the main Assembly Hall, although a handsome enough room, was pretty chilly.

Other Crime Writers Taking Part In The Festival were Martina Cole and Melanie  McGrath (Dangerous Lady); Jane Casey, Tammy Cohen, Kate Medina and Emma Kavanagh (Inside the Killer's Head) ; Louise Doughty, Paula Hawkins, Alex Marwood and S J Watson (Silver Scream); Mark Billingham and Ann Cleeves (Serial Thrillers).  And there were also contributions from film and TV producers, screenwriters, actors, police officers and a forensic psychiatrist. And there was a quiz with Simon Booker as quizmaster while Barry Forshaw also made an appearance.


All in all it was an excellent day and plans to hold another Killer Women Festival are welcome. The organisers welcomed comments, such as that the sandwiches, which could be ordered ahead, were fairly uninspiring. and could attendees bring their own lunch instead, could events not overlap, and something be done about the chilly conditions in the Assembly Hall. I did notice that many of the audience were young and mostly female which corresponded with the situation as regards participants and an interesting contrast with some of the larger crime writing festivals which tend, in my admittedly limited experience, to be rather male-dominated.

So Here's To The Next Killer Women Festival!

Radmila May was born in the U.S. but has lived in the U.K. since she was seven apart from seven years in The Hague. She read law at university but did not go into practice. Instead she worked for many years for a firm of law publishers and still does occasional work for them including taking part in a substantial revision and updating of her late husband’s legal practitioners’ work on Criminal Evidence published late 2015. She has also contributed short stories with a distinctly criminal flavour to two of the Oxford Stories anthologies published by Oxpens Press – a third story is to be published shortly in another Oxford Stories anthology – and is now concentrating on her own writing.

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