Friday, January 12, 2018

The responsibility of the blank page

I suppose every writer gets asked ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ (At least a hundred times in their career.)
Many writers (or all of us if we are honest), get our inspiration from real life and that nugget  can range from a name, or a location, or a single sentence overheard in ASDA. Or maybe even a real life crime.
I have read books where I can recognise the crime that inspired the book. Indeed some are so close it’s more or less reportage with the names changed. I confess I have to stop reading them as it does seem a tad voyeuristic or  maybe just bad taste to base a  commercial enterprise, or a form of entertainment,  on someone else’s pain and anguish. If the victim has family that’s still alive, that may recognise that story? And if the narrative brings nothing more to the situation, no explanation of a theoretical what if? Or why?
And I know there is a line there and all writers have to gauge where along that line we are comfortable writing.
                                               Simon Toyne
Simon Toyne’s TV series, Written In Blood,  explores exactly this dichotomy as a natural consequence of what the series is about.  In each episode  Simon interviews a crime author who has written a novel, based  on a real life crime. Simon and author go back to the crime scene, locations of importance in the real crime and discuss the novel and the real crime. Because Simon is the man he is, it’s sensitively done with both Simon and the author (and in one case the senior police officer) often getting visibly upset at the death of the child/ the brutality of the murder.
And then the little chip of ice in the writer’s heart says ‘But how could anybody do that?’ ‘Or Why was that allowed to happen’ and you can almost see the fiction starting to write itself from that spark.
                                                          James Bulger
The murder of James Bulger, sparked of the book Wicked Girls. James aged 2  was murdered by Robert Thompson and John Venables  in 1993. The murderers themselves were not even teenagers at the time of the crime.  They are now grown men ( Venables has been re arrested now for possession of child porn).  Alex Marwood takes that premise  for the book Wicked Girls , except two girls did the murder, do their time, on release  they change their names, grow up, get married, have a family. And then somebody finds out who they really are.
And it’s obvious that the writer had taken that spark and removed the story well from the reality of the Bulger case.
                                                   Thompson and Venables
Others authors simply regurgitate reality and I’m not sure I am comfortable with that. Just write it as True Life Crime.
There is a real life crime I would like to write about. But can’t. And I don’t know why. Even removing the story far from its source, I still; don’t think I can do it.
And I think it might be the mother. Or maybe a crime that I just don’t understand so I can’t write about it with any sense of the moral compass.
This crime has stuck in my head for a few years. I have delivered my last book and the notebook is now talking to me for book 11. The blank screen is blinking at me.
But I don’t think the new book will be about Gemma Hayter.
 Gemma (weirdly, I think about her a lot so I think I know her ) was murdered by five people (three convicted of murder, two of manslaughter). Gemma was a 27 year old woman with learning difficulties.
I think that Gemma had lived in the bosom of her happy, close family for much of her young life and as she got older, steps were made by social services to move her into her own flat for independent living. I think the family were pleased for her, realising that she had to go out into the world and see what she could achieve.
 I think she was moved into accommodation where her neighbours might not have been the best to look out for a vulnerable person in their community.  Gemma’s mum says that she was pleased initially that Gemma seemed to have found a friend, a girl called Chantelle. They went out together. Not that there was much to do, but hanging around street corners and nipping down to the shop for coke and sweets.
Was what followed planned all along? The pack mentally against the one weak victim?
In august 2010 Chantelle and her four friends attacked Gemma in her own flat. They beat her so badly they broke her nose.  They locked her in her toilet, they smashed her mobile phone.
Then they decided they had to leave the flat in order to clean it up as Gemma was now bleeding profusely, and the five leave, taking Gemma with them. It is very clear on CCTV, the five teenagers walking along the street and Gemma, limping and bleeding, hurrying after them.  To her, these were her friends and she wanted to be with them.
At one point on the CCTV, the horrific five swagger across the road and Gemma pauses for a moment, her hand on the railing. The others wait for her to cross and then they all walk on. They are leading Gemma to a disused railway line where they murdered her.
Not only did they murder her, they abused her and tortured her. The facts are all over the internet so I am not going to repeat them here, enough to say that the judge in charge of the trial said she could not watch the CCTV as it was too upsetting.
The judge said
"Five who did not try and stop it happening? Five and not one of them reported it? I still do not understand how young people such as this could do such a thing and they have shown no remorse whatsoever."

Gemma was a perfect victim. Her killers were unspeakable lowlifes.
I don’t think there is any more to say to the story.
So I don’t think I could ever write a fiction  about this in any way, because I would be thinking this is about Gemma, and any thing else would somehow be disrespectful.
                                                          Gemma Hayter

I think my search for the inspiration for book 11 will have a blank blinking page for a little  longer.

Caro Ramsay 12 01 2018


  1. You're doing the right thing Caro. Many years back a woman came to see me in my capacity as a lawyer. She told me of her daughter who'd been institutionalized for years after an extraordinarily horrendous experience, but now finally was living in the outside world. What brought the mother to see me was a hot new best seller from one of the world's most popular mystery writers, which just happened to tell the story of her daughter in excruciatingly vivid and exacting detail.

    I asked how could the writer know all of that, and the woman's response was, "The institution gave the author my daughter's records."

    I said that would be very difficult to prove. She said no it wouldn't, because the institution was credited in the acknowledgments!

    Though the author may not have done anything legally wrong (I leave moral judgments to a higher power), the institution sure as hell had.

    The mother broke down in front of me, not sure whether pursuing those claims would make her daughter worse or better.

    I never heard from her again. But I've never forgotten her anguish.

    1. Jeff, I think this absolutely proves Caro's point. I'm sorry the lady didn't come back to you; you would have enjoyed taking that institution to the cleaners for her!

  2. Would that behaviour really be legal Jeff? Or was that in the days before your version of Data Protection?

  3. No, it wouldn't be legal on the part of the institution. Circumstances would likely determine the author's liability though.

  4. What a heartrending story. It's impossible at times to fathom the darkness within people. If this were written as fiction, I have to say that it would have to be really extraordinary to tempt me even slightly to read it.

  5. Would you be more tempted by the story of what happened to the gang of 5 when they got out of jail, age 39-40, having served their debt to society--- and somebody finds out who they are.....It's certainly more of a moral debate that a writer could get their teeth into. Not that I will write it....

  6. Just read that people with developmental disabilities are seven times more likely to be sexually abused than others. This is a statistic showing a horrific reality. It should be written about and organized against.