E S Thomson Finds Time for Crime
Recently, the fabulous Denise Mina remarked that crime writers were expected to write a book a year – an extraordinary undertaking for any writer.
‘Yes,’ I thought. ‘She’s right! Even worse, some of us have to write a book a year whilst working at our day jobs, and being single parent families with two children to look after.’
My own writing life is very much circumscribed in this way. I work four days a week at the local university. Add to this the needs of the two sons I am bringing up almost single-handedly, and you have what might be described rather generously as ‘hardly any spare time at all’. And yet, write I must, for as J. K. Rowling once observed (and I paraphrase her here), a writer has to write, or die – in my case, even if this means scribbling in a notebook at the poolside during a child’s swimming lesson, or editing a page whilst standing in the kitchen waiting for the pasta to cook. I wrote both my crime novels, Beloved Poison, and Dark Asylum, in this way, though (to borrow the sentiments of yet another marvellous literary woman) I don’t like writing, I like having written. Perhaps it’s because the demands of the real world – grocery shopping, cleaning, cooking, running ‘Mum’s taxi service’, not to mention the endless battery of questions ‘can I have a biscuit?’ ‘what’s for tea?’ ‘where are my pyjamas / underpants / shoes?’ – make finding the time for writing so very difficult.
Often I think I need to be two different people in order to get anything done – either that, or I should give up sleep altogether. Perhaps with this thought in mind, in Beloved Poison I gave one of my characters a sickness that meant they were unable to sleep at all, a condition that slowly turned them insane. Equally, being two people is physically impossible. At least, so it might seem at first.
All writers – crime writers in particular – live ostensibly normal lives, at the same time inhabiting (inside their heads) a violent and peculiar alternative reality. For me, that alternative reality is my 19th century medical crime world. It might seem to the casual observer that I am slicing an onion, or making a cake, but in fact, in my mind I am with Jem Flockhart, the cross-dressing apothecary and amateur detective who confidently stalks through the pages of my novels. The question in my head as I slice and dice, or beat the batter, is ‘where did I leave Jem?’ The answers are entirely up to me. Was she buried alive? Was she conducting a post mortem? Did I leave her incarcerated in Newgate, or fishing a dead body out of a canal? And, of course, the question which follows from ‘where did I leave her?’ is ‘what shall I do with her next?’ Shall I prostrate her in an opium den? Send her to a brothel? Set her up to be accused of murder … It’s the only way to manage when time is short and there are books to be written: inhabit the imagination, whilst the body gets on with the other things.
For any working single-parent crime readers out there who might be considering embarking on a second, simultaneous, career as a crime writer, I can offer further tips. Some of these might be pleasing – such as, free up time for yourself by never doing any ironing. Ever. Or get yourself a little desk in the kitchen that no one is allowed to use but you. This way you can flip open your lap top and fiddle with your story whilst other things are happening nearby (potatoes boiling, washing machine spinning, sons fighting). Other recommendations are not so easy to implement. For instance, after a day of children, work, children, chores, cooking, and children, that comfy seat in front of the TV looks like bliss. You make a cup of tea and say, ‘I’ll just sit down for a moment…’ I call it The Fatal Chair, for there is no greater enemy to the working-single-parent-book-a-year-please crime writer than the comfy seat, the cushion, and the footstool. Even now, it drifts into my mind’s eye like a glimpse of Nirvana… And yet it is the enemy of progress; a place of regret and stasis. Once you sit down in that warm and cosy chair, my friends, writing will never happen.
And so, back we go to the hard little desk in the kitchen. And this is where things will happen. I set my novels in a world that is ruthless, brutal and pungent – a far cry from the world of Dettox, bleach and anti-bacterial hand-wipes most of us inhabit in our daily lives. Into this I bring a theme that is close to my heart – the history of medicine. I have a doctorate in the subject, though I have never been lucky enough to teach it. Now, I use my knowledge and enthusiasm for the medical and historical to create the world inhabited by my cross-dressing apothecary, an independent woman forever disguised as a man, who negotiates a world of male ambition and hypocrisy every day of her life.
For my most recent book, Dark Asylum, in my world of mid-19th century medicine I had Jem slice up a body at the dissecting table. Afterwards, someone boiled up the anatomised cadaver in a giant copper cauldron – how else might the skeleton be stripped of skin and sinew, wired together and hung up before crowds of medical students? I made Jem preserve the organs, bottling them in formaldehyde and setting them out in gleaming rows in an anatomy museum. Meanwhile, in the real world, I was making chicken soup; turning some strawberries from my friend’s allotment into jam; slicing meat for a casserole…
So far in my books I have killed a number of men, one woman, and one child. I have flung someone from a bell tower, drowned another in the mud of an overflowing graveyard, and poisoned others with curare, with bloodroot, with henbane, and with hemlock. I have bashed in a man’s head with a pair of phrenological head-measurers. I have sliced someone’s ears off and stitched their mouth closed. I have buried one person alive, set one person on fire, and turned two people raving mad. I have also re-planted window boxes, changed bedding and stitched badges onto a child’s judo suit.
Am I frustrated by my lack of free time? I know no other way of being. And, it has to be said, one tends to make good use of what time is available when there is so little of it. But if I am frustrated about my lack of time for writing crime fiction, I have one very potent outlet for it – writing crime fiction.
E.S. Thomson lives in Edinburgh with her two young sons, both of whom are undergoing intensive domestic training. She is the author of the Jem Fockhart series: Beloved Poison (Constable, 2016) and Dark Asylum (Constable, 2017). Her work has been shortlisted for the Saltire First Book Award, the Scottish Arts Council First Book Award and the William MacIlvaney Crime Book of the Year Award. Her next book will be published by Constable in 2018.