Missing Children: The Sensitivities of Writing about the Lost – Sarah Ward
My debut novel In Bitter Chill deals with the kidnapping of two young girls in the 1970s. It’s a distressing subject but I never considered the topic to be off-limits partly because it’s based on a near-miss experience that happened to me. I was walking to school one day when a woman tried to force me into her car. Many writers attempt to make sense of incidents in their past, especially with their debut novels, and I was no exception.
However, as I was writing, I was aware of the sensitivities of depicting the possible harm to young children. I don’t have my own kids but there are enough of them in my life to be stricken at the thought of them encountering a similar situation to the one I found myself in. And since the book has been published, I have had readers who’ve told me it’s a difficult subject matter for them to digest as they have children of a similar age to my main characters, Rachel and Sophie.
But I like to think In Bitter Chill isn’t sensational in its storytelling and there were a number of ways I tried to avoid this.
In Bitter Chill has two girls being kidnapped but only one later being found alive. The other, Sophie, remains missing for thirty-five years. I wanted to avoid an ‘is she dead or isn’t she’ scenario in relation to the missing child as I felt strongly that this wasn’t what the book was about. So In Bitter Chill begins with a burial scene, impressing on the readers that something catastrophic has happened to the child. The central mystery is why?
I also, like many modern crime writers, wanted to focus on the impact of a missing child on family, friends and the wider community. Trauma doesn’t disappear overnight and it was important to emphasise this in the book. For family it means they remain perpetually frozen at the time when the child disappears. Because, how do you move on with your life after that? For the community, I think the loss of a child can have a seismic shift in how you treat your children. Suddenly the street, once considered a place of safety, where people would keep an eye on each others’ children is now off-limits. Children spend more time in their home and the dynamics of family consequently change.
Finally, to give a context to the children’s abductions, I also included the point of view of one of the children. It seemed important to explain why a child might get into a car and think that it was, if not safe, then innocuous to do so. In Bitter Chill has a few sections from Rachel’s point of view.
I hope I never lost sight of the trauma of missing and murdered children have on the family and the wider community and how distressing this might be for a reader. But children do get abducted, it nearly happened to me. And it felt important to put the theme at the centre stage in my book.
SARAH WARD is an online book reviewer whose blog, Crimepieces, reviews the best of current crime fiction. She is a judge for the Petrona Award for Scandinavian translated crime novels. Sarah lives in rural Derbyshire where her debut novel, In Bitter Chill, is set.