Historical crime fiction has always fascinated true-crime writer Kathryn McMaster, but how does she manage her writing career while running a farm?
Your first two books, ‘Who Killed Little Johnny Gill?’ and ‘Blackmail, Sex and Lies’ focus very much on murders committed in the nineteenth century. Does this period of history still interest you and can we expect more Victorian true-crime books in future?
I love history per se, and there are some sections of time that really interest me. The Regency and Victorian eras delight, the Tudor period is another. I am also very interested in the lives of those during medieval times. I could write a book set in any of these epochs and be more than happy in extending my research to create another historical crime fiction. At the back of my mind I am inspired to write a series similar to those written by Ellis Peters. I love her books but she would be a tough act to follow.
Your ‘Kids Who Kill’ series is very much near-the-knuckle in terms of graphic detail. Do you worry about how you may be perceived for publicising some of these crimes?
No, because as a true crime author part of my job is to describe the crime itself and there is no way of sugar-coating these disturbing deeds. They are, sadly, a reflection of the darker side of human depravity. What I try not to do is to sensationalize the crime in any way. So while the murders may be graphic and horrific, in equal quantities, I am only laying out the facts. All the crimes I have covered to date, and there are now six true crime books out as part of various series are appalling. Especially considering that these were committed by young children or young teens. However, I cannot help the graphic nature of the crime. I can only report it. It certainly makes you evaluate human nature and is questioning whether evilness is inherent or nurtured.
In general, do you write to please your readers or to please yourself?
Those who have read my books will note that there is a common thread through all of them – they all cover murders that have actually happened. However, the first two books were novels written as fact-fiction where I tried very hard to keep to the facts, but filled in the blanks with my own interpretation of how I thought the characters would have reacted or said things when placed under certain circumstances. The last six books recently written are done in a very factual manner where I have revealed the crime as it happened. The books have been meticulously researched and any speech or behaviour attributed to the characters is exactly as it took place. I have not embellished or taken poetic license here at all.
So, to answer your question, the first two books were written to please myself and those who enjoy historical crime fiction, the last six were written to market. That is, they were written to please those who read pure true crime and enjoy reading shorter books. I enjoy researching material for my books, which is a huge part of my writing, and so for both sets of books that gave me enormous pleasure. When I see my earnings at the end of the month, I know I made the right decision. One cannot be a starving artist. That doesn’t mean that I won’t ever tackle another historical crime fiction in the future. Watch this space…
You have been very pro-active on social media groups, blogs and websites. How important is this for indie authors?
As an author one cannot work in a vacuum. I take pride in having turned down a publisher twice, so it is my choice to be an independent author who has control of what I earn. However, it is also then my responsibility to cover all the work a publisher would do, including getting the word out that a new book is about to be published and available for reading. How will people know that a new book is out if you don’t do any marketing? So yes, you have to be proactive on social media and the like because you need that ‘snowball effect’ of people creating a buzz about the book on social media that attracts interest and more readers.
How do you deal with the many technical aspects of being an indie author, such as formatting and cover design?
I used to outsource both of these components of publishing to make sure the book looked professional. Nowadays, Amazon has a great little App called Kindle Create, which allows you to format the books yourself. As I only publish my books with Amazon at the moment, this works out well. With regards to book covers, I always get these done by a cover designer. People judge a book by its cover and that is one aspect of the book business you don’t want to get wrong.
Do you have many unpublished novels/stories?
I do! I think this is very common with authors. There are some there that will never see the light of day.
How many hours a day do you write, and do you stick to a set schedule?
Finding time to write is difficult. I have a farm to run on my own as my husband works away and I am also run an online business for readers and authors, called One Stop Fiction. Between the sheep and goats, the chickens and ducks, the bees, the aquaponics, and the business, finding time to write is hard. However, you can always find time for the things you enjoy, and so I steal time when I am able. This usually happens between 10 in the evening and 2 a.m. the following morning!
Does the research aspect of your books ever become too much to handle in terms of time and effort?
I am of an age when the Internet did not exist and research could only be done at your local library. I live in Italy in the middle of nowhere. So the Internet is my best friend which allows me access to American court transcripts, affidavits, charge sheets, confessions, 911 calls etc. from the comfort of my armchair. Without the Internet my books would not be possible. As I enjoy delving deeper and deeper into a case, making sure I have exhausted all the material available to me, the researching aspect is never onerous despite the fact that it takes me longer to research the book than to actually write it.
In what ways, if any, has your writing changed since your first book?
As mentioned earlier, I moved away from fact-fiction to writing pure true crime where the style of writing is now very factual. I did this for two reasons. The first reason was because some true crime aficionados were not happy that the crime stories I had written had a fictional component. The second reason was because there is not a lot of money in writing historical crime fiction as an independent writer unless you are well established like C.S. Sansom, or the author of the Brother Cadfael series with a large publisher backing you. I needed to satisfy my readers and my bank manager, thus the change. In addition, the more you write the better you become. So hopefully, over time, my writing has become more refined.
What single piece of advice would you give to someone starting out writing true-crime?
Research, research, research. Without good research you have nothing and those who know the case will be very swift to point out that you have omitted important aspects, or worse, not being aware of new information exonerating the criminal accused of the crime. Always use primary resources for the basis of your research. By this I mean rely on original documentation rather than just on hearsay and secondary resources. Try and interview those close to the case. However, this is often very difficult as the crime is just too painful for people to discuss, but it is always worth pursuing.
What can we expect from Kathryn McMaster in the future?
In the immediate future, unfortunately, not much. I have twice lost updates to a new book in the Kids who Kill series recently, due to either my cat with happy feet or a glitch with my computer, which has disheartened me as I have not been able to recover this file. I will have to start this now for the third time, but at the moment I am busy getting reading for my daughter’s wedding in June. Once the dust settles I will get the book written which covers the murder of Jessica Ridgeway by Austin Sigg. After that, I will be extending the Couples who Kill series, the first of which is currently out.