Julie Shaw's new book Blood Sisters is released today so we asked her to tell us just what it is about true crime that she finds so appealing as a writer.
Writing about real life criminals or gangsters appeals to my macabre side I think. Fictional criminals can be brilliant but as a writer we always know that these people are built from our imaginations and there are no limits to where we can go with them. The real ones however are more interesting to me because I have to step into their world, their real world, rather than creating them from mine.
Writing true crime has enabled me to see the reality of this world from the points of view of both the criminals and the victims, and to really explore the backgrounds of these people from each side of the fence. When we see a news bulletin about a murder, we only get a glimpse of the monster who committed the act, and even less about the victim. I like to know all the nitty gritty. Where did they go to school? What were their parents like? What did their environment look like?
True crime exposes an underbelly of society that a lot of people don’t realise exists. They see things on the news and it’s just another murder, or just another armed robbery. Actually it’s the reality of life for a section of society that lives very much in the present and among any of us. It’s our next door neighbours, the mums we see on the school run, a regular in our local pub.
`I also like to look at – what makes a person turn to crime, and what makes a person a victim? Are victims simply unlucky or is their background also that leads them to the point where they are hurt or robbed or exposed to something far worse?
I write about any point in time. Some of my books have been about criminals as far back as the 1930’s (My Uncle Charlie started out in this era) and I love going back in time. If I don’t remember the era myself, I make sure I can find people to talk to who remember it clearly, and I also do a lot of online research so that I can get the feel of the time just right.
As a child for some reason I was always interested in the genre. It didn’t matter who they were, if they were famous gangsters, I wanted to soak up as much knowledge about them as I could. I remember when I was about eight years old we had to do a project to present in assembly at school. The other kids read out their topics – Early flight, Dinosaurs, footballers, the planets etc, mine was on the Mafia!
Where I grew up, crime was an everyday occurrence and as normal to me as going to school. The police very rarely stepped onto the estate as they would be run off it by some gang or other. The community sorted out their own, and there was a pecking order of criminal acts. For example, petty theft from a shop or supermarket would get you a clip round the ear from someone if you were a child, but if you were a mother or father and did this it was seen as a necessity and you got a thumbs up for it. Drug dealing wasn’t so bad, but if you dealt to children you could expect a beating that might leave you crippled, and drug taking meant that you were too stupid to even bother about. For touching a child you would be lucky to escape with your life and would certainly never be seen in the neighbourhood again. To me all this was normal so I want to write about it so that other people know that this all actually happens.
Having inside knowledge about a criminal enables me to allow the reader to see a complete picture. To get to know their personality and the good and the bad about them. I don’t seek to play down the crime or give excuses for their behaviour, but I do want readers to completely understand them. I want a reader to question their own beliefs about what makes a criminal.
Although the nature v nurture argument plays a big part in criminal behaviour, I am also interested in coercion. How a seemingly well rounded, intelligent individual can suddenly be persuaded to act in a manner that is so out of character is something that I’m always seeking an explanation for. We’ve all see news stories where bewildered looking neighbours are aghast that someone they’ve known for years has suddenly done something so terrible and they can’t get their heads around it. Now that excites me. I want to know why and I often have to go right back to their early childhood for clues.
Finally, I love writing True Crime – British True Crime because it’s part of who we are as a nation, part of the equilibrium. We have the good and the bad in our society and I feel duty bound to talk about both.