If, like me, you watched Simon Toyne’s incredible series Written in Blood on CBS Reality last year, you’ll have discovered that some of the most successful crime novels are based on real life crimes. I thought the series handled the true crimes very sensitively – without resorting to sensationalism or gratuitous detail – but I still felt waves of horror as crimes I’d only ever read about were brought to life in vivid technicolour detail. The victims weren’t names printed in a newspaper or faded photographs. They were living, breathing people, until their lives were so cruelly snatched away.
When I began writing psychological thrillers back in 2011 it didn’t occur to me that authors in my genre might use true crime as a starting point for a story. My early books were based on my own fears – that an abusive ex could return and ruin my happiness, a friend could turn against me or my child might disappear. It wasn’t until my fourth book The Escape that an idea was sparked by a news story. Like a lot of Bristol residents I follow Avon and Somerset Constabulary’s Facebook page and one update caught my eye. A woman had gone on the run with her child instead of taking him to court to hand over custody to the father. The child was in danger, the police intimated, and members of the public should ring them if they saw the woman. It wasn’t a particularly unusual story but what sparked my interest were the comments beneath the post. The woman wasn’t a danger to her child, her family claimed. She loved him and was just trying to keep him safe. The story, and the comments, were a starting point for a psychological thriller about a woman who offers a lift to a stranger then watches helplessly as she is painted as a bad mother and her life begins to unravel.
All though the original real life story made the national news eventually I’d be surprised if anyone other than me (and the family in question) remember it. The news story I based my current novel The Fear on, however, is definitely one that will remain in the public’s consciousness for a long time. Without giving too much away about my book I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write about a dangerous situation where the woman takes control. Initially I thought the book would be about a female character who confronts the man she believed murdered her sister eighteen years ago. It was an ‘ok’ idea but not hugely original. A second idea struck. What if the man she confronted was the teacher she was involved with as a teenager? In 2012 I, like the majority of the British public, was gripped by the news that teacher Jeremy Forrest had run away with his fifteen year pupil ‘Gemma’. The CCTV stills of them walking hand in hand around the ferry to France were splashed all over the newspapers. As a nation we were gripped by the story but, after Forrest was caught and sentenced, interest faded. But not mine. I couldn’t stop thinking about how that situation would impact on the rest of Gemma’s life. Would she struggle to form relationships withother men? Would she feel like a victim? Or would she burn with the desire for revenge?
I knew I had to approach the issue of child grooming sensitively. I didn’t want my male antagonist to be a two dimensional bad guy. Neither did I want my reader to blame my female protagonist for what happened. I did a lot of research into the types of children male predators groom – vulnerable children mostly, with emotional or mental health issues, often from broken homes. I considered why my teenaged protagonist might find herself attracted to an older man. A father figure perhaps? Someone with power or who gave her the attention she lacked from home? I also drew on my own school days, remembering the way some of my classmates developed crushes on male teachers. How they’d preen themselves before class and act coquettish and fey. And on the depth of my own – sometimes obsessive - feelings towards one of my male classmates. I held the snapshot of Jeremy Forrest and Gemma holding hands on the ferry in my mind and imagined what might have happened after they arrived in France. Then I took a mental leap and made the story bigger, darker and more terrifying. But I was careful not to be gratuitous or vulgar, closing the door quickly on some of the more disturbing scenes.
The secret, if there is one, to adapting a true crime story sensitively, is to hold the victim of the crime in the back of your mind as you write. That murder victim or groomed child was someone’s daughter, son, father, sister, mother or friend. Don’t use a real tragedy for titillation or shock effect. Writers write to try and understand the world, and the people around them but some true crimes makes no sense. They are brutal, unforgiveable and heart-breaking. We may never know why the murderer, child killer, rapist or paedophile did what they did but, by using them as the basis for fiction, we can at least try.
The Fear by C L Taylor published by Avon is out now.
Sometimes your first love won’t let you go… When Lou Wandsworth ran away to France with her teacher Mike Hughes, she thought he was the love of her life. But Mike wasn’t what he seemed and he left her life in pieces. Now 32, Lou discovers that he is involved with teenager Chloe Meadows. Determined to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself, she returns home to confront him for the damage he’s caused. But Mike is a predator of the worst kind, and as Lou tries to bring him to justice, it’s clear that she could once again become his prey…