I’m delighted to interview Kathryn McMaster, a historical crime fiction author who crafts stories around unsolved murders. Her first novel, Who Killed Little Johnny Gill, turns a tragic crime into a compelling and
What do you enjoy most about being an author and writing novels?
I write crime fiction set in the Victorian era, so when I write my stories I am transported to another time, another era. It is wonderful to be able to write about times past and to create and breathe life into characters that I become very attached to as I steer them through the story. The best part of novel writing is definitely developing my characters and their personalities. My stories are based on true murders and I enjoy the fact that my characters are already there, the plot has been created and there is a definite beginning, middle and end. However, the skill is to make the story unfold so that I keep my readers interested and develop believable characters even if the readers are familiar with the case.
What did you do before you became an author?
I started my career as a high school teacher, and soon afterwards became the school counsellor for just over 900 girls. This was a job I enjoyed immensely. However, not long after that I got married and we became expatriates working around the globe. I still managed to find work in the educational field and taught in diverse places like the Papua New Guinean jungle and the Middle East. Later on, I
decided I would study further in order to teach English as a second language to adults and then taught English to Emirati men and women in the oil and gas industry as well as at the Higher College of Technology. Later I ended up as Head of Department for an American training company and also ran my own language institute.
Why did you choose to write about unsolved murders?
I have a morbid fascination for crime, particularly murders, especially from a sociological and
psychological aspect which I guess started when I was very young. Unlike my mother, who was a
voracious reader, my father was not however, he liked reading true crime. I stumbled across these books in the family bookcase when I really should have been reading Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven.
Instead, however, I was soon reading Benjamin Bennett’s account of the rape and murder of Bubbles Schroeder and other equally unsuitable crimes all under the bedclothes by torchlight well after
everyone had gone to bed for the night.
Unsolved murders always have that mystery about them, and you hope, while you are researching them, that you may find clues that would go some way to solving these crimes today.
What is the appeal of the Victorian and Edwardian periods?
I am rather fond of Period dramas, love the architecture and art of this era, and was brought up on Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. Although these were not good years for the poor, suffering
terribly with the Industrial Revolution in full-swing, for others these years were fairly special. It was also a time when Forensic Science was just starting out; fingerprints were now being used in crime cases, photography was just being used for crime scenes and certain tests were being carried out to establish the presence of blood. So from a policing perspective, these years were rather exciting.
What are the key factors with an unsolved murder that grab your attention and make you want to explore further? What do you start with/what are you looking for?
It is difficult to say really. With John Gill the attraction was that it was not only one of the worst
unsolved murders in Britain of its time, but that not much had ever been written about the case. I was most surprised to learn this. The more I read about the murder in the newspaper reports, the more I was convinced that I needed to tell the story to keep John Gill’s memory alive and to honour his
parents who were largely overlooked by the reporters of the day. I was also intrigued because of the possibility that the murderer could have been Jack the Ripper. My research, later dispelled this, but it was an interesting aspect of the case.
With my current book, I am looking at the very public and well-known case of Madeleine Smith who was accused of poisoning her lover. However, once I started examining this case, I felt that Madeleine was not the guilty party. From the time she was accused, until the time she died, the trial followed her around like a dark shadow because the verdict had come back as unproven. However, had she been tried today, she most certainly would have been found not guilty and her life may have been very
So, to answer your question, the stories I choose are not just chosen because they are unsolved
murders. I choose them because there is an added dimension to the story, another layer that needs to be peeled back that perhaps has not been covered before. These are the stories that I find interesting, and I hope that others will too.
When I read, Who Killed Little Johnny Gill, I was impressed by how you brought the characters to life, particularly their agony and
helplessness, and how you made me care about them. How much
information do you need to recreate the characters and their stories? How much is your own characterisation/interpretation?
I think you need to get to know your characters as much as you can from the newspaper reports and the court transcripts. I also use genealogical records. You can learn a lot about people’s characters by what they say, and sometimes even by what they don’t say. Once I have determined the type of people they are I can build on that with my own interpretation on how they would behave when faced with the various stages of the story. You also need to draw on your own experiences and knowledge of people. With Mary and Tom Gill’s grief at losing a child, it is not that difficult to portray that when you are a parent yourself and you can
imagine how you would have reacted had that been you being placed in that predicament.
Why do you think your novel appeals to people?
When it is an unsolved crime I think people like to play amateur detective. So such a story has the
appeal of did he or didn’t he? There are some readers who were let down by the ending, many wanting me to even change the ending. However, how can you do that when what you are writing is based on fact, even if it is a fictionalised account? You cannot create a happy ending if there isn’t one. This is not Hollywood and celluloid. This is a true story of pain and anguish and injustice. Readers enjoyed being transported back to the Victorian era and they found themselves moved by the parents and their grief. For many, John Gill has remained with them long after they have finished the story. I have to confess, he has remained with me too. However, as that was the main reason for writing the story, then perhaps I have achieved my goal.
With your background in Psychology, Criminal Profiling and Forensic Investigation, have you ever considered taking on the big one – Jack the Ripper?
Personally, I feel it would be impossible to say for sure who Jack the Ripper really was. This is due to two things. The first is that there were so many myths that surrounded the man, that it is impossible to separate fact from fiction. For example, the newspaper reporters themselves were penning letters signed from “Jack” in order to keep circulation numbers up making it difficult to determine which of these letters are real and which are fake.
Secondly, many of the original documents pertaining to this case are sealed and those that aren’t were ordered to be destroyed. You cannot research a case like this by only looking at half the
documents because in the end you will find your research lacking. Without complete research, you cannot solve a case successfully. So, no, I have no interest in hunting down Jack the Ripper because I feel that whoever you point the finger at, it will always be just supposition as much of primary sources needed to prove the case are either missing or inaccessible.
Take me through a typical day in you working life.
My days are never typical. I never know what my day will bring. I wear several hats, and sometimes I get to write, and other days I am too busy running a Facebook group for other authors and helping them with their marketing woes. When I am not doing that, I am co-ordinating with a team of people to form a new website for authors, called One Stop Fiction. Or, perhaps one morning I go up to my barn and discover a sick sheep that is dead by midday because the vet can’t be bothered to make his visit a priority and it takes me two days battling with the authorities in my poor Italian to implore them hurry up and remove the animal because it is summer, the temperature is 34 C. and it is now the third day and still no one has been to collect it. Generally, I would describe my days as long and fairly chaotic. It is now 1:00 a.m. as I write this, and will not get to bed for another thirty minutes. I dream of an uninhabited island with no distractions, no people, no sheep, no drama.
What do you do to relax?
Relax? What is that word? I am always on the go, doing something, going somewhere. I honestly don’t know how to relax. If I am not doing something I feel agitated. However, I guess I can say that I find weeding my garden and veggie garden therapeutic, I love making soap, I spin and also weave. All of these things bring me joy. However, just to sit and do nothing – you will have enough time to do that when you are dead.
Who is/are your favourite authors and books?’
Gosh! I have so many! I love so many authors and books. My husband has long given up threatening to divorce me if I bring another book into the home. Whenever we move, we have about 30 boxes of books alone. I have a very eclectic taste in reading and will read just about any genre under the sun. I also enjoy non-fiction on a variety of subjects. However, I have a special fondness for Daphne du
Maurier, DH Lawrence, John Grisham, Rosemary Hawley Jarman and Martin Cruz Smith, among
others. If we were to talk book titles, Gone with the Wind, Rebecca, Gorky Park, Into the Blue, and Sons and Lovers.
As well as writing novels, you also run two Facebook groups for authors and readers. Could you tell me what prompted you to start them up and what you hope to achieve?
When I first started writing I knew that I wanted to self-publish and joined a course to learn more about the process. Unfortunately, the course that I chose did not deliver what they had promised and this was particularly so for authors writing fiction. Many of us felt the same way and it was also
obvious that collectively, we all knew more than the guy who was running the course. I formed the Facebook groups because I realised that there is power in pooling knowledge and sharing resources and that if we did that, we could benefit from one another and learn and share our marketing
experiences, joys and triumphs. It is important to me to pay it forward. Whatever I learn, I share with others. It has been a wonderful experience, and many people have benefited from being in the group.
If you weren’t an author, what do you think you would do?
Throughout the different phases in my life I wanted to be an actress, a lawyer and even a nun –
although I am sure I would have made a terrible nun! I had written several books over the years but never done anything with them. It was only when I reached fifty-five that I decided to write more
seriously and do something with my writing. So I wasn’t always a writer, per se. Now that I am a
published author I cannot imagine not being a writer of more books in the future. I have developed a great love and respect for the craft, and it has become an integral part of me. Yes, I have other
interests, as well as a strong entrepreneurial spirit, however, writing should be treated as a business and I enjoy the challenge of marketing my book so that it stays visible. So, being a writer and an
entrepreneur is a very happy mix for me. My only regret is that my mother, who was a great lover of books, and who was incredibly proud of her only child, did not live long enough to see my books in print.
Thank you, Kathryn, and good luck with the next novel.