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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Look What I Did!

I've just had the first advance copy of my new children's book, Crime Time: Australians behaving badly, which is coming out from Ford Street Publishing in March. It's always exciting to get something published and the cover and illustrations that went with this one made it even more exciting.

I'd done an article on forensic science for the New South Wales School Magazine, on commission, but it would never have occurred to me to write a history of crime in Australia if I hadn't received an e-mail from Paul Collins of Ford Street Publishing, asking me to write a book about "fifty infamous Australians" as a sort of companion volume to Meredith Costain's book Fifty Famous Australians. I was thrilled to be asked, though I begged for a better title, as "Fifty Infamous Australians" would end up on the reference shelves as research material for school assignments. Paul kindly changed the title for me (I'm useless at titles) and while it probably can be used for assignments, what with the bushrangers and such, not to mention the index, that's not what it's for. Children love gross stuff and funny stuff and they love it even more when it's true. I was going to choose, as well as the ones you had to put in, such as Ned Kelly, the grossest ones I could find.

I had Term 2 off, on long service leave, and had been hoping to spend the time writing a book, but Paul Collins was the only publisher obliging enough to offer me that chance. Everyone else responded with, "We don't do non-fiction" or "we have your details in our database, so go away. We'll Let You Know." Even better, he approached me, just as I was beginning to despair.

I started with a book of Australian ripping yarns and went on to lots of journalist books about modern crime in Australia, web sites and newspapers, both on-line archives and current ones. The current ones were good, because the entire Underbelly business was going on, trials were happening and one day I was having a coffee in an Elsternwick cafe when I spotted the story of Tony Mokbel's escape from Australia in the newspaper I was reading and got the idea for another chapter.

Oh, yes, that business of writing in cafes! We hear about it (especially in the case of J.K. Rowling), but it doesn't usually happen. But I ran out of hours on my dialup Internet account and the Presse cafe down the road has a wifi hotspot, so I found myself going there regularly and working on my book with endless pots of tea, muffins and Presse cafe lunches and you know what? It was great! I must write my next book over coffee and cake, at least on weekends.

Speaking of books over food, I had an interesting experience while on holiday in Central Australia. I was having dinner at the pub in the King's Canyon resort area when I got into a conversation with a grey nomad couple. I mentioned the book I was writing and gave as an example Caroline Grills, the kindly grandmother who poisoned her relatives with thallium in the 1940s and 50s. The wife said, "I met her." It turns out she was working at the hospital in Long Bay Jail when Caroline Grills was imprisoned there. She described the poisoner as "a sweet woman." That helped me with a sentence in the book where I mentionedthat the lady was liked both by staff and inmates at the prison. But what a small world! How much chance would you think there would be of such an encounter?

I knew someone would complain in a review that there were very few women in it, but while I picked out those I could, I found that most of the big-name female crooks in Australia in the past were madams. Someone has since suggested to me that probably the majority of female crooks didn't get caught.

Meanwhile, I put in Lola Montez (naughty rather than a crook), Mary Ann Bugg, the bushranger's wife who kept him alive, Bridget Hurford and Jean Lee (women who were hanged) and some baby farmers. And some modern women who did crazy things like hijacking a helicopter to rescue a boyfriend or helping a boyfriend escape jail or carry out cons.

I found some bizarre and downright silly stories to put into the "Did You Know" snippets that are part of a book like this. I learned a whole lot of stuff about crime in Australia that I would never have expected, or that I would have learned if I'd never been commissioned to write this book. That's the nice thing about writing non-fiction for children. If you're writing for adults, you're often an expert in a particular area and you write about that, and spend five years researching it in incredible detail. if you write for children, you can write about many different things and learn new stuff all the time and acquire new interests. Nowadays I'm reading news articles that would have been good in my book and thinking, "What a pity this didn't happen when I was writing it!"

Of course, when you're writing this sort of stuff, you have to be careful, because you can get sued and most publishers put a clause in the contract saying that you have to guarantee nobody is going to be upset by the book and if you get into trouble you're on your own. Previous history books I'd written had been set a long time ago. King Tut isn't going to sue you or send the boys around. So I worded carefully and I think Paul made sure the finished product was unlikely to get me into any trouble by re-checking the wording.

It's going to be a while before I can find out how this book will do, but I'm thrilled.

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