Exciting times . . .

So, I suppose when you write a book – when you go through those months and years of endless nights hammering it out; those nights of rewriting, re-plotting and re-planning, you never actually see the thing finally getting out there.

I didn’t. For me it was all about the book . . . getting it written in the first instance, getting a second draft out that I was happy with, fine tuning, tweaking and pondering . . . and finally getting to a point where you knew you could do no more.

It had been passed around numerous people, those who had read it, those who had critiqued it, and those who had proofed it.

Then, finally, it is there. There is nothing else you can do as a writer to perfect it. It’s not perfect, because it never is; but you reach a point where you can’t bare to chance another comma to a semi-colon; where you think you’ll scream if you spot another typo after proof after proof after proof; when you can’t even contemplate whether a tense in one sentence jars with another.

You are happy.

As happy as you can be.

And you need to let it go.

Only, until about a month ago, I had only ever seen A Garden of Bones laid out on an A4 sheet. It didn’t look like a book. It looked like an essay . . . albeit a very, very long one.

It comes in just short of 84,000 words. It’s been longer and it’s been shorter. But considering that the second re-write was essentially a restart, I must have written 160,000 works of it in the past few years. And that’s on top of the, on average, 250,000 word I write each year through the day job.

But it is time to let it go, to let it be itself. I have now stepped back and allowed other expertise to take over. I can tell you from my typesetter – the exceptional Andrew Tennant – that it is 324 pages long and its shape is 12.85 x 19.84 cm. I Ignored the Kindle Direct plea to make it taller and thinner so it works better on a smart phone. Read it on a phone if you want, but, even better, buy a kindle because it feels like a book. Or even buy the book.

It will come to you in bound paper. You can break the spine and prove to those who visit your home and peruse your bookshelves while you pour them wine, that you have read it . . . along with all those others.

I’m now in my second major collaboration with A Garden of Bones. I’m working with the outstanding Liam Relph to create the artwork.

My on is a massively talented artist. Got a Grade A at A Level, currently studying an Art Foundation and plans on studying Fine Art at one of several art schools in London later this year. A lot of people said to me, ‘Why don’t you get Ollie to design it?’. And a really big part of me wanted him to. And I’m sure that whatever he created would have been wonderful.

Only I didn’t want to put it on his shoulders, and I wanted to engage someone who has experience of creating book covers that sell copies.

That’s why we do this, right? We do this to sell as many copies of our book as we can. We have, after all, spent many a long evening kicking this bastard into shape.

Writing is a solitary experience, but at some point two things happen.

You have to involve other people.

And you have to let the bugger loose and start to think about what you’re going to write next.

I’m hoping to be able to share initial artwork ideas over the next few days, and I would very much appreciate your feedback.

Light and shade . . .

When I discover an author I tend to go all out with him or her. My recent discoveries have been Shirley Jackson, Sarah Waters, Donna Tarrt and Patrick Süskind.

I’m not always that highbrow, it has to be said. A couple of years ago I discovered Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series and – following advise not to bother with the first two ‘because they’re crap’ – started with the third novel and read nothing else for the best part of a year until I got to the end.

There’s a new one out which I haven’t read, but it will probably be next on my list . . . unless something else catches my eye.

I did go back to his first two, after I stumbled into them in a bargain bookshop in Buxton. They’re not crap. They’re just not as good as the rest of the series.

And the reason, I think, is that they lack darkness. A crime novel set in Oslo, where it’s dark from 2.30pm in the afternoon, automatically adds a hell of a lot of mood . . . of weight.

If you set your first novel in Sydney and the second in Bangkok – as he does – then the sun is out, the light nights are late, and you have no real way of creating any sense of ‘Noir’.

I can see why he did it. He was new to it, and the notion of exotic foreigh locations must have appealed. Only it was counterproductive to the overall impact of the books. If it had been set in some winter-filled world, interspersed with the intrusion of neon street lighting, freezing smack addicts and the heavy weight of snow on the ground like an intrusive blanket, then the Bat and Cockroaches would have worked as well as all the others. It is a journey of discovery, I have come to realise..

As a writer, and as a reader I am drawn to darkness. I don’t just read crime. My tastes are fairly eclectic. 

But all the same, give me darkness, give me noir.

Give me Dark Materials over Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, give me Perfume, give me Secret History. Whatever the genre, darkness for me opens up the human condition. It makes us explore what is most wrong with us, by exploring characters in works of fiction who have the most wrong with them.

I mean . . . come on . . . who wants to read about people like the ones who live next door . . . unless they’re Bill and Pat Wycherley.

A bit more of the book . . .

Say hello to Susan Edwards

Hesitant footsteps on the stairs, laboured; one creak, then a pause, then another – like someone carrying a heavy load. 

Susan Edwards

The shuffle of feet outside the door; a key, turning in a lock – a rasping clunk as it is pulled out. 

The squeak of the handle, the hiss of wood gliding over carpet, and the sense that someone is standing behind her.

She doesn’t turn. 

After all, who else is it going to be? 

She has stayed all day in the tiny flat, pokier even than their former home in Dagenham. The floors squeak when you walk around and the whole floor in the living room sinks into a corner. If you happened to drop a ball on the floor it would naturally roll towards it.

She is slight – not short but slump-shouldered, which are slender and sagged.

A Garden of Bones

The attic rooms drop in the corners, bend in the walls, and have windows jutting upwards in a failed attempt to make more space, like an afterthought.

She looks out over the skyline, almost Russian in its multi-coloured and domed splendor, every now and then. 

She wanders a lot. She wanders and looks at her watch. She clutches her hands, rubs them together a lot – so bad that she has to use cream to soften them – like there’s blood on them, like a bashful Lady Macbeth.

She is slight – not short but slump-shouldered, which are slender and sagged.

Her hair is grey and forgotten, like she has been cutting it herself, and she wears no make-up. She has no need.

Her clothes are dour and shabby – an old green cardigan over her shoulders, plain cream trousers and a round-necked top of an indeterminable shade of white.

She wears no jewellery.

She never has. 

There is no TV, and she couldn’t understand it even if there was. They have a small radio – good enough to give them a crackly rendition of the World Service. 

There is also no TV because there is no money – what little pot they had has now dwindled 

to a pocketful of coppers. 

Just a quick one . . .

I think we’re almost there. My typesetting is almost there for the innards, and I’ve had a long chat with my cover artist today, so I hope that within a month A Garden of Bones will be good to meet the world.

Andy Done Johnson

I asked a number of people to read it prior to publication and write truly honest reviews. These are all people I know professionally. But the directive was simple . . . Do not suck my d!c$. Be honest. If you hate it, please say that you hate it. You will be doing me a favour.

“It’s a book that works on many levels . . .”

Jon Smart

Anyway, here is one of them, written by a guy who grew up and still lives in the town where A Garden of Bones is set.

AND I am eternally grateful.

“With a deft pen, Andy Done-Johnson gives a first-hand account of how he broke a true crime story which was gripping, shocking and bizarre in equal measure.

It’s a book that works on many levels.

First and foremost, it gives a journalist’s perspective on what it’s like to catch the story of a lifetime, then stay one step ahead of the press pack to keep it alive.

It’s also a study into the character and psychology of the story’s main protagonists, the perpetrators of such a chilling and callous crime, and the police officers tasked with tracking them down and piecing together the jigsaw of what happened.

Finally, it tells the story of the disintegration of a former mining town that has never recovered from its main industry and employment source closing down, and the devastating impact on the unfolding investigation of ever-tightening budget cuts on a force that’s already been stripped to the bone.

An assured debut.

Jon Smart.”

I’ll be sharing the artwork soon . . . and maybe a bit more of the book.

Lessons from a literary hero . . .

“There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.”

Terry Pratchett

I was watching a programme the other day about the late, great Terry Pratchett – one of my life heroes, to be honest, as well as my literary ones.

There was a section  where he was talking about writer’s block, and saying that he’d never suffered from it . . .

Terry Pratchett

Paraphrasing here, but in a nutshell, he said: “There’s nothing that cures writer’s block better than a narky editor screaming over your shoulder for your copy.”

He went further on the subject, perhaps his most famous quotation on the topic is: “There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.”

Like me, Pratchett had been a journalist, although he had bailed on the industry to work as a press officer for a number of nuclear power stations.

But there is something very true in what he says. If you work as a reporter then the notion of writer’s block is something of a mystery. 

If you’re not filling your quota, then someone further up the food chain will be having a word . . . sooner rather than later.

If your copy isn’t sharp, interesting, concise and accurate, then much the same. It is a requirement. Working as a reporter of as a feature even more so, you need to be able to craft words, to build a story with letter after letter after letter, a little like a bricklayer building a wall.

One of my favourite Pratchett novel

Here’s something that I was told when I first went to journalism school . . . 

A news story is the same shape as an upside down triangle, a feature is circular . . . at least if it’s done properly. 

And I do think that is absolutely true. 

A straight news article has all of the big information at the top – the most important bits in the introduction and second and third paragraphs. Then it continues down, getting thinner and thinner with the least crucial information going downwards.

The reason for this is that, back in the day when sub editors still existed, if a news story was too long and had to be cut, it was easy to cut it from the bottom.

But a good feature is definitely circular . . . it should end, pretty much where it starts. So, if you’re writing a feature about a police operation in a now-dodgy part of town and you decide to go in at the start, or near the start, saying that your aunt Flo’ lived there just after the war, then towards the end you need to reintroduce aunt Flo – it takes the reader back to the beginning, and makes it ‘circular’.

Now for me, Pratchett was a genius of the English language, and possibly one of our finest wits since Oscar Wilde. But I also think he was doing himself, and the rest of us lesser mortals, a bit of a disservice on the subject of writer’s block.

“Writing is the most fun you can have with your clothes on”

Terry Pratchett

Writer’s block happens to all of us, or most of us to a greater or lesser extent. I can always rattle something out for the paper or the website, but when I’m writing creatively, I want it to be perfect, or as near to perfect as it can be . . . as I’m sure do you, if you are a writer.

My writer’s block tends to come if I’ve not plotted properly, if I’m hoping that it will all just somehow come together in the end.

Although that’s all part of the journey really. You’ll start something, get lost at some point and abandon it, at least that’s how it works for me. So now I plot meticulously. I treat a work of fiction like I treat one massive feature and make it obey the same rules. I make my chapters circular for one and, with A Garden of Bones, the whole book. It ends where it starts. It gives the reader closure, I hope.

You need to enjoy writing, love writing even, to stick to it night after night after night.

And as the late, great Terry Pratchett once said: “Writing is the most fun you can have with your clothes on.”

See what I did there?

Questions and answers . . .

I’m in the process of preparing a media pack for the book launch and I’ve just sorted the Q&A section, which I thought I’d share here. Please let me know if there’s nything else you think I should include . . .

One of the front pages from the time

What inspired you to write A Garden of Bones?

I’d always hoped to one day write a book; it was a bucket-list thing I suppose, but nothing ever seemed quite right. Then, out of the blue, I was covering the Wycherley Murders, and in the months and weeks afterwards I started to get contacted by production companies wanting me to speak on true crime documentaries, and then the BBC who, at the time, were thinking about making a drama. At that point I think it dawned on me just what an incredible story it was and, apart from some of the police officers who had worked the investigation, I probably knew more about the case than anyone else.

Was it easy to write?

No. Like any book it was a process. I got a first draft out quite quickly but, as tends to happen with first drafts, it was nowhere near right. It was all told from my perspective and it didn’t get anywhere near enough to the centre of the story. So I went back to the drawing board. I went back and re-interviewed some of the officers involved to get under the skin of the police investigation to cover that side of things, and I realised that Susan Edwards needed her own voice, her own character. I needed to be able to take the reader into the house on the night of the killings, to France where the Edwards finally fled, and to St Pancras Station where they were eventually arrested. Then I meticulously plotted and re-plotted until I had the outline I was happy with, where the story could be told through three distinctive viewpoints, and where those viewpoints could thread and weave, and cross over. Although after all that, I think sitting down and writing it was the easy part.

How did you find the time to write it?

Again, with some difficulty. My day job involved some pretty crazy hours at the time and it was really a case of working on it at night and over weekends. I do recall not seeing anything on the television for over a year and often wasn’t getting to bed until one or two in the morning. But you just have to keep going. 

Andy Done Johnson

Why does the book take the style it takes?

I was adamant from the outset that I didn’t want to write a true crime book, at least not in a conventional form, and my original version was essentially a memoire, which couldn’t take the reader to the centre of the story. As it progressed it came closer and closer to reading like a novel, so I suppose in the end I just gave into it and wrote it as a novel. But the issue was that it involved a number of very real people, and I was only prepared to place them in the narrative as a matter of fact, or record. I didn’t want to take liberties with people’s lives or betray confidences, so for the sake of the narrative really, a few characters had to become fictional in order for me to properly tell the story.

Did you play any part in the Olivia Colman drama?

No, it is merely coincidence that the drama was announced at the same time that I was preparing to publish A Garden of Bones. A few years ago I did speak to another producer who was thinking about making a different drama about Susan and Christopher Edwards. I’m sworn to secrecy on that one, but I’m told it still may see the light of day. Although I can’t see how they could have written the Colman script without reading a lot of my reports from the time . . . so indirectly perhaps. After I found out about it I did send her a copy of the book though; not that I’ve had a reply from her agent.

Susan and Christopher Edwards

How did writing A Garden of Bones affect you?

In many ways the book is an extension of the case. I became obsessed with the Wycherley Murders . . . perhaps unhealthily so . . . at the time and then through the court case. I think I document this is quite a lot of detail in the chapters seen through the eyes of the journalist. But it didn’t really go away. I was being asked to relive it all by talking to production companies, describing what I did, being asked who I thought was the driving force behind the murders, going back to the Wycherley’s former house. So in the end I just had to write the book, just to set it down really and be able to move on.

Do you have plans to write anything else?

I’ve discovered through A Garden of Bones that I like to write fiction based on real events, using real people wherever I can . . . I think that’s where my future as a writer lies. I’m in the very early stages of another book, which hasn’t got a title yet but is about the murder of the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe. I like crime fiction that breaks boundaries, and I wondered how a murder would be investigated during a time before there was anything resembling a modern day police force. But there’s a way to go.

Revisiting familiar ground . . .

My retrospective piece about the Wycherley Murders has now been published on the Mansfield Chad, the news outlet that first broke the story.

It was actually lovely to be able to write the article for the publication that first broke the story, or perhaps more through which I broke the story.

Here’s the start of it.

It was raining outside, grey and horrible and it was a quiet day in the office – one of those where there was nothing much going on . . . the worst sort of days when you’re a reporter.

I was on the calls shift, as it was then . . . things are very different now. Back in 2013 you’d call the police every hour to see what was happening, you’d call the fire service and basically deal with all the breaking news.

Then I saw a conversation on a Facebook page, people discussing a forensics tent that had been put up in the back garden of a house in Forest Town . . . talk that they had found bodies in the ground. The cul de sac Blenheim Close was mentioned.

I grabbed my phone, my pad and a handful of pens and headed to the scene, while colleagues got on the phone to the police.

It wasn’t difficult to spot. As I pulled over there were two police officers stationed at the top of the road, guarding the property on the corner; the tent clearly visible from the road.

I hadn’t even got out of my car when the mobile rang. The office. Police confirmed two bodies had been unearthed and removed. They wanted to make it clear it was a historical find, no mad axeman on the loose, sort of thing.

You can click on or paste the link to read it in full.

https://www.chad.co.uk/news/crime/chad-reporter-recalls-day-two-bodies-were-found-garden-mansfield-property-1370997

Just a bit of news . . .

I was contacted yesterday by a researcher who I dealt with hen they were making a documentary on the Wycherley Murders a few years back, in a true crime series called A Town and Country Murder. I spoke on it, alone with, as he was then, DCI Rob Griffin.

In a nutshell, the episode has been bought by Pick TV and is re-branded under their ‘Killer in Your Village’ brand – I’m guessing on the back of the Olivia Colman drama, so it looks like the case is set for even more publicity.

Here is a link to the original episode . . .

Not the best quality. Apologies.

Landscapers . . .

Can you imagine dragging two dead, bleeding bodies down a couple of flights of stairs, not long after you’ve just shot them.

Can you imagine digging a pit in the dead of night, throwing the corpses in and covering them with topsoil.

Can you imagine going to B&Q the following morning and buying a load of bedding plants to cover the burial scene.

Can you imagine spending the next seven years routinely going back to the burial site to keep it maintained, to keep it looking normal, to stop it from drawing attention.

Ironically, this very act did just that.

In the years following the Wycherley’s murders, the only thing that neighbours found odd was ‘the young couple’ – Susan and Chrisopher Edwards – turning up, from time to time to do the garden.

It’s one of the first things that I was told, and it has, ultimately, created the title for the new drama that will be made later this year.

Landscapers.

It goes a little too far, I would suggest.

In their evidence, Susan and Christopher claimed it was really an act of panic – they were faced with two dead bodies, they had to get rid of them to evade capture. They thought about hiding the Wycherleys’ remains in the attic, but they realised that they would smell, and neither of them had the physical strength to lug the remains of two dead adults over their heads, up a ladder and into a loft space.

But they could take them downwards . . . gravity would help.

So they had lumped them down the stairs; heads banding on step after step; William “as stiff as a board”, Patricis “loose and gurgling” . . . blood pouring out of her.

Susan and Christopher Edwards

It would ultimately be part of their story that would lead to their conviction.

Neither of the Edwards were big people.

Christopher was slight; Susan slighter . . . and the notion of them dragging these two, dead human forms down the stairs, through the lounge and into their, almost, final resting place, seemed almost impossible, when it was described during their prosecution.

But they did it.

I have questioned over the years, was this an act of desperation; was this an act of greed and necessity?

Was it both?

In many ways, and this is a key theme of the book; William and Patricia were victims of Susan and Christopher, but Susan was a victim of William, Christopher was a victim of William.

Patricia was more innocent . . . although guilty by her ‘blind eyes’ to her husband’s behaviour. Maybe she just wanted a quiet life. I don’t know.

Was Christopher a victim of Susan. That’s a tricky one. Possibly . . . I would say. 

But at what point, after you’ve been bullied and abused – physically, sexually and emotionally – do you become a criminal?

We live in a culture of victims and perpetrators; but the criminal justice system, the courts and the press, never really contemplate the victim . . . or whether they actually deserved the bullets that they got. 

William Wycherley was not a nice man. William Wycherley did terrible things. And yet in this black and white world of ‘goodies and baddies’, he is the victim in all of this all the same . . . the vulnerable daughter who he abused, the villain. And maybe we need to look at situations like this through differently-tinted spectacles.

Coming soon . . .

One of the most horrific parts of the Wycherley Murders was the disposal of the bodies.

Tomorrow I’m going to write about how the Edwards disposed of the remains of William and Patricia Wycherley, the lies they told, and the story they concocted . . .

And how one slip in the ‘web of lies’ that they build, contributed towards their conviction.

There might even be a bit more book . . . just a bit.