Hazel McHaffie

Patricia Cornwell


It’s probably fair to say that Patricia Cornwell is generally adjudged the undisputed mother and queen of forensic thriller writing.

It was her first novel, Postmortem, that kick-started this genre and spawned a fascination with the world of the dead. BBC series like Silent Witness, and Waking the Dead, which explore unexplained deaths, are aired at prime time. Just this week, Channel 5 has started showing a brand new 3-part documentary, Cause of Death, taking viewers inside a coroner‘s office as he and his team investigate unexplained deaths.

But way back in the 1980s, it was not instant hits all round. Initially Cornwell had to endure the usual run of rejections, and even when Postmortem was published, it took time before it was duly acclaimed. When she slipped out in her lunch break from the mortuary where she worked for her very first book signing, precisely no copies of the book were sold, and she fielded just one question: an elderly lady asking where she could find the cookbooks!

Since then, of course, she has achieved phenomenal success, won an impressive raft of literary prizes, and sold over 120 million books. Probably her most famous character is Chief Medical Officer Dr Kay Scarpetta, and next week her 26th book in the series comes out. 26!! But it’s Scarpetta’s backstory, and that of her niece Lucy, and policeman colleague Pete Marino, that help to drive the novels – a massive achievement in itself to sustain the suspense and time-lines across so many years, a backdrop to countless horrific crimes and painstaking investigations, each a compelling read in its own right.

Another powerful characteristic of her books which I am in awe of is the precision – whether it’s the minute records of exactly which bones were fractured in a frenzied attack, or the precise level of decomposition of a body, or the battery of tests needed to establish where a body has been, the scene is described in meticulous detail. She lists as her interests:
Forensics | Forensic Technologies | Ballistics | Weapons | Explosives | Pathology & Autopsies | Crime | Historical and Unsolved Criminal Cases | Jack The Ripper | Helicopter Piloting | Scuba Diving | Archaeological Excavation Experience |
It shows! And she’s famous for working tirelessly to stay up to speed as methods of detection and analysis evolve.

But until this week I was unaware of her own harrowing personal story. Interviews with her to mark the publication of Livid on 25th October, have revealed a grim start in life. She was just five years old when her father walked out on Christmas Day. Shortly afterwards she was molested by a local patrolman, and required to testify in court before a grand jury. Her mother suffered from psychotic depression and spent large swathes of her daughter’s early life in hospital, meaning Patricia was either responsible for caring for her at home or in foster care herself. Her foster mother verbally abused her, bullied and force-fed her (leading to subsequent anorexia). She also left Patricia’s beloved dog locked in the basement to die of neglect. The grown up Cornwell is still riddled with deep-down anxieties about families and responsibilities.

By her own admission, in Scarpetta she has created a character who would have rescued her from all this torment – someone who is unflagging in the pursuit of justice for the murder victims who end up on her autopsy table. But it doesn’t require a PhD in psychology to see the origins of her deep empathy with inner turmoil and the effects of suppressed emotion which are so evident in her fiction. She has used her own personal tragedy and her extraordinary literary talent to make sense of the world. In her own words: I think your pain becomes your poetry, your gift. What a gift!

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Fact and fiction

MslexiaDid you know that some 184,000 books are published in the UK every year, the vast majority appearing without fanfare and sinking without trace? And yet writing a book involves a massive investment of time, energy, emotion, heartache and money.

We low-ranking authors can easily feel overlooked and undervalued, but news in the publishing world put things into a healthier perspective for me at a time when I needed a boost of confidence (courtesy of my writerly journals: Mslexia and The Author.

1. ‘Publishers are tending more and more to concentrate on safe choices and celebrity brands, sometimes at the expense of supporting backlist and midlist authors who sell steadily but more slowly,’ says the CEO of the Society of Authors. And many pretty big names have demonstrated that even they feel disenchanted. A whole raft of them have recently switched to new publishing houses in a search for fresh enthusiasm and better sales figures: Kate Mosse, Harlan Coben, Paulo Coelho, Patricia Cornwell, Michelle Paver, Val McDermid to name but a few.

Take-home message: Great success is no passport to contentment.

2. Nor is rejection reserved for the few. It’s well known that even world famous authors have received crushing letters from publishers and agents. Latest offerings to add to the list: Louisa M Alcott was advised to ‘stick to teaching.’ Anne Frank’s Diary got ‘The girl doesn’t have a special perception which would lift the book above the curiosity level.CS Lewis was turned down 800 times before he published anything! Egg on faces comes to mind.

Take-home message: Don’t be cast down by rejection.

The Author journals3. According to ALCS research, the median sum earned by professional authors in 2013 was a beggarly £4,000. £4,000!! (Aspiration point: The top 5% earn in excess of £100,000; the top 1% more than £450,000 a year.) No wonder then that the number of full-time authors relying solely on earnings from writing has gone down from 40% in 2007 to 11.5%. Ouch! But in actual fact, there are many writers who feel they write best when they keep their feet firmly in the real, everyday world of work. Tick!

Take-home message: Real life activities can help keep you grounded.

4. I’m sure all authors adopt several methods for capturing ideas and brainwaves before they slip away – from having a simple pencil and notebook beside the bath tub to fancy electronic apps and fads in every pocket. Remembering is crucial … or is it? Novelist cum musician cum Latin teacher William Sutton argues that slavish notes can result in slavish writing. Sometimes ‘the capricious alchemy of the unreliable memory’ and healthy distance can transmute leaden prose into something much more volatile, airy and appealing. Phew! That’s all right then!

Take-home message: No need to get paranoid about recording every idea.

5. I guess we all worry about the structure of our books. Is it balanced? Does it sag in the middle or fizzle lamely at the end? Will it grip a reader? Well, an established literary consultant, Helen Bryant, maintains that a novel’s structure should sit within a classic three act graph: Act 1 centres on the inciting incident and core problem; Act 2 should include at least three rising tension peaks; Act 3 brings the main plot lines to a climax and resolves them. So, with some trepidation I plotted my latest novel, Inside of Me, on a similar graph, and what d’you know, it complies with this framework! Tick!

Take-home message: Keep reading the literary journals!

6. More than 50% of both primary school children and over-65s read every day! Wahey. Time to tap into that market in a more deliberate way. Let’s start with the U3A

Take-home message: Target the right audiences.

7. In June this year The Reading Agency published a review on The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment. Its key findings included the following: reading is closely linked to understanding of our own identity; it can impact on our relationships with others; it increases empathy; helps with relaxation; helps develop knowledge; helps mental health. Yes!

Take-home message: Never undervalue the wide ranging benefits of reading.

Sanguine again

There we go; spirits lifted immeasurably. Onwards and upwards.


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