Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things - A Critical Analysis of a Short Story

 

Another essay I wrote during my 2nd year Creative Writing Degree. 

Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things has been sat stewing slowly in my Compost Heap of ideas for nearly twenty years now, attacked from many different angles but never truly working until recently. In this critical analysis I will look at how I found and researched the story, why waiting till I had developed my skill set to write this has made the story stronger, and finally how I structured the story with book-ended lines of dialogue.


I used the story (WHICH YOU CAN READ HERE) as the basis for my syllabic poem, Sticks! and you can read all about that adventure HERE.

This was a fun story to write, and while there is a strong argument to be made for leaving it with the powerful ending that lingers in the readers mind like a bad smell, there is the possibility of expanding it further into a novel.

 

Finding The Story

Inspired from the true-crime story of Mable Leyshon and her murder by teenager Matthew Hardman in November, 2001[1], I was intrigued by the notion that he believed he was a vampire, and that by drinking her blood he would become immortal. There have been several captivating documentaries about the subject, The Assassination of Mabel Leyshon,[2] The Murder of Mabel Leyshon[3], and The Anglesey Vampire[4] being top of my list. The case also hit terrestrial television, with an entire episode of Killer In My Village[5] being dedicated to the crime. This had a lot more insight, especially from the police investigation point of view, which will prove beneficial should I decide to make this part of my Bloody Ossett! series of crime novels. 


The majority of the research came through reading newspaper reports from the time, which I was lucky enough to still have. There have been some further developments in the case which I have kept up to date with, most notably a chilling article in The Sun[6] which posits that Matthew Hardman would have developed into a serial killer if not captured. As my stories over the last couple of years have developed, I have learnt the valuable need for research, however small. Stephen King warns about going overboard with this, noting that you are not writing a research paper and that the story should always come first[7]. He goes on to say that backstory should remain there, in the back. It is a fine balance but one which has benefitted the story, allowing those few details that help set time and place seed their way into the mind of the reader.


Yet despite all the research, and the strong concept, I was not ready yet to write this tale. It would not be until I took this module and grew a better understanding of short fiction that I felt confident to tackle it.

 

Allowing Myself Time To Develop A Stronger Skill set

This story, like my literary novel The Magpie’s Lament, has sat with me for two decades. I had the need to write a story about an old woman who was killed by a teenager who believed himself to be of supernatural origin. That Stephen King is a big inspiration on my work is obvious, and I felt that I had the kernel of a long story, but I didn’t know exactly how to approach it. Did I want this to be a straight-out supernatural story, or one more grounded in reality? Conrad Jones has written a series of self-published novels which fictionalise several murders, including that of Mable Leyshon in his Anglesey Murders books[8], simply changing the names of those involved but directly chronicling the events. and I didn’t want to do that.


Waiting to write this story until I had the right tools to unearth it has proven invaluable, resulting in a visceral reaction to the short story ending. I’ve not been a huge reader of short fiction, preferring the novel as form. But, as Stephen King states: “[a writer] should write a lot, and read a lot” in order to improve their own skills, and so I read a lot of King’s short stories in Bazaar Of Bad Dreams, and Ian Rankin’s The Beat Goes On. These two collections were ideal as the story I was wanting to create would be a mesh of crime and the weird.The feedback received from a variety of readers certainly suggests it packs the punch I was looking for, a quality I feel it wouldn’t have had had I attempted to write this back in 2004.


Where once I would have written: 

“…the sensation ran along her arm, making her grimace in pain,”

 

about the feeling of an impending heart attack, by giving myself time to practice, read wider and expand my writing tools results in this instead: 

“…the sensation of ants scribbling across her skin forcing an ugly grimace across Gamma Jacobs face.”

 

I’m not saying it is a perfect sentence, but the alliteration and rhythm is markedly improved, and adds to creating a more atmospheric read.

 

Finding The Perfect Hook

In her essay Structuring A Plot, Kate Ellis talks about her method of pulling all the strands of ideas together into a cohesive story structure[9]. These scraps of ideas might come from newspaper clippings, scribbled notes across numerous notebooks, as well as inspired thoughts as she begins to plot. For this short story I knew that I wanted to open and close with dialogue, book-ending with, hopefully, startling lines that hook the reader at the start, and leave the reader wanting to know more, or at the very least, feeling a little queasy. Again, multiple sources of feedback suggest this was successful. I felt the line: ‘Grab a stick!’ was the perfect place to end the short story, while also leaving me room to breathe more into the tale should I wish. 


Starting the story with a line of dialogue can be risky as the readers know nothing about the speaker or the situation, and that is why I crafted ‘Children shouldn’t play with dead things!’ This not only gives the reader a little unease by posing several questions – who are the children, who is the speaker, and what is the dead thing the children are playing with? – it also foreshadows what is to come later.


I am glad I let this story stew for so long as it has benefited from the extra time for research, growth in the craft and a growing respect for the short story form. I feel I have matured as a writer over the course of this module which has resulted in a stronger story.

 



[1] Helen Carter, Vampire Killer Must Serve 12 Years. 2002. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2002/aug/03/helencarter [Last Accessed: 03/03/2021]

[2] Top Assassinator Documentary, The Assassination of Mabel Leyshon https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-9hcQP_bbJ0 [Last accessed: 17/4/2021]

[3] Mollie Westbrook, The Murder of Mabel Leyshon https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfPi16pty2s [Last Accessed: 3/3/2021]

[4] Ellie Shaw, The Anglesy Vampire | True Crime https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6a7ncQE82lM [Last Accessed 15/4/2021]

[5] Murder Crime Documentaries, Killer In My Village – Mabel Leyshon https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TubYt6zzJTw [Last Accessed: 10/2/2021]

[6] Maloney, A. BLOOD LUST: Teen ‘Vampire’ who cut out a pensioner’s heart & drank blood from a saucepan ‘would have become a serial killer,’ says cop. The Sun. London. 19/04/2020. https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/11419233/teen-vampire-matthew-hardman-kids-who-kill/ [Last Accessed: 14/04/2021]

[7] King, S. 2000. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. London. Hodder & Stoughton “…remember you are writing a novel, not a research paper.” And “…research is backstory, and the key word in backstory is back.” p.277

[8] Jones, C. The Anglesey Murders: A Visit From The Devil. 2019. Amazon.

[9] Ellis, K. 2020. Structuring A Plot Howdunnit: A Masterclass In Crime Writing. London. HarperCollins. p.156: “But when it’s time for me to start work in earnest, I gather these nebulous thoughts and get them into some sort of order.”

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