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A Curiosity of Crime

As far back as she can remember, Kerry Cathers has been fascinated by history and by crime. The Toronto writer and editor turned her passion for history into a doctorate in medieval warfare from the University of Reading (2002). “Warfare,” she says, “has always been part of human society, just as crime has.”

Kerry Cathers

Now Kerry is combining her interest in history and crime in a website designed for writers of historical crime fiction. A Curiosity of Crime will help writers find the perfect poisons and weapons for the era in which their stories are set. It will enable them to distinguish between stab wounds inflicted in a suicide and in a homicide. It will even let them know how close they need to be to a decomposing corpse before they can smell it.

And it’s a bonus for Kerry that she loves doing research. “Give me a corner in a library and a stack of books,” she says, “and I’m in a state of bliss.”

Kerry, what inspired you to create a website for crime writers?

The idea came out of an interview I did with Ed Adach, forensic detective with Toronto Police Services, for an article about the portrayal of forensics in fiction. This led to the idea of reference books for crime writers. With a bit of research, I discovered that it had already been done—more than once.

Skimming through D. P. Lyle’s More Forensics and Fiction (2012), I saw that one of the questions contained a complaint that there were no books covering forensics and crime-solving in the 1800s. The response was that there are no books because there wasn’t enough forensics to write about, that forensics is a modern science.

My reaction was twofold. First: That can’t possibly be true! Second: There’s more to solving 19th-century crime (and more to historical crime fiction) than a CSI department and modern science.

So, I set about finding out whether I was right.

I scoured the library, starting with books on the history of crime fiction. I found a treasure trove. For me, in order to create historical detective fiction, you need to understand more than just the forensics/evidence. You also need to understand how the police force of that day operated, where it fit into society, and the mechanics of the judicial system. For example, a trial is set in London in 1830, the accused cannot have a defence lawyer. But if the trial is set in Edinburgh, the accused can have a defence lawyer. (Though sharing a monarch and a Parliament with England, a provision was made to ensure that Scotland retained its legal system and its laws in the Act of Union in 1707. English law didn’t allow defence council until 1836, but Scottish law allowed it from the 17th century.)

Authors don’t have to be scholars or experts in all these areas. They only need to know enough to create rich and accurate settings that transports their readers back in time. The information they need is scattered over hundreds of articles and books, so research can be frustrating and time-consuming. I want to assemble relevant information on one site to make research easier for authors.

Why the title, A Curiosity of Crime?

The title is an expression of my interest in crime; that it is a curiosity rather than focused on a particular end goal. It’s knowing for the sake of knowing.

I regard “curiosity” as a noun—such as a murder of crows, a pack of wolves, a curiosity of crime. I think of the site as a curio packed with odd and interesting items that I want to rummage through and explore. So, the title is a description of the site rather than the individuals who will come to it.

A Curiosity of Crime: — making research easier for writers.

What subjects will be covered?

I’d like to say Just about everything.

The main areas will be science, forensics, medical, policing, judicial system, societal influences and prejudices, and famous people.

Then the door is open. I am currently reading a book about 17th-century witch trials. It discusses concepts of evidence and the shift in legal thinking that argued the merits of prosecutions based on physical evidence rather than signs from God. Some of this material might find its way into a blog post or into the newsletter.

How will the site be organized?

There are reference pages which includes a list of famous people, a glossary, and a timeline. That will expand into case studies, true crime snippets, and biographies.

And internal links in the blogs will make searching for information easier and faster. For example, if you are reading about poison, you won’t have to then search for the Marsh Test; there will be a link taking you to the relevant blog.

Can writers contact you with questions?

Absolutely. I don’t see a date when every possible piece of information will appear on the site (I don’t think that’s possible). If an answer can’t be found on the site, writers are welcome to send me a question. I won’t be able to answer immediately, but chances are the answer will appear in the next blog or newsletter.

You say you are planning a newsletter. What will be in it that won’t be on the site?

The newsletter will be sent out as an email every two weeks.

I’ll include “tidbits” of history that will enhance a story, but aren’t directly related to crime, or are large enough for a dedicated blog. Items such as, according to science, what colours you can or can’t have your characters wearing.

I hope to have a “This month I learned…” section describing skills and arcane knowledge I’ve come across. For instance, I am currently looking for someone who knows how to pick 19th century locks. When I find this individual, I’ll let readers know what I’ve learned.

There will be reviews of books which are particularly useful (or not) for research, and announcements about the industry of (historical) crime fiction. I plan to have guest articles from individuals with greater expertise in a subject than I will ever have.

Can writers and readers find you on social media?

I am currently on twitter: @Curiositycrime. I will also be doing Instagram, but probably not until I have a good idea of when my reference books will be published (see below).

A Curiosity of Crime is a work-in-progress. Kerry, what are you plans for the site?

There are a couple of things in the pipeline.

About once a week in the coming year, I’ll hold an “ask me anything” hour. Dates and time will shift, but advance notice will be given on Twitter. I’m sorting out the mechanics, but, as it stands, answers to the first 10 questions will be published, and the next 10 will appear in the newsletter.

Authors will also have the opportunity to book one-on-one meetings with me to ask forensic questions specific to their stories, and brainstorm how to accurately describe the crimes they are writing about.

I hope to publish a series reference books in the second half of 2022—geared specifically to authors of historical crime fiction, on everything from weaponry to where murderers can get their poison.

The series will include an overall reference book that talks about 19th-centure forensics, policing, and criminology and will include items that don’t quite fit on the website. Accompanying it will be smaller, specialized books on topics such as forensics and policing by the decade, as well as poisons, and weaponry. If anyone out there is thinking, “I wish they had a reference book on…” please drop me a line.

Do you intend to share your knowledge of forensics and criminology in other ways?

I’ll be offering a series of webinars that will focus, not only on historical facts, but how to use research in fiction. Where and how authors can bend it, what they can let slip. These will be available on the website and will remain there as long as people are interested in them.

I’ll be reaching out to authors to find out what would be useful for them, and the webinars will be built around that feedback.

Thank you, Kerry! Check out A Curiosity of Crime here.

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