Murder and witches – free online event – Sat March 27, 15.00-16.15 (UK time)

Three crime writers talk about unusual cases of murder and witchcraft in English history

The crime writers Cathi Unsworth, Syd Moore, and Mick Finlay, whose books draw on the Hagley Woods murder of 1943, the history of witches in Essex, and murder in London and East Anglia, talk about some of the events in history that have inspired their books.

As well as being a music journalist, arts correspondent and editor, Cathi Unsworth has written a number of crime novels, both historical and set in the present day.

Syd Moore is an expert on the history of witches in Essex and author of the Essex Witch Museum mysteries.

Mick Finlay (Associate Professor in Social Psychology, Anglia Ruskin University), is author of the Arrowood crime series set in Victorian London.

Followed by a Q&A. This event is part of Cambridge Festival 2021.

FREE EVENT – but please book a place here

Writing crime or historical fiction: the experience of having your novel copy-edited

I’m going through the copy-edits of Arrowood and the Meeting House Murders (the fourth Arrowood book, set in London in 1896), and thought some readers/writers might be interested in the type of issues the copy-editor comes back with. The issues here are particularly relevant for crime and historical fiction novels, but many apply to all types of fiction. In traditional publishing, your editor will provide you with a wide range of comments, from structural and character issues to fine details of grammar and tone. You may go through a series of edits based on those, and, once that’s done, the book goes to a copy-editor. This is the stage before the book gets set up in its final page version (the ‘page proofs’).

The copy-editor will provide instructions to the printers about headings and font changes, but will also check the manuscript for spelling, grammar, repetition, continuity and factual issues. I’ll describe in this article some of the issues that the copy-editor for the Arrowood books (the excellent Jon Appleton of @appletonsbooks) brought up for my fourth book. First, there are typos (missing full stops, apostrophes, words etc) and spelling mistakes. For example, I often incorrectly include or omit hyphens (e.g., ‘fifteen year-old boy’ when it should be ‘fifteen-year-old boy’, ‘half closed’ when it should be ‘half-closed’), get spaces wrong (e.g. ‘Good night’ instead of ‘Goodnight’; ‘any more’ instead of ‘anymore’), and choose the wrong word when it’s a homonym (e.g. draft/draught; curb/kerb). The other thing that I often get wrong is the correct layout for different types of text (e.g., handwritten notes, telegrams, song lyrics, song names, pub names and so on). This might involve indenting, italics, and/or inverted commas. There is a standard way for some of these, and, if there isn’t, then you need to be consistent.

Next there are the dates and days. In a crime novel, we’re often referring back to something that happened before an incident (e.g. a suspect being seen doing something fishy), or setting up tension when something is going to happen in the future (e.g. a suspect leaving the country). Reminders of when exactly things happen is really important in helping the reader (and writer) keep track of how many days there are before some crucial event, and what events happened before/after other events (very important when piecing together evidence). This is actually more difficult than it seems, and I keep an excel spreadsheet with the dates, days of the week, and even the times that things happen and information is revealed. When you start revising your book, you often move scenes or clues, which can then throw out all the other dates. A good copy-editor will spot when there are mistakes in the dates or days of the week and correct them. You can also easily forget to change incidental details when you move scenes from one day to another. For example, if you move a vital scene from a Sunday to a Tuesday, you might forget that you’ve included descriptions of a church emptying out as an incidental detail about the setting.

There are usually things that the copy-editor suggests changing that you reject. This is normal, because a good copy-editor will pick up everything that looks suspect to them, whether they’re sure about them or not. Better to point out issues which you don’t want to change than fail to point out issues which you would have liked to change if you’d been alerted. For example, my narrator is from a working-class background, and he doesn’t always use ‘correct’ middle-class grammar. For example, he often omits ‘of’ when saying ‘out’ (e.g. I went out the house). My copy-editor sometimes tries to make it more correct by adding the ‘of’, and I duly reject the change. I’m lucky in that I’ve had the same copy editor for all four Arrowood books, so he knows a lot of my narrator’s colloquialisms and doesn’t try to change them.

Continuity is also an issue. This refers to when you have mistakenly changed details of a scene, character or storyline. For example, one of my characters picked up a pipe from its original location when it had actually been moved to a different place in an earlier scene. In another place, I’d changed the name of a steamship company accidentally. In historical novels, accuracy is another thing a copy-editor will pick up on if they have good attention to detail. I keep forgetting that ‘ok’ wasn’t used in the 1890s, but my copy-editor always substitutes it for ‘all right’ when I do. A good copy-editor will also check historical details they’re unsure about. For example, the first moving picture shows appeared in London in 1896. In my current book, my detective, Arrowood, talks about a Lumiere theatre in Leicester Square in that year. The copy-editor checked this and it turned out there was no Lumiere showing films in Leicester Square that year. However, he gave me a couple of alternative locations that I could use instead.

Those are just some examples of what happens when your book is copy-edited. So far, every time I’ve been through the process I’ve learned something new. For this book, I’ve learnt when to use ‘any more’ vs ‘anymore’, the use of commas between co-ordinate adjectives, and what to do when you have inverted commas inside inverted commas. And yes, I did find this interesting.

I hope you have also found this short article interesting. A good copy editor can be incredibly useful in giving the reader a smoother journey through your book. When you find one, treasure them!


Many thanks to the Arrowood copy-editor, Jon Appleton of @appletonsbooks

Strange beliefs, fake news and blame in public crises: from the Great Plague to Covid-19

Since COVID-19 appeared, we’ve seen a lot of false cures, strange beliefs and fake news, so much so that the World Health Organisation has declared an ‘infodemic’. Throughout history, we’ve seen similar responses when people are facing new dangers they can’t control and from which the authorities can offer little protection. This is only natural: we’re prepared to accept them because they restore a sense of control and certainty when we feel anxious and powerless.

Beliefs about the causes of a crisis are often linked to existing conflicts, political beliefs or prejudices. For COVID-19, there are those who blame the rollout of 5G, believing the technology weakens our immunity or somehow spreads the virus. Other have suggested it was created by the Chinese either to stop the Hong Kong protestors or, according to Brazil’s education minister, to achieve world domination. Other have suggested Bill Gates, the US military, the Jews, or some other unspecified elite trying to cause a global crash, reduce the population or boost drug company profits. When the Spanish flu epidemic began in 1918, just before the end of World War 1, there were rumours the Germans had spread it as a weapon. The Great Plague of 1665 broke out while Britain was at war with the Dutch, and it was widely believed the disease entered England when a crate of silks from the Netherlands was opened. Jack the Ripper was killing his victims at a time of anti-Semitism in the East End of London. Fuelling the suspicion that the Ripper was a Jew, the Times reported the Talmud requires that a Jew who sleeps with a Christian must kill and mutilate her. There was also the belief candles made from human fat were used by thieves and murderers in Germany and Russia (where many Jewish immigrants had come from) to put people into a deep sleep.

COVID-19 has also seen a plethora of fake tests, cures and prevention strategies. Messages have spread saying that if you can hold your breath for 10 seconds you don’t have the virus, while a Camberwell church sold plague protection kits for £91 each to over 1,000 people, consisting of a bottle of oil (mixed with cedarwood, hyssop and prayer) and a piece of red yarn. Other protective measures circulating include sun-bathing and eating alkaline foods, while cures include drinking hot drinks (based on the claim that the virus is killed at over 27C), drinking water every 15 minutes to flush the virus into the belly where it will be destroyed by stomach acids, or gargling with disinfectant. Other advice includes swallowing chlorine dioxide (a bleaching agent), drinkable silver, volcanic ash, zinc formula or cocaine. The Independent reported that hundreds died in Iran after drinking methanol after rumours it cures COVID-19, while the President of Belarus has said that not only does working in the fields cure people, but there are no viruses at ice hockey matches as sport and the ice is the ‘best anti-virus medicine’. During the Spanish flu outbreak, for which there was no cure, people recommended drinking whisky, eating sugar lumps soaked with creosote, eating onions or garlic with potash, or smoking. Although there was no evidence they worked, chemists sold potions such as Thompson’s Influenza Specific and the wonderfully-named Dr Williams Pink Pills for Pink People. According to the historian Geoffrey Field, superstition was common in the Blitz, and many Londoners would carry lucky charms and sprigs of heather, or had personal routines and rules such as never wearing green or refusing to shelter with people they thought were unlucky.

The Great Plague provides many examples of strange preventatives or cures. The belief that it was spread in the air led people to carry nosegays of herbs, hold cloth soaked in vinegar to their faces, or to smoke. Since onions and garlic were believed to absorb infection from the air, they were often carried in the mouth, and one clever person even suggested filling a ship with peeled onions and floating it down the Thames when the tide was going out, thus absorbing the bad air and taking it off to sea. People also carried amulets of toad poison, charms in case it was caused by an evil spirit, or papers with the word ABRACADABRA formed into a triangle. Apothecaries sold all sorts of pills and potions said to offer a cure, while a fellow called John Allin kept a piece of gold in his mouth whenever he left the house. The belief that syphilis offered immunity from the plague even led some to try and contract it; as a result, syphilis deaths rose during the plague years.

Despite the fact our scientific knowledge has advanced, there are many similarities between how we react to the coronavirus crisis and previous mass dangers. This is because new mass dangers lead to feelings of anxiety and loss of control, which we deal with by grasping for explanations that fit our existing beliefs and attitudes, and cures that are at least available.

Mick Finlay is the author of the Arrowood series of Victorian crime novels. He is also Reader in Social Psychology, Anglia Ruskin University.

Win a signed book! – COMPETITION NOW CLOSED


To celebrate the publication of the third Arrowood book (Arrowood and the Thames Corpses – buy it here) on April 2 (UK, Ireland and other English-speaking territories) and June (N. America), I’m giving away 5 copies of Arrowood (book 1) or The Murder Pit (book 2). Your choice. Anywhere in world. Competition closes Saturday April 4th. To enter, send me a message using the contact page on this website, or follow me on Twitter (@mickfinlay2) or like my Facebook page

Origins of the terms ‘nob’ and ‘toff’

In the Arrowood books, the narrator Norman Barnett often uses the terms ‘nob’ or ‘toff’ when talking about people of a high status. These terms were common in the 19th century, and are still used in the UK today.

I’d never wondered where the terms came from until I heard a BBC Radio 4 programme Start the Week on the history of India. During the discussion, the historian William Dalrymple said that the term ‘nob’ came from the term ‘nawab’ (a governor of the Mogul Empire), from which came the 17th century term ‘nabob’ (a person who came back to Britain after becoming wealthy in India).

There are other theories as to the origin. The OED, which defines nob as ‘a person of some wealth of social distinction’ isn’t sure. It was in use as early as 1676, and might be an abbreviation of ’noble’ or ’nobleman’, or it might come from ‘nab’ meaning the head, a hat, or a coxcomb. wiktionary suggests it might come from ‘white-nob’ (“white-head”), a term for the white, powdered wigs worn by middle class people in the 1700s.

‘Toff’ is defined by the OED as ‘a person who is stylishly dressed or who has a smart appearance; a swell; (hence) one of the well-to-do, a ‘nob’.’ This source says it might derive from the 18th century ‘tuft’ (a titled student at Oxford who wore a gold tassel on their cap, also called a ‘tuft’).

So, there you go.