When the woman dubbed ‘Australia’s true-crime queen’ meets me on a sunny Sunday afternoon in April, the first thing she does is apologise for being a little late. She, Robin Bowles, was watching the final cut for the film of her book Blood Brother before it was scheduled to air on Channel 9 on 8 May 2011 (the producers decided to change the title to Blood Brothers).
I’m intrigued to learn about her experience in seeing her work become a film. ‘The production company treated me really well,’ she says, ‘it hasn’t been terrible, as I’ve heard from others whose rights have been bought.’
The script was written by someone else and, if she had disapproved of the accuracy of the final product, the only thing she could do was to have her name removed from the credits. However, Bowles jokes that, having viewed the cut that afternoon, she is more likely to request that her name be made more prominent in the credits.
Bridging the gap between investigative journalism and novel-writing and inspired by works such as Trumann Capote’s In Cold Blood, Robin Bowles carved a new genre in Australian publishing. Indeed, when Bowles joined Sisters in Crime, an organisation that celebrates and supports women crime writers, the club was branded as a group for crime fiction writers. Sisters in Crime has since expanded beyond fiction, and Bowles later became a National Convenor.
Her books reflect an interest in legal issues, crime and justice.
‘I was an avid crime reader (both fiction and non-fiction) before I became a crime writer. In Cold Blood was really the first creative non-fiction book of its type and I drew inspiration from it. I found it riveting and immediate; it feels like you’re there. I also love Ann Rule, an ex-cop who became an author.’
Bowles decided to write a book before she knew what she wanted to write. She had a significant amount of professional writing experience but it didn’t go far beyond composing annual reports and marketing strategies.
Then, on the Queen’s Birthday long weekend in 1996, Bowles read a newspaper article about the death of Jenny Tanner, which was declared a suicide despite the forensic evidence pointing to something more sinister.
Bowles was drawn into the story and contacted the journalist who had written that newspaper report to ask whether he’d already started on the book she wanted to write. To her surprise, he told her that he wouldn’t be writing anything further; he had received various threats and did not want to put his family at risk. Putting her successful and lucrative career in public relations on hold, she closed her business for 12 months and rented a house in Queensland, on a mission to write her first book.
‘A friend said to me: “But you’ve never written a book!” I was pretty opinionated and that included a high opinion of myself. I said, “It can’t be much harder than what I’m doing now.” I was a walk-on-water girl back then.’
The book (Blind Justice) became a best-seller and Bowles has since established a loyal readership. She has written about the death of Jaidyn Leskie (Justice Denied) and the Peter Falconio case (Dead Centre) and, drawing on the countless entertaining experiences she has had in writing her many non-fiction books, she has also written several books in a comical series which recounts the private investigation adventures of Cornelia Finnigan (Cornelia is Bowles’ alter ego, but ‘younger and thinner’).
She often receives letters through her publisher and emails in which readers ask her to write their story next. Considering Bowles’ creative output, it seems there is no shortage of inspiration in this exciting genre.
Writing her books is not just a matter of researching what has already been written. To dig up material for her books, Bowles has travelled extensively in Australia, following clues and searching determinedly for people involved in cold cases (such as a retired cop she once tracked from Mansfield to Bega). Bowles has fine-tuned her investigative skills to the point where she was encouraged to study for a Diploma in Investigation from Swinburne University, a qualification which she used to obtain a Private Investigator’s Licence.
Sometimes a lead falls right in her lap, sparing her from extensive detective work. She has a knack for asking the right questions and being in the right place at the right time. One of these serendipitous ‘little coincidences’ happened in an outback pub in the middle of nowhere, where she happened to meet the daughter of a former employer of Peter Falconio’s father, who was able to provide her with the Falconio family’s home telephone number.
She reflects on investigating: ‘Sometimes I feel intrusive. Some people don’t want to be in the public eye. They’re trying to get on with their lives. But when these little coincidences happen, when clues present themselves to me, it makes me think I’m right to be doing this; that there are things that need to be found out.
‘There’s a fine line, though, between finding things out and then putting them in a book. If people don’t want to be named, I change their names in my books. And if a conversation or a meeting or an observation about a person does not move the book forward, I don’t put it in.’
She calls her work ‘narrative non-fiction’ and bookshops usually stock her titles in the true crime section. In part, the style developed out of the editorial process.
She explains: ‘Sue Hines at Allen & Unwin told me with my first book: “If you can write, I’ll publish it.” I was very arrogant back then and presumed all I had to do was write the book and they would publish. I’d send her chapters and she would write comments all over the manuscript: “I want more of you in it!” I thought, “Why would I put myself in it?”
‘But she was right. To establish credibility, you need to explain yourself to the reader. You have to tell people how and why you know about what you’re writing. It actually makes it a lot easier to write books. Instead of writing a dry, scientific passage about ballistics, I tell the story of how I went and met so-and-so at the police station and had a conversation with him about guns and whether a gunshot in the case I’m researching could have been fired in a certain way, for example. I’m actually in my stories.’
As well as making her books more readable, this narrative technique no doubt also helps to make her readers feel like they know the author. It is clear from the comments posted on Bowles’ website that her audience reads with fascination about the process of investigation and that this style of telling true stories is one of the reasons readers always want more of Bowles’ work.
As one fan put it, books in this genre are fascinating because ‘trials are not necessarily about the truth, but who can tell the best story’.
‘My readers identify me as a justice crusader. If they’ve had a raw deal, they like to hear a story of someone who wins. Not many people get their cases reviewed. It’s also because people love to have a stickybeak and hear a bit of gossip. Nearly everyone enjoys a thriller or a whodunit. We enjoy either walking alongside the investigators (in whodunits) or having the drop on them (in howcatchems). Readers have a begrudging respect for criminals. They can connect true crime to real life.’
Bowles has always worked and never been dependant. From her beginning as a jillaroo, she went on to become a nurse, where she learnt about sociology. She had four children by the time she was 25. So it’s no surprise that Bowles has a disciplined and (may I say) praise-worthy writing routine:
‘I treat writing as a job. Look at it like this: you need 80–100 thousand words on paper for a book. I usually aim to have a book finished in April, so the research phase starts in April and finishes in November. After that, I write 3,000 words every day, Monday to Friday, until I have the first draft. So that I don’t break up the flow and be tempted to go and find something else to do, whenever I hit a spot where I’m unsure and need to follow up, I type “XXX”, which means I have to come back and fill the space.
‘Usually I knock off around six o’clock, whenever I get to 3,000 words. The next day I re-read yesterday’s, do a mini-edit and go from where I left off. That helps to remind me where I was. Writing at this rate, it takes about 90 writing days to complete the 100,000-word manuscript. Then I send it to the publisher! In other ways, I am not a disciplined person,’ she adds, ‘but about writing I am, because this is my job. I say no to lunch invitations and say I’m working. If I’m behind in my word count I sometimes top it up on the weekend.’
It seems nothing keeps Bowles from writing—not even the pain in the single bent, arthritic finger with which she types her manuscripts.
Where necessary she refreshes her memory by referring to her interview notes, which she takes in hard-cover folio books, lined, with numbered pages. She has a rule never to rip out pages, and all her notebooks have a ‘reward if found’ notice inside the cover. She may dread losing a notebook, but the truth is that by the time she gets down to writing, she has lived and breathed the story for many months, with the result that she remembers her interviews quite clearly.
What, then, does she say to those who are prone to putting off writing until tomorrow?
She quotes mystery novelist Elizabeth George, whom Bowles once interviewed during a visit the writer made to Melbourne. George told her that she knew someone who really wanted to be a writer and had just had a baby. George asked the woman: ‘Do you think you could write one page a day?’ and the woman said she could. And George pointed out to her that by the end of a year, she would have written 365 pages, which is the length of a novel.
‘The fact is,’ Bowles continues, ‘you can do anything you want if you want it enough. It’s easy to waste time. Be committed. Believe in yourself. It’ll happen. If you’re struggling to write a book, maybe you need more inspiration or life experience, something that will put fire in your belly and give you something you really want to share with the reader.
‘And,’ she warns, ‘don’t get too excited about a book publishing contract. Get it checked by someone who has your interests at heart. For example, standard non-fiction contracts have a clause which states that the author will indemnify the publisher against any lawsuits brought by others in relation to the book. Every time I’m presented with a contract, I just put a line through that clause. They look at me and say, “You can’t do that.” I say, “Yes I can do that. I don’t have the money to indemnify anyone.”’
In any case, in 13 years of writing, Bowles has never been faced with a letter from lawyers claiming that she has written something incorrectly. It’s a matter of good management: she always get permissions from interviewees by having them sign and date copies of what is to be published, and she keeps detailed supporting documentation.
For the sake of completeness, I ask her how she wrote her ‘fiction’ books. Well, she tells me, that’s a whole different kettle of fish. She wrote each of them in six weeks, but what moved her to don her fiction-writer’s hat is a story in itself.
‘I once wrote a 5,000-word story (which became The Curse of the Golden Yo-Yo). Feeling quite stressed about whether I was a good writer, I decided to enter the short story in the Scarlet Stiletto Awards [run by Sisters in Crime]. I entered it under my mother’s maiden name: the point was to see if it could stand alone. I was thrilled when the story won an award.’
The story then went into Bowles’ bottom drawer. That was back in 2000.
‘When my third non-fiction book, No Justice, came out, a defamatory article was written about me. This journalist basically wrote everything bad you can say about a writer: I was called a plagiarist, a copyright infringer and a liar. I sued him and the newspaper because it was my third book and I was very shocked; to me it felt like a personal attack. I won a settlement and a published apology.
‘That was when I decided to write a fiction book.’
It had been four years since writing the short story about the golden yo-yo and at the time Bowles was looking for a publisher for the Falconio story, if she were to write it. She had pitched the idea to Random House and was waiting to hear back.
‘I was so bored waiting,’ she recalls, ‘that my husband suggested I get out that old story. I took it out of the bottom drawer and wrote the novel in six weeks.’
Bowles may have encountered the perils of asking too many questions—her dog was poisoned, her car vandalised, she now lives in a security apartment, and she was banned (by fax) from talking to Victoria Police—but she says she does not regret her change of career, and it seems she has many more stories to tell.
Robin Bowles is a wealth of tips on the legalities of writing and the craft of crime writing…
- Court transcripts are copyright but are not actionable: in most cases you need permission to use whole slabs of a court transcript and, in some cases, permission from the judge as well as the court.
- In Family Court cases, children and parents must not be identified.
- Keep a record of the length of every interview.
- Indicate the source of information on your notes: newspaper cuttings or television, an anecdote heard or an incident seen. You may need to refer to the source later, to ensure you have made significant changes and disguised real people.
- Even if names are changed, the writer can get in trouble if the person is identifiable.
- Never identify a juror. Keep it general by writing ‘a member of the jury’.
- Never make appointments (it gives the interviewee a chance to prepare).
- While a case is proceeding, the notes that a writer takes with the accused can be subpoenaed. Ask about incriminating details after the trial.
- Ask questions, then shut up (the other person will want to fill the vacuum).
- In interviews, emphasise that you are not a journalist and will give the person ‘a voice’.
- ‘Show, don’t tell’: state what is on the public record and how this accords with accepted protocols and practices, rather than making a direct statement.
- Change the phrasing from a definite sentence to an indefinite sentence (Instead of ‘All roads led to Person X’, write ‘Everybody seemed to know Person X’.)
The original version of this article was published as ‘Writer at Work: Robin Bowles, Crime Writer’ in The Australian Writer issue 372 (June–August 2011).