Acknowledge your milestones

Having talked about deadlines in last week’s blog I’d like to stress the importance of setting and acknowledging milestones. Writing is a lonely occupation that often dents confidence. Hence the need to pat ourselves on the back when we meet deadlines. In the planning stage these may be set by a publisher or self-imposed. If the later it might be a daily target for a number of words, or a date to finish a draft. Keep a record and reflect on what you can achieve and your ability to set realistic deadlines.

As writers move from beginner through amateur to professional status, they can aim for more challenging goals.  These may include financial targets which help you prioritise projects. Improving your commercial awareness is a huge step towards professionalism.

A bonus is when you unwittingly feature in the milestones of others. This year I was fortunate to write the 8500th review on the Doctor Who Ratings Guide and narrate the 200th edition of RipperCast.

Be proud of your achievements my friends and allow them to lead you to greater success.

Paul Williams is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, best known for his study of the Jack the Ripper suspects.

Avoid distractions, get writing

Distractions are the enemy of every writer. Now that we mostly use online devices to create our muses, there is always the temptation to do some unrelated research, shop, check social media or the football results. Before we know it the time to write has passed and no progress has been made.  How can we overcome this temptation and become more productive?

The first step is to understand the cause of the problem. Ask if you are really motivated to write and if you know what you want to write. If you are writing something specific, for a commission or to meet a deadline, the chances are that you’ll be focused on that. If the work is speculative then maybe you’re lacking confidence, unsure if anyone will like it and knowing subconsciously that it can wait until tomorrow or the next day. Two years later you’ve done a lot of shopping.

Here are some solutions.

  1. Write a plan that’s realistic and achievable, with specific deadlines for each section.
  2. Make sure you know where you are sending the manuscript before you start.
  3. Join a writing group or forum that requires you to regularly provide material for peer review.
  4. Imagine you are at work with someone monitoring your progress.
  5. Turn off the internet and your phone, face your desk away from windows and get typing.

The mythical black bag

Whenever there’s an election I always think of Screaming Lord Sutch, the eccentric founder of the Monster Raving Loony Party whose policies included the abolition of income tax on the grounds that it was a temporary imposition during wartime. He was also a musician whose most famous song, Jack the Ripper, supported the widely held belief that Jack the Ripper carried a black bag.

This connection comes from a witness statement by Mrs Fanny Mortimer who saw a young man carrying a black bag walking very fast down Berner Street on the night of the murder, 30 September. Leon Goldstein voluntarily came forward to say that he was in Berner Street with a bag that was full of cigarette packets. There were several witnesses who saw men with the victims on the night of the crimes. Not one mentioned a black bag, yet the myth grew.

Thirteen of the 333 suspects identified in my book were linked to a black bag. Most were apocryphal tales involving celebrities. They include absurd allegations against politicians, Charles Parnell and William Gladstone. As chancellor Gladstone was responsible for extending income tax to cover the costs of the Crimean War. He also gave his name to a bag. The accusation against him came in 1970, seven years after Sutch sang about Jack the Ripper and his little black bag.

Always worth a second look

This week I recorded the second part of my podcast on the Rees/Hopkins family. This all began with John Rees, the only contemporary who supported the claim that the Jack the Ripper victim Mary Kelly lived in Wales. He identified her as the daughter of a marine store dealer from Llanelly who once worked for him before going to Swansea and Cardiff. She drank in the Unity.  Jane Williams, landlady at the Unity, said it was Abigael Kelly who married a man called Muir and lived in Kansas City with two children. There was a marine store dealer in Llanelly, Dennis Kelly (c.1824-66), who had three daughters including Alice known as Abby who married William Muir in 1881 and moved to America where her second child was born in 1884.

It seems to be a case of mistaken identity but looking at the evidence again I made two new observations. The first is that Jane Williams received information from Abigael Kelly in 1884 or later. It might have been a letter, a personal visit, or via a third party.  John Rees claimed to have met Kelly in London in early 1888.

Secondly my original reading was that Kelly drank in the Unity Inn, Swansea after moving to the city.  I now realise that the Unity Inn, Swansea was actually in Pontardulais and closer to Llanelly than the centre of Swansea. It was also less than half-a-mile from the brickworks which John Rees was said to own. If Kelly was living in Llanelly when she drank at the Unity then potentially this brings forward the chronology.

Paul Williams is a writer best known for his study of the Jack the Ripper suspects. His article in Ripperologist 160 discusses the Rees story in more detail and you can hear part one of the podcast here.


Understanding past thoughts

This week I’ve been researching a couple of pieces with a historical setting, one fiction and one non-fiction. In an attempt to understand how people felt at the time I used contemporary sources. Many voices from the nineteenth century, a period of particular interest to me, survive. Often the texts are available in digital format and some are free, being out of copyright.

Newspapers with their stories of crime and social conditions provide background detail. They are supplemented by reference works such as Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851) and Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People (1889). These provide valuable information on the condition of the poor who generally didn’t write their own stories or find someone to do it for them. The autobiography of Ned Wright (1877) is one exception. You can also find biographies and memories of more famous characters, allowing you to compare views from different ends of the social spectrum.

The most important rule about this type of research is to avoid judgements and preconceptions based on our modern values. We cannot learn about the past if we view it through the eyes of the present.

Paul Williams is a writer best known for his study of the Jack the Ripper suspects.


Halloween Horror


Halloween is a good time for horror writers. Tales involving ghosts, graveyards and strangers offering candy to children have inspired us for generations and hopefully terrified readers. Over the years traditions from different cultures have merged into the customs we know today.

This year I’m pleased to be one of the contributors to Halloween Horror Vol. 1, an anthology from DBND. My 60th published story, “The Dancing Skeletons” derives from the belief that the dead used to return for one night each year. In parts of Europe they were said to dance. People started recreating this spectacle, dressed as the dead, and now we have costume parties at Halloween.

In Britain and Ireland some children went from house to house in costume asking for food. In medieval times people delivered soul cakes, accompanied by singing and prayers for the dead. They sometimes carried lanterns. In an Irish folktale Jack tricked the Devil into promising him immunity from hell. After a bad life Jack died and was refused access to heaven. He now wanders around with a light in a turnip. This became a pumpkin, like the shattered one found by the hat of Ichabod Crane.

Some people feel intimidated by the practice of trick or treat. It was refreshing to read of a variant where kids gather in a car park and wander around collecting goodies from car boots. Safer for them, whilst allowing householders time to read a good book.

Encyclopedia or Wikipedia?

At a recent garage sale, I found some volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Nobody wanted it because they get information online.  First published in 1768 it was the premier reference work, before giving up print in 2010. The online version competes with the larger and more popular Wikipedia, which is generally considered less reliable.

The key difference is that the entries in the Encyclopedia Britannica are written by acknowledged experts in their fields with a professional editor.  The author is noted on each article. Wikipedia is written and edited by anyone. Wikipedia states that it cannot guarantee the validity of the information, whilst noting that other encyclopaedias also carry disclaimers. It also attempts to remove inaccurate data, as I can vouch for.

I once had an entry on Wikipedia, following a contribution to a Doctor Who anthology. The link directed to a very different Paul Williams. I therefore set myself up as an editor and wrote an accurate introduction to myself. A short while later I was informed that this was a conflict of interest. The article was deleted, and the incorrect link not reinstated.

Paul Williams is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, best known for his encyclopedia of the Jack the Ripper suspects. If anyone wants to write his entry on Wikipedia, he will credit them in his next blog.