The Writing Process: True Crime Edition - Dundurn
Oct 07, 2022

The Writing Process: True Crime Edition

Sometimes finding a topic is due to serendipity. That’s what happened with my latest book, Deadly Triangle. I was idly looking through a list of prominent Canadians, past and present, which was organized by occupation. I started with the letter “A,” and ended up scrolling down to architects. I found that Francis Rattenbury’s name was listed high up which piqued my interest because alphabetically it should have been near the end. He designed B.C.’s Parliament Buildings and Empress Hotel. Sad, of course, that he was murdered, but as an author I thought this was a great story. The issues involved with the case were also relatable to today.

I had already been to some of the places in the story so I could visualize them, but what was uniquely challenging with this book was the circumstances beyond control – Covid 19, which struck about a month after I started. Instantly, libraries and archives, so essential for research, closed. Luckily for me, the trial transcript is on the web and the Victoria Daily Colonist newspaper for this period also is online. I sent email questions to libraries and archives in Canada and England, which they graciously answered, and acquired memoirs and other relevant books.

I looked up laws of the time, police, court and prison procedures, weather, travel distances and time, cocaine use, fashion, social trends, birth and marriage records, attitudes regarding affairs and divorce. The double standard was prevalent.

It’s vital in true crime, as in all nonfiction, to fact check everything. Through doing this I found that previous accounts had given the wrong date and place of birth for Alma Rattenbury, Francis’s second wife who was accused, along with the family chauffeur, of Francis’s murder. Also, the wrong place for where she went to school and the wrong date and place of her first husband’s battlefield death in World War I were printed.

Because the story takes place in both Canada and England, I had to track down images in both countries. My biggest challenge was getting a picture of the killer, George Stoner, the family chauffeur. The only one is owned by Getty Images which is notorious amongst authors for its exorbitant prices. They wanted $575 for a mere head and shoulders of George, an outlandish amount that I was determined not to pay. I hunted around and eventually found a story in the Daily Mirror of London, England, that had pictures of Francis, Alma, and George together on the same page. So I purchased an image of that page from the company that now owns the Mirror, which cost a fraction of Getty’s price tag. I feel very smug about this!

Of course, no true crime book can survive without a great cover design. A black background frequently is used for true crime books, but Dundurn Press’s designer, Karen Alexiou,  decided to be original – thank goodness – and used pale grey. An attention-grabber for sure, along with the ingenious decision to set  each chapter number within a triangle to carry out the theme.

Susan Goldenberg is the author of nine books and has won both a Canadian Author’s Award and a Canadian Business Press Editors’ Award. She has written for the Sunday New York Times, the Financial Post, and the Financial Times of Canada, and currently pens articles for Canada’s History magazine. She also writes a heritage column on the district of Toronto where she lives. Learn more here.