...about what you know.

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic

Sometimes the best advice isn't always the most helpful advice.

It was the maddest thing ever. So mad I didn’t even recognize it until it was too late. You know what it’s like ‘you can’t see for looking.’

Well I certainly didn’t see, at least not at the time, not when it was happening.

Perhaps I should explain.

I write under the name of Martin de Sade, some of you might have heard of me. It’s not my real name of course but I prefer to keep that private.

I’ve had several collections of short stories published and a novel which briefly appeared on The Times bestseller list. It was called Torment and concerned the sado-masochistic killing of a young ballerina in London during the Second World War. Despite its graphic detailing of the kill and subsequent killings thereafter, it received positive reviews and was generally acknowledged, I like to think, as a fine first novel from which I thankfully made a bit of money, especially once the film rights had been optioned.

Torment hadn’t been a problem to write. I’d been single then and full of literary brio. It was when I started my second novel, provisionally titled Tumult that the trouble began. However, between the end of one book and the beginning of the other, my life had changed considerably.

I was now of course in need of money, a wife doesn’t come free and any rewards I’d received from Torment were fast running out. In short I needed another ‘bestseller’ and I needed it fast but so far I only had the title, despite having told my agent that I had fifty thousand words.

I suppose the idea had come half-way through the bottle of vodka I had been swigging at my computer whilst I was dibbling and dabbling between You Tube and iPlayer trying to find something to inspire me.

It was the voice, you know the voice.

If you’ve ever had any interest in writing you’ll know the voice and of course the tired old advice it offers; ‘write about what you know.’

So what did I know?

Not a great deal it must be said. Well, not a great deal of any real interest. I probably know just about as much (or as little) as everyone else whose lives haven’t been blighted by tragedy, violence or abuse. Let’s just say I know enough to get by but not to shine.

Torment might have been set in the blitz during the Second World War but I’d imagined most of it, borrowed some of it from other people’s memories and merely re-arranged words and sentences from others first-hand accounts.

I’m no historian I assure you and as for my general knowledge, well that’s pretty general as well. So, ‘writing about what I knew’ was going to be a problem, until it struck me that it was probably a problem I shared with most authors, particularly those who wrote fiction.

How much do they actually know about what they write?

I don’t mean in terms of background and procedure and all that technique. I mean how much do they actually know first-hand of the terrors or pleasures they put their characters through?

I’m not talking about your Fitzgerald’s or your Lawrence’s of course, their writings are like butterflies from the soul, no I’m talking about your average, bestselling hacks. I won’t give their names here for fear of offending but I’m sure you know who I mean. Again I asked the question, ‘what do they actually know about murder, infidelity, violence, terrorism or the gruesome side of life?

Nothing, pretty much. Their knowledge, such as it is, is mostly received knowledge garnered from others received knowledge, garnered from others received knowledge and so on. After all how many murderers have actually written bestselling novels or more accurately, how many victims?

As the vodka slowly meandered from bottle to brain so my thoughts meandered too and I began to write. Did I mention that I was newly married? I had a gorgeous wife, couldn’t fault her, attractive, intelligent and extremely popular.

I was very lucky.

I’d punched well above my weight as someone at the wedding had so pungently put it. What’s more, we were in love. So, why did I suddenly find myself writing on an internet dating site? Why did I want to meet someone else? Why did I want to commit suicide of the heart?

Write about what you know?

Okay, so I wasn’t completely bereft of ideas for Tumult. I had a sort of outline but no experience or knowledge as to how to fill it in.

It was a story that concerned infidelity of course and as I was drunk by now, I thought perhaps it might be fun to just dip my toe into the murky waters of deceit, simply to see what it felt like. I really had no intention of following anything up, why should I? I’d be sober in the morning.

However, I presented myself as a successful novelist with a steady income, own flat, fast car and a lover of life’s luxuries. I even found an old photograph which I uploaded…I’ve got to say I didn’t look too bad in my linen suit and oddly flippant straw Trilby…I was careful of course to avoid any crudities in my description or in my desires because I just wanted to meet an attractive woman, capable of holding a good conversation over a fine bottle of wine and a bowl of oysters. I was, in retrospect I suppose, actually looking for my wife.

However, I do have to say, that even this low level cheating, if cheating it was, felt like fun, harmless fun.

Anyway, I’d take it all down in the morning. In the morning I’d be sober and I’d look at life very differently. Ha, if only I’d followed my own drunken advice.

No, I didn’t take it down in the morning of course, in fact I didn’t take it down at all. E-mailing attractive looking women was something I soon felt remarkably at home with. I was good at it too.

Of course I couldn’t tell my wife, well there was nothing to tell really, e-mailing isn’t cheating is it? As long as the e-mails remained above the panty line there was no harm in it. Anyway it was research for Tumult, my character Todd Henderson, for various reasons, cheats on his wife with disastrous consequences and if I wanted to write about it I needed to know about it. That was my justification anyway.

Sadly, as you’ve probably guessed by now, my e-mails did of course progress into meetings and meetings finally into infidelity. After all, I kept telling myself if I was to write about it I needed to know about it first-hand.

I can tell you now however that it felt like nothing I’d ever read about. That old cliché guilt didn’t enter into my thoughts. I should have felt guilty according to all I’d read, particularly as my wife was without fault. I should have felt disgusted with myself, depressed, distracted and deeply torn but I felt none of these.

I felt, oh yes I felt alright but what I felt I have no words for. I didn’t feel good or proud or clever either, there was nothing admirable in my behaviour I knew that. I suppose if I had to find one word to describe how I felt, it would be uncomfortable, yes uncomfortable, as if part of the old me had somehow gone missing.

I was fascinated. Nothing I had read had prepared me for it. Likewise, when my wife found out, as she was bound to do, her reaction simply wasn’t what I’d been lead to believe it would be. She didn’t, cry or breakdown or burn all my clothes as they’d have you believe in all those TV dramas. She didn’t scream, hit the bottle or hit me. She simply confronted me with her discovery and offered to talk about it. No drama, although I could tell I had hurt her and that did mirror what I’d read.

I didn’t tell her why I did it of course because that would have ruined what I vaguely had in mind next. After all I was Todd Harrington at this point and if Tumult was going to work it was going to have to be written about what I knew.

I now knew what infidelity felt like (at least in my case) so my writing about the subject would be one hundred per cent accurate.

I have to confess my lying was elaborate. I needed her back on side if I was to complete my novel, which by now I had already started. All along it had been my intention to reveal the truth once the ink had dried on the page so to speak but for now I blamed everyone but myself for the predicament in which I found myself. 

I blamed the women I met for being so dammed forward. I blamed the drink for being so dam strong. I blamed the pressure being ladled upon me by my agent. I blamed my fear of having been ‘written out’ and of course I blamed my blameless wife for not understanding me. I blamed our finances. I blamed our dog. I blamed the government. In short, I blamed the world and surprisingly it worked because she forgave me and put me on a promise, ‘not to be so silly again.’

How civilised was that? How refreshing? How unlike you read in books or see on TV? I was of course, now my objective had been achieved, as good as my promise. I removed myself from the dating sites and our life returned to relative normality. I, at home writing, she working for the Department of Trade in an executive role.

We were happy again and Tumult progressed until Todd had to execute a key plot point. Of course, as a writer of fiction, I could have made it up, imagined it, realised some elaborate construct so that an in-depth knowledge of the action was not required but given what I’d already written, this would have been something of a cop-out.

As I said, my plans for Tumult had been fairly vague at the outset. I really had no idea how it was going to work out.

Unlike many writers, I don’t make notes or draw out plans, I just write pretty much what comes into my head trusting that it’s all going in the right direction. I knew Todd Harrington had unwittingly married an extremely dangerous double agent. I’d known that from the outset. It was, after all, the lynch pin of the story but I had no idea that his bosses would order him to kill her. Obviously Todd was in two minds about this. He’d been deceived alright, he knew that now, but he’d deceived her as well with a hooker. He was also aware that she was a danger, not only to himself but also to the realm…but to kill her?

Additionally, it had to be disguised as an accident so her handlers wouldn’t realise that she had been exposed. Failure to do so would mean them closing down their operations and fleeing the UK. Believe me, I wrestled with these orders but eventually realised that if I was to achieve my goal there was no way out, I’d have to kill my wife.

Of course I wasn’t actually going to kill her, I had no reason to, she was lovely but I was going to have to set her up, plan an accident around her, lead her up to it and then at the last minute pull the plug even if by pulling the plug I’d have to make the rest of it up, write about what I didn’t know which sadly would of course detract from its authenticity.

I hesitate to mention the ‘method’ here but I think somehow the ‘method’ had comprised the cave floor of my thoughts. You know what I mean by the ‘the method, of course? Lee Strasbourg, method acting, actors acting from the inside out. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. Think of Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. Well, I suppose I must have thought of myself as a ‘method’ author by now because of what transpired.

As I said I couldn’t exactly see for looking. Anyway, it seemed odd to plan but as I’d been unfaithful and got away with it, I thought that by placing a tea tray at the top of the stairs and placing a pillow at the bottom I should, by rights get away with it as well.

Believe me, I had no intention of hurting her I just wanted to know, as best I could what it would feel like to kill her. I needed to know for the book. I didn’t want to rely on my imagination or on received opinion. I wanted to have the experience so I could write about it as accurately as possible and then relay the information through Todd Harrington, who actually does kill his wife…or does he?

I had thought of a twist with which I was playing, however to introduce it would mean I’d have to re-write much of what I’d already written, so I was in two minds.

I suppose it was about two a.m when I set the rags alight and tiptoed upstairs to join my soundly sleeping sweetheart. She looked delicious lying there, her short blond bob nestling into the pillow like a fluffy swan sitting on her eggs. Her breathing was soft, her eyelids still and her body was turned towards where I usually lay. She was a picture of pert beauty and I was going to hurt her. I had to hurt her to know what it felt like, I had to kill her!

No sooner had I laid down and pretended to get comfortable than I sat up again, as if woken from sleep. “Darling,” I said, nudging her.


“Stay there.” I whispered.

“Where are you going?”

“Can’t you smell it?”

“No, smell what?” She breathed in deeply and then pulled her pretty face into ugliness.

Not wanting for her to follow me down the stairs until I’d set the trap, I told her not to move in case our rushing around only served to spread the fire. Sweetly, she believed me and remained where she was as I bounded down the stairs to extinguish the rags before any real damage was caused. Everything was in place but hidden so it didn’t take a minute to arrange them. What I had to do now and indeed I was trying to do, was analyse my feelings as I shouted loudly, with a hint of panic in my voice;

“Fire, quick, out… fire!”

I stamped my feet as I shouted and threw open the front door. It was, even though I say it myself, a superb performance. If I had heard myself shouting with such urgency and such conviction I would have been out of that bedroom and down those stairs in a flash, just like my wife but she didn’t arrive in a flash, she arrived on a tray, her head ramming into the wall where the pillow should have been to cushion her fall.

The pillow of course which I’d forgotten to position and was still in my hand as I sauntered through from the kitchen smiling at the hilarious stunt I’d just pulled off. My feeling, funnily enough, up until the moment I saw her, was one of triumph. I really can’t explain it as the feeling has never to my knowledge been written about in books. I should have felt horror of course, remorse, loathing, sadness, panic or guilt.

I should have felt anything other than what I was feeling.

However, even when I did see her, my feeling, although altered still didn’t fall into line with what I’d seen and read, so perhaps some of the authors to whom I’ve referred, had never experienced death at first hand before.

Let me stress again I hadn’t meant to kill her. I loved her for goodness sake but I needed to know what it felt like if Tumult was to be an honest novel.

Death isn’t a pretty thing to see, it really isn’t and it does do something to you. If more people saw death first hand, I’m convinced they wouldn’t be quite so keen to be the cause of it.

I remember once, when I was a lot younger I’d prepared an outline for a documentary and in my naivety sent it into the BBC. My idea was that I should film myself killing someone, a random someone, omitting none of the gory details. I would then confront the parents, relatives and friends of my victim and film their reaction. My point being, that if more people, particularly young people, saw real death and its consequences in all its grotesque ugliness, they wouldn’t be quite so keen to indulge in it as just another form of entertainment.

The BBC didn’t reply, I’m not surprised to say but I think now that Tumult was merely an extension of that thought.

Quite frankly she looked like an overgrown foetus now all the life had been knocked out of her. Death had made her unattractive or to put it another way death had almost immediately suspended the laws of attraction. No, I wasn’t going to sink to my knees weeping.

No, I wasn’t going to place a kiss on her once adorable lips.

No, I wasn’t going to do any one of a thousand things those cheap novels or movies might suggest I might do.

No, I didn’t scream down the phone for an ambulance, begging it to hurry.

I simply stood there feeling, yes, I know it sounds awful but I simply stood there feeling momentarily smug. It wasn’t a personal smugness understand and maybe smugness isn’t the right word but it’s the closest word I know to what I was feeling.

It was fleeting but undoubtedly present as I looked down on her twisted, broken neck.

She was now useless, yet I wasn’t. I was still breathing, she wasn’t. I still lived and she didn’t.

It wasn’t the feeling I was expecting I can tell you but it was the feeling I ascribed to Todd Harrington as he stood over his wife’s dead body. She hadn’t slipped on a tea try by the way, I thought that a little too parochial for an ‘international’ bestseller. So I had Todd pushing her off a cliff in a violent storm…it was an accident. He got away with it and would have appeared in my third novel, provisionally titled Trauma but sadly I didn’t get away with it.

I got caught and had to face the cold, dead eyes of the law. I said it was mad and mad it was and that’s why got thrown into an asylum for the criminally insane. Twenty-five years they gave me with little chance of parole. I still write of course and I continue to write about what I know, grey walls, rusty plumbing and indifferent prison meals but I don’t think there’s much mileage in them, do you?

Submitted: January 22, 2018

© Copyright 2021 Dan stone. All rights reserved.

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Add Your Comments:


Oleg Roschin

Wow... A very unsettling and convincingly scary story. I felt the exposition was a bit too long, while the core part, perhaps, could have used a bit more dialogue. But overall, the desired effect has been certainly achieved. The concept reminds me of Akutagawa Ryunosuke's genius novella "Hell Screen", where a painter doesn't save his daughter from a fire because he needs the image for his painting of hell. And also of that Friedrich Durrenmatt's play where an author of thrillers has actually murdered all the victims in his novels. Well done, sir!

Tue, January 23rd, 2018 6:38pm


Thanks so much for your positive comments. Much appreciated.

Tue, January 23rd, 2018 12:12pm

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