How long does it take to write a book?
Updated: May 1, 2021
When Books by Women asked me to write a piece recently on writing a book, I thought about one question that everyone wanted an answer to when I gave talks about Shallow Graves: The Hunt for the New Bedford Highway Serial Killer. Okay, the second question. The first question was always one I never answered. Who do I think the killer is?
Here is the answer, sort of, to the second question.
By Maureen Boyle
When my first book came out, at least one person would pose a simple question at promotional events: How long did it take to write?
“Close to thirty years,” was my usual answer.
I was only half joking.
It took roughly a year to write “Shallow Graves: The Hunt for the New Bedford Highway Serial Killer,” a non-fiction account of a series of murders in Southeastern Massachusetts, but the research started decades earlier when I was a newspaper reporter covering the disappearances of eleven women in 1988. I knew I would eventually write what hopefully would be the definitive book on the case. I would detail the lives of the dead, the grief of the families, the determination of the investigators, the capture and conviction of the killer. It would all be neatly packaged for the reader, from start to finish.
But life – and true crime – is messy.
To write the book, I needed to know the ending. I needed to know who the killer was. So I waited and tucked the ever-growing boxes of files first in the corner of the home office, then in the attic. I kept watch for similar cases in the country and kept in touch with investigators, including those who inched into retirement. I picked my next newspaper job at a paper in a community where one of the victims had grown up, just to have an official reason to keep writing about the case. Any day the killer would be identified. I was convinced of that.
As the years turned to decades, as the children of the murdered women became parents themselves, as witnesses died, as the parents who dutifully tended gravesites and prayed for justice aged, as prosecutors moved on and the case faded from memory, I wasn’t so sure there would be that answer. That was when I went into the now-cluttered attic, lugged down the cardboard boxes and plastic bins filled with newspaper clippings, notebooks filled with indecipherable reporter scribbles, letters and reports, and started to work.
The easy part was the research. I re-interviewed investigators, lawyers, the relatives, friends of the victims and experts in the field. I double-checked court records and memories. I started writing chapters along the way. With the help of a former newspaper colleague, Elaine McArdle, who had written a book, I learned how to craft a book proposal. This was going to be an easy sell, I told myself.
Then I went to a writers’ conference where I pitched the book to a panel of agents. They hated the idea. There were other books on serial killers. There were other murders in the country. No one would read it. No one would be interested. It won’t sell enough. At least, that was what I heard that day. I left deflated. Sort of. A few writers and reporters at that conference came up to me later. Don’t listen to them. It’s a great idea for a book.
When I told my friend, Elaine, about the experience later on the phone, her advice was straightforward. Don’t listen to them. It’s a great book. Don’t give up. She gave me the name of her agent who declined to represent me but suggested I contact someone he knew at University Press of New England, a group of academic presses. Within a couple of weeks, my cell phone rang as I was returning to my office from a class I was teaching. It was one of the editors. They were interested in the book.
For the next seven months, I was writing, re-interviewing people, scanning archival photographs, checking facts and sifting through yet another box of new material on the case to make a September deadline. When the book came out the following September, I discovered the real work of promotion was just starting. There were talks at bookstores, libraries, community groups and anyone else who would have me.
There were radio shows, podcasts, television segments. There were social media posts to do and photographs taken by my husband to upload. There were videos to create. Marketing was just as important as the writing if we were to get the word out about the murder case and the book.
In the midst of it all, I started research on another true crime book. I had a publisher who had first refusal on a second book. The pressure was off. Then the publisher closed down, the book distribution was taken over by another academic press. Then the pandemic hit while I was both searching for an agent and querying new publishers.
I searched online for books with similar themes and styles to get the names of different publishers. Some got back with kind responses (and for that I will never forget and am forever grateful), even if the book wasn’t right for them.
Writing a book is creative but it is also work. There are no shortcuts. Authors must always remember publishing is a business and can’t take rejection personally. I kept that in mind during the entire process, although it was difficult to do at times. Trust yourself and your project.
I learned something else more important: The power of encouraging friends, of colleagues, of family, of strangers. There are wonderful people in the writing world. There are terrific groups offering advice and support (Sisters in Crime is just one).
In June, my second true crime book is to be released. I’m superstitious about talking about something until it is printed – or at least officially -available for pre-order. Stay tuned. I think you will like it.
Maureen Boyle, an award-winning journalist, is the author of Shallow Graves: The Hunt for the New Bedford Highway Serial Killer. She is also the director of the journalism program at Stonehill College in Massachusetts
Praise for Shallow Graves
“Riveting. Heartbreaking. Authentic. This impeccably researched chronicle of a terrifying chapter in history will keep you turning pages as fast as you can. Important, powerful, and compelling, this is true crime at the highest level.” Hank Phillippi Ryan, award winning author and Emmy-winning reporter “Chronicles the killings and their aftermath with a novelist’s power and perceptivity. A compelling work of narrative nonfiction. . . A great read.” Irene Virag, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and journalism professor at Stony Brook University