This week I released the first episode of my limited true crime series, Predator. It tells the story of Queensland’s first convicted serial killer, Leonard John Fraser. I wanted to share the challenges I faced in a craft sense, to share a bit of my writing process. You can read part one of Predator with exclusive photos here or listen for free in your podcast app. Feature image by Daria Shevtsova on Unsplash.
Ever since reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, I’ve been enchanted with the notion that ideas find us as creators. There’s an intense pull to the right idea, not to mention the logistical elements just seeming to line up perfectly.
The story behind Predator has come back into my life again and again. Keyra Steinhardt’s murder was probably the first major news event I remember. She was nine when she was killed. I was four and my parents sat me down to talk me through stranger danger.
During a high school science class, a police officer showed us blood splatter evidence from the derelict hotel where a woman was killed by Leonard John Fraser, the same man who murdered Keyra (is it any wonder I’m a murderino?!). Then I started working at The Morning Bulletin where my editor shared stories of sitting just metres away from Fraser throughout his Supreme Court trial.
The idea kept nagging at me. I wanted to tell a story that had been forgotten, but in a practical sense I knew it was perfectly suited to the podcast format. This story was old enough to have faded from memory, but not old enough that I couldn’t interview key people. And so I decided I write a scripted true crime podcast.
A new writing challenge
While I was still playing with the idea of telling this story in audio format, I wrote two creative non-fiction university assignments based on the crimes covered in Predator. This was a shortcut when it came to writing the script because I’d already working out a rough structure.
My two university assignments allowed me to play with different structures and let me develop the chronology I ended up using in Predator. I’ve started with the final victim, Keyra, and then mirrored the way information was uncovered in reality.
This was pretty easy to achieve in writing, where you can use subheads or breaks to signal a time shift. It proved much more challenging in audio, which pretty much sums up why this podcast was such a big step out of my comfort zone.
You all know I love words and in five years as a journalist I’ve honed my skills. Writing to be heard rather than read? That requires a new approach (and in my case, several drafts).
It was a struggle to simplify my writing, and the case details, so they could be absorbed easily by listeners. I often thought about how I listen to podcasts: in the car, while doing chores, walking the dog. It’s never really my sole point of attention so in a complex story, I knew I needed to add some audio signposts to take listeners on a journey through the story.
Part of this involved putting myself in the story, saying “I’m going to introduce you to…” or “Remember when I told you about…” to reiterate key details. That’s a naturally uncomfortable stance when I’m writing professionally. As journalists we are trained to be impartial, to stay out of the story. But this felt inherently personal. It’s as much a part of my personal history as that of my hometown.
The global nature of a podcast also forced me to push my boundaries. I constantly had to remind myself not to slip into the local knowledge trap we can comfortably rely on at a newspaper with defined geographic audiences. I was writing for a whole new audience and that became a key challenge.
The invigorating thrill of editing
In newspapers, our work is constantly read and re-read by various editors and sub-editors. It’s usually at a micro level, a misplaced comma or typo. Sometimes I’ll get asked a specific question about a statement that’s included. We’re always on deadline and focused on each day’s edition.
For Predator, I wanted to ask someone to edit with a more thorough eye for macro level changes. I also wanted editors who weren’t familiar with the story, or the area, so they could question anything I hadn’t fully explained.
The script editing process was mentally exhausting. I crammed most of it into one week and re-wrote each episode multiple times. I was obsessed. This story was in my dreams and I couldn’t think of anything else outside work.
I’d forgotten how the editing process can be so simultaneously challenging and rewarding. The blank page fear was real and by the time I’d written the first draft I honestly thought it was in pretty good shape. Then I re-wrote it. And tweaked it. And cut some bits. The finished product is miles ahead of my first draft.
That wouldn’t have happened without some solid editing. Having an editor who believes in you and your project, but can be tough enough to push you to achieve what they know you’re capable of is incredibly empowering.
In all honesty, I’d started to slip into complacency at work. My editor trusts my writing; it’s clean, factual, and I don’t usually miss out important details. He’s focused on the new reporters who still need advice on shaping their story. Often I’m helping them too. But I was really starting to miss having someone focused solely and impartially on making the story the best it could be.
Going through the editing process for Predator was more rewarding than writing it. Of course, the two go hand in hand. Without that mediocre first draft there’s nothing to wrangle into better shape.
Don’t be afraid of taking to your words with a scalpel. Cut and re-shape and re-work. Trust me, you (and your work) will always be better for it.
Victoria Schwab summed it up perfectly in this tweet:
Finding my 'noble intent'
When I saw Rachael Brown, creator of the Trace podcast talk at Word For Word Non-Fiction Festival in Geelong, she said something which resonated so deeply with me that it’s continued to drive my work on Predator.
Brown said journalists and other true crime writers needed to approach these stories with a “noble intent”. Not because they want to be bigger than Serial or Making a Murderer.
I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve written in much greater detail about my own ethics when it comes to consuming true crime, and I felt it even more when creating it.
I wrote Predator because this story needed to be told again. It was never completely forgotten of course. There has been a book and a documentary, but not for more than a decade. This story is certainly not well known in an age where true crime is no longer an off-limits conversation at dinner parties.
In a practical sense, the time and dedication to writing Predator wouldn’t have been possible without a genuine passion for this story. Chasing likes or views or anything else in response to a trend is never fulfilling enough to keep you going through the challenges of writing or creating anything. Especially a podcast.
My greatest hope for Predator is that Keyra, Sylvia, Beverley, and Julie can all be remembered again. That we can reflect on the legal failings which led to their deaths and the way we as a society place a value on victims of crime. I’m just telling their story and it’s an honour to be trusted with that.