From ancestors to arsenic

Helen Barrell (BA English, 2002) tells Old JoE how her studies and interest in genealogy have led to writing non-fiction historic crime books.

What are your memories of university?
I have fond memories of university. I remember Tom Davis’ Freud lecture in my first year and sitting in Mason Lounge drinking cheap cups of tea out of styrofoam. During my time at university there was a Royal Literary Fund writer here who was always very helpful for advice and taught me to edit myself, which has helped in writing my current book. My favourite memory is wearing a medieval costume to celebrate my last ever lecture.

What have you been doing since graduation?
Since graduating in 2002 I’ve stayed at the University working in different libraries throughout campus. I started out in the Main Library, then went to Barnes (Medical School) Library, the Barber Music and Fine Art Libraries and currently work back at the Main Library as the Online Services Manager. I’ve also discovered a curiosity in genealogy. It is while tracing my family history and uncovering some interesting facts that I have started to write historic crime books.

What got you interested in genealogy?
I began to get interested in genealogy after listening to stories from my grandparents. They would tell us tales of our ancestors and I wanted to find out more. I used to go to the old Birmingham Central Library and use microfiche and look online at any newspapers that have been digitised. As I was doing that, I started to find out other things about local history. I really like it because it’s the history of ordinary people. You get really bizarre things in parish registers. That’s how I started writing articles about it and the book came out of that.

What motivated you to write your new book?
While doing research for my family tree, I was transcribing a burial register and discovered that one of the people had been poisoned by arsenic. As I did my dissertation on Agatha Christi novels I found this really exciting. Because all the digitised newspapers of the time were available I was able to link a series of cases of arsenic position together and discovered that there was a media panic at the time about this. I turned my findings into a book: Poison Panic: Arsenic Deaths in 1840s Essex. I’m also working on another historic crime related book, Fatal Evidence: Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor and the Dawn of Forensic Science.

How has your degree helped you with your writing career?
My degree has helped in my career because it had an emphasis on understanding literary text in context. That could mean historic context which made me feel more comfortable writing a history book for the general reader without a history degree. It also helped me with critical reading and I also did a unit on forensic linguistics, which helped as well.

What advice would you give to people who want to publish a book?
You never know what you might end up writing. I’d always written fiction but I’ve ended up being published writing non-fiction; having a background in fiction certainly helped. Also to look for opportunities and make approaches after doing research.

Look out for Helen who will be speaking at Book to the Future 2016 about moving from fiction and poetry to writing non-fiction.