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Novel borne of mystery death: What it's like to pen your first novel

Rob Francis loves a good mystery, especially one that combines true crime with urban folklore.

Rob Francis
Rob Francis

He has just written his debut novel which is loosely based around the Bella and the Wych Elm riddle that has confounded a community for decades.

In 1943 four teenage boys looking for birds’ eggs on Lord Cobham’s Hagley estate found a human skull, still with hair and teeth attached, in a hollowed-out witch elm.

The lads returned to their homes in the Wollescote area of Stourbridge, worried they would get into trouble for poaching but the youngest of them, Tom Willetts, found the secret too hard to keep, and told his parents.

Police were called and found the near-complete skeleton of a young woman, believed to have been strangled around 18 months earlier, inside the tree. In nearby fields they found her severed hand.

Not long afterwards, graffiti posing the cryptic question ‘who put Bella down the Witch Elm’ began appearing on walls around the West Midlands, most famously on the Hagley obelisk.

Now more than 75 years later it remains an unsolved murder with both the woman’s identity and that of her killer still unknown. Both police and armchair detectives have been left scratching their heads and many theories have been passed down from generation to generation.

“I love the open-endedness of it. Even to this day no one knows anything concrete about it. It’s a real mystery and it’s a goldmine for a writer. It’s a true crime story that’s literally not our doorstep but it has been fused with all of these conspiracy theories and local myths and folklore,” explains Rob, who is a lecturer in creative and professional writing at the University of Wolverhampton.

Rob's book Bella

His novel, which was completed as part of his PhD in Creative Writing in the university’s School of Humanities, is a folk horror story set in Netherton and Dudley.

Bella tells the tale of a small community dealing with the hear-say, myths and hauntings of the local woods and the novel plays with oral traditions of storytelling, using Black Country dialects and the different voices of multicultural Britain.

“Almost every community in the UK has got strange stories, not necessarily bodies found in trees but other strange occurrences, especially if they live on the edge of town, that lots of people talk about and pass on through generations so they become part of its cultural psyche,” says the 36-year-old.

Rob, who lives in Dudley, spent three years researching and writing followed by a year of editing and says the story was also inspired by his fascination with the Black Country landscape.

“The novel is like my love song to the Black Country and Black Country culture. I feel like the Black Country is an overlooked community culturally – overlooked by people who aren’t from here and people who are from the Black Country and people from the Black Country take the beauty and culture for granted,” he says.

The writing process can be tough at times admits Rob but says he has found the challenge of creating and writing his novel very rewarding.

“I really enjoy the puzzle of putting something together that works. Creating an idea and world and populating it with characters is a thrill.

“But I also really enjoy editing it down to make sure everything makes sense and getting all the details correct. That’s the hardest bit but it’s also the satisfying bit as well,” he tells Weekend.

Rob's book is loosely based around the Bella and the Wych Elm riddle

Some of Rob’s biggest influences have been Dudley author Anthony Cartwright, Black Country-born poet Liz Berry and horror writer Joel Lane, who set much of his fiction in the region. He has also written a number of poetry collections including Fieldnotes from a Deep Topography of Dudley, which was published by Wild Pressed Books last year and is a micro-pamphlet of poems based on psychgeographic walks in the Dudley borough.

In spring 2019 Rob also became the inaugural David Bradshaw Writer in Residence at Oxford University. During this time, he ran creative writing workshops and produced new original work, inspired by Oxford City and the Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh.

He had been due to host an official book launch at the Tilstone Studio in the University’s Arena Theatre but was forced to cancel the event amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Instead Rob, who writes as R M Francis, held an online launch via YouTube where he read from two sections of the book and explained some of his inspiration for the story.

He says being able to hold a copy of his finished novel which has been published by Wild Pressed Books in his hands for the first time felt “exciting but odd”.

“It feels good but weird at the same time. I’ve been working on for such a long time and now it’s out in the world for people to discover,” he explains. “Without the support, time and resources of the university and its incredible academics this publication would remain a dream; I doubt I’d have had the nerve or ability to pull it off without them,” adds Rob.

Bella is available from Wild Pressed Books at www.wildpressedbooks.com and all major booksellers.

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