Writing True Crime: The Art of Balancing Accuracy and Kindness

From Shelby and Cassidy Brannon to their Daddy

Their lives were so much larger than their deaths. As an example, here was a picture Shelby and Cassidy Brannon signed, with love, to their father, Dewey Brannon. I found it among the crime investigation files available to the public. And that is the answer to the question Dewey asked me about why I had to use their real names instead of pseudonyms, why I was writing the story at all, 20 years later. “Nobody cares after all this time,” he said.

I told him I had to think about my answer. Until he asked, I had never considered using any names but the real ones. Charlie Wells and I are writing a book of non-fiction, and one of the reasons we are writing it is because we think there needs to be accountability for the crime and for how it was investigated. Charlie is extremely proud of the work his investigators and staff did to solve the crime quickly and he wants the world to know about it. He’s angry that a profiler led them down a wrong path and briefly delayed the progress of the investigation as a result.

He and his colleagues were especially affected by this crime because it involved children. I heard that over and over from the investigation team leader, Major Connie Shingledecker, from Captain Rick Gerken who led the day-to-day investigation, and from Dianna Taylor, the supervisor of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office forensics unit that processed the crime scene. All of those investigators had young children, and I had three teen sons by the time the murders were committed in 1999. We all wanted the murderer to be held accountable in the strongest possible way for what he had done. Having the world know him and his crimes was one way to do that.

My interviewee’s queries brought me to some fundamental questions about what I was doing. I knew I was fascinated by this particular case, but could not tell you why, and using pseudonyms seemed dishonest somehow. We had unearthed tons of unflattering facts about people involved in the case, yet not all of them were relevant…or were they? It was not always possible to know.

After a lot of soul-searching, this is what I have concluded: the story we are writing is a story about a family. In it are births and deaths, joy and anguish, problems and solutions, facts, guesses, and conclusions. Those are the elements of all lives. We think we are unique, and in the details we are, but looking at the whole picture we are not so very different.

While some parts of life are unbearably cruel, it is not necessary to inject gratutitous detail into the story, thus adding pain to survivors who may decide to read the book. The lives of the victims, survivors, and perpetrator are much longer and more involved than what was revealed in the murders and their solution. That fullness, with its richness and beauty, needs to frame the story of the homicide.

Dewey Brannon told me he had spent the last 20 years of his life trying to forget what he had seen that day. We will tell the story as kindly as possible, as completely as we are able. I hope this will help Dewey and the other survivors of these tragic murders remember the girls’ energy and their sweetness.

Why Write About Murder?

Charlie Wells, Sheriff of Manatee County, retired

“We are all sharing stories about what it means to be human. …The true cost of crime and violence cannot be fully understood without knowing about the lives it touches. My answer to how to honor the victims is to tell a responsible story.”

Writers Wear Many Hats

Unknown skeleton

Naively I used to think that the only jobs of a writer were to write and then to edit what has been written. For decades I’ve written technical and public relations material and edited the work of other writers and writing and editing were pretty much all I had to do. Since 2007, though, I’ve been working on a book with another author about a triple homicide and sometimes it feels as if writing the book is the least of it.

With nonfiction the author usually sells the book before it’s completely written. First, we are told, we need to find a literary agent interested in the sort of book we’re writing and send that agent a killer one-page query letter. Then if we’re lucky, the agent will request a book proposal. The latter contains a summary of the book (number of words, target audience, etc.); biographies of the authors capable of convincing potential publishers that we’re the right people to write the book; a marketing plan (new authors do most of the publicity leg work); and two or more sample chapters. If that goes well the agent will ask for more chapters and may eventually offer to represent us to potential publishers.

This summer, instead of obsessively writing and re-writing the same four chapters I first drafted in 2007 (I can’t edit/re-read a page without wanting to change something), I began moving ahead with the narrative. When that’s going badly, I take time out to investigate potential agents and research various styles of writing proposals. It’s hard work but we’ve got to do that too.

So what’s with the creepy critter? And when and why did we all begin starting our sentences with “So”? Regarding the former: I came upon him unexpectedly and dragged my photographer son out to capture the pic because he was so creepy. The critter, not my son. If the photo got your attention, that’s all I wanted. A streak of marketing genius! Happy writing.

Dog Lake Writing

From May until October, I write in a little white cottage near Battersea, Ontario, Canada. It’s silent here until about five in the afternoon when our neighbor the loon calls out his mournful greeting as he floats past us in front of our break wall. At night in the bedroom it’s so dark that I can’t see my hand when I wave it in front of me.

I’m writing a book about a horrendous murder, and yet being so isolated is not scary, at least not this year. My husband is with me, puttering in the yard or doing Dog Lake Association work. It’s peaceful and relaxing and conducive to long hours of uninterrupted writing.

Last year, though, I was here alone for a week and took my laptop to bed with me sometimes. It was muggy and hot those nights, and I opened all the windows. Swish, swish, swish, I heard one night right outside the window. I froze and listened. Finally went back to work. In a few more minutes, swish, swish, swish. My heart leapt a little. “Honey,” I called out to no one, “get the shotgun. Someone is sneaking around outside this window.” There would be a little scrap of silence, then swish, swish, swish.

I crept from the bed to the closet and retrieved the unloaded shotgun leaning against the wall in there. I had no idea where the shotgun shells were and had never loaded or shot a gun. I pointed it at the floor, the only safety measure I remembered from a long-ago girl scout gun safety class, and paced in front of the windows. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll leave now,” I said as ominously as possible. Swish, swish, swish. I slid the gun under the bed, turned out the light, and finally fell asleep.

The next weekend my husband arrived and I told him my scary story. He walked outside and examined the shrubbery beneath the windows. He kicked at some dirt. “A family of skunks has made a home for themselves here,” he said.

Perhaps writing about homicide put me in a nervous frame of mind last year, but now I am happily ensconced in nature’s beauty. The sun filters into the woods surrounding the cottage on three sides. The lake water laps softly at the stone wall I can see from the little writing cottage. There are skunks and big black water snakes here, but they don’t frighten me.

Twenty years ago when the Brannon family was murdered in Florida, there were wild hogs in the secluded woods behind the house, and oak trees and palmettos and a pretty pond in front of the set-back house. Nothing scared Sherry Brannon. She had chosen that lonely, 5-acre lot to build their home because she wanted to live in a peaceful, country setting. And yet within that space, on her 35th birthday, Sherry was stabbed to death along with her 4- and 7-year old daughters.

My takeaways: Life is full of ambiguity. No place is inherently safe and none is inherently dangerous. Not all murders occur in crowded cities. The most dangerous part of nature is most often human nature. And I can write the most horrible truths in the most serene of places.