Today’s batch of true crime writers will be known as accomplished authors of multilayered nonfiction.
Dead men not only talk, but some of them are real chatterboxes!
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.
After thirty-five years and many false starts, I am (finally) writing full time, for myself and not for my business. In 1983 I joined a writer’s group and pretended to understand writers who claimed that their process was difficult, even unpleasant. I was 34 at the time and loved to write, and it never occurred to me that I couldn’t get published. Now I don’t know whether I can, and I’m afraid to reach out and try. I’m afraid to tell people that I’m writing true crime because it sounds cheesy. I’m afraid I’ll sell the book but then get cancer and die before I finish writing it. I’m afraid to interview the victims’ and perpetrator’s families because I don’t want to open old wounds or ask rude questions.
Writing true crime is hard work! I’ve read and re-read the investigative interviews conducted by the Manatee County Sheriff’s detectives, letters I’ve exchanged with the man who confessed to the murders, the articles written by Bradenton journalists. I’ve read the search warrants asking that the murder scene be searched for “fruits, instrumentalities, and evidence,” and learned what that means. I’ve researched the psychological profiles of killers, especially killers of children, and the subject of writing about murderers (See Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer).
I’ve written some chapters, re-written them, and edited my re-writes; I’ve crafted a book proposal and a query letter to send to potential literary agents. I’ve researched agents who might be interested in representing true crime manuscripts. I’ve created lists of follow-up questions to ask everyone I’ve interviewed and lists of new questions to ask all the people I have yet to interview. It’s true that all those tasks need to be done. But first, I need to write as much of the book as I possibly can now.
So Where Shall We Begin?
In books the story is often linear—a beginning, a middle, and an end. In real life, stories begin and end in unexpected ways. The middle moves all over the place. My sister, Martha (left above), was about two and a half when the photo was taken. She grew to be an attractive, athletic woman who didn’t smoke cigarettes for most of her life. She was my only sister and she knew all my secrets and loved me unconditionally; she was an outstanding daughter and mother and teacher and coach; and she loved every child she ever met, especially her two daughters, Jamie and Lizzy. She should have lived forever. Instead she was diagnosed with lung cancer just after she turned 58 and died of lung and bone and brain cancer in that same year.
My own life has had many twists and turns, including sharing the lives of my three terrific sons and having the opportunity to do some fascinating work. On the right, above, I was about four years old and you can tell by the expression on my face that I had an old soul!
As we work on the nonfiction true crime book my colleague and I are writing, our research has opened a mountain of facts about the victims, their families, the investigative team, and ourselves, the two authors. Not all of what has been learned is pertinent to the story. Some of it is unflattering. Deciding what belongs in the story and what ought to be left out isn’t easy.
Choosing to include or exclude facts that might disparage or hurt the people being written about is more than a literary decision, it’s a moral one. As writers, it’s important to select the scenes that move the story forward. It’s important than we honor the commitments we have made to people we’ve interviewed. That may mean that we leave out some sensational, juicy tidbits. But in the end, everything that happened isn’t necessarily “the truth” we’re trying to convey in our story. …So where shall we begin?