About Sue Coletta

Member of MWA, Sisters in Crime, and ITW, Sue Coletta is an award-winning, bestselling crime writer of psychological thrillers. She also writes true crime: PRETTY EVIL NEW ENGLAND is anticipated to hit stores in Fall 2020, published by Globe Pequot (Rowman & Littlefield). In 2017, 2018, and 2019, Feedspot awarded her Murder Blog as one of the Top 100 Crime Blogs on the Net (Murder Blog sits at #5). Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

Which Word is Correct: Coffin or Casket?

By SUE COLETTA

Last Friday I was editing what I wrote the day before in my WIP when a word stopped me cold: casket. Should that be coffin?

The specific year in question is 1901, so I needed to figure out exactly when “coffin” first became “casket”?

The words are often used interchangeably, but they shouldn’t be.

Coffins and caskets give two distinct mental images. I could ruin my scene if I used the wrong word.

Coffin

The word coffin comes from the Old French word cofin and the Latin word cophinus, which translates to basket. First used in the English language in 1380, a coffin is a box or chest for the display and/or burial of a corpse. When used to transport the deceased, a coffin may also be referred to as a pall.

The shape of a coffin resembles the shape of a body, with either six or eight sides, wider at the top to allow for the shoulders, then tapered toward the bottom—the foot, if you will. 😉

Think: Dracula movies.

Coffins date back to ancient Egypt when bodies were placed in a sarcophagus after the mummification process but before being buried in pyramids. Around 700 AD, the Celts in Europe began fashioning ornamental flat stones to coffins.

Casket

Interestingly enough, the word casket was originally used to describe a jewelry box, similar to the one George modeled in the above photo. 😀

In the mid-nineteenth century, casket took on an additional meaning synonymous with coffin.

Once morticians and undertakers started operating funeral parlors instead of mortuaries, the word coffin changed to casket because polite society considered it less offensive. The exact date still escaped me, though. I also had to consider the location of my story. What if Maine townsfolk used casket while Massachusetts residents still used coffin?

I kept digging…

A casket is rectangular in shape and often has a split-lid for viewing the deceased.

Caskets and coffins have been made of wood, cast iron, steel, fiberglass, real glass, bamboo, wicker, wool, and even gold. Wicker and wool threw me. How ’bout you? Carved whalebone, ivory, or precious metals adorned the ornamental trim, if the family coughed up the extra dough.

Both possess side handles for easy carrying. The main difference is the shape. Which, for writers as well as readers, is a pretty big deal. How would it look if pallbearers carried a triangular coffin? See what I’m sayin’? Details matter.

In 1784, a disturbing new law went into effect for a brief period. Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II declared coffins should be reused to save on wood. So, coffin-makers installed trap doors on coffin floors that would drop open as soon the wood hit the grave. After the funeral service, the undertaker would hoist the coffin out of the hole, rinse and repeat. Public outcry abolished the law six months later.

That’s all well and good — fascinating, even; I love learning new tidbits for the ol’ memory bank — but I still hadn’t answered my original question. Should I use coffin or casket in my WIP? Some might not understand a writer’s obsession over one tiny word, but TKZers know every word counts. More importantly, they must be the right words.

Next, I read about the different materials used in coffins…

From 1848 through the 1870’s Almond Fisk made some coffins out of cast-iron. Shaped like a sarcophagus, they weighed over 300 pounds. Total cost: $100. How many pallbearers would it take to carry 400, 500, 600 pounds of dead weight?

Wooden coffins sold for $1.00 to $3.00 during that time. Imagine? Today some “burial boxes” can cost a whopping $50,000., depending on material and style.

In 1950, Fisk died penniless after mortgaging his patent rights to John G. Forbes, who resurrected the company and continued the cast-iron coffin business till it folded in 1888. The affluent members of society, however, preferred cast-iron coffins to wood; they helped to deter grave robbers. In fact, some say General Ulysses S. Grant is buried in a steel casket for this very reason.

Edgar Allan Poe’s The Premature Burial added to the chaos of the 1700’s and 1800’s, when folks feared being buried alive. Which is when coffin-makers introduced the safety coffin, complete with cord and bell. We’ve all heard those stories, right? Countless novels, short stories, novellas, film adaptations, and even plays hopped on that particular bandwagon.

Poe’s The Premature Burial exacerbated many people’s worst fear.

            The lady was deposited in her family vault, which, for three subsequent years, was undisturbed. At the expiration of this term it was opened for the reception of a sarcophagus; — but, alas! how fearful a shock awaited the husband, who, personally, threw open the door! As its portals swung outwardly back, some white-appareled object fell rattling within his arms. It was the skeleton of his wife in her yet unmolded shroud.

            A careful investigation rendered it evident that she had revived within two days after her entombment; that her struggles within the coffin had caused it to fall from a ledge, or shelf to the floor, where it was so broken as to permit her escape. A lamp which had been accidentally left, full of oil, within the tomb, was found empty; it might have been exhausted, however, by evaporation.

          On the uttermost of the steps which led down into the dread chamber was a large fragment of the coffin, with which, it seemed, that she had endeavored to arrest attention by striking the iron door. While thus occupied, she probably swooned, or possibly died, through sheer terror; and, in failing, her shroud became entangled in some iron — work which projected interiorly. Thus she remained, and thus she rotted, erect.

As you can probably guess, I got sucked right into the master of darkness’ story instead of searching for the answer to my research question! It wasn’t easy — Edgar Allan Poe’s mind intrigues me — but I finally managed to refocus on the task at hand.

Turns out, I had the answer all along in my printed research paperwork, hidden in a news article. The story told of a victim’s father who argued over the price of his daughter’s coffin, believing he should be charged the wholesale price rather than retail. *facepalm*

Ah, well, I figured, maybe I can use this casket/coffin research for my Monday post on the Kill Zone. 🙂 There must be a lesson or two in here somewhere. Or maybe, just maybe, this information might save one of you research time in the future.

What say you, my beloveds? Have you ever gotten hung up on one word? Did it lead you to uncover a fascinating tidbit or two? Tell us about it.

International Thriller Writers wrote a feature article about RACKED, which I’m still *happy dancing* about. If you’re interested, you can read the full article HERE.

The ebook of RACKED is on sale for 99c on Amazon for another day or two.

*All books in the series can stand alone.

 

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Reader Friday: Research Rabbit Holes

Writers often veer down one research rabbit hole after another to find answers. Sometimes, it’s the topic that keeps us digging. Other times the answers we seek are buried under mountains of other stuff.

Which topic took you the most time to research? Did you have to leave the house, or did you find the answers online?

Do you have a favorite research topic?

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A Real-Life Monster Will Soon Walk Free

By Sue Coletta

Back in 2017, I shared the story of the Toolbox Killers on my blog. I’m reposting it today to help bring attention to the case, because one of the men in the deadly duo dubbed the “Toolbox Killers” is scheduled to walk free this year.

Halloween night, 1979, 16-year-old Shirley Lynette Ledford made one fatal mistake — trusting the two men who offered her a ride. Forty-eight hours later, a jogger found her naked remains on a random front lawn in Sunland, California. Posed with her legs apart, her mutilated corpse lay in an ivy patch.

No one could have imagined the horror she endured.

If you’re at all squeamish, you may want to stop reading. The following is a true account.

It all started in 1977 when 29-year-old Roy Norris met 36-year-old Lawrence Bittaker while incarcerated at California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo. The two men — later dubbed “The Toolbox Killers” — shared sexually violent fantasies, which led to a maniacal pact. Upon release they planned to rape, torture, and murder teenage girls. Specifically, one girl of each teenage year from 13 to 19. Two years later, they teamed up on the outside and bought a silver 1977 GM cargo van, nicknamed “Murder Mack.”

From February to June 1979, this murderous duo picked up more than twenty female hitchhikers, not to assault but to practice luring girls into the van. They also used this time to search for a desolate locale. In April, they discovered a secluded fire road in the San Gabriel Mountains. Crowbar in hand, Bittaker snapped the lock on the gate to the fire road and replaced it with his own.

All they needed now was a victim.

On June 24th, 16 year-old Lucinda Lynn Schaefer left her Presbyterian Church meeting in Redondo Beach. She couldn’t have known the evil that awaited her.

After Bittaker and Norris finished constructing the bed in the rear of the van, beneath which they placed tools, clothes, and a cooler filled with beer and soda, they drove to the beach around 7:45 p.m. Lucinda was walking down a side street, and Bittaker remarked, “There’s a cute little blonde.” But their first attempt to entice her into the van was unsuccessful. Bribes of marijuana, beer, and a ride home didn’t work. So, they drove past her and parked alongside a driveway, where Norris exited the vehicle, slid open the side-door, and leaned into the van with his head and shoulders obscured from view. As Lucinda passed by, she exchanged a few words with Norris before he pounced, dragging her into the van.

That moment sealed her fate.

With bound wrists and ankles, her mouth duct-taped, Lucinda had no way to defend herself. Despite her initial scream, the only thing she could control was denying these monsters the satisfaction of witnessing her pain.

“She displayed a magnificent state of self-control and composed acceptance of the conditions of which she had no control,” claimed Bittaker in a written statement. “She shed no tears, offered no resistance, and expressed no great concern for her safety. I guess she knew what was coming.”

With the radio volume at full-blast, Bittaker drove to their pre-arainged spot in the mountains. Norris remained in the back of the van with Lucinda. Once on the fire road, the two men took turns raping Lucinda while the other “took a walk.” The only thing Lucinda asked for was “a second to pray” before Norris attempted to manually strangulate her. Forty-five seconds in, and he became so freaked out by her protruding eyes he ran to the front bumper of the van and vomited.

Bittaker remained unfazed. He wrapped his vice-gripped fingers around her neck, her body slowly wilting to the ground. When the convulsions started Bittaker snaked a wire coat hanger around Lucinda’s throat and squeezed it tight with pliers — an act both men would repeat again and again.

The Toolbox Killers - Lawrence Bittaker

Lawrence Bittaker at his trial in 1979.

Norris and Bittaker rolled Lucinda’s dead body in a plastic shower curtain and tossed her into a canyon, where they expected wild animals to cover their heinous act.

A similar cycle occurred two weeks later when the murderous pair spotted 18-year-old Andrea Joy Hall hitchhiking along the Pacific Coast Highway. After raping and torturing Andrea, they forced her to pose for Polaroids. Sheer terror shone in her eyes as she pleaded for her life. Neither man listened. Instead, they drove an ice pick through her skull, strangled her, and then tossed her lifeless remains off a cliff.

On September 3rd, Jackie Doris Gilliam and Jacqueline Leah Lamp waited at the bus stop near Hermosa Beach. Luring the two girls into the van with marijuana and a free ride worked remarkably well. Until the girls noticed Bittaker wasn’t heading toward the Pacific Coast Highway. Rather, he drove toward the San Gabriel Mountains. When 13-year-old Jacqueline slid open the side-door in an attempt to escape, Norris slammed her over the head with a pre-filled bag of lead weights, knocking her momentarily unconscious. He then bound and gagged 15-year-old Jackie Gilliam. But Jacqueline regained composure and again tried to flee. Sadly, she was no match for Norris, who wrenched her arm behind her back and dragged her back into the van.

The Toolbox Killers

Roy Norris shortly before his arrest.

Meanwhile, Bittaker, noting the struggle was in full view of potential eyewitnesses, slid the shifter into park, climbed in back, and sucker-punched Jacqueline in the face, then assisted Norris in binding and gagging the two girls.

They finally arrived in the San Gabriel Mountains, where Jackie and Jacqueline were held captive for nearly two full days, repeatedly raped and forced to pose for pornographic Polaroids.

Bittaker tape-recorded the first time he’d raped young Jackie, telling her to “feel free to express your pain.”

At trial, Norris claimed he buried the cassette in a nearby cemetery, though it’s never been recovered.

These poor girls were tortured in unthinkable ways, including having their breasts punctured with an ice pick. Norris also tore off one of Jackie’s nipple with pliers.

Even death didn’t come swiftly. Bittaker drilled an ice pick into both of Jackie’s ears before strangling her to death. He beat Jacqueline with a sledgehammer, strangled her for fun, beat her again, and then strangled her to death. The Toolbox Killers tossed both bodies over an embankment into a California chaparral.

From the grave Shirley Lynette Ledford, whom I mentioned at the beginning of this post, ignited the strongest emotional response in the jurors and courtroom audience. The prosecutor played 17 grueling minutes of a tape recording that showed the amount of terror Shirley endured before death. The transcript of which you can find here. Before you click that link, I need to caution you. This isn’t easy reading, nor is it easy to listen to the first few minutes of the accompanying video, where Shirley’s blood-curdling screams carry through closed courtroom doors. This sweet, young girl endured masochist behavior at the hands of pure evil. Proceed at your own risk.

Some say 16-year-old Shirley Ledford accepted a ride on that fateful Halloween night because she recognized Bittaker from the restaurant where she’d worked as a part-time waitress. Apparently, Bittaker was a regular.

Moments after Shirley climbed inside the van, Bittaker drove to a secluded side street while Norris drew a knife. He then bound and gagged Shirley with barricade tape.

The nightmare had begun.

Bittaker traded places with Norris, who drove aimlessly for over an hour as Bittaker tormented Shirley, ordering her to “scream louder. What’s the matter? Don’t you like to scream?”

On tape, Shirley pleaded with Bittaker. “No! Don’t touch me!” To which Bittaker replied, “Scream as loud as you wish,” and then bludgeoned her with a sledgehammer, punched her breasts in order to “beat them back into her chest.” As Bittaker raped and sodomized Shirley repeatedly, he tortured her with pliers, tearing her insides till she was no longer “rape-able,” according to Norris.

At trial, Norris described “screams … constant screams” from the rear of the van.

“We’ve all heard women scream in horror films … still, we know that no one is really screaming. Why? Simply because an actress can’t produce some sounds that convince us that something vile and heinous is happening. If you ever heard that tape, there is just no possible way that you’d not begin crying and trembling. I doubt you could listen to more than a full sixty seconds of it.” ~ Serial Killer Roy Norris

Don’t be fooled by that quote. Norris has an IQ of 135. So, even though he tried to downplay his involvement during his testimony, he still switched places with Bittaker to torture and sexually assault this young girl. Norris was also the one who switched on the tape recorder to memorialize their sadistic treatment of Shirley. Both men were equally vicious. They had no empathy for the victims or their families. In my opinion, Norris deserved equal punishment, but he was able to cut a deal by testifying for the prosecution.

Shirley Lynette Ledford

Back in the van, Shirley saw Norris grab the sledgehammer, and screamed, “Oh no! No! No! No! Please, no!”

Norris struck her in the left elbow, shattering the bone. Shirley begged him not to hit her again, but he didn’t listen. Norris struck that same broken elbow 25 more times.

When he finally stopped, he glared at Shirley, who was sobbing, shaking, and terrified.

“What are you sniveling about?” he said.

“Please, just do it! Kill me!”

After two solid hours of unfathomable torture, Norris finally killed Shirley by strangling her with a coat hanger, tightening the wire with pliers. Bittaker opted to pose her body on a random lawn in Sunland to gauge the public’s reaction. Norris agreed. So, under the cover of darkness, Bittaker played look-out as Norris posed Shirley’s mutilated remains on an ivy patch. Not wanting to waste his last chance to humiliate this poor girl, he wrenched open her legs.

Death by lethal injection is too kind for these two, IMHO. They deserve to die like Shirley, Jackie, Jacqueline, and many others.

The autopsy revealed extensive blunt-force trauma to Shirley’s angelic face, head, breasts, left elbow, with her olecranon (the bony tip of the elbow) sustaining multiple fractures. Torn genitalia and rectum was caused in part by Bittaker raping her with pliers. Her left hand bore a puncture wound and a deep slash mark scarred the finger on her right hand. At trial, Bittaker claimed the tape recording was nothing but a threesome, but added that toward the very end Shirley Ledford pleaded for death.

Can you blame her? There’s only so much pain a body can endure. I’d probably pray for death, too.

Investigators eventually found the remains of Jacqueline Leah Lamp and Jackie Doris Gilliam in the San Gabriel Mountains. The bodies of Lucinda Schaefer and Andrea Hall have never been found.

As for Bittaker, an initial execution date was set for December 29, 1989, which Bittaker appealed. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision and set a new date of execution for July 23, 1991. And again, Bittaker appealed. Only this time, on July 9, 1991, the court granted a stay. As of 2017, Lawrence Bittaker remained on death row in San Quentin State Prison.

In total, police found 500 Polaroids and identified 19 missing girls, but Norris only admitted to five murders before he stopped talking. The parole board denied his request for release in 2009. But this year, 2019, he will have served his full 45-year prison term. The worst part? He promised to “have a little fun once he gets out.”

Let’s all take a moment to remember these innocent victims who died way too young, way too brutally. Hug your children a little tighter tonight. This monster will soon walk free.

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One Writer’s Strange Encounter with a Reader

By SUE COLETTA

Joe’s Saturday post inspired me to share a strange encounter I had with a reader last week. I loaded up the SUV for my annual trip north to appear at a 5-star library in New Hampshire (rated by Library Journal). I’ve all but given up on libraries for book signings, but this library has the coolest librarian/director I’ve ever met. She’s a walking contradiction! Inside the library, she’s quiet, polite, and super helpful. When she locks the library doors, however, she really lets her hair down, hops into her supped-up Mustang convertible and races down the streets—a quick streak of blue and white whizzing by. I adore this woman! Every signing, successful or not, ends with a hug. Which keeps me coming back year after year.

Sometimes my timing is perfect. Other times, not so much.

Last week, the local priest decided to hold his retirement party across the street from the library on the same night as my book event. Needless to say, it wasn’t my most successful signing ever. Didn’t matter. Whether we’re speaking to a packed room or only three or four readers trickle in, we still need to put on the same show. Sometimes a more intimate setting is really nice, as it gives us the opportunity to chitchat with the folks who read our books.

Unless you get an angry-looking woman in the front row who does nothing but glare at you.

All she wanted was for me to keep reading excerpts, one after another. It was strangest thing. Every time I stopped she’d point to another book and ask me to read the opening chapter. No one else objected, so I gave her what she wanted. After I read about four, I was beginning to feel like a puppet on a string. So, I asked her why she’d rather hear me read than chat with me.

Her response? “I don’t even think about the writer when I read. I don’t care about the research. I don’t care about the story behind the story. All I want is the next book.”

“Wow,” was all I managed before the librarian jolted to her feet.

“I care,” she said, “I care very deeply for writers.”

The others in the room agreed.

Still, I couldn’t help thinking, how sad. Here this woman sat surrounded by books lining every wall, every partition. Decades, if not centuries, of writers who’d worked endless hours, alone, pecking the keyboard or typewriter or writing longhand by candlelight, their joys, their sorrows, their laughter and pain spilled across the pages, and this poor woman was incapable of seeing any of it. Didn’t care to, either, apparently. But even if she continued to disrespect writers, I wasn’t about to stoop to her level and spout an equally snarky comeback. I’m a big believer in karma. So, I gave her a free signed paperback and thanked her for coming to the event.

If you haven’t done book signings yet, let me put your mind at ease. For every one clueless reader, there are thousands of others who cherish every word. Readers who sit our books on a shelf of honor because they loved it so much. Our characters become their best friends, sometimes their only friends. When these devoted readers finally get the chance to meet the writer who brought their beloved characters to life, they shower us with love. Some might even mistake the writer for one of their characters. You know what? That’s okay, too… unless she’s a Delores Claiborne type. 😉 It means our words, our stories, touched their lives in some way.

Isn’t that why we write?

Please excuse me while I share my love for those who read my books. I’ve been blessed with an amazing, generous, thoughtful, kind, funny, loving, and downright nutty audience. It’s no secret that I adore crows, right? I’m so enamored with these birds that I’ve set out to change the public perception that crows are pests. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Spotting one in the yard does NOT equate to a bad omen. These amazing creatures—the smartest of the bird world, by the way, along with their cousin, the raven—do NOT bring death and destruction. They’ve been saddled with an unjustified bad reputation for no apparent reason. It’s time to stop judging birds by the color of their plumage.

Ahem. Excuse me. I get a little carried away when it comes to breed profiling. 🙂

Anyway, since I share my love for Poe (my crow who lives free, yet comes when called) along with Edgar, Allan, Thoreau, Shakespeare, and the rest of my black beauties (some of which I’ve turned into characters for my Mayhem Series) readers are now decorating my office with crows. Here are a few I received this summer…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over to you, TKZ family. Have you ever heard a similar remark as the woman in the library? If so, how’d you handle it? Tell us about your strangest — or best! — encounter with a reader?

*I’m on the road today, researching, so I may be late responding to comments.

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Reader Friday: Favorite Villain

Imagine yourself in a prison visiting room, with a petition of plexiglass between you and a fictional villain.

Who’s sitting across from you? Why did you choose to interview this villain?

What’s the first question you’d ask?

 

If your favorite villain is still loose on the street, where are you conducting the interview? Do you feel safe? Why/why not?

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How (and where) To Research Historical Crime

By SUE COLETTA

A few regular readers of TKZ requested tips to help research criminal cases from the past. If the crime occurred in the 18th or early 19th century, the task becomes much more difficult. My hope is that these tips will aid you in finding reliable information.

Let’s say you only have a name, place, and approximate year for your victim or killer. The first logical step is to conduct a Google search to see what’s available online. Someone must have written about the case, right? Well, not necessarily. Sometimes you get lucky and find a couple articles, other times … *crickets* Which I happen to like, because it means the industry isn’t saturated with books on the same topic. But it’s also harder to find what we need. Not impossible; we just need to think like an investigator.

GENERAL TIPS

If you find an online article about the crime, do not solely rely on that information. Instead, within said article search for the author’s sources. Most true crime writers will either link to another source or cite where they gathered their facts from, and that’s where the gold resides.

My overly suspicious crime writer brain tends to question where bloggers and/or journalists get their facts. To satisfy my own curiosity I use a three-source rule. Meaning, if I can’t verify a fact with two other sources, then I don’t consider it a historical fact.

By the way, this is my personal rule, not an industry requirement. Although, some publishers do ask that you verify each major fact with one other source. Even if they never request the citation, their legal department might. So, be sure to keep a log of where you find information, both primary and secondary sources. It’ll save you from having to go back to find where the killer said something, or whatever.

There’s one exception to my three-source rule…

Suppose I find a newspaper article that I am able to authenticate with a trial transcript, deposition, or other court document. Because I have the primary source (court document) which says the same thing, then the newspaper article gains credibility. If I don’t have access to a primary source for verification, then I need two secondary sources to substantiate the fact(s).

True crime readers expect the truth, not our fictional interpretation. It’s our job to question a reporter’s research and not take what s/he says at face-value. They want to sell newspapers, so facts can often be embellished or sensationalized. When I first started searching through old newspapers (I’ll share where you can find them in a sec), I was shocked to find misinformation, discrepancies, untruths, and rumors stated as fact. Embellishments help to create eye-popping headlines but can also hinder a true crime writer/researcher if we’re not careful.

For example, there’s a lot of online content about one of my five female serial killers due to the fact that she rocked the nation with her cold-bloodedness. But all these articles weren’t ideal. If anything, they muddied the water. In order to separate fact from fiction I had to wade through opinions, theories, innuendoes, and rumors. You may have to do the same. My best advice is to roll up your sleeves, consider it a challenge, and dig in. 😉

PRIMARY vs. SECONDARY SOURCES

Think of research as a bullseye, with the killer and/or victim at the center. The first ring around the bullseye includes eyewitness accounts, investigative reports, court testimony, the killer’s journal and/or confession — primary sources. Moving outward, the next ring would be secondary sources, such as a newspaper article written by a journalist who interviewed someone involved with the case (killer, detective, juror, DA).

The third ring includes newspaper articles written by someone with no first-hand or second-hand knowledge. To get the article written on time they simply regurgitated information from other articles — that’s where you’ll find the most mistakes. In this ring you’ll also find bloggers, some credible, some not.

See why I created a three-source rule? If we were to write historical nonfiction using only the third ring as our primary source, the book and its author would lose all credibility among historical nonfiction readers as well as writers. I’ve read numerous snarky remarks about true crime writers who play fast and loose with the facts. Since I would never advocate to spotlight another writer’s inadequacies, I’ll leave it at that. My point is, research as though the whole world is watching. It’ll keep you honest. 🙂

HOMING IN ON PRIMARY SOURCES

One of the best places to gather historic information is the National Archives. Once called the Archival Research Catalog (ARC), which retired in 2013 and was replaced with the Online Public Access (OPA) prototype, the National Archives Catalog searches all web pages on Archives.gov and lists articles, pdf documents, books, and periodicals on a search result page. Along with catalog records, researchers are able to add notes that may cite additional sources, so during your search also be mindful of gold nuggets hidden in research notes.

The current catalog provides access to over two million electronic records in the Electronic Records Archives (ERA). These digital records aren’t available elsewhere. The National Archives is a fantastic place to find reliable primary source material.

Now, suppose the case you’re looking for hasn’t been digitalized. In that case you’ll need to Google “National Archives of [insert the state capitol where the crime occurred].” Note the email address and send a formal record request. The more information you provide, the greater your chances of gaining results. Record requests take about ten business days to complete.

If the crime you’re researching was not heard in federal court, then you’ll need to drop down to the state level. Google: “[state where crime took place] State Archives.” Example: Massachusetts State Archives. This may sound like the same place as above, but it’s not. State Archives house court records on the district court level.

Then there’s the Supreme Judicial Archives. In Boston, it’s a separate building with a separate email address. This may not always be the case, though. You’ll need to find out how it works in the state you’re researching, but you can use this example as a guide.

Prepare to spend time on the phone with law libraries and historical societies. The folks who work in these places are extremely helpful, and they love writers. The law library directed me to a wealth of information that I wouldn’t have gotten on my own, because they have access to databases that the public does not. Search for the county where your crime was committed, then add “law library.” For example, I searched for “Barnstable Law Library” for one of my female serial killers.

For my New Hampshire killer, the local historical society had diaries tucked inside an old box, with daily logs written during the string of murders. The gentleman who wrote these diaries knew the victims and the killer. Scoring a firsthand account of a centuries old murder case is difficult to find, but when it happens, it’s the best feeling ever.

See why it pays to keep digging? You never know what you might uncover next.

Most police departments are useless, as they don’t keep investigative records that long. It’s still worth sending a quick email, though. If I didn’t contact one particular department, I would have never known that the town where my killer operated housed their own independent archives that were a lot more detailed than the records I’d acquired elsewhere. It also gave me two primary sources to check facts against.

NEWSPAPER ARTICLES

As you may have guessed, a great place to find old newspapers are libraries. Depending on your subject’s location, many libraries have transferred newspapers to microfiche. Be sure to have the month and date for the librarian. If the crime you’re researching made national headlines, you may even luck out at your local library.

But wait …

Before you truck down to the library, check out the Library of Congress. They list 15,273,703 digitized newspaper pages from 1789-1963. Always best to save the shoe leather whenever possible. 🙂

Remember, as you research, search for primary source material to verify your secondary or thrice-removed accounts. Readers will thank you for the added effort.

Researching historical crime takes time and patience, but it’s also fun to piece the puzzle together. Just don’t get discouraged. For every three or four dead ends, you’ll stumble across something new and exciting that’ll set your writer brain ablaze.

I better stop there before this post morphs into a book. Do you have any research tips to share?

 

 

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How To Write Nonfiction Book Proposal

By SUE COLETTA

Remember my last post, entitled Why Waiting is Difficult? Well, I’m happy to report that my wait is over!!! And now, I can share my good news.

In May, Globe Pequot (Rowman & Littlefield) reached out to me about writing a true crime novel about female serial killers of New England who were active prior to 1950.

Some of you may have read the story on my blog, so I won’t bore you by repeating all the details here. Suffice it to say, Pretty Evil, New England: Female Serial Killer’s of the Region’s Past is anticipated to hit stores Fall 2020. Yay!!!

For those of you who missed the announcement on my blog, the acquisitions editor gave me two weeks to send her a book proposal. And like any professional writer, I assured her that a two-week deadline would not be a problem. When I hung up, panic set in.

What did I know about writing a nonfiction book proposal? Not a darn thing!

Plus, I now had mountains of research into historical female serial killers. I’ve written true crime stories on my blog many times, but never a novel-length true crime book. This was a huge opportunity, with a well-respected publisher in a new-to-me genre. All I kept thinking was, if you blow this chance you’ll regret it forever.

Once I managed to get my breathing somewhat regulated, I contacted my dear friend, Larry Brooks. You probably know this from his time on TKZ, but it bears repeating — he is amazing! Not only did he assure me that the editor didn’t contact the wrong author for the job, he explained in detail what she was looking for in the proposal. Most importantly, he told me why she’d asked for certain things, from a nonfiction publisher’s point of view. Knowing “the why” helped me focus on what to include. Incidentally, Jordan was also a godsend through the entire process.

See why it’s important to befriend other writers?

On TKZ, we’ve talk a lot about the business side of writing. In nonfiction, it’s important to show how and why the proposed book will be profitable for the publisher. My situation was a little different, since they came to me, but I still followed the same format as if I’d cold queried. After all, the acquisitions editor still needed the board to approve the project before offering a contract.

So, today, I’d like to share the proper format for a nonfiction book proposal. If you find yourself in a similar situation, perhaps this post will save you some agony.

Each heading should start a fresh page.

Title Page

Title

Subtitle

Author’s Name

If you’re cold querying an agent and/or publisher, then also include your address, website, phone number, blog address, and agent contact info, if applicable.

Table of Contents for the Book Proposal

Keep this basic format and chapter headings unless the publisher/agent guidelines asks for something different. Next, I’ll break down each chapter to show what to include.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Overview …………………………………………………………………………   (page #)

Target Market …………………………………………………………………….   (page #)

Competitive Titles …………………………………………………………………   (page #)

Author Bio …………………………………………………………………………   (page #)

Marketing Plan …………………………………………………………………….   (page #)

Length & Special Features …………………………………………………………  (page #)

Chapter Outline …………………………………………………………………….  (page #)

Sample Chapter …………………………………………………………………….  (page #)

Overview

You need to hook the agent/editor with a strong opener and establish why the subject of the book is of interest to a definable audience and what your book offers to this market. A sales representative has an average of 14 seconds to sell a title to a bookstore buyer, and the editor in a publishing board meeting has only a few minutes to convince colleagues of the potential of a book.

A few questions to consider …

What’s the book about? What’s your pitch? Does the book fill a need? Why are you the right author to write this book? Are you passionate about the subject matter?

Target Market

You cannot say “this book will appeal to men and women from 18-80,” because it won’t. Instead, you need to provide an actual target audience with real figures to back it up.

Where do we gather these statistics? Social media is a great place to start. Search for Facebook groups about the subject of your book. For example, I included Serial Killer groups, True Crime groups, Historical groups, and groups related to New England, like the New England Historical Society. For each group, I listed the subscribers and, where available, a breakdown of the members’ gender, age group, etc. Next, I went to YouTube and searched for podcasts related to my subject matter. I also included a brief psychological study of why true crime attracts women.

See what I’m saying? Think outside the box to find your audience.

What if you’re proposing a cookbook? You can still use social media as a jumping off point, but I’d also search for culinary classes. Are your readers likely to subscribe to certain magazines? List the circulation numbers. Is your book geared toward college students? Call the universities.

Take your time with this section. It’s vitally important to prove there’s an audience for your book. Publishing board meetings sound more like product development meetings. By providing accurate, measurable data, you’re helping the acquisitions editor convince the board to approve your project.

Competitive Titles

Search bookstores, Amazon, barnesandnoble.com, Books in Print, and libraries. You want to show at least five title that would be considered competitive or at least somewhat related to the subject of your book. For each competitive title, provide author’s name, title, price, publisher, publication date, ISBN, any known sales figures, rankings, or other indications of the book’s success.

I also used this section to show why I chose to focus on five serial killers instead of ten (as proposed by the editor), with titles that proved my theory.

Author Bio or “About the Author”

Unless you’re proposing a memoir, write your bio in third person. Include why you’re qualified to write this book, as well as previous publishing credits and accolades. If you’re short on publishing credits, then include tidbits about yourself that show your passion and/or expertise in the subject matter.

Marketing Plan

How do you plan to market this book? Does your blog get lots of traffic? List how many hits per month. Also include the number of email subscribers, social media followers, etc. List speaking engagements. For example, I included a list of venues I appear at every year (all in New England).

If you’re writing a how-to, do you teach courses? Workshops? Have media exposure?

Length & Special Features

Here, you include word count, photographs, or other special features of the book. I can’t divulge the special features for my book, but again, I thought outside the box to make the book unique.

Table of Contents

There is no pantsing in nonfiction. You’ll have to outline each chapter, with eye-catching headlines, and list them here. To give you some idea of the work, I had 50 chapters in my book proposal, each chapter meticulously plotted. Will they change once I complete my research? Maybe, but the publisher expects you to stick fairly close to the original. After all, that’s the book you sold.

Sample Chapter(s)

Follow the agent/publisher guidelines on length, etc. They’re looking for writing style, tone, and voice. Now that the business side is completed, this is your chance to shine!

And that’s about it, folks.

Nonfiction writers, did I miss anything? Please share your tips.

Fiction writers, have you considered writing nonfiction? If so, which subject/genre are you interested in?

 

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