Lessons Learned from Writing True Crime

By SUE COLETTA

Have you ever considered writing true crime? With five days left of my deadline, I’ve finished the manuscript of Pretty Evil New England and am now just tightening the writing and gathering my photographs for the book. The hard part is behind me.

via GIPHY

While on this journey into true crime I learned a few lessons that might interest you.

Would I recommend true crime to new writers? The only honest answer I can give is, it depends.

The truth is, this work isn’t for everyone. Writing true crime is a huge undertaking that requires months of intense research and deep concentration. Some days I swear my brain had caught fire from overuse. Seriously, it can be physically draining to live inside a real killer’s head for months on end, never mind five killers’ heads, or the victims and their families. At the same time, my passion and excitement for the project kept me racing to work every single day, and the day after that, and the day after that.

Please indulge me for a moment. I do have a point, but you’ll need context to understand what I’m talking about. When the publisher approached me about writing Pretty Evil New England, they asked me to include 10 +/- female serial killer stories.

But I didn’t want to write 10 short stories. What fun is that? If I was to veer out of my comfort zone (psychological thrillers and mysteries), then I needed to write a story that mattered, a story that readers could sink into, spend time in the story world, and experience a visceral thrill ride. What I failed to realize at the time was that the publisher’s idea would’ve been a cakewalk compared to my over-eager proposition. But hey, I was never one to shy away from a challenge. Why start now?

In my book proposal, I outlined the book in four Parts. Part I – III focused on one female serial killer at a time, with each Part dedicated to the subject’s case, all four Parts the length of a novella. In Part IV, I zeroed in on two female serial killers — one poor, one “lady of influence” — who committed almost identical crimes. They both claimed to experience visions and prophetic dreams, both murdered the people they loved most, and both stunned the public with their heartless crimes. Yet, after they were exposed as killers, the two women’s lives ran in opposite directions. Even more shocking were the outcomes at trial. So, Part IV became not only two intriguing storylines that intertwined but it shined a (subtle) light on fairness and equality.

Not conforming to the publisher’s original vision for the book was a risk, but I backed up my argument with facts from various sources that proved true crime readers prefer quality over quantity.

Lesson #1: When pushing for your own concept, you need to provide proof that your idea will be more profitable and enjoyable than the one posed by the publisher.

Once I found my five cases, I delved into research. Now, I had no idea what to look for, so I researched everything… life in nineteenth century New England, nursing requirements back then, forensics of yesteryear, how trials worked back then, the gallows… you name it, I researched the topic to death (no pun intended). I had no direction, except for my five ladies, two of which had practically no online footprint and one who had too many articles written about her, and many with conflicting accounts that didn’t align with my early research. Which is worse, actually. It’s much more time-consuming to wade through conflicting information than to research a bare bones case.

Lesson #2: Have a plan of attack. Meaning, before you start to research plan what you’ll need for the story, like dialogue and a sense of place.

Being a fiction writer helped a lot, because I viewed the cases from a storyteller’s point of view. The worse thing we can do is to just report facts. Boring! Instead, we need to find that perfect balance between journalism and engaging storytelling. But, and this is key, we cannot change or embellish to enhance the story.

What I discovered is, there are numerous ways to write true crime. Each of my four Parts are written differently. Why? Because no true story is the same. Thus, it’s our job to be able to adapt according to the case. For example, in Part I, I used the killer’s confession and dialogue to write scenes from her perspective, the victims’ perspectives, and the dogged investigators who caught her. Using a backdrop of the historical Eastern Heatwave of 1901 enhanced the atmosphere in a creepy way. Which brings me to…

Lesson #3: Look outside the case for a sense of place. What else is happening at that time, in that area?

Lesson #4: No amount of online research can replace real-world experience.

Even if we’re writing historical true crime, we still need to visit the crime scenes, grave sites, walk where the killer walked, visit the town, or the murder house, if you’re really lucky. In my research I stumbled across a third floor that was perfectly preserved from 1881. I walked where the killer walked (in Part III of Pretty Evil), I sat where the victims sat, I laid my finger on the ivory keys of their piano and perused their bookshelves. What an incredible find! It’s an experience I will never forget. If you’d like to see the photos, I blogged about it.

The most important lesson I learned was this. Before choosing a subject to write about, ask yourself, why does this story interest me? What is it about this crime that makes it unique?

We, as writers, need to be passionate about all our projects. For true crime writers, we need to be doubly sure, because we can’t change real life. The true crime writer lives with the case for a long time… many months, sometimes years. If the writer isn’t passionate about the story, chances are readers won’t care, either. Same goes for fiction. Hence why TKZ members have written umpteen posts on concept, premise, when to keep a story idea and when to trash it.

By the time I wrote the final sentence of Part IV of Pretty Evil, I couldn’t wait to go back to page one. I missed my “characters” from Part I-III. And now that I’m just tidying up the manuscript, I feel like I’m visiting old friends, even if they are psychopaths. 😉 Their stories are part of me now, and hopefully, will become part of my readers’ lives as well.

Have you ever considered writing true crime? If you already do, please share your tips.

 

PRETTY EVIL NEW ENGLAND: True Stories of Violent Vixens and Murderous Matriarchs hits bookstores Sept. 1, 2020. Can’t wait!

 

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What Is This Historic Mystery Stone?

By Sue Coletta

One of my recent research trips led me to the New Hampshire Historical Society and Museum. I went there to copy two diaries — one from 1880, another from 1881 — written by a close family friend of the victims and female serial killer, a man who gave a fascinating firsthand account of daily life before, during, and after the murders. Reading the handwriting is a challenge that I’m still working on.

Quick research tip: if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, it helps to photograph the handwritten pages so you can enlarge the chicken-scratch at home.

After I finished photographing the diaries, my husband and I toured the museum, and we stumbled across an intriguing unsolved mystery.

In 1872 construction workers unearthed a suspicious lump of clay near the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee (also in New Hampshire). The clay casing hid an egg-shaped stone with nine carvings, depicting a face, a teepee, and an ear of corn, along with strange geometric designs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amateur and professional archaeologists have speculated about the “mystery stone” ever since. At the time, the American Naturalist described it as “a remarkable Indian relic.” In the 1880s and early 1890s, sources claimed, “this stone has attracted the wonder of the scientific world, European savants having vainly tried to obtain it.”

A geological study of the stone conducted in the 1990s found it to be made of quartzite or mylonite, material not known to be otherwise present in New Hampshire. The “mystery stone” is perfectly shaped and unblemished by any distortions or markings other than the pictogram carvings. Recent examinations with a microscope suggest that the hole bored through the stone may actually have been drilled by a machine. Whether carved by hand or power tools, the stone’s manufacture indicates it lands somewhere in the mid to late 19th century. But does it?

The stone quickly gained public attention, with the New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette, the leading newspaper in the Granite State at the time, running a piece on July 17, 1872, announcing the stone’s discovery.

With such publicity, word of the stone reached far and wide, even to European scientists, who could not discern any more about the stone’s history than the Americans. In succeeding years, newspaper stories about the stone popped up at random intervals. In 1895, the Manchester Union reported that “the strange relic has attracted much attention,” even from the likes of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. A geological survey conducted by the State of New Hampshire in 1994 failed to shed much light on the stone, either.

To this day, amateur and professional archaeologists have speculated about the Mystery Stone’s origins.

NH Historical Society writes…

The most prevalent explanation has been that the Mystery Stone is a prehistoric Native American artifact. The discovery of an unusual Indian relic was not unprecedented at the time, encouraged by a highly romanticized view of America’s native heritage developed in the mid-19th century, especially in the East where fears of Anglo-Indian conflict were generations in the past.

An increasing reverence for the power of nature combined with nostalgia for a pre-industrial America combined to elevate Native Americans to the role of “noble savages” for many Americans. Indians’ perceived ability to commune with a pristine and unspoiled environment lent an air of mystery to the natural world, suggesting that natives could somehow unlock the secrets of the universe in a way that “civilized” men and women were no longer able to do, bound as they were by an overreliance on logic and reason and wholly cut off from their more intuitive and emotional natures by the standards of society.

The anomaly of the stone’s alleged “machine-made carvings” and the fact that it was composed of a rock type not found in New Hampshire could never be explained, nor does it support the idea that the stone is of Native American origin. The native culture depicted on the stone bear no resemblance to the Abenaki, New Hampshire’s native people. The face on the stone likens more to Eskimo or Aztec culture, and the carved teepee leans more toward natives in the American West.

Some Mystery Stone enthusiasts have suggested that the stone has spiritual significance for a prehistoric native culture that once covered most of North America. If that’s true, the stone may depict the forging of a treaty between two different tribes, or it may have been part of a ritual that accompanied a water burial for a native figure of importance in New Hampshire.

Over the years, other theories as to the stone’s origin have been posited. In 1931 a letter-writer suggested to the president of the New Hampshire Historical Society that the Mystery Stone was actually a thunderstone (rocks that fall from the sky during lightening storms), calling it “the most perfectly worked thunder-stone ever discovered.”

Another more recent theory argues that it is a lodestone, a natural magnetized mineral used for navigational purposes in the 16th century as an alternative to a compass. Other theories link the Mystery Stone to numerology, aliens, massive planetary shifts, or a worldwide apocalypse.

Facts 

We know the stone was found encased in clay in 1872 at Lake Winnepasaukee. The stone is either quartzite or mylonite, neither rock type found in New Hampshire. There is a hole bored through both ends, done with different sized bits — 1/8″ at the narrow end, 3/8″ at the broad end. Each bore is straight, not tapered. Scratches on the stone’s lower bore suggests it was placed on a metal shaft and removed several times (which might make sense if it’s lodestone and was used as a compass). There’s a notch or divot in the bore. Perhaps it’s some sort of “key” for mounting the stone?

The mystery…

Who made the stone?

Who carved the stone?

For what purpose was the stone made?

How old is it?

How was the stone carved, by hand or machine?

No one else has ever reported finding another stone like this anywhere in the United States. The one thing that most Mystery Stone interpreters can agree on is that it’s an “out-of-place artifact.” Meaning, it should never have been discovered in New Hampshire.

Any guesses what the Mystery Stone might be?

 

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Book Blurbs: The Good, The Bad, and The Hilarious

During the summer I had the distinct honor of blurbing a book. Not just any book, either. Larry Brooks’ new craft book, Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves. I love Larry’s (and Jim’s!) craft books, so I took my job seriously and did what any self-respecting writer would do… I Googled “How to Blurb a Book.” 🙂

The term “blurb” has amassed a number of meanings in the decades since it worked its way into our vocabulary, including a book description. But the true meaning of the word means a bylined endorsement from a fellow writer or celebrity that sings the praises of the book’s author.

There’s only two crucial steps to book blurbing.

Step 1: read the book.

Step 2: write whatever you liked about it.

That’s it. It’s not rocket science. The only way to screw up this assignment is to skip Step 1. Well, that’s not exactly true.

Don’t write the blurb to a fill-in-the-blank formula…

The Zero by Jess Walter

“Jess Walter’s The Zero is a tense and compulsively readable roller-coaster ride fraught with psychological thrills, unanticipated dips and lurches, and existential truths. The novel frightened and fascinated me in equal measures. Walter has written a neo-noirish masterpiece.” — Wally Lamb

This is also not the time to overwrite…

To The End Of The Land by David Grossman

“Very rarely you open a book and when you close it again nothing can ever be the same. Walls have been pulled down, barriers broken, a dimension of feeling has opened in you that was not there before. David Grossman has the ability to look inside a person and discover the essence of her humanity; his novels are about what it means to defend this essence against a world designed to extinguish it. To The End Of The Land is his most powerful, unflinching story of this defense.” — Nicole Krauss

Nor is it the time to play with adverbs…

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

“To those who say there are no new love stories, I heartily recommend The Time Traveler’s Wife, an enchanting novel, which is beautifully crafted and as dazzlingly imaginative as it is dizzyingly romantic.” — Scott Turow

Although, if you’re as talented and creative as Jordan Dane, you might get away with adjectives…

“Riveting and haunting! Sue Coletta’s page-turning crime fiction is deliciously nuanced with delectable horror and dark humor. Unique and compelling characters make a sumptuous and satisfying meal. Save room for a decadent dessert of plot twists.”

Let’s not forget the blurb master, Gary Shteyngart, who blurbed the world’s worst books. Here’s a small sampling…

Eating People is Wrong by Malcolm Bradbury

“If eating people is wrong, I don’t want to be right”—Gary Shteyngart

Castration: The Advantages and Disadvantages by Victor T. Cheney

“The ballsiest book of the year”—Gary Shteyngart

Alas, I wasn’t that creative. I just told the truth…

“Larry Brooks has done it again!!! In Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves, Brooks delivers a clear, concise, easily digestible roadmap to make our stories work.

“From the initial story seed to concept to a fully formed premise, he walks us through each part of a four-part structure, with unwavering clarity. It’s the perfect craft book to help aspiring writers turn their writing dreams into reality and an excellent refresher for seasoned novelists.”

 

If you enjoyed Story Engineering or Story Physics, you will love Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves. Did I mention Robert Dugoni wrote the foreword?

While you’re stocking the toolbox, might I recommend another fabulous craft book? The Last Fifty Pages by James Scott Bell. Like Larry’s new book, it’s a game-changer.

Too much? It felt a little heavy-handed. Sorry about that. I get so fired up over craft books. Jim and Larry’s teaching style really speaks to me. Can a writer ever have too many books on craft? Not in my world. What about yours?

 

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Are Only Humans Creative? Plus, 6 Ways Creativity Improves Health

By SUE COLETTA

My husband and I recently watched an excellent documentary on Netflix entitled The Creative Brain. “Neuroscientist David Eagleman taps into the creative process of various innovators while exploring brain-bending, risk-taking ways to spark creativity.” 

I’ve written about creativity and the brain before, so I didn’t want to write another post on the same subject. Nonetheless, all creatives should find the show fascinating. But — yes, there’s a but — the narrator claims only humans possess the ability to create. I disagree. Creativity surrounds us. We just need to remain open to it.

I think we can all agree that dancing is a creative form of expression. So, if dance is part of the arts, then the Birds of Paradise are creative geniuses …

Now, let me ask you, do you think this little guy is creative or working only on instinct?

Side note: ladies, how cool would it be if men had to woo women in the same way? 😉

Let’s dive into the ocean. In South Carolina lives one pod of bottlenose dolphins whose creativity gains great rewards.

Think about this … If they’re working strictly on instinct, then why aren’t other dolphins hunting in the same way? This “beaching” activity can only be seen in this one pod.

Check out these creative thinkers …

What if an elephant painted a self-portrait, would it then mean she’s using her creativity?

Meet Suda …

If you’re short on time, jump ahead to 10:45 to see what she painted.

This Australian Satin Bower selectively steals from humans. The female he’s courting has a fondness for blue. Only blue. Another color might ruin the design.

This post wouldn’t be complete without mentioning my beloved crows. Crow nest building is serious business, but creativity also plays a role. Made of interlocking twigs gathered from surrounding trees and shrubs, they weave these twigs with metallic wire to strengthen the nest. Some crows even incorporate knotted lengths of thick plastic. But it’s their love of shiny objects that really speaks to their individuality and creativity.

How ‘bout an entire nest made of coat hangers? This magpie’s nest may not look very comfortable, but it’s creative!

That concludes the fun half of the post. Now here’s why creativity is good for you.

6 Ways Creativity Improves Health and Wellness

1) Increased Happiness

When you’re completely absorbed in a project, psychologists call this state Flow. Writers often refer to it as The Zone. For those unfamiliar with either term, have you ever been working on a project and completely lost all sense of time? That’s Flow. And Flow reduces anxiety, boosts your mood, and even slows your heartrate.

2) Reduces Dementia

Studies show that creative engagement not only reduces depression and isolation, but can also help dementia patients tap back in to their personalities and sharpen their senses.

3) Improves Mental Health

The average person has about 60,000 thoughts a day and 95% are exactly the same. A creative act such as writing helps focus the mind. Some compare creative engagement to meditation due to its calming effects on the brain and body. Even just gardening or sewing releases dopamine, a natural anti-depressant.

Creativity reduces anxiety, depression, stress, and can also help process trauma. Writing in particular helps to manage negative emotions in a productive way. Creating something through art (painting or drawing) can help people to express traumatic experiences that are too difficult to put in to words.

4) Boosts Immune System

Studies show, people who keep a daily journal have stronger immune systems than those who don’t. Experts don’t know why it works, but writing increases your CD4+ lymphocyte count — the key to your immune system.

Listening to music can also rejuvenate function in your immune system. Music affects our brains in complex ways, stimulating the limbic system and moderating our response to stressful stimuli.

5) Increases Intelligence

Studies show that people who play instruments have better connectivity between their left and right brains. The left brain is responsible for motor functions, the right brain focuses on melody. When the two hemispheres communicate, our cognitive function improves.

Writers use both hemispheres of the brain, as well. Muse on the right, the critic on the left.

6) Decreases Chronic Pain

People dealing with certain medical conditions that result in chronic pain showed improved pain control after expressing their feelings through the written word. Over a nine-week period, the test subjects also showed an overall decline in pain severity.

According to Medical News Today, “music may help to restore effective functioning in the immune system partly via the actions of the amygdala and hypothalamus. These brain regions are implicated in mood regulation and hormonal processes, as well as in the body’s inflammatory response.”

The world needs creatives.

Let’s nurture creativity rather than force our youth into professions they’re not passionate about. We’re not born creative. It’s a skill learned over time. As such, parents and/or mentors need to encourage creativity and allow our children and young adults to excel in the arts.

Need more motivation? No problem …

Now, go forth and create something amazing!

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