Killer Year–The Class of 2007


The Absolutely True Story of Writing Fiction
July 14, 2006, 8:00 am
Filed under: Gregg Olsen, Killer Year Members

I’ve been in and out of prison so often I don’t even get nervous when I’m being processed by a correction’s officer with an electronic wand and a flatline attitude. This week, I visited an inmate (he prefers that term over “offender” which is considered insulting, I guess) on a life sentence for drugging his wife with benadryl, putting a plastic bag over her head, and setting the house on fire.

Oh yeah, did I mention he was a minister? That this was done on Christmas night?

As most in this group know, I’ve written a number of books in the true crime genre before attempting my first thriller. People ask me all the time, what’s easier?

Fiction, by far. No contest. (This isn’t to say that I think I’m any good at it, or that I’ll be a success story from the Class of 2007. I know from being around the book business that success will be defined in many, many different ways by this talented company that I’m keeping right now. For some, it is merely the fact they’ve finally landed a book deal. For others, the deal is only the stepping stone to bestsellerdom—and nothing short of the List (I don’t even have to say NYT, do I?) will equate with success.)

Why is fiction easier? Simple. In a novel, loose ends can be tied up with the click of a mouse and the tap of a key. Plot points can be fixed. The novelist is God. The nonfiction crime writer is merely the conduit for the telling of someone else’s story.

One stays true to the facts. The other can bend, fold, mutilate and call it art. (Let’s not even talk about James “A Million Little Lies” Frey and his twisting of the truth into fiction, into the truth, and back again. I’m not sure where any of that falls.)

In true crime, there are real people involved. Real people lead messy lives. (I’ve touched on this subject briefly on my own blog http://www.crimerant.com). And no matter how hard you try, you never really know for sure if you’re reporting a fact or fantasy. People tell you want they want you to hear. Prosecutors say the killer is a creep; family members who love him say prosecutors are liars.

You just don’t know what’s truly real, but you go with it.

So the other day when the inmate was telling me his version of events, I felt that flutter that I’ve often experienced when listening to the other side of the story. This guy is convincing. Sure, he has an agenda, but I like him, almost trust him. Part of me always wants to believe because, let’s face it, killing someone is so very ugly. The truth is stomach turning.

Seems to me that the novelist can pile on all of the garbage of human nature (Hannibal Lector does this or that) and we read it with disgust and delight. But Hannibal is a creation and we never think twice about his mother or father. There isn’t anyone to think about. He’s fake (although most know, like many fictional creations, he’s based on a real-life killer). He lives only on pages.

But those featured in a true crime book – killers, families, neighbors, high school pals – live in the real world.

When I visited Diane Downs (made famous in Ann Rule’s SMALL SACRIFICES and played by Farrah Fawcett in the television mini series) she told me that a woman like Ann could never “get her”— that she knew how to do things sexually that “normal women” couldn’t even comprehend. Eventually, kids would understand that she had been railroaded – a victim of her own attractiveness, feminine wiles, and a system that seeks to tear down a woman possessing such attributes. Even after some twenty years in the slammer she was sure she is the hottest thing on the planet. The weird thing was, she kind of is – as far as killers go.

Yet, all I could think about when I was talking with Diane was those kids – and the fact that their mother would be out of prison in a few years. The end of her story hasn’t been yet told. Because she is a real person, there’s the distinct possibility that we’ll hear from her again. The novelist could kill her off. The true crime writer, like Ann Rule in this case, lives knowing that someday even Diane will be out there lurking somewhere.

So as I sat in the prison visiting room with my minister-turned-convicted killer, tape recorder whirling, I couldn’t help but think of the other times I’d been in that same spot, digging for the truth. That’s the job of the nonfiction crime writer. An author of a work of fiction merely has to invent (not to say that isn’t hard to do, good God!). The novelist’s burden is to write a compelling book, one that moves the reader from beginning to end, entertaining and maybe even educating them a little about human nature or the world.

Novelists often talk about how they have to “live” with their characters. Indeed, that could be a problem. I was told by one successful mystery writer friend that her series was a ball and chain and that she lived for the “one offs” that liberated her from having to tell “the same story, different names, locale” over and over. She told me one time, “I wished I’d never even started that series. I hate (character’s name).”

My true crime people get out of prison. They have families. They always maintain their innocence. Lawyers vet every word I write to make sure that I haven’t libeled anyone. This isn’t really much of concern for the killer, but for the peripheral characters. Convicted killers might threaten to sue, but seldom prevail. In the end, you can say any damn thing you want about a murderer because, well, that’s pretty much the lowest we can go in today’s society. Even so, lawyers have their say and sometimes the truth is nipped and tucked.

But in my fiction, my killer is utterly evil. Her heart is stone. There’s no wondering if I got it wrong and missed a piece of evidence that would say she wasn’t so bad, after all. I don’t have to think of her when I go to sleep, wondering if she’s out there. She’s alive only in my imagination.

Fiction easy? Sure, as in easy to sleep at night.

Gregg Olsen
A Wicked Snow March 2007
CrimeRant

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10 Comments so far
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Really interesting stuff, Gregg. I’ve been curious about your leap into fiction and whether it was going to be easier or more difficult. You certainly make the argument well here.
A question — what prompted you to make the move to fiction? And will you continue doing true crime?

Comment by JT Ellison

JT,
The answer about doing more true crime is easy. Yes. I love how it gives me a free pass into into the lives of interesting people and I could never give that up. I’m working on my first hardcover true crime for St. Martins now and I’m thrilled to be doing it. About the switch…hmmm…I could give a thousand answers — all true. One prompt to try fiction, came when I was reading one of those beach book thrillers and I thought, I think I could do that. It was the same feeling I had years ago when I devoured all of Ann Rule’s early books.

Comment by Gregg Olsen

I look forward to your book. And folks, definitely make a stop at Gregg’s very cool blog CrimeRant — http://crimerant.com/. Chock full of interesting stuff.

Comment by JT Ellison

I envy Gregg immensely. I have tried to write crime fiction now for years and get about 50 pages into it before it falls apart. My latest pet project is a “cozy mystery”—you know, a projected series, about a wine grower/crime solver on the Cape. I’m about 75 pages into this one and it seems to be going well, but I get bored quickly with it. The other thriller I have going revolves around the Church in Boston, but it has its problems already.

Whereas I could spend 15 hours on true crime (which I do under deadline), getting 4,000 to 7,000 words down in a day (research helps here), the fiction is much, much harder for me. Gregg is an excellent plotter. He understands the thriller genre perfectly and will be a major success. I wish him—as I do all of you—much deserved credit for what you do. As Gregg said, “I could do that …” to me it’s not that simple. The cliché here works: It looks a lot easier than it is!

True crime …? Well, that is writing I feel the most confident doing. It comes easy to me.

There’s my two cents, anyway.

Best,
M. William Phelps

Comment by Mathew

This is just absolutely fascinating stuff, Gregg. I couldn’t be more proud that you’re a member of Killer Year, clearly you add a dimension that is absolutely compelling.

Great post, can’t WAIT to read more!

Comment by Jason Pinter

Great post, Gregg. I’ve often thought how amazing it would be to write true crime books — but then I realized I’d have to do exactly what you’ve done: meet those people, sit in those jails, deal with those families and somehow stay true to them all.

That’s a lot harder than I want to work…

Comment by Rob Gregory Browne

This is a fantastic post, Gregg. Great insight into the other crime books. A lot of people think it would be so much easier to just write the facts and have no imagination, but you’ve shown us why that isn’t the case.

I know some people who only read true crime books. Book after book after book. I know some people wonder about us crime fiction fans, but I wonder even more about the true crime devotees. What do you think the differences are between the fiction fans and the true crime fans?

Comment by Sandra Ruttan

Thank you, Rob, Jason, Sandra and JT for making me feel so welcome in this group. Sandra raises a point about the different readership of TC and fiction genres. Over the years, I’ve met both at various signings and events. The fiction readers who sniff and say they’d never read anything so vile as TC, but they are walking out the door with American Psycho or something. Funny, huh? Or the TC readers who says they don’t want to read anything unless it is “true” but many of the books in their TC library have invented conversations. I do think that crime fiction fans follow/buy the author, but TC fans for the most part follow/buy the story. I’ve had some decent success in TC, but it will be very interesting to see if my readers will pick up my fiction? Or will I be starting from ground zero?

PS for Rob — the “staying true to them all” is the phrase of the day. There is nothing on this earth harder than trying not to take sides when capturing a story.

Comment by Gregg Olsen

Let me join in and say fantastic post, Gregg! I’ve long been intrigued by true crime, but never felt I would have the ability to write it myself. I feel like I would struggle too much with confusing sympathy and uncontrollable revulsion, and probably would be surprised each time by what elicited my responses.

Fascinating.

Comment by Bill Cameron

I’ve read Gregg’s book (neener neener neener) and it’s riveting. I know he’ll do very, very well with fiction. He writes exactly the type of stories I like to read, and his heroine isn’t a wimp.

I greatly admire you for being able to sit down and face a killer and keep a blank face. Report the facts. “He said . . . evidence said . . . ” True crime has always fascinated me, and several things you said above really resonates. Real people lead messy lives. We WANT to believe in the innate goodness of man–that a minister could never drug and kill his wife on Christmas night–so we struggle to answer the big question: WHY.

Which is why I write what I write. I look at the worst man can do to man and try to figure out what happened to create the situation where someone died so violently. How could someone do it in the first place–WHY?

Curiosity is human, from the dawn of time.

Comment by Allison Brennan




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