A few months back, I was suggested a book to r2r by Eve. She has been through a lot in her life and I really enjoyed the book she wrote, based on a real life murder that has not been "solved." I was super excited when she agreed to do a guest post on Between the Bindings because, having written a non-fiction book, she would be able to give information from the "other side" which could be very beneficial to those of you who are writing books that are fiction. She has provided some great advice.
I did not set out to write a book; the book evolved as a result of extensive research and obstacles to achieve real justice. Frankly, researching and writing about a cold murder case was not anything I could have imagined.
The book Mommy's a Mole: Unraveling the Joan Webster Murder & Other Secrets in a CIA Family is a true crime book and real life experiences in a family with an unresolved murder. The journey to share the book began with the publication of another book about my sister-in-law Joan Webster's 1981 murder. The case was sensational and highly publicized and discussed in numerous books. However, a 2008 book published by the former prosecutor involved in the investigation recycled an old theory that was implausible based on what I knew as part of the immediate family.
Knowing published accounts in an open murder case were false, I began a long process of digging out the facts. The most critical part of any true crime book requires extensive research. Instinct and common sense are important tools to identify areas to examine, but documents are necessary to establish timelines, name individuals, and formulate the proper questions to unravel a cold case murder.
Gathering information took persistence over time. FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests in some cases took several months and others were denied. If a case is still open, there may be obstacles to receiving certain documents. Any resistance in a very old case is also a red flag. I took an added measure to establish a business number to protect recovered documents. News articles established a trail to follow with quotes and participants during an investigation and supplement official documents. Do not limit yourself to the single case; patterns and answers can be found in other cases.
Documenting steps to recover information is as important as the information itself. Logging contacts, dates, and sources support published findings. Emails are an excellent way to time stamp contacts and restate topics discussed.
Thinking out of the box overcomes hurdles in researching a case. The Internet was an incredible tool. Information can be found online. In addition, drawing new attention to a case drew attention. The visibility brought people forward with integral information. People responding to information posted online can spark areas to research that had not been considered before. The old adage applies; leave no stone unturned. Open your mind to any possibility and do not cross anything off until you can support it with documented facts. Starting with a clean mental slate allows events to take shape as they happened without a predetermined bias.
Read, reread, and reread some more. Cross-reference documents to match pieces of information. Be prepared for surprises along the way. Take every name and date to build a comprehensive timeline of events. Patterns, problems, inconsistencies, and areas for further investigation naturally emerge when looking at events placed in their proper order. Develop your characters; learn as much as possible about everything connected to the case.
Examining all of the old theories, implicated suspects, authorities, family, evidence, location, and even rumors shape the body of the investigation as it happened. Holes in the investigation become obvious. Reviewing areas never examined breathes new life into the case. Obstacles to questions and investigation identify the problems to surmount to find a resolution. For me, I continued to ask myself the question, "Who does not want to resolve a decades-old cold murder case?"
Communicating with current authorities regarding the discrepancies in the recovered documents compared to publish accounts was also an essential piece of the puzzle. My book details events in the murder of a family member, but it does not require that relationship to encourage doing the right thing. In my case, it also exposed a serious obstacle to a truthful resolve in the case. Learning who knew what and when they knew it revealed a problem. Authorities ignored the best information at the time and promoted an impossible crime. The crime scene did not exist at the time of Joan Webster's murder. Incompetence or evidence of public corruption is not the obstacle in every case, but information controlled by officials can block justice in any case. The barriers erected by law enforcement and the legal community proved to be the hurdle to surmount and motivated me to publish the findings in actual records.
Have your facts well-documented. Build a strong support group. Digging into a true crime case can sometimes require a thick skin. When other agendas interfere with the prosecution of justice, people circle the wagons, and throw daggers. Remember, in a true crime book, you are naming names. Making them real for the reader was the easiest part; they are real people, and their own words come out of actual documents.
The ending in some true crime books has already been determined. I learned in the examination of my sister-in-law's case, decided outcomes of criminal cases were not always what they seemed. Joan Webster's case does have ramifications for other cases in the state of Massachusetts. True crime books serve a greater purpose than truth and justice for just one victim.
There is nothing to bring a victim back to life. The only thing we can give the deceased is the truth and to restore value to their life. The truth is necessary for loved ones still living with suspended grief. Knowledge of the system is the responsibility of every citizen to keep public servants accountable, and the knowledge of the facts of a violent crime helps prevent future victims. Writing a true crime book requires determination, a laser focus on details, and the emotional connection to understand that it matters. In any crime, it is imperative to recognize truthful answers can be painful, but is necessary for genuine healing.
Thank you, Eve, for the insight into writing a true crime novel and doing research for a non-fiction book. This has been extremely helpful. Thank you for joining us here on The Gal. :)
Until next time y'all ....