Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Writing True Crime - A Change of Pace

I am writing my first true crime book for the University of Michigan Press.  For the last year I have been working on the research of the book - now it has finally come to fruition.  I have always read true crime books  and enjoyed them (some more than others) so for me, this was a neat opportunity.   It allowed me to expand the genre's I write while at the same time gives me a chance to concentrate on some new skills.  I'm still going to write military history and science fiction - this is simply a new vehicle for me to explore my craft.
The crime took place in 1967 in my hometown of Marshall MI.  I was raised in Battle Creek, but my family is from Marshall and in my mind and heart Marshall is my hometown.   Marshall is a small town - and that is part of the story - the culture of the town in relation to the violent crime.  It has been a real treat for me to write about a place that I know well.  Stepping back to the Marshall of my childhood was not too hard -- Marshall doesn't change a lot. 
The murder itself was a bombing - a particularly savage way to kill someone.  It was a crime that emotionally shook the entire community.  This kind of killing, so horribly vicious, is in stark contrast to the quiet small-town community.  That was some of the appeal of this book in the first place for me as a writer. 
Initially I approached this project with my historian frame of mind - I write history books and thought that true crime was just a form of history.  That's not the case though.  In doing the research for this book I have come to grips that this is about regular people - not "historical figures."  That forces a change of perspective.  I have to be a little more gentler in my approach.  The more research I have done over time - the more I realized there was a  "bigger picture" of this crime, the community, and the myriad of people involved.  A level of objectivity has to be applied.  It's not my intention to open old wounds but to tell a compelling and entertaining story. 
As such I have also been challenged to revise my view of the events that unfolded in 1967.  I originally thought that there was one victim - the murdered woman.  That isn't necessarily the case.  The reality is there were other victims who are still alive today that suffered as a result of this murder.  The family of the man accused/convicted of the murder were also victims this crime; though in a very different way.  I have had to be respectful of them as well.  That was not an angle that I had originally considered.  As a writer you have to grow. 
From a positive perspective, I have met some new people (such as the family of one of the detectives) who were able to share with me a lot about their father and some unique perspectives about the crime and trial.  In some respects, I hope I was able to share some insights about their father that they didn't know.  That certainly was a pleasant surprise that I attended junior high with them - especially when they pulled out a yearbook with my photo in it.   
For this book to work, I have to put the reader into the community back in 1967.  I want the reader to feel that Marshall is their own home town.  From the effects of the race riots in Detroit to the results of high school sporting events all help put the reader on Michigan Avenue in the late 60's  I want them to experience the terror and fear that this killing caused.  I want them to care about the people in the book.
I love a challenge as a writer and this book definitely is presenting it.  I am also pleased to say, I feel I am up to the task.  I hope those of you that buy the book enjoy it as well.