Thursday, January 21, 2010

Diane Fanning and True Crime Facts

by Andrea Campbell
Sometimes the best things are right in front of us. Today I am sharing an interview with our own WCI writer, Diane Fanning. There are some forensic science details, but I thought you might be interested in how a true crime book is created (I know I have always been). Diane is a good friend of mine as well as an interesting writer and person.

Q.: Diane, for WCI readers who don’t know you, please tell us a little about your background.

A.: I’m the author of 10 true crime books and three mystery novels and the editor of an anthology of Texas women writers. One of my true crime books, Written in Blood, was a finalist for an Edgar Allen Poe Award.

I was born and raised in the Baltimore, Maryland, area, moving to Virginia for college. I never left that state until I moved to Texas. I now live in New Braunfels, situated in between Austin and San Antonio, Texas.

Q.: Is it unusual to go to press even if the case has not come to resolution? I thought publishers preferred to go to print after the sentencing phase of the trial.

 A.: It depends on the publisher. Some do, some don’t. Often the verdict or sentencing can be anti-climactic, causing a lower volume of sales. This happens often when the case actually does not go to trial because of a plea bargain. While the story is still on-going, it grabs far more media attention which churns up more interest in a case. But, essentially, it’s the publisher who calls the shots here, not the writer.

Q.: You’ve written quite a few true crime books now. How did you first find the genre as a viable category?

A.: Not until after I got my first contract. I didn’t go after the first true crime book thinking of it as viable or sensible or a good thing for my writing career. I went after that story because I was passionate about it. Ten-year-old Krystal Surles was my new hero, and I simply had to write her story of survival and courage. 
Q.: Does it take a lot of gumption to write about crimes that affect many people’s lives, especially the victim’s family? Do you ever get emotionally involved?

A.: Any time you write about real people, you are treading on potentially treacherous ground. I approach each member of a family with respect and assure them that, to me, the victim is the most important person in the story. I ask them to help me to allow my readers to understand the great loss suffered when this person’s life was stolen in an act of violence.

I love it when they share their happy memories with me — the simple stories told with love. But this is the worst time in the life of this family and they cannot always be positive. At those times, I sometimes find myself crying with them.

Q.: How do you begin a true crime book? Please share some of your methodology.

A.: The first thing I do is scan through all the media I can find, looking for the names of the players in the case. Then I plan my approach based on the individual dynamics of each story.

Q.: Your book, Mommy’s Little Girl, is a true crime about what event?

A.: The book concerns the death of little Caylee Anthony shortly before her third birthday, and her mother, Casey Anthony, now charged with her murder.

Q.: In Mommy’s Little Girl, you didn't have access to the principle characters, Casey, Cindy, George or Lee Anthony, yet fully two-thirds of the book is dialogue between these people. Can you speak to that?

A.: The dialogue of these four people is taken directly from official documents or tape recordings or is a re-creation given to me by another person who was present during the conversation. None of it was a product of my imagination. Even when you read what one of them was thinking at a particular point in time, that information was provided by the subject to another person in the story.

 Q.: How did you find out about the forensic science evidence in Florida, and can you tell us what that is for this particular case?

A.: An extensive amount of documents have been released prior to trial because of the Sunshine Law in the state of Florida. More than 9,000 pages have been made public by the State Attorney.

There are items at the location where Caylee’s body was found that link to the Anthony home. Cadaver dogs hit on spots in the family’s back yard and in the car that Casey drove. Air analysis of the car indicated the presence of decomposition and chloroform. Coffin flies were found in the trunk of the car. A forensic analysis of Casey’s computer uncovered suspicious searches.

Q.: When you begin to examine a true crime, how do you approach the various people? Do you try to enter the case without any bias? Is that even possible?  

A.: Essentially, I approach them honestly, telling them upfront that I am writing a book about the case. The approach then differs depending on the individual. Victims’ family members, perpetrators’ family members, law enforcement, attorneys and others all require a different approach that reflects their reason for involvement in the case. I try to enter each and every case without bias because I know that what I read and what the general public believes is not always objective, evidence-based fact — sometimes even the jury can get it wrong.

I have started on some projects thinking the defendant was innocent and changing my mind mid-stream, as I did with the Michael Peterson case when I wrote Written in Blood. I have seen a crime as justifiable until I learned more. Mary Winkler, The Pastor’s Wife, was a case in point there. I thought that she was driven to her acts by brutal abuse by her husband. I came to the conclusion that the abuse was exaggerated and some fabricated after the fact. Matthew was a controlling spouse, but nothing he did was to an extreme that warranted the death penalty. 

Q.: If law enforcement has made mistakes, or even the prosecution for that matter, do you write about that as well? How do you feel about exposing that?

A.: Yes, if I am aware of errors in the investigation or the prosecution, I do point them out. No case is handled perfectly. Some are botched on the law enforcement or prosecution side resulting in an inadequate presentation leading to a lower sentence that is deserved; others result in wrongful convictions. Then there are some errors that are simply mistakes that are insignificant when you view the totality of the evidence.

Q.: Have the people involved ever harassed you? What about readers?

A.: It comes with the territory. Some people are not happy with the verdict in a case and take it out on me. Other readers feel I was too harsh in my portrayal of someone in the book—usually, but not always the perpetrator. But, this is offset by the thank-you notes and pleased e-mails I have received from many members of victims’ families. I also have a copy of one of my books, hand-delivered to me, that contains the signatures of every Texas Ranger in the state.

Q.: You have also written fictional mystery novels. How have you found crossing over genres? Please give a brief synopsis of the titles.

A.: Writing true crime has informed my fiction. Authoring fiction has improved my non-fiction writing. My current fiction focus is on the novels featuring Homicide Detective Lucinda Pierce and is based in Virginia. Pierce faces challenges in her professional and personal lives because of physical and emotional scars. She is tough and self-aware as she fights through the battles of her present and her past.

 Q.: What are your plans for the future?
A.: In general, I would like to continue writing both fiction and true crime. Both satisfy different needs for me. In particular, I am currently under contract to write a true crime book about Betty Neumar, the elderly woman arrested for the murder of the fourth of her five dead husbands. I also have a contract from my fiction publisher to write a fourth book in the Lucinda Pierce series.
Q.: Is there anything else you would like to tell WCI readers?

A.: On my web site, I have a page called the “Reading Room.” On it, there are links to a sample chapter from each one of my published books. It’s a great way to determine which one of them you would like to read. I just started a blog: Writing is a Crime,, and would love to read your comments.

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