Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fact v. Fiction

By Kathryn Casey

A while bac
k when my latest true crime book, Shattered, debuted, I wrote a post on a writer's life, talking about my experiences as a working author. I hope I didn't dissuade any of you from trying it. A couple of my friends have told me that I'm a bit disillusioning on the subject, but I've always believed that people need to hear the truth, and writing is a pretty tough way to make a living. There are those authors who write one book and hit The New York Times list. (Why God, not me?) But for most of us, it's a long, competitive road.

Perhaps part of the reason I see writing as I do is that I've spent so many years writing non-fiction crime books, in other words, true crime. Covering a big case is a monumental task. I manage to turn out about a book a year, but there's always a lot of angst as I work my way through a long list of interviews, collect mountains of testimony and court documents, and spend weeks locked up in a courtroom listening to evidence. It's been tough at times, but as I've probably said here before, because I say it often, the years spent writing true crime have also been an education in law enforcement, especially homicide investigations.

The bottom line is that for the past couple of decades, I've focused on writing about real murder cases. Looking back, it's been a good way to learn a lot about what what happens behind the scenes in a sensational murder investigation. Now, for the other truth: It also plants scenes in your head, ones you can draw from when you take another step, moving from fact to fiction.

I did that about five years ago--actually a bit longer than that--when I first sat down to write my mystery series. The first book, Singularity, took me years to finish. I started and stopped a bunch of times. I guess I was having a hard time freeing my imagination and allowing it to stray from the facts. The second book in the series, Blood Lines, came out last year. And yesterday, ta dah, the third debuted, The Killing Storm.

Although I didn't think about it while writing, I used a lot of my true crime experience when pulling it together. First, the missing kid case in the book. I did an article on a group of missing kid cases for Ladies' Home Journal years ago. I've never forgotten the experience. The parents even decades later were still on the edge of their emotions, praying daily that their children would be found. Is it always that way? No. Of course, not. All you have to do is look at Casey Anthony for an example of the polar opposite.

Then there's the ritualistic slaying of longhorns in the book. In The Killing Storm, someone is murdering the beasts and drawing strange symbols on their sides. My heroine, Sarah, has to decipher the clues that eventually appear to be connected not only with the longhorn killer but the fate of the missing child. Where did that come from? When I was working on the book, I remembered a group of Florida murders a profiler friend told me about, in which symbols weren't used but another medium of communication was. In that case, the victims' bodies were mutilated and positioned in certain ways to spell out the killer's motives. The crime scene photos were frightening but at the same time, I hate to admit this, rather morbidly fascinating.

Finally, the storm in my book. Here, I didn't have to go out in search of an experience. I live in Houston, so every so many years a hurricane comes calling. I'm sure all I need to say is that The Killing Storm was written following Hurricane Ike for all of you to understand my inspiration. In the book, the storm is a ticking clock, propelling the action. It becomes imperative for the boy to be found before the hurricane hits. If not? The unthinkable will happen.

I guess all those years of first-hand experience have paid off, because the reviews have been great, from Kirkus calling the book "pulse-pounding," to Publisher's Weekly saying it's "the best in the series so far." Library Journal honored it with a star, and Booklist said, "solid crime fiction with a real feel for the humanity of the characters."

So, after years of covering real murders, I'm now making it all up, and it's fun. There's so much that's exciting about writing fiction, from being able to twist and turn a plot to birthing your characters, including attributes and foibles. After all these years as a true crime writer, with fiction, I'm finally in control. And you know what? I like it.



Andrea Campbell said...

If you read a book like Kathryn's >Shattered< you can see how much of herself she has put into the text with research. I can honestly say that Kathryn is one of THE best true crime writers today. I am just as happy that she is getting a good feeling with fiction. Talent and hard work win out and Kathryn is a winner.

Cathy Scott said...

I second that motion, Andrea! Kathryn's words take readers into the scene, as if they were there. With THE KILLING STORM, she's hit a home run. Congratulations, K.!

Kathryn Casey said...

Andrea and Cathy, thank you! It's an especially wonderful compliment coming from the two of you!

Anonymous said...

I have read several of your true crime books and all three Sarah Armstrong books. I have to agree that THE KILLING STORM is your best fiction. Can't wait to see where you take her next. It is a real pleasure to call you frend.

bev martin

DrGina said...

I'm excited to read you series. After writing one true crime blog post, I don't know how you true crime writers do it. It takes a lot of grit to get into the dark parts of human life. Getting to know someone after they've died a violent death must feel strange and sometimes draining I imagine. I admire your courage.

Kathryn Casey said...

Thank you, Bev. What a wonderful comment. I'm proud to have you as a friend, too!

Thanks, Gina. Writing true crime can be tough. The fiction, while gritty, is fun. No one real gets hurt. Isn't that wonderful! LOL