A Documentary, a Podcast, and a Dark Confession

First, I want to briefly discuss a surprisingly good documentary (well, more of a docudrama, since it features actors and fictionalized versions of real events). Earlier this year, Netflix released a film called The Most Hated Woman in America, about the life and death of outspoken atheist, Madalyn Murray O’Hair (this was before the Casey Anthony thing).  Although over 20 years old now, the case is one of those so bizarre in a “I couldn’t write this stuff” kind of way that I’m surprised it hasn’t received more media attention. The narrative cuts back and forth between Madalyn and her family after their 1995 abduction and her past as a single mother in 1960s Baltimore, where she became an increasingly abrasive advocate for religious freedom. Melissa Leo does a great job of portraying O’Hair at different ages, and together she and the writers manage to humanize someone who was by almost all accounts a difficult, unpleasant person. Vincent Kartheiser (smarmy Pete Campbell, for those who have watched Mad Men) plays her estranged son and the talented but somewhat underused Juno Temple plays her loyal granddaughter. Then there’s Josh Lucas as bitter former employee turned kidnapper, who projects a kind of menacing charisma and, in the scenes with Leo, creates an almost palpable tension. The narrative strikes the healthiest balance it can between “this woman has enemies? I can’t imagine why” and “okay, that shouldn’t happen to anyone.” I’m tempted to say more about it , but I have other things I want to get to without being too long-winded. So my suggestion is to Google the case to get the basic facts of the story, then watch.

I’ve also added Writing Excuses  to my ever growing podcast list. Each episode is a concise 15 minutes, full of great perspectives on writing. Then the hosts yell at you to get back to work at the end of each. Also, I checked out Last Podcast on the Left. It’s a sophomoric, tasteless comedy podcast about true crime and unexplained events, and when in the right mood, it’s hilarious. It makes me laugh, then feel ashamed.

So, the thing I’m really here to talk ab0ut today is the “dark confession” alluded to above. I’m a writer, and I hate world-building. In fact, world-building can go right over and stand next to cooking on my “it improves my quality of life but I still kind of loathe the process” shelf. I have a theory that some writers start by drawing a map–or perhaps just a tastefully decorated sitting room–and then people it with characters. That’s great, but it’s just not me. I’m more likely to stumble into a character who insists on being written about, sometimes with a filament of plot attached if they’re  being charitable. Then some other characters emerge from the shadows, and oh wait, two of them are fighting, and one of them is hitting the other with a chair. So, um, I guess my setting needs chairs now. I don’t really draw maps, and naming fictional cities, countries, rivers, and mountains makes me want to rip my eyelashes out. Every time I realize that a proper noun is required, I have to spend a good twenty minutes rejecting city/river/coffee shop names, all while my characters are getting impatient for the actual scene to start.

Now, at this point, you should all be asking, “But, L.R., why don’t you just use real world locations? They come with names, maps, and descriptions, no assembly required.” First of all, it is entirely possible that one day I will use a 100% real world setting, when the characters and plot seem to demand it. I think the reason that I’ve been using not-quite-real world settings (a few dimensions down settings?) is due to the fact that A.) I feel weirdly self-conscious about writing about real places, for fear of Doing It Wrong somehow, and B). as much I dislike flushing out my settings, I’m also very picky about them in some ways. I want every aspect of my story to feel like an organic part of a whole, and if my plot and characters can’t be plopped down into a real setting without feeling forced, then I have to come up with one that will fit them.

Now, I could get away with sparse world-building in my first novel, since the majority of the action took place in one city and the plot demanded only vague references to other places. Recently, however, I’ve been working on a project that is clearly going to demand more development in that regard, so I have to confront my distaste. How am I doing that? Here are some methods I am trying.

A. I already have some characters and loose plot points sketched out, so I’ve created a separate document listing every city/region/geographic thing I might need, with a few lines of description. I’m not trying for too much with these descriptions, at least at this stage. I start with something simple like “it’s near the ocean.” Then: “Because of this, it’s heavily dependent on maritime trade.” And then: You know what would totally ruin this place’s week? Some kind of embargo or blockade. This could be a point of conflict.” Then I start trying to think of how some of these things might be relevant to the characters and plot points I already have. The names usually come last, and yeah, I still hate coming up with them, but there are random generators.

B. I shamelessly copy, paste, and recombine real places and events. I did this in The Foreigner,  I’m going to keep doing it, and honestly I suggest everyone do it. This suits me, since I’ve never gravitated to fully invented languages and cultures–I prefer my characters to dress, talk, and be named like real people. So world cultures and history offer a near-endless yard sale of props.

C. Lastly, to come full circle, while I’m trying to keep my writing weaknesses from becoming a full handicap, I’m not going to develop them at the expense of what I really want to accomplish with my story, either. I’m going to write the book I want to read, and I’m only going to develop the setting as much as I need to make the story that needs to be made. I’m going to expand my comfort zone, but not abandon it.

 

What about everyone else? Does anyone else struggle with some of these same issues, and if so, how do you deal with it?

True Crime Book Recs

One of the things that people are surprised to learn about me is that I have a near addiction to true crime and unsolved mysteries. I am a constant lurker on the Unresolved Mysteries reddit forum. I watch episodes of Disappeared and BrainScratch on Youtube to unwind in the evening,  or else check in on the crew at Thinking Sideways. (Yes, I know, questionable life choices).

The best true crime is, in my opinion, about something more than the just crime itself. It should use that crime as a way of introducing the reader to another time and place, and to figures as well and vividly rendered as any fictional character. I tend not to be especially interested in serial killers or large-scale, multiple crimes—I’m much more apt to be fascinated by isolated cases where, between one moment and the next, something went very wrong.

Today, I’m sharing a partial list of some of my favorite true crime books. Please feel free to share some of your favorites in the comments, although I expect I don’t have too many crime junkies following this blog.

Midnight in Peking by Paul French This is one of my absolute favorites and the one that first comes to mind when I think of the above criteria. It centers around the murder of a young Englishwoman in Old Peking (or Beijing), shortly before the Japanese invasion of China, and is a fascinating look at a time and place with which most readers are unfamiliar.

Murder in the Stacks by David DeKok  A little known case from 1969, in which a graduate student at Penn State was stabbed to death in the campus library. It’s a terribly overlooked case, and the author does an excellent job of researching the life of the victim and the lives of all the other principle players involved in the case, as the well as the social and political mood of college campuses in the late 1960s. He examines several possibilities, and ends up presenting a plausible suspect and summary of what really happened in the silent stacks  that November afternoon.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. If you can stomach another title with the word “midnight”, you will discover another fun, engrossing, atmospheric read. I almost didn’t include this here for a few reasons. One is that it is questionable whether it qualifies as true crime since it there isn’t really that much crime and it is possible that there is not that much truth, either. Berendt is open about altering the names and descriptions of several individuals that feature in the book, and I’m not the first person to comment on the relative implausibility of an outsider being so readily invited to share so many of Savannah’s secrets. While the narrative is centered around a shooting death in the home of a prominent Savannah antique collector (which may or may not have been self-defense), the real reason for the book’s existence is not so much this event as are the many side stories, full of scandals and colorful characters. Also, this book was a popular bestseller in the 1990s and I figured it had been recommended to death and back by this point. Then I remembered just how enjoyable it was to read, and realized that it needed to be on this list anyway.

Cases that Haunt Us by Mark Olshaker and John E. Douglas, and Law and Disorder by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker. I’m putting these two together because they share the same authors and cover some of the same material, These are fantastic primers on several controversial murder cases, both historical and modern, in which the authors apply their considerable experience and expertise and share their own conclusions. These are definitely more graphic than many of the other books on this list, delving more deeply into forensics and criminal psychology, and should in no way be mistaken for light reading. However, I heartily recommend them to anyone with a serious interest in true crime, so long as they have a reasonably strong stomach.

Shadow on the Mountain by Stephen Singular and Joyce Singular. I’m actually in the process of reading this one, but so far I’m liking it too much not to share. Here, the setting is Aspen, Colorado, and the crime is the murder of the well-connected heiress and philanthropist, Nancy Pfister. The story of Nancy’s life, in which she traveled extensively, rubbed elbows with celebrities, and made more than a few enemies, is incredible enough, and things only get more dramatic after her bludgeoning death turns into a murky legal drama involving three suspects, two of them a married couple.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale. It’s been a few years since I read this, and writing about is going to make me want to check it out of the library again. In the year 1860, Jonathan Whicher, one of the earliest English detectives, was tasked with investigating the murder of a young boy and became embroiled in the cloistered lives of a well-to-do Victorian household. It soon becomes apparent to both Whicher and the reader just how implausible it was that young Saville Kent was killed by anyone other than a member of his own family.  His suspicion of Saville’s teenage half-sister brings nothing but disgrace to Whicher and the case is nearly forgotten, until, years later, a killer’s confession shocks the nation.

Dead Mountain by Donnie Eichar…and another “mountain” title. This might be cheating a bit since this book delves more into a mysterious event that in all likelihood involved no crime at all, but I feel this is the best place to mention a book that deserves mentioning. It was written as an attempt to explain the sad and unsettling Dyatlov Pass Incident of 1959, and is by far the most thorough account I have read about it. It’s the story of nine hikers who died in a mysterious accident in the Ural mountains, an event which has attracted conspiracy theorists and fringe researchers ever since. Eichar lays bare the facts, introduces the reader to all the main players in the story, dismisses the more outlandish explanations, and turns it all into a riveting read.

Most of the books by Ann Rule. You can walk into any given used bookstore and find a few shelves full of paperbacks written by her, and the same goes for most public libraries.  Small Sacrifices, Bitter Harvest, A Heart Full of Lies, and In the Still of the Night stand out as particular favorites. Each of her books is devoted to a murder case, but she has also written some compilations in which she explores several different cases. As far as I’m concerned, she’s everything a good crime writer should be. Rule focuses on the facts and is never especially lurid, while demonstrating great empathy and insight towards everyone involved in one of her cases. Best of all, her books are almost always compulsively readable, indistinguishable from the best sort of fiction.  She passed away in the summer of 2015, but still has some great interviews up on Youtube, where she talks about her writing career and always comes across as a very sweet, likable person.

Now just promise me you won’t read anything that claims to prove the identity of Jack the Ripper. Well, you can read it, just don’t take it seriously.