There comes a weekend for me, on any true crime project, when you just blast out the requests for information. This was that weekend for me – firing off a lot of FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests and queries to a lot of libraries and newspapers all over the east coast.
Most people think that when you write a true crime book, you spend the majority of your time writing. It’s as simple misperception. In reality, you are a historian and researcher before you are a writer. The writing is actually much easier if you have done your job well as a researcher.
So, here’s some nuggets I’d like to share about researching a true crime project:
- In researching a true crime, you count heavily on interviewing people. It is all about the people. I also immerse myself in newspaper articles early in the process because they often give you the names of people you need to talk to. People tend to think that true crime books are about the crime. Not true. They are about the people. If you don’t tell good stories about the people, the crime becomes almost insignificant.
- When I do interview people, I have to remind myself to shut up. Let them talk. This is more about listening and understanding than having a list of good questions to pepper them with. Most people want to tell you what they know, you need to just facilitate that.
- I use “Blaine’s Rule of Three.” When I am denied a FOIA with a large agency, I submit it two more times, both rewritten but essentially asking for the same information. True story – I’ve had federal agencies refuse me information, then turn around and honor a new request two months later.
- FOIA’s can and sometimes should be appealed. I’ve done it once so far…I’ll let you know how it goes. Sometimes what you get back as the results of a FOIA makes you scratch your head and say, “What the hell? They’re kidding right?” I received back a response to my request from one agency that was borderline ridiculous – to the point where I said, “okay, game on, let’s appeal.” I’m hopeful – yet realistic. While the government uses words like “full transparency” I am reminded of that line from The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it does.”
- This evokes another one of my rules of research: “I rely heavily on the incompetence of government agencies.” Some government agencies talk to each other, some do not. Sometimes you can get to the information you want by simply making the request to another agency, department, or group. The worst that can happy is they can say no, and in the case of Homeland Security, put you on the no-fly list.
- I love Hysterical Societies. Did I type “hysterical?” I mean “Historical,” though my first phrase is often more accurate. Local historians are a great source of information and contacts. Some, however, are bat-shit crazy. They question why you are writing a book in the first place. I’ve had some tell me I am wasting my time. They try and steer you to some obscure subject that they feel is more book worthy than what you are working on. In fairness, most are wonderful volunteers to work with – but occasionally you get a blue-haired old lady that, well, outright refuses to help you because she knows better.
- Local libraries are awesome. Many will have folders or files of clippings on key historical subjects of interest. These can be a gold mine. Sometimes people have turned over diaries or reporters notes or other stuff. Libraries with a local history group are fantastic.
- Obituaries tell you a lot. Less these days but in the 1980’s, obits gave you a pretty good life story of the person. Obituaries summarize a life and tell you relatives, relationships, interests/hobbies, awards in life, etc.
- High school and college yearbooks tell you interests and sometimes the ambitions of the people you are researching. I actually own a high school yearbook from WWI ace Frank Luke’s graduation year which is chock full of photos and accounts about him and his childhood exploits. I will admit, you can freak out a high school librarian when you say something like, “I am looking for information on Bob because he’s a suspect in a murder…” It’s best to keep your cards close to the vest as to why you want the information.
- Never underestimate genealogy. I have a genealogist who works with me. She helped me on many of my book projects. Jean is like a Pitbull on speed when it comes to giving me the history of a family. You can learn a lot about a family from their past. Often times you learn things that families themselves are unaware of.
- I leverage social media carefully. Social media is a double-edged sword. I try and make sure I reach out to the victims’ families BEFORE I got full bore out in social media. Social media is, well, weird. You can reach a lot of people but there’s not a lot of filtering. In other words Blaine’s rule of the net: All voices are equally stupid in the internet. Just because you are loud and persistent doesn’t make you right. As such, social media is one of the last places I turn to.
- When I kick off research I have to keep a table to keep track of who I reached out to and if I hear back from them. It helps with follow-ups later on. Sometimes they will say, “You need to come here and do your own digging.” That’s fine by me. I just try and take care of as much of this as possible remotely to keep costs down.
When you are working on a true crime book, people just assume that everything falls into your lap and over a weekend or two, you spit out a manuscript. It is rarely that easy. There are hours and hours of interviews, phone calls, emails, and pure research. There’s culling official documents and trying to match them up to eyewitnesses. In the end, you can spend hundreds if not thousands of hours doing research to produce a good true crime book. I know people like to think we authors are rolling in money, but if we got paid by the hour, we’d be better off rolling burritos at Chipolte – or so it feels like.
So there you have it. If you are some librarian/historian/official who reads this and has gotten a request from me, I’m not trying to be a jerk…I’m just doing a job that needs to be done. Most importantly, I thank you for any assistance you are able to provide.
If you’re planning on blowing me off, well, very well – let’s dance!