When you write a non-fiction book, at the beginning it is all research. Researching is constant and ever-present. In your head you are mentally writing, but most of what you are doing is digging, sifting, requesting – capturing information, organizing it, etc. You want to write, but you know that you need to keep soaking in the data. Oddly enough, when you get to the point where you are ready to write, there are still a lot of little holes in your information you are seeking to fill. So you end up researching and writing full time. I am willing to bet on the last week of writing I will still be talking to people, trying to get that last tid-bit of information squeezed in. Up until the last day before you ship the book off, you’re doing interviews.
Candidly, we end up doing some after the book is in print. With a cold case book you are never really done until there is an arrest and conviction. My co-author and daughter, Victoria and I know we are signing up for the long haul with the Colonial Parkway Murders. That was part of the decision process. People will reach out to us and we will continue our efforts. Why? Our books generate tips. That’s the reality folks. Those tips go to the authorities so they can do their job. When we undertake a project like this we know we are diving in deep, making a potentially lifelong commitment. That is – until an arrest is made.
The writing process (if that is what it is) can be confusing to an outsider. You end up calling people back to get clarity as you go. Think of it this way – you talk to Person X for an hour or two. Then two months later you talk to Person Z and they say something that forces you to go back to Person X, and reach out to Person W for additional information or corroboration. And we track all of this too. Writing a true crime book on this scale is as much as a research challenge as it is a logistics exercise.
There’s some fringe interviews too – people we need to just track down and talk to. Fringe may not sound fair – but they are often folks that are not adding to the narrative of the story – but have some tid-bit that is worth extracting. You never know where the evidence will take you.
A project like this is also a huge emotional drain. Someone recently asked me what it is like to write a true crime book and my answer was, “I feel like I make a lot of people cry.” It is not intentional but it happens. There are laughs too. Summoning memories in people is bittersweet, joyous, and painful all at the same time. Anyone that thinks this doesn’t take a toll on an author is wrong. I don’t break down during the interview – but usually afterwards, alone, I let the tears flow. You couldn’t be human if you didn’t weep for the dead and what has been lost. Emotionally books like this take a toll on you as a writer. I get oddly depressed and short of temper in this stage of working on the book. Thank God for my medication.
Yet weirdly, I love every minute of it.
When I was a kid, like most kids, I wanted to be a superhero and fight crime. Now I’m doing that, in my own weird way – writing about cold cases, generating tips for the authorities, etc. I lack a cape and tights (for which we are all thankful) but there is a satisfaction with the effort that is hard to describe. Sometimes just telling the story is the best justice that you can shoot for. You want the crime to be solved with cold cases, hell, you live for the crime to be solved. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t hope that a ringing phone is someone in law enforcement telling me that charges have been filed.
This book is different though – very different. As writers, Victoria and I have the responsibility of making sense out of three decades and eight victims and four or more crime scenes and locales spread from Amelia County south of Richmond to Virginia Beach. While a wealth of material is out there, it can be confusing to organize it into a narrative that a reader will want to read that is accurate.
All around me are piles of paper. They look in disarray to everyone but me. There are two massive notebooks filled with my interview notes. Digital recordings chat in the background. My big-honking notebooks doggedly marked flank the chaos. It is daunting. Letters and mail everywhere around my workspace are all pieces of the puzzle. Each fills in a little gap for me. Each is precious in its own weird way.
Thanks to this book I have been to places in Virginia that I didn’t know existed. I’ve done interviews in garages, police stations, and the homes of strangers – now friends. I go out to the murder scenes as often as possible. It is difficult to explain why. There’s zero chance of me finding or seeing anything new after three decades. Still, I go, hauling Victoria with me. Some of it is respect. Some of it is wishing that the road or the trees could talk, fill in that most important delta of information – who did it. The locations are irrelevant, mere settings for the stories, but they are important. In this case I learned a lot about the killer looking at where he plied his evil trade. The strange similarities of the locations of these crimes can creep you out once you see them.
With the Colonial Parkway Murders, the work we have done has ruined the Parkway for me. Up until this book, I used to look forward to driving the Parkway when I visited the area. Now it is nagging reminder of what may or may not have happened there. I cannot help but think of how eerie it is at twilight and how different it was at night. The splendor is now overpowered by the events tied to that place in my mind.
So now, it’s back to the stacks of paper, the blurred handwriting, the cackle of the audio recordings. It’s back to the darkness in search of the light. It’s back into the confusion in search of the truth. It’s back in time and in space. It’s back trying to make sense of the senseless. It’s back looking for the justice.
I would’t change a thing.