I get questions from readers from time-to-time about the writing process. I thought it might be worth putting some of these out for people who are contemplating being authors, fiction or non-fiction. These are not hard and fast responses carved in stone, but simply my responses based on experience. Don’t accept these as gospel, they are merely my responses. Other authors I’m sure have completely different answers that may be just as right – for them.
Here’s the most common ones I receive from readers/would-be authors:
Do you write out a detailed outline to work off of for a book?
Generally I do. Some authors don’t. Some of my chapter summaries are little more and a two of three sentence summary. For fiction, it helps me estimate how big the book is going to be. My chapters tend to be between 2.5 and 5k words in fiction, so knowing how many chapters I have allows me to estimate the project’s length. Also for fiction, it helps me see obvious issues, like a character not getting mentioned or on-screen for too long of a gap. It also helps me see where pacing might be a problem. On a new project, after I created the outline, I realized that I had no real action taking place for two chapters – just people talking. That drove me to a change.
For non-fiction I find the chapter breakdowns are a must. They help organize your research materials which is critical when writing military history or true crime.
I am not locked into the outline. If I come up with something that warrants a change, or a new chapter, I do it on the fly.
Where do you start?
For me, it either begins with a great character idea or I mentally get a scene in my head that pops (to me) and from there, the rest of the story gets flowed out. Example: I have a novel coming out where I came up with one scene with two characters that I thought was cool. It tells you everything you need to know about this character and the strategy involved. From that one scene, the rest of the book was easy to craft. That scene happens now, but in the middle of the novel.
Sometimes it is the character. I have one coming up where I wanted a character based on Jack Churchill of WWII fame. I want a character like him. Now it is the matter of figuring out how he would fit into a broader plot that has been suggested. Oddly, understanding this character’s ins and outs compels situations where he will fit in.
What are the hardest parts to write?
I have tried to narrow my response to three things I find challenging to write.
The opening of the book. I like stories to start with an event – be that a battle or in the case of true crime, it can be the discovery of a body or a murder. In one case, my daughter and I began with something different, meeting a profiler and getting his perspective. You have to start off with a compelling reason for readers to want to read more. Some may bail if you start out poorly.
The end of the book. Ultimately you want and ending that leaves the reader satisfied. You don’t have to wrap up every loose end – sometimes that is done intentionally. It gets a little tricky when writing true crime books on cold cases, because the crimes remain unsolved. That doesn’t mean that you can ignore giving the reader some degree of closure in the form of summary as to where the cases remain.
For fiction, I try and put in a twist of some sort. Sometimes it is big, sometimes it is nothing more than a small revelation. It is as much about bringing closure for the reader as it is for the characters of the story. It is a fine balancing act between the two.
Changes in the character arcs. Characters grow, they evolve, their perspectives change. If they don’t, they are dull. I work on arcs for my characters as much as I do the outline for the story. Each character has to grow in some way, or devolve. Writing the scenes where a character’s path changes is tricky. If you don’t do it right, the reader feels that you are not being true to the character.
In fairness, some readers never can wrap their hands around changes in character arcs no matter how you justify and explain it. They are so invested in their perspective of the character, they refuse to accept change in any form. It is both a compliment and a struggle – but such is the nature of fan bases.
If you have questions, feel free to submit them in the comments. I will do another post in the future.
I heard late last night that G. Gordon Liddy of Watergate fame had passed away at the age of 90. It immediately brought back some of my memories of the man. For those of you that didn’t know, Gordon Liddy had a syndicated radio program on WJFK here in Washington DC for several years. I was honored to be a guest several times.
To say that Liddy was conservative didn’t do him justice. He made no qualms about his political slant. People that tried to disregard him as a convicted felon found that he owned that too. It didn’t faze him. He was outspoken about his views and when a friend turned me onto his show, I found myself tuning in each day.
I don’t hate doing book tours, going on TV and radio to talk about my work. At the same time, I don’t look forward to them either. It was on a book tour that I met Gordon. Liddy had history authors on all of the time which was one of the reasons I liked his show (the other was discussions about guns.) When I began to write military history books, starting with The Cruise of the Sea Eagle, my publicist contacted me and said, “You probably don’t want to do this one, but G. Gordon Liddy wants you on his show.”
I was all over it! This was a chance to meet a historical figure and as a historian, I couldn’t pass it up. Besides, I was a fan of his show. When I was ushered into meet him, I found him imposing – not so much from a stature perspective, but from his presence. I always had the feeling that despite his age, he could kick my ass if he wanted to. He was warm and gregarious, told me before we went on the air that he had read the book – which impressed me. A lot of interviewers (most) don’t actually read the book you are there to talk about – they get a Cliff Notes version from some staffer or ask you to provide questions in advance. Not Liddy, he had a long list.
It is fun to be interviewed by someone that respects your work and I knew I was doing well when Gordon told me he wanted to keep me on for the full hour. On the breaks, he actually started talking to me about my craft – what he liked about my style of writing. He asked about my family, what I did for a real job, personal stuff.
When I was done Gordon asked me to autograph his copy of the book. In other words, he was keeping the book, and that was very cool to me. He and Bill O’Reilly are the only people that have interviewed me that asked for my autograph. When we finished Gordon spent a few minutes with my wife, introducing himself, talking to her. He asked if she brought a camera and if she would take a picture of him and me. He did this every time I was on his show.
Liddy’s grip on history, especially military history, was as firm as his double-handed handshake. He knew his stuff and even told me that after he read one of my books, he read another one on a tangent subject, just so that he could be prepared with better questions. These were not fluff interviews, they were like oral exams with a highly trained professor. Still, he was very polite, so you didn’t feel nervous, but instead had a real conversation about the topic.
I was on Gordon’s show three times, once for Terror of the Autumn Skies, my book on Frank Luke Jr.; and for Lost Eagles, my book on Frederick Zinn and the search for missing airmen. His knowledge of history was impressive as well as his ability to organize and articulate a question.
On my last visit, my father in-law was in town. He was a die-hard liberal and when he found out I was going on Liddy’s show, he cringed. So, I invited him and my son Alex to come along. When we were on break Liddy noticed I had brought ‘an entourage’ and I told him I wanted my son to meet him because of his role in history and I wanted my father in-law to meet him because he was an easily triggered liberal. Liddy grinned devilishly.
When the show was over he came out and insisted on having his photo taken with my father in-law, thanking him for his military service. It totally caught my father in-law off guard, who stood speechless and shook and hand, numb at the courtesy he showed him. He want out of his way to be nice.
Gordon gave me a wink as he returned to the booth…and I got it. He knew people and knew how to control situations like that. The guy was brilliant.
There will be a lot of people today who will scorn Liddy. They will talk about Watergate and his role. Most will gloss over his military service and his time in the FBI. Pundits will want to get in one last smear of him, because that’s what the mainstream media does now. You’ll hear the words ‘felon’ and ‘mastermind of Watergate’ or ‘the man that ultimately took down Richard Nixon.’ They won’t go into the details at all because it is old news and doesn’t fit the current narratives. None will talk about the warmth of the man or his cutting wit and intellect. That falls to me. Gordon was bright, intellectually gifted, and incredibly nice in person. He also did not tolerate bullshit. He was an icon from a different era and made his footprint on history hard, grinding it in deep. Haters are going to hate. Today I will remember the man I knew from the three hours or so of my life I spent with him.
You see it on social all of the time now, “When will he be done with the next book for Game of Thrones?” It is overdue on a cosmic scale from a writer’s perspective…years overdue. I don’t miss my book deadlines as an author, so the concept of being years late staggers me.
People want the books because they are different than the series, in some less-than-subtle ways, and they have invested long hours in reading the series up to this point. More importantly, they have watched the stunning HBO series which has gone far past Mr. Martin’s storyline in print thus far.
I’m not anxious about the next book being published. Why? Because George R. R. Martin has done something that I have not seen with almost any other writer – he has made his written books obsolete. His creation has eclipsed anything he might ever write again. The popularity of the HBO series is so big, so vast, so visually compelling, that whatever he writes it will be compared to the series, which is nearly impossible to top. Whatever he produces as an author will be held up against the TV series based on his books! The irony here is incredible. George R. R. Martin has actually created a situation where writing the books is not necessary.
It is hard to comprehend of an instance where an author’s success is so great because of his works, that he cannot surpass it with the written word. Perhaps Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. As good as the book is, when the title is mentioned, we all see Gregory Peck in our mind’s eye. When the sequel to the book two years ago, it was ridiculed and mocked. Her characters and story had eclipsed her own vision. People were saying that she, as the author, had not been true to the characters that she had created! The readers (and viewers) had seized her work and held onto it so dearly that no matter what was published thereafter was destined to be scorned.
Similarly, Mr. Martin doesn’t have to write the rest of the series because he will be remembered for the HBO series far beyond any words he might write. He is facing a problem that every writer dreams of, stunning success to the point where his written worlds are obsoleted by another medium – in this case, television. In fact, producing the books is bound to draw comparisons and raise scorn with fans, because that’s what people do on the internet, they get pissed. Having seen the series, the haters will whine that the coming novels don’t live up to what they have seen on HBO. If the books were released now, wrapping up the series, he would draw ire for their tardiness on top of being late, everyone will expect something miraculous. Writing the rest of the books will only serve to fragment his fan base. I have never quite seen anything like it.
The winning move for Mr. Martin is to not play the game. As a great fan of his work, I honestly don’t know if I would encourage him to publish any more in this series. His body of work, which encompasses the TV series, is stellar and little more can be done that would improve upon what we have all experienced.
Welcome to the novelization of my current D&D campaign, told through the perspective of the characters. Parts 1-19 charted the first part of the campaign, part 20 began the next phase of the saga: Tempora. For me, it lets me do a little creative writing between more serious projects. Links to the previous posts are at the bottom of this one. Enjoy!
We heard and felt the crash of the Bone Dragon against the heavy stone doors, then nothing. I remember letting out a sigh of relief, only to realize that we were on the underground road to Tempora, with our backs turned to the long darkness. Only the light of Dimitrious’ flickering torch gave us good light.
Turning around I could see that it was essentially a long tunnel, slightly sloping downward into the cliff face and the mountain beyond. It was wide, at least 50 heads across with a high arched ceiling nearly 25 heads high. The dwarves had done their job well. This road was wide enough for several wagons to pass each other coming and going to city. I could even make out the wheel ruts on the worn stone – indicating that the road had been used for centuries. The flutter of distant bat wings, or so I hoped that’s what we heard, was up ahead. Who knows how long this roadway would lead us into the mountain?
The floor was covered with a film of dust. There were piles every so often, most looked like either bones, rotting cloth, or bits of armor. Through the dust we could make out a disturbance, as if a large party had marched through recently. No doubt the mission paladins that we were looking for. Cobwebs, some thick, some thin, filled the open space. The air was musty, dusty, and dank. What had we gotten ourselves into?
I turned and saw Brandon checking his pack. “What are you doing?” I asked.
I picked up one of those skeleton skulls when we went through the Vale. I wanted to make sure it was okay.”
“Why would you do that?”
“All of your talk about that demon skull you said you had once made me think it might be worth something.”
The mention of the demon skull and its loss to Lexa Lyoncroft was still a sore subject with me, one I intended to rectify at some point in the future. I shot Theren an icy stare since he was the one that had given it up to Lexa in his negotiations.
Theren ignored my glance and looked around. “We have the door to our back here. I think we might be best served camping here for the night. It is better than somewhere further in. At least we have one direction we cannot be attacked from.” We were all quick to agree. The fighting and navigation through the White Vale had left us weary.
Dimitrious set up his bed roll next to me. We didn’t light a fire, there was no point in attracting any unwanted attention. We had no idea what was down this tunnel-road or even how long it went.
“You know,” Arius said as he unrolled his blanket. “It just dawned on me that we left our horses at the edge of the White Vale tied up.”
I grinned. “That’s okay, I hadn’t developed any sort of emotional bond with mine.” We all knew it, those horses were as good as dead.
We split into three watches for the night. It was not like sleeping outdoors. There were strange sounds that echoed in the vast tunnel. Even small sounds, like mice or bats, seemed to be much louder. Part of it was our imagination, but the rest was the reality that we did not know what it was we might face.
As I started my watch, I noticed on the wall near the door we had entered, a strange carving. Dimitrious and I went over to it and saw that it was a three-head wide relief map, apparently of the White Vale. At the doorway in the canyon on the map was a hole with a crystal of some sort slid into the hole. At the end of the crystal that jutted out there was a small gold chain that was artfully mounted to the wall. The crystal fit perfectly in the hole, so it was clearly made to rest there. To me, it looked like a large piece of quartz, but it might have some magic properties, to have been chained up that way.
I looked at it carefully. There were no cobwebs hanging off of it, so it must have been moved recently. Dimitrious looked at it and shrugged. It could wait until everyone had gotten a good night’s rest.
“I found a thing,” I said.
“And it appears to have been manipulated recently.”
What I got back was puzzled expressions. “What is it pray tell?” Arius finally asked. I led my friends over to the strange carved map.
“Stand back. I have a spell that may help. It detects magic,” Theren said standing in front of the relief. He closed his eyes and waved his hands and seemed to be concentrating fairly intently on the map.
“Hmm…” he finally said.
“Well?” I asked.
“I’m picking up a magical aura around the map and crystal – and it matches the same aura I see on the other side of the door. It is like it is connected to the Vale in some manner.”
“So does it open the door?”
The druid seemed unsure. “We opened the door without the crystal. This seems more linked to the White Vale itself. You know, I’m going to pull it out.”
It seemed to me to be a rushed decision, so I backed up. The others could deal with anything horrible that might emerge as a result. Theren grabbed the crystal and slid it out of the matching hole. Nothing happened.
“That’s weird,” he said holding the three inch long crystal on the chain. “The aura on the map and crystal and the aura outside has diminished…it is almost gone. It is some sort of lever of some sort I think. I am willing the gamble that it has something to do with those skeletons.” He let the crystal hang limp on the chain.
It made sense to me. This was the entrance to a major Dwarven city at one time. The Vale could have been part of the defense of the city. This could be the way of turning that on or off. This could be important when we eventually leave this place. Besides, if its magic is of value, I can steal it on the way out.
If we ever left this place.
Brandon spoke up. “I think we should cut the crystal off and take it.”
Theren got a twisted grin. “If you want to do that, go ahead.” It was a challenge. In other words, ‘If you do that, you are on your own.’ “I would leave it. You never know, we might have to flee – and I don’t want to run back out in the Vale and face Bone Dragons again.”
The ranger seemed to get the message. “Naa, I’ll leave it.”
We turned our attention to the long underground roadway. I was not a fan of strolling down there without some sort of illumination out in front of our party. “I have the ability to summon orbs of light. We can put those out in front of us. If nothing else, it is can give us some warning of anything coming towards us. They follow me.” I received nods of agreement. Bor took the point for our party and as he stepped down the road, his warhammer, Skullringer, started to glow a light blue, lighting him up. It made sense…it was of Dwarven make. Perhaps it was forged in Tempora? The glow only made that weapon look more menacing.
Slowly we started down the gently sloping roadway. We passed small piles of bones, covered in dust. Some were those of men or Dwarves, others were animal. I could make out bits of rust, either blades or armor, even an occasional helmet. Green rotting leather straps remained in some places.
Brandon checked out the trail of disturbed dust that preceded us. “These are human boot prints – a few days or weeks old – hard to tell here. From the looks of it, there were a lot of people walking through this area.”
“The missing paladins,” Arius said, echoing what we all thought.
“You mean the dead paladins,” Theren offered. Even I cast him a suspicious eye. “Hey, it is a safe assumption they are dead by now. Whoever took them prisoner wouldn’t keep them alive unless there was a reason for it.” The love-loss between the druids and the church had reared its ugly head. It was one I understood all too well. The church had killed hundreds of magic users of all kind in their inquisitions. It was that common enemy that made Theren and I nearly brothers.
We continued on and a short distance in, we saw a massive iron portcullis/gate that had been dropped from above, blocking off the roadway. It had a film of rust, but given the thickness of the bars, it was easily still an obstacle except for the hole in it – at floor level, opening to three feet. The bars there sagged, as if melted, and puddles of rusted iron were covered with a film of dust near the spot. Something hot, very hot, had burned their way through these defenses of the roadway. Then I noticed, the splatters of melted gate were on our side of the gate. This had been dropped to keep something in the city.
The trial of footprints led through the hole. Cobwebs sagged in the one-head-square, iron lattice of the portcullis. Even with Bor’s strength, there was no way for us to lift it – and there was only one way through.
“Whatever happened here, happened a long time ago,” I offered.
Bor went first, and noticed on either side of the tunnel was a recessed area, probably part of the defenses of the tunnel. I followed him cautiously as he pointed them out. Theren came in right behind us. I had my eyes on them when I heard a fluttered noise all around us. At first, I assumed they were a swarm of bats. Then I caught to glimpse of one in front of my face. They had a long probing snout on the front. These were not bats! More than a dozen and a half of them swirled around those of us that had made it through the gate, some darting through the grating towards the rest of our small band.
Arius advanced towards the approaching swarm at the portcullis. Bor swung Skullringer and connected with one of the creatures, splattering the one to the far wall. The glowing blue warhammer was a blur of white-blue light against the darkness.
“Drop flat!” Theren yelled. Bor and I did not need to be told twice, we dove for the dust covered floor. Theren muttered some word and a thunderclap erupted in the air. There was a concussion of magical power in the air above us, splattering half of the creatures into a misty spray that painted the walls and the massive iron gate.
Three of the surviving creatures dove on Arius, found a gap in his armor, sticking its snout in, penetrating flesh at his neckline. The paladin wailed in pain and stepped back, but the creatures hung on him by their beaks.
Brandon killed one and his frantic swinging of his blade kept one at bay, flapping its leathery wings all about his head. Dimitrious was a blur of action, but the creatures seemed to be only attracted more to him. They dove on him, hitting the sleeves of his robes but failing to pierce his skin.
I missed the two coming at me – one hit my elbow joint in my armor. It felt like an arrow hitting me…my arm throbbed. My spell, however, made it burst into flames – but remained attached to me. For a moment, I rejoiced, then I realized I had a flaming creature attached to my arm. I swung it around wildly attempting to shake it off.
I tried to uses my eldritch blasts to attack another one of the creatures but my flaming arm threw off my aim. My emerald blast of magic power hit the far wall, making the rock there glow. Arius cleaved one of his assailants in half, hitting me with part of the body of the creature.
Theren was rushing back towards me as Brandon swung at one that hovered and darted in the air in front of him, missing.
Dimitrious struck one of his creatures with a flurry of rapid punches, killing it. Theren swung his staff, hitting the one near Brandon, splattering him in oozing blackish blood. Arius killed another one of the creatures. The air was filled with swords, staffs and fists, making the dust swirl in the air around us, let up by the flaming creature attached to my arm.
Bor’s glowing warhammer was a blue arc in the air, destroying one of the creatures. Arius was hit from behind by one of the creatures that planted its snout into him. “Again?” he cursed, turning hard but unable to grasp it. The flames on my arm hurt as the paladin spun. “Someone get this thing off of me!” Brandon missed it entirely, though Dimitrious ripped it off of our holy knight. I finally grabbed the one on my arm and jerked its now crispy body off of me.
Arius killed the last of the creatures with his sword.
We stood there, winded from the fight, sweat stinging in the cool air. “What were those things?” Arius asked.
“I think they were stirges. Vile creatures. Blood drinkers,” I said, rubbing my aching elbow and checking the charred bit of my armor. “I have never seen one before, but I recall reading about them.” I turned to Theren. “Good move with that Thunderwave spell.”
As we bantered, our ranger Brandon wandered off towards one of the tunnel walls. He was poking around the piles of bones and rusted armor that littered the floor. The indentations were the stirges came from were fairly shallow, only five feet deep, just enough for a pair of archers on either side of the tunnel. Clearly those archers had long ago left their posts, but the creatures must have taken to the positions to make their nest.
“Should we check them out?” I had visions of stirge guano that made me cringe. Please say no.
“Naa,” Theren said, clearly thinking the same way I did on the matter.
“I’ll do it,” Brandon said walking over to the furthest indentation. He peered in.
“Well?” I called.
“There’s a leather pouch here.” The ranger brought it back to us. We opened it carefully and found some gold, silver and copper coins – all very old minting. My comrades saw a handful of coins. What I saw was another clue that something had happened here, many ages past, that was still a possible threat. Tempora fell…and whatever made it fall may yet be here.
“Perhaps we should have one member of our party carry what we find,” Theren said, eyeing Bor. “Someone strong.” The hint hung in the air for a few seconds.
The burley fighter rolled his eyes. “Fine. I’ll do it.” We put the pouch of coins in his pack. I could tell he wasn’t thrilled with being turned into our mule, but went along with it.
Arius went to the other cubby hole and found a long-dead dwarven skeleton clad in armor. He picked out an ornate silver-edged dagger. “This is all that was here,” he said sheathing the new artifact in his belt.
We trudged on down the long tunnel. It was only a few minutes later that we saw something in the distance, piles of some sort. I sensed that something was amiss, especially as we got closer and saw that these were not merely piles of bones – but ashes and puddles of long-melted metal. I started to wonder – what kind of heat could melt metal as such other than a forge? Were these people that had somehow been killed in place, or the victims of dragon fire? These piles were scattered – no pattern other than they ended in forty or fifty heads distance.
Bor moved forward to the first pile. “It is ash and bone – their armor was melted in place.”
“Do you see anything else?” Theren asked from a distance.
“The stone slabs on the roadway here have some scorch marks along their edges,” Bor replied. The big fighter was nervous, I could see that. Theren moved to join Bor. There was a low grinding noise for a moment as the floor lowered in the middle of the tunnel, with our two party members on it. Flames roared down, white hot tinged in blue. Only the far walls of the tunnel were not affected by the lowering. The air became searing hot in an instant.
Bor reacted quickly, leaping to the side. Theren collapsed with a shriek of agony. Brandon reached in to get Theren, and his scale mail seared into his skin as it superheated in the azure blast-flames. The air we breathed was so hot it made my lungs ache. The skin on my cheeks was hot just facing the flames from above. Arius reached in and grabbed Theren and pulled him out. He was on fire, unconscious, blistered and scars crusted black from the flames. We patted out the flames of his clothing.
The moment he came off the floor section that had dropped, the floor rose back and the flames from above. Arius laid hands on him, enough to get his eyes to open. He was in pain, but still with us. The paladin looked angry and frustrated. “We are smarter than this.”
“Apparently not,” I said with a wry grin. He snapped his head around and looked at me with fury in his face, clearly not amused by my comment. Looking over to the side wall he spied a small rock that seemed to jut out from the otherwise smooth wall. He went over to it and pulled the rock down with an audible click. “We need to be wiser in the future if we are going to survive. This was not even a creature…but part of the defense of Tempora.”
He was right of course. But I would not give him the satisfaction of telling him that.
The following are the previous installments. I hope you enjoy the campaign so far. Be sure to follow my blog if you do.
I was overjoyed with the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo for several of the Golden State Killer’s brutal crimes. For the victims, it means that his crime spree of 12 murders, 50 rapes, and over 100 burglaries, was finally over. He will never call his victims again and threaten them. He will never cause nightmares with the survivors. He looks like a pathetic old man who will likely spend the rest of his days behind bars…something I am quite comfortable with. His reign of fear and torment are done.
We will learn more about this douchebag’s activities over time. The nuts and bolts of the investigation will be played out the courts. He may talk, he may clam up. In the end it doesn’t matter. It is a rare thing, to beat DNA evidence.
I write true crime books about cold cases. I was thrilled when the news was announced. I listened to the press conference live in the background while I worked my day job, hanging on every word. It gives hope to the thousands of victims and family members out there waiting for resolution on their open cases. At the same time it sends a ripple of fear into every murderer who believes he or she had gotten away with their crimes. Justice comes…prodding painfully slow in many cases…but it comes. Every uncaught serial murderer out there had a restless night of sleep as a result of this arrest. Once more, they are forced to look over their shoulders and wonder when, if ever, the long arm of the law will apprehend them. Good. Let these bastards sweat. Let them worry. Let them have a healthy dose of fear and mental anguish.
When they held the press conference the first question asked was, “Did Michelle McNamara’s book on the case have any influence?” Law enforcement said no. I respectfully disagree. Her writing of that book, like any book written on a cold case, keeps it in the public’s eye. Books like I’ll Be Gone in the Dark keep the pressure on law enforcement when it comes to cold cases. While her book did not necessarily generate a tip that led to DeAngelo’s arrest, it spawned at least three documentaries to be produced in recent months. It made the phrase, “Golden State Killer,” become embedded as part of our true crime lexicon. It kept the public’s interest in the case and as such, keep the pressure on law enforcement. While they offered Ms. McNamara any credit, I will extend it at this time.
There are others that wrote books on the case that deserve equal credit. Countless podcasters covered the case over the last few years too and they deserve a professional nod from the true crime community. They were part of a secret army of citizens that were struggling to keep this case fresh in the minds of a generation that did not know this murder/rape spree. They are part of that unspoken True Crime brotherhood that refuses to let cold cases remain frigid. Hats off to all of them as well. A job well done!
When I proposed writing my first book on a cold case, Murder in Battle Creek, there were publishers that wouldn’t touch it. Not because of the writing or the content, but because it was about an unsolved murder. I remember one telling me, “Who wants to read about a case that never gets closed? True crime books have to have an arrest, a trial, and a conviction…that’s how they end.” It was such a narrow view…and discouraging. It was as if they were saying the victim (Daisy Zick) didn’t matter, that because their crime was unsolved that no one cared. I felt differently. I cared, and I didn’t think I was alone. I think the public likes to be a part of such an investigation. They want to know what went wrong and set it right. It is in the public’s nature to want to help. They want the facts and want to play armchair detective. They want the pain and suffering of the families to end too. I didn’t’ give up on trying to sell the book and was eventually successful.
The result – over two dozen new tips and leads…one just two months ago.
My second cold case book, I wrote with my daughter Victoria Hester. The Murder of Maggie Hume exposed the flaws in some of the investigatory work in that case, as well as exposed a suspect that the public had never heard of. The two of us had full cooperation with the prosecutor’s office and police. We reached out to the public in speaking events and made sure the story got to as many people as possible. The word got out.
The result – new tips and leads for the authorities to act on.
Our second book together, A Special Kind of Evil, The Colonial Parkway Serial Killings, has generated numerous new tips that have been turned over to the authorities. We have met with numerous people that are pounding the pavement in their own way, looking for resolution. I know some folks think true crime authors make their money off other people’s misery. They are wrong. Most of us, the ones I know, simply want to help.
I feel like we’ve done our small part in shaking the stigma about writing about cold cases in the publishing world. This recent arrest fills me (and my daughter) with renewed energy on the new cases we are exploring, as well as some of the new avenues we are looking into on the Colonial Parkway murders. The new cases we are looking into are exciting and bitterly cold. We look forward to thawing them out and bringing them into the light of public debate, investigation, and speculation.
Those of us that write about cold cases never are done with our work; not until the arrest and conviction takes place. We are on the cases until they are resolved. That’s part of the commitment on our part. We don’t take that responsibility lightly.
In the meantime, the good guys have racked up a heck of a triumph. This arrest is a victory for the law enforcement. It is vindication and resolution (hopefully) for the many victims of this scumbag. And, despite what was said in the press conference, it is a win for Michelle McNamara and her countless long hours of work and effort to keep this case in the public’s eye.
Just to be clear, I am not getting soft in my old age. I am as grizzled and stubbornly determined as ever – more so now that Victoria and I are delving into a new string of unsolved cold cases.
When I crossed into my fifth decade of life, I started to come to the grim realization that I could just drop dead at any moment. Seriously. The sheer amount of Diet Mountain Dew in my system at any given moment defies the medical community. Death can come randomly or be long and dragged out. I personally hope mine is somewhat spectacular, involving an epic last stand or bringing a heinous criminal to justice, but we don’t get much of a choice do we?
As a sidebar, I have instructions with my wife that if that happens at home, drag me down to my work PC and take a photo so that she can claim that my employer caused my demise. Not lying one bit here. It is worth her strain on her part for the extra insurance money having me die at work…trust me. If she calls you to help drag my body to my office, just come over and help. No questions need be asked.
I’m not preoccupied with death or anything. I have written about death many times in my author-career. In my sci-fi novels I have covered the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands. In true crime I have stared at autopsy photos and interviewed people about horrific demises. Death doesn’t frighten me. What is scary to me is that the knowledge and wit I have accumulated over a lifetime will simply disappear. That seems like a terrible waste.
My kids are grown up and pretty smart. Well, mostly smart. We all have our moments, don’t we? For the most part they have mastered life quite well. My son is a successful stylist/entrepreneur and my daughter is a nurse/mother/NYT Bestselling author. There’s not a lot left that I can teach them. We are now at a point where they are teaching me things.
My grandson has not mastered life yet. He’s just a little guy and the thought of not passing on what I know to him was depressing. So I started to write it down, everything. Each tiny tip and hint I could think of to help him through life. I don’t know why, but it seemed like a great idea at the time. Little did I realize it would take five years.
Thus The Life Book – A Grandfather’s Gift, was born.
I will admit, some of the content is snarky, all of it is candid, and some of it is funny. I wanted to give him a guidebook to life itself, an instruction manual. It was intended originally to be just between us – a gift from me to him.
I started talking to some of my friends and others have thought about this idea, but no one seems to have the time to do it. Part if that is none of us like coping with our own mortality. I am quite content to undertake that retrospective. Life is hard enough. Why not make it easier for others?
I will grant you, it’s not the usual book I write. I have never considered myself locked into authoring in one genre. Sci-Fi, military history, true crime, business management, horror…yes, I have done them all. So now I can add spiritual/self-help to the list.
Here’s some sample nuggets:
Your two greatest enemies in life are impatience and self-doubt. The best part is, you have complete control over both of these monsters.
When someone is stroking your ego the most is when they can be trusted the least.
Success is its own punishment. I have learned that once I demonstrated that I was good at something, people expected me to do more of that thing.
Idiots swarm. They are attracted to other idiots like moths to a flame. It’s almost like they have their own form of gravity. As such, all gatherings are subject to suspicion of being filled with idiots. As a corollary: Never underestimate the power and risk of idiots in large crowds. Large groups of unintelligent people will do things that individuals would never consider. Riots, beatings, arson, and even murder can take place when groups of dullards gather. Large groups are difficult if not impossible to manage and if left on their own, they will do things that defy stupidity. Avoid mobs of people when possible.
When you deal with the government, understand that it love rules and processes much more than human beings. Bureaucracy is the machinery of any government. Corollary: Bureaucracies always exist at the expense of individuals or their rights. As such, most bureaucracies cannot be trusted.
Your best friends are those that are willing to tell you the truth about yourself.
When dealing with idiots count on them doing something stupid, and you will never be disappointed. Expectations in life are important. People of low intelligence are, by their very nature, going to do things that validate their stupidity with intelligent people. Just make sure you’re in the number that is validated.
Most people say they want the truth, but really they don’t.
Below are the links on Amazon and you should be able to order it through bookstores sometime in the next few weeks. If you are into this kind of thing, let me know what you think. In the meantime, I’m crawling back into researching and writing true crime.
The Colonial Parkway is American’s narrowest national park, a thin ribbon of road snaking through the dense woods, swamps and coastlines of the James and York Rivers, linking Jamestown to Williamsburg and Yorktown. To the normal tourist the road is serene – it was designed so that signs of modern life were blocked, as if to simulate a road during the Colonial period. The handful of overpasses are red brick covered in moss in vines, harkening back in time. We had driven it a half-dozen times before undertaking the book on the Colonial Parkway Murders. After this book, we would never look at that stretch of road the same way again.
When you are true crime author like Victoria and I, you come to the scenes and drink in everything they can tell you. Sometimes it is not much, sometimes it is a great deal.
Cathy Thomas’s car was discovered nose down at this site, pushed off of the parking area in a vain attempt to get it into the York River. The undergrowth and angle of the car merely lodged it upright. The victims had been strangled with a nylon line and their throats had been cut, in Thomas’s case, a near decapitation. Additionally, Cathy Thomas suffered a knife wound on her hand – so there had been a struggle with their killer. Their bodies had been placed in the rear areas of Cathy’s Honda Civic and had been doused with diesel fuel. At the site there were matches found near the parking area where their murderer had tried to ignite the fuel but had failed.
When you pull off on the site where Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski’s bodies were found, a few things strike you. One, the space is relatively small. There are a number of these half-moon shaped pull-offs on the parkway. They can accommodate less than ten vehicles. This one overlooks the York River. When you push through the brush, there is a sheer drop of over ten feet to the water below. Back when their murders happened in October of 1986, there was no curb in the pull-off, nothing to prevent a car from drive off right into the river.
Victoria Hester – my co-author and daughter, joined me at the site where their car was found at twilight. To us, it was strange and creepy. The moment the sun started to set, the parkway seemed to transform. It became eerie, with long shadows stretching across the road. The trees lining the roads that had seemed so quaint in the daylight, now formed dark tunnels. We interviewed a number of people that told us that the visitors on the parkway at night were not the tourists. The parkway becomes seedier at night. Rumors bordering on legends abound of drug sales sites, wild drinking parties, homosexual sex spots, and lover’s lane activities abound with the locals, combined with rumors of stalker park rangers. Any such location was bound to have some local folklore tied to it.
Standing at the pull-off, you’re struck by the noise too. The Colonial Parkway is paved with a gravel to simulate a dirt road of the period. As cars drive by they make a low rumbling, almost a growling sound. You can hear a car coming for almost a half a mile. There are no lines on the road. When the darkness comes headlights angle on the gentle curves, exposing the parking areas, casting even more shadows.
I remember saying out loud to Victoria, “This isn’t where the murders took place.” She was not so sure. So I made my case there, where their bodies were found.
There would have been a lot of blood soaked into the rich Virginia clay, but there wasn’t any present at the pull off where the Honda was found. There were signs that Thomas’s car had been pulled off a few yards up the road, before the killer’s tried to set it ablaze, and failing that pushed it over the river embankment. Killing Cathy and Rebecca took time, there had been a life-and-death struggle with their killer. Time and risk of being seen are key factors on the parkway. Murder in this simple pull-off would have placed the killer under the glare of headlights of passing cars. Someone would have noticed two women tied up, with someone holding a weapon on them.
We tried to engage the first responders, the Park Rangers, who were called in when a jogger spotted the car. I wrote them letters, but heard nothing. After several months I called one of them. He wouldn’t get on the phone with me, but put his wife on. Sshe bluntly told me he was never going to speak with me and I should never contact him again. The second ranger I reached out to, told me that I was to, “stop harassing me.” A letter and single phone call hardly qualifies as harassment. One ranger I tracked down, who had given press conferences about the murders, said he didn’t have any memories of the events. Let’s be clear, murders in National Parks are rare – and on the Colonial Parkway, even rarer. Giving a press conference about a pair of murders would be one of those things you remember in your career because you may only get to do it once or twice. Convenient amnesia? We came to the conclusion that either they were being told to not talk to us or they didn’t want their own mishandling of the cases to be exposed.
As it turns out, both were right. That is a subject for another blog post.
The Colonial Parkway is a narrow tube – a funnel. If either victim tried to flee, where could they go? Up or down the parkway were the best options. Get off the road and you are in a mire of swamps, creeks, the York River, forest, and confusion. At night some of the gates are closed and locked, limiting access even more. If the victims were alive there, they were trapped.
Butting up to the Colonial Parkway is the Cheatham Annex, a Navy base that, in 1986, was storage for nuclear warheads. We reviewed the Navy security logs for the night of the murder, nothing was out of the ordinary. Also adjoining the Parkway is Camp Peary, better known as the CIA’s “Farm.” In other words and intelligence training facility where our spies and those of our allies learn their tradecraft. Of course the CIA denies the facility or its purpose.
Stepping away from the emotions that the crime site generates, we pondered the obvious. If the killer murdered them, how did he get away? He clearly had driven Cathy’s Honda. With the Honda pushed down the embankment, did their killer walk several miles along the parkway to get away. Clearly there had been another vehicle at some point, one carrying diesel fuel, but had the fuel been poured into the interior before it had been brought to the parkway. That seems unlikely out of fear that the fuel might ignite – the killer clearly didn’t know that diesel fuel has a higher ignition point than gasoline. Did the killer have a partner that drove him away? If he did walk out of the parkway at one of the exits, why hasn’t someone come forward who would have seen him? There’s no appreciable shoulder in many spots of the route. There are subdivisions and roads that come close to the parkway, but are obscured from sight. Walking cross-country at night would have been a risky, possibly treacherous undertaking in the dark, covered in blood.
The fact that their bodies were in the rear of the vehicle points to them having been killed somewhere else and Thomas’s car driven there. There is a larger, more secluded spot that could have been used, the Ringfield Picnic Area, less than a mile north. It has been abandoned and closed off for years, though recently some clearing was done in that area. On another visit to the parkway, Bill Thomas, Cathy’s brother, and I waded through the waist deep grass dotted with the remains of picnic tables and garbage cans. It was surreal, almost post-apocalyptic. Here, from the road, was a spot of complete seclusion. This was where lovers could park and do what young people do in cars. At the same time, here was the kind of place where such a heinous crime could take place and be done out of line of sight with the road. There were several such places on the parkway. Then again, we don’t know if Cathy and Rebecca were even alive at any point on the Parkway. They could have been killed almost anywhere. This was simply where their mortal remains were found. As much as you tell yourself that over and over, it is still an eerie place at twilight.
Victoria and I walked the pull-off end to end then wandered up the road for a distance in both directions, taking it all in, hoping that the ground might tell us something that the investigators overlooked. As the cars rumbled on by and their headlights hit us, we became convinced that, in this case, with these tragic deaths, the parkway didn’t hold the answers. The trees still there were gnarled mute witnesses to the disposal of the bodies and the bumbled attempt to burn the Civic, but not of the murders.
The answers we were looking for were not on the parkway. Not that night.
For those of you that follow my blog, you know I take the anniversaries of victims of unsolved crimes seriously. April 9 marks the 29th anniversary of the disappearance of Richard “Keith” Call and Cassandra Hailey. I say, “disappearance,” because their remains have never been recovered. While it is surmised that they were murdered, we do not know what their final fate was. We only know that they have never been seen since the night of their journey into the unknown.
Over two years ago I had no idea who they were or how they were intertwined to the murders dubbed the “Colonial Parkway Murders.” A lot has changed in two years. Like most cold cases, the story is often treated as a footnote in the annals of law enforcement. Keith and Cassandra are not a mere statistic, they were vibrant young people with the world and lives ahead of them.
In working on our book on these murders (A Special Kind of Evil) we’ve had a chance to interview Virginia State Police, FBI, and, most importantly, family members of this pair. I can’t call them a “couple.” They disappeared on their first date, and it was not a romantic affair but a trip to a movie and a visit to a college party off-campus near Christopher Newport in Newport News, VA.
It started out so innocently – like a scene from a 1980’s teen movie. Keith picked up Cassandra at her parent’s home. They went to the movie then onto the party and mingled, and Keith left to take her home. That’s the short version. In the early morning hours, only a short time later, Keith’s car was spotted on the Colonial Parkway by several people…including his brother. It was at a pull-off right after Yorktown heading north on the Colonial Parkway, less than 15 feet from the road in plain sight. Keith’s father found the car on the way to work but was not entirely alarmed by what he saw.
The majority of their clothing was in the car and the National Park Service rangers proposed to the media that they had gone skinny dipping in the York River. It was a preposterous suggestion – it had been in the low 40’s that night and just getting to the river would have been treacherous, especially if you were naked and in the pitch darkness of the historic roadway.
On top of that, both of them had an aversion to the Parkway. Two years earlier, a mile or so from where Keith’s red Toyota Celica was found, there had been a brutal killing of Cathy Thomas and Rebecca Dowski. Their deaths were horrific and proved to be the first of four pairs of killings on the Virginia peninsula. Their murders cast the first shadow on the Colonial Parkway.
Most in law enforcement have contended that Keith and Cassandra went there to make out. Empty beers were found in the back seat of the car near their clothing. When you find clothing and an abandoned car in a place known for wild partying and young couples parking to do what young couples do when they park, it almost made sense. Almost. The thing was that Keith was in a serious relationship at the time. He and Cassandra had not demonstrated any romantic inkling towards each other. Many authorities still cling to the concept they went there to park. This was reinforced by search dogs that seemed to indicate they were taken separately from the vehicle to the icy cold York River.
I favor Major Ron Montgomery’s (York County) thinking however. In my interview with him he told me he doesn’t believe they were ever on the parkway…that was just where Keith’s car was abandoned. Honestly, there’s a lot to back that theory up. There is no tangible physical evidence that verifies they were on the Parkway. On top of that – the Parkway is past where Cassandra’s house was. They would have had to driven her past her home to go to the Parkway, and when they left the party Keith’s intention was to get Cassandra home before curfew.
I used to love driving the parkway before I worked on this book. Now I drive it and I go slow, noting the changes to the terrain over three decades. I am always torn between the natural beauty of the drive and the horrible things that happened there.
All of the crimes tied to the parkway murders are horrible. This one stands out for most people for one reason – there were no bodies. Keith and Cassandra were simply gone. Having a body does not ease the pain but it is important beyond description. It means their remains are someplace known. I cannot fathom the anguish of not knowing where your loved brother, sister, or child is. Keith and Cassandra left that party and drove off into nothingness. It is an open wound that tears at you as a writer or as a human being.
The sad part is that someone out there must now something about what happened to them on the drive between Christopher Newport and Sandra’s home in Grafton, VA – most likely on or near Route 17, J. Clyde Morris Boulevard. In that short distance, someone had to see something – even if it was a faux police car pulling over Keith’s red Toyota Celica. At the time you probably didn’t give it a second thought. Today your information could help re-energize this 29 year old cold case. There is no such thing as an inconsequential tip.
If you do have any information, please contact the FBI at (757) 455-0100 or me at email@example.com. I will be passing along any tips directly to the authorities.
Having spent considerable time crawling through these murders each one is special…and I will cover them as each couple’s crime arrives on the calendar. Today however it is about Keith and Missy (as she was known to her family.) Today, we need to focus on solving their disappearance.
And to the insidious monster that was responsible for these crimes – my daughter Victoria and I are your worst freaking nightmare. We are going to get the full story out, as full as possible, and we are going to generate new tips and leads. Our books on cold cases generate tips for law enforcement all of the time – and this book will do the same. Your days of living free thinking you got away with these murders are limited. Why? Simply put, we are not alone. The people of the Tidewater want justice and the families demand it. We won’t let this story be a footnote. We want it to be page one.
It is time for us all to work together to bring Keith and Cassandra home once and for all. It is time for justice.
“I am Ironman…” Naa, but at times it kind of feels that way.
Many of you know this but for those that don’t – I do actually have a full-time job. I am an Associate Director at Ernst & Young (EY) working in organizational change management. At night and on weekends, I am an author. In many respects, it’s a slightly schizophrenic lifestyle. The Blaine Pardoe that works 45+ hours a week at one of the Big Four professional services firms is different from the Blaine Pardoe that is the New York Times Bestselling Author.
I’ve had people Google me and compare photos. Seriously. Trust me – I’m me.
The Blaine Pardoe that is the author does do his part fighting crime – writing about true crime cold cases. That Blaine gets to go to sci-fi conventions and sign books and play games. He has been a speaker at venues such as the US National Archives and even a few times at the US Naval Academy. He has been mentioned on the floor of the US Congress for his military history books. The author Blaine Pardoe does TV and radio interviews on his works. Hollywood is looking into one of his books for a possible movie deal. That Blaine Pardoe has reinvented himself many times in his writing career, exploring new genres. The writer known as Blaine Pardoe is actually pretty cool. His wife likes to compare him with Castle – profession-wise anyway (I apparently lack Nathan Fillion’s good looks.)
My day job allows me to have my secret identity. Being a successful writer doesn’t necessarily come with bags of cash. I’m still trying to crack that proverbial nut. At my day job, I have a flexible work arrangement so I do work at home most of the time. EY provides me the kind of work-life balance that allows me to huddle in my Fortress of Solitude/Batcave and go out at night and fight crime. I respect that from my employer. That respect is paid with hard work and long hours (when necessary).
A few years ago I met an internal auditor who had the task of purchasing my books and reading them to make sure I didn’t misrepresent the firm. That was two steps past awkward. A part of me was mad, but then I realized that EY was buying my books – so the mercenary in my soul kicked in and the anger washed away. Still, the thought of Big Brother watching me was creepy. It was also pretty funny. That was years ago though…I’m sure they aren’t still monitoring me…right?
In my writing-alter ego, no one ever really asks about my day job. However in my day job, from time-to-time, people find out that I am also a writer and it comes up in conversation. For example: This week I was in a meeting in McLean and one of the first introductory questions that came up was, “What do you do outside of work?” Nice icebreaker, but there’s no good way to dodge that kind of question. As such, I always handle it awkwardly. It’s like Bruce Wayne talking about Batman…you have to choose your wording really carefully. I don’t deny that I’m the author, but it is sometimes a little strange discussing it with people out of context. At work the typical topics are not very exciting…not true at all when you are researching and writing a book.
I’m also quite sure that being a successful author has hurt my career. One senior leader told me once, “I just don’t see how you can be dedicating yourself 100% of the time to your job when you are off doing this stuff on the side.” Ouch. The implication was clear, I was somehow cheating my employer – that was his explanation for why I was a successful writer in the “real world.” The fact that I have two careers wasn’t an accomplishment to him, it was a ding on my work ethic at the only job he chose to acknowledge. Sadly, over the years, he’s not the only person to cast dispersion’s about how I manage my time. They seem to ignore how I consume my vacation time to do book tours or conduct interviews. I am sure (though unproven) that behind closed doors, this aspect of my life has held me up from promotions or other opportunities.
You would think they’d make me a poster-child for flexible work arrangements. Instead I’m a suspect in crimes that are unspoken or unknown. I accept that my having a life outside of work is a CLM (Career Limiting Move). I don’t like it – but it is a small price to pay.
Whispers of “He must be hiding something…” nag me at times. But the answer is simple.
I am hiding something. My not-so-secret identity douchebags.
The idea for the book came to us from the folks at Heritage Battle Creek. Mary Butler and Elizabeth Neumeyere suggested that Pump Arnold was worth looking into. They were right. Arnold was far from being a criminal mastermind…if anything he was very public and downright flaunting of his criminal escapades. For several years it was rare that he was not in the newspapers for either going to court or being arrested. His criminal enterprise was diverse – everything from illegal liquor sales, to arson, to bank fraud, to prostitution. He ran a bar/casino in the “bad lands” of Battle Creek Michigan – clashing with the mayor, the press, law enforcement, and even his own lawyers.
Ironically, the biggest seller of illegal hooch in the city was married to a member of the Women’s Christen Temperance Union (WCTU). Arnold’s life was chock full of strange twists and irony. His son, George, was essentially the town drunk, a very public drunk – like a violent version of Otis from the Andy Griffith Show. Like Otis, George even showed up at the jail to check himself in! The Arnold Clan’s clashes with the law all have a Keystone Cops feeling about it, set in the “wild west” era of Michigan’s history. Arnold was so crafty that upon his death, he tricked the WCTU to erect his tombstone. A man that wily practically demanded that a book be written about him.
And while parts of this book are humorous, others are quite serious. Pump Arnold murdered his own son George. There is a Greek tragedy tone to their relationship and the fact that the father was the purveyor of what turned his son against them. Their clashes were public; played out in the streets and in the press. When George’s body was plucked from the frozen Battle Creek river all eyes turned to Pump as the perpetrator. The trial was the “biggest in the history of Battle Creek.” Citizens packed the street just to catch a glimpse of Arnold getting a shave. I have to admit the man was a true character.
This is more of a traditional fare for true crime readers. For me it was a break from writing about cold cases which tend to be emotionally and mentally exhausting. The real challenge was to paint a picture of the setting for readers. This is not the Battle Creek of “Cereal City” fame. This was the era before Kellogg’s and Post when BC was more of a frontier town. It’s a period that rarely gets written about.
In writing this we had to delve into some interesting side journey’s as well. For example: I spent one entire week researching prostitution in early Michigan. I got to work with historical societies in New York as well while on the trail of Pump’s earlier life. As with any good story, you have to go where the research takes you. Sometimes those places can be pretty strange.
The title – well, that’s the marketing staff weighing in. I like having the word “vile” in there – you don’t see that on many books. I’m more of a fan of three word title books…but these allegedly know more about book marketing than me…
It is always a treat to write a book with my daughter Victoria. We kind of enjoy our status of being the only father-daughter duo writing true crime. She tackled the hardest part of this project – Pump’s trial for murdering his son George. We easily could have written another 15k words about the twists and turns of this almost comical trial. I think my favorite part is that they brought a couch into the courtroom for Arnold to rest on, and that he verbally clashed with witnesses and his own defense team.
Many of you probably think I have something against my hometown given the number of true crime books I’ve writing about mid-Michigan (Secret Witness, Murder in Battle Creek, The Murder of Maggie Hume, this book). That’s not true. In fact our next true crime book is not in Michigan but in my birth state – Virginia. More on this in another blog post I promise!
We are planning to go to Battle Creek mid-October for a few book signing events and lectures.