Update on our Colonial Parkway Murders Book

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Walking the crime scene in search of something…anything. 

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.

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An eerie walk in the woods – one of the crime scenes today.

Cover for our new Pump Arnold book is in!

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Pump Arnold for President – The Greater of Three Evils

Even after all of these years I get a bit of a thrill to see what the marketing and art departments at the publisher come up with for a book cover.  This one is special for two reasons – it’s my second book with my daughter Victoria; and it’s about the town I was raised in, Battle Creek Michigan.

Our original title was a lot crisper, in my opinion, but the marketing gurus love to rework a title.  It’s a rarity that my working title actually makes it on the book.  Such is life.

I like this story.  One, it’s the Victorian era, which is something I haven’t done much writing or research in before.   Second, there’s a murder and a huge trial – the biggest in Battle Creek’s history up until that point.  Third, Adam “Pump” Arnold was involved in just about every kind of crime at the time.

There are times this book will make you cringe – and at times you will laugh.  There’s almost a Greek tragedy about Pump killing his son George, which is kind of neat. We tried to tie it all together with the history of the burgeoning community at the time…the era before Battle Creek was “Cereal City.”

The book comes out sometime in August.  We will come back to Battle Creek in October to talk about Pump (and the things we didn’t put in the book!)  For now, I’m just happy to see this awesome red cover of this new true crime story.

Murder in Battle Creek Seems to Have Struck a Nerve

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I write a lot of books.  This year alone I will have 4+ books out in a number of different genres.  I’ve also been a writing for many years, so I’ve seen some books explode in sales, some fizzle.  They are all special to me in some form.  Despite this experience, I have been surprised by the public intake and reaction to my book on the Daisy Zick killing, Murder in Battle Creek.

A lot of people are reading the book.  I’ve heard stories of bookstores being out of the book – which is mixed news of course.  My own publisher, the History Press, said that Murder in Battle Creek was their number five bestseller last month.  Wow.  Usually when you write a book you don’t really have a good idea of sales for six months when the royalty reports come – not so with this book.  Radio programs and TV shows have lined up interviews with me.  I’ll be doing a segment on Kalamazoo’s Channel 3 on August 24 on the crime – and on NPR earlier that week.

I’ve been surprised as well at the number of people that have reached out to me via email or social media to engage on the crime.  People want to talk about this book – and about Mrs. Zick.  I have heard so many stories in the last few weeks about Daisy’s life, her bubbling personality, her warmth.  The memories, for the most part, seem to be positive but so are bits of her life regarding her infidelities.  Everyone seems to agree that no matter what, she did not live a life that warranted the kind of brutal murder she suffered.  Many of those that have contacted me echo the same sentiment – “So many of these names and places are familiar to me!”

It was a difficult decision to use the real names.  Some true crime authors don’t, and in my first book in his genre, Secret Witness, I used this approach.  The most compelling reason to use the real names however was that this case remains unsolved. You never know when a name may trigger some long-lost memory that might help this case get resolved.  I made a good effort to reach out to many of the key parties to let them know in advance that the book was coming out and offer them a chance to discuss their experiences tied to the investigation in 1963.  Finding some people after all of those years can be challenging as I’m sure you can imagine.  Many didn’t respond to my letters, understandably.

Social networking has proven to be the biggest surprise of all to me as a writer.  A lot of people are engaging me about what was in the case file, why didn’t the police do X, etc.  Some of the family members of persons of interest have reached out to me, exploring their own family histories in the process.  Who knows, they may surface some clues that might help close this case once and for all.  A lot of friend requests have come in via Facebook.  From what one person messaged me, I’m sure this book will be popular at the Kelloggs reunion in Florida next year…and with good reason.

I have also been reached out to by a number of people with suggestions for future books.  These are greatly appreciated.  I don’t go looking for ideas, they seem to find me. I had been planning on doing a few other Michigan history books, but there have been some crimes that people have sent me info on that definitely gotten my attention.

I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of my new virtual friends for real when I come to Michigan the week of August 19 for book signings and speaking events. Keep those comments coming…and if you have a legitimate lead regarding this case, please contact the Michigan State Police.