As some of you know, I tend to focus on writing true crimes – specifically those tied to cold cases. I try and alternate between cold cases and other books (or closed cases) because of the incredible emotional investment you make with cold cases as an author. Also, when you write about a cold case you are putting yourself out there, physically and personally. Killers are often not fond of having their dirty deeds brought back into the spotlight – or their own involvement exposed. Also there’s the time you spend with families and friends of the victims. If you don’t become emotionally engaged with them, then you’re not doing your job correctly as a writer.
On my true crime books for the last three years I partner with my daughter Victoria Hester as a co-author. It helps greatly to have another set of eyes and hands work on a book – and our writing styles are similar. We review ideas for books constantly. It isn’t your garden-variety father-daughter relationship. Yes, I haul her out to crime scenes. For us, that’s oddly normal.
Many readers send clippings or emails with suggestions. It’s part of being a true crime author. Everyone’s murder is a potential book.
When we look at cold cases as possible subjects for a book there are things we look for that are more gut instinct than science. People come to us all of the time with, “You have to look into the murder of X.” In many cases we do just that, pulling newspaper articles and seeing if there is indeed something interesting there, something that catches our attention.
Ninety-nine percent of the time it is a tragic crime but not one that would compel us to spend 8-15 months of research and write. That isn’t us downplaying the sadness of that loss, but a harsh reality – not all murders are worth the incredible investment of time. Not every crime warrants a book about it. I know people don’t like to hear that, especially if it is their friend or loved one – but that is often the truth of the matter.
Sometimes I do cursory research into a subject to write a magazine article about it – before jumping in and doing a book. This allows me to test the waters. This allows me to validate my assumptions about the case(s).
So what do we look for?
Is there a story to be told – one that will engage and captivate the reader? We are not detectives; we are story tellers. I say this often with people so their expectations are managed. We investigate cases – that is true. There has to be a narrative that is going to grab the reader. While it sounds cruel to say that some crimes are boring, a better choice of description might be “routine.” People have to want to read the story. In some ways they have to identify with the characters and events surrounding the crime(s).
Did the crime leave an imprint on the community where it happened? People want to read about things their friends and family know or talk about. Events of significance to a community often resonate with readers outside of that community. I want to write books that people will talk about because they are already talking about them.
Is there a twist – something that will capture the reader’s attention? This usually takes the form of something new that we can introduce to the story. Are there misperceptions that can be set straight? Are there new facts we can present readers? We always want to be more than a regurgitation of what has appeared already in the newspaper accounts. This is always hard to gauge at the start of a project – you don’t know what you don’t know. Intuition plays a big part here.
Does the story speak to us as writers? Do we feel any sort of connection with the victims? We like writing about people that readers can identify with. That first step is for us to feel some sort of connection with the victims and/or their families. For us to write about people, we have to in some way have to empathize with where they were in life, what they were doing, what they were achieving. It doesn’t have to be substantive or tangible – just a feeling. Sometimes those connections are generational (I was a child of the 70’s and 80’s) sometimes it is geographical.
One reader/far keeps asking me to look into the death of a friend who was involved with drugs who had an abusive relationship with her boyfriend (who allegedly killed her). While I am sympathetic; this victim did not lead a life that most people can connect with. While her death was tragic, it is simply not relatable enough for most readers.
Do we have the support of law enforcement? In most cases we strive to have a positive relationship with law enforcement. It is never our intention to create problems for the successful prosecution of a cold case. We’re not tools for the police, we operate independently. Sometimes those connections are pretty strong, sometimes they are one-way doors where we share information and never hear the results.
Has enough time come to pass on the case? Emotional wounds never heal completely, which is one reason we don’t go after current cases. It is important for some time to have passed, so that the case is indeed truly cold. Personally I like the older cases because they allow us to bake in some historical context to the book. It is one thing to give a reader a mental picture of a place; it is another to give them a picture of that place in a different time. It adds to the challenges and fun in the writing.
Is there intrigue? Will the readers be curious about the case still? Will they want more? Will the readers care – either about the victims or the crimes themselves? Cold cases are great for this because they have an element of mystery. The reader is a detective, piecing together the information too. We simply provide the journey for the reader.
Can we do some good by writing the book (generating new tips or leads – righting a wrong)? We do not solve cases. We’re writers. Our job is to take the facts and weave a good readable story. Our readers will solve the cases – most likely one of them knows a tip or clue that could help resolve a case. For us, what is important is an ability to generate tips. Don’t kid yourself – I get a tip or so every month on one of the cases we’ve written about. We turn them over to the police to act on. Why? Simply put, we want to write the last chapters on the cold case books – the arrest and conviction of the killers.
All of this criteria is entirely subjective on our part.
The Colonial Parkway Murders was an easy choice for us.
I wrote an article about the case for Real Crime magazine last summer on the cases and became hooked. I got Victoria in the loop and we’ve been diligently doing research on these murders for months now. I’ve been holding back on revealing too much what we’ve been working on until we had some degree of contact with all of the victim’s families. Also, in just a few hours, we are coming up on the anniversary of the first the string of murders and disappearances coined as the Colonial Parkway Murders.
Our weekends have been burned and churned with trips all across the state, especially the Tidewater region. We have met some truly remarkable people – and the stories we have gathered are heart-wrenching and even inspiring.
It is a huge project and we have been helped by many fantastic people along the way so far. We’ve had a fantastic publisher lined up for this for months now, Wild Blue Press. They seem excited about the book, as are we. To be honest, this project is daunting. It is hard enough to capture a single murder – and in this case we are dealing with six victims and two victims that are missing.
Folks, I have never written about a case this incredible. There are stories here, compelling, tragic, and much more. This book is forcing us to up our game, so to speak.
I’ll be writing more about these cases and what we’ve learned in our own long investigation into these crimes. The working title for the book is A Special Kind of Evil – because for any one or any group of people to inflict this kind of horror on innocent victims and their families – they must possess a special kind of dark, twisted evil in their souls. I say working title, because publishers love to change things.
For now, I want to offer a moment of reflection as we approach this dark anniversary of the first of these murders.
If you have any good stories or memories about these cases or the victims, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have any tips for law enforcement, please contact the Virginia State Police or the FBI.
For more information – please check out these newly released articles from the Daily Press.
As my friend David Schock once said, “Somebody out there knows something…”