Wednesday, June 10, 2015

In the News

The winner of the signed copy of Nancy Cole Silverman's BEYOND A DOUBT is Susanne! Susanne, please contact Nancy (at) NancyColeSilverman dot com for your book!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: 2 INMATES REMAIN AT LARGE AFTER ESCAPE AT UPSTATE FACILITY reads the New York Times headline. I'm sure folks in the northern Adirondack area are worried, and for good reason. But when I saw the story, I was thrilled. Why? Because the Clinton Correctional Facility, colloquially known as 'Dannemora' for the town in which it sits, is the closest upstate maximum security prison to my fictional town of Millers Kill. I've had bad guys come out of Dannemora in my books. So naturally, when I read about the astonishing prison break - the inmates cut through steel and concrete with power tools and tunneled over 600 feet to escape through a manhole cover! - I thought about a similar daring getaway for one of my novels.

I admit, I love to read news accounts of crimes. Some real events are far too fantastic for fiction. Would readers believe a bad guy holding a family captive before killing them ordered take out pizza? And that his DNA left on a half-eaten crust would lead to his capture? I don't think so. Other crimes are too simple for a mystery: half the homicides in Maine are committed by one family member on another, and the perp is often standing around with the gun, crying, when the cops arrive. But there are other newspaper accounts that stay with me. (Literally, as I clip or copy-and-paste interesting stories for my inspiration file.) The sensational account of two military academy students from Texas who killed a girl to 'purify' their relationship was the kernel for the murder in my first book, IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER

It wasn't crime related, but an article in Vermont Life Magazine about Central American workers in north country dairy farms gave me the setting for I SHALL NOT WANT. And the haunting unsolved murder of Ashley Ouellette in Scarborough, ME, gave me the central image for the killings in my work-in-progress, HID FROM OUR EYES. 15-year old Ashley was found lying in the middle of a country road by an early morning driver. She had left a friend's house at 2am to walk home and was never seen alive after that. Despite some suspicious evidence linking her to one of the boys living in the house, no one was ever arrested, and her 1999 death remains a mystery.

How about you, Reds? Have you used real-life news accounts as inspiration in your books? Do you keep a clipping file? What are some of the memorable crime stories that have stuck with you?

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: The mystery of MR. CHURCHILL'S SECRETARY was inspired by a clipping I saw about Nazi code hidden in a London newspaper advertisement for women's fashions. Seriously! Nazis hid morse code in the dots and dashes of the women's dresses.... I love it when people say, "oh, that's too fantastic to have happened in your plot"— because it really did happen! Truth is truly stranger than fiction....

HALLIE EPHRON: The murder of Lana Turner's boyfriend Johnny Stompanato inspired NIGHT NIGHT, SLEEP TIGHT. Turner's 14-year-old daughter confessed to that crime that's fascinated me ever since I was 10 and we lived around the corner from the house where  the murder took place. 

You're right, Julia, sometimes true crime is just too bizarre to make believable fiction. My favorite recent case is a Boston defense attorney who specializes in representing drunk drivers. He was arrested for driving his boat drunk -- there were 13 passengers including five 19-year-old girls on the boat, and he'd been driving erratically. One of the girls jumped into the water to retrieve a seat cushion and lost her arm when the boat's propeller ripped into her.  He refused to take a breathalyzer test. His boat is called the Naut Guilty. Can't make this stuff up. 

RHYS BOWEN: I have used so many news stories. The Triangle fire in New York, for example. The latest starts the EDGE OF DREAMS. When I begin a new Molly book I read the New York Times for that month, and find that on 9/11/1905 an elevated train took a curve too fast and plunged from its tracks to the street below. The problem was that it was diverted to the wrong track, and they never found out who was responsible. Perfect stuff for my story!
And yes, Susan, truth is always stranger than fiction!

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oh, absolutely! And in fact, my books are often ripped from my own headlines!  Stranger than fiction, too! THE WRONG GIRL (what if an adoption agency was reunited birth parents with the wrong children?) came from a news story we covered.  What caused this in real life was such a coincidence you could never put it in a book-but that didn't stop me from creating my own solution.  

TRUTH BE TOLD comes from my extensive investigations into foreclosure and mortgage fraud--once, interviewing a housing inspector, I realized there were lot of empty homes--where bank employees had the keys! Hmm. I thought.

And like you, Julia, I was thrilled to see an article in the Washington Post last week where some con artist was caught doing (minus the murder) exactly  the same scheme I had cooked up in the book. Hmm.

WHAT YOU SEE (coming in October) hinges on a murder case my husband handled! As well as a story we did on Boston's surveillance cameras, and all those in-house videos shot in hotels. I bet I was the only person in the universe to (very secretly) be "happy" when the Ray Rice video came out. Proves my story could happen!

LUCY BURDETTE: Me too, I'm a terrible magpie. I'll grab any shiny bits of character and plot I see lying around and work them into my books. 

For FATAL RESERVATIONS, I borrowed from an actual crime that was plaguing Key West for a good year. The Key West cemetery sits in the middle of the island, with some lovely old conch homes all around it. A quiet, safe neighborhood...until the cemetery burglar began to strike. He (she?) would enter homes at night, while the residents slept, and steal money and electronics--often from the room they were sleeping in. No one could identify the person with camera or fingerprints or any of the usual tools. As you can imagine, the citizens were perturbed and so were the police.

Oh yeah baby, I'm using that...

JULIA: How about you, dear readers? What are the news stories that stick in your memory? And have any of them inspired you to (fictional) crime?


  1. I used to shake my head in disbelief at the almost-unbelievable news stories . . . and then I married a police officer. Now you could put any of those crime tales, no matter how fantastic, into a story and I'd have no trouble at all believing it. Sad to say, some folks can dream up the most horrific ways to treat their fellow man.
    Stories that stick in your memory? Sad to say, the ones that stick with me the most are the ones involving children.

  2. I love all these stories. Yes. My first historical mystery (out next April!) was inspired by a news story of a fire in my town in 1888. And one of Hank's news stories sparked a scene in my first Country Store mystery (out in late October!).

    I must say, Julia, the headline with the woman in the sumo wrestler suit wins the prize!

  3. Lucy, love that image of writer as magpie! One shiny tidbit I came across has been rolling around in my mind, looking for the right story. It's about the perfect murder--committed by a blind man.

  4. Spoiler alert: I combined two local Maine stories in last year's Ho-Ho-Homicide, the Zumba instructor prostitution ring and the body found in a freezer in a storage unit. With my own weird twist, of course. As everyone has said, lots of wonderfully strange true crime stories are just too unbelievable to use in fiction.


  5. This post reminded me of the Darwin Awards which celebrate natural selection ("Natural selection deems that some individuals serve as a warning to others.") A fun browse

  6. Hey, my newspaper clip is missing! Joan, I can't even read the ones having to do with children.....

  7. As a prosecutor, I get to see all kinds of very odd and interesting (and therefore inspirational!) things. My September novel, HOLLOW MAN, is based in part on two real-life happenings (those stories are too long to go into here!).

    It's funny, but I tell people that most crime is actually pretty drab and boring and the rest is so unbelievably odd, if you put it in a novel people wouldn't believe it.

  8. I'm hunkered down in New Orleans nursing my daughter after surgery. Last week and this week, bodies were found on the I-10 in the early morning, closing the interstate. Did they jump, deliberately run into traffic, or were they dumped? And a pickup truck plunged off a parking garage deck downtown. How and why? And a personal observation: in the city neighborhood next to the hospital, roosters were crowing in the early morning. I guess people can keep chickens here. Taking it all in, working hard but loving the life.

  9. I see a lot of stuff where people say, "That would make a good story," and my response is, "People would never believe it." Like all the criminals who take selfies and post them after committing a crime. From Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets: Blessed are the truly stupid.

    I haven't used a news story yet - but a friend of mine just gave me a little story that she was peripherally involved in and my brain immediately went to "what if..." Now to figure it out!

  10. My local newspaper reports all manner of wild things -- the man who called 911 because his favorite hen went missing, the woman who reported seeing Bigfoot walk down Electric Avenue, the woman who wants to press charges against her ex-husband for theft, which she just discovered ten years after he died. The case of the missing jelly beans; the copper wire theft; the hangup phone calls.

    And of course, I soak it all up.

  11. Oh, it;s amazing. And I agree--real stuff is so ridiculous that it would be laughable in fiction. (Tonight I am interviewing Michael Blanding at the Marlboro Library. DO you know The Map Thief? Now there's an absolute stranger-than-ficiton!)

    NOt to mention all of the innocent people who are convicted and sent to prison and then get released…right? Every day there's another.

    Or the police incidents recently? I always think--don't you know someone is going to get a video of that?

  12. I waver back and forth on this. I live with the news, so I get a lot of fodder. But not all story possibilities are easy. The worst pedophile in America is a pediatrician from Delaware, who was sentenced to 14 life sentences plus 160 years. Few people have heard of him because, beyond news reports, no one wants to write about him. I have been approached on more than one occasion by parents of a victim to write a book about it, because I blogged a couple of times during his trial. I probably have the necessary access, and I think it's a story that needs to be told, because as gruesome as it is, the cautionary tale is not to trust someone just because they hold a position of trust. But writing that book would mean spending at least a year in a very dark place. Saying no, I couldn't handle it, to the parents of a raped baby is no small thing.

    The two escaped cons, that's a story. Wasn't there a Bucky somebody who was on the run for a long time in upstate New York?

  13. I read true crime, but not often because it can really affect me! My father used to read the New York Daily News -- on Sunday there was always a crime story, with pictures.
    I have become close via Facebook to the YA author Lois Duncan whose daughter was murdered in Albuquerque, NM -- she had two books, "Who Killed My Daughter?" and "One for the Wolves" about the case, as well as an active web site. The case has just been taken up by Cold Case Investigative Research Institute. There may be justice after all.

    Especially when the crime has occurred near a place I know, I am drawn to read every detail. The recent Washington, DC murder of four people was in a neighborhood I know well. And I agree, that story would be ridiculed if it appeared in fiction!

  14. Joan,

    On the "Now I'd believe it," side, I have a cousin who's been a public defender in Duval County, Florida, for thirty years. Most of her stories have to do with the amazing half-wittedness of the accused criminals she defends. My favorite was the guy the cops picked up, in broad daylight, a block away from where a burglary had been reported. The man was carrying a grocery sack filled with electronics and silver that had come from the burgled residence. His defense? He had been walking past the house, saw the door was wide open, and had taken the valuables into protective custody so no one else would steal them. No, he did not know the homeowners.

    As my cousin said, "If they were smart, they wouldn't be criminals."

  15. BTW, the NY escapees from Clinton are still at large, four days after their prison break. I'm speaking at the Crandall Library in Glens Falls tonight, and I'm glad I'm 125 miles south!

  16. Ramona, that would be a dark place, indeed. Not sure how authors like Kate Flora do it, and write excellent fiction at the same time.

    Hank - I heard and talked with Michael Blanding in Newburyport - he's a really nice guy, and what an amazing story.

    (Apparently I am either a robot or really hungry - I identified too many instances of ice cream and then too many instances of sandwiches! Finally succeeded with steak...)

  17. Early this morning I read today's blog post and spent some time thinking about real life crime. I was shocked to realize how many criminals I've known, or even worked with! I can't bring myself to mention individual incidents as I am sure the families are still very upset.

    But...I have read in the newspapers in the past fifteen years or so about more than one doctor prescribing enormous quantities of narcotics to patients. The patients then sold the drugs and split the profit with the doctor/doctors. (Um, one of these doctors treated one of my relatives during her final illness.) Stupid, stupid, stupid!

  18. Great post today! I really enjoyed reading about all your inspirations. I find the hardest thing as a fiction writer is to walk that fine line where a crime is interesting and the criminals and their actions feel believable and make sense. I love reading true crime stuff but as many of the people here said, the criminals are too stupid or their crimes too unbelievable to work as the basis for a whole fiction book. I think that's why this prison break is so interesting right now. The criminals are NOT sympathetic but they had to be relatively smart and patient to pull this break off and it feels so much like Shawshank redemption (minus any redemption) that it captures the imagination.

  19. I'm a magpie, too, always gathering bits from this and that, but several of my books have been built around real life events. The inspiration for All Shall Be Well was a little story in the Dallas paper about a terminally ill woman who had asked a work colleague she barely knew to help her commit suicide. The colleague refused in the end, but kept a journal about her feelings as she considered it. To my warped brain that presented all sorts of possibilities for murder.

    Water Like a Stone was one of the weirder ones. Again it was a clipping from the Dallas paper. A couple renovating a house in West Texas found the mummified remains of a year-old baby inside a wall. I thought, why did no one miss a year-old child? What happened to the parents? And I went on from there, except, of course, in my book, the baby was found in the wall of dairy barn on the Shropshire Union Canal in Cheshire.

    So, yes, I clip, and watch all sorts of weird documentaries when I'm in the U.K., as well as reading as many papers as I can. The best stories, of course, are always in the tabloids:-)

  20. I was thirteen, and it was 9:00 p.m., and my story for English class was due at 8:00 a.m., and my head was empty, again, and my mother said, probably through clenched teeth, "Look at the newspaper." The result was a story about an arsonist reporting a fire and then torching the fire department. Not deathless prose, but with a little twist on the facts.

    A story I heard from the source: The agent who broke the Madalyn Murray O'Hair murder case was interviewing a suspect (part of a very long investigation) at the man's home. Suspect said something like, I don't talk to the FBI. Agent said, Oh, I'm just Treasury. At which time suspect spilled EVERYTHING.

    My great-grandfather was murdered, shot down on the main street of a small Texas town while running to help his cousin and business partner, who had just been shot dead while walking down the sidewalk to work. That was about 1902. These weren't cowboys; they were in their early thirties and owned a dry-goods store. There are some colorful details: my great-grandmother's unexpected but characteristic reaction, the Cape Jasmine carried by Cousin Bob (Cape Jasmine is better than just plain gardenia). I'd like to use this in fiction, but I've never gotten further than what I've written here.

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  22. My husband says we should be able to take our NY Times subscription as a tax deduction because of the way I comb through the Metro section looking for gruesome crime stories. I think all of my books have been inspired by the news in some way, but TAKE THE BAIT, my first Adirondack mystery, was inspired by the true case of a girl from a small town who went missing while running an errand. My fictionalized explanation of what happened to her was pretty bizarre, but ten years later I found out what REALLY happened, and that story was intriguing enough that it just might inspire inspire a new novel!

  23. This stuff fascinates me. One of my all-time favorite headlines was from a filler article over ten or fifteen years ago about an inmate in an Oklahoma jail. It read: "Inmate Revived for Execution.”

    The fellow had overdosed, trying to escape the needle, but was found before he died. I know, I’m very twisted but I got the biggest kick out of this. Can you just imagine his dismay when he was brought to?