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Turning a Terrible Truth into Compelling Fiction

This post is about series of vicious murders, a class I conducted on how to fictionalize such horrific events, and a student who taught me something important in the process.

This all took place late last month at the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference [1] in Corte Madera, California. For the past several years, I and fellow faculty member George Fong—former FBI Special Agent, now security head for ESPN and a novelist himself [2]—have conducted a class where we take a criminal case, outline the facts, and then ask the participants how they would go about fictionalizing the material. The past two years, we’ve added Jim L’Etoile [3] to the mix, a longtime veteran of the criminal justice system (he’s the son of  prison warden)—and, you guessed it, he too is a novelist.

George, given his law enforcement background, has normally led the way by presenting the case; Jim and I have then led a group discussion on how to approach what George has presented as source material for fiction, asking such questions as: Who is the protagonist? Should there be a narrator? Who should have POV status? Where should the story begin? When should the identity of the criminal(s) be revealed? How will answers to these questions fundamentally change the tone, pacing, and dramatic tension of the narrative?

In the past, George has presented cases he has personally worked on, including the Yosemite murders and a Russian mafia kidnap-extortion case out of Los Angeles.

This year, however, he decided to look beyond his own experience and instead present a headline-grabber that many of the conference participants would surely know about: the Golden State Killer [4] case.

George reached out to Steve Kramer, an attorney who previously worked in the FBI’s Los Angeles office, who, despite not being a field agent, turned out to be instrumental in identification and apprehension of the criminal in question, Joseph Deangelo. He simply took it on himself to solve the case which, at the time he got involved, had lain dormant for years. He specifically worked closely with Contra Costa Sheriff’s Detective Paul Holes, who had responsibility for several open cases believed to be linked to the suspect then already identified by the moniker the Golden State Killer.

[Note: Though Michelle McNamara’s incredible true crime book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden Gate Kille [5]r came out not long before law enforcement identified and arrested Deangelo, it did not, as some believed, point investigators to him as a suspect [6]. Their work, which relied largely on DNA evidence, was independent of McNamara’s.]

During our workshop, George laid out the most salient facts of the case for the participants in a Power Point presentation:

With those facts in hand, we now presented the matter to the participants and asked how they would go about fictionalizing this story.

The first consideration: Who should be the protagonist? Normally, Sergeant Shelby would be a prime candidate, but he retired without solving the case. Steve Kramer and or Det. Paul Holes might serve, but they came to the matter late and their work was largely restricted to analyzing evidence collected years before—i.e., there would be no chance to portray them scrutinizing crime scenes or interviewing victims or witnesses.

These shortcoming could be overcome, of course, but they had to be recognized for what they were. Neither Shelby nor Kramer could serve as a single voice of the entire investigation. That wouldn’t be fatal—since it’s fiction, you could simply create a single investigator who did follow the entire case from beginning to end. Or you could simply have Shelby begin the investigation, retire with a profound sense of incompletion, and then have Kramer pick the case up years later. This would pose the risk of breaking the dramatic thread and dissipating tension, but that could be overcome through any one of a variety of techniques—principally by keeping the focus on the unsolved killings. Otherwise you would likely need some sort of objective, all-knowing narrator, but that might undermine the intimacy of the narrative

This echoed another concern—a simple recitation of the facts seemed inadequate. It would make the narrative too similar to true crime, and if that’s the goal, why bother with fiction at all? The point of fictionalizing the story is to give voice to the characters who otherwise have only been seen from the outside.

Carol Daly possessed the same limitations as Shelby and Kramer, but her intimate involvement with the victims, not to mention the damage it did to her own psyche, made her a more interesting choice as a detective-narrator.

Bonnie Cowell could provide a fascinating perspective. Though she was unaware of the crimes as they were happening, she could recount them as part of her own attempt to comes to terms with her own sense of culpability for being too naïve to see Deangelo for who he was. This choice would introduce a new element—the “drama of the telling”—deepening the narrative by making the recitation of facts a dramatic act itself, with the narrator struggling to come to some understanding of what those facts mean in a distinctly personal way.

Once that element of “the drama of the telling” was introduced, we discussed considering the viewpoint of the surviving victims. The idea of introducing the story with, “I am Number Ten,” and having that individual tell at least part of the story as a form of coming to terms with what happened to her, soon began to seem to most of us as a particularly compelling way of telling this story with the poignancy, terror, and intense personal immediacy it deserved. This narrator–or several victim narrators–could stand in for the others, analyzing the other crimes as to how they conformed or differed to what happened to htem, and what that might mean.

I then wondered if a first person plural narrator, as in The Virgin Suicides, might not be a way of allowing all of the surviving victims to speak as one (without sacrificing their singularity should it be required—i.e., individual victims could come to the fore and then recede back into the group as needed for dramatic purposes).

Taking this further, I wondered if the “drama of the telling” might not be used the way it is in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where the narrator, Marlowe, struggles not only to understand what Kurtz meant by, “The horror,” but struggles with how to convey that to his listeners. Conrad’s purpose was to point toward a source of unnamable terror lying not just at the center of the imperialist project but in the very heart of man, something ineffable and paralyzing to behold, and yet inescapably true. Might not our group of victims be grappling with just such a source of nameless dread and horror in the person of Joseph Deangelo, like the embodiment of some preternatural human inclination toward predation, terrorization, and unspeakable cruelty, while at the same time puzzling over what it meant that he chose them as his victims.

This was when the teacher learned something from one of his students. Amanda Conran [7], an award-winning author of YA mysteries (The Lost Celt [8]), called out from the back in her distinctive British accent that she believed referring to Deangelo in terms of some inexpressible horror gave him too much power. It elevated him to a station he did not deserve. Rather, the victims should be striving to understand him and what he did in the fundamentally depraved but all-too-human terms of his crimes, not some spooky abstraction. He was a perverse coward who hated women because of his own feelings of abject inadequacy, not some Conradian force of evil.

Now, there is such a thing as “psychopathic inflation,” a term coined by Jung, by which a criminal, often a sexual predator, believes he becomes a godlike being in the course of committing his crimes. This is the premise of Thomas Harris’s depiction of Francis Dolarhyde in Red Dragon. Francis is obsessed with William Blake’s painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun. This vision informs how Francis views not just himself but his sadistic longings and murders. He is not the mere product of his painful, humiliating past. He is a monster in the truest, greatest, most transcendent meaning of the word. He creates a pathological identification so extreme that he doesn’t merely see the Red Dragon as an analogy—he becomes the Red Dragon as he terrorizes and kills his victims.

Nothing of the sort applies to Deangelo, not that we know of. So Amanda’s criticism seems well founded, and it in no way undermines the power of using the victims’ combined or individual perspective(s) for the narrative point of view, allowing them to process their recovery and come to terms with what happened as they recount the story of what took place.

We left the discussion there, but I wonder if we might not pick it up again here. How would you tell this story: Whose perspective would you use to frame the narrative? How many POV characters would you use? Which ones? Would you include Deangelo as a POV character? Why or why not? Would you create a composite detective as your main character or even narrator? Would you prefer Carol Daly or Bonnie or one or more victims as your narrator–if so, would you employ a “drama of the telling” strategy for the narrative?

Please Note: Once again (I know, I know…), I’m a moving target on a post day. Today I’m heading off to attend the wedding of—I’m not making this up—the daughter of my pedagogical sidekick mentioned above, George Fong. I will try to get to your comments at some point during the day. Meanwhile, hammer this out among yourselves.

About David Corbett [9]

David Corbett [10] (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character [11], and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.