The demands of fiction writing and true crime writing have some similarities, says author Phyllis Gobbel. But there are also differences. In this week’s guest blog, Gobbell shares her journey from writing about cold cases to fictional mysteries.
True Crime to Cozies – A Happier Ending
By Phyllis Gobbell
I never planned to be a true crime writer, but two Nashville cold cases—one solved after ten years, the other after thirty-three years—drew me to the genre.
I was fortunate to co-write with Mike Glasgow on “An Unfinished Canvas“ and Doug Jones on “A Season of Darkness“. Both writers were attorneys skilled in wading through the investigative processes and legal proceedings. My interest lay in the personal stories. I don’t recall any disagreements about who would write what. We passed drafts back and forth, checked and re-checked each other, and commiserated when we had to cut, which we did—a lot.
All in all, the collaborative experience was great, and telling the tragic stories of the murders of Janet March and Marcia Trimble, and how their killers were brought to justice, was gratifying in a way that no other writing has been for me.
But now I’ve turned from true crime to fictional crime—and not just mysteries, but traditional mysteries—cozies, if you will! In “Pursuit in Provence“, an American woman travels abroad, and murder and mayhem happen all around her. The next book is set in Ireland. It’s a leap from true crime, but the genres have more in common than one might think. And both have their upsides and downsides.
Fiction demands its own kind of research, but my amateur sleuth doesn’t have to know much about weapons or forensics. I admit I was ready for a break from the meticulous research that goes into a true crime book. Describing the street scene from a sidewalk café on the Cours Mirabeau in Aix-en-Provence beats squinting at microfiche articles from the old “Nashville Banner” any day. Taking photos from the magnificent Cliffs of Moher so I’ll get it right when I use the site in a big scene is a lot more fun than taking notes in the courtroom as witnesses give their testimonies.
But there is that “truth is stranger than fiction” element. Sure, I like to think that my mysteries have some exciting twists and turns, but I didn’t have to imagine the series of events that Perry March initiated from his cell in the Metro-Davidson County Jail. The plot was just there. The irony was just there. Perry conspiring with a street kid to murder Janet March’s parents, promising a safe haven with his father, Arthur, in Mexico. The kid conspiring with police, who deport Arthur and offer him a deal. Guess who winds up testifying against his own son in the Janet March murder trial? I couldn’t have made that up.
The characters are just there in a true crime. The writer’s challenge is to faithfully portray the real people. Virginia Trimble is one of those memorable people, and I won’t forget how it felt to write about the evening she realized Marcia was missing, the Easter Sunday that police found Marcia’s body, and the moment during the murder trial that she identified the blue-checked blouse Marcia was wearing when she left their house for the last time.
With true crime, the writer is obligated to tell what really happened, not what should have happened, or what actually might seem more plausible than the real thing. Writing fiction, I get to create my own characters, develop their flaws and eccentricities, put them in messy situations and see what happens. I can change what happens if I choose. Fiction, well written, embodies its own truths, but that’s another blog.
I like suspense, danger, and surprise, but my mysteries are never too sad. Readers have asked me, “Was writing true crime just too sad?” Yes, the stories were heartbreaking. But I had followed these Nashville cases through the years, and after the murder trials and convictions, there was something satisfying about putting the stories to paper.
Closure, I suppose, is the word. I haven’t turned from true crime to traditional mysteries because writing about real-life murders is sad. I told the stories I wanted to tell. Now I’m writing the kind of stories I’ve always loved to read. The kind I curl up with at bedtime, knowing I won’t have bad dreams, knowing the protagonist will find her way out of whatever trouble she’s in, the kind where you don’t just get closure. You get a happy ending.
Phyllis Gobbell is author of a mystery series that will debut with “Pursuit in Provence” (A Jordan Mayfair Mystery), Spring 2015. She has co-authored two true-crime books based on high-profile murders in Nashville: “An Unfinished Canvas: A True Story of Love, Family, and Murder in Nashville” with Michael Glasgow (the Janet March case), and “A Season of Darkness” with Doug Jones (the Marcia Trimble case). Her narrative “Lost Innocence” was published in the anthology, “Masters of True Crime”. She has received awards in both fiction and nonfiction, including Tennessee’s individual Artist Literary Award. An associate professor of English at Nashville State Community College, she teaches writing and literature. Visit her website at www.phyllisgobbell.com
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