Round Robin: Truth and Fiction

Turdus Migratorius, aka The Round Robin!

Fellow PP bloggers, what real-life case of murder, mayhem or crime has fascinated you to the point where you have used it as inspiration for fiction? Doesn’t have to be the whole case, could just be elements of it, say a true crime that you’ve used as the springboard to your fictional crime? Or taking it further, is there a real-life case that you’d like to write about one of these days, something that has intrigued you to ask, what if . . .? and think about answering that question with your own version.

* * * * *

Sheila Simonson: Like most people, my experience with crime has been slight but shocking. I’m not awfully interested in the psychology of murderers. They strike me as either self-absorbed or stupid, with serial killers even less interesting because they’re obsessive. However, I’ve always been interested in the impact of a killing on family, friends, and innocent bystanders, and on the blow to the social contract that allows us to trust each other. The real crime that hit me hardest happened about ten years ago.

We live two blocks from Main Street, Vancouver, the heart of the old town, and there’s a good Chinese restaurant within walking distance. We go there often. My fiftieth birthday party was even held there around a big circular banquet table. Apart from the good food, what we liked best about the Peking Gardens was the hostess, Joy. Her husband was the chef, but Joy made the place jump. She had a wonderful sense of humor and a prodigious memory. One of her friends, another Chinese woman, was a waitress we saw occasionally. That woman was married to an American, and we gathered that it wasn’t a match made in Heaven. One day the friend asked Joy to come home with her after work because the husband was threatening her. To make a long story short, he shot his wife and Joy, killing both of them, and then made everything hunky-dory by shooting himself, a very American, very male pattern of behavior. The family was devastated, of course – the husband, a charming daughter, and a little boy who was born in this country. So were the restaurant’s patrons, and there were all the messages of sympathy and tributes to Joy’s personality you could wish for, but I think the clientele are still in mourning for a lovely woman who was only trying to help a friend.

Denise Osborne: After a book signing in Omaha, NE, one of the book store clerks, Diana, took me to a house where a woman had been murdered, the crime never solved. Two other book store clerks had recently moved in to the place and had been talking up a fancy dress party where guests were to come as murder victims. Well, Diana was distressed by this plan and wanted me to Feng Shui the house. First off, we got lost TWICE before we arrived even though Diana had been there on several occasions. Located in a cul-de-sac, we encountered another car driving around, and they were lost.

Diana didn’t want my husband, Chris, to come in the house, so he stayed outside talking to the people who were lost. The entry was one of the worst you can have (according to Feng Shui):  stairs leading up to the first floor and stairs leading down to the basement. It’s a configuration popular in this part of the country.

We first went to the basement to the spot where the body had been found. It was a small utility room off a family area.  Yes, it felt spooky but even spookier was a large wall in the family area that the book store clerks had painted blood red.

Upstairs was another disturbing feature:  a laundry room with wallpaper that repeated over and over and over “I HATE laundry.”  The word “hate” was three times as large as the other two words and blood red. You walk in and see the word “hate” jumping out at you in all directions.

Finally, the two clerks had a dog that would not go into the basement and rarely even left her kennel. I asked them to let the dog out so I could meet it. It stuck to me like a barnacle, walked me out to the car, and tried to get in the car.

All these elements I’m using in the next Feng Shui mystery, which I’ve titled House of Lost Souls.

Laura Crum: Actually, most of my mysteries are based on something that happened in real life – whether something that was told to me or something I knew about first hand. The barn fires in Hayburner, the gutshot man who insisted the gun went off while he was cleaning it in Forged, the “rapist” in Breakaway–these were all based on actual events I came in contact with. The attempted suicide at the beginning of Slickrock – and his airlift out by helicopter – was a scene I actually stumbled upon and then assisted in the rescue. The horse who breaks a leg at the beginning of Roped was something I witnessed. Every single horseback chase scene I ever wrote was founded on places I’d actually ridden through on my own horse – maybe not at top speed and with a villain chasing me, however. And the central crime in ALL my stories is, indeed, based on a real crime I’d heard about and that intrigued me. I try to keep my books as close to what might actually happen in real life as is possible – given the improbable premise of a veterinarian who is an amateur sleuth. But then, all amateur sleuths are a bit improbable – particularly those with a dozen murder investigations to their credit (!)

Camille Minichino: Of the many hundreds of scenes I’ve written to date, in 20 books, there’s only one that I still get comments on. It’s a scene in The Beryllium Murder, about the true crime of flashing! It takes place in Walnut Square, Berkeley, in a restroom. The set of men’s and women’s stalls is located up an outdoor flight stairs, off the street in front of a collection of shops. My character settles in a stall, hears someone walk in, then sees a pair of feet in front of her, on the other side of the stall door. People, especially women, tell me how scary the scene is, how strikingly written, how they think of it whenever they’re in an isolated stall, and how they will never use that particular facility again. Maybe because I wrote the scene exactly how it happened to me.

Kathy Lynn Emerson:  You asked about cases of murder, mayhem or crime that inspired us. It’s mayhem that makes an impression on me, especially cases involving excessively stupid criminal behavior. The problem, of course, is that even though such incidents happen all the time in real life, in both the distant past and the present, they have an unfortunate tendency to seem unbelievable in a novel. In one of my Lady Appleton novels, Face Down Before Rebel Hooves, the plot centers around the Northern Rebellion of 1569, when the earls of Northumberland and Westmorland took up arms against Elizabeth I of England. What fascinated me was the role the two countesses played. They were both far more combative than their husbands. Making them into characters readers could believe in was a real challenge. An even more hair-brained treason plot was concocted in 1540 by a group of men who wanted to capture Calais, which then belonged to England. They planned an invasion for “herring time” but were so disorganized and had such a total inability to keep secrets that the entire scheme fell apart. The mayhem this created, especially for innocent bystanders who were accused of knowing what was being plotted, played a major role in one of the non-mystery historicals I write as Kate Emerson (Between Two Queens). As Kaitlyn Dunnett, I write a contemporary humorous cozy series set in Moosetookalook, Maine. The story in A Wee Christmas Homicide revolves around smuggling toys into the United States from Canada. True story . . . from a clipping I saved way back in 1998 about trunkloads of Beanie Babies being confiscated at the Maine border. In my version, they are Tiny Teddies, the gift every kid just has to have for Christmas. But here’s a real example of mayhem that will probably never make it into one of my novels. Who’d believe it? At one of our local branch banks, a would-be thief stopped at the drive-up window. He pointed a gun at the teller and demanded money. The reply, even as the teller pressed the silent alarm, completely ruined the poor crook’s day. “Go ahead and shoot,” he said. “This is bulletproof glass.”

Nancy Means Wright: In 1994, my whole entry into the mystery world began with a local Vermont crime. I read an article in the Burlington Free Press about two elderly, altruistic Vermont farmers who distrusted banks and kept their cash in barn coats, rafters, or under a mattress. Word got around, and one night two hooded guys banged on the farmhouse door, yelling for help. Once in the house they assaulted the pair and left them for dead. Luckily the brothers survived, but the perps were caught when they flung the cash about in bars and restaurants and one proprietor noticed that it reeked of barn and called the cops. I loved the idea of manure solving a crime.

To this point I’d been trying to write the great American novel. I abandoned the idea and wrote my first mystery, opening with the crime itself and the purloined barn cash. Ruth Cavin at St Martin’s accepted it and I never went back to the great American novel. (Which wasn’t so great, anyway.)

Janet Dawson: Many of my plots come to me from real life. Of course, real life is messy. In fiction I can wrap it up the way I want to.

A murder involving people from my Colorado hometown led to Kindred Crimes, in a writer’s fictional explanation of a seemingly inexplicable double homicide. Several years ago I clipped a short article out of the San Francisco Chronicle, about a stash of wallets, some dating back to World War II, found in the ceiling ducts of an old barracks at Camp Roberts in Central California. I kept that clipping for a long time, knowing that it would find its way into a plot. It did. I used it in Bit Player.

A case in the Bay Area has fascinated me for years. A woman’s body was found in a shallow grave in Humboldt County. A little girl’s body was found in the bay near Sausalito, buried as a Jane Doe by the town’s citizens. There had been a report of a woman and child missing, but there was a time lag of a year or more between the discovery of these two bodies. And the state of decay seemed to indicate that the child died much later than the mother. How could they be related? But they were. From what I’ve read about the case, the woman’s partner, the father of the child, killed both – but he kept the child’s body in a freezer for a time before disposing of it. The man committed suicide before he could be brought in for questioning.

And I would really like to know what happened to Thomas Riha. The professor was from Czechoslovakia. He taught Russian history at the University of Colorado in Boulder, my undergrad alma mater. In March 1969, he vanished. To this day, no one knows what happened to him. Or if they do, they’re not saying. Enter one Galya Tannebaum, a woman with a shady past and a penchant for spinning big yarns about Cold War intrigue. She played cat and mouse with the press and the authorities, claiming to know what happened to the professor. Eventually Tannebaum was committed to the state mental hospital in Pueblo, Colorado, where she killed herself in the early 1970s.

Intrigued? So was I. Years later, I wrote Till The Old Men Die. The plot involves a professor who was murdered, and a mystery woman with a shady past and a penchant for lies.


2 Responses

  1. When writing my one and only mystery, DEATH SPIRAL: Murder at the Winter Olympics, I got all my ideas for mayhem and murder from the years of research I did on the Olympic Games. Loosened screws on a skate, falling from a flagpole when snitching an Olympic flag, and especially blood doping. The latter is more prevalent than ever now in real sports, particularly cycling. But any injuries or fatalities from these things have been accidental in real life. However, I added evil intentions to all of these for the purposes of my book. And I don’t think anyone’s ever really fallen to their death from a ski lift cable car.

    BTW, welcome, Denise–nice to hear from you!

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