As an author of historical mysteries and thrillers, I am drawn to the darker side of the past and find that truth is often stranger than fiction. I search for unusual and unsolved cases of murder, corruption, and organized crime to center my novels. Including select portions of the historical record lends realism to what would otherwise be an overly sensational story.
While I enjoy true-crime novels (my most recent obsession is I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara), nonfiction often leaves much to be desired in revealing the true nature of the people involved and the emotional toll of a crime. We cannot know a killer’s thoughts from reading the court transcripts. We cannot see through a victim’s eyes by reading a coroner’s report. Even in the most meticulously researched accounting, we never get the whole story behind a crime. At times, we will never even know the identity of the killer.
My novels aim to fill the gap between the known facts of a case and the untold story behind it. By researching historical crimes, I have the luxury of studying the official record and developing my own resolution and sense of closure for an otherwise unsolved mystery.
Finding the perfect crime
Looking through old newspapers, an author may find thousands of unsolved and unsettling crimes to consider, but murder in and of itself doesn’t make a story. To be the basis of good fiction, a real-life crime needs an element of intrigue, historical context, and a hint of deeper truth. It may be the nature of the crime itself that captivates, or it may be the extraordinary people and circumstances involved. The key is to find a crime that asks deeper questions than the police report can answer.
A novel ripped from the headlines should ultimately give the reader a deeper understanding of the times and the people involved as well as aspects of the crime outside the official record. To this end, my third novel, The Unclaimed Victim, gives voice to the often nameless and faceless victims of Cleveland’s infamous Torso Killer. I also provide a plausible solution to these thirteen unsolved murders that the police never considered.
Similarly, my latest historical thriller, No One’s Home, examines two real murders in Shaker Heights, Ohio from the inside of a mansion located at the center of each crime. By studying this close-knit community through several generations, I was able to weave two seemingly unrelated killings into a sinister pattern of despair and desperation. Both of my most recent novels touch on themes of power, corruption, and isolation, not just murder.
Setting the scene
Understanding the context of a real-life crime in time and place allows me to paint a more vivid picture as well as consider character motivations and alternate theories to the official case record. I read the entire front page of every newspaper I pull to get a better understanding of the community and other notable events taking place in and around a crime. I continue to research the setting to the point where I can see it in three dimensions through the eyes of the victims and criminals.
The labor strikes of the Great Depression and the surrounding political unrest at the time of the Torso Killer give a compelling backdrop to a fictional story and provide an unexamined motive for the murders in The Unclaimed Victim. The financial ruin of the Great Depression combined with the organized crime prevalent in Cleveland during Prohibition helped me explain an inexplicable murder in No One’s Home.
Examining the victims and the suspects
I act as an unofficial detective when researching a real crime. What suspects were overlooked? What evidence doesn’t match the official theory? What got missed? My research often includes reviewing newspapers, police reports, coroner’s reports, and court proceedings even though the final story will ultimately be of my own invention. Review of these documents not only provides the official record, it also educates me in police, medical, and courtroom procedures, which ultimately makes the story more believable.
While sifting through the horrifying details of a real crime, I try to keep the faces of the victims in the front of my mind. The temptation to see these people as puzzle pieces to be solved must be overcome for me to tell a compelling and humanistic story. I don’t write crime stories to merely unmask the killers. I write crime stories to understand the darker side of human nature and the nature of crime itself.
Drawing the line between fact and fiction
Authors differ on the exact point real life stops and fiction begins. When writing about real people and real crimes, respecting the privacy of those involved and avoiding libelous characterizations are critical concerns. Dramatizing a real crime with the consent and cooperation of the victims, the suspects, and their families is quite different than inventing a fictional story inspired by true events.
Out of respect for the innocent and the guilty, I never write a real person into my novels unless they are public figures, and even then, I rarely put words in their mouth by writing dialogue for them. To avoid potential libel, I change the names and identifying details of my characters where appropriate, and I consult with an attorney when I have questions. While writing the truth (according to official documents like court proceedings) can never be considered libelous, I do my best to maintain the privacy of any living persons involved in the crimes that inspire me.
Turning a real crime into fiction gives the author the chance to tell the deeper story not found in any police report or court transcript. A fictional accounting of such crimes allows the dead to speak, gives agency to the victims, and provides closure and justice where in real life there often is none.
D.M. Pulley is the author of No One’s Home (Sept. 1, 2019; Thomas & Mercer). Her previous books are The Unclaimed Victim, The Buried Book, and The Dead Key (winner of the 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award). Before becoming a full-time writer, she worked as a Professional Engineer rehabbing historic structures and conducting forensic investigations of building failures. She lives in northeast Ohio with her husband, two kids, and a dog named Hobo. You can find her online at www.dmpulley.com and @DMPulleyAuthor.