When Reality Intrudes

by J.T. Ellison

An advance warning — this may be a bit explicit. No nudity or bad words, just a frank discussion about forensic research and the unsolved murder of a Nashville child. If you have young children, you may wish to steer clear.

As a mystery writer, I spend a lot of time living in an imaginary world, populated with imaginary crimes, imaginary people, imaginary life or death situations, grief, justice and evil. One of the most frequent questions I get revolves around my impetus. "Do you base your stories on real life headlines or cases?"

The answer is yes and no. There’s nothing I can do about the inevitable subconscious co-opting of stories I hear on the news that blossom into plot lines. Every once in a while, I purposefully follow a case to its sad conclusion, or lack thereof, and think about using it as a basis for a story of my own. Great example, the horrific murder of a young mother who was recently killed in North Carolina. I was inexplicably drawn to this story, exploring every detail until I realized I was mentally solving the case. Rewriting the facts. It had become more than a news story; it was the meaning behind the plot of my third book. Okay. I was able to get some perspective after that, analyze the information, pick and choose what I wanted to be influenced by, and write the story my way.

That is actually a rarity for me. I hate to admit that 90% of my stories are purely figments of my imagination. I’ve never fictionalized a live case as a main plot, and as such made some massive adjustments to make it my own. The bones are based in reality for this one, but the reality isn’t real in the novel.

Research, I call this, though in many cases I believe immersion in these evils leave a tiny smudge on my soul. I have days that I don’t ever feel clean, or at peace. I have bad dreams. I get jumpy for no reason. This research is necessary for me to write with empathy and compassion, but inevitably brings it’s own private horrors.

Neither here nor there. There’s plenty of cases that catch my eye, for various and sundry reasons, most of which aren’t even definable. But there’s one case here in Nashville that I’m wary of.

Marcia Trimble.

Anyone in Nashville can tell you about this sunny little girl who disappeared one afternoon out delivering Girl Scout cookies. It is our biggest, baddest, most speculated upon unsolved murder. A cold case to end all cold cases. Now that we’ve got Perry March in jail for the murder of his wife Janet, Marcia Trimble is again Nashville’s outrage.

A quick precis of the case. Marcia was 9 years old. She went to deliver Girl Scout cookies to a neighbor. She was found 33 days later, less than 200 yards from her home. She’d been strangled and sexually assaulted. There were allegedly multiple DNA donations. Celebrated forensic scientist Dr. Bill Bass postulated that she had been dead since the day she went missing.

You can imagine the horror that filled Nashville in 1975. Metro Nashville Police Captain Mickey Miller commented on the case:

In that moment, Nashville lost its innocence. Our city has never
been, and never will be, the same again. Every man, woman and child
knew that if something that horrific could happen to that little girl,
it could happen to anyone.

As you’d expect from an unsolved case, the theories about who murdered Marcia range from rational to otherworldly. And this week, a crazy thing happened. The police announced that there was a possible DNA match to Marcia’s potential killer. And it’s all I’ve been able to think about.

It’s one of those cases that begs to be written about. It’s a wrong that I could right, fictionally. But would that ever be enough? And would my psyche hold up under the pressure?

You know the murdered young mother case I mentioned earlier?  When I said I went and learned everything I could about the case, I glossed over a few things. Like the thirteen page autopsy report. And the fact that I ended up talking with two different medical examiners about the findings before adapting them into my own story, and made sure that I had all the details accurately depicted when I wrote the fictional autopsy.  Made sure the crime scene would support the medical findings. All very clinical and detached, professional discussions among colleagues. Three weeks of nasty work, for three pages of original material. Somehow, I was able to separate myself from the fact that this girl had been bludgeoned to death. That’s not always possible.

When I was doing research a few years back, I went through a cold case file of a co-ed who’d been raped and strangled, and the images from her crime scene seared themselves into my brain. Happily, her case has since been solved, and her killer is being brought to justice. But strangely enough, when I wrote the initial scene of the murdered mother-to-be for this book, those three-year-old images rose to the surface, built like a crashing wave and spilled onto the page so vividly that I might as well have been staring at the photos all over again. I had to go back and tone it down, way down, because there’s just no reason to force people to see what I’ve seen.

And as much as those crime scene photos were stark and unflinching, one of many images that will stick with me forever, they drove home the reason I chose to do this work. Not so I can stare into the abyss, but so I can draw back from it, and hopefully pull people back with me. In my books, I catch the bad guys. Justice is served.

I certainly hope that Marcia’s killer is finally being brought to justice. The whispers are building here in town. Maybe, one day, I’ll find a way to write a story about Marcia that gives her some justice. If you’ve read All The Pretty Girls, you’ll recognize that the opening scene shows Taylor waiting for a death sentence to be carried out for one of her first cases, a little girl named Martha who was raped and murdered and left her DNA in the tears she shed in her killer’s car. That was my first nod to Marcia. I doubt it will be my last.

My prayers go out to her family right now.

I don’t want to bring anyone down with this post. I debated whether or not to even go here today. But this is what happens in the background noise of crime writing.There’s some pretty horrible stuff out there in the real world, stuff that we find ways to deal with with grace and humor and even despair on the page. Our shells have to be thick to assimilate the evil we see and research to make our books real. For some reason, on this particular journey, I didn’t want to be alone. Thank you for indulging me.

Maybe the discussion today could focus on cold cases you’ve been touched by, or a research topic that’s gotten under your skin. Some sort of assurance that I’m not alone in sometimes feeling overwhelmed by the reality in our fiction.

Apologies in advance, I’m traveling this morning and won’t be able to comment until later. If you’re in New Orleans, come visit with me tonight at 7 at the Borders in Metairie. I’ll be in Jackson, Mississippi tomorrow at 2 (the Borders in Flowood) and on Sunday in Memphis, again at 2, at the Borders in Germantown. And then I’ll fall over.

Also, in much happier and exciting news, www.JTEllison.com has been nominated for a Black Quill Award for Best Author Website by the incredibly cool Dark Scribe Magazine, an honor that I’m pleased as hell to hand over to my wonderful husband, who designed and maintains my site. Click here for the list of all the Black Quill nominees, you’ll see I’m in some seriously good company. Take careful note of the book trailer category. Congratulations, Alex!!!!!!

Wine of the Week: Honestly? I’m thinking scotch. But let’s do a 2005 La Tonnellerie Du Chateau de Segonzac , on special at Geerlings & Wade. Ask for Mark, and tell him I sent you.

18 thoughts on “When Reality Intrudes

  1. J.B. Thompson

    Congrats to JT/Randy and Alex on the BQA nominations – totally cool!

    Once again I sit in awe of JT’s marvelous ability to pour her heart onto the page and get the rest of us thinking. A very compassionate, profound post, Sister – the collective thoughts and prayers of Nashville are with Marcia’s family. This has been the case that’s always touched me, and I’m amazed that with the advancements in technology that we writers literally feed upon there may finally be some justice for this little girl.

  2. Angelle

    One of my last weeks as a newspaper reporter, I covered five dead kids (accidents and homicides) in five days. I remember thinking that there had to be a better way to make a living than off of other people’s babies under white sheets.

    Seven years later, what do I find myself writing about? Yeah, it never goes away. The best you can do is mediate it with words.

    All power to ya.

  3. pari

    J.T. and Randy, Congrats!

    On to the post . . .

    I don’t write about real cases at all, but definitely follow them — and some of the themes find their ways into my books.

    I can’t imagine the pain Marcia’s family is feeling right now as new evidence comes to light. But, they’ve been living with that pain for more than 30 years . . .

    The case in NM that currently upsets me most is the murder of my friend’s sister — Molly Sparks. It’s still unsolved. Molly was found, beaten and sexually assualted . . . floating face down in an irrigation ditch near a biker bar. I don’t think she was even 20 years old yet.

    I can’t get past the image of her last few minutes of life, how terrifying they must have been.

    I’m going to write that scene someday; I’ll write the killer being found, too.

  4. Louise Ure

    Great post, JT.

    I don’t write about real crimes either, but some of the stories the forensic folks I’ve worked with me have stayed with me. I’m sure they’ll wind up in a book somehow, someday.

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I write about real crimes all the time but not specifically or even realistically. I tend to mythologize them – because I think crimes like the ones everyone is talking about above are proof of true evil.

    If I didn’t write about them and find some kind of justice I don’t think I could live with the rage.

  6. JT Ellison

    Hi from the rainy French Quarter! Just had a little lunch at Pat O’s, and my courtyard room is perfect for watching the rain fall. New Orleans is definitely still haunted, and there’s an almost feral sense to the tourists now. Strange.

    JB, thanks, sis. You know better than most how these things get under my skin.

    Angelle, wow. It’s the journalists and cops who have the most unspeakable truths shoved in their faces every day. I’m sorry you’ve been exposed to it, but happy you’re writing it down now!

    Pari, I have a case like that too — Dale Dinwiddie, a classmate from college, who disappeared in 1992. Here’s a link to the blog post I did on her. http://murderati.typepad.com/murderati/2006/06/missing.htmlIt's the ones who are never found that haunt me.

  7. JT Ellison

    Louise, I’m dying to get into THE FAULT TREE and see more of your fertile imagination.

    X, I like that term, mythologize the crimes. That’s it exactly.

    Thanks Simon!!!

  8. Allison Brennan

    I think we can’t help but be influenced by what we see and read. I read a lot of true crime, a lot of news, but I don’t actually seek out additional details about the cases. I’ll hear a snippet, or read something, and then my mind is off running coming up with motives, criminal and victim profiles, etc. I pretty much make everything up as I go along.

    The closest I came to fictionalizing a true crime was the tragic case of Taylor Biehl who was murdered by someone she met and had a brief relationship with through her online blog. She was a 17 year old college student, away from home for the first time, and disappeared. Her killer was one of those who helped “look” for her. He was a much older photographer who liked to date much younger “women.”

    In SPEAK NO EVIL, my first victim was an 18 year old college student who had an online anonymous blog and the primary suspect was a 39 year old ex-boyfriend of the vic. The similarities end there, but I did research a lot about what young kids are saying and showing of themselves online, even when they are “anonymous.”

    Maybe I’m too jaded, but I do tend to distance myself from the cases I review. I have several forensic books which are quite explicit, and I read them as if I were a clinical technician. It’s when I listen and watch surviving family that I tend to lose it.

  9. JT Ellison

    Allison, I’ve read that book, interesting that it was sparked by a real case. Nicely done.

    I’m normally super stoic about all of it. I think it’s because of the connections between all these cases that I’m dwelling. Losing it would probably help.

  10. Fiona

    I live in MN, and many years ago, an 11 year-old boy named Jacob Wetterling waited for his mom in their car while she quickly ran into a store. She came out & he was gone.

    He has never been found.

    I have two school-aged kids. This haunts me.I don’t think I could write about this while my kids are small. I have a hard time reading about these cases.

  11. Tom Wood

    NashvillePost.com today has further news about the possible resolution of the Trimble case…http://www.nashvillepost.com/news/2007/12/7/is_it_really_overalong with a collection of thoughts and reminiscences from people touched by it…http://www.nashvillepost.com/news/2007/12/7/nashville_now_and_then_a_moment_of_closure

    Just thought I’d pass those links along in case the stories are of use to the writers here. They deal in part with the obsessions of cops desperate to solve a cold case — and how that desperation can lead them to act illogically and harm innocent people.


  12. JT Ellison

    Tom, thanks for the links. If anyone is interested in more info on Marcia’s case, the the link Tom provided captures the story perfectly. It might explain this column a bit, too.

    Fiona, I totally understand that. I don’t have kids. People look at me and say oh, if you did, you’d feel differently. I suppose I would.

    Off to the reading at Borders! Thanks to everyone for participating today. As is common, the change of scenery has snapped me out of it.

  13. Fran

    The last year I taught high school, we had nine deaths. Four murders, three suicides, two accidents. No counseling for the kids. It was just…the way it was.

    One of the murder victims was tossed into one of my student’s back yard. Tossed, like an empty candy wrapper.

    I don’t read true crime. I can’t.

    Excellent post, JT! And now that opening passage is all more poignant for knowing the backstory.

  14. JT

    It’s an interesting paradox, perhaps also *the* shared experience between writer and reader, that allows a person who intentionally immerses themselves into the horrors of humanity (without direct need) while maintaining the distance of and firm rooting in a separate, more ‘wholesome’ reality to find these same horrors so horrifying.

    Your description of the crime scene photos is vivid and evocative; filled with remorse. And yet, all I could think about was the photographer, and how this is his or her daily grind. Likewise with the M.E.s and their details. Is their experience less vivid, I wonder?

    Voyeurism should never be mistaken for reality, because the reality of those horrors is only truly experienced by those living through them — either the victims or those piecing together their “story” for the judicial system.

    But perhaps this is what makes for such great literature — the same energy experienced in rubbernecking at an auto wreck and recounting the horrors at a dinner party the following week; no need to work on the first response team, or in the O.R., because we, as readers and writers, like to keep our distance while pretending to understand. I’m fine with that. It keeps things neat and clean and unmarred.

    But it’s important to actively remember the difference.

  15. Tammy Cravit

    In 2004, I did a two-part newspaper article about the real-life case that inspired Sue Grafton’s book, “Q is for Quarry”. The 1969 murder, still unsolved, took place less than 10 miles up the road from where I live, and the young victim has never been identified.

    In writing that article, I read the autopsy reports, talked to police sources, visited the scene of the murder. I can still close my eyes and see the black-and-white crime scene photos, pitiless in the fidelity with which they captured the violence that befell Jane Doe.

    I had a chance to talk with Sue Grafton shortly after my article was published. “It must be a relief to have that one in the bag,” she said to me. And in a way it was. But, I have to be honest and say that Jane Doe still lingers in my mind. I still wonder if someday she’ll get her name back, if someday she’ll be allowed to return home to her family.

    When we visit the cemetery, I make a point to stop at the unmarked patch of grass, and I think about the now-retired Detective Sergeant who told me, “We decided not to put a tombstone on Jane Doe’s grave, because we’re only caring for her until she can go home.”

    Someday, God willing, she will.

    Oh, and for the curious, my article (along with unpublished photos from my visit to the scene, my meeting with Sue, and a few other tidbits) can be found at http://www.wordsofwonder.net/janedoe/

  16. JT Ellison

    JT (the other, not me) raises an excellent point, and it’s one of the big reasons I chose crime fiction. My fascination aside, I decided early on that I would do my best to portray the realities of crime as seen through the eyes of the people who live it on a daily basis. It’s an attempt on my part to show them respect, and admiration, and empathy for what is a terribly difficult living.

    Tammy, fantastic article, and remembrance. Thank you.

  17. Tammy Cravit

    JT: Bingo – you’ve hit the main reason I write crime fiction, too. I’m lucky enough to count a number of people in the law enforcement community among my friends and acquaintances, and I have a tremendous respect for the job they do.

    I recall going on a ride-along with an officer from my local police department a couple of years ago. We were out for the 7pm-7am shift, and it was a bit after midnight. We were standing behind the cruiser’s open door, shivering in the cold breeze and waiting for a driver’s license check to come back on a motorist with a burned out tail light.

    “Did you know Rich May?” my friend asked me. “He used to work for this department. He was just recently killed in the line of duty up north, shot to death by a gang member during a traffic stop just like this one.”

    It’s hard not to respect folks who can go out there, day after day, and do that job knowing full well the risks they take to keep the rest of us safe.

    Glad you liked the article. It was a little more cohesive when I originally wrote it, but it ended up being split into two parts and the middle bit became a tad choppier than I’d have liked as a result.


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