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.
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.