Last week, our “techie,” Paul Doiron wrote about some of the software he uses to organize material when he’s writing, and Gerry Boyle blogged about making a video trailer for his new book. I admire their modern spirits. I’ve already downloaded Scrivener, though I haven’t opened it yet, because I’m afraid of change. So today, I’m weighing in as the group’s Luddite. The one who uses old fashion notebooks to organize my material. Who tapes pictures up on the wall. Who looks things up in books and when I can’t find what I need, calls out to a librarian for help. Who carries a little digital camera and a small Sony digital recorder, because words and pictures may need to be collected and save.
Right now, as I’m finally finishing a true crime tentatively called Death Dealer, I’m sitting here at my desk
surrounded by notebooks and reference books. My central notebook is over five inches thick. It contains the case summary. A time-line. Charts of weather data from the night the murder is presumed to have taken place, and weather data for Eastern Canada during the month of January, 2003. I have multiple interviews with the detectives who worked the case and thick sections of interviews with the friends and relatives of the victim. I have interviews with the Maine wardens and MESARD volunteers who drove hundreds of miles and many hours into another country with their trained cadaver dogs to help out a police agency who desperately needed to find a hidden body.
In my fat notebook, I have crime scene photographs. An aerial photograph of the trail system that needed to be searched, with little yellow stickies on it to mark significant spots. I’ve got photographs of search and rescue dog training. Newspaper stories. Articles about training search and rescue dogs and the various expertises that these canines and their handlers have to master. Notes from a book on training cadaver dogs, Cadaver Dog Handbook: Forensic Training and Tactics for the Recovery of Human Remains. I’ve followed the MESARD volunteers, been a subject for both MESARD and Maine Warden Service canines to find. I’ve watched in awe the powerful bond that exists between handlers and their dogs.
A few years ago, I wanted to get a good book on homicide investigation, so I asked my local library to get me a copy of Vernon Geberth’s cannonical tome, Practical Homicide Investigation, through interlibrary loan. When she handed over the book, the librarian whispered that the pictures were just awful, and was I sure I wanted the book. Yes, I wanted it, and it has been an invaluable tool on my shelf of reference books. It helps me shape my questions, understand techniques, and write my crime scenes better. I have a whole library of such books. Books about interrogation techniques, including one suggested by my local police chief called We Get Confessions. The police detective who is my primary source up in Miramichi, Brian Cummings, told me I had to read a book about statement analysis, Mark McClish’s I Know You Are Lying, and then walked me through part of the lecture and interview clips he uses at the police academy.
I can spend endless hours with police detectives, asking my questions, and I’ve been the lucky recipient of a lot of time and advice, but different jurisdictions have different process, as do different police agencies. Sometimes my advisors are too busy to get back to me for days, or even weeks. So I also have my friend Lee Lofland’s book on my shelf, ready to consult when I have a question. Lee’s blog, The Graveyard Shift, he answers questions for writers out there who want to get it right. And for those who can’t get enough of police procedure and the opportunity for hands-on research, Lee has organized and runs a Writer’s Police Academy, http://www.writerspoliceacademy.com/ in Jamestown, North Carolina each September.
I’ve set myself a deadline of October 15th to finish this book, and just this week, I needed some more information, so I turned to that invaluable writer’s tool–the telephone. Soon, my little digital recorder and I will sit down with one of my personal heroes, Lt. Pat Dorian, Maine Warden Service (ret.), and get some final details about organizing and managing the search operation that resulted in the discovery of Maria Tanasichuk’s body, six months after the January night she disappeared.
In the end, the ultimate tools are discipline and imagination. But they will be aided, as I’m sitting at my desk at 2:00 a.m., trying to meet my deadline, by the carefully captured voices of all the people I’ve spoken to over the past few years, By my recordings, my reference books, and my photographs. When I’m done, this book will need an entire drawer in my filing cabinet. It’s little enough space to give to some heroes, Canadian and American, who collaborated to take a heartless killer off the streets.
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