Dr. Katherine Ramsland: You’re not Losing Your Voice, You’re Gaining Another’s

Dr. Katherine Ramsland: Inside the Archives of Rome's Crime History


Author Bio:

Dr. Katherine Ramsland has a master’s degree in forensic psychology from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Duquesne University, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Rutgers.  She has published thirty-one books, including The CSI Effect, Inside the Minds of Serial Killers, Inside the Minds of Healthcare Serial Killers, Inside the Minds of Mass Murderers, The Human Predator: A Historical Chronology of Serial Murder and Forensic Investigation, The Criminal Mind: A Writers’ Guide to Forensic Psychology, and The Forensic Science of CSI.  With former FBI profiler Gregg McCrary, she co-authored the book on his cases, The Unknown Darkness: Profiling the Predators among Us (Morrow, 2003), and with Professor James E. Starrs, A Voice for the Dead (Putnam 2005), a collection of his cases of historical exhumations and rigorous forensic investigation. She has been translated into ten languages; published fifteen short stories and over 400 articles on serial killers, criminology, forensic science, and criminal investigation, and was a research assistant to former FBI profiler, John Douglas (Mindhunter), which became The Cases that Haunt Us (Scribner, 2000). With FBI profiler Gregg McCrary, she wrote The Unknown Darkness, and with James E. Starrs, A Voice for the Dead, about his various historic exhumations.  She currently contributes editorials on forensic issues to The Philadelphia Inquirer; writes a regular feature on historical forensics for The Forensic Examiner (based on her history of Forensic science, Beating the Devil’s Game) and teaches both forensic psychology and criminal justice at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. Her most recent book is Into the Devil’s Den, about an undercover FBI operation inside the Aryan Nations (with Dave Hall and Tym Burkey), and forthcoming are True Stories of CSI and The Devil’s Dozen: How Cutting Edge Forensics Took Down Twelve Notorious Serial Killers.  In addition, she has published biographies of both Anne Rice and Dean Koontz and penned three creative nonfiction books about penetrating the world of “vampires” (Piercing the Darkness), ghost hunters (Ghost), and the funeral industry (Cemetery Stories).  From these experiences, she wrote two novels, The Heat Seekers and The Blood Hunters.  Currently she’s working on a book about murders in her local area.

Dr. Katherine Ramsland:


“You’re not Losing Your Voice, You’re Gaining Another’s”

By Katherine Ramsland

I have been an FBI profiler, a bestselling author of vampire novels, a law professor who digs up the dead, and a tattooed biker from Kentucky, and yet I’m none of these things.  I’m a co-author and biographer, and the trick to making that work so everyone’s happy is to create an authentic voice.

To accomplish this – at least for me – it takes intense immersion, wherein over the course of a project I try to experience my day-to-day world through someone else’s perspective.  I read what they read, watch what they watch, listen to music they like, meet people they know, and visit places that mean something to them.  (For fiction, this means total immersion in your character analysis.)  It’s fun, even exciting, but it’s all done in the interest of focus and voice.  If I want readers to feel close to the people I’m writing with or about, I must get close to them myself.  While this intimate art can risk your sense of balance, if done well you can fully tell a story through a voice not your own.

Let’s consider this notion of a writer’s voice, because it’s foundational to fiction, narrative nonfiction, and even certain technological pieces. Opinion columnists rely on a distinct voice, as do movie and book reviewers. Bloggers certainly need it if they want to maintain interest, and even how-to manuals benefit from a distinct and colorful attitude. So do memoirs, autobiographies and biographies.  There’s no need to belabor the point; getting the voice right matters.  It defines how characters, real or imagined, think and speak.

Voice conveys attitude, motivation, and credibility, providing the tone through which character and setting are rendered. If you have multiple points of view, as I did with the duo-memoir of Into the Devil’s Den, you work doubly hard to become both people. (The same holds true for multiple points of view in fiction.) You must learn their belief systems, their typical word choices, their cultural background, the parameters of their experience and education, and even how they use words in a sentence.  Ultimately, it’s the attitude that makes each voice distinct.

Before describing how I developed the voices for this book, let me first give some context.  The F.B.I., just recovering from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, was expanding its domestic terrorism program and needed informants to infiltrate the Aryan Nations, the most dangerous white supremacy group in the country.  Special Agent Tym Burkey worked out of Ohio, where a particularly fiendish AN member, Ray Redfeairn, was using his pulpit to connect with other white power groups.  Burkey needed someone who could win over these paranoid militants, and circumstances brought him together with Dave Hall, a tattooed, 350-pound, six-foot-four former biker with a photographic memory and a firm sense of decency.  Hall agreed to take the job

As he penetrated this violent society of hate mongers, he looked to Burkey to watch his back, while Burkey prayed that Hall would not be seduced by Redfeairn’s manipulations.  Neither quite knew what to expect from the other, so to convey this tension the story unfolds through their shifting perspectives, and the way their partnership evolved into an unlikely friendship sets Into the Devil’s Den apart from every other undercover tale.  In the process, they helped stop another major bombing and an assassination.

To “dance with the devil,” Hall developed innovative strategies to maintain his role and avoid being “erased,” even as it battered his health and cost him relationships.  He learned the specialized vocabulary, gestures, and mannerisms expected of insiders, and had to deal with suspicious members who tested his loyalty.  Because he was so good at it, he earned several promotions, which gave him unprecedented access to the top brass. Here’s where the need for distinct voices occurs: What Burkey relates about the group that Hall infiltrates heightens the sense of suspense, because the reader gets privileged access to information  – and awareness of danger – that Hall does not know.  The necessity for him of working blind spices his side of the tale with a heightened anxiety that only Burkey’s friendship can assuage.  Burkey just hopes he can keep Hall alive.

The task for me was to take what Hall had written as a daily journal and shape it into a suspenseful story with a clear narrative structure. Then I interviewed Burkey and sent him questions for written answers so that, in strategic places, I could slice in his perspective to advance the story without impeding the pace. That meant getting Burkey to talk about his feelings, too, because he had to grow beyond his role as an agent and come alive as a person.  Hall’s was the easy voice, because he wrote the way he talked, in a good ol’ boy manner that was effortless to absorb. Burkey’s personality was more formal, although he was very easy to talk to as well, but it required more attention.  The great thing about these two was how distinct their voices were and my job was to preserve that quality.  I did that by making each a foil for the other whenever I could. Response and reaction were key interactions.

There’s one more angle on the mastery of voice I want to mention: protecting the voice through the editorial process.  There were things that different editors wanted to change and sometimes I accepted that, but often I had to call Burkey or Hall, because I sensed the request violated who they were.  Putting words into Burkey’s mouth that he’d never say, for example, or eliminating a peculiar phrase that Hall naturally used seemed to make them different from who they were, so I was prepared to fight for the integrity of the narrative.  Sometimes I lost, but mostly I used the writer’s trusty friend, “stet” (leave it alone!), and got it through.

Although writing this book was a real challenge, it has been one of my most interesting experiences as a co-author.  I’d already penned two biographies via my immersion method and had co-written four books, so I had some experience with losing my voice and acquiring another’s, but immersing in two people while crafting a story’s structure was often daunting.  I was the one who decided where Burkey’s voice should cut in, so the pace was fully my responsibility, and sometimes with immersion you lose your perspective.  But in the end, it seems to work.  Several readers have affirmed it, and I hope many others will feel the same.

It’s not just an undercover procedural, it’s the story of an unlikely friendship: There are amusing moments, poignant ones, and harrowing incidents as Dave Hall and Tym Burkey move together through this treacherous landscape.  There’s even a chapter that has made grown men cry (and me, too).  But for me, it was another step in the art of crafting voice and privileged access to two men who bravely made a significant difference.  Thanks to them, the AN took a critical blow from which it may never fully recover.

Please visit Dr. Katherine Ramsland




Into The Devil’s Den: How an FBI Informant Got Inside the Aryan Nations

and a Special Agent Got Him Out Alive

by Dave Hall, Tym Burkey, and Katherine Ramsland (Ballantine, April 2008).


17 replies
  1. jwcargile
    jwcargile says:

    With all that being said, I guess I am looking for a professional to analyze the forensic and pathology scenes in the first part of the book.

  2. jwcargile
    jwcargile says:

    I forgot to add that I live in Alabama, and Morris Dees’ Southern Poverty Legal Center is where I learned about your book. His legal center, however, is given another name in my book. I have studied the “League of the South,” which is a viable Neo-Confederate organization throughout the Southeast. I call them, The Southron League, in my book. I think I have captured them well in the book.


  3. jwcargile
    jwcargile says:

    In fact, this week I wrote this article for the Northport Gazette, where I am working part-time.

    Hate crimes besiege Quail Ridge Mobile Home Park

    By John Cargile
    Gazette Staff Writer

    NORTHPORT — Antate Wilder awoke early Monday morning in her single-wide mobile home at Quail Ridge Mobile Home Park to the sound of an alarm system going off in her black Cadillac SUV parked by the side of her home.
    She knew something was up, because “the alarm system had never sounded like it did.”
    What she found when outside were the words KKK in red spray paint on the hood of her 1968 Buick, and two tires slashed on the passenger side of her SUV along with nine bullet holes and the words KKK written in red paint on the back.
    Wilder was one of eight victims in what Northport Police Chief, Robert Norris, called “egregious acts” to residents at the mobile home park.
    “I am at a loss when something like this happens,” Norris said in brief statement at a press conference on Monday.
    Norris said he is enlisting the help of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to help find and arrest the perpetrators of the hideous crimes. He refused to comment on whether or not the Ku Klux Klan is active as an organization in the Northport area. He referred to the incidents as “criminal mischief.”
    Wilder said she believes the vandals live in the mobile home park.
    “I think it is just kids,” she said. “If someone has something to say about my race, let them tell me to my face. My vehicles haven’t done anything to them.”
    She said the message she received from the vandals were worst than the damage to her vehicles.
    “I hope they catch whoever did this,” she said. “Officers said they found fingerprints.”
    Wilder said she is a single parent with a 15-year-old daughter who lives with her.
    Apparently, the vandal or vandals combed the back side of the park early Monday morning between 4:15-4:30 a.m. Wilder said she called the Northport police, who arrived on the scene 20 minutes later.
    Cruise Madeis, a Hispanic in the mobile home park, was unaware of the incident until a police officer knocked on his door and told him about his two vehicles parked beside the house which had been vandalized.. Two big rocks were found. His pickup truck’s front window was bashed in, and the rear window of another passenger car was shattered. The words KKK were written on the side of his sedan in red paint.
    “One of the rocks is still in the back floorboard,” Madeis pointed out.
    Six children and four adults live in the Madeis’ mobile home. He said he moved to Quail Ridge from Green Village, and he is fearful for his family. He indicated he might have to move again if vandalism continues.
    By noon Monday, most of the spray paint had been cleaned off from all the mobile homes and vehicles at the park with the exception of Madeis’ sedan and words KKK painted on a road leading to the back of the park.
    Chief Green said Monday’s hate crime is similar to one in October 2006 in the “same general area.” Quail Village and Jones Mobile Home Park nearby were vandalized. He said he thinks there could be a possible connection between the crimes coming two years apart.
    “We questioned a lot of individuals in 2006, but we could not find enough evidence to arrest anyone,” he said.
    Green said six of the victims were Black and two were Hispanic.
    “One victim found nine bullet holes in her vehicle, the lettering KKK painted on the left side of her mobile home from front to rear,” he said.
    “A second victim had his tires cut. A third victim had KKK painted on the side of her residence, and the racial slue, ‘I hate N……’ painted on the front.”
    Green said a fourth victim had the racial slur, ‘N…..’ painted on her home. Another victim had KKK painted on the side of her trailer and the same painted on the street in front of her residence.
    In all, eight residents were victimized, Green said.
    “Additionally, there was one White female who reported small holes had been poked in the front and rear of her trailer,” he said.
    Green said the actual offenses range from shooting into an unoccupied vehicle and criminal mischief in the first degree.
    “Hate crimes are motivated by a victim’s race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, or physical or mental disability,” he said.
    Green said the case is currently under investigation.
    Anyone with information about the incident should contact the Northport Police Department’s Investigation Division (205)339-660 or Crime Stoppers (205)752-7867.

  4. jwcargile
    jwcargile says:

    Dr. Ramsland,
    I am a retired journalist working on my first novel, and “Into the Devil’s Den,” remarkably reminds me of the manuscript (fiction) I have completed. I would love for you to read part or whole. It is in the hands of a literary agency, but I need someone to help me with it more than what has been offered. The title of my book is, “The Cry of the Cuckoos.”


    DONALD DRUMMOND and his wife, ANNE, chase after the killer(s) of his father, HENRY DRUMMOND, but run into obstacle after obstacle as they try to uncover the truth behind the murder. Anger turns into vengefulness when Donald, a retired news reporter, and Anne, a retired school teacher, unfold the mystery leading them on a wild chase from Alabama to Texas and Oklahoma. Donald is traumatized when he learns he has a biological mother in Texas he never knew until the death of his father. BETTY JO DUKE, the mother, reveals the secrets to her past after his father’s death due to a bizarre divorce in 1945. His father is a mastermind in a Neo-Confederate League, a drug king, and former KKK wizard. Donald and his wife are hired as informants by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to hunt his father’s murderers. Donald and Anne start a new life in Texas with his mother, who is a suspect in the murder. In a turn of events, his mother is poisoned by mistake and the couple inherits millions of dollars. They began to unravel the mystery while turning a prosperous ranch into an entertainment park and museum. Donald’s step-mother, ROSE DRUMMOND, and son, JACOB DRUMMOND, leave Alabama to live with them at the Texas ranch. While Donald is bedridden due to a stroke, the killer reveals themselves to him. Only he cannot hear them. Or does he?

  5. SweetieZ
    SweetieZ says:

    Thank you Dr. Ramsland for your time. I am missing a good week here. More cut and paste to the “hand book” at home for info and ideas.

  6. KatherineRamsland
    KatherineRamsland says:

    You might enjoy this book, then, because he’s a pretty interesting guy. I enjoyed working with him. He wasn’t certain about coming aboard, but once he was, he had a lot of fun.

  7. D. Swords
    D. Swords says:

    Thanks, Katherine. I retired from a PD about 20 mins east of there, and I think I’ve met Tym. I know a good friend of mine who I worked with had a lot of dealngs with him.

  8. D. Swords
    D. Swords says:

    Fascinating take on the subject of voice, Katherine.

    One question. Did Tym Burkey work out of the Dayton office?

  9. KatherineRamsland
    KatherineRamsland says:

    Thanks, Monty and Lee. I’d offer my secrets but then my evil twin would have to kill me.

    As for fiction vs. nonfiction, I like both for different reasons. Since my nonfiction is mostly commercial, I can be fairly creative in the telling, similar to fiction, but there’s nothing quite like winding up characters and putting them into the dance. The only writing I don’t actually enjoy is when I’m writing something I already know, or when I have to write according to a stilted academic formula. I tend to flee from both. My preference is to learn while I write and to have some adventures. I’m always looking for more.

    The key to success in any field, but especially in writing, is to develop a love of learning.

    Thanks for your interest.

  10. Monty McCord
    Monty McCord says:

    Dr. Ramsland,

    Just wanted to poke my nose in and say thanks for your blog here and the fascinating presentations you gave at The Scene of the Crime Conference in Wichita last weekend. Your knowledge and accomplishments are incredible. How you manage to do so much is a mystery to me, especially when I look at my own output…sheesh!
    It was great meeting you in Kansas.


  11. KatherineRamsland
    KatherineRamsland says:

    Thanks, Joyce and Elena. As for recovery, I’m a big believer in exercise. I walk everyday, with an MP3 player, to clear my head, but I also put a space of a day or two between such intense projects and anything else I start up. Or I take a trip. The early projects – the biographies – were harder to leave behind, because they were longer and more involved, but I’ve done it enough times now that I no longer fear the loss of self and I know that it will all come back, enriched. I now look forward to the experience.

  12. Elena
    Elena says:

    Thank you so much for your insight, it was compelling reading.

    How do you ‘recover’ yourself after finishing such an intense project?

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