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).