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Writers generally fall into one of two categories, panthers or plotters. Writers, you share these traits with killers, and this could be the reason your books are so devilishly delightful.

The Plotter

plotter starts each writing project with a plan, and before typing the first word of a new story they know how and why each action happens. They have a clear picture of their characters and setting. Plotters generally know where they’re going and how they’ll get there. They also know where and when they’ll stop along the way.

Plotter’s offices are decorated with multi-colored stick notes (red for character A, blue for character B, yellow for character C, etc.), and photos of celebrities cut from People magazine to use as inspiration for characters. Neatly organized stacks of notebooks filled with research material stand at ready on the surfaces of uncluttered desks. Pens are lined up next to keyboards, like sardines in tin cans. A predetermined word count must be reached each day.

A great example of a true plotter is top bestselling author Jeffery Deaver. Jeff once told me that he conducts extensive research and plotting for six months or longer prior to writing the first word of a new book. He’s extremely meticulous and organized, and records massive amounts of notes. Yet, he weaves this factual material into a story without even the slightest hint of an information dump.

Roadside Crosses

I often tell the story where, while reading Deaver’s Roadside Crosses, I learned about the use of a hard drive enclosure to retrieve data from a computer that had been rendered useless after having been immersed in ocean water. And, ironically, not long after reading the book my personal computer crashed and would no longer work. Obviously, I had a ton of material I couldn’t afford to lose so I purchased a hard drive enclosure and was able to recover all of my files. This detail in the book was real, but Jeff had smartly included it in a work of fiction without it seeming as if I’d attended a lesson on electronic devices. He’s a brilliant writer.

The Panster

A pantser is someone who powers-up the Mac, enjoys a long gulp of coffee, and then hands over the entire book to their characters, and it is they, not the writer, who do the majority of the walking and talking and thinking, all with very little help. Pansters are not much more than stenographers who works for their characters. They are the vehicles that transform characters’ ideas and actions into words on a page.

A panster’s writing journey, like that of the plotters, begins at point A. However, the panster often has not a single clue in advance how they’ll reach point B. The convoluted paths traveled will often be as much as a surprise to the author as it will be to the reader. They know where they’re going, but not how they’ll get there.

Still, no one is all-in as a panster or as a plotter. Things change as stories evolve and the writer must adapt. And both methods work well for both types of writers. I’m a panster and my wife Denene, the scientist, is a plotter.

Billy Bob Thornton is a Pantser

Billy Bob Thornton used the panster approach when writing the script for the movie Slingblade. Thornton has said that he likes to write late at night, generally between the hours of midnight and six in the morning. He says he writes in the “stream of consciousness fashion” and doesn’t rewrite. He writes his projects all at once. The actor/screenwriter/director wrote Slingblade, for example, in nine days.

Thornton had the character Carl in mind in advance, basing him on a blend of two people he knew from his past, a black man and a white man. He incorporated the look and mannerisms and walk from the black man, and the situation from the white man. The white man, according to Thornton, was fed in his backyard, like a dog. This combination of the two real-life men was the starting point for Carl’s character and story. The rest of Thornton’s tale flowed from there, without the benefit of notes, planning, or plotting.

Now, what does this have to do with murderers? Well …

Organized Killers

Organized killers, the “panthers,” have above average to average intelligence. They’re often thought to be attractive. They’re neat and tidy and are often married or living with a partner during the times they committed their crimes. They hold jobs, are typically educated, and are skilled at their profession. They look to be in control. And they often have above average knowledge of police and forensics procedures. They enjoy reading and hearing about their crimes, with a particular affection for seeing their crime scenes in the media. It is not unusual at all  for an organized killer to make contact with the media, or even the police.

Organized offenders carefully plan their crimes. They go the extra mile to prevent leaving evidence behind. Their killings are often premeditated. Killers in this group, the “plotters,” are antisocial and often psychopathic—they lack of empathy and other emotions. They’re manipulative of others. The tricky thing when dealing with organized criminals is that they often appear quite normal, and they’ll do their best to use charm to their advantage.

They’re not insane and they definitely know right from wrong, but they lack conscience and feel or show no remorse for the deeds.

Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, is an example of an organized killer/criminal.

Dr. Katherine Ramsland is a renowned expert on serial killers and she details Rader’s crimes in her book Confession of a Serial Killer: The Untold Story of Denis Rader the BTK Killer. As part of her research, Dr. Ramsland spoke with Rader by telephone once a week for an entire year. Each week, Rader called her from the El Dorado Correctional Facility and the two of them talked for an hour or so. Also as part of her process of delving into Rader’s mind, Dr. Ramsland played chess, by mail, with the killer.

As many of you know, Dr. Ramsland is a regular presenter at the Writers’ Police Academy.

Disorganized Killers

Disorganized killers/criminals, “the pantsers” of the criminal world, typically do not plan their crimes in advance. They often leave evidence at the scenes of their crimes, such as fingerprints, footprints, DNA, tire tracks, or blood. They’re also known to simply leave the body as is, making no real attempt to conceal it or to prevent leaving telltale evidence such as semen or saliva. Their crimes are sometimes chaotic.

Disorganized killers tend to be younger in age. They’re unskilled workers who have no problem depersonalizing their victims. They may be mentally ill. They’re often of below average intelligence who lack communication and social skills. Many come from dysfunctional and/or abusive families. They may have been sexually abused by relatives, and they may present with sexual detestation. They’re loners who often travel on foot to commit crimes due to a lack of transportation. These are the neighbors of their victims.

Jack the Ripper, for example, was a killer who made no effort to conceal the bodies of his victims.

*No, I do not actually believe writers are potential serial killers. Then again, we still don’t know the identity of Jack the Ripper. For all we know, he/she was the author of great works of fiction and his/her killings were part of a gruesome research project.

As a police detective whose job was to solve murders, I found it especially helpful to immerse myself into the lives of the victims rather than merely going through the motions of filling in the blanks of police reports. I had to make it personal. To try my absolute best to see the case through their eyes. I needed to know them and everything about them. I practically had to BE them until the point where they exhaled for the final time.

I needed to know a victim’s family and friends. I walked the paths they traveled. I learned their routines. I spoke with and interviewed their friends and family, yes, but I also made the effort see those friends and relatives from the victim’s perspective, not in reverse, as them thinking about their loved one occupying a table space in the state morgue.

It’s Personal

To know the family and friends and acquaintances from the point of view of the victim is a telling and sometimes eye-opening experience. Getting to know people on a personal level is key that unlocks many “doors,” and doing so, more often than not, helps to crack those hardened exteriors people often develop toward police officers. Showing that you do indeed care about them and their loved one as people and not as items on a checklist goes a long way.

Caring About the Victim

I cared about the victims, each of them. I learned their habits. Their likes, hopes, and dreams. I grew to know their coworkers and their bosses and the people in the stores where they shopped for food and clothing, and the places where they purchased gas for their cars. I knew what they liked to read and to watch on TV. I held their dogs and cats and their babies. I hugged their parents, their spouses, and their young children. I played ball with their kids. I sat with the family, listening to stories about the past and of lost futures.

I had to know the victim, personally.

If a victim once stopped in a donut shop in the mornings, well, I sometimes retraced the route and did the same. Along the way, I saw joggers, dog-walkers, letter carriers, delivery people, children on their way to school, bus drivers, cab drivers, and I saw the grumpy old men and women who spend their days peering at the street through gaps in dingy lace curtains. I saw garbage collectors, street sweepers, patrol officers, ambulance drivers, FED EX and UPS drivers, animal control officers, the man who waters his lawn at precisely 9 A.M., and the woman who wore a big floppy hat while tending to her roses each day at the crack of dawn. I spoke with each of those people.

Clues. tiny clues are often the ones that bring a case to a close. And those people, the lawn waterer and window-peepers, etc.—all had an opportunity to see something, and often times they did. But had I not taken the time to to stop and say hi and to ask a few simple questions, well, those little tidbits and tips may have gone forever unspoken.

I visited the homes of murder victims. I examined the rooms where they slept. I saw where they cooked and ate their meals. I looked into the refrigerators to see their contents, searching for anything that could help me better understand the unfortunate and poor soul whose heart no longer beat with metronome precision.

True Crime

I even used this method when researching and writing a true crime tale published by Prometheus books. The story was about the extremely brutal murder of a young woman named Tina Mott.

While conducting the research for the book (also available as an audio book – Murder on Minor Avenue), a process that lasted nearly a year, I found myself delving deeper and deeper in Tina’s life until I felt as if I’d known her. I learned so much detail about her short time on the planet that I knew her likes and dislikes, her hobbies, and even her emotions.

Tina wrote poetry and it was through her writings, works I studied, hoping to use them to pride me with insight, when I began to set her story to page.

I tacked photos of Tina on my bulletin board. I even had one of my desk. In the image on my desk, she was at a birthday celebration for her, a small event hosted by friends. In the picture, she was smiling and obviously happy.

Images like those helped to take me into her life, and together with the poems and interviews with friends and family, well, she was no longer a stranger whose remains went unfound for a year.

Instead, I knew Tina even though we’d never met. She was a person. A good-hearted young woman, a brand new mother with feelings and emotions. She laughed. She cried. She hurt. And she loved life. And then she died at the hand of her boyfriend, another person I came to know during the research.

I experienced both his good and his dark side. He, too, was real person. A real and evil person.

This is the same way I approached all murder cases. I came to know the victims as people.

Details!

Examining detail is often the key to successfully bringing a homicide case to a close. Think of the intricately woven tales created by Agatha Christie. While real life murders are often spur of the moment crimes that require little or no planning, each of Christie’s tales were tightly-plotted puzzles that needed solving. Or were they?

Many of Christies characters were stereotypical bad guys, yes, but those types of people do indeed exist in the real world, and it is their traits, like Christie’s make-believe killers, that sometimes fool inexperienced investigators who overlook them as suspects simply because they’re too obvious. Then there are the men and women who seemingly could not, not in a million years, commit a crime such as heinous as murder. Again, the cop who lacks experience could and sometimes does overlook these people as well.

Therefore, while working to solve a homicide case, it is paramount that investigators leave their predispositions locked away in an imaginary safe. Actually, officers should never pre-judge anyone. Instead, they should start fresh at each and every crime scene and with each and every suspect, witness, and victim. Isn’t that exactly how the great writers of our time produce such wonderful books, over and over again? They do so by starting with a fresh story on page one, chapter one.

Starting fresh, without predisposition and prejudice, and without knowing the identity of a killer is one reason why I believe Agatha Christie remains so wildly popular in the mystery world. This is so because she, like police homicide investigators, did not know the name of the killer when she started her stories.

As Christie’s characters worked through their convoluted and fictional crimes—bad and good folks alike—, they often made the same mistakes real-life officers tend to experience as they wind their ways through along the journeys leading to the ends of their cases. Christie wrote in this style because she, too, was working out resolutions to the clues and traps that she herself had planted while writing.

Human Nature

As a former detective who still thinks like an investigator as I read book after book, I sometimes see subtle things in Christie’s writing that leads me to believe she was solving her own cases with each written word.

In Five Little Pigs, Christie’s story clung tightly to the cause and effect of human nature. It’s a character-driven book where Poirot solves a cold case and he does so  through his and Christie’s understanding and examinations of a person’s emotions and passion. Like Poirot, through Christie’s eyes and typewriter, a real-life police investigator who has the ability to “see” human nature is an investigator who’ll find success in their field.

Sure, DNA and fancy lights and chemicals and laboratories are nice, but they’re nothing more than icing on the cake when compared to the detective who knows and understands people, and human nature.

Was Agatha Christie a panster and not a plotter?

If one were to stop and ponder for a moment they’d see that homicide and other detectives are both plotters and pansters. The former due to department guidelines and standard methods as to how a scene is approached—911 call, first responder arrives, detectives and CSI arrive, coroner is called, speak to witnesses, collect evidence using Sirchie evidence collection tools and products, yada, yada, yada.

The latter, a panster, due to the actual investigation part of the case where improvisation is a must, investigators assume the roles of actors. They must have the ability to become “one of the guys” in nearly every situation they encounter during the course of their investigations. They have to “walk the walk and talk the talk” in order to fit in and to help make people feel at ease around them. Drop the stiff cop persona. Be a human.

Detectives who follow along a more plotter-type course of investigation are perhaps science-based linear thinkers and, sure, their style produces results.

But it is the panster detective, the cop who’s not afraid to step outside the box, who’s the investigator that people will open up to most quickly. They’re the cops who turn over all the stones, just not in any particular order. They easily adapt to fast paced and quick-changing cases.

Christie knew and understood that humans are flawed. No one, including either of her characters, is perfect, and it is this, the fallibility of human beings, that helped her characters and her tales ring so wonderfully true, and believable.

Agatha Christie was indeed the queen of writing believable make-believe.

Another example of flawed human character, in a writing style that follows the footsteps of Agatha Christie, can found in Bellweather Rhapsody, a multi-layered character-driven novel by Kate Racculia.


By the way, someone asked about Amazon Echos. Yes, I do have the device and enjoy using it. Actually, Denene and I have two Echos and two Dots in our home. We use them for research, checking weather and commute times, to play music, operate our TV’s, as intercoms now that we live in a fairly large home, and to switch our lights on and off.

So yes, I highly recommend them and, since she asked (on Facebook) – Amazon is currently running a special promotion on these devices.