WRITING TRUE CRIME: PITFALLS, PRATFALLS, AND SOME DEGREE OF MISERY.
by Steve Daniels
In 2006, after 26 years in the criminal justice system, I retired from my position of high-risk parole agent with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. As virtually every offender on my caseload had at least one homicide on their record, my interest in this category of crime was deep-seated and hard to cut loose.
In approximately 2009, I approached a local publisher with an idea to write a book about some of my more egregious, eerie and high profile cases, of which there were many. The publisher offered that she would be interested, but wanted me to tackle her project of interest first. This began the journey that lead to my first book: HARRY: A Study of Teenage Mass Murderers. There was actually a hook to writing Harry as my father was the lead investigator on the case way back in 1963. Briefly, Harry Hebard, a 17 year old high school student murdered his family of five on a cold February day. This could very well be the first documented progeny mass killing in modern Wisconsin history.
At our first meeting, the publisher and I agreed to co-author the book. (Mistake #1). I would write the majority of chapters, and she, claiming a great ability to write about crime scenes suggested she would pen two chapters. As I maintained a excellent relationship with the district attorney's office, as well as the city police, I had no difficulty obtaining records, reports, transcripts, etc. After obtaining documents, the publisher and I met face-to-face to research the copious amounts of paperwork. This happened once, and we never met again. (Mistake #2).
After I trudged through boxes of reports, met with those in-the-know about the murdered family as well as the perpetrator, and made numerous trips to the library, museum, and the neighborhood surrounding the death house, I began writing in earnest. I would write in fits and starts as moods came and quickly vanished. But, I made progress, virtually hearing nothing from the publisher. Then, out of the blue, an e-mail arrived informing me that an ISBN number had been assigned and Harry was born.
Feeling I had written all I could without her chapters, I sent e-mail after e-mail, after e-mail with virtually no meaningful reply. Bizarrely, release dates were set, then moved back, then canceled. I would get e-mails from the publisher indicating reasons for the delays such as she was working on a blockbuster hard cover book with another author and that was her priority. Not knowing the business, I accepted reasons, but begrudgingly. Then, if what I believe to be attempts to assuage my trepidations, I would get e-mails indicating her plans for a multi-city book tour, a first check should be coming soon. This was strange as we had never discussed money, nor did we even have a written contract or agreement. (Mistake #3)
This cat-and-mouse game went on for about four years. Finally, I contacted the publisher, indicated I wanted some answers. Feeling pressured, she indicated she had not written the two chapters, so, in essence we had no finished product, and the book could not be released. I informed the publisher I was going to seek another person to assist me, I wanted out of our "non" agreement, and I would finish the book, alone. I luckily found a great publishing firm in M & B Global Solutions, and the rest is history. In about four months with these professionals, we had a written release from the first publisher as well a signed contract. Everything else fell into place. I wrote the remaining two chapters, the work was edited, the book was formatted, cover designed, and Harry was reading for a December 6th, 2014 book signing.
I learned much from this experience. Find a professional publisher. Have a written contract. I shouldn't have waited 4 1/2 years to make a move to help myself. But, Harry is "in the books", and I am in the early stages of researching my second, a true crime story of a serial killer currently in our prison system.
So, best of luck to all authors, both publishing and aspiring.
HARRY: A STUDY OF TEENAGE MASS MURDERERS
About the Author:
Steve Daniels retired after twenty-six years in the criminal justice system, the last twelve as a high-risk parole agent working with extremely violent and dangerous offenders. During that career, Steve and a colleague interviewed and researched nearly 200 murderers in an effort to develop a working profile for criminal justice professionals.
Steve is chair of the Cold Case Review Team for the Wisconsin Association of Homicide Investigators, assisting agencies with old, unsolved homicides. He is also the author of numerous articles on various types of homicide, and is the coordinator of a nationally recognized annual homicide conference.