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Jim McCord

I say no.Capote comes to mind with his embellishments in "In Cold Blood."The most telling is his treatment of one of the killers,Perry Smith.He made him out to be this sensitive,tortured poet type while he was really nothing more than a malcontent career criminal who wound up swinging from the Kansas gallows for four cowardly murders that he and his equally vile partner in crime,Richard Hickcock committed.Truman villanized Hickcock at every turn in order for Smith to come out of the book looking like the lesser of evils although he most likely pulled the trigger himself on each of their victims.Not to say that Hickcock was not an equaly evil person;he hatched the plan that sent them to the gallows.There has been much written about Capote taking "liberties" with the truth in this book by those close to the actual events as well as many associated with the journalism profession.

Gregg Olsen

Never. Ever.

Kevin M. Sullivan

A well-written piece, Laura, on a subject not often talked about!

The military historian, Cornelius Ryan, (now deceased)once wrote that he used quoted conversation in his books only if it could be substantiated by at least two other people. Of course, he was a reporter at heart, and always wanted to get it right.

And so, writers run a real risk as they go after that novel-like-sound for their book. Much better to report only what was said; or probably said, and report it as such.

Now, as to describing a factual event which did occur on a certain date and time, and let's say that event was a murder; if you don't have all the particulars in the matter, but you do know how the victim was killed, and you also know how the killer acted in previous murders, then it is at least possible to describe what may have occurred at that particular day and time as if you were witnessing it. But again, you MUST have all your facts straight before you paint a picture of said likely events.

I know, it's like having a bit of quick sand under your feet, but I believe it can be navigated with the proper care and attention to details.

Inland Empire

Making up things makes it FICTION, not non fiction. Can't be both.

Kevin M. Sullivan

Here's what I mean. You know for a FACT that the killer has a flashlight. You know this. He says he dumped a body in a river in a dark rural area, and that he had some thirty feet to walk through underbrush to get her to the water. He doesn't SAY in his confession that he used it, but you know he did because it would have been an extremely difficult task without it. Can you say he in fact used it; it was, after all, part of his bag of tricks? I believe you can.

carole gill

I write fiction so this is a tough one.
I'll have to agree with Jim though.
As much as I loved Capote's In Cold Blood, I didn't ever appreciate the liberties he took. But from what has come out more recently, his heart was in his portrayl of Smith, if you know what I mean.
Both films about Capote--Infamous and the other one (can't think of the title, bring this out, too).
I guess to summarize my ramblings: No. A work of non-fiction should be an honest, thoroughly researched work of truth. Having said that, I suppose some fictionalizations are okay--as long as they don't generally subvert the facts.
for instance, if a killer is shown to wear a red shirt when he never owned a red shirt in his life, that's okay.
or what his favorite films were that's okay.
But it wouldn't be okay if he rarely watched violent movies but the author had him obsessed with them. see what I mean, guys?
Great topic!

Mardi Link

Interesting piece, Laura. Especially these days when the line between fiction and non-fiction appears to be getting more blurry than ever. If writers in the genre aren't careful, true crime will suffer the same indignities the memoir genre has of late.

My own pet peeve is made up dialogue. When you put quotes around something, that signifies to the reader that those words were actually spoken and not pulled from the writer's imagination (or other body part!) You're lying to the reader if you make up dialogue. And that's an unpardonable sin in my book.

Kevin M. Sullivan

Great point Mardi. If you can't get the dialogue correct then you need not put it on the page. What Capote did was make up dialogue which is nothing more then telling lies. When writing non fiction you must tell it as it is. To do anything else is untruthful, and has no place in "fact".

For clarification, my point above about the flashlight was this: I was speaking of Theodore Bundy and a murder he committed. Now, Bundy carried a brown gym bag, or satchel, or whatever you want to call it, and he kept all important implements related to murder inside that bag. They were the following: a clothesline rope; an electrical cord; strips of bed sheet; a flashlight, two different right-handed gloves; an ice pick; a ski mask; a pantyhose mask; and Glad trash bags for disposing of the victim's clothes. All of these items he considered vital to have with him when committing a murder.

On one occasion (he told a writer) he returned to a vacant lot between two houses in a suburb (and of course there was some light available to him) yet he carried said flashlight into that weed-covered lot and found the body. So, is it safe to assume he utilized this "tool" here too, in an area where there was no light? Of course he would. This is why he had all of theses items at-the-ready when needed. There would have been absolutely no way Bundy would have dragged that body to the river without using his flashlight.

And so, I believe it is only in such cases that it would be safe to assume what a person did or did not do. If you do not know for certain, one would say that it is "likely" the individual did this or that.

A Voice of Sanity

In general, I take all books with a grain of salt. I do this especially when the writer is involved in the tale. See "Dr. Laura: The Unauthorized Biography" by Vickie L. Bane as an example (and a very funny one). You know none of this is in any of Schlessinger's own books. Same with "A Thousand Little Pieces" by James Frey. I thought Oprah was ridiculous attacking him about it. My 'model' for all of this is the works of "Grey Owl" - one of the first and major conservationists who turned the world around. See for the story. Do we throw the baby out with the bath water - or accept it for what it is? So I'd like a notice in front which says "Some items altered for dramatic effect" but otherwise I won't always reject a book just because the facts aren't exact. And BTW, I note that every one of the books on Scott Peterson is riddled with errors - most of them grievously so.

Kevin M. Sullivan

Dear Voice--
You cannot have a book without a writer! A good writer should be like a good editor; that is, hardly even noticed. A good writer will also be a good researcher; a researcher who can get to that literary gold that's still hidden somewhere. Books, dear Voice, just don't appear out of nowhere, so I'm not quite sure what you mean?

A Voice of Sanity

Kevin M. Sullivan said: "You cannot have a book without a writer!"

OK, but that's not my point. I simply assume that everything written by man has some bias, more or less. If the writer is conscious of his inventions in that case, some notice would be nice.

Kevin M. Sullivan

You make a good point. Bias. We must be aware of it at all times. We can have our own opinions, but God help us if it shows through. I had to be exceedingly careful when writing my first book to offer both sides of the man (Custer) and I did. I knew I was successful in this endeavor when two of the reviewers made mention of this. A third reviewer, from the West Point Military Academy, wrote a less-then-favorable piece for their paper, which surprised me, but it had nothing to do with how I presented the man. However, Hal Moore, of "We were Soldiers Once and Young" fame wrote me and said if he could recommend but one book to the new student of Custer, it would be mine.

Well, I have said all this to point out that if you do your homework when producing a book, and you're careful in the area of personal bias, you might just create a good work to pass along to others.

Laura James

>>I'd like a notice in front<<

I felt compelled to put a notice in the front of my book (due out next year): "This is a work of nonfiction that attempts to present the strict truth about everything and everyone it describes. Details were gleaned from many sources, public and private, which are listed in the bibliography at the end of the book. Any information that appears in quotation marks is the verbatim report of at least one reliable source."

Because, Pathetically, the "NONFICTION" label isn't enough these days.

the man in the trout  mask

Conjecture is acceptable if it is identified as such,otherwise the facts should be allowed to speak for themselves.

Kevin M. Sullivan

Mask: Conjecture: To conclude or suppose from incomplete evidence; guess. (Webster's...) "Guess". What a terrible thing to say when dealing with nonfiction; still, you are correct that such literary activity should be identified.
Truman Capote was so used to writing lies, (I mean novels!)that he had no real regard for the truth of a nonfiction book. This should never have been allowed by the publisher, (in this case I'm not certain what they knew or didn't know) but publishers are all about money (it is the bottom line) and everyone understood Capote's work would sell for he already had "a name" if you will.

(Say, while we're on the subject of book writing and publishing, is it just me, or does anyone else out there find it odd that everyone on Fox, or NBC, or CNN seems to be writing books these days? Even lowly reporters are getting in on the act. I mean, what have they got to say that they don't say every night on TV? Or, how about Steve Martin or Madonna writing a children's book? Oh well, I must be moving along...)

Anyway, we must be very,very careful adding anything to a nonfiction book which can't be backed up by the facts. And when you are doing fact-checking, and you're dealing with an entire book, believe me the task is daunting, BUT, it is also rewarding. Now, there are times when the writer can know things by knowing situations, and they won't be conjecture, or a guess, and here's what I mean; and this isn't even a case where you'd have to say that he "most likely" did a certain thing.

I am currently putting the finishing touches on a book about Theodore Bundy. Now, I am going to tell you something Bundy said; what the investigators discovered; and what it means EVEN THOUGH BUNDY NEVER ADMITTED TO DOING THIS. (1) Bundy told an investigator that he had as many as 4 of his victims' heads in his apartment at one time. (2) Numerous skulls of his victims were found with the front teeth knocked out.(3)Bundy used these heads for sexual purposes, and the removal of the front teeth were for...well, you know where I was about to go.

Could there have been any other reason for the taking of the heads and the removing of the teeth for Ted Bundy the sex-killer? Absolutely not. So incorporating this FACT into the story and what this means is not a conjecture or a guess, but an assumption based on solid fact as to the depravities he made such a part of his life.

And Laura, your disclaimer about that which is used in quotes is excellent. There is simply no other way to do a nonfiction book. When quotes are given, sources must be applied. Amen!


You got a publisher for it, Kevin? It sounds like a must-read!

Kevin M. Sullivan

Not yet, Fiz. And thank you!


Congratulations on your book coming out next year.

The main problem I see with embellishment in the true crime genre, is that your average reader is often completely unaware of the crime the "true crime" author has committed.

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