Writing True Crime: Q&A with Janis Thornton

Image: Janis Thornton

Today’s Q&A is by journalist and romance writer Cathy Shouse (@cathyshouse).

Janis Thornton (@JanisThornton) is the author of history, mystery, and true crime, as well as an award-winning news reporter and former editor of The Times of Frankfort, Indiana.

Her latest book, No Place Like Murder: True Crime in the Midwest, is a collection of 20 true crime stories that rocked Indiana between 1869 and 1950. Janis released her first true crime book in 2018, Too Good a Girl: Remembering Olene Emberton and the Mystery of Her Death, the story of her high school classmate, whose tragic death in 1965 was never solved.

Cathy Shouse: I was touched by the human vulnerabilities in No Place Like Murder: True Crime in the Midwest and by how much the characters come to life, both those who were killed and their murderers. You’ve stated that sensationalizing the stories wasn’t your goal and I believe you’ve honored that. How did you get started with writing true crime?

Janis Thornton: I discovered my fascination for true crime in the early 2000s, when I began to research the unsolved murder of my high school classmate. I had recently started a new career as a newspaper reporter and was learning the investigative reporting skills crucial for accurately documenting historical facts. Off and on over the next 14 years, I combed through court records and news articles, tracked down and interviewed law enforcement officials connected to the case, sent Freedom of Information Act requests, studied criminology, picked the brains of forensics experts, attended conferences, talked with Olene’s classmates, friends and family members, followed all the loose ends, and ultimately tied them together for Too Good a Girl.

While the research was intensive, the most challenging aspect of the project was breaking through my self-doubt. The closer I came to wrapping up the research phase, the more I heard myself asking: Am I the right person to tell this story? Have I crossed a line? Will the book cause the family pain by opening old wounds?

Ultimately, my classmate’s family gave me their blessing, which is a gift I still cherish. That book is the most complex, most important, and most satisfying writing project I’ve completed to date. Equally satisfying, and immensely gratifying, was the community’s support of the memorial fund I established in my classmate’s name. In addition to the book’s net proceeds that I donated, the fund raised another nearly $30,000, which will be used for community grants for many years to come.

Why did you choose historic crimes for No Place Like Murder: True Crime in the Midwest?

My interest in writing true crime is an offspring of my love for history, mystery, and telling long-forgotten stories. I first stumbled onto what I refer to as historic crime stories while I was a newspaper reporter in Frankfort, Indiana. I was looking for something in the building’s basement and found an old clip file named “Murders.” I couldn’t resist reading through the stories, some dating back more than 100 years. The writing was vivid, colorful, a tad sensational, and as riveting as any Stephen King novel I’d read. I made copies and took them home, thinking maybe I’d eventually find a use for them. And I did. Three of them became fully fleshed-out chapters in No Place Like Murder.

Conventional wisdom tends to view the good ol’ days as a scene from “The Music Man,” when, in fact, the early 1900s produced the likes of Lizzie Borden and H.H. Holmes, and a couple decades later came Bonnie & Clyde and Indiana’s own John Dillinger.

As a writer, I see myself as a historian, preferring to preserve stories of criminal misdeeds from long ago, as well as the memories of those who experienced them, rather than recounting recent crimes that dominate our modern-day media.

Once you’ve selected a crime to research, how do you find the nitty-gritty details that are going to keep a reader’s interest?

No one associated with the vintage cases written about in No Place Like Murder is living. So I primarily relied on old newspaper stories, searchable online via newspapers.com. Occasionally, I also found valuable information in old court records at county courthouses and historical societies, and in school yearbooks and family histories at city libraries.

When I was researching my classmate’s death in 1965, I found many more resources at my disposal. While I also relied on old newspaper stories for the facts about the case, the stories contained names of law enforcement officers that had worked the case. With a little help from Google, I was able to locate some of them, and despite the 40-50 years that had passed, they readily agreed to meet with me to be interviewed.

What does a writer need to know about the legal aspects of this type of writing?

There are legal risks in writing about living people, such as defamation, that can apply to any genre, not just true crime. However, writers can mitigate or even eliminate such risks by practicing the rules of good journalism by including only quotes and information that are part of the public record, sticking to verifiable facts and rejecting unsubstantiated claims, omitting opinions disguised as facts, and citing sources. Ethical journalism should always be adhered to, even when the person written about is deceased. Generally, liability issues are nullified upon a person’s death.

Nonfiction writers sometimes ask their sources to sign a liability release waiver, but the best advice I received before I published the book about my classmate came from a true crime author I met at a conference, who suggested I join The Authors Guild. The Guild offers members access to its legal department and media liability insurance through a reputable underwriter. I did purchase the liability insurance, which is good for the life of the book. The one-time fee was roughly $1,000. That may sound hefty, but it was worth every cent for the peace of mind it brought me. Insurance cost varies based on the book. If the insurance provider determines that the content of the book is too risky, it could decline to insure it.

The legalities concerning photographs are another matter. For the book about my classmate, I wanted to reprint a few photos that had appeared in a couple of area newspapers in 1965. Copyright still applied, so I contacted the publishers at both newspapers and asked for permission, which they granted.

My most recent book contains several newspaper photos that appeared in print as far back as the early 1900s, and those were usable without permission [they had fallen into the public domain]. The Indiana State Prison mug shots in the book were provided by the Indiana State Archives and required a minimal use fee. In addition, a few other photos were supplied by county historical societies and individuals as a courtesy.

Finally, it should be noted that, after I turned in my manuscript and photos to the publisher, they asked that I submit copies of written permissions for each photo, except those in the public domain.

Copyright and libel laws are often ambiguous. Thus, I highly recommend that, prior to publishing stories and photos regarding real people or events, the author get their manuscript reviewed by a lawyer.

Tell us how you ended up with Indiana University Press for No Place Like Murder.

My historic true crime project was originally composed of 15 true crime stories: three set in my central Indiana county and three in each of the four counties surrounding it. In early 2017, I submitted my book proposal to a well-known national publisher, who was interested but ultimately declined. I then queried another highly respected publisher, who initially said “yes” but a few weeks later reneged without explanation.

Discouraged, I turned my attention to a different project and left my true crime book to simmer on the back burner. By the end of the year, I was seriously considering publishing No Place Like Murder myself. But in early January 2018, the idea to query I.U. Press occurred to me. It had published numerous books about Indiana history, and its Quarry Books imprint included true crime books similar to mine. I emailed my proposal with one of the stories to the acquisitions editor, and two days later she emailed me back asking for the full manuscript. She said her team would publish my book if I would commit to adding at least two more stories, one set in Northern Indiana and the other in Southern Indiana. In the end, I included five additional stories. I also included two forewords, written by distinguished Indiana authors. Working with I.U. Press has been a joy.

Does a true crime story have a built-in audience?

Who doesn’t have a morbid curiosity about the dark side? Who hasn’t succumbed to the allure of a particularly sensational crime and taken a peek behind the headlines?

While many readers revel in crime fiction, it’s true crime that reigns supreme among hard-core armchair detectives. True crime dominates TV, movies, and podcasts. There’s even an annual CrimeCon that draws thousands of true crime fans from around the world. Bottom line, true crime has been “killing it” for decades. Knowing there’s a hungry true crime audience out there, my job has been to discover the best places and ways to feed into it.

When I released Too Good a Girl in August 2018, I held a launch at the local library. As special guests, I invited law enforcement officers who had worked the case, the current coroner, the current mayor, and members of my classmate’s family. I had no way of knowing whether five, 25, or 50 people would show up. But when the day arrived, a standing-room-only crowd of at least 150 packed the library. I gave my presentation, followed by a Q&A, followed by a book signing. People waited in line for an hour to get their books signed, and the librarian told me later that they had never before hosted an event like it before.

The book also generated a lot of media interest, and I was thrilled when the Indianapolis Star ran a story about it that dominated page one of its August 13, 2018, edition and most of its first section. In addition, the NBC-TV affiliate in Indianapolis featured the book in a broadcast segment that included an interview with me recorded at various locations related to the crime. This kind of publicity is extremely rare. I call it a gift from the marketing gods.

Unfortunately, due to COVID, many avenues for promotion are now closed. Zoom has been a godsend. I have upcoming podcasting and Zoom activities scheduled with one of the area libraries, focusing on the new book. It will be an experiment for the library, too, but I see no downside to trying something new and learning from it.

My most innovative undertaking has been a 15-part blog series documenting my travels throughout the state visiting graves of people featured in the book—villains as well as victims. I located the graves using the website Find a Grave. On September 1 I started posting the pieces and followed with a new post every other day through the end of the month. To help encourage a wider circulation of the posts, and ultimately readers once the book is released, I asked my Facebook friends to share the post with their friends in exchange for a chance to win a copy of the book. The response has been enthusiastic.

What are you working on next? I want to research and write 20 more historic true crime stories for No Place Like Murder 2, while working on a history of Indiana’s experience with the Palm Sunday tornadoes that ripped through the Midwest on April 11, 1965. Neither project has yet been signed by a publisher, but I’m optimistic that they will be.

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