It’s my great pleasure today to welcome Adam to Fatal Acres to talk about the research he does for his writing. Adam’s a true-crime writer – but wait! Before you shudder and leave – it’s not that kind of true crime. It’s the story of JJ, police dog extraordinaire: his triumphs, his tragedies and how he changed policing in the West.
Bloodhound in Blue has been hailed as humorous, refreshing, compelling and filled with adventure, getting stellar reviews from The San Francisco Chronicle and The Seattle Kennel Club, which is not something that happens every day.
Here’s a short excerpt from the opening pages:
“He was born in rural Missouri, and it was immediately clear that he was different from the rest. He caught his first criminal when he was just two years old. By his sixth birthday, he had located burglars, rapists, drug dealers, missing children, and murderers—including Utah’s most wanted criminal. Known to friends as JJ, to law enforcement as Michael Serio’s partner, and by captured criminals as “that damned dog,” Jessie Jr. was an exceptionally talented bloodhound, baying like a sea lion that had swallowed a fog horn … In almost nine years of service, JJ helped apprehend nearly 300 criminal suspects in the Salt Lake City area. Here is his remarkable story, fleas and all.”
And now here’s Adam:
The Devil, The Details and Joe Friday
I’d always considered myself a fiction writer, short stories mostly, until a few years ago when a true story fell in my lap and I started working on what would become my first book, Bloodhound in Blue. Nonfiction was a new experience for me. At the beginning, it seemed to be an entirely different beast than writing fiction, but I eventually realized that there are more similarities than differences. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the lines in the sand between fiction and nonfiction. It really irks me when the latest memoirist caught in a blatant fabrication retorts with the freshman philosophy student’s But what is truth?
What I have come to realize is that the elements of good storytelling are universal. I’ve also found, however, that once the story is put out into the world, the differences between fiction and nonfiction resurface in some pretty interesting ways. It may be obvious to you, but it’s something I wasn’t quite prepared for; with nonfiction, the characters of your story tell you what they thought about the writing. As vivid and fully formed as her characters are, that probably doesn’t happen to J. K. Rowling.
Knowing your characters will read your story adds pressure to getting the details right, but the facts can be equally important in historical fiction and, depending on how close to reality you tread, in other forms of fiction as well. Incorporating those facts into the scene isn’t always so straightforward, particularly if you weren’t there to witness the events.
As an example, in one of the chapters in my book, I had to write about a police officer and his bloodhound following in the trail a few hours after Elizabeth Smart, a 14-year-old girl, was abducted at knife point from her bedroom and taken into the mountains. Tracking far into the mountains and thinking that his dog might be taking him on a wild goose chase; a police helicopter with thermal imaging technology was called to scan the canyon ahead of their location.
For material, I had access to the K9 handler, other officers on the scene, police case files, dispatch reports, and numerous news articles and television footage following the kidnapping that grabbed the nation’s attention in the summer of 2002. When I started to write what happened that night from the K9 team’s point of view, however, I lacked some key details to flesh out the scene.
Initially, Google Maps helped me get a bird’s eye view of the track the bloodhound followed and later I was able to walk the same terrain into the mountains accompanied by the police officer. His recall was exceptional, especially considering that ten years had passed, but there were still some details I needed. Fortunately, the U.S. Naval Observatory maintains archived sun and moon data by longitude and latitude. Weather Underground has archived hourly temperature data, moisture, precipitation, wind speed, and visibility information as well as how they compare to the area’s average and record statistics. Product specifications from the company who makes the thermal imaging camera attached to the police helicopter that night provided me with detail about what it was capable of spotting in different weather conditions.
You certainly wouldn’t want to include all the information you can collect or even the majority of it, but small details such as, “it was unseasonably cold that day,” can help the reader engage with the scene.
Here’s a short excerpt from the chapter when the bloodhound has tracked into the mountains, two police officers following behind:
Sunrise that morning came at 5:57 a.m., but on the western side of the Wasatch Mountain Range they couldn’t yet see the dawn. The northeastern canyon where they were headed, known as Dry Creek Canyon, was still dark, and the temperature, around sixty degrees, remained cold enough for the FLIR system to be effective. The temperature later in the day rose to eighty-four degrees, too warm for the thermal camera to differentiate warm bodies from the heat of the ground and the surrounding atmosphere saturated by solar loading.
Since the book has come out, the most gratifying comments I’ve received is from the Joe Fridays, the police officers who were there, saying, “You’ve captured what it was like.”
Bloodhound in Blue is published by Lyons Press in hardcover and e-format and Adam is currently working on his next book, based around the true events of the Vietnam war, out in 2015.