Earlier this month Jo Michaels released the eagerly awaited conclusion to the Pen Pals and Serial Killer Series – The House! But what is it like writing a series about serial killers, how do you research that stuff without raising all sorts of red flags? Well there was only one way to find out and that was to ask Jo to tell us all about it in the blogs first ever guest post – The Perils of Researching Killers!
I’d like to take a moment and thank Post-Apocalyptic Playground for hosting my guest post for this blog tour. What a great topic!
Let me start out with an introduction. I’m Jo Michaels, and I write about serial killers—amongst other things. My sociopaths are my favorite characters to date, though. They’re not only fun to dive into, they’ve also given me incredible insight into the human psyche and have generated some challenging and interesting research fodder. That’s what this post is about, so strap in, grab some coffee or tea, and let’s get to the fun!
Emancipation is the first in the Pen Pals and Serial Killers series (stand-alone novels with crossover characters), and when I started writing it, I knew only three things: I wanted my MC, Tobias, to be in prison, I wanted him to be a true sociopath, and I wanted an attorney to want to get him out. Those are the most important three elements in that novel. My courtroom scene had to be realistic, right? And what about prison? What is a sociopath, really? So, my research began.
I bought a book on serial killers and read it first. Needing to get into Tobias’s head was number one. Investigation Discovery was always on my television (freaked me out a few times late at night when the hubs was away), and I also watched shows about the inner workings of prisons. This helped me pick up slang terms and learn about the culture and the inmates—what they felt or thought. Then, I had to hit Google. Some of my searches wouldn’t look good if I were arrested:
How to knock someone out without killing them (this is harder than you may think—damned movies!).
The effects of speed on the human body.
How to pull off a fingernail.
Famous serial killers (then I searched each one and read their bio).
The effects of heroine on the human body.
How to send someone money in prison.
Prison pen pal system.
Now, you’re probably thinking I’m as crazy as I felt, and you’re probably right, but I stumbled upon some extremely interesting websites/articles along the way. One was letters from prisoners to the general public. There was this one guy, a Latino, who wrote some telling stories that I drew a lot of knowledge from about things like quality of food and shady things that went on behind bars. If you’re ever in the mood to read stuff from a prisoner, do a search on stories from inmates. See what you get. Interesting stuff!
There was one thing that was incredibly frustrating: Finding out exactly the kinds of things that might be possible in prison. This is where my son-in-law came in handy. He works at a prison, and picking his brain was one of the absolute best resources I had. Not once did he flinch at a question—and there were many. Basically, he summed it up as: Anything can happen in a prison if you have a guard that’s corrupt enough and the cash to bribe that guard properly.
Once he told me that, it was no-holds barred. If you want to know more, you’ll have to read the book. Ha!
My second book in the series is Provocation, and this one took some serious deep-diving. I re-wrote the first three chapters over twenty times. It was during that twenty-fourth(?) rewrite that I realized something: The MC’s mother, Jane, needed a voice, too. That created more than one issue.
First off, her “voice” had to be set in the seventies in rural West Virginia. Second, I had to figure out how to seamlessly transition from that time period to current/present time without confusing the hell out of my readers. So, my MC, Victoria Ward, got two names: Victoria (current) and Vicki (past). That makes it easier to grasp as you move back and forth through time. Her past was a must. It had a direct impact on her current state of mind.
There were also some interesting search terms put into Google for this one:
How to make homemade napalm.
Best nerve gas in history.
How to rig a building to blow up with a series of switches.
Buying land in the Everglades.
How people washed clothes in the seventies with no electricity.
Women holding jobs in the seventies in small towns.
Average life insurance payouts in the seventies (this is really difficult to find).
But there again, a family member came in handy. That time, it was my dad. When I was researching ways to dispose of a body, and talking about it with my parents sitting there, my dad offered up a few bits of wisdom: Feed it to hogs—they’ll eat anything, bones and all. One thing you need to remember though, you have to crush the skull somehow. They can’t get their jaws around it to do it themselves.
Was I shocked? You bet. I also wondered how many people my dear old daddy had disposed of over the years. O.o
The character you meet in this book that appeared in the first is: Jessica Phang. She’s on Doctor Ward’s couch at age twelve.
The character you meet that you’ll see in the next book is: Hank Reynolds. He’s a detective with the Atlanta PD who works with Doctor Ward for a little while.
I hope you’re having fun reading this! I’m certainly having fun writing it. Let’s move on to the last two books!
Third in the Pen Pals and Serial Killers series is Intensification. In this book, you meet Hank Reynolds again, but you get to see him working on a major case that just hit his desk.
Some of my searches for this novel were:
Best realistic flesh compound (oh, the sex toys that came up in this one! Haha).
How to skin a human.
Tranquilizer darts and guns.
Taxidermy best practices.
Preserving human flesh.
Yeah, probably best not to ask. *grin*
This was the most difficult one to write because the chapters change POV in the middle of each. There’s a very good reason for this, but you have to read the book to find out. I can’t tell you anything else about the book or it’ll be ruined.
Characters in this book from a previous one: Victoria Ward. She appears in a phone call made to Hank.
Characters in (or mentioned in) this book that appear in the next: Hank, Claude, Detective Larone, and Jo Michaels. Those last two provide Hank with some much-needed information that helps him crack the case.
Character in this book slated for another (possible) in the future: Tony Moretti’s cousin, Nicky.
My fourth, and final (for now), novel in this series is the one this tour is about, but it’s totally different from the previous books. The House is written in first-person past, and every other book in this series is written in third-person past. It’s also a group of short stories that tell one long story—unlike the others. These are all reasons it has a different cover style and a different title style. While it’s part of the series, it’s also unique. I wanted to show that in every way possible.
I have to issue a spoiler alert here: If you plan to read Intensification, do that first. The House will ruin the surprise. If you never ever plan to read the other, then you’re fine. It’s not required in order to enjoy this one.
This story is being told by the house itself as though it’s speaking to someone who’s writing it all down.
I thought that would be an interesting way to give readers an unreliable narrator and make them think about what their house might say if it told someone its story. It’s all a little ironic, but it’s also fun and different. I’d be willing to bet my left arm that you’ve never read anything quite like it.
Something a lot of people may not realize is how massive the timeline for this series needed to be. It’s color coded—that’s how many items are on there. I couldn’t have Jess plopping down on Victoria’s couch in the wrong year, and Hank and Victoria couldn’t have shared that phone call on any other day. Larone calling Hank also had to happen at the precise time it was needed. That was the single biggest trial I had to overcome. When I cleaned my office up, I accidentally threw away my old notebook with my timelines in it. This was dead in the middle of writing Provocation. So, I had to go back and read Emancipation and re-create it all from scratch. Now it’s digital and backed up in several places. Haha! That was one hell of a task.
If anyone finds my search history, they’re going to wonder what I’m planning. These are some seriously intense books steeped in reality.
Thanks for hanging out with me and listening to my ramblings. I’m sure I’ve taken up way more space than I should’ve, but hey, a writer gonna write!
Until next time!
Thank you so much Jo for an amazing guest post, you can ramble all you like here, i’m all about the ramblings! It’s always fascinating to get an insight into the writing process, even if that process does get accidentally thrown away! I would also like to thank Amber Garcia from Lady Amber’s Reviews and PR for hosting this tour, if you want to find out more about Jo and The House you can find earlier stops on the tour here and check back as there is more goodness on the tour to come! Below are all the links you will ever need 🙂