By Basil Sands
Edgar-nominated Diane Fanning is the author of six novels in the thrilling Lieutenant Lucinda Pierce series. The inspiration for her fiction is firmly rooted in her writing experience with another genre, true crime. SLEEP MY DARLINGS, her twelfth non-fiction book, is a journey into the darkness of a mother’s heart.
She’s here today to talk with us about her new book, and her work in general.
Describe your new true crime release, SLEEP MY DARLINGS, for us.
SLEEP MY DARLINGS is the tragic story of the death of teenagers Calyx and Beau at the hand of their mother, Julie Schenecker. Julie was an accomplished 50-year-old woman, star of her university volleyball team and an army Russian intelligence analyst during the Cold War. Married to Colonel Parker Schenecker, still in a military intelligence unit, they lived with her two children in an upscale community in North Tampa, Florida.
The book explores the essential questions behind the crime. Did Julie Schenecker commit the double homicide of her children because of a lethal combination of severe mental illness and substance abuse? Or did she pre-mediate the crime, knowing exactly what she was doing? Is she deserving of mercy or is she just another cold-blooded, heartless murderer?
You write both True Crime and Fiction. What got you started in these genres?
When I was nine-years-old, a stranger attempted to abduct me. Because of pure serendipity, I was able to escape his grasp. I remembered his license plate number and when the police stopped his car they found evidence in the trunk that linked him to the sexual assault and murder of an 8-year-old girl a month earlier.
The traumatic event fed my curiosity. I wanted to know why he picked me to be a victim and what drove someone to commit such an awful crime. I devoured all the books I could find about the criminal mind, trying to understand the psychology. Studying the topic became a lifelong avocation for me.
Then one day in 2000, I was watching 48 HOURS and saw the story of 10-year-old Krystal Surles who had watched a serial killer take the life of her friend and survived his murderous assault on her. She was responsible for ending the two-decade long killing spree of Tommy Lynn Sells. She had, at a similar age, done what I had done but on a much larger scale and with a great deal of courage and determination. She instantly became my hero. I was compelled to write her story. From that urge, THROUGH THE WINDOW was published.
After that, I wrote four more true crime books becoming overwhelmed at times by the emotional impact of speaking with victims’ family members, viewing crime scene photos and reading autopsy reports. And, quite frankly, I needed a break. I decided to attempt to write the type of book I like to read, novels of thrill, suspense and crime.
I found I really loved it. I was no longer stuck with the facts as I was with non-fiction writing. The plot depended on my imagination instead of the real life events that were beyond my control. I could kill who I wanted and no real family would suffer. It was a magnificent release.
Readers sometimes wonder what makes writers like yourself tick. How you come up with the ideas for your fiction or how you can handle the research for the true crime that must get a bit gory at times. To what do you attribute the ability be so prolific in these genres? Do you ever feel like you have a criminal mind lurking in there somewhere?
Some of my ideas for fiction arise from moments of inspiration from an actual crime, like my experience with a case of wrongful conviction and the information I gained from many hours of interviews with a serial killer on death row. Then, others come from everyday moments in life. For example, one day I was sitting in Gruene Hall watching a live acoustic performance and a thought crossed my mind: would it be possible to kill someone with a guitar string? After a little bit of research, a plot was born. I am sure that does say something about the sick state of my mind.
The research for true crime stories can be very depressing. There are three things that help me cope: 1. The appreciation expressed by the victims’ family members after the book is written; 2. The knowledge that the books I have written have actually made a difference in the lives of others; and 3. The actual experience of writing exorcises many of the demons. The photos of the victims in death, however, stay with me for a very long time.
I am prolific not because that is my goal or some sort of master business plan but because I simply love the process of writing. If I do not write every day, I feel guilty for wasting the day. (Yeah, that probably goes along with the previously mentioned “sick mind.”)
What is your favorite part of what you do as a writer?
The actual writing is a joyful exercise for me—particularly with fiction since I can give full rein to the movies running in my head without having to pause to check on facts. But, I must confess, I am crazy about the research. I was a nerd long before it was a word—I even liked writing term papers in high school.
Do you have a story of the most interesting research you’ve done?
I absolutely loved doing the research for OUT THERE about the Lisa Nowak case, in part, because that was the only one of my true crime books where no one died as the result of the perpetrator’s actions. However, the big draw for me was traveling the arc of Lisa’s life. She was a remarkable woman until she snapped. Admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy when that was still a novelty; trained as a combat pilot before women were allowed to participate in that role; and admitted to the astronaut program and making a flight in space on a shuttle mission. I learned a tremendous amount of fascinating details of the life and history of the academy and the space program in doing that research and learned a lot of unusual things as well. I mean, really, where else could you read about the “Vomit Comet?”
Of all your writings what true crime case stands out the most for you and why?
I tried but I could not narrow it down to just one. One of the two that really stand out to me are THROUGH THE WINDOW, because that book served as a catalyst to enable Julie Rea, a woman wrongfully convicted of the murder of her ten-year-old son, to receive a new trial. I worked with her original appeals attorney, the investigator at Downstate Illinois Innocence project and her legal team at the Center on Wrongful Convictions. Julie was acquitted in her second trial. The experience inspired WRONG TURN, the sixth book in my Lieutenant Lucinda Pierce mystery series.
The second book that stands out is GONE FOREVER because by the time the manuscript was finished, I felt the murder victim, Susan McFarland, was as close to my heart as any friend has ever been. The generosity of her family and friends in sharing stories about her and my ability to read Susan’s personal journal created an intimate connection with her. Although that book was published in 2006, I still have her picture hanging on my computer station.
If you had a time machine and could go back to any point in time to investigate a famous crime scene, what crime would you most want to check out?
The murder of Marilyn Sheppard has haunted me since childhood. THE FUGITIVE television show made me very empathetic of her accused husband Dr. Sam Shepherd. I have often wondered if I could have been there to see the evidence first hand and question the suspect and other witnesses, would I have been able to uncover the truth. Dissecting and discovering the difference between myth and reality would be a big thrill.
To learn more about Diane, please visit her website.
He lives in Anchorage Alaska with his wife and teen sons.