Writing a Book as Circumstantial Evidence

Helter Skelter by Bill Hartman from FlickrI am currently reading Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry. The book is about the Manson Family murders, which is a moniker that sounds gaily sing-songy compared to just how nightmarish those events were. Charles Manson and the group of people he had brainwashed slaughtered around eleven people over the course of a few months in the summer of 1969.

The book is considered the definitive work on the Manson murders. This is not surprising as the co-author, Bugliosi, was also the DA in charge of prosecuting the crimes.

The book is also completely fucking with my head, as true-crime always does. It’s easy to read monsters in fiction and treat them as part of a story set down on paper. It is something else entirely when you read about monsters in non-fiction and have to admit that people like these actually exist.

The murders were…I want to use the word grisly, but that sounds like a word one would use in fiction, whereas the people in this book were real humans who were stabbed and shot, including a pregnant woman, and I just have a hard time using any adjective that feels “slick.”

And that is, frankly, where the book shines. Much like In Cold Blood, the writing doesn’t stretch too far to make its point or force horror upon you. Instead, Helter Skelter is a calm collection of facts, notes, interviews, and other documents woven together and told as a story. At one point you read an interview with one of the suspects and “listen” as she describes stabbing a pregnant woman and then tasting her victim’s blood: “Wow, what a trip…to taste death, and yet to give life.”

I didn’t really sleep the night I read that. I just stared up at the ceiling and felt bad. Eventually I watched some TV. Then I went back to staring at the ceiling.

But, annoyingly, I also find myself looking at this piece of novel-journalism and saying to myself: “Can I learn from this as a writer of fiction?”

And, sure enough, there have been numerous instances where I’ve found an odd parallel between Bugliosi calmly building his court case and my attempts to build a story.

At one point the Bugliosi is visiting an area where the Manson family stayed for awhile out in the desert of California. He is told that they should walk the five miles to the campsite as it is up a wash which consists of pretty bad terrain, too bad for a jeep. The Bugliosi asks, “How bad could it be?” and gets his host to attempt the drive. It takes them five hours to go that five miles as the wash is a jumbled mess and they constantly have to get out to maneuver and guide the jeep over a set of boulders or move some large rocks out of the path.

At one point the author orders photos to be taken of this wash. When asked why, he explains that the simple fact that these people were living at the end of such a road indicates their unwillingness to be found.

It isn’t a case-breaker of a detail by any means. But, as Bugliosi explains,  it is, “circumstantial evidence, a tiny speck, but of such specks, one after another, are strong cases made.”

Details matter.

How many of you have thought to line the roads leading to your villains with metaphorical boulders? How many of you have put uneven terrain leading up to characters who don’t want to be found?

Does such a detail make or break a book? No.

But one after another a string of such details will.

(I sort of hate myself for typing “metaphorical boulders” up there)