Monday, February 28, 2005

How I Got Here, Part 3

My thanks to those of you who’ve posted comments. I enjoy that feedback. To answer one question from Friday—Eyes of Elisha was the first novel I wrote. It wasn’t my first novel to be published. Ah, but that’s all part of the journey story.

I should start filling in dates here, just so y’all can see how long this process took. I started writing Eyes of Elisha early in 1990, shortly after giving birth to our daughter. Then I rewrote it and rewrote it. I now pick up the story in spring of 1993, when I needed to attend a murder trial.

Dubbed the “Diary Girl murder case,” it was a tabloid-made trial from the start. In August of 1992, a four-year-old girl died inexplicably in her sleep. Shortly after Christmas that year, her fourteen-year-old half-sister’s diary was found by their mother. In that diary, the teenager wrote that she had killed her little sister. The parents turned the diary over to police, and the teenager was arrested. Her trial began in spring of 1993. Her attorney was none other than the famous Melvin Belli. His name brought the media running all the more.

I attended the trial for research purposes. But the very first day I went, my antennae started waving. Something was not right. The parents clearly believed in their daughter’s innocence. So why had they given the diary to police? The defense and the prosecution both were accusing the dad of molesting the four-year-old—and using those accusations to bolster their very different arguments. Had the dad done that? And his wife covered up for him? Yet there they were in court, supporting their daughter, while the media assailed them.

I went back the next day. This time not just for research, but to see what would happen next. I ended up talking to the mother. She and I connected. I felt so badly for her. Regardless of who was guilty of what, she was going through a terrible tragedy. Each day I continued to attend, until the day the verdict was read--guilty. It was awful. The mother fainting, cameras continuing to roll, both for local and national news.

But the story wasn’t over. The family fought back. First they hired a new attorney, who set out to prove ineffectiveness of counsel against Belli. By this time I knew there was a book here. Through my contact with the family, I was able to contract their exclusive story—they could give it to no one but me. They still cried their daughter’s innocence. I told them I would need to write the book as I saw it. But at least I would listen to their side of the story. No one else was doing that. And there was plenty of story to listen to—things that never came out in the first trial. Such as—their daughter was known, even to police, as a liar. She’d written numerous lies in her own diary—impossible lies, such as she’d been pregnant and had an abortion. That kind of information cast her diary “confession” in a different light. Why hadn’t her attorney brought that out at trial?

A Question of Innocence became my first book. Published by Avon. I sold it on a proposal. I already had an agent at this time. I’d landed him with Eyes of Elisha. Even though that story needed work, he’d been trying to sell it. Now, he turned his attention to selling my true crime proposal, and with the national attention on the case, it sold quickly.

My daughter, three at the time, had been going to a wonderful Christian daycare half-time. I placed her there full-time and began to write my book. For the time, I set Eyes of Elisha aside.

First, the interviews. Day after day. The parents, the friends. All attorneys. Police. It was a huge task. I knew I’d write the book in as fictional a style as possible—like a story unfolding. Yet every word had to be true. Scenes and dialogue were re-created, based upon interviews. I became one of the insiders of the trial, knowing all the secrets, the background things the media never saw.

The defendant, “Serena,” (named changed because she was a juvenile) went through the equivalent of three trials. After her first, we went into the hearings for arguing ineffectiveness of counsel. This is one of the biggest ironies of the legal field. A new defense attorney has to prove the former defense attorney did a lousy job. The standard for proving this is very high, as it should be, else we’d see overturned convictions all the time. So new attorney and same prosecutor go before same judge. While new defense attorney argues against former attorney’s handling of the case, the prosecutor, in order to maintain the guilty verdict he’s won, now has to argue the validity of all the former defense attorney’s points. This is a 180 degree turn from what that prosecutor did in the original trial. And it’s all done with a perfectly straight face. Meanwhile, Belli hotly defended himself and his tactics—something a defense attorney shouldn’t do. Because if the attorney’s tactics are found ineffective, his former client’s conviction is set aside, and she gets a new trial. So the unwritten rule is, the defense attorney takes his knocks and wishes the best for his client.

The media was back, of course. I learned a lot about the news and their 60-second sound bites at that time. I’d be in the thick of things at court, come home and watch myself and the others on the news. Hm. Quite a bit of difference between what I knew and those sound bites.

By the time all was said and done in this case, and my book was written, it was the beginning of summer 1994. A Question of Innocence hit shelves in 1995. Before the book came out, I tagged along with the family to be on Phil Donahue’s talk show. When the book was published, Serena and I appeared on the Leeza show. By then I’d rewritten Eyes of Elisha but still hadn’t sold it. I then turned to a different genre for me—women’s fiction. I’d had enough of death and autopsies for a while.

The next novel I would write would take me on a far different kind of journey . . .

Read Part 4


Becky said...

Did they get the retrial--or do we have to buy the book? LOL--now I see your strategy.

Seriously, this is all so interesting. Your choice to write women's fiction makes a lot of sense.

Ane Mulligan said...

This is an older post, Brandilyn, but I read in fascination. If I'm understanding this right, you hadn't sold a novel yet when you started attending this trial. If that's correct, that must have been some connection between you and the mother for her to contract you to do her book. I'm curoius how you persuaded her to do that. I'd love to hear more about it.