Friday, August 10, 2012

Fact into Fiction: The Michigan Murders Connections

Guest post by mystery author Claudia Whitsitt

When I began writing The Wrong Guy five years ago, it was because the late 60s and early 70s had played such a profound role in my life. I attended Eastern Michigan University on the heels of the Michigan Murders, the brutal slayings of seven college coeds. John Norman Collins had been arrested, but the atmosphere was still one of uncertainty. As a young college freshman shot straight out of a protected parochial high school cannon into the “real” world, I was na├»ve, but smart enough to be just plain scared. What if the cops had the wrong guy behind bars?

Our house mother conducted meetings about the importance of using the buddy system whenever traveling on or off campus, and we were advised to carry mace on our key rings, wear whistles around our necks, and lace our keys through our fingers should we find ourselves in a life-threatening situation. Not the typical college experience.

I remember it like it was yesterday. The fear was palpable. What I didn’t realize then, and what I didn’t realize until after I’d written The Wrong Guy—fiction loosely based on these serial murders—was how deeply tied our community still remained to those murders, and how my writing the book would affect those who had lived through those times.

Since the book’s release, many people have spoken to me about their particular connections to the Michigan Murders. I’ve spoken to women who’d sat in front of Collins in college classrooms, played cards with him at their family’s kitchen table, heard stories about Collins warning women not to go out alone after dark, and offering to walk them home. I’ve spoken to someone whose family member discovered one of the girl’s bodies, and to another who attended the trial.

The most profound of all the connections I’ve made in writing the book is with the sister of the first victim. She and I are employed by the same school system. I had no idea that she worked there, and I don’t believe that she was aware that I was writing about the murders that so closely touched her family’s lives until the book was due for publication. When we finally learned of each other, we set up a meeting. It was tearful and touching. I had forged a connection I never intended in the writing of the book. Once I knew of her, I felt guilty for writing about the murders, for bringing her family’s pain to the surface yet again. Could I make something good come out of something so horribly agonizing?

As the victim’s sister told me, because Collins was ultimately only convicted of one of the crimes, her parents, now in their eighties, have lived without closure for the past forty-five years. August 7, 2012 marked the day that Mary Fleszar’s body was discovered in 1967. She was only nineteen years old. My heart goes out to all the victims and their families.

Have you written a story or book in which you unwittingly brought up painful memories for someone?

If, like me, you discovered that your work created a painful situation for someone else, how would you handle it?

Would you or have you ever changed the course of your writing because you knew your words would affect someone in a negative way?

The Wrong Guy, is available at Amazon in both print and e-book formats. Identity Issues, the first mystery in Claudia’s Issues series, is due out this fall. Claudia can be reached at her website.


  1. Thanks, Claudia, for a wonderful post.

    One of the first manuscripts I wrote dealt with the grief of a family whose oldest son suddenly became ill and died. The parents had to make all kinds of horrible decisions, including the donation of his organs. A close friend of mine lost her daughter due to a car accident and had to make the decision to take her off life support and donate her child's organs. I did not ask her to read that manuscript.

    The book I'm finishing now has that story in it, but it's backstory and I don't drag the reader through the agony. It's not because I don't want to do that to a reader (I do!), it just worked better as backstory this time around.

    That was a long way of answering your question. I would never purposefully change the course of my writing, but I also would not expect some readers to read those words.

  2. Hey, Claudia, good to see you here! First, let me tell any readers of this post that I read The Wrong Guy and loved it. I was in Illinois during that time, so I was nowhere near those events - still I felt like I was back in the 60s, living that fear.

    Second, it would be interesting to know if there was any evidence in the case that could be evaluated better with today's technology. Your post made me want to pick up the phone and call someone in Michigan to re-examine everything. If, of course, I knew anyone in Michigan (except you).

  3. Thanks for blogging with us today, Claudia. Your post was a good reminder to look more closely at the crimes here in Eugene for fiction material and to keep in mind the effects of crimes on the victims' families.

  4. Welcome to Crime Fiction Collective, Claudia. My only hope with novels based on tragic events like this is that the perpetrator doesn't receive too much attention or inadvertently get glorified in any way. I'm afraid that would help inspire copycat nutcases to commit a similar terrible, senseless act for their moment of fame.

  5. I don't think I'd let it stop me from going forward with a real-life-based work of fiction. We write about all kinds of horrific acts, and any one is bound to strike some nerves with readers whether real or imagined. While I certainly sympathize, people always have the option to not read something if they feel it hits too close to home. I respect and understand that decision.

  6. Some of the most memorable, emotion-inducing fiction is born from real-life tragedy, whether it devastated a community or one family. Drew's right - someone will always identify with the theme. Claudia - I also read and enjoyed The Wrong Guy.

  7. Hi Peg,
    Thank you for your thoughtful post. In my case, the first victim's sister contacted me for an ARC before the book was published. When I delivered it to her, it was with much trepidation, as the book dealt with the grizzly discovery of her sister's body. While I'd never expected or wanted her to read thos words, I felt I couldn't deny her request. Hence, the very tearful meeting. In the end, we worked it through. But, it was gut-wrenching. I'm sure more for her. Tough stuff.

  8. Gayle,
    I love the way you think. There was one murder that was different. Several years ago, a second man was convicted of that crime. He had lived in the shadows for forty-five years. Finally, justice prevailed.
    As far as the other crimes, I'd love to know what has happened with the evidence. When I first researched for the book, there was little evidence preserved from that first crime, but you make me think. It's on my "to do" list now. Thanks for raising the issue.

  9. LJ,
    There is seldom a week that goes by that I don't think of these victims. I talk about safety all the time; to my students and to my children. It's tough when looking for fiction material, to discount the effect on the victims of the real crimes and their families.

  10. Thanks for your comment, Jodie. I certainly tried not to give the perpetrator attention in my novel. I agree, these guys deserve little mention. My intention is never to glorify the murderer in any way. I only hope that the families find some solace in the fact that the man who was guilty is behind bars for the rest of his life.

  11. Thanks, Andrew, for your thoughtful comment. It's been a struggle for me, after the fact. I couldn't have known that my personal connection existed or would have hit so close to home, but I've surely double-clutched since then when writing fiction based on fact.
    You're right. It was the victim's sister's choice to read the book. Still, my heart breaks that the pain of her sister's murder will last a lifetime for her and for her family.

  12. Thanks, Jenny. Your comment as well as other's confirm my commitment to write what I feel compelled to write. The themes of loss are historical. I just hate being the one to reintroduce pain in any case. . Thanks for reading The Wrong Guy. I appreciate it:))

  13. I'm about to release a novel inspired by real-life events. I've changed it a lot, but someone familiar with the original case might notice similarities. I have no reason to think the real people involved would read the book, and I hope they don't. But having a firsthand "research opportunity" by being involved in the case, if only in a tangential way, means I can write a more emotionally powerful book.

  14. Kris,
    Funny, all my novels are insprired by real-life events as well. In my next release, many of the early pages are taken from a personal experience. Like you, I don't imagine many who were involved will read the book.
    I agree that first hand knowledge does mean greater's easier to "get in touch".
    Writing can be risky business. Glad it's not stopping us from writing what we need to write! Good luck with your novel. I'd love to hear more about it!


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