Digging into a mystery

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One of the questions I most often get about crime writing is, how do I start? “I read your website and I’d love to dig into an unsolved case myself.” It always makes me think back to the time I started because, I asked that same question. So I developed my own methods.

It is tempting to enter a victim’s name in your browser and read everything that pops up. Disadvantages of doing this include getting no clear case overview, no sense of the direction that the investigation took and why, trouble finding what matters and what is just repeated content, and in short wasting time.

Five steps

Step 1: on your computer create a new file for the victim/case. Split up that file in bookmarked articles that you found online, comments online, your notes on the case, and screenshots.

Step 2: do a keyword search of the victim’s name and bookmark as much as you think might be useful. You can always delete links later if, for example, it turns out that the article only has repeated content. At this point, I only bookmark. I do not read the articles.

Step 3: set a google alert for the victim and include the year that they died, went missing, etc., with state, country, etc. If you don’t have that many details yet just use the victim’s name. You can update your alerts at any time. In the beginning you will see many articles especially with common names but in time, when you have more details and thus can tweak the alert, it becomes more targeted.

Step 4: do the same thing with any newspaper archives or genealogy sites that you can access. Newspaper archives also have alert options so start those up as well.

These are just the preliminaries. At this point, you have not researched anything yet but you are laying the foundation for your own case review.

The Research

Step A: I start with the obituaries. Obituaries are a treasure trove of information. We get the victim’s full name, date of birth, place of birth, names of parents and siblings, who preceded them in death, who survived the victim, information on marriages, often the names of best friends, sports/music clubs, etc.

We learn where the victim went to school or university, sports teams, hobby clubs that they attended, where they worked, their profession, their hobbies, etc. All of this is incredibly useful especially in cases where the victim has a common name. In all those cases, you can filter information from your alerts because you know the workplace, you have a parent’s name, etc.

Last but not least, the place of rest is indicated. Sometimes the cemetery is not near the place where they last worked, lived, or where they died. So, this means you get the heads-up to widen your scope to newspapers from other areas as well. This is the moment where you update your alerts.

Step B: search for the victim at the cemetery’s website, or on a Billion Graves, or on Find-A-Grave. Check that the name and dates that they use match the obituary. If they don’t make a note. If there is a difference, update your alerts. Now check the comments to see who left a tribute, observation, etc. Do they mention locations, names, schools, added pictures, etc.? If so, add this to your notes and bookmark the pictures.

Make sure that you know the proper way to credit the photographer. If you don’t know, add as credit the website where you found the picture. Make an alert to check back in a few weeks to see if a photographer’s name has been added.

Step C: place all the information that you have found so far in a spreadsheet, one piece of information per field in a column, so you can add further details in subsequent columns. If you can, try to sort this column in a vertical timeline.

Step D: check everything that you have bookmarked. Read the articles, check the comments, and add information to your spreadsheet.

Step E: keep a narrative of the crime itself in your own words in a word document. Try to describe in small segments what happened and in which order. If you find a unique take on the matter in an article, make a screenshot. We all know how links can get broken, how articles get reorganized by companies without a redirect to the new url, and how some articles just disappear from the web. If you have a screenshot then you can come back to it later.

Another thing that you can do is to save that article to the WayBackMachine. Copy and paste the links to online materials in your document so you can later refer to it. This is crucial especially when you find conflicting information.

Step F: now that you are gathering case information, pace yourself. Do not rewrite and delete anything yet. Just keep everything as you wrote it down initially. There is always time to edit later however, the first things that you write down, those first impressions, are crucial. Those first question marks that you placed near the information, matter. Why do you not see something as a fact? Why did something bother you? Keep those notes. If you must, rewrite but save it as version 2 or save the documents by date. The beauty of the digital age is that it doesn’t cost us a penny to have 50 drafts per case.

Step G: as noted above, cherish those first impressions. When you later on write the victim’s story, refer back to them and explain why they caught your attention, what you learned while researching, what conclusions you drew, and if the matter is resolved for you or not. All this makes your piece unique even if the case is famous and has been made into movies, books, etc. None carry your impression in your own words.

Step H: it helps me to put all materials away at this point and to reflect on the case by drawing a mindmap. I put the victim’s name in the middle of a blank page and jot down all that I now know in keywords. Then, I try to find connections. If there are then I connect those words with a line. If several lines get connected to a word, I circle that word.

Mindmap about the Golden State Killer

Usually, a mindmap makes me question the conclusions that I drew before and it forces me to go back to the materials to see where I found a piece of information, check that I got it right, and if not, why.

Step I: my last tip: be unique. Don’t jump on the easy-peasy bandwagon and post repeated content. It serves no purpose, your SEO ranking will not improve, and your website will not get visited more often. Readers soon enough get a feel for their writers. Do they give me known facts and opinions, or do I get personal insights?

To raise awareness, especially in very old cases, you need to make people care about the victim and the case. The readers need to care for what the authorities were able to do with the technology and the state of police investigations at that time. The readers need to care for your style of storytelling as well. That will make them come back to your website. That is how you built your audience and readership. And, those readers who keep coming back will share your posts online on the various social media platforms that they use. That is how we raise awareness in the mainstream media for the fact that a case is still unsolved.

I hope that you find this useful. If you have developed any methods yourself, I hope that you will share them with others as well.


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