Diane Fanning is a true crime writer and crime novelist, whose book, Written in Blood, was an Edgar nominee featured on the TV program, 20/20. Her research led to the release of an innocent woman from prison who had been convicted of murder.
Diane, why did you decide to correspond with serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells? And how long was it before he confessed to you in a letter that he had murdered 10-year-old Joel Kirkpatrick, whose mother had been convicted of killing her son?
I sent my first letter to Tommy Lynn Sells after I acquired an agent and a contract to write about his crimes. In my first letter, I told him I was writing a book and requested a visit with him. At the time, he had been transferred from Death Row to the Bexar County Jail in connection with the murder of Mary Bea Perez. After that visit, at the end of September 2001, the correspondence continued.
I interviewed him face-to-face nearly twenty times at the jail and on Death Row before June 2002, when he wrote the first letter that indicated his possible involvement in the murder of Joel Kirkpatrick. He made additional remarks in another letter two weeks later. I visited him on Death Row that July and he provided additional information.
What did you say to Sells that prompted the confession? And did you believe the boy’s mother was innocent all along?
At the end of May, I stumbled across an ABC Prime time show about the Joel Kirkpatrick case. I heard Julie and her family and friends claiming innocence. I was highly skeptical. And then, the show presented comments from the prosecuting attorney. It was what he said that made me doubt Julie’s guilt.
Among other things, he said they knew there was no intruder because they found no stranger fingerprints at the scene and because an attacker would come with a weapon, not use a knife found in the kitchen. I knew the things the prosecutor was saying were not true. Many killers leave no fingerprints; many use a weapon found in the home—including Tommy Lynn Sells. It was after listening to the state’s attorney that I tended to believe that someone like Sells could have committed that crime.
I wrote to Sells about the ridiculousness of the prosecutor’s statements. I did not name the attorney, I did not name the victim, the city or the time frame or mention Julie Rea Harper. Sells wrote back asking if the murder occurred on the 13th of October, two days before he killed Stephanie Mahaney. It did.
That was the first moment that I thought that Sells might be involved. However, at that point in time, I only doubted Julie’s guilt and suspected the possibility of Sells’ involvement. I was not certain of either.
Three months after the release of the book in July 2003, Bill Clutter, an investigator for the Innocence Project at the University of Illinois at Springfield, found corroborating evidence—three witnesses who had seen Sells in the small town of Lawrenceville on the weekend of Joel’s murder. Revelations of botched crime scene processing—no one dusted for fingerprints, for example—along with overlooked and untested evidence and other information were then revealed. After learning more, I became totally convinced of Julie’s innocence and nearly certain of Sells’ responsibility for the murder of Joel.
When and why did you become interested in writing crime fiction?
I have been an avid reader of crime fiction for decades and have been interested in writing it since before I wrote my first true crime. My first success at obtaining a book contract was in non-fiction but I maintained my interest in fiction. At the time, I had a full time job as the Executive Director of a non-profit organization and struggled to handle just one genre. Once I was able to leave my day job, I had the time to also write my first love: crime fiction.
You majored in chemistry in college so why didn’t you become a chemist instead of a crime writer? Have your chemistry studies served you well when writing your crime series?
I was a science major because that was what I was supposed to do. My real love was writing and I pursued that instead. Initially, I wrote commercials for radio, television and magazines along with free lance articles and personal essays.
A science background is definitely useful in writing about the increasing complexities of forensic investigation.
Tell us about the Lucinda Pierce crime novel series.
Lucinda Pierce is a homicide detective in Virginia. She bears facial scars from a domestic violence incident that are a reflection of the childhood emotional scars that drove her into law enforcement. She feels isolated from the world because of her physical and psychological injuries but is fighting to overcome those obstacles in her life.
She is tough, but not invincible; demanding but empathetic—a strong female protagonist with flaws and feelings.
There are now four books in the series: The Trophy Exchange, Punish the Dead, Mistaken Identity, and Twisted Reason. You can read the first chapter of each of these books on the Reading Room page on my website.
For whom do you write?
Primarily, I write for my readers. But if you mean who are my publishers, the answer is that my true crime is through St. Martin’s Press, my fiction through Severn House.
Do you outline your novels as you do your true crime books?
When I was seeking my first contract to write true crime, I had to do an outline within my proposal to the publisher. However, once I’d started writing the book, I essentially ignored the outline. I do not outline any of my books from start to finish. I do sometimes outline short portions of the book while the writing is in progress when I feel a need to arrange and solidify my thoughts.
How did you acquire an agent and how long did it take to find the right one?
I spent two years unsuccessfully looking for an agent. When I found the right one, at the right time with the right material, I had an agent within 24 hours of submission.
Advice to aspiring writers?
Read like a maniac. You can learn something new from every genre, no matter what you are writing. And keep writing—practice makes us all better at what we do. Most important of all, never, never, never give up. Approach each rejection as a challenge to overcome—the right material at the right time to the right person can happen if you write with passion and commitment.
(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers where you can also read Diane Fanning's article, "Split Personality.")