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Author Archives: Geoffrey Girard

How Much Research is Enough?

Research can drive a writer nuts if you let it… because it is just about impossible to get something (anything) 100% right. Facts, as the man once said, are stubborn things…

Years ago, while researching TALES OF THE EASTERN INDIANS (my book of Native-American stories), I’d come across  a recent scholarly article on the Vikings’ first voyages to the “New World” and their meetings with the North American tribes. We’re talking hot-off-the-presses world-recognized-expert stuff. I soon contacted another Viking expert for some accompanying info and during our communication, mentioned this article in passing entirely to prove to him how well I’d done my homework. His response: “Oh, THAT article! Yeah, Dr. So-N-So doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s off by 200 years.” Zoinks!

At the recent Thrillerfest, an author (Anne Rice? Michael Palmer?) recounted how she/he’d constructed a fictional city council based on a real city council known personally/thoroughly and has since received vehement and meticulous letters from a reader detailing how a city council would “NEVER” do this or that. Lots of city councils out there. Michael Connelly, who’d spent years as a reporter in courtrooms, is stopped often by folk with: “I can’t believe how well you nailed X. That’s exactly how we do it.” and “Can’t believe how much you screwed up X. That would never happen.”

There’s always another expert, reader, article, or discovery lying in wait with different info than what you found. I could spend the rest of my life trying to figure out when Vikings first landed in North America, and at the end of that life would still have people arguing about and/or altering my findings.

In PROJECT CAIN and CAIN’S BLOOD, I got to research serial killers, cloning, military science, post-traumatic stress disorder, the genetics of violence, and crime. Interesting topics. Did I get everything right? Doubtful. Difficult to do when even something as basic as Ted Bundy’s eye color becomes arguable. “Blue” says one report, “Brown” claims another witness. “Green,” Bundy replies himself in the court transcript. “They change color depending on the light,” says a reporter following the case. They change color??!! <yanks hair> The FBI said blue, so I went with that. The FBI was a good-enough source for me. Might someone who knew Bundy have a better/different fact? Maybe. But I had two books to write and couldn’t spend the next four years of my life deciding what Bundy’s eye color was.

Every writer must come up with his/her own rules on this stuff. Mine are this:

  1. Research as comprehensively  and precisely as you can.
  2. Find consensus between several sources.
  3. Then tell/use the best truth you can find.

Simple, right? Does it guarantee I get everything right. Nope. Even “facts” and “statistics” can change source to source. But, unless I want to spend forty years on each book and still get something wrong, it’s a pretty good start.

Maybe YOUR rules will be different. James Frey (author of A Million Little Pieces) infamously got in hot water for the truth bending he’d used for his best-selling book… but his next book, fictional Bright Shiny Morning, he admitted proudly, “If I saw something , a statistic, I wanted to use but it wasn’t quite right for what I wanted, I just changed it.” (Mark Twain suggests, “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.”) It IS Fiction, after all.  And I found Frey’s stance quite freeing as a writer (still do), but it didn’t really fit me. So, all in, PROJECT CAIN and CAIN’S BLOOD are some 700 pages, and only once – in a total nod to this Frey interview — do I intentionally bend the “truth” of history to augment the fiction.  The rest, to the best of my two-years research, is “accurate.” Debatable? Of course. Few things aren’t. My father, a historian, recently gathered with other American-diplomacy scholars at Harvard to discuss the conditions leading to Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and the Cuban Missile Crisis. There was not, 60 years later and several lifetimes spent studying the topics, consensus on that panel. How’s the adage go? Ask two <insert profession here> a question, and you’ll get three answers.

Best bet is to (a) establish your own ground rules early and (b) accept that you’ll still never be perfect regardless of your rules and (c) appreciate that the world is like your favorite in-law/sibling who has completely different “facts” from the ones you dug up… and just think of it as Thanksgiving dinner all year long. Now, pass the gravy, please…

Liking Jeffrey Dahmer

I’m at ALA in Chicago this week and spending a lot of time talking about Jeffrey Dahmer. It reminds me that a writer should  probably “like” his/her main character. Even if it’s simply liking how terrible they are. Otherwise, it’s gonna be a long couple months (years!) with someone you don’t look forward to spending time with. Drafting, editing, promotion, discussions with readers… it’s a long-term relationship for sure.

And I still look forward to spending time with Jeff.

In Project Cain, Jeff Jacobson is the first-person protagonist and teenage clone of Jeffrey Dahmer. In Cain’s Blood (the accompanying adult thriller), Jeff is the “side-kick” of the protagonist and still, alas, the genetic copy of this infamous murderer. That’s two books I had to hang with this kid (with one entirely from HIS point of view), so it was doubly important he become someone I wanted to spend so much time with.

Many main characters are some idealized version of the author himself/herself…. Always fun to spend time with.  But I couldn’t do that with Jeff Jacobson. (1) My own teenage issues weren’t the “search for self” variety Jeff faces in Project Cain, those many of my students face, or many of my adult friends assert to have faced back in the day.  (2) Jeff IS the clone of an actual person, and as this novel is partly an exploration of Nature/Nurture, I’d hoped to explore that nature stuff by focusing as much on the actual person as possible.

So, I went to the source.  I went to Dahmer. Filmed interviews. Court transcripts. Memoirs by family and friends. Lurid biographies. In the books’ acknowledgements, I make a crack about one of my sons asking me to “please stop talking about Jeffrey Dahmer.” True story. Because I’d spent months with the guy and wanted to share every new discovery right away.

And, I’ll admit, I started to “like” him…

Yes, Dahmer did terrible things and should 100% have been punished for those crimes. And yes, a hundred times I wished I had access to more information on the VICTIMS; wished I could flesh out their humanity in my own mind and on the page as well as I might with the gobs of info I now had on Dahmer. Yes, thirty-year-old Dahmer comes off as creepy and robotic, dead-eyed and monotone, and you can’t see/hear him without thinking of the god-awful things he’s done.

But I was mostly focused on teenaged Jeff Dahmer.

Fictional Jeff Jacobson is sixteen. Who was Jeffrey Dahmer at sixteen?  Midwest kid. Book smart. Boy Scout. Quiet. Interested in science. Enjoyed lifting weights. Shy. Fighting depression with no meds, therapy or parental notice. Crying himself to sleep. Not quite sure how to make friends. His parents fighting constantly, a year or two from divorce. Realizing he was homosexual in a time/place even way more difficult than it can be today.

THAT kid I kinda liked. THAT kid was breaking my damn heart.

Fiction is all about What Ifs: What If Dahmer’s parents had just divorced sooner instead of screaming at each other for a decade? What if a concerned teacher had noticed he’d started showing up to school drunk and actually gave a shit? What if Dahmer were raised in the 2000s and there were a couple more people around to say: “You’re homosexual, huh? Well, there are millions here enjoying a wonderful life and it’s the most natural thing in the world.” What if he’d gotten some therapy, been put on the right depression meds, etc.

THIS is the Dahmer I thought about and Jeff Jacobson ultimately became the “idealized” version of that guy. Those same frailties, temperament, and promise. What, I imagine, Dahmer might have been. Could have been. Should have been. You get the point.

In Project Cain and Cain’s Blood, Jeff Jacobson is horrified to discover he is the genetic offspring of a terrible killer. But he’s thinking only of the adult Dahmer. As he discovers himself through the course of the novel, he’ll spend more time with the  teenage version of Dahmer… and hopefully reach — with readers — the same conclusions I did.

1 Smart Thing I Did to Sell My Manuscript: NO Clones Allowed

An early Goodreads contributor recently quipped “If there were a party of good YA books about serial killers, Project Cain would be the creepy one standing outside the window, wanting to join them.” A good line. But only half right.

I’ve been a high school English teacher for ten years and have worked with literally thousands of teen readers. In that time, I’ve developed specific ideas on the best literary devices, voice and structure to entice, particularly, reluctant boy readers. Devices, voice and structure I simply didn’t see being used in most other current YA novels (as good as many of these books are).

While my upcoming adult book (Cain’s Blood) employs mostly traditional devices, structure, etc. for the adult techno thriller it is, I always wanted something very different for the teen novel Project Cain.

Examples: My students really enjoy the fact-filled Krakauer books we teach (Into the Wild, Into Thin Air.) I’m not a fan, but I also recognize male readers of all ages statistically (and significantly) prefer nonfiction over fiction. So I wrote a straight-forward book which weaves in facts and history throughout. My students gobble up both the free-verse novels of Ellen Hopkins and manga comics. “Quick reads,” they explain. So I wrote a book that reads fast, real fast. Adjectives are for 500 page books I know my own two teenage sons don’t want to read yet. My students, jaded millennials that they are, still respond to and welcome direct/open questions. Our best class conversations often come from a simple query like: Have you ever wanted to kill someone?

This Goodreads member read about 40 pages of Project Cain before giving two thumbs way down, specifically targeting the dry style, “info dumping,” and a couple direct addresses to the reader. Things I put in the book deliberately so Project Cain would not be exactly like all those other YA books — which clearly failed for this reader.

But I also sold this novel on proposal alone, submitting only the first 40 pages as a sample of what I had in mind. The exact same 40 pages so hated by this reader for not being the book she thought it was going to be. The same 40 that got me a major agent, a major publisher and a major deal in less than two months. Because the writing stood out from all the other three thousand books that came in that month. My 40 pages were different.

This isn’t some thumb-to-nose moment. My sale doesn’t discount this reader’s reaction. “Good” or “bad” is always up to each individual, and I’ve collected (and expect to collect) strong votes on both sides with this book.

And so, the smart thing I did to sell my manuscript was stick to my objective: To not just imitate the other good YA books out there. But to write the kind of YA book that I thought my own students and two sons would want to read. Whatever else may come, I’ve done that. Write the book YOU want to. The right publisher and audience WILL find you.

If there were a party of good YA books about serial killers, Project Cain would indeed be the creepy one standing outside the window. But it’s not to join them.

It’s to douse their house in gasoline, and just maybe strike a match…

Geoffrey Girard & the Inspiration Behind PROJECT CAIN

Jeff Jacobson discovers he’s an experiment, the secret clone of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, and must help stop other more violent teenaged clones before they kill again or his own government erases them all. But will he catch these ‘monsters’ before becoming one himself?

Where does an idea like this come from?

The expected answer involves wrestling with universal expressions of human Identity and Morality and exploring the blah blah blah Nature blah Nurture, blah. Self. Blah blah. Teen ethos of… Blah.

And the honest answer has more to do with loving books more than anything and wanting my name on the cover of one and fancying that ex-girlfriends or my parents will see PROJECT CAIN in the bookstore and concede aloud how awesome I am.

In either case, these answers prove too reductive. It would be like condensing the origins of YOU to that one night where mom and dad had some “alone time.” A whole lot more, even in the most seemingly-random circumstances of conception, eventually led to that singular moment.

The process of WHERE/HOW/WHEN/WHY a writer first got the idea for a book or story is long and muddled. Muses often arrive in busloads and in a dozen different shades and shapes before a single word is ever put to paper. [Note: There are some authors who claim to wake up and start writing as if inspired only by their last dream. That ain’t me]. And so, I’ve tried to capture some of my various muses/inspirations here as I worked on PROJECT CAIN for five-plus years. For those readers and future-writers drawn to such things, I hope it proves helpful or interesting:

1] Creative Theft.  (or ‘Inspiration’ if you want to be kind)  I was at a writer convention in Nashville doing a panel on horror writing with an author named Jason Brannon. At some point, Jason mentioned the idea of his next book: A sideshow circus featuring legendary monsters: Bigfoot, the Chupacabra, Jersey Devil, etc.  GREAT IDEA! Loved it. I’d actually written a book about The Jersey Devil and so this was right up my alley. Kinda wanted to taser Jason and steal the concept from him right then and there. But writers don’t really do that to each other. So I started thinking instead. How could I commandeer the idea and appropriate something new with/from it? [Somewhere online there are pics of me sitting next to Jason… I look completely out of it because I’m thinking with every brain cell on how to make his idea MY new idea]. I got as far as a sideshow of famous serial killers. No, a museum. No… a private collection. No… Hmmmm. Why the heck would someone collect serial killers?  I had no answer yet. Oh… and is there a little Jurassic Park here? Sure. Or The Road or Sixth Sense or Huckleberry Finn or Perks of Being a Wallflower. Maybe just a smidge. Thousands of people have been telling me stories for decades and there’re a lot of ideas collected and evolving within this grey matter. [Jason’s eventual book is called THE CAGE. Buy it here.]

2] Market (Part 1).  I’d become friends with the publisher of Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest, a popular speculative magazine which specialized in, well, stories that combined science fiction and horror. Friends notwithstanding, dude hadn’t bought any of my stories yet. Fair enough. My science fiction stuff lacked horror, my horror stuff lacked sci-fi. So…. Driving to an Apex book event one night, a two–hour trip, all I thought about the whole drive was a story that somehow offered the perfect blend for Apex. I’d read every issue of the magazine up to that point. Knew what their editors liked and added some goodies accordingly. Cloned serial killers. Evil scientists. Lab-produced monsters. Done. I pitched the story that same night as a 40k-word novella. Apex said yes and then serialized the tale in four installments throughout 2007. The story of Jeff Jacobson (the narrator of PROJECT CAIN) was years away still. But the “Cain Universe” had finally started taking shape…

3] Write What You Know (Part 1).  I teach high school English and one day (many years after the Apex story was published) the students got on the subject of serial killers (it comes up more than you’d think in a room of boys…) One student started quizzing the rest of us. In what city…? What is the name of…? How many… Etc.I got every question right. While my knowledge of the Shakespearean sonnet or Hemingway’s influence on postmodernism was tolerated at best, I’d now proven I also knew a lot about something the guys found extremely interesting. Freaky dark stuff. Horrible stuff. I, in turn, was admittedly surprised how interested they all were in these old killers. Which was silly on part, as we’d both simply reached the same conclusion: serial killers are cool. Interesting. Their backgrounds and specific crimes and behaviors. Gross and morbid, certainly. But there’s all sorts of gross/morbid things in this big world that’re rather fascinating. So here was something teens were interested in that I knew a lot about. I wondered: Could I rewrite that old APEX story for a young-reader audience. Maybe something even from the point of view of teen “Jeff” (a supporting character in the original novella)…

4] Write What You Know (Part 2).  Specifically, I teach at an all boys school. And have two teenaged sons. And was, true story, once a teenaged boy. PROJECT CAIN would be a book centered around the musings and struggles of… a teenaged boy. This was something I could write about with confidence, clarity, and truth. And this, also, was a group of people I thought deserved a voice. Most young-adult books are aimed at, and thus about, the ladies. Young men have unique challenges and standpoints and strengths. Jeff Jacobson – a clone of the most infamous serial killer ever – could just maybe even become that voice.

5] Market (Part 2).  Young adult novels are the darling of this decade as publishers quest for the next Harry Potter or Twilight. As a result, we’ve gotten hundreds (thousands!) of great new books to choose from: Imaginative. Well written. Thoughtful. But books that speak to boy readers are particularly rare, however. And young readers tastes have matured. Harry Potter readers move onto the darker and more-thematic Hunger Games, for instance and the existent theory in New York publishing being that “young readers” are ready to go “darker” still.  As an author weaned on King and Lovecraft and Bradbury, I was happy to oblige….

6] Research.  The first rule of writing is “Write What You Know.” The second is “Know More.” (The third has something to do with “not talking about Fight Club.”) Before I wrote a single word of PROJECT CAIN, I read and watched and listened. Fifty books, hundreds of web articles. I asked my sons and students what they would do “If….” Watched hours of taped interviews with actual serial killers and psychologists. Spoke to scientists, teen counselors and social workers. Visited serial killers’ personal websites (which some produce while in prison). At one point, my oldest son finally asked me to “please stop talking about Jeffrey Dahmer all the time.” It was hard not to. My head swimming with facts and arguments regarding serial killers, government conspiracy, military testing, development in teens, the ‘anger’ gene, cloning, etc. Like a stew or soup, I guess. Tossing in everything I could find, stirring the pot again and again until I thought I had something worth serving.

7] World View.  Everyone has one. What makes a “good” person? What is the cause of Evil? Sin? Is there a cure? Should there be? What is the role of government? Do we have a good one? What is the role of our military? Of science? Of a father? What function does The Past play in our lives? When is a boy a man? How responsible are we for your own actions? And so on…  Literature allows writers (and, by proxy, readers!) to explore, test and maybe pronounce these worldviews. Try out some new answers. Challenge our own previous notions. Maybe tackle different sides of the same question using two characters. PROJECT CAIN provided a stage with plenty of opportunity and space for these kind of considerations. This is THEME land: A place where English teachers aren’t full of shit. Where writers and readers gather for a short time and get to, even if in fictional encryption, share honestly about being human.

Add all that up. Maybe you’ll have an idea to start a book. I did. And Jeff and I hope readers will enjoy the results of PROJECT CAIN as much as we enjoyed all its many beginnings…

Geoffrey Girard

geoofrey girard nameplate

ABOUT THE BOOK:

This is a story about blood.
The blood of family. And of science.
And murder.

Fifteen-year-old Jeff Jacobson had never heard of Jeffrey Dahmer, the infamous serial killer who brutally murdered seventeen people more than twenty years ago. But Jeff’s life changes forever when the man he’d thought was his father hands him a government file telling him he was constructed in a laboratory only seven years ago, part of a top-secret government cloning experiment called ‘Project CAIN.’ There, he was created entirely from Jeffrey Dahmer’s DNA. There are others like Jeff — those genetically engineered directly from the most notorious murderers of all time: The Son of Sam, The Boston Strangler, Ted Bundy… even other Jeffrey Dahmer clones. Some raised, like Jeff, in caring family environments; others within homes that mimicked the horrific early lives of the men they were created from. When the most dangerous boys are set free by the geneticist who created them, the summer of killing begins. Worse, these same teens now hold a secret weapon even more dangerous than the terrible evil they carry within. Only Jeff can help track the clones down before it’s too late. But will he catch the ‘monsters’ before becoming one himself?

Mark as to-read on GOODREADS.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Geoffrey Girard is an award-winning dark fiction author. Born in Germany and shaped in New Jersey, Geoffrey graduated from Washington College with a literature degree and worked as an advertising copywriter and marketing manager before shifting to high school English teacher. Since then, he’s earned an M.A. in Creative Writing from Miami University and is the Department Chair of English at a famed private boys’ school in Cincinnati. None of his students, he believes, are clones. He also has two teenage sons, and suspects one of them could be.

For more information, please visit www.GeoffreyGirard.com.

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