Interview with Rita Shuler, Author of The Lowcountry Murder of Gwendolyn Elaine Fogle

Lieutenant Rita Y. Shuler was supervisory special agent of the Forensic Photography Department of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) for twenty-four and a half years. She interfaced with the Attorney General’s Office, solicitors and investigators, providing photographic evidence assistance in the prosecution of thousands of criminal cases. Her interest in photography started as a hobby at the age of nine with a Kodak “Brownie” camera. Before her career as a forensic photographer, she worked in the medical field as a radiologic technologist for twelve years. Her interest in forensic science evolved when she X-rayed homicide victims to assist with criminal investigations. Shuler received her specialized law enforcement photography training at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy in Columbia, South Carolina, and the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. She holds a special love for the South Carolina Lowcountry and enjoys walking, beaching, crabbing, fishing and shark tooth hunting. She resides in Johns Island, South Carolina. You can find Rita’s newest book here

Our newest interview is an author that I have worked with a couple of times, and her work is always thorough, well-researched and very meticulous in its care for the subjects. It is great to have Rita join us this week. Rita has written several true crime titles for The History Press, including THP’s first true crime publication. In addition, Rita has an entire career in law enforcement, so she brings a lot to the True Crime table.

Let’s get it going.

Chad Rhoad: Thanks for joining me, Rita. Let’s dive right in. What draws you to a case? What is it in a particular case that makes you focus in on it?

Rita Shuler: I am drawn to the criminal behavior and overall details associated with the crime, as well as the investigation which follows that leads to the perpetrator being caught, arrested and convicted. I am intrigued by cases that have twists and turns, chance encounters, which I call “Hand to God” moments that just seem to happen possibly giving direction to links that may lead to the perpetrator.

CR: That seems like a pretty good way of going into research given how an author must work to make a case compelling in a book. Sometimes the cases are compelling enough themselves, and sometimes the author has to do the work to make it so. Once you’ve found your case, what does your writing process look like? (Note: Most authors fall into either the Planner or the fly by the seat of your pantser. You can tell Rita’s approach by how she responds to the question)

RS: 1. Plan and outline of what will be covered in the narrative 2. First draft…(a) revising and redrafting while writing (b) proofreading and editing while writing. 3. Have a person other than myself that has knowledge of crime and writing to proofread completed manuscript. 4. Final draft: proofread and edit completed manuscript. 5. Take much needed breaks.

CR: Thanks for being so honest and particular. I think this is a great list for potential authors to consider. Numbers 3 & 5 strike me as particularly good advice to authors, especially those taking on a TC project for the first time. The research and content can be so taxing both physically and mentally, so having a second set of *educated* eyes have a look is great advice. As authors, sometimes we are so involved in our work that we can’t see it from the outside anymore. That’s where having an educated and trusted reader helps. And “take a break” is great advice for many reasons. Don’t be so hard on yourself with the work that you compromise yourself. What about the publishing industry? Were there any surprises for you in the publishing industry? Are there aspects of the industry you didn’t expect?

RS: When considering a publisher, keep your options open.  One publisher’s thoughts could be entirely different than another publisher. For instance, with submission of my first true crime manuscript, the publisher told me, “I will have to decline because of possible legal issues that might be forthcoming with the contents and persons involved.” He apparently had not done his homework, but I had.  I had already researched the legal aspects of writing true crime and met with the Attorney General and Solicitors. They advised that if the case had been adjudicated and anything made public with newspapers, court proceedings, internet, etc., and documents acquired under the Freedom of Information Act, the findings could be included in the book.

CR: That’s something that people wading into publishing for the first time might not understand and something I tell every author I work with. Publishing is a highly-subjective industry. What one editor loves, another editor hates. So, advice from editors should come with a decompression chamber sometimes. Even the fiction classics have stories of the poor editors who rejected them long ago. So, don’t put all your eggs in one publisher’s basket. Make sure your project does what YOU want it to do, while also heeding the sage advice of others who work in the industry. Your work to secure the legal aspects before approaching a publisher if fantastic. I cannot tell you how much publishers like authors who do work independently. What are the most important aspects of true crime writing that authors new to the genre should know?

RS: It is a real-life historical crime, so it is important that one keeps strictly to the facts of the case, as true crime is non-fiction. Be outright with the people and places you are writing about. Stick to the actualities of what happened, telling the story through the actual people involved.  Conversations you have with victims’ families and friends are very important to let the reader get to know the victim so that they will never be forgotten. Add details, background, etc., of the perpetrator and his criminal behavior. You can include your thoughts and opinions noting them as such. You can get angry. You can get sad. I had the benefit of working on most of my cases, so I could use my memories and offer my opinions while involved with the investigations. Without altering the facts, I like to add a little drama to the story and throw a few hints in the narrative as a sort of “read between the lines”, as some readers like to try and figure out the “who done it along the way. I include in my preface as sort of a “cover all”: “ I chronicle this case with sincere compassion and respect to all concerned. Some segments of interviews, court transcripts, and published articles have been edited to facilitate reading.”

CR: That’s great. Those are all solid pieces of advice. And I’ve heard you say before that the author is responsible to the subjects in the book, so it’s vital to stay true to the verifiable facts at all times. This isn’t fiction, so there isn’t a way to “add” compelling details if they aren’t there. You also allude to making the writing compelling while staying true to the story. It is the author’s job to make the story compelling, but you have to find ways to do that while staying within the facts. What would you tell aspiring true crime writers engaging in their first book-length work?

RS: First and foremost, you can’t please everyone, so try to give a medium…not too short, but not too lengthy either. Stay on track. Let the narrative flow easily and orderly so that the readers do not have to keep going back to understand who is who and what is what. Add some courtroom proceedings but keep them to a medium. And, include just the facts so that it doesn’t bog down the ending.

CR: “Easily and orderly” is a great phrase there. It may feel like it’s tough to achieve sometimes, but that’s the goal. Since these are very procedural works, it makes perfect sense that the author has to manage that. If an author complicates things too early in the process or the structure is confusing, your readers will spend too much time looking back to educate themselves on things they missed. Eventually, they’ll just give up, so it’s great to take that approach. Is it difficult navigating through the sources of information? Any tips for authors on how to handle that?

RS: Research is the substance of true crime because documentation has to be factual and accurate. First and foremost, one needs to be extremely knowledgeable about the case that they are writing about and get to know the details.  Obtain original documents from law enforcement agencies and court transcripts from the courthouse through the Freedom of Information Act.  Talk to investigators, Solicitors, etc., that worked with the case. Interview personal players that were part of the case. Neighbors, friends, and locals in the area are a great source of information. They love to talk, and sometimes they have heard the rumors (which may just turn out to be the truth). Just be sure to do a fact check or add: As told by a friend, neighbor, bystander, etc.  ALWAYS, ALWAYS document and keep records of your sources of information. 

CR: For those of you looking to take on a project like this for the first time, read that answer twice. That is a great, distilled version of how to approach your investigation. Remember, you have a responsibility as an author to tell the truth. This isn’t about changing the story to make it more exciting to readers. It is about finding the truth and presenting in a compelling way. That’s the job of a true crime writer, and you’ve nailed this answer.

Thank you, Rita, for your time and honesty here. I think there are some great nuggets in here for potential authors to learn from.
Please visit the link in Rita’s bio and check out her book!

For decades, evidence of the 1978 murder of Gwendolyn Elaine Fogle lay in the evidence room at the Walterboro Police Department. Investigators periodically revisited the case over the years, but it remained the department’s top cold case for thirty-seven years. Special Agent Lieutenant Rita Shuler worked on the case shortly after she joined the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), and she couldn’t let it go, not even after her retirement in 2001. In May 2015, Lieutenant Shuler teamed up with new investigator Corporal Gean Johnson, and together they uncovered key evidence that had been overlooked. With new advancements in DNA and fingerprint technology, they brought the case to its end in just four months. Join Shuler as she details the gruesome history of this finally solved case.

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