Real Life to Fiction

This is a synopsis of how I came up with idea for my novel A Lovely County and the real life news stories that generated the idea for the book. I’ve included this as author’s note at the end of the novel.

A Lovely County Front

Cover design by Casey Cowan, Oghma Creative Media

The idea for A Lovely County started churning in my brain in the early 1990s when I first began writing newspaper articles about Arkansas 309, a state program that places inmates in local jails to be used as labor. Those articles detailed problems with the program in a Northwest Arkansas county jail, but there was no serial murderer involved in the real-life controversy, and no accusations of any money being exchanged between county officials and the inmates participating in the program.

The story was about an Act 309 inmate, D. Holt, who worked in the Washington County Sheriff’s Office rather than in the jail as kitchen or laundry help like most other state inmates. Holt was allowed access to the computer system and after his release in 1994 was hired for a three-month period as a computer programmer for the sheriff’s office. Once other county officials realized the sheriff had hired this former inmate to handle what they considered a sensitive information system, Holt was let go. The sheriff and some of his staff members allegedly helped Holt obtain a position in a local medical office. Several months later, he was accused of raping an eight-year-old boy, the son of a co-worker he had befriended. The sheriff was quoted stating that Holt “snowed” him, but called him a one-time model prisoner at the jail.

When Holt was arrested, it was discovered that he had stolen numerous items from the jail’s evidence room and had printouts in his home of official police documents detailing child molestation and rape cases from throughout Arkansas.

The local prosecutor eventually dropped the rape charge, claiming the witness was not credible and there was no physical evidence of the alleged rape. At his arraignment, Holt admitted stealing from the county during his confinement as a 309 inmate, stating that he wanted items to sell after his release. He pleaded guilty to theft by receiving and was sentenced to ten years in the state penitentiary.

In a diary that became part of the prosecutor’s file, Holt provided details of trips he made away from the jail during his incarceration. He alleged that he programmed the computer of a sheriff’s captain at the captain’s home, was taken out for Thanksgiving dinner by a deputy, and to another department employee’s home to help build a fence over a weekend period, all while a 309 inmate at the county jail.

In a twelve-page letter to the mother of the eight-year-old boy he allegedly raped, Holt said he knew he was a pedophile and had made a point over the years to study the issue and read about crimes by other pedophiles. He claimed to be an expert on the issue of how to entice children into his confidence, and suggested that she join with him to form an organization to help victims using his expertise on pedophilia.

“I knew I wasn’t violent because I never could hurt anyone physically. I was just the opposite, I ‘loved’ too much and too openly,” he wrote in the letter to his victim’s mother.

Holt’s charges for sex crimes with children dated back to 1951, and included sodomy, indecent molestation, soliciting a child for sex, rape, and carnal abuse in several states from California to Arkansas.

Among the Arkansas 309 inmates housed in that same jail in the 1990s was a John Huffman, convicted of first-degree murder in 1982 and sentenced to thirty-five years in prison. During his stay in Washington County, he made leather goods for sheriff’s deputies, including holsters. Deputies complained that the hip holsters didn’t provide any type of safety features and were flimsy. However, upon accepting employment with the department, deputies were reportedly told to see Huffman to purchase their belts and hip holsters. The homemade leather goods became a big issue in November 1995 when an inmate who’d taken a gun from the deputy’s hip holster used it to kill the deputy and a private citizen. The deputy had transported the inmate to a local clinic for medical treatment when the inmate overpowered him, took his .357 revolver and shot the deputy in the chest. The inmate then shot a man in the clinic’s parking lot, stole his truck, and later used the gun to kill himself after wrecking the truck in a police chase.

I wrote in 1996 in a Northwest Arkansas daily newspaper, that Washington County was then housing twenty-six of the Act 309 inmates and several of them were the worst kind of hardened criminals. Two were serving time for first-degree carnal abuse, one for rape, and three for murder. The program at one time allowed more hardened criminals to participate, but now excludes those convicted of sex crimes, first degree or capital murder, and those with a history of escape attempts. Inmates eligible for the program also have to be within thirty months of their release date, which wasn’t always the case.

I’ve taken some liberties in A Lovely County with the way the Arkansas 309 program is administered in present day. Act 936 of 1997 brought about some needed changes. No longer can Arkansas sheriffs request specific inmates to be assigned to specific jail facilities, and inmates have to be supervised at all times. The changes require inmates to have the job skills to meet the needs of the facility requesting participation in the program. The changes also require that victims and prosecuting attorneys be given ample notice of the pending transfer of an inmate from the Department of Corrections facilities to a local jail.

The Arkansas Act 309 program has been good for the most part for the Arkansas Department of Corrections and many of the inmates and counties that participate. However, problems still plague the program occasionally. Most of the controversies have centered on the misuse of inmates for personal gain by local officials. The program has been suspended in a number of county and city jails for that very reason. It’s still being used in Washington County, but the present day sheriff and his staff seem to understand its restrictions and its benefits.

One of the most flagrant abuses to the system was discovered in 2006 in the city of Lonoke. The police chief there and his wife were arrested on a number of charges regarding the use of 309 inmates for not only work around their home, but also what was described as their own sexual gratification. The chief’s wife allegedly provided some of the inmates with drugs and alcohol, and at least one with a cell phone. The mayor of Lonoke was also implicated for using 309 inmates for numerous repairs, yard work, and even hanging Christmas lights at his home.

Although the idea for this book was based on a true abuse of the Arkansas 309 program, all characters and events described in A Lovely County are fictitious.

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Any Help With a Book Title?

The title of my book isn’t working, but I’m stumped a little on what will work. I know it’s important. I want it to grab the potential reader, give them some idea of what they’re getting, but not give away too much. So, it needs to be short and catchy.

photo-20I’ve heard it called the “business card” of the book, and that’s probably true. I know I’ve picked up thousands of books in libraries and bookstores over the years, and now, click on books on Amazon just because I like the title.

One writer’s blog suggests write some keywords from the book and action verbs on small pieces of paper, and draw them out of a hat to come up with great combinations. Another suggests making a list of twenty titles from books you like in the genre you’re writing, brainstorm using important words from your book and come up with similar titles to try to find a combination you like, and then see if it would fit in the list of the twenty book titles you found without being to similar. I’m working on that.

I know, ultimately, a publisher will have a lot to do with the title, but I need to capture the interest of that publisher with a title that will make the best impression. If I don’t intrigue a publisher with the title, readers aren’t likely to be impressed either.

The book is tentatively titled “Arkansas 309,” which is the name of a state prison program involved in this mystery. It’s too restrictive and may not attract readers outside this area. It’s a mystery that involves a female protagonist who is a newspaper reporter with family and career problems, who’s investigating a story of police corruption and simultaneously writing about a serial killer. And, of course you’ll understand if you know me, she grew up in a cemetery.

My husband thinks I need to worry less, call it simply “309” and go on. I’m not sure. Any suggestions out there? Please?