Today, I’m featuring another Level Best Book author, Lynn-Steven Johanson, who lives only forty minutes away from me in the heart of the country–downstate Illinois. It’s all yours, Lynn….

People often ask writers where their inspiration comes from, and there is a myriad of answers. Newspapers, television, people, books, relationships, and dreams are a few of the ways writers find inspiration for their projects. Sometimes, it is possible to cite a specific source, while other times, it seems like ideas magically appear. The creative mind works in a multitude of ways.

For my newest mystery, Sins Revealed, I decided to use something that has haunted me for almost fifty years–the murder of a classmate. And to this day, the crime remains unsolved.

I grew up in a small town in Northwest Iowa. With a population of 500 people, everybody knew everybody else. There were twenty-five students in my high school graduating class, and Larry was one of them. I had known him ever since his parents moved to town when we were in third grade. He was smart, personable, our senior class president, and he seemed destined for a bright future.

Seven years after high school graduation, I received the shocking news that Larry was dead, a victim of foul play. A burned-out pickup had been found containing the grisly remains of two individuals burned beyond recognition. It was Larry’s vehicle, and the authorities identified the remains as Larry and his cousin. His death hit me hard. He was our first classmate to die. Why Larry, I asked? Who could have done such a deplorable thing?

Many years later, when I began writing novels about crimes and the detectives who solve them, I occasionally thought about Larry’s murder. When I began to formulate an idea for a fifth book in my Joe Erickson Mystery Series, I debated about using Larry’s murder as the inspiration for the story. I had previously hesitated to include the circumstances of his death in one of my books since his mother was still living. She was a sweet person, and I didn’t want to upset her or for her to think I was profiting off her son’s death. But since she passed away the year before, I felt more comfortable going ahead.

I didn’t want to base Sins Revealed on this heinous crime because I write fiction, not true crime. Rather, I decided to use the discovery of two charred bodies in a burned-out pickup as the inciting incident. From there, it was my task to construct a fictional story that incorporated it. Because I had first-hand knowledge of Larry and his family, I made it a point to avoid using actual facts. If I thought it necessary to use something I knew about him or his situation, I twisted it or changed it significantly so it would not reveal personal information.

Although he never appears in the book, I needed to create a portrait of the victim. I chose to name him Perry but made him the antithesis of Larry. I had to do so because making him a nice guy was too close to the truth and not nearly as interesting. As Detective Joe Erickson investigates the crime, he finds Perry was somewhat unhinged, and his strange behavior could have motivated people to kill him.

I remember back in high school when Larry would sit in study hall reading paperback books, and I like to think he would have enjoyed reading Sins Revealed. I don’t know how many readers will figure out where the inspiration for this twisted tale came from. A few from my high school who have knowledge of the actual crime, perhaps. Or maybe, just maybe… one of Larry’s killers. He would be pretty old by now, but he could still be out there.

Next year, it will be fifty years since Larry and his cousin were killed, and I am hoping that someday, some way, someone will solve it, just as Detective Joe Erickson did in Sins Revealed. Only time will tell.

Sins Revealed … Detective Joe Erickson is called to investigate a burned-out pickup truck containing the charred bodies of two individuals. The truck’s license plate helps identify the victims as a young man and his cousin, who were living in a house owned by the man’s father. But when a suspicious area in the backyard is excavated, and skeletal remains are found, the case grows increasingly complicated. Who would burn the two victims beyond recognition? And could the skeletal remains have anything to do with it? [description from]

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Lynn-Steven Johanson is an award-winning playwright whose plays have been produced on four continents. Born and raised in Northwest Iowa, Lynn holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He lives in Illinois with his wife and has three adult children.

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