By Joe Emanski
Book publishing is a more competitive market than ever, but a local writer may have found a novel approach to the novel.
By day, Dr. Michael McLaughlin is owner of Peloton Advantage, a medical content development company. But when he’s not hard at work building the business he co-founded, the Pennington resident writes fiction under the name N. Michael Caputo.
As Caputo, McLaughlin is the author of The Satin Strangler Blogs, which is a work of fiction told by way of a network of interconnected websites. Taking this unconventional approach enabled McLaughlin to finally publish a story he’d been working on in one form or another for more than 20 years.
At its heart, Strangler is a classic crime thriller centered on the story of recent college graduate Destiny Blande. Destiny is arrested on the Jersey Shore and eventually brought to trial accused of being the Satin Strangler, a serial killer who is believed to have murdered dozens of men up and down the East Coast using satin stockings as the murder weapon.
McLaughlin is the writer behind the 12 blogs through which the story is told. Each of the fictional bloggers he created is effectively a character in the story, and each has a different reason for being interested in the case.
Among the bloggers is Horace Krouch, a notorious defense attorney hired by Blande’s father to defend her against the murder charges. Krouch seems to maintain his blog as an ego trip.
Another blogger, of the site “Crazy 4 Crazies,” is obsessed with mass murderers, while the blogger behind “NJ Dirt” follows celebrity news around the state.
Then there are blogs like “Sea View Stew,” run by a pot-addled resident of the town where Destiny Blande was captured, and “Release Barabbas,” featuring the cryptic and increasingly disturbing posts of a person who seems to know more about the case than he — or she — should.
There are two main ways to engage with the story. For those who like a traditional and linear read, McLaughlin has carefully linked the 105 blog posts that compose the main story. While these core posts jump from blog to blog, they can easily be read in sequence, telling a single tale from start to finish.
The second way of reading The Satin Strangler Blogs may be more challenging, but more rewarding. Each blog contains a number of posts that have nothing to do with the core story, but which are written in the voices of the characters who are supposed to run them.
“Anywhere along the way, [readers] can branch off, do ‘off-road reading,’” he said. “They can go into any of those websites and read more about that narrator.”
McLaughlin estimates that he has worked thousands of hours setting up the websites and populating them with enough information to seem like the work of genuine bloggers. Some of the posts reference true life events, to add to the verisimilitude.
So conceivably, Web surfers could search for information on woman serial killers and end up going to one of the blogs, where they might read a string of posts without ever knowing that the site is part of a network of linked sites created to tell the story.
“There are enough clues that they’re not real, but I think part of the fun is having it look and feel real,” McLaughlin said.
Born in Brooklyn, McLaughlin grew up in Hopewell about five miles from where he lives today with his family. He graduated from Harvard University, where he met his wife Kristin, and went on to earn an M.D. from Columbia University. The couple has three daughters: Megan, 19; Amelia, 15; and Carolyn, 11.
He practiced medicine for 12 years after getting his medical degree, but realized after a while that it wasn’t the career for him. He said he doesn’t miss clinical life at all.
“Doctors get started down a path, and they don’t realize what else is out there for them. A lot of doctors don’t even know how to explore their options,” McLaughlin, 47, said. “I started questioning whether I wanted to do something else.”
He embarked on an alternate career in health-care communications, eventually founding his own company, Peloton Advantage, with colleague Carolyn S. Clark. The company provides consultative and editorial services for pharmaceutical, biotech and medical device companies. Peloton helps companies develop strategic publication plans and associated content development for medical education programs.
McLaughlin remembers writing novels when he was as young as eight or nine, and said he still has copies of them somewhere. Although he was a biology major at Harvard, his favorite undergraduate courses were the poetry and fiction writing classes he took.
McLaughlin says one of his goals in writing Strangler was to write about how society consumes major news stories, particularly stories about murderers and serial killers.
He cites the O.J. Simpson and Amanda Knox ordeals as some of the real-life media stories that helped shape his story.
“The story I started to write is really more watching the people who are watching the serial murderer, rather than [readers] directly watching the serial murderer,” he said. “It’s really more about how the characters are reacting to the story.”
Sensationalism in online media is one theme McLaughlin looked to explore. As the legend of Destiny Blande grows — early on she stands accused of 20 murders, later it’s a hundred and more — the reliability of the various accounts dwindles and shifts until readers aren’t sure who to trust.
The multi-blog format also led McLaughlin to make certain choices as he developed the narrative. Since people who get news online today are comfortable jumping from website to website to try to piece together a complete picture of a story, he wanted to be mindful of that when constructing his own.
“I don’t spoon feed the reader, because I want to hold true to the medium,” he said. “I didn’t want to come in at the end and say, ‘Here’s all the right answers.’ Readers will probably come to the conclusion that I came to as I completed the writing of this. But they may not, and that’s all right.”
McLaughlin said the hardest posts to write were often the expository ones he needed to include to help push the story along. On the other hand, he sheeplishly admitted, that the posts written in the voice of some of the more deranged characters fairly flew off his fingertips.
“My wife at times thought I needed to be hospitalized,” he joked. “There are certain characters in here that I think came easier to me as I was writing.”
The bloggers develop and change over the course of the story. Plot lines that at first seem tangential to the main story turn out to be meaningful, and some bloggers turn out not to be who they at first seemed.
As the story progresses, there are a number of twists and turns, the likes of which are common in the genre. Readers wary of a drawn-out courtroom drama will not be disappointed, as the intrigue sprawls beyond the legal battles, toward a conclusion that McLaughlin hopes readers won’t see coming.
The author notes that the blogs are meant to be interactive. As he gains a readership he hopes some people will be inspired to post comments on the blogs or otherwise contribute to the story in ways he could not have foreseen.
“If I can get to that, that’s where this is a home run — everything I really envisioned for it,” he said.
McLaughlin said he has been working on the story in one form or another since he was an undergraduate student. He wrote it first as a traditional novel, then in 1997 took a screenwriting course and rewrote it as a screenplay.
Despite all the work he had put in, it still wasn’t good enough for publication or production. In 2007 his brother-in-law, knowing McLaughlin was an avid blogger, recommended he rewrite the story in blog format.
But even armed with that insight, McLaughlin was still thinking in terms of traditional publishing modes. He rewrote the story again, but when he shopped it around to agents and publishers, they found the blog posts confusing in print form.
After sorting through his options, McLaughlin committed to creating the 12 blogsites and populating them with the elements of the story. Once he started the project, it took two years to complete.
He said he has always been able to count on his family for support. Father Arthur was an accountant, and mother Lucille worked for the post office, enabling McLaughlin to attend The Lawrenceville School and eventually Harvard. When he told them he was going to change careers, he says they were happy he was going to pursue something he felt would be enriching. Today, his parents reside in the Carolinas.
And of course, they read his stories.
“My mother doesn’t understand blog posts,” he said. “But she read my story and tried to give me feedback. It’s actually hard to get constructive criticism from my family. They’re too easy on me.”
Wife Kristin and eldest daughter Megan are fans, and amusingly, The N. Michael Caputo pseudonym also has familial significance: McLaughlin is not the first person in his family to make use of the fake name. Nick Caputo is the name his grandfather used to use when he wanted to make anonymous complaints.
“When he was contacting the homeowner’s association to complain the grass hadn’t been cut, it was Nick Caputo who would make the call or write the letter.”
McLaughlin said his grandfather, whose name was Nick Matera, was also his storytelling role model when he was growing up.
“He was the one who always had the entertaining stories we’d ask him to repeat over again and again. I was the oldest grandchild, so I watched my grandfather tell these stories to all these kids,” he said.
McLaughlin originally went with Nick Caputo before changing it to N. Michael Caputo, making the name a bit more his own.
While the main thread of the Strangler story is complete, McLaughlin may never be entirely through with the project. To this day he is still adding new posts to the blogs so they don’t seem like they are abandoned sites.
That doesn’t mean he isn’t thinking about what his next writing project will be. He has about three story ideas in his head, but has not yet decided which one of them to pursue. At least one of the concepts he’s working on takes the story-in-blogs presentation to the next level, but he is also contemplating attempting to write a traditional novel.
Though life as an entrepreneur and father of three keeps him plenty busy, he has turned one of the disadvantages of the daily grind into a strength. He commutes from Pennington to Parsippany four days a week, a long drive, but said he’s been able to put the time to some good use by dictating some of his writing while driving.
In addition to the work he does as chief scientific officer of Peloton Advantage, he is also a consultant who helps doctors explore nonclinical careers. He has written a book called Do You Feel Like You Wasted All That Training? which is available online.
“I tell doctors who are considering other things to look for ways to combine passions, do something for them,” he said. “For me, that was medicine and writing coming together.”
The Satin Strangler Blogs are online at to thesatinstranglerblogs.blogspot.com. The main page contains a primer of how to read the story.