Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Ever since Truman Capote popularized the genre in 1966 with In Cold Blood, America has been obsessed with true crime, and that obsession has since spread across the world. The term refers to a particular genre in film and literature in which a real-world crime is treated like the central plot device in a work of fiction. The genre has grown increasingly crowded in the past few decades, with authors racing to capitalize on crimes as they occur; indeed, we seem to have true crime everything these days, from graphic novels to books to films to Netflix series to podcasts. The sheer number of true crime texts means it’s more important than ever to ensure your true crime book rises above the rest.
But how? What separates a great true crime book from the leagues of the merely decent? How do you straddle the strange line between fiction writer and crime journalist? Let’s take a look.
Know what you’re getting into
This first pointer is less of a hint than it is a warning: if you’re not someone of considerable mental fortitude, perhaps consider another genre. Writing true crime that’s any good typically involves researching, meeting with, spending time around, and interviewing people who have suffered horribly, lost people they love, seen terrible things, withstood terrible injury, or suffered transformative mental breakdowns. Worse, you could have to deal with actively violent criminals, psychopaths, or just irredeemably unpleasant people. If you’re not up to it, you could do yourself serious psychological harm by delving too far into the dark.True crime can be a taxing genre to write. Be sure you’re ready for it.Click To Tweet
Even if you don’t visit convicted murderers/cult leaders/drug lords and instead visit the families of victims, you’re likely to be ignored and treated with hostility. After all, you’re an outsider trying to research an event that brings the people you’re trying to talk to only pain and misery. This is a heavy task to take upon yourself, and you need to be sure you’re strong enough to handle it.
On a more mundane note, researching and writing a true crime book unsolicited can be a time-consuming and expensive process – you’re going to have to travel out to where the crime occurred in order to (if possible) interview the criminals and victims involved, and you’re going to have to invest a lot of time in chasing the truth.
Keep your finger on the pulse
If you’re choosing to soldier on with your true crime masterpiece, your first step should be finding a compelling crime to write about. Now, I’ll get on to what to look for in a moment; for now, I want to talk about how you’re going to find anything in the first place.
In the good old days, you’d rely on daily tabloids and regional newspapers to snatch up intriguing stories, but nowadays you can utilize the internet. Twitter is a good option, but even better is Google Alerts – this system allows you to insert keywords that Google will search the web for on a daily basis. At the end of each day, you’ll receive a report compiling all the relevant stories Google could find that day. For example, I used the keywords ‘Human Rights,’ and now I get a daily report compiling news items related to human rights from media outlets across the world.
Needless to say, this is an invaluable tool for writers of true crime, who could use keywords such as ‘murder’, ‘drugs’, ‘death’, or ‘gang’ to scout out crimes with good narrative potential.
Of course, while the information age adds fantastic new options for sourcing stories, the old methods are still good too – newspapers will still be reliable friends, and if you can talk to police officers, lawyers, prosecutors, or journalists, you should seize the opportunity to rinse them for weird and gruesome stories. A lot of true crime is exciting precisely because it’s up-to-the-minute, but old cases can work too. Just make sure you’ve got a unique angle of approach to tell the reader why it’s worth revisiting old news.
Know what makes a good story
Not every serial killer or cult is created equal. It’s not always the bloodiest crime or the most evil-seeming criminal that makes the best true crime story, so knowing what to look for is key.
In his excellent if outdated book How to Write and Sell True Crime, Gary Provost highlights the key things to look out for that make (and sell) true crime stories.
An interesting criminal
This one sounds obvious – of course you want an interesting criminal. But hold on; what exactly does ‘interesting’ mean in this context? Well, Provost claims that your criminal needs to have that something extra about them; it’s ‘not enough that he be cruel, devious, sadistic, psychotic and remorseless.’
What makes Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, and Jeffrey Dahmer so chillingly compelling? What’re the strange, dark quirks that vie with their humanity for control? What, in Dahmer’s case, drove a bullied teen toward cannibalism? In your criminals, look for the signs of humanity – no matter how twisted and obscured – and look for mystery. The best true crime books always find ways to pit the reader’s empathy against their disgust.True crime is about exploring the human condition, not just sensationalism. Click To Tweet
An involved victim
By ‘involved’, Provost means victims who the criminal has a reason to be hunting. Random victims, he argues, aren’t as compelling; the reader doesn’t get that investigative feeling. The most intriguing killers have method behind their madness, and part of the macabre enjoyment for the reader is trying to work out what that method is.
A sense of place
Establishing a sense of place is, I think, not just vital for writers of true crime – it’s vital for every writer worth their salt. Establishing a sense of place means really working to communicate a sense of the exotic and the removed through focus on atmosphere and mood; it means knowing which details to pick up on, when to jump into a paragraph of vivid description, and when to evoke sensory information.
Think about how many crimes are impossible to detach from the environments they occurred in; Ian Brady and Myra Hindley and Saddleworth Moor in northwestern England; Jack the Ripper and London; Dennis Rader and Sedgewick County, Kansas; and the Herbert Clutter murders and Holcomb, Kansas, described in Capote’s In Cold Blood. As Provost says:
Did the crime take place in ‘The Midwest’ or did it really take place in ‘Kansas’ or even perhaps ‘on the high wheat plains of western Kansas,’ a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there,’ as Truman Capote described his ‘place’ in In Cold Blood?
– Gary Provost, How to Write and Sell True Crime
A different world
‘A different world’ might sound closely related to ‘a sense of place,’ and the two do share ground, but this tip is more about taking the reader somewhere completely foreign, scary, and detached from their own reality. You need to dredge up a whole new situation for your reader to take a horrified glimpse at, complete with foreign dynamics, values, objectives, politics, prejudices, risks, etc. Make your reader forget the comforts of their own lives and throw them somewhere frightening and alienating.True crime should bring a sense of risk into the reader’s life.Click To Tweet
Think, for example, of the Jonestown cult, or else the seedy reality of a drug-runner; think of the spaces occupied by kidnappers who manage an isolated compound out in the desert, or else of Arkansas Klan members out for blood. The spaces occupied by such people are absolutely removed from the lives most of us lead; they’re warehouses, compounds, sewers, backstreets, plantations. These people aren’t paying the rent or handing in those reports for work; instead, they’re avoiding paper trails, staying underground, selling drugs, avoiding the police, tracking victims, and recruiting troubled souls to the cause. You need to communicate this sheer uncrossable difference; you need to transport your reader out of their comfort zone. If you can find news stories that seem entirely confined to some distant, alien world, you might just be onto something.
As all good stories are, compelling crimes are complicated. The news stories that make the best true crime narratives will be complex, and there’ll be more to them than meets the eye. There have to be twists, unexpected turns, and ideally those weird and twisted embellishments that intrigue, mystify, and disgust your readers all at once. Provost uses one of his own books, Without Mercy, as an example:
If my killers had simply murdered Art Venecia and buried his body in his own yard, then confessed a year later, it would have been interesting, but not bookworthy. But that’s not what happened. They murdered Art Venecia and buried him in the yard, and then Art’s mother started asking too many questions, so they murdered her, too, and then they took over Art’s identity and sold off his yacht, and his stocks and bonds and his house.
– Gary Provost, How to Write and Sell True Crime
That’s exactly the kind of ‘Wait, then he did what?!’ progression that’ll keep your true crime book fresh, interesting, and sensational. The more bizarre, the better.
Don’t sacrifice truth for drama
So you’ve got your crime, you’re prepared to dive into your research, and you finally think you’ve got an intriguing, workable narrative. You’re confident you’ve uncovered something new and have shed new light (or new darkness) on the events of the crime. Finally: you’re ready to write the damn thing.
But in your planning, remember that you’re writing what Capote called a non-fiction novel. Sure, you’re crafting a narrative, and yes, the involved parties are essentially characters, but this doesn’t mean you can play around with the truth. Yes, it might be more dramatic if you add a witness here or alter a motive there, but these are real people you’re playing with – these are real events that have had real consequences, and the story you tell will have real-world repercussions. Be honorable and treat your subject matter with respect. It’s worth it.True crime isn’t fiction, and you have a responsibility to be diligent about the truth.Click To Tweet
Excuse me, officer
I’m conscious I’ve made true crime seem like a rather bleak and mammoth undertaking here, and while it’s true that it is a weighty burden to pick up, it’s also incredibly rewarding and innately fascinating. True crime writers have delved the human condition, as well as uncovering new evidence that has freed the innocent and harried the guilty. If you’ve got the time, the money, and the fortitude required, by all means gather your journalist’s pad and your favorite pen and venture forth. Just remember to keep these tips front and center!
What are your favorite works of true crime? Have you ever tried writing any yourself? Let me know in the comments, or check out How To Get Away With Using Real People In Your Story and What To Consider When Writing Mental Illness.