True Crime: Just the Facts, Ma’am


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Source: Google Images/kfgo.com

Once again, while perusing notes for a topic for this week’s blog, I came across some interesting information – on writing True Crime novels. As a fan of crime/suspense novels in general – usually fiction but also good nonfiction – I’m curious about what it takes to write a novel about a crime, usually a homicide.

One of my all-time favorite true crime novels is The Stranger Beside Me, the fascinating story of how True Crime author Ann Rule became friends with Ted Bundy, one of the twentieth century’s most prolific serial killers (they met at a suicide hotline office). I read the book while working on my BA in Psychology and Criminal Justice. My focus was the psychopathology and crime scenes of serial killers. I was fascinated by both the why and the how of these killers, which fit in with my major and minor. So I read just about every book there was to read on famous serial killers throughout the twentieth century (Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Randy Kraft, Billy Bonin, etc.) and the definitive book written by Patricia Cornwell on solving the Jack the Ripper cases (with mitochondrial DNA).

9 Tips for Writing True Crime

So how does one get started writing such a story? The late great Ann Rule, known as the queen of True Crime, grew up around it as her grandfather was a sheriff; she frequently visited him at the local jail and became fascinated with the why. Here are nine tips she recommends, in addition to going to the trial, if it’s a current crime you’re researching:

  1. You can usually get a press pass, but there’s often a deluge of writers trying to obtain one. Rule calls the prosecutor’s assistant.
  2. Study the witnesses, watch the jury, and soak up the entire experience.
  3. Try to obtain the court documents from the court reporter or the prosecutor, or purchase them.
  4. Observe the other reporters in the room, and analyze what they’re doing.
  5. If you’re sitting out in the hall with potential witnesses, don’t ask them about anything. You can comment on the weather or the courtroom benches being hard, but “Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth pretty shut.”
  6. Don’t take newspapers into the courtroom.
  7. Know what you’re getting yourself into. “You don’t want to start a nonfiction unless you’re really in love with it, and usually you want a go-ahead from an editor.”
  8. Absorb detail. “When I’m writing a true-crime book I want the reader to walk along with me.” Rule describes the temperature, how the air feels—“I think it’s very important to set the scene.” As far as the writing, you can novelize, but keep all of your facts straight.
  9. Don’t use the real name of a rape or sexual crime victim in your writing. (Though Rule has written about a few who have asked to have their names included.) As Rule said of her subjects at large, “I always care about my people. And if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”

Finding the Right Case, Doing the Research

Since not just any case will work out as a good read, it’s important to find a cast of characters that will engage and enthrall your readers. Research is paramount; it can possibly take a year or more of interviews (witnesses, law enforcement, prosecutors, etc.), researching paper and online records, and reviewing forensic evidence, police reports and other facets of evidence that’s public (not all evidence will be made public due to certain restrictions such as classified information, trade secrets, etc.). Access to trial evidence can also be costly, maybe $3-6/page for a 2400 page manuscript! (Check your local courts for printing fees.) And, a current crime may necessitate you attend court; getting a press pass is the surer way to reserve a seat.

Conducting interviews are time-consuming but vital to the storyline. As a way to protect yourself from legal liabilities, it’s best to have the interviewees sign an Interview Release form. Otherwise, you leave yourself open to lawsuits claiming defamation of character or invasion of privacy. Record the interview to ensure you properly quote the person.

FOIA: A Necessary Tool

When you need information that can’t be readily obtained, the next step is to write a Freedom of Information (FOIA) letter. These letters can be sent to any agency to request records but not all records are public. Check your state laws on which records are public. With police records, for example, much of the information is public: cleared suspects, witness interviews, crime scene photos, 911 tapes, and maybe even warrants. You can request paper or digital format (they may or may not comply) but remember there are always fees (find out just how much the records cost up front) and turn around time depends on the length and/or quantity of documents you’re requesting. 

Protect Yourself From Copyright Issues

Copyright issues may collide with your FOIA requests, so be aware. Certain records, like evidence not used at trial (i.e., email or text messages) may have copyright protection. The best way to avoid copyright and other legal issues is to have a lawyer review your manuscript before you submit it to any agency. 

Want to get started writing true crime? Try your hand at true crime articles first; submit to true detective magazines, get a feel for writing nonfiction. Like in the 1950s show, Dragnet, it’s all about “just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.” 

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