By SUE COLETTA
Have you ever considered writing true crime? With five days left of my deadline, I’ve finished the manuscript of Pretty Evil New England and am now just tightening the writing and gathering my photographs for the book. The hard part is behind me.
While on this journey into true crime I learned a few lessons that might interest you.
Would I recommend true crime to new writers? The only honest answer I can give is, it depends.
The truth is, this work isn’t for everyone. Writing true crime is a huge undertaking that requires months of intense research and deep concentration. Some days I swear my brain had caught fire from overuse. Seriously, it can be physically draining to live inside a real killer’s head for months on end, never mind five killers’ heads, or the victims and their families. At the same time, my passion and excitement for the project kept me racing to work every single day, and the day after that, and the day after that.
Please indulge me for a moment. I do have a point, but you’ll need context to understand what I’m talking about. When the publisher approached me about writing Pretty Evil New England, they asked me to include 10 +/- female serial killer stories.
But I didn’t want to write 10 short stories. What fun is that? If I was to veer out of my comfort zone (psychological thrillers and mysteries), then I needed to write a story that mattered, a story that readers could sink into, spend time in the story world, and experience a visceral thrill ride. What I failed to realize at the time was that the publisher’s idea would’ve been a cakewalk compared to my over-eager proposition. But hey, I was never one to shy away from a challenge. Why start now?
In my book proposal, I outlined the book in four Parts. Part I – III focused on one female serial killer at a time, with each Part dedicated to the subject’s case, all four Parts the length of a novella. In Part IV, I zeroed in on two female serial killers — one poor, one “lady of influence” — who committed almost identical crimes. They both claimed to experience visions and prophetic dreams, both murdered the people they loved most, and both stunned the public with their heartless crimes. Yet, after they were exposed as killers, the two women’s lives ran in opposite directions. Even more shocking were the outcomes at trial. So, Part IV became not only two intriguing storylines that intertwined but it shined a (subtle) light on fairness and equality.
Not conforming to the publisher’s original vision for the book was a risk, but I backed up my argument with facts from various sources that proved true crime readers prefer quality over quantity.
Lesson #1: When pushing for your own concept, you need to provide proof that your idea will be more profitable and enjoyable than the one posed by the publisher.
Once I found my five cases, I delved into research. Now, I had no idea what to look for, so I researched everything… life in nineteenth century New England, nursing requirements back then, forensics of yesteryear, how trials worked back then, the gallows… you name it, I researched the topic to death (no pun intended). I had no direction, except for my five ladies, two of which had practically no online footprint and one who had too many articles written about her, and many with conflicting accounts that didn’t align with my early research. Which is worse, actually. It’s much more time-consuming to wade through conflicting information than to research a bare bones case.
Lesson #2: Have a plan of attack. Meaning, before you start to research plan what you’ll need for the story, like dialogue and a sense of place.
Being a fiction writer helped a lot, because I viewed the cases from a storyteller’s point of view. The worse thing we can do is to just report facts. Boring! Instead, we need to find that perfect balance between journalism and engaging storytelling. But, and this is key, we cannot change or embellish to enhance the story.
What I discovered is, there are numerous ways to write true crime. Each of my four Parts are written differently. Why? Because no true story is the same. Thus, it’s our job to be able to adapt according to the case. For example, in Part I, I used the killer’s confession and dialogue to write scenes from her perspective, the victims’ perspectives, and the dogged investigators who caught her. Using a backdrop of the historical Eastern Heatwave of 1901 enhanced the atmosphere in a creepy way. Which brings me to…
Lesson #3: Look outside the case for a sense of place. What else is happening at that time, in that area?
Lesson #4: No amount of online research can replace real-world experience.
Even if we’re writing historical true crime, we still need to visit the crime scenes, grave sites, walk where the killer walked, visit the town, or the murder house, if you’re really lucky. In my research I stumbled across a third floor that was perfectly preserved from 1881. I walked where the killer walked (in Part III of Pretty Evil), I sat where the victims sat, I laid my finger on the ivory keys of their piano and perused their bookshelves. What an incredible find! It’s an experience I will never forget. If you’d like to see the photos, I blogged about it.
The most important lesson I learned was this. Before choosing a subject to write about, ask yourself, why does this story interest me? What is it about this crime that makes it unique?
We, as writers, need to be passionate about all our projects. For true crime writers, we need to be doubly sure, because we can’t change real life. The true crime writer lives with the case for a long time… many months, sometimes years. If the writer isn’t passionate about the story, chances are readers won’t care, either. Same goes for fiction. Hence why TKZ members have written umpteen posts on concept, premise, when to keep a story idea and when to trash it.
By the time I wrote the final sentence of Part IV of Pretty Evil, I couldn’t wait to go back to page one. I missed my “characters” from Part I-III. And now that I’m just tidying up the manuscript, I feel like I’m visiting old friends, even if they are psychopaths. 😉 Their stories are part of me now, and hopefully, will become part of my readers’ lives as well.
Have you ever considered writing true crime? If you already do, please share your tips.
PRETTY EVIL NEW ENGLAND: True Stories of Violent Vixens and Murderous Matriarchs hits bookstores Sept. 1, 2020. Can’t wait!