Lessons Learned from Writing True Crime

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.

via GIPHY

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!

 

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10 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Writing True Crime

  1. Wow. You have really opened my eyes to true crime writing. The research is vital. Then there’s how to unravel & reveal the facts in a good storytelling way. Not being able to embellish motives would be hard, as fiction writers. I can’t wait to read this book.

    I’m a fan of true crime, especially from good authors who make the story come alive as if you’re reading page-turning fiction. Ann Rule is one or of my favs but I have a feeling your true crime book will make it to my print keeper list. Good luck, girlfriend.

    • Thanks, Jordan! Ann Rule’s website offered numerous tips for true crime writers. Sadly, I think the site has been taken down.

      Unlike Ann Rule, I didn’t have the luxury of interviewing witnesses or attending the trial, because all of my ladies had been dead for 100+ years. So, instead, I used the trial transcripts and/or confessions for dialogue, timeline, and other facts, then dug through mountains of newspaper articles till I found a journalist who gave a first-hand account of mannerisms, tone, and dress. It wasn’t easy, but it definitely helped to fill in the blanks.

  2. Sue, the cases are fascinating by themselves but to receive an inside peek from you into the process wows me. Thank you for these valuable insights.

    I dipped a toe into true crime once but jumped back out of that icy water. The case happened 20-some years ago in a small town near where I live. Two brothers, one wheelchair-bound, the other mentally disabled, were convicted of killing a neighbor who happened upon them while they were burgling a home.

    I had access to detective records, casually knew a family member of the victim, sat in at the trial, etc. What backed me off was the day I came face to face in the restroom of the courthouse with the mother of the two brothers. Her eyes were utterly dead, vacant, black holes. I knew then I didn’t have the guts to interview that woman.

    Eagerly awaiting your book’s release. Congratulations, Sue!

    • Thanks, Debbie!

      Wow. See, that’s where we differ. I would LOVE to interview that woman, even if she told me to pound sand. What someone doesn’t say is just as important as what they’re willing to share. I’ve always been fascinated by why people are the way they are, and that trait kept me digging for answers. I did miss the luxury of letting my imagination take flight, though. Fiction fills that need, so I plan to do both. Who needs sleep? 😉

  3. You really captured the rabbit hole of true crime research and writing, Sue. I know how much effort you’ve put into Pretty Evil, and I’m seriously looking forward to reading the end product… *ahem* for some reason there didn’t seem to be a beta reader invite on this job…

    Moving on to some shameless self-promotion, I thought I’d share an angle or niche I’ve found which I call “sort-of-like-true-crime”. I take real cases or true crime stories that I was involved in, or intimately know the facts of, and I write them in first-person from a narrating, nameless old detective’s POV. I take a bit of liberty with things like dialogue and setting but essentially they’re the real thing. I aim for 50K words which seems to be the sweet spot and the research time is fairly quick because I already know the story.

    I know I’m somewhat fortunate (or unfortunate) to have the background to pull this off, but I don’t see why any creative crime writer couldn’t do the same. I just qualify the cover by saying “Based on a True Crime Story” and then note on the copyright page that certain facts like time, place and character identification may be changed due to privacy concerns and protection of sensitive investigation techniques. And I get away with it 🙂

    • Hahaha. Love your “sort-of-like-true-crime” books, Garry! You can get away with it because of your background. Us lowly writers need to stick to primary source material for facts and mine other sources for mannerisms, dress, tone, etc, etc. Unless it’s a contemporary case, where we can attend the trial and interview witnesses. Which I’ll be doing next.

      I’ll email you later. Still in deadline hell. 😉

  4. Don’t think I could, Sue. I might decide, enough of this writing jazz. Let’s buy a Glock and go hunt this guy down.

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