If you’re a true crime writer – or if you’re looking to be a true crime writer writing true crime books – you have to be more than just a writer.
You also have to be a detective and a lawyer.
Let's tackle the detective side of things first...
Facts matter in any kind of writing, but in nonfiction especially. When you’re writing nonfiction, you’re either deliberately setting out to make a case about someone(s) real – i.e., the subject matter – or you’re deliberately setting out to make a case for someone(s) real: i.e., the reader.
Maybe even both. Definitely both if you're a true crime writer writing true crime books. In that case, you're dealing with extremely volatile information all-around.
You need to respect that fact by presenting accurate intelligence, with a special focus on gathering as many actual answers to the questions of who, what, why, where, when and how as possible:
Who was involved, including the perp(s), victim(s), accomplice(s), law enforcement official(s), etc. Make a list and check it twice.
What was the crime or crimes?
Why was the crime or crimes committed? In other words, what was the motivation driving this person?
Where did it or they take place?
When did it or they happen? After all, you’re going to want to make sure that the “who” and “where” actually line up.
How was it carried out? With a baseball bat? A two-by-four? A 9mm? A boxing knife?
There are plenty more details to be detected, of course. But I’m sure you get the gist.
In which case, it’s time to start thinking like a lawyer…
See the criminal and victim(s), not just the crime.
The statement above isn’t an all-out rule, hence the reason it’s being phrased as an Innovative Editing Writing Challenge instead. Composing true crime stories doesn’t depend on getting emotionally invested in the “little” details. But making them riveting does.
When you acknowledge more than just the legally pertinent facts by adding in perspectives, backstories, opinions and human interest, it can not only bulk up your page count but also bulk up your ability to engage your readers.
And your readers are your jury. So you really want to engage them.
Take it from someone who had to sit on a jury for three and a half weeks once. The facts can be boring.
Like really, really, really boring.
Members of the jury aren’t just reading the facts in the newspaper. They're hearing them listed off from nine in the morning until five at night.
That, my writing friends, gets dull. To the point where your brain is going to automatically be seeking distractions, no matter how seriously you take your civil duty.
A good lawyer knows that regardless of whether he’s working for the prosecution or the defense. That’s why a good lawyer, like a good true crime writer, will do everything he can to make members of the jury feel the case just as much as think about the case.
This requires a new angle on all the previously asked questions:
Who was involved? What were their backgrounds and contributions to society and goals in life?
What was the crime or crimes? How bad was it really?
Why was the crime or crimes committed? Was it petty? Personally motivated? Understandable? Reprehensible?
Where did it or they take place? What was the setting like? Did the victim or victims deserve better? Was it uncharacteristic of the accused?
When did it or they happen? Was there a storm coming in? Should it have been a beautiful day that was savagely torn apart instead?
How was it carried out? Did the victim or victims suffer? How much?
It’s the facts that catch the perp and the details that either have him behind bars or walking free.
And it’s not just detectives and lawyers who understand that. True crime writers writing true crime books worth reading – they do too.