In honor of the passing of crime writing legend Ann Rule (you can read all about her life here), we’re re-sharing this piece—written by former WD managing editor Zachary Petit—that’s full of tips and advice delivered by Rule.
Bestseller Ann Rule had a heck of a journey to becoming a writer—something she never really wanted to be in the first place. “All I ever wanted to be was a police officer,” she told the crowd in her ThrillerFest session “How to Stalk a Serial Killer and Tell the Gruesome Tale: All You Need to Know to Write Great True Crime.” “The one thing I knew I didn’t want to be was a writer.” Rule thought it was all too hard—heck, you’d have to rewrite what you already wrote.
As a kid, she would visit her grandpa, who was a sheriff, but to see him she’d have to go to the jail. There, she was given the job of bringing prisoners their meals. From an early age, she was fascinated by crime—not the how, but the why.
“I think that we come to our genre naturally,” she said.
Following her passions over the years, she took any ridealong with law enforcement she could get. Attended classes. Got an associate’s degree in criminal science.
And along the way, she began writing, collected innumerable rejections, and penned pieces for true detective magazines, which she realized could pay the bills.
“You have to write about what you know about,” she said.
Back then, not even her children slowed her down. “Unless the kids were actually fighting on top of the typewriter, I could keep writing.”
And then there’s the famous story that led her to her first book, her breakout The Stranger Beside Me.
Her brother had committed suicide, so she decided to volunteer at the crisis clinic in Seattle. The clinic paired volunteers with work-study students. At night, they’d be locked up in the building all alone together. Her partner was a psychology student getting paid $2 per hour.
His name was Ted Bundy.
After his crimes became apparent, Rule attended Bundy’s trial, and the rest of the story is history, amazingly documented in The Stranger Beside Me.
Her writing passion went on to encompass documenting the suspects and victims involved in crimes, and describing their lives before their paths crossed—along the lines of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
In her presentation, Rule pointed out that pros are always saying that you only have a 1/10 of 1 percent shot at becoming a professional writer. But she decided that she was going to be in that 1/10 of 1 percent.
“You can’t let the naysayers make think you can’t make it, because you can,” she said.
If you want to be a true crime writer, Rule said the best thing you can be is immensely curious. And, you should go to trials—something anyone can do. From a life spent in courtrooms, here are Rule’s tips and etiquette for doing just that.
- 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.
- Study the witnesses, watch the jury, and soak up the entire experience.
- Try to obtain the court documents from the court reporter or the prosecutor, or purchase them.
- Observe the other reporters in the room, and analyze what they’re doing.
- 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.”
- Don’t take newspapers into the courtroom.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.”