Vintage WD: The Truth about True Crime

In this article from July 2000, true crime novelist and former New York Times correspondent Lisa Beth Pulitzer shares with us some key insights for breaking into the true crime genre.
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Writer's Digest, July 2000

By Lisa Beth Pulitzer

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When New York Post reporter Keiran Crowley was asked by his editors to follow the trail of the city's self-proclaimed Zodiac Killer, he was so intrigued by the story that he launched his own inquiry into the case.

Crowley's keen investigative work—and the fact that he was able to crack the killer's encrypted messages—led cops to Heriberto "Eddy" Seda, now serving a life sentence for killing three people in New York in the 1990s. Crowley's diligence earned the veteran crime reporter his first book contract with St. Martin's Press, a leading publisher of true crime paperbacks.

Crowley had everything a writer needs to get a contract for such a book: He was working for a big city newspaper, he was covering a high-profile case, and his New York City press pass provided him with a handy means to get behind doors that otherwise might have been closed to him.

"It was gratifying because it was my first book contract and because I beat out another author whose proposal was in before mine," says Crowley, author of Sleep My Little Death: The True Story of the Zodiac Killer (1997). "My editor at St. Martin's Press told me that the reason I was chosen was that I was on the story from the beginning, and I had deciphered the killer's secret code."

But how realistic is it for someone who is not an investigative reporter on a major metropolitan newspaper to turn out a hot true crime thriller?

While many editors say they prefer to contract with seasoned journalists who can report, write, and meet the industry's tight publishing deadlines, it is not impossible for would-be authors to break into this dynamic genre.

"True crime is one area where first-time authors have the best chance to break in," says Paul Dinas, editor in chief at Kensington Books, which publishes true crime paperbacks under the imprint Pinnacle Books. "First-time authors absolutely can break into this genre if their expectations are realistic and they do their homework."

Dinas, who has been an editor for more than 11 years, says the reason is that true crime books focus on the crime. "It is not an author-driven genre," he says. "Since it's subject driven, the author has real possibilities of breaking in. I just bought three books from new authors."

Finding the motive

So, if you're interested in getting a true crime contract, how do you find a story that is book-worthy? It's important to look for cases that have a complex plot, a palette of colorful characters, and an element of mystery. Crimes can be up to seven to 10 years old, if the story is really good. Cases with an exhaustive police search, a series of mysterious killings or a trial that culminates with a shocking or unexpected outcome can provide the needed fodder.

A single act of violence—no matter how sensational—is usually not enough to fill the pages of a book. Stories that receive a lot of press cov­erage may also be bad choices. Cases in the national media spotlight can become so over-reported that there is little new information left to uncover.

"It can't just be an event," says New York's top true crime editor, Charles Spicer of St. Martin's Press. "There has to be a real story, with a beginning, middle, and, ideally, an end. There has to be some kind of closure."

Spicer admits he likes stories that involve the rich and the powerful. "I personally love a story where there is a lot of money and glamour," he says. "I also like cases that involve family situations."

"To get my money, the story has to involve sexual murder," says Kensington's Dinas. "It has to have a strong sexual content, an interesting hunt, or an interesting back story for the killer and the victims. Multiple killings are always best, and I prefer crimes committed in small towns as opposed to big cities."

People expect grisly acts of violence to occur in major metro areas such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, he says. For the average reader, it is most troubling to learn about crimes that happen in quiet rural communities.

For Berkley Books, stories with complex subject matter and elaborate plots work best, says Carolyn Nichols, vice president and executive director, editorial, at Putnam Penguin's sister company, New American Library.

"For a book on a crime, I have to know that there is a great deal more substance and complexity to the crime, that it isn't just a long magazine article, that it adds to what is already available in other forms of media," she says. "This means sometimes that one is dealing with a crime that takes a long time to solve or a crime that has been solved where the perpetrator is not behind bars."

Searching for clues

When choosing a crime, there are several things to keep in mind. The most important is that the story has to involve murder. Start with an online search of newspapers and newspaper archives. Authors may ask their local district attorney to recall a particularly troubling case. Police reporters and editors are also good sources.

Dinas suggests that writers pick a crime that is close to home. "If you are smart and want to keep your overhead low, pick a crime that is commutable from your home base so you don't have to pay for motels, food, and airfare."

Another thing to remember is that photographs are as important as the text. "From the very minute you hook up on the case, start gathering photos," Dinas says. "Playing catchup is the most difficult part of the crime story."

For authors who choose a breaking case, the way to stake it out is to try and get some sort of exclusive. One way to claim a "hot" crime is to secure one of the major players in the case and tell their story. The lead detective, a close family member, or a victim who survived an attack can provide compelling inside information. Try to secure their cooperation as soon as possible.

Targeting a publisher

St. Martin's and Pinnacle publish the lion's share of true crime paperbacks with 12 per year each. Other publishers such as Avon, Signet, and Pocketbooks, home to true crime maven Ann Rule, buy stories based solely on their merit and often limit their true crime purchases to as few as one a year.

Kensington's Dinas says that authors don't need an agent to submit a proposal. He says authors can expect advances of $6,000 to $20,000 for a mass market paperback with a royalty rate of 8% against the advance. A first printing typically ranges from 50,000 to 60,000.

Authors should submit a good narrative outline that includes the complete details of their case.

Include dates, names, and every piece of the story from the hunt to the capture and the adjudication. It's best to choose a case that's already been decided in court since publishers often require that a manuscript be submitted four to six months after a contract has been signed. Authors should also include personal biographies and writing samples. Most editors ask that first-time authors submit a sample chapter with their proposal.

Spicer, Dinas, and Nichols agree that working with a writer with some kind of journalism background—particularly investigative—is preferable.

"Most of our books are done by journalists because there are legal responsibilities on true crime books," says Nichols of New American Library. "Everything has to be documented, and you have to have two reliable sources saying the same thing."

Once a proposal has been submitted, it can take anywhere from one week to one month to get a response. "Usually I can read it and know in five minutes," says Dinas. "It's best if the proposals are as complete as pos­sible, so we don't have to wait while additional materials are being submitted."

Dinas tells authors to try to include copies of any televised news stories or feature pieces that appear on programs such as Hard Copy and 20/20. These visuals make it easier for editors to explain the idea to their marketing staff.

And when you get that contract—be aware that you're going to have to work quickly. Most editors require that 300-page manuscripts be submitted four to six months after a contract is signed. In some cases, authors may even be asked to complete their manuscript in four to six weeks.

How to tell the story

There is no one formula that authors must adhere to when writing a true crime book. Some writers prefer to begin with the crime, others like to introduce some of the key characters first. Still others choose to tell the story through the eyes of a police investigator, a district attorney, or a family member.

Editors say that a family member who commences his or her own investigation and solves the slaying of a loved one himself makes an interesting protagonist. And in cases where a detective's handiwork helped catch a killer, it seems logical to tell the story from his or her point of view.

When approaching police, it is best to begin by visiting the department's public information office. These officers are trained to deal with the media and can entertain your requests for interviews with detectives involved in a particular case. In smaller cities and towns, you may be able to contact law enforcement officers directly.

The courts are another place where true crime writers can learn more. Documents that have been accepted into evidence are public record and can be viewed during regular business hours. In many instances, coroners' reports and even police records can be obtained and copied upon request.

Inevitably, authors will want to get in touch with a victim's family. There are several ways to make the all-important first contact. Some authors prefer to call ahead to schedule an appointment. Others believe it is better to show up at the front door and hope that the element of surprise works to their advantage.

In either case, it is important to remember that these people have suffered a great personal loss. Be sympathetic, offer your condolences, and try to explain that you are there to help tell their story.

In cases where the story lies with the perpetrator, gaining access may be as easy as a request to the defen­dant's attorney, or as difficult as a continuous letter-writing campaign.

No matter whose point of view you use, make sure you ask a lot of questions, listen closely, and take copious notes. You're not writing the Great American novel, but you are writing about people who lived or died through a harrowing event. Make sure you honor their experience and cooperation with the most honest, accurate book you can.

Throughout this 12-week workshop, you will get step-by-step instruction on how to write non-fiction, read Philip Gerard's Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life, and write articles, essays, or a few chapters of your book. Register for this workshop and discover how fun writing nonfiction can be.

Throughout this 12-week workshop, you will get step-by-step instruction on how to write non-fiction, read Philip Gerard's Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life, and write articles, essays, or a few chapters of your book. Register for this workshop and discover how fun writing nonfiction can be.

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