5 Things to Consider When Writing True Crime Books

The best true crime books thread the needle between nonfiction (these things did happen) and narrative (a compelling story). In this post, Jax Miller shares five things for writers to consider when writing true crime books.
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A true crime book is the arm's length and safe distance by which reader and murder are separated. Psychologists have theorized that audiences, women, in particular, have been captivated by the genre as a form of self-preservation against their fears of violence and predation. Others, like the type of person who enjoys cardboard witches in a haunted house attraction, equate feelings of anxiety with excitement when put in a controlled setting. 

(Jax Miller: Switching From Fiction to True Crime.)

So when first entering the world of true crime writing, bearing all of this in mind, I asked myself how I could narrow the gap in a reader's relationship with its subjects and further thin that sense of security that veils curiosity, to remind them that crimes like these can, and did, happen to the average person. And it dawned on me: Instead of trying to bring this story to readers, like you'd see in a newspaper article when listing two teenage girls who disappeared 20 years ago, I had to bring readers into the story and tell them that one girl smelled like hay and the other had yet to kiss a boy.

Here are a few things worth considering when working on your true crime book.

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Writing Nonfiction Fundamentals

Research, interview, and explore the subjects that interest you. Then write about what you've learned in Writing Nonfiction 101: Fundamentals. Writing nonfiction is a great way for beginner and experienced writers to break into the publishing industry.

Click to continue.

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True Crime Writing Is Very Little Writing

Research is the foundation of this genre because you have a duty to provide accuracy. Get to the courthouses, sit at the bar with Joe Schmo who can tell you his version of what he thinks happened, have a cuppa with the archivists. This should be the bulk of working on a story. 

Later, you'll have the excruciating task of figuring what small percentage of your findings actually ends up in the book, but worry about that later. Collect data, gather supporting evidence, get to know the story better than most.

(Research Tips for Writing Nonfiction.)

While some authors utilize dramatization to convey a story, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with this, you might opt to be more intimate with the people and places you're writing about. Tell us what the air smells like where you are. Let us in on the conversations you're having with victims' families. Does Deputy Buckley have bad breath IRL? These are the things that flesh out the bones of journalistic writing and it requires just as much research as the former.

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What's Your Poison?

It's a good idea to know your angle, even before you start. Will your book be a glimpse into the psychology of a serial killer? Or is your aim to get to the bottom of some great injustice? Perhaps you err on the side of sensationalism. 

There are many reasons why a person writes a true crime book, and it may be a mix of several. Having a purpose will help you stay on track, because real-life crime is hardly ever a straight line; there are tangents and rabbit holes and different variations of the same story. So stand firm!

(3 Reasons Why Personally Visiting a Source or Location Will Better Your Writing.)

It always helped to have a gentle reminder close by. I tend to be a little more victim-centric, so I carry a photo of those I write about (Lauria Bible and Ashley Freeman are still in my jacket pocket today). For you, it could be a John Douglas book to reference criminal profiling, or a simple Google alert to your email with some keywords related to the case.

You Can't Make Everyone Happy

You'll probably find that there are two (or a hundred) versions of the story, and people's accounts often clash. Do you want to tell everyone's side, or do you want to provide facts? There is no wrong answer, but you'll have to choose. 

Hell in the Heartland cover

If you're any good, you'll probably make someone mad. I encourage you to get used to that now, especially if you tend to be a people pleaser.

Burnout, Beware

Be sure to take care of yourself. Diving into a case can (and maybe should?) take some emotional toll. After all, what is writing with any emotional attachment? Secondary trauma is a very real thing, especially with some dedicated authors, so find balance and preserve your own emotional, physical, and even spiritual wellbeing. 

(How I Interviewed a Serial Killer and Stayed Sane.)

Take breaks. Pray. Meditate. Talk to a professional. Treat your body right with some greens and some exercise. Whatever it is, look after yourself so that you can be in the best position to bring the story to life.

Fiction vs. Nonfiction

Fiction can offer an author escape from reality and have great therapeutic value. Conversely, true crime is a cold, hard plunge into someone else's reality where you have little or no control of the story, and some writers like the legroom. There is no escapism for the writer sifting through the memories of a bereaved mother or listening to a murderer in gory detail, yet that's what you’re expected to deliver.

Here, you can be a voice for the voiceless, or raise awareness, or even resurrect a case that's been forgotten. The greatest thing about true crime is that it gives you the opportunity to do something bigger than yourself. That's something special.