Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Mystery of Mysteries: 15 Elements of True Crime Mysteries

I thought this would be a simple task, a good way to finish up the series on how to write different types of mysteries. Boy, did pride goeth before that fall!

Also, this is a small group of published books compared to say cozy or traditional mysteries. And, after all, true crime mysteries are, well, true. They aren’t novels. The books are classed as creative non-fiction rather than as a category under “crime novels”. Yeah, except …

It seems that in the true crime book world there are actually three ways a writer can go: 1) “true crime” with verified facts only but relayed creatively; 2) “true crime novels” in which the basis is verified facts enhanced with the storytelling touch that extrapolates and imagines beyond the facts; and, 3) “based on true crime novels” which are inspired by a headline or court case but are wholly fictionalized retellings.

Okey dokey.

I made the decision to stick with Door #1. I figure enough tips exist in my other posts that you could, maybe already are, writing a #2 or #3 book. Those are fiction. True Crime is non-fiction and, thus, is bound by specific rules.

In some cases the lines blur. Writing about an historical case, like Jack the Ripper, relies upon suspect and scanty data. While the murders might be factually relayed from newspaper and official reports, the fact is there’s not enough there, there to bring the case to closure. Speculations about the identity and motives for Jack the Ripper emerged from the beginning in the fall of 1888, and there is still no definitive conclusion. However, a recent book claims to name Jack the Ripper based on DNA evidence.

If you want to write an authentic true crime book, please read widely in the genre, as has been suggested in past posts. A starter set of authors appears at the end of this post.

I have a fascination with true crime stories. There are several that haunt me: the mummified babies found in a steamer trunk in Los Angeles, the church-run Irish home for unwed mothers where dozens of baby bodies were found, and how King Tutankhamen really died. Those pull at me, but frankly, I don’t want to work that hard to write a book.

You see, true crime mysteries require more research than any other mystery subgenre. Sure, you can start with a computer search, but this type mystery requires you to interview those involved, where possible, and to dig into archival records and read courtroom transcripts and the police interview reports. Stuff like that. Ann Casey says she interviews ~100 sources for her true crime books and spends a year in the research and writing, with ¾ of that time doing research. These are not quickly knocked out books.

There is the responsibility to get it right. When you name people, even dead ones, their relatives or victims might disagree with what and how you present the case. True crime authors are much more likely to encounter resistance while trying to get information as well as from readers who may know more than you do. You may even be sued. Many true crime authors have been.

Still want to sign on? Maybe these fifteen elements will help guide you to a successful book:

Elements in True Crime Mysteries:
1) The crime must be a spectacular one to justify writing about it. People should have heard of the crime, which builds your audience of readers.
2) Choose your catchy title early to keep the focus of the book where you want it.
3) The author most often creates a foreboding atmosphere building up to and including the commission of the crime.
5) There is a section/sections in the book where the victims are portrayed in normal day-to-day life. Things appear normal before their world is turned upside down.
6) The villain is often known from the beginning by the reader and his/her actions typically drive the retelling. Often authors explore psychological explanations for heinous behavior.
7) The author has to pay special attention to pacing the true crime retelling to alternate and escalate tension in scenes.
8) Humor is not an expected part of true crime tales and, if used, may detract.
9) While how the crime was done can be quite graphic, even more attention is given to motives and intentions.
10) There is rarely a “hero” in the novel sense.
11) You need a background in elements of crimes and how courts and law enforcement function. You will understand what you are reading and will be able to interview sources better
12) Keep meticulous notes. Imagine the IRS is going to audit your research trail. Have names, dates, data all clearly identified. It is impossible to have too much data documented.
13) Don’t include anything which you do not have more than one source for and it’s best to have at least three validations.
14) Create a timeline for the crime and tuck the data bits into the appropriate slots.
15) Why ARE you writing this book? What is your purpose, your intent? If it’s about capitalizing on and sensationalizing the tragedies of others, you might want to rethink your plan.

If you are writing about a current court case, Ann Rule has some great advice for you when you attend the trial. 
Here’s a great resource for someone writing true crime mysteries. She writes about defrosting cold cases.

If you want to write true crime mysteries, read authors like these:
Jana Bommersbach (had to put in an AZ author for an AZ crime)
Truman Capote (no website)
Norman Mailer (no website)

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Mystery of Mysteries: 10+ Tips for Writing Police Procedural Mysteries

Police Procedural and True Crime mysteries (coming next week) share some common elements while retaining their distinctive differences. The major difference is that police procedurals are fiction, and true crime mysteries are creative non-fiction.

In a Police Procedural, the writer must adhere to the basic elements of mysteries while at the same time incorporating what makes the story a police procedural. Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish a thriller from a police procedural novel since thrillers also may be filled with lots of detail about the crime(s) and how solved. Because it must be solved. That is part of the covenant between writer and reader.

Additionally, in order to be classed as a police procedural mystery:

1) The investigator is a professional in the public safety world. The investigator might be a police officer, detective, EMS person, firefighter, and so on.

2) The emphasis is on factual operations of police investigations rather than on character development. Characters tend to be tropes, but investigative rules must be followed.

3) The perpetrator may or may not be known from the beginning.

4) There can be one crime or more than one. If more, the crimes may seem unrelated but connect somehow. Or the novel may feature several unrelated crimes being processed by the precinct or department and have multiple investigators, a sort of ensemble cast.

5) Solving the crime is a group effort. Police procedurals demonstrate a range of police techniques including forensic, interrogation techniques, arrest and search warrants, interviews, autopsies, and behavioral science protocols.

6) Police procedurals provide details of the crime scene investigation, from gathering evidence to processing it. A realistic portrayal is demanded. A team is needed for different aspects of the investigation.

7) There is typically a graphic description of the crime scene. Violence often takes place “on stage” with varying degrees of explicit violence or gore described. Sometimes it is provided through the investigator’s reconstruction of the crime.

8) The POV can be entirely or mainly from the professional investigator’s stance. Or the villain’s POV may alternate to show his/her thinking, particularly if a crime spree is depicted.

9) The crime’s perpetrator in police procedurals, though not always in real life, is a worthy intellectual foe for the investigator.

10) Extremely intensive research to write police procedurals includes spending time with safety professionals as they work, if at all possible. If not, spend other time with them to get the small details right.

If you want to read more about types of mysteries and how to write them, check out my June-December mystery posts on the second Tuesdays at Writeon Sisters and search this "Parsley, Sage, and Rosemary Time" blog for earlier posts.

Before writing a police procedural mystery, read these authors. Of course, there are many other great ones, too!
Tess Gerritsen     
Thomas Harris    
Tony Hillerman    
Ed McBain    
Louise Penny   
Martin Cruz Smith      

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Guest Post: "Writing Mysteries is about Characters" by Patricia Gligor

I am delighted to welcome Pat Gligor to share her books with you. She is a mystery writer of taut tales that are also warm excursions into the heart. Welcome, Pat!

I love to read mysteries and I especially enjoy reading a mystery series. Whenever possible, I prefer  to start with the first book in the series because I like meeting the characters and getting to know them from the beginning and then, following their lives in subsequent books, watching them change and grow. Because it’s not just about the mystery for me. It’s also about the characters. So, because I love character driven mysteries, that’s what I write.
Here’s a brief synopsis of my first three Malone mysteries. The fourth, Mistaken Identity, will be published by Post Mortem Press in early summer of this year.

It’s estimated that there are at least twenty to thirty active serial killers in the United States at any given time. There’s one on the loose on the west side of Cincinnati.

It’s the week of Halloween and Ann Malone Kern struggles with several issues. Her primary concern is her marriage which, like her west side neighborhood, is in jeopardy. Her husband is drinking heavily and his behavior toward her is erratic. One minute, he’s the kind, loving man she married and, the next minute, he’s cold and cruel.

Ann dismisses a psychic’s warning that she is in danger. But, when she receives a series of ominous biblical quotes, she grows nervous and suspicious of everyone, including her own husband.

As the bizarre and frightening events unfold, Ann discovers a handmade tombstone marked with her name, pushing her close to the edge. Will she be the Westwood Strangler’s next victim?

The Westwood Strangler is dead. Or so everyone believes.

Ann Malone Kern is busy preparing for her favorite holiday. She’s especially looking forward to her sister’s annual Christmas visit. But, several things threaten to ruin her festive mood.

The National Weather Service issues a severe winter storm warning for the Cincinnati area, predicting blizzard conditions, and Ann worries that her sister and her new boyfriend won’t be able to make the drive from South Carolina.

Then, a woman is found strangled in Ann’s neighborhood and everyone, including the police, assumes it’s the work of a copycat killer. However, when two more women are murdered in their homes, the police announce their conviction that the Westwood Strangler is responsible.

When Ann hears the news, the sense of safety and security she’s worked so hard to recapture since her attack on Halloween night, shatters. If the intruder who died in her apartment wasn’t the Westwood Strangler, who is? And, who will be the next victim?

As Ann Malone Kern starts her new business as an interior decorator, the temperatures have risen, tulips and daffodils are in bloom and there’s a feeling of endless possibilities in the air. She has no idea that her world is about to be turned upside down.

When Janis Riley, a woman for whom money is no object, contacts Ann to redecorate her house, Ann is elated. But her initial visit with her first client leaves her with mixed emotions. Why did Janis react so strangely to seeing a photo of Ann’s six-year-old son, Davey?

But Ann has bigger problems. Her husband, David, a recovering alcoholic, has lost both his mother and his job and Ann worries that he’ll start drinking again. To add to her concerns, their next-door-neighbor, Dorothy Baker, is severely depressed but Ann’s efforts to help her are rebuffed.

Ann is terrified when she wakes up the day before Easter to find Davey gone. Another child, Kelly Kramer, has been missing since December. Where are the children? And what, if anything, can Ann do to get her son back?

If I’ve piqued your curiosity (and I hope I have), my books are available in paper and eBook formats at:
And, if you enjoy reading them, please consider writing reviews. Thank you!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Vote Now for February Month-of- Recipes

Each year for the past several years, I have posted a daily recipe in a category during the month of February. Three years ago, it was soup. Two years ago, I posted chicken recipes. And last year was appetizers.

You, Dear Readers, selected those categories. Because it takes me a while to assemble, create, and try out recipes in a category, I have you vote now so I have enough time to prepare and post 28 recipes in a row.

This year, I have four categories (listed alphabetically) for you to consider. During February, should I post 28 recipes for …

I’ve read that the traditional chef’s hat has 100 pleats. The toque was earned when the chef demonstrated he (because they were only he initially) could prepare eggs 100 ways.

Season 52, a marvelous restaurant chain, created the first restaurant mini-desserts and now everyone is doing them. They are a staple at my parties.

Both savory and sweet muffin recipes abound. Let me share some favorites with you and show you some you might not have tried.

Slow Cooker
Your slow cooker can deliver hot-and-ready breakfasts, entrees, sides, and desserts.

Your choice.

Vote in comments or on the poll. You have one week. Your votes in the poll and comments below will be tallied as will votes on Facebook and Twitter. You have one week to register your preference. All votes entered by midnight MST, January 13th will count. In February you will find out what category won!

Next week, I am so happy to have guest blogger Patricia Gligor, author of the Malone mysteries, telling about the fun of writing mysteries. Stop in and read what she has to share.