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)

1 comment:

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