Writing True Crime

Advice on how to approach writing and documenting true crime.

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Does the macabre intrigue you? Are you someone who finds the dark workings of the human psyche and, indeed, the soul fascinating? Do you ever wonder what drove a fellow human being to commit a dreadful criminal act? If so, then you may have the natural curiosity to become a writer of true crime.

It could be anything: a violent husband who murders his loving wife by burying a meat cleaver in her head (the Sprackling murder of 1652), or the clandestine theft of gold from a moving train (the Great Bullion Robbery of 1855). You could even attempt to solve an unsolved case such as the Hagley Wood Murder of 1941. Then again, you may want to look into the criminal life of a notorious character, such as Adam Worth—Conan Doyle’s inspiration for Professor James Moriarty—or a detective, such as Jerome Caminada, credited as the man who evoked Sir Arthur’s other great fictional character, Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps forensics is your thing, or even the origins of a particular branch of law enforcement?

For the aspiring writer, true crime offers two advantages on the road to publication. Firstly, as with crime fiction, it’s one of the most popular genres out there. In a survey conducted by newshelves.com, back in January 2015, 13% of sales of non-fiction titles were true crime. Since 2015, according to Writers Forum magazine (January 2019), sales of crime have grown by 15% and are still rising. Secondly, it’s easier getting into the non-fiction market than it is with fiction, with a number of outlets, both online and printed, whose specific target is true crime. Then there are magazines such as History Today who will consider well researched historical cases or the Fortean Times which has previously printed crimes with a surreal twist. Local and county press, such as in my case Bygone Kent, will publish real crime with a local angle, and small publishers such as History Press, Pen and Sword and Robert Hale have already published a score of true crime titles.

Naturally, books and articles about murder are the most popular. Indeed, having the word ‘murder’ in your title can be an attention grabber for both editors and readers alike.

To be a true crime writer you need the enquiring mind of a detective to check facts against other sources and evaluate whatever evidence or surviving documents are telling you. But you also need to find an intriguing story, one that tells a compelling human tale of those involved. For example: a man wins a small fortune in a billiards contest, then later murders his lover’s children and his estrange wife and daughter he’s not seen or contacted in eight years, and then places the blame upon society. Why?

Further research—and I can’t stress enough the importance of thorough research—reveals that he was cheated out of his winnings by his opponent and had been living in extreme poverty for a number of years. Dig further and you discover that he repeatedly warned the authorities of his intention, should he not receive help. So why did they fail to act? This, in turn, leads you to the question of his sanity and Victorian attitudes to mental health, prompting the question: did he receive a fair trial?

I prefer historical crime over writing about contemporary cases partly because I relish the research involved and partly because, for me, modern crimes are still too raw for those affected and who may be hurt or offended by what you write. That’s not to say you can’t tackle, say, the police investigation into the Grindr murders of 2014-15, but you do need to know legally where you stand in respect of defamation. Libel laws do not apply to the dead, but with the living you can only report facts that—if questioned—you can prove with evidence beyond reasonable doubt.

Besides, for me, historical cases take you into another world. The documents you’ll need to consult are already in the public domain, whereas records for modern cases will still with the relevant law enforcement bodies and not easily available.

So where to begin? My advice is to start local. Research a historical case, one that grabs your attention. Check out what’s available at the local studies department in your nearest library—press reports, parish records, even visit the crime scene if possible. Absorb the course of events and keep notes of your own personal thoughts and theories. From there your case may take you to other archive repositories such as your county records office, the National Archives at Kew, or the British Library. Just as a detective, you need to follow the evidence and keep an open mind when evaluating the information it proves. Genealogical sites such as Ancestry and Find My Past are also good places to being your journey. Both of these sites have a community page you can access for free at your local library. All you need is a valid library card and you’re away.

When it comes to secondary sources—someone else’s account of what happened—never take them at face value. Yes, they can be useful, but always go to primary records wherever possible. Secondary sources may even lead you to other primary records. However, remember that secondary accounts are someone else’s opinion about your case. Always be objective and formulate your own opinion, based on the evidence available, even if those opinions go against established beliefs.

Your case may even require you to research into subjects you would never have thought connected. I spent a number of years looking into the Ramsgate and Holborn murders of 1865. During the course of my investigation I researched 19th century attitudes to prostitution, the earlier days of forensic chemistry, conditions endured by Victorian bakers and food adulteration, to name just a few. The research can be massive and take longer than the actual writing, but it’s important to check your facts thoroughly. And when, during the writing process, you have two or more sources giving slightly different accounts, include all and ensure the reader understands the inconsistencies.

Before beginning the writing process, look at the different markets. Who are your target audience? Above all, always work in a professional manner. Publishers really appreciate authors who submit a well-present manuscript, together with all the references used and this demonstrates that you are a person they can work with.

The most important piece of advice is to love what you are doing. Yes, you’re delving into a tragic event that has tarnished and even destroyed the lives of others, but if you don’t relish the research or the challenge of writing about your case then it will show in your work. There’s a world of difference between revelling in the brutality of the crime itself and enjoying the process of piecing together a puzzle to understand why it occurred.

Like with all forms of writing, being a true crime writer requires a lot of hard work, especially when starting out, but the satisfaction received when seeing your efforts in print more than make up for the blood, sweat and tears.

Published queer author, blogger and historical crime enthusiast.

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