Over the years, I’ve written several true crime books, both hardbound and mass market paperbacks. There have been countless articles, interviews, and media-related opportunities that flowed from my work. The genre has been good to me. Still, looking back, I’m not really certain what makes true crime writing work. It’s complicated.
In fact, I’m not sure what drove me into the genre in the first place.
I’ve learned a little about true crime over the years. Some things surprised me, others were life lessons that took a long time to absorp. It’s been a wild ride, sometimes. It’s been life-changing, for sure. Here are a few personal thoughts about the genre.
The dark side takes a ride. True crime isn’t pleasant, no matter how you approach it. Yep, it’s fascinating, most of the time. But it’s also dark. Whenever you write true crime you come face to face with victims. There’s nothing easy about that. These folks get into your mind and into your heart. It doesn’t take long for the fascination to fall away and leave you with the ugly facts. People die for no reason at all, no reason that makes sense to me. This is the worst part of working the genre. You can’t get away from it. You find yourself going back time and again, wondering how it could have worked out better for everyone. You want to rewrite history but you can’t. What’s done is done. And, it’s often evil and senseless.
My readers were mostly women, I think. It’s hard to be sure, especially with mass market paperbacks. All I really know comes from reader feedback or personal encounters. I remember my surprise, early on in my true crime journey, that most of the readers who contacted me were women. Looking back, I’m not quite sure why I was surprised. I really hadn’t considered reader gender for my books. I was just writing the stories, spilling out the facts and my conclusions without thinking too much about the reader. These days, I’m smarter about it all. It always made me feel good to interact with these women. They were thoughtful, respectful, and really knew the cases. They also had that special insight that caught me – they showed a deep caring for the victims. They weren’t just along for the thrill ride of true crime. They cared about the story and the people behind it. I still think about these folks. I’m glad they passed through my life.
The media gets it wrong, almost always. Media loves true crime for the pure sensationalism of the topic. I learned this early on in my writing career and became very angry about it. Before long, I had a rather lengthy list of media outlets with whom I would never work. I tried to stick with those who treated the subject with some insight and respect. They are hard to find. From the media point of view, it’s all about blood and guts. That’s not why I wrote my books and that’s not my point of view. So, I’ve tried to always stick with only those groups who would do justice to the topic. I have no use for the rest of them. Frankly, I could care less if those sensationalists help or hurt my book sales. Forget them. I also owe a huge debt to my literary agent, who always supported my point of view on this aspect of the genre. Money never came first with him. It was all about the work itself. That’s a true friend.
Back-to-back books are the worst. If a book sells, the next step is to immediately pump out a follow-up book. I’ve been there and it’s a really rough ride. The thing you want most after finishing a true crime book is to take a break. You feel like getting your whole system flushed, roaming free for a while, getting as far away from the darkness as possible. You feel downright dirty. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. If a book hits, you’re dragged into another one. Well, not for me. I did it once and will never do it again. When a later book of mine did well, a publisher came to me for a follow-up. I tried to make it work but couldn’t pull it off. I had to stay away from the genre for a while. I never did write that second follow-up and, frankly, I’m happy with that decision. Enough was enough. I needed a good, long vacation from true crime.
True crime has legs, I think. I’m still doing media work on productions drawing from books I published 15 years ago. In the writing business, that’s called “good legs.” This surprised me, a lot. Many true crime books flash for a while and then go silent. Others have legs. It’s hard to know which will make it. When I wrote exclusively in the genre, I tried to make some conclusions, to offer some ideas that readers could take away and actually use. That seems to have worked well. There were parts of each book in which I threw away objectivity and tried to focus on something more long-term, more practical. If this is what made true crime work for me, it was more luck than anything else. It was just how I felt at the time. Looking back, I think it helped.
Research is critical. Before you go around doing interviews and working the investigative side of true crime, you need powerful research. It’s often hard to get the real facts behind the topic. Media reports are unreliable, official reports are often hard to obtain, people come and go. You need to have good contacts, great research, and some luck. But, the bottom line is that you must love research. Without it, you can’t get to first base.
People will talk to you if you do it right. Good interviews are tough. You need to spend lots of time building trust and making relationships work. Some of the most difficult interviews I’ve been involved with were on death row in a federal prison. I will always remember these. They were important to my writing, but they were also endless work. Just getting yourself into a position to be trusted and invited into an important interview may take months or even years. Still, this is the only way to truly understand the individuals behind the crimes. Without these interviews, your work will never stand out in a crowded genre. The most imporant lesson I learned is that a good writer must be a one-way street. If you pledge confidentiality, never break it, at any cost. That builds trust. Trust makes for good, reliable information. Take the long-term view. It’s always best.
And the bottom line, sort of. It’s a good genre, if you have what it takes to stay the course. The rewards are worth the effort. It’s the emotional aspect of the genre that strikes back at you after a while. You’re always walking a fine line, a very bumpy road, that smears the good and evil in life. Nothing is nearly as clear or well-defined as outsiders believe. It’s always a walk on the wild side.
So, you want to be a true crime writer? Go for it. I’d still do it again, maybe. Those days are behind me now, maybe. My interests lie elsewhere. I still do media-related true crime productions but I’m unsure that I will ever write another book in the genre.
Umm . . . unless something really grabs me.