True Crime Writing 101 -- Part One

March 31, 2011

Tags: true crime authors, true crime, kathryn casey, Matt Baker, crime author, crime writer, mystery author, mystery writer, writing, crime writing

I get a lot of emails from people who want to become true crime authors. Since I've been covering sensational cases for a quarter of a century - boy does that make me sound old - I've had quite a few experiences. As you may suspect, I can't answer everyone's questions in depth individually, so I've decided to tackle the subject here.

From here on out, I have my true crime not my mystery hat on, and I'm addressing those of you who want to write true crime.

First: Let's be honest; is this what you truly want? True crime writing isn't for the most part booksignings and giving interviews. Most of it's not particularly glamorous. And it's not easy. It's not simply a matter of showing up at a trial and writing a synopsis of the events, not if you want to do it well.

Many jobs are tough, and I don't mean to minimize how hard we all work at our professions. I truly don't. But I'm under the impression that some believe true crime writing is a piece of cake. Maybe I'm a bit slow, but that's not my experience.

I do go to the trials, and that's part of it, but for each book, I interview somewhere around one-hundred sources. I spend approximately a year on each book, much of it on research, three months or more writing. So this is a commitment. Soul-searching time here: Are you able/willing to devote that kind of time? Does this sound like something you'd enjoy?

Currently, I'm working on a book on the Matt Baker case in Waco, TX. I started in January 2010, at Matt's trial. Since then, I've worked my way through a long list of interviews, documents, a labyrinth of information. So someone who wants to write true crime has to be prepared not only for the legwork involved in tracking down sources but the sitting down work necessary to weed through all the documents and the organizational work of readying all you've uncovered to get ready to write. The truth is that to write true crime, you'd better enjoy research.

If you answered yes to the above, read on.

Second: Do you have the background for it? I'm not talking here about those who want to write about personal cases, but rather someone who plans a career covering many cases. You will need at least some familiarity with the court system. If you're a lawyer or a journalist, you're probably there. But if you're a newbie, I suggest preparing by reading about how the courts function and sitting in a few trials, just to get your feet wet, before you center your efforts on one particular case.

One suggestion: Why not start small? Rather than attempting a book first time out of the gate, write a magazine or newspaper piece. Get a feel for what it's like to write about real people and real cases on a smaller scale, something more manageable than a book. Contact the local media. If they're interested, they may not pay you, but if they run your piece you'll have a clip to send along with a book proposal to an agent and/or editor. If that doesn't work out, what about writing a post for a blog?

Fourth: Have a conversation with yourself before you walk through the courthouse doors. The people involved in these cases are not caricatures but families. Say, "Self, there are things to remember here. I need to keep an open mind when I consider the evidence. I will remember that these are real people with real lives, and that someone living and breathing died. I will do my best to be accurate and fair."

Remember: Along with ethical concerns, there are legal matters to consider. Before publishing anything, anywhere, familiarize yourself with the laws and seek advice from those who understand publishing law. It's important.

That's it for now. Next week, I'll write about how to choose a case and how to proceed. But for today, think about it: can you do this, and is it what you really want?


  1. March 31, 2011 12:35 PM EDT
    My personal belief it that,some folks are readers,some are writers.I wish I could be both,and have written some very fine home studies and love research,but I just don't think I could devote the time,space and energy to write for publication.I think I'd like to be a proof reader,or editor.
    In the meantime ,I will audit Crime Writing 101,with enthusiasm! Thank You!
    - Scarlett Horsburgh
  2. March 31, 2011 5:26 PM EDT
    You're welcome, Scarlett. My sense is that many people would like to write, and I'm hoping this is helpful. By the way, I LOVE readers. Without you, why would any of us write?
    - KC
  3. March 31, 2011 8:07 PM EDT

    Thanks for sharing your expertize. Because of my keen interest in true crime(can't make this stuff up...noone would believe it)and how our judicial system works, I started a blog to cover the first murder trial of Nicholas Sheley, accused spree killer of 8 people (2 women,4 men and a 2 year old boy) in 2 states.

    It will be three years in July since Sheley's week long "alleged" killing spree and arrest. The first trial(one victim killed near where I live) has yet to begin but I have been attending pre-trial hearings and a trial/conviction for attacking officers in the county jail.

    I have found I very much enjoy writing and even more so researching. Many have suggested I write a book about this case. Doing so would be a huge undertaking. There will be at least 4 trials before this case is over and spans from North central IL down to St. Louis, MO.

    I don't know if I will ever do a head starts spinning just trying to think from what or whose perspective to write. LOL! At any rate, I'm looking forward to your second installment of Crime Writing 101.Thanks for sharing!
    - Kathy Fisher
  4. March 31, 2011 8:49 PM EDT
    You're welcome, Kathy. Next week, I'm going to talk about how to pick cases and write a proposal. The following week, I'm not sure yet, to be honest. Maybe on what I want to see in a true crime book, the ones that set a book apart from the pack! Glad you're enjoying it!
    - KC
  5. April 1, 2011 4:22 PM EDT
    Thank you for your insights, Kathryn. They seem very reasonable.

    I particularly like the one about starting small. There's a case in Austin, Texas that has caught my interest, and my thought is to write some articles on it. If there's enough material to warrant a book, and I have the propensity for it, then so be it. If not, I've still learned something.
    - Brian Combs
  6. April 1, 2011 9:25 PM EDT
    That's a great plan, Brian. Check next week for insight into writing a proposal!
    - KC
  7. April 27, 2011 1:24 PM EDT
    Lots of great advice, especially about starting small. I'm working on historical true crime, and I think more current true crime would be much more difficult. Sounds like a lot of interviewing, sitting through court proceedings, etc. Truly fascinating stuff, though. Thanks!
    - April Moore
  8. May 2, 2011 11:11 PM EDT
    You're welcome! Hope it helps.
    - Kathryn Casey
  9. August 29, 2011 1:26 PM EDT
    My firt visit to your web site. The "classes" in crime writing are interesting so I will probably be back. I have an immediate need to know (doesn't everyone?) about liability if one writes about a crime. I know you are familiar with the Price Daniel, Jr. murder in about 1985 in Liberty (OOooops, another from Liberty County) and my Mom attended every day of every hearing and child custody trial as Vickie never really stood trial for the murder. I wrote a story called "The Court Reporter Wore Tennis Shoes" which recorded the events using her interest as a reason to tell the story. I was afraid to try to publish it due what the Daniel could cause me in litigation for slander, etc. All I have written was either documented somewhere in the media or I personally have knowledge of the events and people involved. I had in my possession newspapers and court records for a long time and lost them in a flood, but I had already used them. A somewhat accurate account was written by Steve Salerno called Deadly Blessing but much of the local stuff he did not know. Can you offer me some direction. Why have you not written about this case? I worked for the radio station in Liberty or the newspaper during your Fontenot-Fleming days, and know Hurley F. because I am a school teacher and locally that was the buzz.
    - Patricia Hasson