True Crime Writing 101 -- Part two

April 5, 2011

Tags: crime writing, true crime, Kathryn Casey, mysteries, true crime author, mystery author, Texas crime

Last week my post addressed those of you who envision yourselves writing true crime books. If I didn't dissuade you from that endeavor, let's take this a step further.

Now that you've decided you're up for the research and the seclusion of sitting at your computer day after day, the first thing you have to do is pick which case to cover. I bet that sounds easy. In a sense, unfortunately, it is. There never seems to be a dearth of sensational murders in America, perhaps the world. That's a bad thing, obviously.

Unfortunately, we can't change the reality that murders do happen. We're just reporting what's already taken place. So let's talk about how to pick a case for your book.

I have a few criteria:

1) There has to be something surprising about it. Something that makes it intriguing.

In DIE, MY LOVE, it's that the killer is a bright, well-educated woman, an attorney, and someone who envisions herself as the perfect mother. Somehow Piper Rountree didn't consider it a conflict to kill the father of her children. To understand why not, you have to understand Piper, and there lies the book.

2) It's good if the case has a lot of twists and turns.

Consider SHE WANTED IT ALL. Hey, if I'd written that one as a novel, labeling it fiction, who'd believe it? A multimillionaire marries a trophy wife who ends up in a psychiatric hospital where she begins a relationship with a gay bookstore manager. In the end, the husband is dead, and all eyes are on the two women. You get the picture: the old fact-is-stranger-than-fiction angle.

3) Next: I have to care about a case and the people involved.

Let's look at SHATTERED this time. The newspaper article that caught my attention laid out not only the crime but described David and Belinda Temple. On one hand, David was romantic, a knight in shining armor. But he had a dark side. Meanwhile, Belinda was a loving, caring mother, wife and teacher. She deserved happiness, not her tragic fate.

4) Finally, I have to be curious about why a murder happens, the path that brings the individuals together and sets them up for a fatal collision.

That's why I picked the Colton Pitonyak case (A DESCENT INTO HELL). Again, we're talking about someone we wouldn't think of as a killer, this time a brilliant business student who'd had a privileged upbringing. With this case, the goal was to understand how someone who'd never wanted for anything could turn into a drug dealer and a killer. And Jennifer Cave, a sweet kid in many ways but one who struggled. What tied her to Colton? What part did she play in the events that led to her death?

So, that's the kind of case you need: One that arouses your curiosity and your sympathy, one that surprises you, one that presents a labyrinth of twists and turns. Perhaps the most important factor is that you need to find a case you care about. If you care, your readers will, too.

So, that's it for part two. Next week: How to proceed. Until then, have a great week!


  1. April 5, 2011 7:53 PM EDT
    Really enjoyed your posts on writing true crime. You are very imforitive & inspirational. Writing in any genre is not an easy task, but writing true crime must take alot out of you when you are dealing with people's real lives & tragedies. You write it in a way that brings the people to life.
    - Shannon Cobb
  2. April 10, 2011 10:51 PM EDT
    The case I have been following doesn't seem to meet your criteria other than it's a case I care about. Sheley has a long history of substance abuse and illegal activity so he doesn't fit into the one you wouldn't expect to be a killer. Some did come out in the press expressing surprise he did these crimes (while he was on the run) such as a pastor whose church Sheley had attended in an effort to get straight (didn't work out) or family and friends who are likely druggies as well.
    There are some twists and turns in the case but many of those so far have been related to court more than Sheley's actions.~sigh~ I will keep reading your True Crime writing 101....maybe an angle to proceed with will hit me as I learn more about the process.
    - Kathy Fisher
  3. April 11, 2011 9:26 AM EDT
    What is it about the case that's drawing you to it, Kathy? Why do you care? If you can answer that question, maybe you'll have the angle for the book? Just an idea.

    Thanks, Shannon. It can be very difficult at times, but also worthwhile. Good true crime should offer real insight.
    - KC
  4. May 9, 2011 2:43 PM EDT
    Hi Kathryn,

    Thanks for these interesting blog posts. I am an avid true crime reader and a big fan of your work. I was wondering if you had read the new Dean Smart book "Skylights and Screen Doors". It is his account of the murder of his brother Gregg Smart and the ensuing trial of his sister-in-law Pam, who was found guilty. It has been getting a lot of buzz ( and I was curious about what you thought of it and if it followed some of the true crime writing tips you have written here.
    - Laura
  5. August 16, 2011 8:47 PM EDT
    I have a handful of stories that I feel I could write. My question is, do you believe there is such a thing as being too close to the story, or caring too much about the victim?
    For instance, one of my best friends from childhood who grew up in my neighborhood was later murdered as a young adult (after we had drifted apart due to some age difference). She was murdered by two guys she had recently met, one of whom she was dating, but who apparently also had this whole other life going on as a male stripper in a gay bar. In the end, this very strong, athletic girl,who was a college student with a promising future, had her topless body found by students waiting for their school bus in a neighboring county having been the victim of strangulation. Her car had been sold for drug money, and for this reason the world was robbed my friend. This is a person though, whose funeral I attended. Who, when she was missing, and suspected dead, her mother called my house to let me know before it hit the media and I was there to mourn the loss of her life with her family, who have since passed away one by one (with the exception of much older hal-siblings which I never really knew). This is just one of the possible stories I would like to tell because I would like to tell the world that she did exist, because I would like to share with them who she was and all that she could be, and also, because I would like the world to know what murderer is currently walking the streets, and which one will be when he is paroled soon. If it makes life just a bit more uncomfortable for them, it wouldn't be the worst thing. They do at least, have their lives.

    So you see, my question is this, am I too close? or just close enough because I know who to interview, and where to go and what to ask. Also, I would never publish under my own name for safety reasons.

    I would like to know one other thing, how do you gain access to court transcripts, and police files, etc. for cases that are already solved, with the people serving time and far into their sentence? I have others I am interested in, but am sort of nervous about getting shut down right off the bat.
    - Joni
  6. August 16, 2011 8:53 PM EDT
    I just realized that among a few typos, I also referred to my friend in the present tense by saying what she "could be" when I meant to say "could have been". Just another reminder.
    - Joni
  7. September 10, 2012 4:16 AM EDT
    I was so excited to read your blog and comment as I felt you were interacting with your readers. I posted something well over a year ago in hopes that you might give me your input. Sadly, you have not answered. I realize you are very busy, I just wanted you to know that I was disappointed that you never answered at all.
    - Joni
  8. September 14, 2012 10:41 PM EDT
    Joni, I am sorry. I don't get alerts when people post, so I didn't know that you posted. I just found this now because someone else asked where to find these posts on writing true crime. I think you can do this story. You know the people, the setting, so you have an advantage. I wouldn't worry about being too close. You go to the district or county clerk's office to see transcripts, etc. I believe in all states, you're entitled to see them. Again, I'm sorry I didn't answer sooner. If you have other questions send me an email:
    - KC
  9. February 26, 2015 10:56 AM EST
    Hello, I'm really interested in writing true crime and I'd like to know about the process of collecting court and police investigation documentations. Is this just a FOIA or are there better ways to collect the information? I can find lots of cases, but no trial transcripts. Any advice, you could give me would be greatly appreciated.
    - Derrick Barnsdale