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True Crime Writing 101 -- Part two

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!
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