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True Crime Writing 101 -- Part One

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?
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