Front page headlines always seem like perfect fodder for true crime novels. All the elements are there, and yet, we know there’s more to the story than what is printed in the newspaper. There’s a story behind the news story splashed across the front page. So when the headlines touched home for my husband, Mike, he decided to try his hand at writing true crime.
A murder recently occurred down the street from Mike’s childhood home. My husband’s boyhood neighbor was accused of killing his own mother. In addition, his former girlfriend had been missing for four years.
Mike was captivated by the unfolding events. There was more to the story than what the newspaper presented. Mike knew the family. He could provide insights that other writers couldn’t, and present the full story. All Mike needed now was to figure out how to write it. Luckily, there was a manual for that.
In his book How To Write & Sell True Crime, Gary Provost outlines the steps and procedures for breaking into the true crime genre. He shares his own experience and details the case that first inspired him to write true crime. The circumstances of that case lead him to caution would-be writers:
“…it (writing true crime) is especially not for you if you are extremely uncomfortable in the presence of people who have suffered great pain. Make no mistake, when you write true crimes you are going to meet people who have suffered something awful.”
What sage advice. If only my husband, Mike, had heeded this warning.
He read through Gary Provost’s book and began making an outline. He did some online research and found a blog about the murders, and another about the girl’s disappearance. Some of the people posting comments claimed to be friends and cousins of hers, so my husband made a note to follow up with them at a later time for background information.
A trial was set for the accused killer and my husband made plans to attend the trial. Then he tracked down the phone number of the girl’s father and called him for an interview. Mike left a message for the man, explaining that he was writing a book and wanted to include information about the girl’s disappearance. As it happened, he called on the day that police found her remains.
Not surprisingly, the girl’s father was angry and suspicious when he spoke to my husband on the phone.
Until then, I don’t think Mike ever fully comprehended what it would be like to immerse himself in a murder investigation. It’s one thing to sit on the sidelines and speculate, or read about a case in newspapers and books. But to suddenly come face-to-face with overwhelming grief, pain, and criminal activity was a whole other matter.
The man on the phone rambled on. Angry, bitter, and raw with emotion, he spewed forth the frustration and suspicions he’d carried with him for the four years that his daughter was missing.
By the end of the phone call, my husband was shaken. His mind was spinning and he wanted to go write, to capture the emotion and conversation on paper. But first he wanted to go lock every door, and close all the shades. He expected the FBI to turn up at our door any minute. He was sure our phone was now tapped, and his computer and notes would be confiscated. He wondered what he’d gotten us into, and whether we were safe. He realized, suddenly, that we were now entrenched in a murder case. And he wasn’t sure he could continue. If he felt this shaken by interviewing the father of the victim, how would he feel when he interviewed the accused?
Gary Provost addresses this phenomenon in How To Write & Sell True Crime. He says that all true crime writers probably have occasional bouts of paranoia. But he adds, “The question is not just: Are you in danger? The question is: Are you going to worry about the fact that you might be in danger?”
Mike’s answer to this question was a resounding “yes.” Interviewing victims and criminals was not something routine for him, and wasn’t something that he wished to make routine. A girl had been murdered and he wasn’t going to lose sight of that. A boy who’d once lived two doors down from Mike was now behind bars in the state penitentiary, accused of killing his mother.
It’s true what Provost said about writing true crime: it’s not for the faint of heart.
Provost’s book provided the nuts and bolts of writing a true crime novel, but even Provost couldn’t provide the strategies for coping with fear, paranoia and the heightened emotions that come with covering crime. That was something that Mike would have to learn on his own – if he continued writing at all.
Juliann Wetz’s work has previously appeared in magazines such as Personal Journaling, Boys’ Life, Highlights for Children, German Life, Capper’s, Daughters’ Newsletter, On the Line, Child Life and Dog Fancy. In addition, she writes freelance restaurant and stage reviews for the Cox Newspapers of southwestern Ohio.