So, you have fallen in love with the scintillating world of true crime?
The psychological profiles of killers and the investigative processes of detectives have enthralled you and left you hungry for more. You have read dozens and dozens of true crime books (make SURE you do this) and taken writing classes to learn the craft, and now you want to write one of your own. But where do you start?
First of all, you should start by collecting news articles about true crimes that have happened in your area. The reason for this is, of course, accessibility. You are going to want to attend the trial, as well as interview the family, friends, neighbors, etc. of both the killer(s) and victim(s). You are also going to want to interview the detectives on the case. This may get tricky as they may be reluctant to divulge any information until the trial is over and the case becomes a matter of public record. It is at that time that you will be able to request copies of police records and perhaps even photographs of evidence. This will require a professional attitude, persistence, and people skills on your part. Will it be possible to obtain these records? That all depends on you.
From the news articles you have gathered you will want to select the ones that are the most interesting and unique. The more complex, the better. Is the killer someone who seemed to have everything one could wish for in life, yet still wanted more? If this is the case, you may have a sociopath for a main character whose actions are not guided by conscience. These people will surprise and fascinate us at their every turn. Did the killer murder multiple victims such as more than one spouse? Are they a dichotomy meaning that they are extremely charming and well-liked in the community yet driven to murder behind closed doors? Choose your main character carefully as he or she is going to drive your story.
Once you have narrowed down your news articles to a handful, you are then going to want to contact the lead detective on the case. Their name can usually be found at the bottom of the article. Begin developing a relationship with them as early in the process as possible. You need to also have at least one person who knows the killer or victim well that is willing to share personal information about them with you. Remember to get permission from anyone before using their real name in the book, and keep in mind that the name of anyone involved in a sex crime should be changed to protect them from embarrassment.
Now that you have chosen the story that you want to write about, you will need to create a hook. This is a one or two sentence summary of the story that will “hook” the reader. It is crucial that these one or two lines be compelling. The reader should want to keep reading to find out what happens in your book. It is at this early stage that you will want to write a summary that will eventually form the basis of your query letter. Though you are many, many steps away from querying an agent, this will help you define your story and see it through an agent’s eyes.
Now that you have a summary of your book, you will want create an outline. Even though you may see your book unfolding before your eyes, do not skip this process. It will be your beacon in the fog and life raft in the storm. Without it you will drown. A true crime book should be between 60k and 80k words depending on the complexity of the story.
Once the trial is over, you will want to contact the courthouse and order the transcripts. If you attended the proceedings, you should have a good idea of the volumes that you want. I ordered the second half (2,000 pages) of transcripts that were over 4,000 pages long and it cost me $1,100. When you receive them you will want to highlights the hearts of the best testimony. Make sure you include the prosecutor’s examination as well as the cross-examination by the defense attorney. The heart of the opening statements should also be included, but the closing statements will most likely be repetitive.
I am not going to sum up the years of writing courses that I have taken here because it is not possible. If writing is really for you, then you are going to go through this process yourself. You are also going to go through years (yes, years) of writing practice BEFORE EVER CONTACTING AN AGENT. Do NOT burn your bridges. Keep reminding yourself every day that this is your dream. Write, rewrite, get feedback, rewrite, and repeat. Do not settle when it comes to your dream. Ever. That is it.