How to Start True Crime Writing

True crime writing can be both exciting and daunting. Some writers in this genre suggest that you will do less writing than you may expect. Instead, your time will be spent pouring through newspaper articles, lengthy court documents that have been publicly released or obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, and hours of interviews with suspects and witnesses.

For those who love research and journalism, aren’t put off by the sometimes gruesome facts of real cases, and can handle backlash or criticism for writing about or adapting these real events, the true crime genre can be one that is creative and financially satisfying. 

Want to try this genre? Here are some things to consider first.

Choose Your Case and Angle

There are crimes being committed all around the world every day, so there is no shortage of real events to draw from. But are they interesting enough to write about?

As you investigate cases, look for things that might stand out. For example, were there secret lovers, missing money, or something particularly strange about the crime? 

Once you have your case, you now have to decide how to tell the story. Maybe you want to focus on the psychology of the perpetrator. There might be something important to share about the victim. Or, perhaps, the court proceedings were abnormal, and you want to focus on how investigators manage to crack the case and get a conviction.

In true-crime writing, you can take any number of approaches. You may not know what angle to take from the start, but after reviewing all of the information, you should be able to make a decision that will be compelling.

Learn the Lingo

Take the time to sit down and learn all of the lingo. This includes the responsibilities and limitations of police, lawyers, witnesses, judges, and so on. Having this glossary of information will help you to parse all of the information so you don’t mistakenly publish something that might call into question your credibility.

If you don’t know what a term means or aren’t sure about the steps taken as part of a normal investigation, go find someone credible in the field to interview.

Access Documents and Avoid Legal Troubles

Criminal trials are public except in specific circumstances, such as safety issues, decency concerns, and protection of sensitive information. 

Otherwise, if there is space in the courtroom, you can sit and watch a court case while taking notes.

If you want access to transcripts, courtroom evidence, or other documents related to the trial, assuming no exceptional circumstances where the records are sealed, you may be able to request them. 

This may require you to directly contact the court, police department or having to file a Freedom of Information Act request. To obtain court transcripts, prepare to pay several thousand dollars as each page can cost from $3 or more per page. 

Finally, you may need to consult with a lawyer to learn if any material you are using is copyrighted or may put you at risk of a lawsuit related to defamation, right of publicity, and the right of privacy.

Consider Switching to Fiction

If you find yourself wanting to make any part of the story more interesting, such as changing what was said, adding crimes where there were none, or suggesting someone’s guilt when they were found innocent, you may want to switch to fiction. 

When writing true-crime fiction, you can use all of your previous research, real names, dates, and even locations, so long as you don’t claim that the story you are telling is true.

This, however, does not prevent someone who was involved in the case from filing a lawsuit against you. It is a complex issue that you should learn more about to avoid problems in the future.

Remember Your Humanity

You will be writing about real people who lived these events. Beyond the events of the crime, the people involved often have to relive the events over and over during the investigation and court case. When the case is closed, many people want to move on.

By writing about the case and publishing it, you may be bringing new attention to the people involved. 

On a similar note, remember to give a voice to the victims and find depth in the story. Don’t just write a story about murder or assault. Likewise, it may be tempting to focus on the perpetrator of a crime, but that can result in the writer making the victim a plot point or object that gives life to your subject – this can come across as exploitative and simply in bad taste.

Take a Break

Some people may find that investing months or years of their life in investigating a particular crime is harmful mentally. 

Make sure that you maintain your health, stay social, and find hobbies that can bring positivity into the world.