Authors and their readers are drawn to reading true crime because, to be honest, sensationalism can make for a good book.
My guiding principle comes from Agatha Christie, who said: “The crime is the end of the story.”
True crime is about how people live, not just how they die.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t sensationalism. There is, but it is in a context.
I’ve spent years writing about crimes that took place in an environment that was not my own. Reporters do it all the time. The thrill, and the challenge, is to win the trust of people and to be as unbiased and fair as possible.
Journalism, and authoring true crime books, has led me into the world of both followers and haters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; into this country’s strictest Amish communities; to Ground Zero as a reporter in New York City on 911; to a deadly cult in rural Oregon; and to the scene of an infamous murder in Harlem (committed by NYC police officers).
The story of the event is often not what we think it is.
It takes time and “boots on the ground”—being on the scene—to learn what it is.
The heart of an article or a book is what happened before the crime. Who are the people—both victim and perpetrator—and what made them who they are? What community did the crime occur in? How did the crime change the community? What was the crime really about?
True crime writing requires spending time with victims and those who cared about the perpetrators. It requires deep research, interviews, document collecting, mind-boggling focus, putting aside personal feelings, and a talent for blending narrative techniques and good old fashioned reporting. It means creating suspense, even when readers know the outcome of the crime.
Hopefully, a true crime book calls attention to a problem and brings about change. Some have made a difference, calling attention to school shootings, domestic violence, child custody laws, sexual harassment, brain research, religious cults, and random crimes. They can even help catch a killer.
Learn more about crime writing in my four-week class, Researching and Writing True Crime, starting Wednesday, May 29.
Rebecca Morris is the two-time New York Times bestselling author of seven (soon to be eight) true crime books, including If I Can’t Have You: Susan Powell, Her Mysterious Disappearance, and the Murder of Her Children; A Killing in Amish Country: Sex, Betrayal and a Cold Blooded Murder; and Ted and Ann: The Mystery of a Missing Child and Her Neighbor Ted Bundy. She has a BA in journalism from Seattle University and an MFA in playwriting from Brown University. A veteran broadcast and print journalist, she often appears as a crime expert on network television and in documentaries.