True Criminals/True Detectives

Bouchercon panel discussion, October 8, 2015
Kathleen Ryan (moderator), Claire Booth, Carla Norton, Lynn Chandler Willis, Michael Wiley

What makes true crime so popular?
CB: It’s a safe way to learn about the criminal world.
MW: It provides many the same elements you find in crime fiction but true crime has an extra element of realism.
LCW: Most readers of true crime are women.
CN: Women are also the victims of crime. True crime allows readers to extrapolate, to imagine themselves in danger and perhaps learn how to avoid it.

CN: When I realized that I’d hitchhiked on the same road as the woman in my true crime story, it was chilling.

Recommended true crime books
CB: Homicide Special: A Year with the LAPD’s Elite Detective Unit by Miles Corwin, The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
CN: Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss, Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry, The Collector by John Fowles
LCW: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
MW: Surviving Justice: America’s Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated by Dave Eggers and Lola Vollen, The Power of the Dog and The Cartel by Don Winslow
KR: Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

How did you research your true crime book?
CB: Interviewed hundreds of people. Sat through the trial as a journalist, so the families knew me. Although, some took a year before they were ready to talk about it. You can’t just dive in.
CN: It’s fascinating to attend a trial. Visit the scene of the crime, after trial is concluded. Then approach the victim’s family and friends. And you have to be prepared for rejection.
LCW: I grew up in the town, so I knew the murderer and the victim. I worked on community newspaper and sat in on trial every day.
MW: It’s amazing what you can get into—just ask—but be careful, don’t ever burn bridges.
KR: See what you police department offers you.
CN: Read news reports, call the court and ask when the trial is scheduled. The bigger the case, the more difficult it will be to get a seat.
CB: Court clerks will direct you to the “best” cases.
KR: Season one of HBO’s True Detective depicted police work very accurately—season two, not so much.

Other comments
CN: Dialogue is a challenge in writing true crime, unless you can quote testimony.
CN: Structure your true crime book in three acts, just like a novel.

Can you write an unsolved true crime book?
Yes, but it’s harder because there’s no closure. Examples: O.J. Simpson, Zodiac by Robert Graysmith, Jack and Ripper.

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