Genre Lessons: True Crime

Bloody knife.

Photo by Flickr user Maarten van Damme

I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month we’re reading true crime. These books are hugely popular at my library, and I don’t read them often on my own, so I’m looking forward to our discussion next week. While fiction and nonfiction writing are very different, I did find a few takeaways from reading true crime as a writer.

  1. All good books tell a story. Whether you’re writing a true story or one you made up, you need to follow a narrative arc. Even if the ending turns out to be, “No one knows whodunnit,” you have to find a way to make that satisfying for the reader. Tie up all the other loose ends. Choose one theory or culprit that seems most likely. (Dawn Kurtagich does this beautifully in her YA horror novel, The Dead House — readers are left with plenty of questions, but have all the information they need to come up with their own answers to those questions.)
  2. A lot of readers who connect with true crime books do so because they’re fascinated by what makes these criminals tick. Was he destined to be a psychopath from birth? Did something happen to make her snap? How could the criminal’s friends and family not see this coming? Many true crime books include in-depth studies of the criminal’s history, behaviors, and mindset. While not all your characters will be criminals, they’ll all have histories, certain behaviors or reactions that differentiate them from other characters, and unique ways of looking at the world. You don’t have to put all that information in your book, but you should know it. Ask yourself, “what would this character never do?” Then ask, “What would push him/her to do it?”
  3. If you’re looking for a model to make your villain more authentic, look no further than the world’s real villains. As I mentioned above, many true crime books provide in-depth studies of the criminals as well as the crimes themselves. Want to write an authentic murderer or rapist into your novel? Ask your librarian to recommend a true crime book with that topic.

So, those are my takeaways from reading true crime. Is there anything you’d add? Any true crime books you’d recommend?


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