In 1980, The Stranger Beside Me sped to the top of the bestseller lists. Although every word of the story is true, it reads like the slickest of murder mysteries. This tale of serial killer Ted Bundy may have been the first mass market true crime novel to grab the general public's attention to such an extent, but it's been far from the last. Author Anne Rule has written dozens more books in the same genre, and she says she begins each one the same way: with meticulous research. Her best advice for researching true crime is to do it right at the trials. Here are her best tips for getting those details right.
1. Getting In
True crime writers can often get a press pass to aid in gaining entry to courts, but you may need help during the biggest trials. Join the National Writers Union to receive an official press pass from their office, or contact the prosecutor's assistant for access ahead of time.
2. The Written Record
Court documents are a valuable resource you can refer to again and again. You may be able to get them from the court reporter or the prosecutor's office, or the court itself may offer records for sale.
3. What to Watch For
Even the most colorful of judges is only a tiny part of the whole picture. Study jurors, watch the witnesses conduct themselves and soak up the emotional environment in the room. Pay attention to tiny details. Your readers will want to feel like they're right in the room with you. Take note of the atmosphere so you can recreate it on the page.
4. Avoid Influencing the Proceedings
Sometimes, you'll find yourself out in the hall with potential witnesses. Never speak about the trial with them. You can talk about local places to have lunch, or comment on the rain, but your best bet is to keep your mouth shut. If they speak, remember every word, but never ask questions or comment back on the subject.
5. Your Colleagues
Watch other authors and reporters in the room to see what they're doing. If seasoned reporters are paying more attention to one witness or juror than anyone else, there's probably a reason. Follow their lead, unless you've got a solid reason not to.
6. Your Book
Every true crime author does a bit of fictionalizing when they write their book, if only to protect the identity of innocent victims. It's important that you keep strictly to the facts of the case, though. True crime is, at heart, non-fiction, even though is reads like a novel. Always disclose when you've changed a fact, and base your work on the details of the case.
Keep the Faith and May the Force be with You!