If you want to be a true crime writer, Ann Rule said the best thing you can be is immensely curious. And, you should go to trials—something anyone can do. In the wake of her passing last week I wanted to share Ann’s 9 Tips For Studying Courtroom Trials.
1. You can usually get a press pass, but there’s often a deluge of writers trying to obtain one. Rule calls the prosecutor’s assistant.
2. Study the witnesses, watch the jury, and soak up the entire experience.
3. Try to obtain the court documents from the court reporter or the prosecutor, or purchase them.
4. Observe the other reporters in the room, and analyze what they’re doing.
5. If you’re sitting out in the hall with potential witnesses, don’t ask them about anything. You can comment on the weather or the courtroom benches being hard, but “Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth pretty shut.”
6. Don’t take newspapers into the courtroom.
7. Know what you’re getting yourself into. “You don’t want to start a nonfiction unless you’re really in love with it, and usually you want a go-ahead from an editor.”
8. Absorb detail. “When I’m writing a true-crime book I want the reader to walk along with me.” Rule describes the temperature, how the air feels—“I think it’s very important to set the scene.” As far as the writing, you can novelize, but keep all of your facts straight.
9. Don’t use the real name of a rape or sexual crime victim in your writing. (Though Rule has written about a few who have asked to have their names included.) As Rule said of her subjects at large, “I always care about my people. And if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”
- Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
- The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
- The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
- Night by Elie Wiesel
- Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy
- Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
- The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
Shelf-Life, My personal library of crime resources: It would be a crime not to read these!
- The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled In Death, Judith Flanders
- The Illustrated History of Weaponry: From Flint Axes to Automatic Weapons, by Chuck Wills
- Understanding Organized Crime, by Stephen Mallory
- Life Books: The Most Notorious Crimes in American History
- Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, by John Douglas
- Inside the Mind of Scott Peterson, by Keith Albow