Kathryn Miller Haines
I’ve been feeding an obsession of mine for the last few months: historical true crime non-fiction. I tend to read non-fiction when I’m writing (my May deadline feels painfully close) since I find it helps me generate ideas more quickly for some reason, even if I’m not reading about World War II. As the “crime” part of my fetish implies, I have dark tastes that skew toward the bizarre. Nothing is more exciting than reading about an event or a personality I’ve never heard of doing things that I never knew occurred. All the better if my mouth drops open while reading them.
I think there’s a reason why the highest praise lobbed at non-fiction seems to be “it reads like an engrossing novel.” The best non-fiction borrows from our narrative skills and weaves a yarn that is less about dates and names and more about the motivations of the people inhabiting the story. And just as good non-fiction has learned from us lie-tellers, I think we can learn from the best among them. Here’s what I’ve gleaned so far in my trip through macabre true crime history:
1. You must have an anchor into your story. A fascinating plot (a doctor who implants goat testicles in men to help them regain their virility) isn’t enough to maintain reader interest – there must be a “character” they can root for.
2. Pick and choose what historical information needs elucidating. Not everything requires four paragraphs of description and explanation (seriously, we know Hitler was a bad guy). Trust that your audience comes in with a base of knowledge and that, if they don’t, they have the wherewithal to pursue the topic on their own.
3. That being said, if it’s unusual information and integral to the story, explain away. I never tire of reading details of how art forgers work, especially when they use Sanka as one of their ingredients.
4. Be balanced in your portrayal of your “characters.” No one, save perhaps serial killers, is all bad. Showing us the dimensions of a person is what makes them fascinating to us, and much more real.
5. Structure is everything when you tell a story. Even real life possesses it. We just don’t tend to notice it until we see it in retrospect.
So what about you? Are you a historical true crime junkie? What lessons have you gleamed from reading the genre?