Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Confessions of an Historical True Crime Junkie

by 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?


Tory said...

I don't read historical true crime, or any true crime. But I read a lot of non-fiction. I think it can help me bring interesting points into my fiction, as well as provide a certain "slant" on particular characters and/or scenes.

I think anything new and interesting we read will change our fiction for the better. You never know where good characters/ scenes/ lines will come from: often from a fragment of a story you heard or something you just read.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

I've read a few pieces of true crime. When I did one of my early book signings, I was sitting right next to the true crime section and I was captivated by some of the titles, though I never circled back to get any of them.

One that sticks in my mind was the BTK killer. Kathryn, do you have any suggestions?

Kathy MH said...


Haven't read about the BTK Killer. I tend to stay away from contemporary stuff to kid myself that we live in gentler times;)

Joyce said...

The thing that always surprises me about historical true crime is that the crimes are every bit as bad as today's crimes. Most people have a tendency to think civilization has gotten so much worse, but when you read about the past, not much has changed.

I've been reading about the Biddle Boys and Mrs. Soffel after seeing Rick Sebak's piece at the back of Pittsburgh Magazine featuring the inn where they stopped after their escape.