My true crimes like SHADOWMAN and THE DARKEST NIGHT are the product of old-school research and investigation. I’m an old-fashioned reporter who believes in first-hand, up-close sensory experiences that tell me everything I want to tell a reader. I can only get that from having my boots on the ground in the places where it happened, talking to people who might have lived it. That richness has set my true-crime apart from more formulaic books.
Then Covid caused a spasm of global lockdown, I couldn’t book a hotel room, fly on an airplane, dine out in a restaurant, pump gas casually, enter courthouse or libraries … and I certainly couldn’t talk face-to-face with the few hundred people I typically interview for my richly reported true-crime books.
So in early 2020 I locked myself in my office alone with 40 years of experience, stories, and ghosts of telling true crime stories, and I imagined my upcoming mystery novel DEAF ROW, which will debut on Feb. 14.
Yesterday, author and podcaster Robert Kidera asked me a good question: “Which is harder to write, true crime or crime fiction?”
In my career, I’ve written a literary novel, a few mysteries, a road-trip memoir, and more than a dozen true-crime books. I’ve also written maybe a thousand newspaper articles, three screenplays, countless blogs, and a couple poems. What I’ve learned is that every genre has its own unique conventions.
Think of it this way: A news anchorwoman, a songwriter, a poet, and a film director are all storytellers. They might all have a special affection for language, but what about being an anchorwoman naturally makes her a poet? What about being a filmmaker makes him a natural songwriter? Really, nothing.
So it is with writing true crime and crime fiction. The leap might not seem as great between two thematically related literary pursuits, but the realms of nonfiction and fiction are separate universes.
In some ways, the true-crime writer has an easier job. He needn’t imagine a plot, characters, setting, a message, or anything else except maybe the structure of his story. But on the other hand, the mystery writer isn’t constrained by what actually happened and can solve plot predicaments by simply imagining a solution.
Another interesting difference comes when you tell the reader up front “This is a true story” or “I made this up.” Fiction readers give an author a wide berth; they suspend their disbelief and allow the storyteller some leeway between what is likely and what is possible. The nonfiction writer tells you on the front cover “This is a true story” so readers don’t suspend their disbelief, they don’t give permission to be elegantly gaslighted, and they are quick to declare the author to be a lying charlatan and throw the book across the room. It’s why we can love a movie about blue people in a different universe, but be angry with a TV weatherman’s oopsie.
So even though I’ve written both true crime and crime fiction, I can’t declare one easier than the other. To me, they’re as different as writing a history book or a song. They’re both hard.
If a beginning writer asked me which genre she should pick, I’d say it doesn’t matter. I advise that she become an ardent student of the form, to learn everything she can about how it’s done, then the rest is easy. You just sit down at your word processor and let the blood ooze from your forehead.
DEAF ROW can now be pre-ordered in print, ebook, and audiobook formats wherever you buy books.
Cover image by Art Lasovsky