HOW DO I CHOOSE BOOK TOPICS? Many of my books come from readers’ ideas. I get suggestions from readers, detectives, victims, even the families of killers. I probably go through 500 cases for every case one I select for a book. My books are over 800 pages long in manuscript form, so I have to choose a very intricate, convoluted, case. I never want to “pad;” I look for true stories where, just when you think nothing else bizarre can happen, it does. I have written fiction in the past, but what real people do is far more compelling than anything a novelist can think up! (And, by the way, except for Possession, I don’t write “novels.” Novels are fiction, and I write non-fiction--real life stories.) If you send me an idea for a book, it really helps if you can enclose newspaper clips, and let me know before a case goes to trial?
There are many reasons I can’t write a case. Sometimes, (1) there isn’t enough there to fill a full-length book: (2) the characters are just not interesting; (3) the case has been over-publicized (Jon-Benet, O.J., etc.); (4) the story is too sad (I spend a year of my life immersed in each book, and some cases are too hard to live with), or (5) the person who sends an idea wants to co-author the book with me. I don’t collaborate; it would be akin to riding a bicycle built for two--in opposite directions! And then, (6), the timing of a case may be wrong because I am already attending other trials or writing other books. Remember, I’m not an investigative reporter who goes in and solves a case where there has been no arrest, nor am I a private detective or “Jessica Fletcher” from “Murder She Wrote.” I have to wait until an arrest has been made and a case is headed for trial. From there on, it’s a gamble; if the defendant should be acquitted, I probably couldn’t write the book.
Most of you know I don’t write about gruesome, grisly, ugly cases that revolve around decapitation, freezers, fires, etc. I don’t want to spend a year of my life immersed in a case that is newsworthy only because it deals with sickening torture or dismemberment--so please don’t send me that kind of story! I am drawn, rather, to cases where the suspect(s) is NOT the classic murderer. I’ve learned that my readers are as interested as I am in the psychopathology of the criminal mind. If a person has all those things that most of us long for--physical beauty, wealth, charm, intelligence, talent, love--and still wants more and more. . .and more, he (or she) may be an antisocial personality, someone who has no empathy for other human beings at all. These people, who often wear a perfect mask, make the best book subjects for me. Find me more of those!
WHY CAN’T I ANSWER LETTERS MORE COMPLETELY?
Right now, I have a dilemma. Writing is the easiest part of my job. My
computer screen is full of unanswered e-mails and my desk is piled high
with letters. I’m thrilled that I receive a couple of thousand letters a
month, but frustrated that I can’t answer them all and I hope that you
do understand. I’ve finally come to a
point where I have to decide whether to write new books or answer mail.
I want so much to respond to every piece of mail—but I just can’t. My
office has a very part-time staff. Your wonderful, supportive, messages are important to
me, but I hope I’ve guessed right in thinking you would rather have
more new books than answers to every letter? Many of you write with
specific requests, and, when I can, I try to help. But this one woman-7
cat-two dog office has its limitations! I do try to answer people with
special and urgent problems.
DO I HAVE BAD DREAMS? A lot of people ask me how I cope with the grim tragedies I have to write about and they expect me to have nightmares. Oddly, I don’t have nightmares; I think we have bad dreams about things we repress--and writing about subjects that might cause nightmares brings them out in the open. I try to surround myself with happier things: my garden, wind chimes, prisms (to cast rainbows over my desk), pets, and my collection of more than a hundred angels. I usually listen to an “oldies music” radio station when I write or to Dr. Joy Browne. (I do NOT listen to Dr. Laura Schlessinger because her self-righteous and demeaning lectures to people in trouble would give me nightmares!)
I know I am in the right career when I hear from women who feel their lives have been saved by something they read in one of my books. I never want to scare you, but I want my readers to be alert--and not to fall for any of the ruses and devices that killers and rapists use to throw you off guard. Always lock your car doors. Always take a beat to consider a request for help from a stranger--and if you agree, call 9-1-1, WITHOUT letting him/her into your home or your car. Sometimes the danger readers face lies in a destructive relationship with someone they thought they knew--and several of my books have given women, particularly, a “heads up” about signs to look for.
ARE YOU REALLY STRANGE FOR READING TRUE CRIME? If your only problem in a relationship is that your husband (wife) thinks you’re totally weird because you like to read true crime books, you can relax; my readers are the gentlest people in the world, most of whom wouldn’t kill a spider. But we (and I am like this, too) are endlessly curious about what makes bad people bad. If we don’t discover the cause of antisocial behavior, we cannot hope to stop it before it becomes full-blown.
WHAT’S AHEAD FOR TRUE CRIME? There are critics who regularly declare that “true crime writing is obsolete,” but nothing could be further from the truth. There will always be those of us who want to explore the intricacies of a criminal mind and who look for books that approach the subject thoughtfully and with sound research--just as there will always be grisly and gory books written in a sensational fashion. The writers who inspired me were Thomas Thompson and Truman Capote (although Capote did, I fear, have a tendency to fictionalize when facts didn’t suit him.) However, they both demonstrated that factual material could be written in a flowing style that was as easy to read as good fiction. Some of my favorite true crime books are: Blood and Money, Bitter Blood, Two of a Kind, Never Let Them See You Cry, The Cop Who Wouldn’t Quit, The Boston Strangler, Evidence of Love, and Bitter Almonds. An easy way to pick superior true crime books is to simply avoid those with photographs on the cover. They are far more likely to be exploitive and poorly written. (O.K., I admit that Small Sacrifices had a photo on the cover of the original paperback, but that’s an exception!) The classic true crime books don’t have the victim’s picture on the cover. (A photograph section inside the book is essential. I always look back dozens of times when I read books to see what the characters looked like.)
WHAT DO I READ WHEN I’M NOT WRITING? Before I published true crime, I used to read it. Now, I read it only when I’m on vacation; if I write about murder all day and lecture on it, I need to stay away from it for my leisure reading. I do prefer non-fiction over fiction, and I reach for biographies and auto-biographies, books on animals, medical discoveries and medical investigation. When I read novels, I look for superior writing; my favorite novel of all time is To Kill a Mockingbird. I think Anne Tyler is a wonderful writer, and I also like Wally Lamb. I laugh with Fanny Flagg, Garrison Keillor and Carl Hiassen. I think Edna Buchanan’s crime novels are great and of course I’m partial to Leslie Rule’s books, and those by my best friend, Donna Anders. And, my secret vice--I’ll admit it--is to read the tabloids faithfully every Friday night.
DO TRUE CRIME BOOKS DO ANYBODY GOOD? I asked myself this question often when I first started in this genre. Yes, absolutely! Sometimes people turn their noses up at true crime writing and readers wonder if there's something wrong with them for finding this subject so interesting. My readers tend to be very gentle people; it's just that we are all tremendously curious about what makes some babies grow up to be savage criminals and others law-abiding citizens. If we don't know what causes aberrant behavior, we will never be able to prevent it. I write about it because I love to, because it's my job, and because I'm curious about psychopathology, too. But I also want to help victims, their families, and to save potential victims. Of all the causes I support, the groups that grab my attention are those that support battered and abused women and children. I didn't set out to write about battered women (or, in some cases, battered men), and yet my last four books have been about emotional and physical abuse that ended in horror. Many abused women are also mothers, and their children suffer too. Many of them grow up angry.
Frightened women write to me about their yearning to escape unhealthy relationships. Years ago, when I was a police officer, there was no place for them to go. While women were still bleeding and bruised, they called us for help--but so often they changed their minds. Without an income or a place to live, leaving was a scary prospect. They usually went back to the men who had beaten them. It wasn't always a matter of economics; it was about keeping up a facade to hide their shame. Today, domestic abuse still crosses all demographic lines. It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are, or how well educated. You should not be ashamed or alone. Abuse can happen to anyone--but it doesn’t have to be fatal. There are resources to help. Call the Y.W.C.A. or the Crisis Clinic in your town, or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE. Use your computer if you have one, or go to the library where you can use one. One way to start on-line is to Google "Domestic Abuse" or "Battered Women" into the search slot. Help is so close. I already have far too many terrible cases I could write about, and I don't want to write yours. For those of you caught in an abusive relationship, here is a link that I hope will help you: Dangerous Mates.
WHEN AM I COMING TO YOUR TOWN? This goes hand in hand with another FAQ "Why don't I write faster?" I'm writing as fast as I can, and because of that, it's difficult to travel as much as I would like to. I go on one book tour every year, and my publishers try to vary the direction they send me. (Sometimes, I think they spin a bottle on a big map and send me where it’s pointing!) I've probably been to most big cities in America once or twice, and, for lectures, I often visit more out-of-the way spots. I also try to visit bookstores and libraries when I'm in a city to attend a long trial. As soon as I know where I'm headed, I always post it on my website pages.
"I WANT TO BE A TRUE CRIME WRITER. HOW DO I START?" The main criteria is that you have to care about people sincerely, and realize that you can hurt them more or give them some serenity by what you write. You have to be self-motivated, and willing to sit on rock-hard benches day after day at a long trial, spend hours in a library periodical room, approach virtual strangers to ask very personal questions, and, sometimes, visit convicted killers in prison. Crime writing isn't for sissies or for "lazies."
You must figure out how to find the whole story, and yet you never will; if you're lucky, you will ferret out about 80% of the truth. More practically, where to start? Go to a trial. Anyone can attend a trial, unless it's a juvenile proceeding. Get to know the families--but don't intrude on their private sorrow. Watch the seasoned reporters in trial and they will often lead you to the clerk's office in the courthouse where you can copy information in the public domain. Don't expect trial transcripts to be free; some cost up to $3 a page, so take the best notes you possibly can during the trial! Save all the newspaper clippings and videotape television coverage.
Only after the trial is over, and if the defendant is convicted, can you set up interviews. Send detectives, prosecutors and witnesses respectful notes and ask to speak with them. Then, follow up with a phone call. Try to tape your interviews, and keep your promises. If you are told something off the record, keep it there. The writing part is up to you, but don't give away the ending on the first few pages, and don't let your book sound like a stark police report. An excellent book for beginning writers in all genres is The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting Published by Sheree Bykofsky.
WHY AREN'T MY SHORT CRIME FILES CASES LONGER AND/OR WHY ARE MY HARDCOVER BOOKS SO DETAILED? I read all the reviews and critiques of my books on-line and pay attention to my email, although some comments hurt. Most true crime books are under 350 pages long, and the main stories in my Crime Files series are about that length, but I add a bonus of several shorter cases, memorable stories that are often from my days as a crime reporter, but I would have to pad them to make them longer, and I won't do that. They are all designed to be quick reads that support a central theme. The long books are much more complicated and detailed and it usually takes over 800 manuscript pages to tell those stories. Some readers prefer one long case, and some like several cases. Happily, most of you like both. Happily, there will be another book along in about nine months. I feel like I'm "pregnant" all the time!
WHY HAVEN'T YOU ANSWERED THE EMAIL I SENT YOU? As I write this newsletter, I've been answering 150 emails a day and I'm still not caught up. When I'm writing a book or out on tour, there is no way I can keep up. When too many emails stack up, they fall off my computer and vanish. I answer when I can, so please don't feel I’m ignoring you; I may never have received your email. Please try again.
WHAT BECOMES OF THE SUGGESTIONS YOU SEND ME FOR FUTURE BOOKS? I get at least a dozen suggestions every day, and I consider them all. The reasons a case won't work for me are: it's too gruesome and grisly; it happened too long ago; it was never solved; no arrest was ever made; it involves the four areas I won't write about (drug rings, organized crime, cults and motorcycle gangs); the killer is already out of prison; it is a "slam-dunk"--easily solved and required no detective work; it is so infamous (O.J. or Jon Benet) that a dozen writers are already writing about it; it is going to trial at a time when I am committed to another project. There may be other reasons, but these are the ones that come up most often. I know that I often miss out on some very interesting stories, but I would need to be cloned in order to write them all. I do appreciate your thinking of me and sending ideas. My last eight books have been suggested by readers.
WHO ARE MY FAVORITE TRUE CRIME WRITERS? There are a lot of true crime books out there, but few really superior true crime writers. I read books in my own genre, even though sometimes I look for "escape" reading. I look for authors who are great researchers and have a solid knowledge of forensic science, police procedure and criminal law. You really can't go wrong in reading any books by: Jim Neff, Jerry Bledsoe, Kathryn Casey, Thomas Thompson, Darcy O'Brien, Edna Buchanan (both fact and fiction), Shana Alexander, Vincent Bugliosi, Edward Humes, Clark Howard and Dennis McDougal. The combination of seasoned writers telling their own stories is also gripping. Carlton Stowers wrote about his own tragedy in Sins of the Son and I found Mikal Gilmore's Shot in the Heart about his brother, Gary, remarkable. James Ellroy's book about his mother's murder--My Dark Places--was also excellent. My friend, Lois Duncan, chronicled her terrible loss in Who Killed My Daughter about her murdered daughter, Kait. She is still trying to find the killer or killers. Go to my Recommended Books page for more suggestions.