I’m embarking on my third historical true crime case and this time, I’ve been carefully plotting my chosen murder, rather than simply following the gruesome events as they unfolded. Here’s what I’ve learnt so far about planning ‘a real-life murder’:
1. X marks the spot – I’m always drawn to specific locations with a personal link for my murder investigations. My first true crime book, Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders, took place in my adopted town of Reading, and my second, Who Killed Constable Cock? happened in Manchester, near where I grew up. My current project is set in Victorian London, one of my favourite cities. As a reader, I like to follow a writer around the key locations to see how they’ve changed and how the present compares to the past, so I’d like to include more of that in my next book.
2. Character-building – characters are just as important in non-fiction as they are in fiction, especially to move the plot forward. However, it can be difficult to find out enough detail about a less well-known historical character. It’s important therefore to research the individuals involved in a real-life crime case as much as you can. Contemporary newspaper accounts often speculated on a suspect’s motivation or personality and, although they’re not always an accurate representation, they are a good starting point, from which you can tease out any conflict to drive the plot.
3. Beginnings, middles and ends – just like fiction, historical accounts need a strong, engaging hook to attract the reader, a gripping middle to sustain interest, and a powerful climax to give the reader a satisfying ending. This can be challenging when you’re relying on real-life events. You can vary the pace by changing the focus. You can add in some background material (sparingly) and rearrange some of the extraneous detail or minor events . It’s a juggling act but well worth getting the balance right.
4. ‘Stranger than fiction’ – in true crime cases, the chronology of the events usually provides the narrative arc. I used the sequence of real-life incidents in Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders to reveal the discoveries as the Victorian inhabitants of Reading would have experienced them. My current project doesn’t fall quite so neatly into such a clear arc, so I am playing around with some of details to put them in the best place to re-tell the story within the basic structure denoted by the key events.
5. The body in the library – as in classic crime fiction, non-fiction crime histories often, but not always, open with the dastardly deed. I usually begin with a description of the crime (which can be as graphic as you like) and then I follow the detectives as they try to find the perpetrator. But in some real-life cases, the police know who the killer is from the outset and the action becomes the race to catch them. However it plays out, the opening scene must have a dramatic impact on the reader and make them want to find out whodunnit.
6. Kill your darlings – one of the biggest challenges in writing non-fiction is being selective about what to include. After months of researching in archives, it’s very tempting to reproduce every fascinating fact and intriguing historical tidbit. But it doesn’t always make for a gripping read. For example, real-life court trials, if recounted verbatim, can easily put a reader to sleep. Non-fiction writers have to be brave enough to take out their editing knife and cut out all superfluous matter, however painful it might be. (Any rejected information can always be used for blog posts and articles etc.)
7. Further investigation – like most types of writing, recreating an historical event is all about story-telling, rather than journalistic reporting. I always find it valuable to read similar books to see how other writers have achieved (or not!) a compelling re-creation of a real-life event. Although styles inevitably differ, it’s a good way to discover your own narrative voice and it will help you plot your own perfect murder.