Writing True Crime by Elaine Smith
The first thing that comes to mind when asked to express how it feels to write about true crime is that you’d better have a thick emotional skin. The disturbing scenes and personalities can pervade the writer’s psyche and haunt their dreams. One wonders “why” such things could happen. Unfortunately, there usually is no rational “why” when dealing with ruthless evil. The writer must find some meaning, some lesson learned from the story, or it is just a sequence of horrible actions.
Something I found while writing the book was there was a path one could take by relaying facts and occurrences which only led to a boring sequence of events. The characters were flat, there was no dialogue, and the horror of the situation was not revealed by simply stating the facts. Emotion, fear, and sorrow needed to be felt. The course was changed to “based on true crime,” so the characters could be built from the information available and the story enhanced with inner thoughts of the main character. This is the difference between nonfiction and fiction. I opted for fiction based on true events and characters to create a deeper and more meaningful story.
Research is essential, can be quite time consuming, and even costly. My book, “One Wrong Move Can Kill,” contains many facts and circumstances as they were presented in the single trial which resulted from the five murders. Only the leader pled not-guilty and faced trial. The rest of the band took guilty pleas and testified against him. This resulted in only one transcript of the Capital Murder trial of Genero Camacho. The other men who pled guilty testified against him in that trial, along with FBI agents, police officers, and other witnesses. It is from their testimony much of the story was gleaned and therefore kept true to the actual happenings.
My husband and I travelled to Austin, TX to the State Library after requesting to see the file from that trial. Two carts of boxes was pushed out to the table where we waited. Seven boxes of bound legal size paper awaited us. We spent about nine hours over two days perusing those documents, noting what pages we wanted duplicated. When finished, about 1500 pages were copied and sent to us by mail a few weeks later.
Then the gargantuan task of organizing that mass of paper into manageable units began. After a few days, I had the story needed to write the book. Over and over I referred to the documents, often using actual quotes from the testimony. It is this which makes this work truly based on true crime.
One problem I had was making my main character be somewhat sympathetic. Why didn’t he run away? Why didn’t he go to police? He had plenty of opportunities to get away. Why was he frozen in place and going along with all the horrible things happening around him? Was he truly a bad guy?
We found him in a Federal prison and wrote a letter. He wrote back and a correspondence began. He worked to get money to access email, which was monitored, but we were able to regularly communicate. I came to recognize he was truly repentant and had deep regrets. An idea came to mind to use dreams and visions to “get into his head” so the reader could feel what he felt and perhaps understand the character. Admittedly, I probably made him more sympathetic than he deserved, but it served to create a character one could both hate and understand.
After the book was finished and printed, I asked if he wanted a copy. He took a few weeks, but mustered the courage and agreed. His letter to me after reading it was heart rending. He cried constantly while reading and had to hide his tears from other inmates. He also confessed it was somewhat cathartic: by seeing it in print the memories came into focus and he could deal with them through religion.
The process was disturbing for me as a writer as well. Being a person who never watches scary movies or action films, the physical act of writing about a three year old boy being shot to death was truly difficult. Strangely, when thinking how the main character may have felt, I conjured dark images and found violence inside myself I never knew existed. Typing the words was often painful. Creating the dream sequences with imagery to express the horror was both rewarding and eye-squinting, chair squirming uncomfortable.
Finally after over a year, it was done and my beta reader loved it. However, he called me and said, “Elaine, you’ve really got something here, but I’m telling you, these bad guys would be cursing.” I knew he would say that. I’m no goody-two-shoes, but I don’t curse. So I did a complete rewrite with the mindset of, “What would my husband say in this situation?” He gets quite inventive with the F-word, so I applied that to the dialogue. It worked. It was raw and real.
The whole process was truly difficult. Would I do it again? No, not a chance. It took too much out of me. A more emotionally strong or detached writer could likely tackle a similar task, but no thank you, I will pass. I wrote the based on true crime novel and am proud of it. Reviews were good. I gave one to a movie producer. Sure I’d like it to be a best seller, but I have this huge accomplishment in my life, and in itself is success.