Although the most popular genre of literature is crime fiction, there is certainly a market in crime non-fiction, and very few modern serial killers have killed for too long before a book is dedicated to their exploits. Of course most of these are brash and prurient but some of the greatest writers of the twentieth century have tried their hand at the genre, often with spectacular results; you might think of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer.

So, what’s the attraction for these award winning writers? According to Mailer it was that with true crime his imagination is less inclined to take a wrong-turn. He often found when writing fiction that an idea that appealed to him for a brief moment was one that he committed to for the rest of the book. With non-fiction the danger of taking the wrong for in the road was minimized.

Non-fiction leaves you only shaping a narrative, not inventing one.

  • Leaf through the newspaper. On any given day there will be a report on a crime that has just been committed or a court case involving a crime. This exercise works best if you have a lot of information to work with so choose long, exploratory reports with plenty of detail and interesting ‘characters’.
  • Jot down the details of the case. Make a careful note of quotations that demonstrate the feelings of people involved – did a witness say how intimidated they were by the jewellery thieves; did a man on trial shout out defiantly? Build up a character sheet on a few of the characters involved.
  • Your job is to write out the crime as non-fiction. Write it as you might a novel or a short-story (you can choose first or third person). You will have to add detail yourself – if the weather is not mentioned in the article take some license – “it was a blisteringly hot day in central Bedford.” Steal the crime. Make it yours.

Remember there is a whole treasure trove of material in newspapers. If you get particularly taken with this exercise download court files or even visit court yourself, taking notes from the viewing gallery.