From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:
Historical true crime requires the writer to don a detective’s hat to unearth real details about the case(s), and the research can seem daunting at times. Historical fiction also demands that the writer get his/her facts straight. Today, I offer tips to help you find reliable source material, from which to build a factual narrative.
To write a realistic narrative for historical true crime, research includes:
- Facts of the Case
- Life of Historical Figures (killer, victim(s), family life, etc.)
- Forensics (Fun Fact: Some of the toxicology tests are still used today!)
- Food and Dress
- Wealthy v. Poor (differences in daily life)
- Modes of Transportation
- Investigators (Think: How did the police catch criminals back then?)
- Court System (jurors, sentencing, lawyers, judges, witness testimony, expert witnesses, prosecution’s theory, defense, etc.)
- Prison Life and/or Mental Hospitals
Where to Start the Search?
If the crime occurred in the 17th or 18th century, the task becomes more difficult. Not impossible. We just need to think like an investigator.
Let’s say we only have a name, place, and approximate year for our victim or killer. The first logical step is to conduct a Google search to see what’s available online. Someone must have written about the case, right? Well, not necessarily. Sometimes we’ll get lucky and find an article or two, other times *crickets* Which I prefer. Fewer articles mean the industry isn’t saturated with books on the same topic. It’s also harder to find what we need.
Pro Tip: If we do find an online article about the crime, don’t solely rely on that information. Instead, within said article search for the author’s sources. Most true crime and historical writers link to outside sources or cite where they’d gathered facts, and those are the gold nuggets we want.
. . . .
If we can’t verify a fact with two other sources, historical fiction writers could still use it in a story. Historical true crime writers should not. This is my personal rule, not an industry requirement. Some publishers ask the writer to verify each major fact with at least one other source. Even if they never request the citation, their legal department might. House lawyers rest easier knowing we verified with more than one source.
Pro Tip: Keep a log of where you find both primary and secondary source materials. It’ll save you from having to flip through mountains of research papers later.
Exception to Three-Source Rule
Suppose we find a newspaper article that we’re able to authenticate with a trial transcript, deposition, or other court document. Since we have the primary source (court document) which states the same fact, the newspaper gains credibility. Say, we can’t find primary sources to substantiate the reporter’s claim. If the primary source doesn’t contradict those facts, then verify with two secondary sources.
See what I’m sayin’?
True crime readers expect the truth, not our fictional interpretation. Part of our job is to question a reporter’s research. To sell newspapers “facts” are often embellished or sensationalized. By doing so they created eye-popping headlines.
Pro Tip: Embellishments can destroy a factual narrative. Dig deeper to find the truth.
Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris