Elements of Good True Crime Writing

Saturday, March 19, 2022


Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Ever since I started my podcast a few years ago, I’ve had to endure the learning curves of writing true crime. And when you need help perfecting a certain type of writing, you read more of it. 

I recently read two true crime books, “Before He Wakes: A True Story of Money, Marriage, Sex and Murder” by Jerry Bledsoe and “A Tangled Web: A Cyberstalker, a Deadly Obsession, and a Twisting Path to Justice” by Leslie Rule and thought I’d discuss some observations I made while reading them. “Before He Wakes” is about a woman named Barbara Stager here in my home state of North Carolina who was convicted of murdering her husband Russ while he slept. She claimed he had been sleeping with a loaded gun under his pillow “for safety” and she accidentally shot him early one morning when she went to move the gun. Once police heard from some of the man’s friends and family they realized this woman had lost her first husband when he “accidentally” shot himself while cleaning a gun. The second book, “A Tangled Web," covers the case of a woman named Cari Farver, who went missing from Nebraska after spending the night at her new boyfriend’s apartment. After she went missing, Cari appeared to cyberstalk and harass the man, Dave Kroupa, and another woman he’d been seeing named Liz Golyar. This went on for several years, until police realized Liz had murdered Cari and proceeded to impersonate her online, torturing both Cari’s friends, family, and Dave. 

Here are three things I feel are important to writing true crime effectively. 

Revealing details of the crime without overwhelming the reader. In both these books, there was a lot of information to cover. In “Before He Wakes,” Bledsoe wrote about both of Barbara’s husband’s deaths, her history with both men, interviews with friends and family of the two victims, and the mountain of financial and personal deceptions that were uncovered along the way. “A Tangled Web” had years and years of digital forensics to explain, along with several different overlapping timelines. Both books included the trials, and these aren’t always easy to write about without bogging the readers down. 

Motive. In Barbara Stager’s case, she and her second husband had a habit of living beyond their means, but she also hid a lot of purchases and loans from him. Bledsoe did a good job of writing about Barbara’s many lies, forgeries, and how a loan payment Russ didn’t know about was about to come due right around the time of the shooting. There were also life insurance payouts involved. In the case of Liz Golyar, Rule tracked a pattern of lies and malicious, vindictive behavior, and how she manipulated men to get what she wanted. She became dangerously obsessed with Dave Kroupa, and made the decision that nothing would stand in the way of her relationship to him. 

Understanding the psychology of the criminals. I believe this is the main reason readers are drawn to true crime books. In “Before He Wakes,” there was one observation Bledsoe made about Barbara Stager that really stood out to me. Barbara had always been active in her church, as a child and in her marriage to Russ Stager. There were people who didn’t believe she could have been a murderer because of her faith. Bledsoe observed that he believed Barbara had two different compartments to her personality—“the seductress and murderess” and “the church lady” who went overboard in serving in her church to atone for her sins. With Liz Golyar, Rule went so far as to track down member of her family of origin (she had been adopted as a child) and trace the violent roots that were in her past. Could those have contributed to her sociopathic behavior? 

What are some of your favorite true crime books to read? 

Renee Roberson is an award-winning writer and editor who also hosts the true crime podcast, Missing in the Carolinas. 


Sioux Roslawski said...

Renee--That's not the type of books I read. However, I loved the documentary "I'll Be Gone Before Dark" (do I have the title right?) about Michelle McNamara's search for the Golden State killer. However, I do get the appeal. Getting into the killer's head would be fascinating...

Renee Roberson said...

Sioux--I started the book version of "I'll Be Gone in the Dark" but it was a library loan and I didn't finish it quick enough! I also saw a few episodes of the documentary and this reminds me I need to finish it. Michelle McNamara is a great example of a true crime writer who followed her instincts and never gave enough but I'm also sad about the toll it took on her. That's one thing I worry about myself if I ever get too involved in specific case or story.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Renee, this is excellent advice! You're so right about having a lot of info and trying not to overwhelm the reader. I'm tackling that on a much smaller scale with essays (and so are you with your podcasts), and I found the only way I'm able to do that in such a short space is to pick one theme and stay on that theme, even if that means leaving out details. It kills me because I want to paint the entire picture, but that's what books are for, and even then, you have to pace out the info.

Both books sound like riveting reads. Your motives and psychology sections are fascinating!

I used to read a lot of Ann Rule and books about serial killers, like Ressler's Whoever Fights Monsters. But I find the raw material just as interesting. I read Susan Atkins memoir, Child of Satan, Child of God and Tex Watson's memoir, Will You Die for Me?, which are both dark and made me queasy. Since I was writing that essay on Epstein's sex trafficking ring, I read the draft of Virginia Roberts Giuffre's unpublished memoir, which was on exhibit from the trial. As far as true crime writing, I read a lot of features and essays, mostly after I watch a Netflix series. I just watched Inventing Anna, which I found fascinating, and then read Jessica Pressler's feature in New York magazine, on which the series is based.

I also watched the documentary on Michelle McNamara, which was tragic, but she made more progress than authorities had. And you're doing great work with your podcast, Renee! I just listened to the Phillip Dean Hair episode on a drive to LA, and I loved all the insider info you shared from the family, and the call for tips. You're bringing all these cases to light. <3

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