A look inside true crime writing

Tuesday, September 4, 2018
By: 
Vikki Petraitis interviewed by Amelia Theodorakis

A portrait Vikki Petraitis
Vikki Petraitis

Everyone likes a gritty true crime story. So where do you start if you want to write one? After 25 years of crime writing, best-selling author Vikki Petraitis shows us the hidden underbelly of real crime writing.

Ahead of her September workshop How to Write and Sell True Crime, Vikki gives us a hint of what it takes to write a great story – choosing a captivating story, navigating the tricky territory of real crime writing and why women crime writers are coming out on top!

Why are we so interested in crime stories? What do you think people want in a true crime book?

I found a quote recently that really resonated with me. In her book, ‘Story Genius’, Lisa Cron says: “We don’t turn to story to escape. We turn to story to navigate reality.” I think this explains in part why people find true crime so fascinating. When we read stories where people face the worst of the worst, we read on to see how they cope. They model for us how we might cope if the unthinkable happened to us. True crime readers are taken on a journey of heartbreak and loss, but usually at the end, there is some meaning or higher purpose, and hopefully, some form of justice has been done. We are left wanting more because the justice never truly makes up for the loss suffered.

Another reason people love true crime is that it gives them an opportunity to become a spectator in a bigger story. We see this through true crime podcasts; people are invited to participate, to get involved. They are asked for their opinions, they are invited into social media discussion groups, they are told that the weight of public pressure – their weight! – can make a difference.

You’ve written prolifically within the true crime genre for many years. What is your process for choosing a story and to what extent do take ownership of it?

This year marks 25 years writing in the true crime genre. Each book takes over a year, so the story has to be really compelling because each time I choose one, I’m deciding to spend all my free time in devotion to that story. I was asked once in an interview how I remained unbiased in my writing. I laughed and replied, “Don’t think for one second that I remain unbiased; every word, every sentence is leading you in the direction I want you to go.”

True crime can be tricky territory to navigate, not least because writers might be unbound by judicial restrictions. What are some legal or ethical considerations that writers might face when working on a true crime story?

The rule of thumb I’ve always used is to not write about something that is still in the courts. Over the years, I’ve also learnt not to name people unless necessary to the story. There are ways to safeguard your accuracy – if I interview someone, I always show them their part of the story and invite them to change anything they don’t want in there, or anything that isn’t accurate. People really appreciate this. Rarely has anyone ask for changes, and there are no surprises when the book comes out.

In Australia, women crime writers are now represented in a clear majority. What do you think women add to the genre that differentiates them from their men counterparts?

When you look at a crime story through a female lens, women bring their own particular attitudes, beliefs, compassion and empathy to the story. I think female readers are less tolerant now of books that don’t represent women properly. I’ve read several award-winning male authors who totally objectified women and whose books wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test. We are sick of female characters having a description of their breasts and their looks included on their introduction to the story. I think, more and more, readers (a large proportion of whom are women) trust female crime writers to get the representation of women right.

Who are some of your favourite Australian crime writers? Who inspires you?

Oh goodness. My favourites. Where do I start? For humorous crime novels, I love Kathryn Ledson’s Erica Jewell series and the Nell Forrest series by Ilsa Evans. For the psychological thrillers, I love Jaye Ford and Honey Brown. I’ve read everything Candice Fox has written, and loved all the books of Katherine Howell and PD Martin. Of course, I have been bitten by the Jane Harper reading bug like everyone else; her books are fabulous. I’ve read Sarah Bailey’s two novels which were wonderful. Emma Viskic is doing amazing things with her profoundly deaf protagonist in Resurrection Bay. Anna George is another powerful writer who hooks the reader in from the first page.

New on the scene, Dervla McTiernan had a great debut with ‘The Ruin’. For true-crime, Megan Norris’s ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ is haunting, as it Helen Garner’s ‘This House of Grief’. Anna Krien’s ‘Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport’ is a must read. I could go on and on and on…

About Vikki Petraitis

Vikki Petraitis marks 25 years of crime writing this year with her new book ‘Inside the Law’. For the first time, she steps into her stories to give a behind-the-scenes look at the crime writer’s journey. One of Vikki’s best-known books is ‘The Frankston Murders’ about serial killer Paul Denyer’s seven-week killing spree in 1993. Vikki has a Masters degree in Education and has taught writing skills to budding authors for many years.

About Amelia Theodorakis

Amelia Theodorakis is a Writers Victoria Program volunteer, and a Melbourne-based writer working on her first poetry collection. You can check out her poetry on her website