Breaking Into True Crime: Ann Rule’s 9 Tips for Studying Courtroom Trials
by Zachary Petit
As a kid, she would visit her grandpa, who was a sheriff, but to see him she’d have to go to the jail. There, she was given the job of bringing prisoners their meals. From an early age, she was fascinated by crime—not the how, but the why.
“I think that we come to our genre naturally,” she said.
Following her passions over the years, she took any ridealong with law enforcement she could get. Attended classes. Got an associate’s degree in criminal science.
“You can’t let the naysayers make think you can’t make it, because you can,” she said.
If you want to be a true crime writer, Rule said the best thing you can be is immensely curious. And, you should go to trials—something anyone can do. From a life spent in courtrooms, here are Rule’s tips and etiquette for doing just that.
- You can usually get a press pass, but there’s often a deluge of writers trying to obtain one. Rule calls the prosecutor’s assistant.
- Study the witnesses, watch the jury, and soak up the entire experience.
- Try to obtain the court documents from the court reporter or the prosecutor, or purchase them.
- Observe the other reporters in the room, and analyze what they’re doing.
- If you’re sitting out in the hall with potential witnesses, don’t ask them about anything. You can comment on the weather or the courtroom benches being hard, but “Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth pretty shut.”
- Don’t take newspapers into the courtroom.
- Know what you’re getting yourself into. “You don’t want to start a nonfiction unless you’re really in love with it, and usually you want a go-ahead from an editor.”
- Absorb detail. “When I’m writing a true-crime book I want the reader to walk along with me.” Rule describes the temperature, how the air feels—“I think it’s very important to set the scene.” As far as the writing, you can novelize, but keep all of your facts straight.
- Don’t use the real name of a rape or sexual crime victim in your writing. (Though Rule has written about a few who have asked to have their names included.) As Rule said of her subjects at large, “I always care about my people. And if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”