Room, Silence of the Lambs, True Confessions: Some of our favorite novels have been inspired by actual crimes. These novels provoke thoughts and discussions about life, death, justice, and psychology. They move us, frighten us, and often drive us to look into the events that inspired the story. A lot of work goes into novelizing a true crime—just ask Tiffany D. Jackson. This debut author was inspired by a 2012 case of a 9-year-old girl charged with killing a 3-month-old baby in Maine. Here, the author of Allegedly shares her tips for other mystery and thriller authors who want to adapt a true crime into a novel.
When art imitates life, it can create powerful and gut-wrenching works. In 2012, I became fascinated with a real case that loosely inspired my debut novel, Allegedly. In historical fiction, history becomes the backbone of a story. But in the case of Allegedly, a crime serves as the catalyst that elicits visceral responses from readers. These stories challenge readers and make them think. That’s what you want as an author: stories that stay with readers. Here are some tips on how to derive inspiration from real crimes for your next novel.
Look for unprecedented stories
Crimes happen everyday, and they all deserve our attention. But there are those crimes that cut into us a little deeper, make a home in our head, and stay with us longer. Those are the ones you should take a second, third, fourth look at. What horrifies yet fascinates you?
Ask yourself “What if?”
When I first read the case of a 9-year-old charged with murdering a baby, I was (like everyone else) shocked at the idea of a child committing such a heinous act. I went into immediate into denial: “No way! Someone else must have done it! Someone must have set her up!”
Denial can paint a pretty colorful story. Use it and start asking yourself hard questions. What if the girl didn’t commit the crime? What if she was framed? What if she was covering for someone else? What would the dynamics of that story look like?
In order to truly understand what happened in a crime, you must unpack every aspect of the case. This requires thorough probing. You can’t just rely on what you see on the internet. You must reach out to experts and read transcripts, testimonies, and court files. You must view crime scene photos and films. You must immerse yourself so deeply that you could be mistaken for a detective. Researching allows you unearth different angles and perspectives, opening up new ways to tell a story.
Look for secondary characters
Crimes send out shockwaves that have a long reach. Besides family of the victim, who else could be emotionally affected by a crime? Could the postman who saw the victim every day start questioning his own existence? Could the student who lost a teacher search for clues about her life through the books he left? Could the best friend of a missing girl suffer PTSD?
You must look in the crowded room and find the Waldo in the story. That person standing unnoticed in the crowd could be your main character!
Be an empath
It’s impossible to truly know what another person is thinking or feeling. But putting yourself in someone’s shoes will at least give you perspective. It will also allow you to see a story with a different pair of eyes, forcing you to ask yourself hard questions. What would I do if I saw the man who murdered my sister walked free? What would I do if I was held hostage in a house for seven years? Your reactions and actions might differ. You may surprise yourself, exploring the darker side of your personality. And hidden in the creases of that shock lie the qualities of a good story.
Respect is an awfully powerful word that some writers tend to forget. When drawing inspiration from real crimes, one must always remember that these are real people. Real victims and families have been affected by tragedy. Digging for a story and retelling it without any consideration of this basic fact could trigger more heartache and pain. Practice an abundance of empathy. Honor the victims with accuracy, and fact-check specifics. Then create a clear separation between what’s real and what’s imagination. Move the story to a different town, change the dynamics of the key players.
Tiffany D. Jackson is a TV professional by day, novelist by night, awkward black girl 24/7. She received her bachelor of arts in film from Howard University and her master of arts in media studies from the New School. A Brooklyn native, she is a lover of naps, cookie dough, and beaches, currently residing in the borough she loves with her adorable Chihuahua, Oscar, most likely multitasking. You can visit her online at www.writeinbk.com.