Why did she do it? Why did Ann Rule write about Ted Bundy, murder and mayhem and become so popular in true crime? “I want to warn potential victims. Many of them are women, and many of them are battered women. It’s a cause for me. When I look back, though, so many of the books I’ve written are about wives who just couldn’t get away.” said Ann Rule before her death.
In honor of author Ann Rule, who just died, I am focusing this post on writers interested in stories about True Crime. And I say that because I can relate to the story below of how Ann Rule unwillingly found herself writing about a serial killer, Ted Bundy, a man she knew and a story which launched her fame as a true crime writer. She never wanted to write true crime but she became known as one of the very best in her field. Many writers start out going in one direction and find themselves down the line writing stories they never set out to write.
I have found this past year I have been approached by more people writing true crime than memoir, novels, science fiction or comedy put together. Serial killing, corporate crime, political assassinations and stories about sociopathy, psychopathy and legal annihilations that make Gone Girl a walk in the park have crossed my desk more than any other genre. So, as a psychologist, true criminals pique my interest. Getting into the head of someone who is unthinkably inhumane has a curiosity factor that draws readers from every demographic. Is it voyeurism? Is it the perennial draw of the dark side of human behavior that makes true crime an unstoppable genre? These are complex questions.
So in honor of those who write true crime what better advise to take but what Ann Rule points out is needed to break into true crime writing. Below is a little about her life, and some tips for those writers who aren’t faint of heart and will stay up till the wee hours staging a courtroom, dusting a crime scene, observing at trials and flirting with the pathology of a Dexter, Hannibal or Ted Bundy.
Ann Rule in 1984 with "The Stranger Beside Me," her best-selling 1980 study of the serial killer Ted Bundy.
Ann Rule, 83, Dies: Wrote About Ted Bundy and Other Killers
By William Grimes
Ann Rule, whose 1980 study of the serial killer Ted Bundy, “The Stranger Beside Me,” set her on the road to writing dozens of best-selling true-crime books praised for their insight into criminal psychology, died on Sunday at a medical center in Burien, Wash. She was 83.
Ms. Rule’s articles had been appearing in the magazine True Detective for more than a decade when, in the mid-1970s, fate delivered her biggest subject to her doorstep. She was working on a book about a series of unsolved murders in the Seattle area when the police in Utah arrested the man they believed to be the killer, a former law student named Theodore Robert Bundy.
The name did more than ring a bell. In the early 1970s Bundy had been a close friend and colleague, answering the suicide hotline with her on the night shift at the Seattle crisis center where they both volunteered. The rest is history.
Breaking Into True Crime: Ann Rule’s 9 Tips for Studying Courtroom Trials
By: Zachary Petit —written by former WD managing editor Zachary Petit—that’s full of tips and advice delivered by Rule.
Bestseller Ann Rule had a heck of a journey to becoming a writer—something she never really wanted to be in the first place. “All I ever wanted to be was a police officer,” she told the crowd in her ThrillerFest session “How to Stalk a Serial Killer and Tell the Gruesome Tale: All You Need to Know to Write Great True Crime.” “The one thing I knew I didn’t want to be was a writer.” Rule thought it was all too hard—heck, you’d have to rewrite what you already wrote.
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.
And along the way, she began writing, collected innumerable rejections, and penned pieces for true detective magazines, which she realized could pay the bills.
“You have to write about what you know about,” she said.
Back then, not even her children slowed her down. “Unless the kids were actually fighting on top of the typewriter, I could keep writing.”
And then there’s the famous story that led her to her first book, her breakout The Stranger Beside Me.
Her brother had committed suicide, so she decided to volunteer at the crisis clinic in Seattle. The clinic paired volunteers with work-study students. At night, they’d be locked up in the building all alone together. Her partner was a psychology student getting paid $2 per hour.
His name was Ted Bundy.
After his crimes became apparent, Rule attended Bundy’s trial, and the rest of the story is history, amazingly documented in The Stranger Beside Me.
Her writing passion went on to encompass documenting the suspects and victims involved in crimes, and describing their lives before their paths crossed—along the lines of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
In her presentation, Rule pointed out that pros are always saying that you only have a 1/10 of 1 percent shot at becoming a professional writer. But she decided that she was going to be in that 1/10 of 1 percent.
“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.” Ann Rule