If you are going to write a sensational, news-worthy crime story into your fiction, you have a few models for how to proceed.
First, there is the Gone Girl model. Use a real-life crime as your inspiration—in Flynn’s case, the disappearance of Laci Peterson—and take liberties. Change names, character backgrounds, and crucial plot elements. Twist the ending, maybe. Allow your readers the faintest ring of familiarity, but make the story your own. Writers who have done this—Eliza Clark in Penance, Emma Cline in The Girls, Alexis Schaitkin in Saint X—are usually not interested in the crime itself, but in the human drama behind it. They, like all of us, watched these events unfold in real life, and wondered about the places we couldn’t see. They wondered how a person goes from a nice, normal schoolgirl to a cult member. They wrote the how of it. They found a hidden truth that only fiction could touch, deep inside bizarre and overreported stories.
Your second option: you can use a real-life crime as inspiration and leave the facts exactly as they are. Authors who have done this include Jessica Knoll (Bright Young Women) and Willa C. Richards (The Comfort of Monsters). These authors are interested in the crimes at hand, but they’re not interested in the mainstream narrative. Their texts offer correctives to cultural myths. In Knoll’s case, she questions the “charming” Bundy narrative and draws focus away from the man himself and back to his last victims, the titular young women. Richards’s book, which is set in Minneapolis during the “Dahmer summer,” doesn’t even address its most famous killer by name. Nor, it’s worth noting, does Richards get into the graphic details of his lurid crimes. Instead, she looks at the way race, class, and sexuality determine who is worthy of victimhood, and she examines the effect of an attention-grabbing tragedy, like the Dahmer murders, on an entire community. The real work of fiction is to fill out the margins, zoom out, and expand our view beyond what the news cameras capture.
The third option is that you make it all up. I knew when I was beginning Rabbit Hole that I would need a disappearance, but I didn’t want to use a real crime as the basis. To be sure, I borrowed details from real life, the same as any novelist. (I became, for instance, briefly obsessed with the fact that Hunter Biden took up with his brother’s widow for a time, and used that as inspiration for the political family at the heart of the book.) But I was more interested in the machine—the industry—of true crime in the 21st century than any one actual disappearance. What I mean is: I had begun to interrogate my own interest in the genre.
I have been a reader of crime fiction since early childhood—Caroline Keene, Christopher Pike, and Stephen King—but I came to true crime in my 20s with nonfiction classics like In Cold Blood, Helter Skelter, and Popular Crime. They were a balm to the serious literature I had to read in college, in grad school, and for my job as a high school English teacher. They were fun, informative, and fast-paced. From books, I quickly expanded into podcasts, based on the recommendations of friends, popular fodder like Serial. Visual media followed with the true crime boom of the late 2010s: The Jinx, Making a Murderer, and the reboot of Unsolved Mysteries.
It was a gradual slide from slowly-written, deeply researched work into slick, episodic infotainment, complete with talking heads, reenactments, cliffhangers, and sentimental scores. I took everything I saw at face value and chatted with friends about players in these sordid sagas like they were characters in our favorite soaps.
That changed in late 2020, when a documentary film titled American Murder: The Family Next Door came out on Netflix. It was comprised mostly of firsthand footage, taken from Shanann Watts’s social media recordings, videos, and text messages. It had the feel of a Blair Witch Project for the modern age. Halfway through, when it was revealed that the softspoken husband at the center of the home videos had savagely murdered a pregnant Shanann, along with their two young daughters, I was shaken. For reasons I still can’t fully name, I woke up to my habit in that moment. Maybe it was just the last straw, but I felt like I was participating in something perverse, like watching a snuff film.
I took a step back. I started wondering how I had gotten to a place where I could choose between rewatching Arrested Development and watching a man dispose of his family like yesterday’s trash. However my interest in true crime had begun, it had curdled into something ghoulish. I was a person who fed on the recent, acute misery of others.
So here’s how I wrote fake true crime: I turned myself into the villain. The crime at the center of Rabbit Hole is pedestrian and thinly sketched: a girl goes missing, and she stays gone for ten years. What I was interested in—as the author—was not: drooling over her taut, young body; reenacting some sexual abuse perpetrated against her; or imagining her last moments of perfect agony. I knew, however, that those would be the things true crime communities would be interested in. So I wrote them in—my evil twins.
In the book, they are many and they are Redditors. They are anonymous and they know no bounds. They speculate over age of consent laws and wonder, in print, whether a man killed his own daughter. They do not treat the people they are talking about as real people. They do not think anyone can hear them. For them, it’s just fun.
Toward the end of my days at a true crime consumer, even before American Murder turned me off to the genre, I started to feel nagged by a sense of fakeness. The slick production, the tight editing, the shapely plot arcs—they reminded me not of life, not of the griefs and tragedies I had personally endured, but of fiction. I was becoming aware that out of a large pile of “what really happened,” a narrative was being artificially shaped. Was this the story of this particular crime, or was it simply a good story?
When I sat down to write my book, I thought about tidiness: bad guys on one side of a line, dead girls on the other, a noble lawman (or documentarian) standing between. Was there a way to upset those expectations in fiction? Was there a way to make my fiction, which was by definition fake, feel truer to life than true crime? Could I make it messier and frustrating? Could I capture the pain of not knowing? Could I draw a victim that was neither a martyr nor a devil? Could I follow a surviving family member not on a quest for vindication and justice (who among us gets a quest?) but on a downward spiral, fueled by pain and self-destruction? I wanted to try.
How to write fake true crime? Fake is easy. The better question is how to write something true.