A Crime Writer’s Guide to Using Fact in Fiction by Cara Hunter

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Cara Hunter

Cara Hunter

‘Based on a true story’: A Crime Writer’s Guide to Using Fact in Fiction

Shakespeare did it, Dostoevsky did it, Scott Fitzgerald did it, and when it comes to crime fiction, authors and film-makers have been doing it right back to Agatha Christie and beyond. Real life truly is the gift that keeps on giving. ‘You couldn’t make it up’, and why would you need to, when there’s such a rich store of characters, scenarios and jaw-dropping twists right there for the taking.

By way of example, my latest novel, Hope to Die, was prompted by the utterly baffling case of Keli Lane, jailed in Australia in 2010 for the murder of her new-born baby, a child no-one even knew she had conceived. Only a few hours after she left hospital in September 1996, Lane can be seen in video footage of a friend’s wedding, evidently without (a) a care in the world, and (b) her daughter. The baby has never been seen since, and it took authorities more than four years to realise she had even gone missing. Like I said, you couldn’t make it up.

But there’s the rub, since, clearly, you have to. Whether you’re writing a full-scale fictionalisation, or, at the other end of the scale, simply ‘borrowing’ certain elements from a real case, you will always have to invent something. And that’s where it starts to get complicated.

So here are some practical things I’ve learned about the sometimes fraught process of ‘drawing from life’.

  1. Keep it legal

Hope to DieThere are some important issues to bear in mind when you’re drawing on real cases, most obviously the need to avoid ending up in court yourself. To cite just one obvious example, even if you say your book is ‘fiction’ you can’t go around accusing identifiable living people of crimes they’ve never been convicted of, whether you use their real names or not. As a result, plotlines involving speculative theories about the true perpetrators of unsolved cases can be very dangerous territory. So even if you think you’ve done the impossible and cracked a case no-one else has solved, you need to be extremely careful. And if at all possible, check your approach with a lawyer before you start  – most big publishing houses have their own in-house legal team who can help.

  1. Be sensitive

If the case you’re drawing on happened within living memory, some of the people who were directly affected by it will almost certainly still be alive, whether they’re the friends and family of the victim, or the friends and family of the perpetrator, not to mention the police officers involved in the investigation. None of these individuals asked to be forced into the limelight, and bad crimes cast very long shadows. So bear that in mind. And if you’re not attempting a full-scale re-telling of a specific case, but are merely drawing on some elements of one, it’s undoubtedly better to make the rest of your story as unlike the real events as possible – change not only people’s names, but their genders, their professions, the setting, maybe even the historical period.

  1. Respect the facts – unless there’s a good reason not to

This follows on from the last point. There are some real-life crimes that are always going to be recognisable to readers, whatever you do to fictionalise them. The Moors Murders, for example, or the Manson Family killing spree. In circumstances like these it may be worth having quite extensive notes at the end explaining what is known ‘truth’, and what is just your own speculation (I did the same myself, years ago, when I wrote a historical novel about the lives of the Shelleys). Though do remember that not every reader will bother with this section!

With that partly in mind – and all the more if your original subject-matter is relatively recent – it’s probably wise to be careful about why and how far you stray from what Gore Vidal once referred to as the ‘agreed-upon facts’. Don’t be tempted, for example, to gratuitously dial up the gruesomeness merely for effect, and if you’re going to insert new characters or incidents make sure they really do add something. For example, when the American novelist Thomas Mallon invented a lover for Pat Nixon in his fictional account of the Watergate scandal he knew there would be people who’d disapprove, but as he wrote in the New York Times in 2015, he felt it was justified in the context of what the novel was trying to achieve: “I kept exploring this invented romance … because when I did, I felt that I was somehow getting closer to the actual Pat Nixon, a warmer and more complicated figure than the one the public surmised.”

  1. Focus on the big picture

This, for me, is what it all comes down to. Though literary highbrows may look down their noses at the genre, at its best, crime fiction has an almost Shakespearean ability to explore human motivation and dissect our common flaws. Why? Because the people it depicts have been forced into extreme situations, whether by chance, bad choices, or the actions of others. The crime is the result, but it’s the cause that makes it so powerful. That’s what continues to draw me to true crime as both a reader and a viewer, and that’s why it’s so often been the springboard for my own books: I’m not so much interested in the details of the crime or the minutiae of the investigation, but in what tragedies like this tell us about human nature. In other words, not the What or the Who or even the How, but the everlasting and ever-compelling Why. That – as Hamlet might say – is the question; your mission, as a writer, should you choose to accept it, is to do your best to provide some convincing answers.

(c) Cara Hunter

About Hope to Die:

Hope to DieMidnight.
A call out to an isolated farm on the outskirts of Oxford.
A body shot at point-blank range in the kitchen.

It looks like a burglary gone wrong, but DI Adam Fawley suspects there’s something more to it.

When the police discover a connection to a high-profile case from years ago, involving a child’s murder and an alleged miscarriage of justice, the press go wild.

Suddenly Fawley’s team are under more scrutiny than ever before. And when you dig up the past, you’re sure to find a few skeletons…

The sixth twisty, up-all-night thriller from the Sunday Times bestselling Cara Hunter. For fans of Shari Lapena, Claire Douglas and Lisa Jewell.

‘One of the finest crime writers we have’ Mark Billingham
‘Fawley is back and better than ever’ Shari Lapena
‘Emotionally riveting, taut, and suspenseful’ Karin Slaughter

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Cara Hunter is the author of the Sunday Times bestselling crime novels Close to Home, In the Dark, No Way Out, All the Rage and The Whole Truth all featuring DI Adam Fawley and his Oxford-based police team. Close to Home was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick and was shortlisted for Crime Book of the Year in the British Book Awards 2019. No Way Out was selected by the Sunday Times as one of the 100 best crime novels since 1945. And The Whole Truth was a Richard and Judy pick in 2021. Cara’s novels have sold more than a million copies worldwide, and the TV rights to the series have now been acquired by the Fremantle group. She lives in Oxford, on a street not unlike those featured in her books.

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