Want to write your true crime story? Know what you're risking.

I’ve been writing about my experience of getting stalked by a neighbor. Many readers have asked how to write about their real crime experiences. This post is one of a series of posts, answering those questions. Click for an overview of topics: Want to write your personal true crime story?

After deciding why you want to write about your real crime experience, the next question is, “What are my risks?” Why ask this question? Call it putting on the brakes for a great idea.

"Dangerous Risk," by epSos.de on Creative Commons.

"Dangerous Risk," by epSos.de on Creative Commons.

Face it: we’ve all fantasized about Making It with our writing. Countless readers breathlessly getting the true story and finally granting sympathy. Leading to best sellers, and interviews, and red carpets, and flashing cameras. Never having to fret about anything ever again because publicity outweighs danger and gives immunity from further problems, right?

You know I’m setting you up to say “no,” right? Forcing you to deny those fantasies. Demanding a more logical response, like, “Well, I can expect nasty reader feedback. Or something.” Which is true. People will certainly have opinions. Especially on social media and blog comments and official critics and ... you get the drift. However, risk-assessment is different than fretting about a reader uprising. It’s where you ask tough questions in anticipation of harsh consequences for your work. Consider these following:

  1. Are you willing to upend your coveted post-crime peace (if you ever got it, that is) for the sake of getting published?
  2. Are you ready to constantly open and re-open your worst memories, each time you discuss your work?
  3. How do you manage new nut cases, who will intercept you?
  4. How do you manage your nemesis or their supporters—who are likely still angry at you—if they learn you’re talking about them?

When I started writing, number four was an especial burden. As a writer-turned-crime-victim, I had feet solidly planted in two worlds. In one world, the writer in me quoted Anne Lamott and said the truth needed to be told.

As for the other world, the crime victim begged that reckless writer to please not do anything to give the stalker a new reason to attack. After hearing arguments from both worlds, I decided, “Despite these fears, I know this story is engaging. Someone might pull value from it.” And, “My stalker already destroyed four years of my life. I’m not letting her dictate any of my future decisions.”

Those verdicts lead to one final question. “How do I tell the truth, while protecting myself from more problems, without being so cautious that it sacrifices the story?” That resulted with the following game plan:

  1. Consult an intellectual properties attorney, to clear legal questions.
  2. Never identify my stalker or her supporters.
  3. Be vague or change non-critical details.
  4. Blog anonymously (for a time) while evaluating the nature of the reader responses.
  5. Identify potential dangers that could happen, including not over-thinking this question.
  6. Plan how to respond like a rational adult if number five happened.

Although I wondered about being too cautious, it turns out that my gut was spot-on. It’s interesting who came out of the woodwork, after the publicity. In the grand scheme of things, although their actions were momentarily hair-raising, it resolved quickly, with a block here, a cold shoulder there, and some police consultation. I'm glad that I planned ahead for those worst-case scenarios.

Regardless, it was a sober realization: even with safety guards on, it’s still a risk to publicly talk about being stalked. Stand firm with whatever decisions you make to protect yourself, as you proceed with your own writing.