How to Get Away with Writing about Murder
Journalism program director offers insights on crime reporting.
Murder. Mystery. Mayhem. Hearing these words is enough to make some people shudder. But when you are a seasoned journalist like Professor Maureen Boyle, someone who has seen and reported on it all, subjects like this do not phase you.
The veteran crime reporter, who previously wrote for outlets like The Enterprise of Brockton, Massachusetts and The Standard-Times of New Bedford, Massachusetts, recently hosted a lecture on the true crime genre as part of an event sponsored by the Martin Institute. Boyle, the director of Stonehill’s journalism program, focused the speech on her experiences writing two books: Shallow Graves: The Hunt for the New Bedford Highway Serial Killer (2017) and The Ghost: The Murder of Police Chief Greg Adams and the Hunt for His Killer (2021).
“True crime stories are about finding justice – for victims, for their families and for the community,” Boyle said in a statement given prior to the lecture. “I want people to remember these are stories about real people who suffered immeasurable loss.”
For writers interested in taking a page from Boyle’s book, here are the top takeaways and tips from her speech about crime reporting.
1. Do your due diligence. Boyle relied on witness testimony and other interviews to help illustrate the crimes at the center of her works; however, these conversations alone were not enough. “You can’t simply rely on people’s memories,” she said. “You need a lot of back up when it comes to dates and details.” As such, Boyle spent hundreds of hours sifting through thousands of documents to confirm facts and fill holes in people’s recollections. Government records, prison files, police and FBI reports, property records, history books, newspaper articles, school yearbooks and scrapbooks were among the countless items she examined.
2. Be persistent. Boyle notes that it was hard to get ahold of some of the documents she ultimately relied on to help craft her stories. In particular, she cited FBI records as being difficult to access. In some cases, she spent weeks and months trying to cut through red tape to get her hands on this information. Despite some roadblocks, the writer persisted, knowing that she needed these documents to accurately illustrate the cases about which she was writing.
3. Know when to take a step back. Thirty years before she wrote Shallow Graves, Boyle reported on the New Bedford Highway Killings as a journalist for The Standard-Times. She admits that the mystery surrounding the killer’s identity weighed on her heavily back then. “I was obsessed by this case,” she said. “I was essentially working 24/7 reporting on this.” The journalist said she had to learn to take a step away from the case every so often to ensure she was not becoming totally consumed by it.
4. Recognize the importance of storytelling. In Boyle’s view, coming to terms with the fact that her novels would not bring back the deceased people on whom her books focus was one of the most difficult aspects of writing her novels. Still, the author believes true crime books like hers serve an important function: they help people remember the victims, even years after their deaths. “In the case of the New Bedford Highway Killings, where 11 women went missing in 1988 and nine of them were later found dead, I hope the increased attention to the case will finally lead to someone coming forward with the identity of the killer,” she said.