Curator of the Dead: Confessions of a True Crime Writer
How to make minuscule advances in your writing endeavors by being a reluctant class traitor.
My writing journey began when I was in middle school, mostly as a lyricist, penning unheralded classics like Corn In My Crap and Dead Baby Parade. At the end of my teenage years I would write notebooks full of one liners and poetry, and finally in my early 20s began writing short fiction. Then when social media came along I started writing extended rants that weren’t yet essays, but soon I learned to develop them into something coherent enough to publish and share in blog form. At about this time I was also hired as a writer, and later editor, for a popular police criticism and activism website. By the end of my tenure there I had also worked at other websites and ran a handful of my own. I was writing about philosophy and science and magic and art, as well as satire and anti-authoritarian screeds, with the occasional respite to my fiction roots. Despite putting in a ton of work, I was still not quite really making a living at it, so I decided to explore subjects that would be interesting to me, and to a wider audience than most of my work appealed to.
In early 2018 I was living in Iowa City, Iowa, and one day while bored at the bookstore where I worked, I stumbled across Iowa Cold Cases - which is the greatest single resource for cold cases in any state I have researched so far. It was a rabbit hole which sucked me completely in, and I read every single case on the website. One of them I was familiar with, and had been connected to in a roundabout way.
It became obvious that I should try my own hand at true crime writing, and so I explored what angles I should take when doing so, in order to make it fun to read. I didn’t want to just report facts, as often there weren’t even enough available to make it worth reporting. I decided that mixing the facts with some social commentary, speculation and small doses of humor — and putting it in list form with fairly brief entries — would be enjoyable to write and possibly successful as a vehicle for widening my audience. In February of 2018 I published my first entry in the true crime category —10 Unbelievable Unsolved Iowa Murders. It remains my most read article, out of hundreds over the past five years, to date.
By the end of the year I had moved to New Mexico, and decided to repeat the format for my new home state, and decided to do Colorado right after. While the Iowa article had indeed increased my blog traffic, the other two never quite picked up that kind of steam, and I became frustrated and quit. About four months back I was contacted by a successful movie producer who expressed some interest in having me assist an unspecified famous actor in writing a movie loosely based around a case I had written about. Although that never went anywhere, it did put it in the back of my mind that the true crime articles were still probably my best chance to reach a wider audience while writing something that doesn’t make me completely cringe.
A month ago I revived some research for Wyoming that I had started back after I finished Colorado, and added the Cowboy State to my 10 Unbelievable Unsolved Murder articles. I then knocked out a double dose of Oklahoma, since I am moving there next year, and then researched Nebraska — which is now ready to write. Currently I am researching Kansas, which is a total mess, both in the sense of unsolved murders and organized information about unsolved murders.
My partner and friends have asked me about the personal effects of spending 40 hours a week reading and writing about the most horrifying acts possible, and to be honest, it doesn’t really bother me. Like with any other research/writing project, I tend to get in my head a bit further and become distant and sensitive, but no more so than if I was writing about the history of balloon animals or a satire series about coke-fueled dictators dressed as sexy nurses. All the death doesn’t bother me at all. Sometimes the circumstances creep me out, especially when remote locations are involved, but only in a mild, somewhat enjoyable way.
The only thing that ever bothers me is skipping past all of the people who died in urban settings of random gang violence and in the commission of another crime like robbery. Those crimes are not at all unbelievable, they are all too common. That does not mean that the victims and their families do not deserve answers or accountability, but from a literary perspective they offer none of the mystery or intrigue of serial killers, sexual deviants, child homicide or the bizarre and inexplicable. It simply would not behoove me or my audience to write about victims of gang hazing rituals, drive-by shootings or convenience store robbery — even though I have included some of those from time to time. And because of that, because routine violent crimes are so inherently disinteresting from a narrative standpoint, law enforcement and the general public are not likely to expend much time, energy or resources on unsolved murders that have been normalized by the products of the inequality which fuels the oligarchy.
Poor people and minorities are often the subjects in these sort of crimes, making them victims of the rigged system long before they became victims of violence. These people have been victimized in different ways their entire life, but their stories will fall into obscurity, buried beneath endless articles about pretty young women who were raped and murdered by some imagination-piquing psychopath. And I am part of that problem, but at the same time, I am also a low income writer trying succeed just enough for sustained stability.
This is the terror of the situation. The ruling class barely even has to try to keep those at the bottom working against one another and their own best interests. The same system which creates the conditions in which urban violence is born only becomes possible to succeed within as true crime writer if we ignore the people who suffer those conditions and their violence.
Without a radically decentralized approach to progress, without dismantling the monstrous hierarchies which intrinsically breed wealth and power inequality, our way of life will continue to produce more murders than it can solve. My only recourse is to pepper my articles with enough social commentary to move the conversation away from outrage about criminals, to outrage about the oligarchy which produces them for profit.
It is not death which bothers me, but the normalized death of the many to drive the profits and agendas of the few. I have yet to read or write about a single case in which the killer was as egregiously destructive as the routine atrocities of the ruling class. Eat your own heart out, cannibalistic serial killers, because you ain’t got nothing in the way of evil on people like Warren Buffet, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates. Not even close.