Truman Capote is generally considered to have invented the modern version of what he called “the factual novel,” a true story based on traditional journalistic reporting techniques but told in the best fashion of dramatic fiction. Since Capote's
Effective true-tale writing involves extensive research. Official documents like court transcripts, incident reports, and arrest records, as well as some financial information, usually are public record, though it may take some persistence to get hold of them. Private documents like letters and diaries can help fill in the blanks in the public record, if you can get access to them. Finally, you can expect to conduct lots and lots of interviews with the people involved — not just with the principal actors, but also with their friends, neighbors, and relatives.
Tales of kidnapping, murder, theft, espionage, and conspiracy find a ready audience when they are real-life cases. Readers look for the real story behind the headlines. They want to know what the players in the drama thought and felt, and what motivated their actions. Though the outcome is already known, the artful writer builds suspense by delving deep into the characters' psyches, revealing the reasons for what might seem inexplicable on the surface. There is a sense of inevitability in these works, a feeling that all the players in the drama are moving inexorably toward their fate, both before the crime is committed and afterwards, when law enforcement begins piecing its case together and the miscreant is caught and tried.
In some cases, the crime is never solved: D. B. Cooper, who parachuted from a jet over the rugged mountainous wilderness between Seattle and Reno with $200,000 in ransom money; the escape and eventual fate of a handful of inmates of the infamous Alcatraz prison; the truth behind the brutal slayings of Lizzie Borden's parents. All these are true-life mysteries, and they are all the more compelling because the questions as to what really happened remain unanswered.
Writers have to be particularly careful about libel when writing this kind of story. Especially when the accused has been acquitted, the way you paint your real-life characters can have serious repercussions when your book is published. You may wish to consult with an expert in libel law before submitting your manuscript to a publisher.
The true adventure story has in many ways supplanted the fictional one, because so many true-life adventures are more exciting and satisfying than anything the most imaginative writer could dream up. Real-life exploits, from the search for a shorter passage to the Orient to the exploration of space, provide all the ingredients of a rip-roaring adventure tale: human beings on a quest for riches, fame, or knowledge; nature, in all its untamable fury; danger and discovery, hardship and hope.
Think of the doctor who made headlines a few years ago; at a scientific outpost in Antartica, she first diagnosed herself with breast cancer, then had to treat herself using only the supplies on hand, because the weather prohibited any attempt to transport her to a better-equipped facility. Think of the
As with true crime stories, readers expect to get inside the heads of the characters in an adventure. They want to know what the people thought, felt, and said, as well as what they did. The same rigors of research and interviewing that are required for writing the true crime story apply to writing the true adventure story.