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Danger Around the Corner: A Discussion with True Crime Author Leslie Rule

   

Danger Around the Corner: A Discussion with True Crime Author Leslie Rule

 

   

L

eslie Rule says writing has always been in her blood. Growing up the daughter of author Ann Rule (who wrote numerous true crime classics such as The Stranger Beside Me and Small Sacrifices), Leslie’s father was also a high school English teacher who taught creative writing and published short stories. When he passed away from skin cancer at the age of forty-three, Ann supported her four children by freelance writing for detective magazines. When she was a teenager, Leslie began working for her mom as a research assistant and photographer. Over the years, she’s published a number of books, including two suspense/thriller novels and several paranormal titles such as Coast to Coast Ghosts: True Stories of Hauntings Across America, and Ghosts Among Us. In 2020, she published A Tangled Web (Citadel), now out in paperback, about a case featuring a female murderer who utilized an almost unprecedented means of digital deception in order to mislead and antagonize the victim’s loved ones. She and I discussed our interest in true crime, advice for writers interested in the genre, our shared love of author Lois Duncan, and why she decided to write A Tangled Web.

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WOW: Hi Leslie! Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview with us. As so many of us are fans of your mother’s work, when did you first learn that you wanted to write full-length books?

Leslie: From the time I was seven-years-old, I knew I was going to be a writer. I thought I was already a writer and didn’t realize that my parents wrote, because at that time they weren’t doing it. I was really surprised to find out they wrote, too. My parents met in a creative writing class at the University of Washington. It starts for me genetically before I was even born. My dad was a high school English teacher who taught creative writing. He was an aspiring novelist. He wrote a few novels that weren’t published. He did get some short stories published. He died of skin cancer at age forty-three and was very sick for the last eight years of his life. I got my writing genes from both parents. I always knew I was going to write books. When I was a kid, my plan was to write kids’ books. And actually, that’s still where my heart is. I do have a children’s book series that I started writing. I’ve got the first book done. I haven’t hooked up with a publisher for that yet.

Of course, life happens, and all these other projects came my way, so I got distracted with doing things I think are going to take me just a few months and then I end up two years later still working on them.

WOW: Yes, we can relate to projects always taking longer than we think they will! What were your first publications like?

Leslie: My first published book was the text for a pictorial on Portland when I was about thirty. Then I wrote maybe fifty to sixty articles for national magazines and published two suspense novels, Kill Me Again and Whispers from the Grave. After that, I wrote two nonfiction books on ghost stories. I’ve always had an interest in that. I grew up in a haunted house and I thought everybody’s house was haunted. My parents never questioned it—they told us it was my great-grandfather who was a benign Methodist minister. When I was a little girl, I thought he was looking after us, so I wasn’t afraid. I felt safe because he was there. I felt like he had a direct line to God. I outgrew that, and years and years and years went by. When I looked back on it, I thought it was a childhood fantasy. One day I went to see a few psychic mediums who were putting on a public event with about eighty people in the audience. Skip and Sharon. They were a married couple. The haunted house I grew up in was on a windy hill overlooking Puget Sound. Skip said, “I smell saltwater over here. You had a ghost in your house when you were a child. You know who this is. He says, “You used to whisper to him when you were a little girl.” I wrote about that experience in one of my books.

WOW: Writing nonfiction requires a lot of research and fact-checking. What was your process like when writing your first few paranormal books?

Leslie: When it comes to writing ghost books, I don’t think ghosts are scary, and I don’t try to make the stories scary. They might be a little bit eerie sometimes, but I’m not frightened by the idea of ghosts; I’m reassured. Because if you can prove the existence of ghosts, you prove that life does not end when the body dies. That was my approach. When I first decided to write a book about ghosts, my goal was to prove to myself that they existed. This was the late 1990s. I thought a good way to do that would be to find out what kind of apparitions were being seen at a specific haunted location. And most of the places I went were public, hotels and restaurants. I would talk to the employees and find that the apparitions were seen by multiple people who didn’t know each other. Then I would have a description, and I would dive into the archives, and I was able to validate some hauntings that way. It was a challenge because at that time I would have to fly across the country and go to a newspaper office or library. Sometimes they’d have card catalogs, and you could figure out which newspaper a story might be in. Then you had to get the reel for the microfiche. It would take hours to find just a couple of little stories.

More than a quarter century later, I’m finishing up an update book. It’s a “best of,” and its stories are drawn from my first four nonfiction books about ghosts; and it’s about a 100 pages of new stories added and updated ones. Because now I can subscribe online to newspaper sites and have access to millions of articles. I can also find death records myself that I couldn’t find twenty-five years ago without flying across the country to the place that it happened. With this new book, Haunted in America coming out in September, I found some really exciting things about hauntings that I wasn’t able to find before. It was fun working on that. I want to do another ghost book, I think.

WOW: Writing for children is such a popular and competitive market these days. What is the age group for the children’s books you’ve written?

Leslie: The suspense novels were young adult. YA has maybe changed the ages over the years. In the mid-1990s, YA was twelve to eighteen, which really meant the readers were much younger. I was targeting the thirteen-year-old inside of me. I ended up with readers of all ages, and we had so many adult readers that the publisher ended up taking the YA designation off the book. That was really a compliment to me. My heart was for the kids. I wanted to write something for the kids. I think the youngest reader I’ve heard from is ten-years-old. Whispers from the Grave and Kill Me Again both have paranormal elements. Whispers from the Grave is also science fiction—it’s a time travel story.

Lois Duncan and Ann Rule, September 1989

WOW: Could you share the story of how you first discovered your love of writing for children and teens?

Leslie: I went with my mother to a writer’s conference when I was about twenty-three. We ended up giving the YA editor at Dell a ride to the airport afterward. I expressed my interest in writing for kids. He said, “Oh, let me send you some books.” He sent me a big box of books. That’s how I found Lois Duncan; Christopher Pike was in there, I think, and Lois Lowry? The first thing I did was get familiar with the market. And as we’ve talked about before, Lois Duncan was my favorite. I read her books a number of times.

[Editor’s Note: By coincidence, it was a talk by Lois Duncan at a writer’s conference that first inspired Ann Rule to break into the “true confessional” market. The two women later became acquainted and grew to be close friends over the years. Leslie still remains close with Duncan’s daughters.]

I finished the book and sent it to my mom’s editor, Michaela Hamilton, and she wrote me a very nice rejection letter. Then I put it away and I never sent it out again. Now, it’s kind of interesting because Michaela Hamilton is my editor on my latest book, A Tangled Web. She was my mom’s editor on Small Sacrifices. It was a feeling of déjà vu for her.

WOW: True crime has experienced a surge in popularity the past few years, with podcasts, and streaming services even adapting ideas from books and magazine articles. What do you think are the hallmarks of a good true crime writer?

Leslie: I think the number one thing is you have to be sensitive to the victims. You absolutely have to care about them, and you have to show who they are. That was the most important thing to my mom. And after that, there’s a lot to learn. One of the things true crime authors need to learn are the rules. They can’t write a book about a killer who has not been convicted. They could get sued. They should immerse themselves in information. If they can, they should go to the trial. But then they also need to understand the rules there, because they can vary from trial to trial. They can check with the bailiff. There are courtrooms where you are not to allowed to have a camera in it.

When you’re actually writing the story, you have to think, how is the victim’s family going to feel when they read this? An example—many years ago, this was back in the 1970s, my mom had a case where a teenager was murdered, and the murder weapon was the scarf her grandmother had knitted her for Christmas. My mom did not put that in the article or the book because she knew it would break that grandmother’s heart. You have to really care about that victim’s family. Now of course a lot of people really don’t care—they just want a juicy story. I think writers who don’t care ultimately are not going to be very successful.

Another thing is, detectives will often share information that’s off the record. If a detective tells you something and says he doesn’t want that published, don’t burn him because you’ll get a bad reputation and other detectives won’t want to talk to you. I’ve heard a lot of things I would never print. Sometimes they don’t even have to tell me it’s off the record.

WOW: I first became aware of the Cari Farver/Liz Golyar case when I saw the episode of 20/20 that featured an interview with you. How did you hear about the case from A Tangled Web and how you decided it would make a good true crime book?

Leslie: I was specifically looking for a case about a female sociopath. Because I think we cannot be warned enough about the dangerous females amongst us. It’s too easy to forget how dangerous a woman can be, and I think that makes them more dangerous. When I set out to find a story, I decided I wanted a love triangle murder because I knew the one thing that brings out the worst in a dangerous female is jealousy. I specifically looked for that and found the case of an Omaha murder where a woman killed her rival. She then hid her body and took over her digital identity for the next three years. Nobody could figure it out until an amazing group of brilliant detectives took over the case and they were able to solve it.

WOW: In the introduction to A Tangled Web, you write, “Killers have not changed but their methods have. They now have an arsenal of electronic devices they can use to dupe us, but we can outsmart them by learning their tricks.” There were so many technical details in this case that could bog down a reader if not written clearly enough. Did you have help deciphering some of the information while in the research phase of the book?

Leslie: No. I did a lot of online reading. I came across a lot of things I had never heard of. Today it’s so easy because you just get online and read everything you can about a topic, and you can learn on your own without taking a class. It was just a lot of research. Then I would boil it down to try and make it easy to understand. But first I had to get a grasp on it in order to do that.

Leslie Rule

“The number one thing is you have to be sensitive to the victims. You absolutely have to care about them, and you have to show who they are.”



WOW: How do you recommend a writer that is interested in writing true crime get started?

Leslie: A writer should always read everything they can in the genre they want to write for. Look for a recently published book by a traditional publisher at the time you’re writing it. Look for recently published books (like the last five years when it comes to true crime). Look for what is selling. While you don’t want your story to be like everyone else’s, you also want to get a feel for what it is the publisher’s want.

WOW: If someone wanted to pitch a true crime story to a magazine, would you recommend that?

Leslie: That’s a good way for a writer to get their feet wet because writing a whole book is ambitious. Now, if you have a case that you think is really perfect for you and you fear another writer might jump on it, then you don’t want to publish a shorter version of the story.

The best way to meet agents and editors is at writer’s conferences. Every major city has writer’s groups that host writer’s conferences once or twice a year. I make great connections at writer’s conferences.

WOW: Leslie, thank you so much for a rich conversation! You brought up some great points about writing true crime and now I have a whole backlist of your titles to go check out.

Learn more about Leslie Rule at www.authorleslierule.com.

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Renee Roberson

Renee Roberson is an award-winning writer, magazine editor, and host of the true crime podcast Missing in the Carolinas. She has written several short stories inspired by real-life cases, including “The Polaroid,” which took first place in the suspense/thriller category of the Writer’s Digest 13th Annual Popular Fiction Contest. Visit her online at missinginthecarolinas.com.


 

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