From History to Mystery: Crafting a True Story into a Compelling Tale

Location: 108, Harris Hall (Map it)

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"Accounts of true crime have always been enormously popular among readers. The subgenre would seem to appeal to the highly educated as well as the barely educated, to women and men equally.” — Joyce Carol Oates

Northwestern alumnus and bestselling author Daniel Stashower (BA ’82) will conduct a two-day colloquium including a master class and a writing workshop, closing with a storytelling session and dramatic reading about the life of a notable mystery and true crime

With the rise of interest in “true crime” stories, such as Serial and The Making of a Murder, the method of crafting a story to reach the maximum audience involves artistry in the telling. In this session, students of history, journalism and the creative arts will learn to shape true stories into their most effective form, by employing the structure and techniques of narrative fiction. Students in the English and Creative Writing programs — as well as Journalism, Film and History majors –- will learn how to write and tell true stories in a manner that is both compelling and factually valid.

In his lecture, Stashower will present an overview of the genre Truman Capote dubbed the “non-fiction novel,” beginning with Capote’s own In Cold Blood, to illustrate how these techniques have carried forward into some of the most popular books of our day, including James Swanson’s Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer and Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. Stashower will also explore the challenges of successfully adapting books of this type for movies and television, as demonstrated by such genre cornerstones as Helter Skelter, Goodfellas and Heavenly Creatures.

Stashower will draw on his own work to give behind-the-scenes illustrations of the research, fact-checking and narrative discipline required to craft an effective story without sacrificing historical rigor. Stashower’s relevant works include The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War and The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe and the Invention of Murder, both of which drew heavily on primary sources and archival research to produce popular narrative nonfiction that could stand up to academic scrutiny.

The workshop session will also feature an interactive “CSI: Evanston” module that challenges students to outline a true crime narrative based on Northwestern University’s own Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory, founded in 1929 in the wake of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and often acknowledged as America’s first forensic lab. Students will explore the storytelling possibilities associated with the career of Leonarde Keeler, who pioneered the “Emotograph,” or lie detector machine, and served as a consultant to Eliot Ness and at the trial of Bruno Hauptmann, the prime suspect in the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby.

The colloquium will close with a brief storytelling session on the life of a notable mystery author, accompanied by a dramatic, interpretive reading of the author’s works by NU alumna Janet Carr (MSEd ’98). Cake and sherry will be served after the reading.

Scholar Background
An acclaimed biographer and narrative historian, Stashower is a three-time winner of the Mystery Writers of America’s prestigious Edgar award, and is one of only three Americans to win the Raymond Chandler Fulbright Fellowship in Detective Fiction. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Northwestern, he also holds an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia University. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, AARP: The Magazine, and National Geographic Traveler as well as other publications. His one-dozen books include The Hour of Peril, Teller of Tales, and The Beautiful Cigar Girl.

Reader Background
Janet Carr is multi-disciplined in theatre, education and literature. As an actor and producer in Chicago, she was an ensemble member of The Body Politic, Stage Left and Seanachai Theatre companies. Janet currently specializes in Continuing Medical Education for Washington State Medical Association.

Thursday, May 25
5:00 p.m. - 6:30 p.m.
Harris Hall (H107)

Friday, May 26
11 a.m. - 1 p.m.
Harris 108

Dramatic Reading
Friday, May 26
4 p.m. - 6:00 pm
Kresge Centennial Hall
KRG 2415


This event is sponsored by Professor Deborah L. Borman, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and funded by a generous grant from The Alumnae of Northwestern University