Watching true crime TV is good for your writing. Honest.

The weather outside is frightful, but inside “Forensic Files” is on.

I have a lot of reasons for not getting far with my new book. Actually, I got semi-far, but the hard drive on my laptop died, and while I thought I’d saved the book to the cloud, I apparently didn’t. [Insert Microsoft rant].

So now I have some bits and pieces and have to kind of start over. But don’t cry for me. I’m just taking it in stride. Or, to put it another way, I’m in state of suspended animation.

I blame winter, three jobs, a balky furnace, my lost Fitbit and a really serious Gifford’s chocolate ice cream jones that I just recently kicked. I have a reliable desktop computer, but since I work at home most of the time, sitting in the same spot for a sustained 12 hours or so isn’t going to happen for me.

One and a half of my jobs I could do with the TV on, and my laptop and I got into a nice habit of watching HLN [think nonstop “Forensic Files,” and a lineup of B-level true crime shows with cheesy reenactments] while I worked.

Now my laptop is gone, at least temporarily, and I have to choose. “Forensic Files” or write? Actually, there’s another option. I’m typing this on my iPad. I dusted off the old Bluetooth keyboard and am trying to write by combining using the unsatisfactory tiny keyboard and the touchscreen. I’m not enjoying it. [Memo to helpful readers: NONE OF THIS — the laptop issues, the lost book, the Microsoft rant, not enjoying typing on a tiny Bluetooth keyboard with no apparent way to select things — is a cry for tech advice. Don’t want it, don’t need it. Thanks!]

So, like I said, unsatisfactory and not something I’m going to be doing a lot of. But at least I’m not upstairs in the home office with the hard chair and the non-working baseboard heater and the nervous feral cat. I’m on the living room couch with the gas fire and “Vengeance: Killer Coworkers” on the TV.

I’ve always been a fan of true-crime TV (and books and podcasts) and lately it’s all I can tolerate. Can’t watch or read much else. Maybe it’s winter. Maybe the jobs. The good news is, I consider it helpful to my writing. Seriously. Those of you who are writers may get it — I’m always writing in my head, working on ideas, assessing the world around me for how it may  fit in.

The true-crime TV immersion is helping with my book, even though 30,000 or so words are now lost to the cold winter cyber wind.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking. I saw that little moue of disapproval on the faces in the audience at a recent author talk when I said I get ideas from true crime shows. Not exactly Agatha Christie, am I?

When I say “get my ideas,” though, I don’t mean the book I’m working on is going to have a disgruntled wife giving her husband ethanol-laced Gatorade, or a husband who drowns his wife in the bathtub (so many, guys!) and says it was an accident. It won’t have a victim who “lights up the room,” the cops won’t call the bad guy “a gentleman.” It’s not going to be a town “where everyone knows everyone and no one locks their doors. Until the unthinkable happened.” There was never a “simpler time,” and the if there every really was, it sure as hell wasn’t the ’70s or ’80s, so I won’t be saying that, either.

No one’s going to say “go missing.” Unless it’s followed by my protagonist going nuts on them.

If there’s “a shocking twist that no one saw coming,” I won’t use those words.

Those are all things you’ll hear any given night on true-crime TV.

Not that those aren’t fun, but there are things that go a little deeper. One great thing about true crime TV is that it’s a textbook on human behavior. It’s an exercise in figuring out why people act like they do, even if it means I’m yelling at the TV because the guy is obviously a psychopath and everyone blithely ignored the red flags, and still can’t figure out “why he did it.” So, come to think of it, it’s also an exercise in how people react to the psychopath, or the crime, what their reactions are, and the narratives people give situations.

It’s also a lesson in things like how casually constitutional rights are dismissed. “Lawyering up” for instance shouldn’t be a bad thing. It’s nuts how people are constantly denied or tricked out of their constitutional rights, but no one sees a problem with it on true crime TV. Or in real life a lot of the time. I laughed out loud when on one pretty good show, the suspect said he wanted to exercise his 6th Amendment right and the cop interrogating him didn’t know what that meant.

Even the cliches help inform the thinking writer — leave all that crap out of your book. If anyone in one of my books says “that kind of thing doesn’t happen here,” you can bet it’ll be followed by someone saying, “Yes it does. All the time.” Because I find myself yelling that at the TV almost every night.

So, as the temperature dips below zero outside and I sit by the light of my TV listening to the howling wind, I’m not feeling too bad about not recapturing those 30,000 words. At least not right now.

The winter is long. And there’s a new episode of “Killer Confessions” coming up in 10 minutes.

About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
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4 Responses to Watching true crime TV is good for your writing. Honest.

  1. Anonymous says:

    Just watched a bit of this on a plane and thought, “It might be useful to watch more of this.” But the pacing is so ridiculously slow! So sorry about the laptop. And the cloud letting you down. Ah, winter madness!


  2. Julianne Spreng says:

    My husband likes to let those shows role through as he recharges on the couch. Every once in a while as I walk by I’ll get sucked in. Stand there and watch a story unfolding until the next commercial break. I find them repetitive. How in heaven’s name can people blind themselves so thoroughly to this behavior in others?? What causes humans to treat other humans as disposable impediments to a goal?? Yes, I know libraries are full of books on this topic, and they’re fascinating to read. But, really, why the tunnel vision?!

  3. bethc2015 says:

    I love your ability to take things in stride and see the benefits, and humor, in things that would drive me crazy!.

  4. Aauugghh, my husband loved those shows. Not The 1st person ones from the person them selves. But the federal agents looking for people. British T.V. Shows are quite good . Ah but I Rather watch Christmas show. Hahaha. I read cozy 💞 because I can be entertained and puzzle solve, series are fun because good writing
    Takes you to places and good characters. Tv I don’t want to much ugly in the house.

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