The truth about writing a true crime podcast
In April, I released the first episode of my limited true crime podcast Predator. It tells the story of Queensland's first convicted serial killer, Leonard John Fraser. In this post I want to take you behind the scenes of the writing process. You can read part one of Predator with exclusive photos here or listen for free in your podcast app. Feature image by Daria Shevtsova on Unsplash.
Most creative people will surely recognise the intense pull of an idea you know in your gut is worth pursuing. It’s the drive that will carry you through all the self-doubt, the long hours, the challenges. You know the story has to be told, and somehow you trust you’re the one to do it.
The notion that ideas find us at the right time is one I’ve been enchanted with since reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. But until it’s happened to you, there’s always a little doubt that creativity can involve this much ‘woo’.
First, let me tell you about Predator. It opens on April 22, 1999. A 9-year-old girl, Keyra Steinhardt, is attacked on a busy road as she walks home from school. Police arrest the killer hours later thanks to two strange twists of fate, but he won’t talk. It’s a gruelling two-week search for Keyra’s body. Her killer, Leonard John Fraser, is sentenced to life in prison but police are determined to reveal the truth: that he has killed multiple times before.
Trusting in the creative process
This story kept pushing into my life in different ways, begging me to pay attention. Keyra’s murder was one of the first major news event I remember. She was nine when she was killed. I was four and my parents sat me down to talk me through stranger danger.
During a high school science class, a police officer showed us blood splatter evidence from the derelict hotel where Leonard John Fraser killed another women. (I mean, really the only response to that is trauma or obsession with true crime.) Then I started working at The Morning Bulletin where my editor shared stories of sitting just metres away from Fraser throughout his Supreme Court trial.
The idea kept nagging at me. I wanted to tell a story that had been forgotten, but in a practical sense I knew it was perfectly suited to the podcast format. This story was old enough to have faded from memory, but not old enough that I couldn’t interview key people.
I’d been listening to My Favorite Murder and discovering the potential of true crime podcasts to tell stories in unique ways. I posted a question on the original MFM Facebook group, asking people if they’d listen to a deep dive on a crime they knew was solved. The response was overwhelming. Hundreds people encouraged me to create the podcast.
And I could have done it. But for some reason (a little bit of creative woo) it didn’t work that way.
I didn’t have a way to contact Keyra’s mum Treasa, and I knew I couldn’t consider creating the podcast without her. While the idea of creating this true crime podcast was exciting, I slowly let the idea ebb away. Practicalities took over.
It’s at this point you have to trust in the creative process. Because when the time was right for me to tell this story, the logistical elements easily fell into place.
A year or more later, I had to write a creative non-fiction piece for university. For some reason, I thought again of this case. It had enough depth to fit the total of 5000 words I would have to write, plus it had always been fascinating to me.
I spent my lunch times at Rockhampton’s history centre, scanning microfilm for the original Morning Bulletin stories. It was surreal to come home from the newsroom and write for hours, scanning old pages of the paper and imagining how the journalists at the time reacted.
I’m not trying to boast when I say how well I did on those assignments. But two marks in the 90s was a confirmation to me that I could tell this story and by this time, it had become an obsession. Then I had to contact Treasa about something else in the paper and finally had the chance to introduce myself, to suggest I tell her daughter’s story.
I wholeheartedly believe this idea waited for the right moment, as unlikely as that sounds. In the year since I’d had that first fleeting idea for a true crime podcast, I had grown immensely as a writer. I now had the belief in my ability to tell this story like no one else. Ultimately, you need that belief to help you through the times when you want to delete every word you’ve written, curl up in a blanket burrito and binge Netflix.
Writing with a ‘noble intent’
As part of my research for Predator, I received a Regional Arts Development grant to attend the Word For Word Non-Fiction Festival in Geelong. There, I saw journalist Rachael Brown discussing her provocative and heartfelt true crime podcast Trace.
During the session Brown said something which resonated so deeply with me that it’s continued to drive my work on Predator.
Brown said journalists and other true crime writers needed to approach these stories with a “noble intent”. Not because they want to be bigger than Serial or Making a Murderer.
I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve written about my own ethics when it comes to consuming true crime, and I felt the pressure even more as a creator.
I wrote Predator because this story needed to be told again. It was never completely forgotten of course. There has been a book and a documentary, but not for more than a decade. This story is certainly not well known in an age where true crime is no longer an off-limits conversation at dinner parties.
In a practical sense, the time and dedication to writing Predator wouldn’t have been possible without a genuine passion for this story. Chasing likes or views or anything else in response to a trend is never fulfilling enough to keep you going through the challenges of writing or creating anything. Especially a podcast.
Behind-the-scenes of writing a podcast
Any podcast is hard work. You’ve got to source material, record it, and edit it. Chatty interview-style podcasts naturally take a little less work as they’re generally free-flowing and require less editing and minimal scripting.
I could have taken that approach with Predator. It was certainly the easier option and would still have told a fascinating story. But I wanted to follow the lead of other true crime podcasts like Serial and Dirty John.
My first step was to contact Treasa. I was steadfast in my belief that the podcast couldn’t exist without her blessing, and would be strengthened through her involvement.
She was immediately on board and explained that she always likes to talk about Keyra. For all the faults of true crime, I do believe it can be a healing process when done with care.
We recorded interviews over several months. Because I’d done so much work to write the features for university, I didn’t need to do much research.
I knew I would have to write a detailed script for each episode, which required a full transcript with time codes. I’m not going to sugarcoat this: transcribing was hard and adding time codes every few sentences was incredibly time consuming. I ended up outsourcing this to my mum, who was trained in speed typing.
When it came to writing the script, I started by highlighting the best grabs from my interview transcripts and building the narration around them.
The part which made me most uncomfortable was putting myself in the story. I would say “I’m going to introduce you to…” or “Remember when I told you about…” to reiterate key details.
That’s a naturally uncomfortable stance when I’m writing professionally. As journalists we are trained to be impartial, to stay out of the story. But this felt inherently personal. It’s as much a part of my personal history as that of my hometown.
The global nature of a podcast also forced me to push my boundaries. I constantly had to remind myself not to slip into the local knowledge trap we can comfortably rely on at a newspaper with defined geographic audiences. I was writing for a whole new audience and that became a key challenge.
Editing as an empowering process
In newspapers, our work is constantly read and re-read by various editors and sub-editors. It’s usually at a micro level, a misplaced comma or typo. Sometimes I’ll get asked a specific question about a statement that’s included. We’re always on deadline and focused on each day’s edition.
For Predator, I wanted to ask someone to edit with a more thorough eye for macro level changes. I also wanted editors who weren’t familiar with the story, or the area, so they could question anything I hadn’t fully explained.
This helped immensely with my concerns about local knowledge gaps. Having someone look at the ‘big picture’ of the podcast, while I focused on the details, was invaluable.
However, the script editing process was mentally exhausting. I crammed most of it into one week and re-wrote each episode multiple times. I was obsessed. This story was in my dreams and I couldn’t think of anything else outside work.
I re-wrote the first three episodes several times to create a defined narrative arc which gave the story contemporary relevance.
Until this, I’d forgotten how the editing process can be so simultaneously challenging and rewarding. The blank page fear was real and by the time I’d written the first draft I honestly thought it was in pretty good shape. Then I re-wrote it. And tweaked it. And cut some bits. The finished product is miles ahead of my first draft.
That wouldn’t have happened without some solid editing. Having an editor who believes in you and your project, but can be tough enough to push you to achieve what they know you’re capable of is incredibly empowering.
In all honesty, I’d started to slip into complacency at work. My editor trusts my writing; it’s clean, factual, and I don’t usually miss out important details. He’s focused on the new reporters who still need advice on shaping their story. Often I’m helping them too. But I was really starting to miss having someone focused solely and impartially on making the story the best it could be.
Going through the editing process for Predator was more rewarding than writing it. Of course, the two go hand in hand. Without that mediocre first draft there’s nothing to wrangle into better shape.
Don’t be afraid of taking to your words with a scalpel. Cut and re-shape and re-work. Trust me, you (and your work) will always be better for it.
I left the audio editing to my producer Allan Reinikka, but we did work together to create and find soundscapes for background effect.
My greatest hope for Predator is that Keyra, Sylvia, Beverley, and Julie can all be remembered again. That we can reflect on the legal failings which led to their deaths and the way we as a society place a value on victims of crime. I’m just telling their story and it’s an honour to be trusted with that.