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Up Late With Sociopaths: Surviving Thriller Research

When I was a child, my mother worked as a librarian, and on some of those long summer days that contained neither school nor camp nor babysitters, she took me to work with her, where I was given the instruction to go forth and read. For many children, this would be punishment. For me, it was dreamy. I took books outside and sat beneath the shade of a tree, forgetting the heat of the day, the bother of the ants.

Some of my favorite books were about monsters. The best books contained grainy black and white photos: Nessie’s serpent-shaped head peeking just above the loch, the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall hovering possessively above her staircase. I absolutely knew there were monsters in the world. I didn’t need proof.

And I was right. There are monsters—or people who are capable of extreme monstrous acts. They don’t have serpent heads and they can’t pass through walls unseen. We call them violent sociopaths, and they look exactly like the rest of us.

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A sociopath sits at the center of my novel THE SINGING BONE, and to write him—to write Mr. Wyck—I had to do research. I read about Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and Joseph Di Mambro. I downloaded articles, watched documentaries, and talked to therapist friends. I wanted to understand not just the sociopath, but what allowed an individual to follow one into such complete darkness.

The more I researched, the more frightened I became. At night, I woke my sympathetic husband to tell him we should really consider a better alarm system. I decided to keep a hammer under the bed until then—just in case. I checked my rearview mirror when leaving stores to make sure no one was following me. I disliked going out after dark. I regularly logged on to Websleuths to make sure there were no unusual crimes in my area.

THE SINGING BONE is a scary book. I put as much of my own fear into the novel as I could, infusing each scene with the sense of menace that had become so familiar. After I finished writing the second draft, I stopped researching, and gradually, the rhythm of the days returned. I forgot about my hammer until I needed it one day to hang a picture.

When I began my new book, I knew I was about to enter a similarly dark terrain, but that this time, I would create rules for myself. Even if I’m deep into the writing, I take time away from my work. I have lunch with a friend. I do yard work or take a walk, lingering in the beauty of the natural world. I know that I can’t look at photos of murder victims, and that watching interviews with killers leads nowhere. Nothing a proven perpetrator says can bring clarity to such an act of madness.

The monsters I loved in my childhood library books were contained, far off, and let’s face it: fake. They gave me a delightful scare, but there is no delight in reading about the violent sociopath. His victims exist and the time is the present. Many are behind bars, but some are not. They remain faceless, nameless, and uncontained. Research for thrillers is somber, macabre work that will almost certainly leave one distraught and with a precautionary hammer under her bed.

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If you are writing your first thriller, I have a piece of advice for you: There are days better spent without the company of monsters. In THE SINGING BONE, one of my characters says that some of us are drawn to wells. We want to peer over the edge to see the bottom, and if we can’t see the bottom from where we are, we might climb down to have a better look.

The trick, he notes, is to come back up.

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Column by Beth Hahn, author of debut novel THE SINGING BONE
(March 1, 2016, Regan Arts). Beth studied art and writing at The University
of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and earned
an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her short stories have appeared in
Necessary Fiction, The Hawai'i Review, The South Carolina Review, and
The Emrys Journal. Beth lives in New Castle, New York, with her husband.
Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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