Up Late With Sociopaths: Surviving Thriller Research

Author:
Publish date:

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.

(Book Genres Explained: Insights, Tips and Definitions From Literary Agents.)

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.

(Have questions about what genre/category you're writing in? Here are some tips.)

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.

------------------

beth-hahn-author-writer
the-singing-bone-book-cover

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.
Check Out These Great Upcoming Writers' Conferences:

Image placeholder title

Want to build your visibility and sell more books?
Create Your Writer Platform shows you how to
promote yourself and your books through social
media, public speaking, article writing, branding,
and more. 
Order the book from WD at a discount.

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 3.39.23 PM

Your new complete and updated instructional guide
to finding an agent is finally here: The 2015 book
GET A LITERARY AGENT shares advice from more 
than 110 literary agents who share advice on querying, 
craft, the submission process, researching agents, and
much more. Filled with all the advice you'll ever need to
find an agent, this resource makes a great partner book to
the agent database, Guide to Literary Agents.

Flash Fiction Challenge

2021 February Flash Fiction Challenge: Day 28

Write a piece of flash fiction each day of February with the February Flash Fiction Challenge, led by editor Moriah Richard. Each day, receive a prompt, example story, and write your own. Today's prompt is to write a story using only dialogue.

Nicole Galland: On Returning to Familiar Characters

Nicole Galland: On Returning to Familiar Characters

Bestselling author Nicole Galland explains what it was like to dive into writing a series and how speculative fiction allows her to explore her interests.

6 Tools for Writing Nonfiction That Breathes

6 Tools for Writing Nonfiction That Breathes

Nonfiction author Liz Heinecke gives her top 6 tips for crafting a nonfiction book that will really capture your subject.

Flash Fiction Challenge

2021 February Flash Fiction Challenge: Day 27

Write a piece of flash fiction each day of February with the February Flash Fiction Challenge, led by editor Moriah Richard. Each day, receive a prompt, example story, and write your own. Today's prompt is to write something that makes you laugh.

Poetic Forms

Ars Poetica: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at ars poetica and the art of writing poems about poems.

Flash Fiction Challenge

2021 February Flash Fiction Challenge: Day 26

Write a piece of flash fiction each day of February with the February Flash Fiction Challenge, led by editor Moriah Richard. Each day, receive a prompt, example story, and write your own. Today's prompt is to write about an article of clothing.

Authors Share Tips on Writing Mystery and Thriller Novels That Readers Love

23 Authors Share Tips on Writing Mystery and Thriller Novels That Readers Love

23 authors share tips on writing mystery and thriller novels that readers love, covering topics related to building suspense, inserting humor, crafting incredible villains, and figuring out the time of death.

Jaclyn Goldis: From Personal History to Historical Fiction

Jaclyn Goldis: From Personal History to Historical Fiction

Debut author Jaclyn Goldis explains how her novel When We Were Young was inspired by her real-life grandmothers and how many times she rewrote her first chapter.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Forced Decision

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Forced Decision

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, force a character to make a decision.