How to Stay Sane When Writing About Dark Topics In Thriller and Mystery Novels

I’ve been asked how I separate myself from writing such dark themes after living in my villain’s head for months? It’s not easy. But here's how to do it.
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After writing dozens of romance novels, I began writing my first thriller in 2009. The research was intense. Examining the twisted mind of a serial killer is not for the faint of heart. You need to delve deep into the minds of real-life monsters. Why do they kill? What sort of upbringing did he or she have? Does your villain enjoy killing or does he feel remorse? The more you know about your villain, the more the reader will be sucked into the story because he or she is now a living, breathing, three-dimensional character. In the beginning, I couldn’t walk into my kitchen without looking at the butcher knife in a whole new way. I also had a difficult time getting to sleep at night.

This guest post is by T.R. Ragan. Ragan is a New York Times and USA Today Bestselling author. Her Lizzy Gardner series (Abducted, Dead Weight, A Dark Mind, Obsessed, Almost Dead, and Evil Never Dies) has received tremendous praise. She has sold two million books and has been mentioned in the Wall Street Journal, the L.A. Times, PC Magazine, Huffington Post, and Publishers Weekly. Her new novel, FURIOUS, is the first book in her Faith McMann series. Visit Ragan at theresaragan.com.

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Furious Cover

So, I put my serial killer book aside and wrote a nice, loving romance novel with a happy ending. And months later, when I came back to my unfinished manuscript, I was surprised to find myself completely immersed. For some reason, I just needed a little time away from writing my dark thriller to see that it wasn’t about the serial killer at all.

Yes, the villain is an essential part of a good thriller, but he or she is not the only important part. I realized that my protagonist was equally important. Somehow, someway, she needs to find a way to defeat the villain. As a thriller writer, I had to put myself in my heroine’s shoes, which isn’t as easy as it might sound. Whether she’s being stalked by a serial killer or is locked in a dark room without a weapon, I needed to put some serious thought into what I would do in that particular situation. Most people like to think they would find a way out of the house if they knew they weren’t alone. But if your cell phone is upstairs and the lights have been cut, what would you do? Suddenly you’re alone with the villain and he’s blocking your exit. I bet you would grab the closest object and fight for your life. And the next time he comes after you, you’ll be ready because you always want your protagonist to stay one step ahead of your villain.

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I’ve been asked how I separate myself from writing such dark themes after living in my villain’s head for months? It’s not easy. Sometimes I get a little moody and quiet, but that doesn’t last too long. When I’m watching a scary movie, I often remind myself that it’s not real. I do the same thing after I’ve been living in my villain’s head for months. I’m making this stuff up but there have been times when I actually feel sorry for my villain because he’s become so real to me. I know why he does the horrible things he does. I know what makes him tick. But I also know my heroine. She’s clever and strong and she refuses to let evil win.

And, unfortunately, evil does not only live in our imaginations.

The world is filled with evil and you don’t have to look very far to find it. Darkness lurks in many corners of the world. We all like to think the worst crimes are happening far away from where we live. But sadly, that’s far from the truth. Right now, at this very moment, innocent people, including young children, are being lured into some form of human trafficking. It’s happening in my own backyard, and it’s probably happening in yours. Trafficking is the subject of my current work, the Faith McMann Trilogy. I was looking forward to getting a break from writing about serial killers. Little did I know that I was about to jump into something much worse, a place where not one single monster was hiding amongst us, but many. Despite the enormity of this growing problem, awareness is the first step in preventing these crimes. And because I believe in good over evil, I like to think that if the community works together, we can take these monsters down, one at a time.

I am currently writing my ninth thriller. Although I still love reading a good romance novel where two people find love, I have found my passion. Writing a gritty, bloody thriller where good conquers evil, where victims don’t just learn to survive but thrive, where readers can find a sliver of light in the darkness, makes me happy.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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