Despite what some people may think, I’m not the Princess of
Darkness. I am the Princess of Sweetness and Light, as my family and friends
will attest to. Even without the hot coals.
A lot has changed for me since I started writing mystery
novels three years ago. One of the biggest is my comfort level with darker
material. As any mystery writer can tell you, we write about difficult issues.
We write about death. It seems someone has to die for us to be a success. How
terrible is that?
In my mind, death is intrinsic in the very definition of
“mystery”. Conundrums, enigmas, locked doors, yes, yes, that’s all well and
good. But if we didn’t have a body to identify, or a killer to catch, where
would we really be? Not a lot of people can understand why a writer would
choose to write about murders and death. Sometimes I don’t understand the
When I was writing my first book, I found myself having the
same conversation over and over. People are naturally curious souls. It never
fails, wherever I go, someone asks me what I do. I hear it all the time,
standing in line at the post office, grocery store, everywhere. Me, I’m there
for the stamps. They’re there for the conversation.
At the beginning, three years ago, I smiled shyly and
replied, “I’m a writer.”
I’ve learned that this statement is open to interpretation.
Let me interrupt myself here to point out that if this
conversation is being held in the evening, there is a standard second line.
“Oh, you write for the paper.” (Hubby worked for The Tennessean for a while, so
I guess that wasn’t too far out an assumption.)
Regardless of where and when, I’d answer, again coy, “No, I
“Ooooh,” they’d gush, decibels piercing the eardrums of
small animals for miles. “You write children’s books!”
The first time this happened, in the middle of Staples, I
burst out laughing. The idea of ME writing a children’s book was so incredibly
preposterous that I was rudely shocked into verbal mirth. Once I’d recovered, I
explained that I write serial killer novels. Nine times out of ten, that halts
the conversation in its tracks. (The one time it didn’t go down like that, the
woman I was talking to happened to be in a horrific situation. A man had
molested her two children. I was able to answer some questions for her and get
her going in the right direction as far as getting the police involved. That
one wasn’t a laughing matter.)
So that became my mantra. When I’m asked what I do, I say, “I Write Serial Killer Novels”.
It’s morphed into “I Write Thrillers”, which seems to go over well. And that’s
when they ask the dreaded question. “What’s a nice girl like you doing writing
about these horrible… things?”
The question comes so often that I feel the need to defend
myself. I’d love to have an easy quip to respond with. Yes, my novels are dark,
and my short stories have a tendency to leap right into all out creepiness.
Why is my writing so dark? The answer is two-fold. I write
what I enjoy reading. I’m not very good at suspending disbelief to allow for
talking cats. I want my mystery to be real, gritty, alive. The other part is no
matter what I write, I have what they call a “tone”. And my “tone” is dark.
Always has been. I can go back and look at stories I wrote when I was a child and
there’s no question who wrote the story.
Like most adolescents, I channeled my angst into poetry.
Really bad poetry. Sappy, righteous crap. And when I got to college, the trend
continued. But I evolved. Was taught the right way to write. Taught the literary
way to write. Mr. Tone, on the other hand, was having none of it. My tone
morphed into a full-blown voice.
I particularly liked the perspective of one of my esteemed
Professors of Literature during my undergrad years. Commenting on a section of
my senior thesis that included a short story I’d written in my best
Hemingway-esque moments, she stated, “The style is too informed by B-grade
detective fiction… too many issues remain unresolved.” A-ha! What I see to this
day is an attempt to write in a different perspective, a story from an
alternate POV, a noir-styled tale of loss. Oddly enough, it’s a ghost story.
And I’d never read any B-grade detective fiction. I’d been reading what I’d
been told for school, plus a few excursions into my parents’ bookcase.
I stopped writing for many years after I left school. One
reason was the constant and blatant criticism of my writing style. It wasn’t
literary enough. I wasn’t writing the kind of material the Pulitzer judges were
going to be looking at, the kind that proper girls’ college magazine’s printed.
I was writing dark, and I wasn’t emulating Sylvia Plath, which would have been
okay. When you have people you think you respect telling you you’ll never get
published, sometimes you listen.
My style really hasn’t changed much since I started writing
again. I still have that “tone”, that voice, that darkness penetrating my
words. But now, I have a whole community of people who write like I do, and I
know I don’t have to conform to a certain style to be successful.
The other reason I write the dark stuff is many of my
stories and plots come from my dreams. And I really dream. Lollapaloozas. I
guess you could call them nightmares. I wake up, skin crawling, heart pounding,
and the minute I realize I’m alive and okay, it crosses my mind. Wow, that
would make a great story. I keep a pad and pen on the nightstand for that very
purpose (though it’s sometimes hard to decipher in the morning).
I am not immured to the horrific things that happen in our
world. I cringe at the news, watch the forensic shows with a touch of stomach
curdling. It seems that no matter when we watch CSI, live or TiVo, we’re eating
some sort of red sauce. I listen to the stories my cop friends tell, look at
autopsy photos, read true crime books. We mystery writers call it research. It
has its gruesome moments.
But it’s real life. There is a gigantic sub-section of the
world who live, on a daily basis, what we fictionalize. Rape, murder, abuse,
kidnappings. They’ve chosen this world, as have I. I try to make sure that I’m
as real as possible in my work, to try and do their jobs justice. I have so
much respect for these people, I never want to trivialize what they do and see.
I have a confession to make. It’s safe to say that I scare myself sometimes. I can’t read
Stephen King or Dean Koontz. I get spooked when I’m alone at night. There are
times that I wish I could write romance or children’s books. But the tone
creeps in and begs to be heard. It wouldn’t do to scare the children, now would
As I’ve continued to write, to read and to experience life,
a strange thing has happened. I’ve found all of you. People who understand the
compulsion to write not necessarily what you know, but what your imagination
dictates. Despite the criticism from my younger years, I’m now part of a huge
family with the surname Mystery. I may still end up being the redheaded
stepchild, but no one is going to kick me out for what I want to write.
Wine of the Week — Chateau Mont-Redon Côtes du Rhône