You might suspect that mystery writers are sadists, because of the awful things we do to our characters. The truth is that many of us are closer to being masochists, dredging up our own worst fears and trying to convey our terror as we live it vicariously through our characters.
I am plagued with so many phobias – enclosed spaces, heights, depths, water, spiders, you name it, I’m scared of it – that I sometimes have to put my dread aside and show my characters striding fearlessly into a situation that I would run from (screaming). But if Rachel is staring into the barrel of a gun, or locked in a dark cubbyhole under a flight of stairs, you can bet I’m suffering right along with her.
I know I’m not unusual because curiosity has made this one of my favorite questions to ask other crime fiction writers in interviews: What scares you? (I think it would make a great panel topic at a conference, but so far I haven’t persuaded a programmer to include it.)
A year or two ago, I wrote a couple of entries for the Sisters in Crime blog featuring various writers’ answers to that query.
Tess Gerritsen, author of the Rizzoli & Isles series, told me, “I put my poor heroines through exactly the things that terrify me, whether it’s being buried alive or trapped in space or chased by serial killers. I would have to say that being buried alive is probably the worst of them, something that happened to one of my characters in Body Double. The pregnant woman in that book, Mattie Purvis, is kidnapped and held in a box underground until she goes into labor. She doesn’t know when – or if – the kidnapper will come back to get her. She doesn’t know if he’s planning to kill her. All she knows is that she’s alone, in the dark, in a place where no one will ever find her. Eeek.”
Suspense novelist Hallie Ephron said she “revisited a truly terrifying moment when I came this close to losing my baby girl” in writing about the heroine of Never Tell a Lie, who is in danger of losing her unborn child. The details were different, but Hallie pulled the raw emotion directly from her own heart.
Timothy Hallinan, who writes the Poke Rafferty Bangkok series, admits to being terrified of dark water and some of the creatures that swim around in it. So of course he put himself through the ordeal of writing a 25-page scene for The Queen of Patpong in which Poke’s wife Rose is in the water, trying to hide from a villain at the same time she fends off a swarm of lethal jellyfish called sea-wasps. “I wrote much of the scene in a single, goose-bumped seven-hour session,” Tim told me. By the time he finished, he was a mess. “I dreamed the scene all night long. And made some improvements the next day, suggested by the dreams.” Fear is the gift that keeps on giving, at least where writing is involved.
In her Duncan Kincaid & Gemma James series, Deborah Crombie has done in many characters with handy blunt instruments. “But I have also drowned quite a few,” she said, “and I think that terrifies me more than anything. Remember the scene in The Abyss where Ed Harris has to watch Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio let herself drown? Gave me nightmares for years.”
Not all writers want to confess their weaknesses. An author of fast-paced thrillers responded to my question with, “What scares me are interviewers who ask me what scares me!” I did get the distinct impression, though, that his character’s terrifying encounter with snakes was based on personal emotions.
Maybe I should count myself as lucky. If I were the brave type, I would have less to draw on when I’m trying to make a scene scary for the reader. Fortunately, I’m a total wuss, afraid of everything, and I could write forever without exhausting all the possibilities.