Capturing fear on the page

By Kathryn Lilley

As a young girl, I hated feeling afraid.

But as a grown-up mystery writer (or at least, grown older), I love describing fear.

Like many authors, I’m a professional scaremonger. Give me any type of fear—it can be emotional, physical, healthy, or deluded—and I’ll do my best to exploit it into the stuff of page-turning prose.

Becoming a suspense writer was the only logical career choice for me. My family hails from the Deep South, where the art of self-protection (and its spawn, gun ownership) is a time-honored tradition. During my formative years, while other families were discussing events of the day around the dinner table, my father and I were drafting sketches for an all-terrain escape vehicle—just in case nuclear war broke out. (I believe the final design resembled a cross between a modern-day Stryker and an M48 Patton tank. Among its more notable features was a dedicated flamethrower).

The mission of guarding against life’s dangers, both real and imagined, ranked high in our priority of family values. We had a loaded M-16 hanging on the wall, and a vintage cannon in the dining room. I think it was some kind of Austrian Howitzer—all I know is, the old brass weapon made a truly deafening roar when we fired it on New Year’s Eve at the turn of the millennium. During the celebratory bang, everyone stood way, way back in case the damn thing exploded and blasted off part of the hill.

Gun play features heavily in my family stories and legends. People love to tell the story of my great-grandmother Nell. She left her house one afternoon for a stroll, then was approached by a couple of men asking for directions. Nell pulled a pistol from her fur muff and casually waved it about in the air to indicate which way they should go. Which they promptly did.

Even our ancient family history is fraught with mystery. At some point in time, one of my ancestors was “disappeared” from the family Bible; the man’s name was simply scratched out. For a couple of generations, no one seemed to know what had happened to him, and his name was never mentioned by the living. Eventually, an enthusiastic family genealogist turned up an old church funeral log in Texas that revealed his fate. The log noted that his body had been discovered—beheaded—lying on a train track. Next to the dead man’s name, the minister had written a single-word question: “Murdered?”

With this kind of genetic legacy, is it any surprise that I feel compelled to write novels that feature danger, suspense and murder? I really had no other choiceit’s all in the family.

What about you? As a mystery or thriller writer, what events started your interest in exploring the darker side of life? As a reader, why do you think you’re drawn the genre?

* Win a copy of DYING TO BE THIN *

I’ll send a signed copy to the author of the best comment today, as judged (extremely subjectively) by moi!

15 thoughts on “Capturing fear on the page

  1. Hey Kathryn,
    Based on such a colorful past, I guess your only career choices were bounty hunter, bail bondsman, life insurance salesman, or mystery writer. You made a wise choice! 🙂

  2. Katheryn,
    Great post. I had a similar disappearing ancestor, my great-grandfather in fact. Turns out he was killed in a drunken knife fight. Until I did deep research (without the family’s knowledge)I thought my grandma’s step-father was my real great-grandfather. That’s Savannah for you.

    I like fear on the page because I’m an adrenaline junkie and an endorphine addict. Reading a good thriller is a lot safer than skydiving. If it’s done right I get a similar rush. I’m trying to get my writing to be that good.

    Bill Sewell

  3. Hah! Bill, you never know what skeletons are going to fall out of those old southern closets. Btw, I’m looking forward to reading Nonofficial Asset in 2009!

  4. I can’t say there was an event, but I remember enjoying Nancy Drew mysteries as a kid. As I matured, so did my tastes.

  5. Kathryn, Now I’m even mor intrigued – murder in the family eh? I wish mine were as colorful – although I did have a distant cousin who was murdered by is wife so indirectly I can claim some fear inducing lineage!

  6. Hi Chris,

    As a former contract writer of YA mysteries (under a pseudonym that rhymes with “Fancy Brew,”), I can attest to the fact that we’re all maturing as readers and as writers (grin)! Nancy somehow never ages, though–and Ned never gets any.

    Clare, I could tell a few stories I heard whispered on the porch during family reunions! I think I’ll have to bury those in my fiction, though. So to speak.

  7. I grew up like the characters in A Bronx Tale, where the bookies played “morte” on the street corners.

    Before I could read, I learned how to tell what the “number” for the day was at the back of the newspaper where results were posted.

    I now live in a Stepford-type suburb, but roots are roots, and when it comes to writing, that’s what I know . . . crime!

    Camille/Margaret Grace

  8. I’m not sure that I automatically started out leaning toward mystery, though I’ve always loved the genre. It was entirely a matter of being fascinated by the human mind–which lead to a master’s degree in clinical psych. But long before the formal study I stumbled across forensic psychology and developed an absolute fascination with the criminal mind. I love trying to figure out what makes them tick. My mother is quite horrified to see The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers and Practical Homicide Investigation rubbing shoulders with a plethora of books on interior design on my bookshelves.

  9. What I want to know, Camille–as a kid, did you make any lunch money off the numbers (grin).
    Seanachi, I wish I’d taken psychology in college, to better understand the criminal mind. Also the capacity of the “normal” person to do wrong. I was fascinated by that experiment that showed that they were willing to inflict pain on another person when they thought they were taking part in a clinical experiment. Although it turned out, in the end, that the whole thing was a setup to test how much pain a “regular” person would inflict on someone else.

  10. I like that term, Lauren–restoration. As in, restoration of justice and an orderly world. I think that’s why we all like mysteries and thrillers. That sense of setting the world and situation to rights, which is so often lacking in real life!

  11. A friend of mine recommended a book by Joan Hess. I had never read mysteries before that recommendation. Little did I know that reading mysteries was going to become my genre of choice!

    I’m smiling just thinking about all the wonderful mysteries I have read–and all the mysteries I have not yet read!

    Thanks for your book offer. I’ll be reading all of your books one way or another!
    –Karen Dyer (Estelle Oppers on DL)

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