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?

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