By Sandra Parshall
Do writers use their own darkest fears to lend reality to scary scenes in their novels? Do they sweat along with their characters while they’re sitting at the keyboard? Last time we asked this question, we got a peek into the writing lives of Tess Gerritsen, Hallie Ephron, Simon Wood, and Deborah Crombie. This time around, we’ve asked Tim Hallinan, Kate Flora, and Libby Fischer Hellman to tell us what goes into writing their characters’ most terrifying experiences.
Timothy Hallinan is best known as the author of the Poke Rafferty Bangkok thrillers. The next in the series, The Fear Artist, will be published in August.
In The Queen of Patpong, which is the fourth and most recent of my Poke Rafferty Bangkok thrillers, I back up in time to tell the story of Poke's wife. When Rafferty met her, she was working in a bar on the notorious Patpong Road, and Queen traces her transformation from a shy, unworldly village teenager into the “Queen” of Patpong. As Rose says in the book, “queen of a kingdom of whores and viruses.”
Toward the end of her story, a handsome customer named Howard Horner woos her, proposes marriage to her, and then takes her down to Phuket for a holiday. Once their little boat is out on the water, it becomes obvious that Howard is not only not in love with her, but that this has all been a sick game that's supposed to end with him killing her on a cluster of barren rocks in the middle of the Andaman Sea. When the rocks come into sight of the boat's lights, it's nighttime, and Rose waits until Howard is busy avoiding the rocks and rolls backward into the water.
What follows is the longest action scene I've ever written – 25 typeset pages in the book – with Rose in the dark water, water that's swarming with the lethal jellyfish called sea-wasps, as Howard hunts her in the boat. I am personally terrified of dark water. I am personally terrified of sea-wasps, having been stung very lightly by one and having suffered for days as a result. I wrote much of the scene in a single, goose-bumped seven-hour session.
By the time it's over, and she's free of Howard, who's standing on the rocks as the tide comes in, I was a mess. I dreamed the scene all night long. (And made some improvements the next day, suggested by the dreams.)
Kate Flora, a former SinC president, writes the Thea Kozak series and the Joe Burgess series. Her latest book is Redemption.
The scariest situation I've ever put a character in? Well, you know I've been criticized over the years for putting my Thea Kozak character into dangerous situations, and exposing her to physical harm. But I'm a feminist (and PROUD of it) and an equal opportunity writer. Thea is tough and she gets into tough situations, so I have a lot to choose from.
That being said, I think the scene in Liberty or Death, the sixth Thea Kozak mystery, where she is facing a group of religious, conservative militiamen, who try her and convict her of spying on their organization, and decide to execute her, is absolutely terrifying. They lack compassion. They can't be reasoned with. They are utterly convinced that they are right, and since God is on their side, whatever they chose to do is okay. She's lost hope that the cavalry is going to ride in and rescue her. They aim a gun at her. She truly believes she's going to die, and they shoot.
There have been a number of times, in this series, when I've watched my character get herself into situations that have me wringing my mental hands over how headstrong she is, and how foolishly brave she can get when she's angry. But that's her character.
I worry, though, about what will happen should she and Andre ever be lucky enough to become parents.
Libby Fischer Hellman is a former SinC president and author of the Ellie Foreman series and several stand-alone novels. Her latest is A Bitter Veil.
That's a tough question, because, as writers, we always know what the outcome will be, no matter how frightening the scenario. I'd like to rephrase the question this way: What situation did you have the most qualms about writing? That I can answer easily.
There were two, coincidentally in my first and then my most recent thrillers. The first was in An Eye for Murder when Ellie Foreman was tied up and one of her assailants knifed her across her breast. I really had to ask myself whether that was necessary. I decided it was, both for the story and for the symbol of attacking one's "womanliness." Got some emails about that one. The second was in my new literary thriller, A Bitter Veil, which is set in Revolutionary Iran. In one scene, Anna is in prison and is tortured. I really had to examine my motives for that one, too. Was it necessary? Would it have happened in reality? I decided it was. I expect I'll get emails about that as well.
Sandra Parshall writes the Rachel Goddard mysteries. Her next book, Bleeding Through, will be published in September.