RIFers! Do you think a writer should have real-life experience in something before they write a novel about it? Tell us in the comments!
I’ve always been fascinated by the darker side of human nature, what drives people to commit crimes, and the thoughts behind the actions. I’d been writing since I was a child and even back then, my work was littered with shady goings-on and malicious characters.
So when a friend of the family offered me the chance to work as a private investigator, I leapt at it. I’d left school at age sixteen without any clue of what I wanted to be when I ‘grew up,’ and I’d already spent a few years drifting between jobs. I didn’t know it then, but those years would provide plenty of material for future books.
Back in the 1980s, no qualifications were needed to become a private investigator. All it took was an inquiring mind, a bit of nerve, a camera, and a car. One of the first jobs I received from the head office in London was to investigate the disappearance of a family from a housing estate in the heart of England. I was instructed to visit the property, interview neighbors, take pictures, establish what may have happened, and write a report.
The brief got my mind working overtime. How could an entire family vanish? Why would they leave their home? What were they afraid of? It seemed as if they wanted the world to believe they’d never existed. I did my best to help find the truth (debt had driven them underground), but I’d already concocted my own fate for them.
After I’d reported the job, I remember tapping out a short story based on the deserted house I’d snooped around earlier. An old bike in the back garden, curtains falling from the windows, an overgrown front yard . . . . My fictional family had all been murdered in cold blood.
Another time, I’d been investigating financial fraud on behalf of an insurance company. Foolishly, I found myself alone in a man’s kitchen—a very angry man’s kitchen, with two snarling German shepherd dogs straining at their leads. He was wearing a grimy vest and reeked of alcohol, insisting that I “must be a cop” and telling me how he “didn’t like cops.”
It turned out he wasn’t very interested in answering the questions I’d been sent to ask but became threatening and intimidating, leaving me to talk my way out of what could easily have become a very unpleasant situation. To this day, I draw upon that terrifying experience when I need to inject raw fear into a scene in my books.
Marital cases were numerous but not always what they seemed. For instance, the time I had to follow a woman to establish whether she was having an affair. She wasn’t, but it turned out her husband, who’d hired the detective agency, was.
Or the time when a concerned woman truly believed her often-absent husband had a secret family, but it transpired he was too ashamed to confess to having taken a second job to pay off mounting debts. Or the court papers I served on a wife, only to get caught up for two hours talking with her about how she’d been abused and threatened by her husband.
Relationships are vital in my books, especially those that aren’t what they seem. I found many people were willing to talk to me with little prompting, almost as if it was therapy for them. I filed away their stories, fascinated by the deception and heartache hidden within seemingly normal lives.
It all proved invaluable when writing my new novel Until You’re Mine, although it wasn’t until many years after I left the job that I was ready to write my experiences into novels, weaving stories around the matured ideas.
I like to think of my books as “real-life fiction,” making my readers think: What if this happened to me? What would I do in that situation?
I’m grateful for those days working as a private investigator, for giving me flashes of insight into other people’s lives, although nowadays I prefer to play it a bit safer and research the crimes for my novels by chatting with detectives in the police force.
Congrats to Rebecca T., Bill L., Mallory C., Rebecca W., Erika K., and 195 other members of the Read It Forward community! Their entries were selected at random to win an Advance Reader’s Copy of Until You’re Mine by Samantha Hayes.
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