From Supernatural to Suspense: Why the Jump?

(The Amish peach orchard, down the road)

 

The novel I just finished writing is a little different from the others. Change can be a good thing, yes?

I’ve had six novels published, and every one of them has been a ghost story. No, scratch that. Every single one has been a mystery with ghosts in it. To me, every novel is a mystery story. As we read a book, we wonder what the ending will be like. Will we be right about it? Can we predict who will change and what will happen? Aside from wanting to immerse myself completely in another universe, it’s  one of the things I read books for: the challenge of contemplating a hundred different possible endings.

The supernatural is seductive. For a writer, it’s a world utterly without boundaries. You make up the rules, and as long as you’re consistent with them, the story has a good chance of succeeding. Writing about ghosts carries me back to my teenage favorites: Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Ghost Story by Peter Straub. Stephen King’s Carrie, Pet Sematary, and The Shining. The real world had begun to feel a little too real to me back then. How much better to throw myself into fictional worlds that contained things that I would never have to deal with in real life: A possessed car? A reanimated cat? Easy-peasy. I’m sure they were all full of metaphors and higher meaning, but I’ve never been a metaphor kind of reader. Even when I’m just reading research materials, I want to be entertained.

I’ve only encountered one real ghost. It was at a prep school I was visiting overnight about twenty years ago. The first thing I saw when I got out of bed one morning was an old man standing far down the hallway. He was wearing a brown suit, and was a bit hunched. His gray hair was untidy and sparse, and he held a fedora-like hat in both hands, fidgeting with it. He smiled at me. It was a lovely smile. Then he was gone.The only ghost I’ve ever seen was a nice ghost. But I confess that most of the ghosts in my stories aren’t particularly nice–I’d say it’s about 60-40. The majority are benign or even helpful. But the rest are tricksters, or are angry and vengeful. (Villains really do have the most fun.)

When I decided I wanted to write about a haunted house, Bliss House came to me. It coincided with my desire to write a book series. So many of my good friends write wonderful series. I wanted to give it a try. But no strong series character showed up for me: No Taylor Jackson, no Rebus, no Kinsey Millhone, no Maigret, no Inspector Gamache. You can guess what showed up. A house, of course. My series character was a house. Go figure. I found out after I began writing Bliss House that Douglas Clegg had a series featuring the same haunted house in every book, but I stayed away from them. We are very different writers, and it was still a cool idea. All the Bliss House novels (and the short story, Cold Alone) are set in different time periods. That was fun, too. The stories changed, and there were different ghosts in each book. But the house and the Bliss family descendants were consistent. Then something happened: I realized after I finished the initial  trilogy, and the short story, that I was done (at least for now), even though I had at least two more novels in mind. I found myself a bit startled. But I realized that the decision wasn’t so unexpected. I think I must have had the change in the back of my mind for a while.

My first major publication was a straight crime story called The Hollow Woman. It was the first crime story I ever wrote, way back at the end of 2000, and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine published it in 2001. Over the years, I published two more mystery/crime stories with the magazine. (The Peter Rabbit Killers, published last year, is nominated for an ITW Thriller Award.) And my short story, A Paler Shade of Death, appeared in St. Louis Noir (Akashic Books). That story is nominated for an Edgar. It occurs to me that I may be on to something here…That feels like a Blatant Self-Promotion thing to say, but if I can’t share it with you–on my own blog!–where can I say it? (Seriously, my family and the dogs just don’t want to hear it anymore.)

After six supernatural suspense novels, the idea of writing an entire straight suspense novel terrified me. Could I do it? Sure, I love/need a challenge, but it was a big change. The lack of boundaries in a supernatural story is a very useful thing when it comes to plotting. But every book demands its own method, its own genre, its own personality. The characters dictate their own book. Though, now that I think about it, Bliss House could also be a fabulous setting for a stunning multi-generational family drama, a la The Thornbirds (check your history books). Things have changed so much in the past few decades. I don’t know that folks even want to dedicate that much attention to a family saga…But I digress.

About a year ago, I decided to try my hand at a suspense novel without ghosts. Patricia Highsmith is my go-to for perfect suspense, but then I read several Harlan Coben novels that really inspired me. Still, it felt like a kind of hubris to branch out. I had/have mad respect for writers who use, manipulate, and push real-world boundaries (even just a little). Oh, did I have a blast doing it!

This latest novel has gone by a couple titles. First, it was The Intruder. But I thought that sounded too harsh. It’s a story of a woman who returns from a retreat to find the locks have been changed and that there’s a stranger living in her house. I renamed it One Last Secret. Something more quietly mysterious, because there are many, many secrets to unravel before you get to the final one.

Another thing I’d like to say: I have the bravest readers ever. You’ve followed me into some seriously scary places, and I’m in awe. Thank you! I promise that wherever I lead you, we’ll have a good time, and I’ll be right there with you!

 

 

April 19th Words
Journal: 0 words
Long fiction: 0 words
Short fiction: Edited a story for pub, formatted, wrote front matter. You’ll love the surprise!
Non-fiction: 0 words
Blogging: 1086 words
Exercise: 40 minutes treadmill

6 thoughts on “From Supernatural to Suspense: Why the Jump?”

  1. Cindy says:

    I am so excited to read this. Your agent better place it quickly 🙂

    I loved your Edgar-nominated short story, though I still think my favorite is Devil’s Oven.

    However, as a developing reader I loved the thriller without supernatural ties, so I’m expecting great things.

    1. Laura Benedict says:

      Can’t wait for you to read it, Cindy. You’re a sweetheart. 💜

  2. skyecaitlin says:

    I adore trees and flowers and you have so many to share.
    My favorite novels are Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Rebecca; I more than understand the lure of the ghostly presence, but more importantly, I do believe in ghosts ( and Angels); and ugly spirits, too. I have encountered many in real life, so I am drawn to the notion of an other-worldly experience; on the other hand, I adore a good, hard, suspense thriller, and I wish you luck with this new endeavor. I know it will be wonderful.

    1. Laura Benedict says:

      I love Rebecca, too, Skye. But I bet you could have guessed that! Both the book and the film…

      Thanks for the luck. Will take it to NYC with me next week! BTW–your book will be there any day. If not Saturday, then Monday. 🙂

  3. Love suspense stories! Looking forward to it.

    1. Laura Benedict says:

      Great to hear–Thanks, Patrick!

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