Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Fear Factor

Posted by L.J. Sellers, who used to think she was fearless

In my personal life I try to be optimistic, but in my fiction I write about my fears. It’s been true since I sat down to write my first novel. At the time, Jeffrey Dahmer was in the news and my greatest fear was that a sexual predator would kidnap and kill one of my three young boys. So I wrote a story about a woman who tracks down her son’s killer. The experience was cathartic, and I continued the practice in future novels, because as it turns out, many readers share the same fears.

Being kidnapped and held against my will is another dominant fear for me and millions of other women as well—because it happens!—so the theme occurs often in crime fiction novels, including two of mine (The Baby Thief, Secrets to Die For).

Most of my stories though have elements of fears that are very personal to me. For example, when I wrote The Sex Club, the first book in the Detective Jackson series, my son was in Iraq and I worried constantly that he would die. My sister had just succumbed to cancer and I grieved for her and worried for other members of my family. So Kera, my main female protagonist, was dealing with those elements. Right or wrong, I couldn’t separate those emotions from my writing and they ended up on the page.

Soon after that, my husband was diagnosed with retroperitoneal fibrosis, which triggered all kinds of fears for me. He faced a life of pain, multiple surgeries, and likely an early death. Without being consciously aware that I was doing it at first, my Jackson character started having pain and health issues. Eventually, he was diagnosed with RF, and in Thrilled to Death, he underwent a surgery, very similar to the one my husband experienced. Readers tell me they enjoy my characters, who are realistic, yet unique, so incorporating true-to-life, frightening details adds richness to my stories while helping me work through emotional challenges.

In late 2009 when I was writing Passions of the Dead, I was dealing with unemployment: mine, my husband’s, my brother’s, and dozens of other people I knew. I witnessed the devastating effect it can have on families. That fearful theme became dominant when I outlined the story. My Jackson novels of course are always about crime, murder in particular, and my main goal is tell a great story. But every fictitious crime needs a unique, complex, and compelling motive, and I look for those motives in the fear I’m experiencing.

Some of my fears are more social and universal. I fear that as a society we have wrongfully imprisoned hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people. Dozens of news stories about the release of prisoners wrongfully convicted continue to feed this fear, so that issue, which is often the result of coercion or intimidation, is part of the plot in Dying for Justice, the fifth Detective Jackson novel.

Right now I fear for the future of our country if the economy doesn’t improve. I also fear for our comfort and safety if the extreme weather patterns continue and grow worse. So I’m writing a futuristic thriller in which those fears come into play. Guilt and redemption are also prominent themes in The Arranger, which will release in early September. (If you're a book reviewer and would like a copy, please email me.)

Soon I’ll start work on the next Jackson book. I have a list of ideas, many culled from true crime cases found in the news. Regardless of what I decide in the beginning though, you can bet that as the plot develops, whatever fear is most prevalent on my mind will surface in the story.

What fears do you like to read about in fiction? Which fears are too intense for reading pleasure?


  1. Thanks for sharing this, LJ. It's great to have an inside look at what was weighing on your mind during the writing of each of your novels. Your personal experiences and fears come through, making each book more compelling in its own way.

    By the way, congrats on the great review today of your Detective Jackson series on The American Editor blogspot, at called "On Books: Detective Jackson Grows and Grows."

  2. When I reflected on your Jackson stories, I didn't see the fear as much as I saw the passion for certain social issues. Now that you've shared a few, I see them now. I did, however, suspect that the RF was based on some kind of personal experience.

    I'm finding in my own manuscripts that I have fears I don't even acknowledge that show up on the pages I write. It's always a little bit of a jolt when I recognize them for what they are.

    I'm not sure there is any fear that would be too intense because I think most of them have, in some way, been front and center in either books or movies. And I like to be scared.

    Great post, L.J., and a great review!

  3. I often create in my head the worst-case-scenarios, because I am just a worrier-type. I think crafting a story around those fears could prove to be a great therapy tool as well as a great story line. You feel your fears and to write about them gives the story an extra edge.

  4. When I write shorts, I usually end up with some theme of revenge and that harks back the the three worst years of my life when my marriage fell apart, shortly after which my mother died and I got taken apart by a conman. So the most innocuous storyline usually morphs into an uneasy darkness that descends and somewhere in the mix, you can bet some kind of payback is in play.

  5. Silversongbird: It's amazing how our fear (and anger) always creeps into our stories. I hope you're in a better place now.

  6. Very interesting post, L.J .and so very true.

    I think we're a product of our experiences and that it can't help but flow into and through whatever we do, whether it's writing a book or just how we view the world. I was battling cancer while writing While the Savage Sleeps. The dominant theme there? The value of life and the fact that we're only here for a limited amount of time. I don't think that was an accident, and it was hugely cathartic for me.

    As creative types, we tend to blend our real-life experiences with the not-so-real ones we create. As a result, those worlds appear richer, deeper and more realistic to the reader.

  7. Interesting post, L.J. Thanks!

    -Theresa de Valence

  8. Wow. This post really hooked me. I have so many fears that I can't read anything scary or the least bit frightening. If my heart rate increases ANY, I have to put the book down. So you asked: which fears are too intense for my reading pleasure? All of them. I wish I were the kind of person that could read the gory stuff (or, really, just something with a chase scene in it) but I can't. I admire you very much, L.J., for writing about your fears. I write horrific suspense (sometimes) and at times, my own stuff terrified me (after a period of time had gone by after I wrote it...:). Getting into the mind of a psycho/killer/rapist really stayed with me and I couldn't let go of it. It was at that point that I decided I wouldn't go there (rape, actual murder, kidnapping of a child), to those intensely fearful things. I'll stick with superior romance with just a little bit of suspense.

    Thanks so much for opening up about your life in this post. It was very encouraging to see your fears being dealt with in a book. Blessings!

  9. Thanks, Tami, for stopping in and sharing. I try not to write much from the killer POV because it scares me. I should have mentioned in the blog that I also plot my novels around things I feel passionately about. Best wishes with your writing.


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