You have to be very methodical when you write a mystery novel, because it’s usually a very analytical process. I start and build up the characters in anticipation of the problem. The problem is usually a murder that the reader must try to figure out who did it or an event that leaves the reader trying to figure out why it happened or why other things in the story are happening. You’ve got to be very careful in what you give the reader in the way of clues because that obviously has an impact on how the story ends. And of course, as the writer you get to choose who did it and why. So I think it’s pretty exciting to be able to present a problem, lead the reader along with some series of events and clues that lead up to the dénouement, and then come up with whatever ending you as the writer want. A lot of times it may not be the ending that the readers want, but as the author you get to decide how you want it to end.
It’s exciting for me to be able to start with a blank piece of paper and make the story and the characters and the places come to life for the reader. It’s sort of like an artist with a blank canvas. You start with nothing and you can do whatever you want with the art you create. You get to fill the pages with a world of your own creation. You can bend the rules or you can suspend reality, because in the end it’s about creating something enjoyable for the readers, and to do that sometimes you have to let your imagination run wild and see where it goes. You can be bold if you want in your characters or your storyline. The writer has great freedom of expression in writing the story, and it’s exciting for me to pull a lot of different elements together into a story that makes the reader want to keep turning the page for more.
Crafting the characters was somewhat difficult for Murder at the Ocean Forest since it is a period piece. I had to take into consideration people’s mannerisms and beliefs and emotions that may have been a part of the World War II era. I had to ask myself what motivated people during the war and how did the war impact them psychologically and emotionally. I talked to some people I know who were around during the 1940s and who could remember the times.
As you know, each character in Murder at the Ocean Forest is extremely unique, and since the book is very character driven I went into some great detail about them all and their mannerisms and you even get a glimpse into their thoughts and point of view. Up until the first murder, you get a chapter or part of a chapter from each character’s point of view, so it gives the reader a chance to get to know the characters and what they think and how they perceive some things. That makes for a very interesting dynamic between all the characters when the reader puts everything together.
What was more difficult was trying to craft the setting at the old Ocean Forest Hotel in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The Ocean Forest Hotel was demolished in the 1970s, long before I was introduced to Myrtle Beach. So, I’m trying to write a story set in a place that doesn’t exist anymore and for which there is really very limited information. I had some photographs to go by to get an idea of what the hotel looked like on the outside and to some extent on the inside, but I didn’t have much to work with. I interviewed some people who had local knowledge and who shared with me their memories of the place. After that, I set to work to recreate the Ocean Forest Hotel in the 1940s, and from the feedback I’ve received from a number of readers who had actually been to the Ocean Forest Hotel, I’m told I did a pretty good job at capturing the place in my book. I’m glad I could do it justice.
A psychological thriller like The House of Dark Shadows is basically writing about a mind game. Not only does it involve a mind game among the characters, but as the writer you’re also playing a mind game with the readers. As the writer, you’ve got to be very careful and very creative in how you present the story. In The House of Dark Shadows you’ll notice that the story is told complete from one character’s point of view. You’re privy to some of his thoughts and emotions, and the reader can get in his head a little bit. However, the readers don’t get any insight into what the other characters are thinking. Instead, you get one character’s perception of what he thinks they may be thinking or what their emotions are; you get his perspective and his perspective alone. Obviously, if you were able to get inside other characters’ heads in the book, you would be able to figure out what was going on pretty quickly. Because of the set up of all of this, you leave the reader wondering whether their take on the book is right or not. Did this really happen or was it part of the character’s imagination or what? Can you take the explanation at the end at face value or was there more to it? Who was the good guy and who was the bad guy? Was everything really as it seemed or not? I’ve had readers tell me that they weren’t sure how to take the ending of the book, that it could go a couple of ways, and I’ve had readers argue both perspectives and not come to a firm conclusion about it. Thus, that’s the nature of the psychological thriller, in my opinion. Some people don’t like that there isn’t a fully explained and clear conclusion, but I liken it to the twist in Alfred Hitchcock’s works—it leaves you wondering for days after you’ve finished the movie or in my case the book.