Louise Millar: The Psychology of Writing

Louise Millar: The Psychology of Writing

I write crime fiction for the reasons I read it. First, I love the challenge of solving (or creating) a good mystery, and the escapism of a fast-paced thriller. Yet, equally, I think that crime fiction is a great way explore how, as society, we respond to the greatest pressures of all: a threat to our life, our home and our family; the extent we would seek revenge if driven to it; how we respond to guilt and greed; what would drive us to kill. (By the way, the crime-writing community is famed for its friendliness and warmth – not surprising, perhaps, when we pour our darkest thoughts out on to the page all day.)

How we respond to crime fiction as readers, however, depends on our own fears and life experience, and our emotional landscapes. What scares one person, might not scare another. It’s the same for how we writers choose to write about crime. Some of my favourite crime writers create a window into a world that most of us are curious about, but, thankfully, never encounter in real-life: a world that shows us the darkest sides of humanity close up. These stories allow us to explore our worst fears in a safe context, then emerge from the story reassured that goodness (usually) prevails.

Yet as a journalist who’s interviewed hundreds of victims and perpetrators of crime, I found it was the stories of psychological terror that personally stuck with me, perhaps because these were stories that could happen to any of us. The woman whose charming new partner begins to cut her off slowly from friends and family, then psychologically terrorise her. The daily fear of living next door to a nightmare neighbour. The horror of discovering a friend that you’ve trusted with your deepest secrets has been lying to you about their intentions.

It’s usually an encounter with a commonplace fear like this that sparks my own novels; either from personal experience, or from a real-life news story that buries under my skin.

I wrote my first novel, The Playdate, when my children started school. It explores the anxiety we have about choosing which other parents to trust with our children’s safety – and what happens when we get it wrong. In Accidents Happen, new widow Kate also tries to protect her child, by obsessively relying on health and safety statistics to protect them from dangers in the outside world – only to miss the threat right under her nose. In The Hidden Girl, Hannah moves from the anonymous city to rural Suffolk in the search of the ‘perfect’ family idyll, only to discover that crime exists everywhere, yet in the a tiny rural community, there’s nowhere to hide – and she’s further away from help.

My new novel, City Of Strangers, was also inspired by an anxiety many of us have – that dread of returning from holiday to find that we’ve been burgled. In my case, I walked in to find unexplained blood stains on my kitchen floor. While we tried to solve the mystery – no smashed window, no sign of intruders – I began to imagine the story of a woman who returns from honeymoon to find the dead body of an unidentified burglar in her Edinburgh flat. At the time, I was working with a reportage photographer on a newspaper story about people who live on London’s most polluted road. I’d observed how having a camera, often gave him access into strangers’ homes and lives. I decided to make my protagonist a freelance photojournalist called Grace, who becomes so obsessed with discovering the dead burglar’s identity.

Of course, real life is rarely as exciting. In my case, the kitchen floor culprit turned out to be a cat. By that time, however, Grace had become a fully formed character, who was setting out to document the journey of her dead burglar – only to find her own life thrown quickly into peril.