I was looking through some old writing course notes the other day, and came across this advice: find the darkest place in your mind, and write about it. The advice continued: what's the darkest thing you can think of? Make it happen to your characters.
It set me wondering - what's the darkest thing I could think of, and is it wise to spend so much time dwelling on the dark side?
I'm currently writing the third Eden Grey mystery, and it starts with an almighty shocker of a first chapter. Rules of the game are if you start high octane, you have to maintain it - you can't slip into a gentle, cosy pace - so I needed a plot that would live up to the opening. I asked myself, "What's the darkest thing one person can do to another?" and I wrote a list. Then I found myself thinking, "If I take that and that, and combine them, I get something that's really dark."
Question is: should I?
In recent years there's been a trend in crime fiction towards ever more sadistic and violent crimes. Books that start in the murderer's mind and show you exactly how they're torturing the victim. Or that are in the victim's mind, and you experience the torture with them. I can't read this kind of material. It's too nasty and gratuitous, and I feel like a voyeur reading it. But could I write it? Probably.
When I'm writing, I find myself simultaneously caught up in the characters' heads, and at a remove from them. I can make terrible things happen to them, and be able to stand back from it all and consciously determine how to craft it. Graham Greene described this as 'a splinter of ice in the heart' - the writer's ability to take a tragedy and turn it into entertainment. Because however literary or artistic our writing is, on some level we're always aiming to entertain our readers, otherwise they'll put the book aside.
The splinter of ice in my heart enables me to write dispassionately about proper nasty stuff - child abuse and people smuggling and murder. And it's only later that I look at what I've written and wonder if maybe I need psychological help. The first time I met my agent, she said to me, "You know, if you writers just got yourselves good psychiatrists, you wouldn't have to write all this crime." Where's the fun in that?
So my challenge is to go as dark as I dare, but be careful not to fall into the trap of writing nasty scenes just for the sake of it. A scene that explores the dark side must have a point to it. In crime fiction, the darker the crime, the more there is at stake, and the more that's demanded of the hero. There's normally a resolution - the baddy gets caught and brought to justice - so the reader is relieved that no matter how much the dark side of human nature upsets the social order, there's always restitution. Society is stronger than evil.
Lurking with my dark side makes me confront what scares me most about human nature, but because this is fiction, it's a safe place for me and the reader. And unlike real life, I get to make it better - my protagonist Eden Grey will face evil and overcome it. The greater the evil she faces, the greater the relief for both me and reader that the thing we fear the most can - ultimately - be overcome.
One thing I love about this time of year is having a few days off work when I can hibernate with a good book. I have a tradition of going to the library on Christmas Eve and choosing the books I want to read over the Christmas break, then I get comfortable with a hot drink and some dark chocolate, and dive in for a long read.
This year, I'm going to do it slightly differently. In Iceland, they give each other books on Christmas Eve, then sit up all night, reading their new books and eating chocolate. This sounds exactly my kind of thing, with the perfect combination of reading and chocolate, so my husband and I are going to a charity bookshop to choose books to give each other, then we'll settle down at home with our new books, and of course, lots of chocolate.
When I've got time to wallow in reading, I like to reread my favourites. I'm very fond of Wilkie Collins, and each time I reread 'The Woman in White', I recall the very first time I read it. Someone gave me a copy for Christmas, and I started reading it straight away, and was so engrossed I couldn't stop, and had the book open on my lap under the table so I could keep reading during lunch, something that was absolutely forbidden in my family.
It's also a good time to catch up with what I like to call 'professional development', or true crime books. I've got quite a collection of true crime cases like the Penguin 'Famous Trials' series, and a number of books on forensics. So this year I'll be reading and re-reading those, as they often give me inspiration for a new book, or a twist in the book I'm writing.
There's plenty of research for me to do over the Christmas break, too. My new novel is partly set in the murky world of Elizabethan espionage, and I have a pile of books in daily life in Elizabethan England, Walsingham, and spies to indulge in.
Must check I've got enough chocolate to see me through ...
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.