Writing About Fear — Welcome Back Lori Rader-Day

Sherry here and I’m so delighted to welcome back Lori Rader-Day. Our first books came out in 2014 so we were on a new authors panel together that year at Left Coast Crime. Her latest book, Under A Dark Sky, released on August 7th. Here’s a bit about the book:

Only in the dark can she find the truth . . .Since her husband died, Eden Wallace’s life has diminished down to a tiny pinprick, like a far-off star in the night sky. She doesn’t work, has given up on her love of photography, and is so plagued by night terrors that she can’t sleep without the lights on. Everyone, including her family, has grown weary of her grief. So when she finds paperwork in her husband’s effects indicating that he reserved a week at a dark sky park, she goes. She’s ready to shed her fear and return to the living, even if it means facing her paralyzing phobia of the dark.

But when she arrives at the park, the guest suite she thought was a private retreat is teeming with a group of twenty-somethings, all stuck in the orbit of their old college friendships. Horrified that her get-away has been taken over, Eden decides to head home the next day. But then a scream wakes the house in the middle of the night. One of the friends has been murdered. Now everyone—including Eden—is a suspect.

Everyone is keeping secrets, but only one is a murderer. As mishaps continue to befall the group, Eden must make sense of the chaos and lies to evade a ruthless killer—and she’ll have to do it before dark falls…

What are you afraid of? No, really. We use the word “fear” a lot, for things we face every day (especially, let’s face it, lately) and for things we’ll never have to deal with in real life. I mean, my stepfather won’t watch any movie that promises to show him a giant spider—it’s a surprisingly large oeuvre, the car-sized spider film—but he’s not likely to meet one in real life. There’s such a thing as an irrational fear, but that must mean we’re allowed the other kind: rational fear. Where’s the line?

In my latest mystery, Under a Dark Sky, a thirty-something woman reeling from the loss of her husband fights through her fear of the dark to visit a dark sky park, a spot set aside for visitors to see the night sky the way nature intended, without light pollution from artificial light. I am not personally afraid of the dark. (I could be talked into it, if I were, say, expecting to step on something spidery while the lights were off.  The regular-sized type of spidery is enough.) A fear of the dark is an irrational fear. But the book is about my own biggest fear, too: being widowed.

When I was deciding what this book would be about, at first all I had was the location. I had never started from location before—a wide-open canvas! A dark sky park, as far as I knew, had never been used as the location of a novel, and it was a slam dunk for a murder mystery: isolated, quiet, no manufactured light to keep things civilized. But who would wander, Bambi-like, into its darkness?

You’re supposed to write about the things that scare you, right? So: a widow before her time, facing the rest of her life alone. But if the character I’d be writing about had already suffered my own biggest fear, what was left? Four hundred pages about someone still in deep mourning is by definition not a thriller. I decided she would be afraid of the dark, wholly and irrationally, and have to fight herself out of that (forgive me) dark place.

Writer to writer? Eden’s fear of the dark only made the book more difficult to write. I had to keep an eye on the clock at all times, because she was a reverse vampire, unable to be outside by the last rays of dusk. I had chosen the dark sky park for the darkness—and then cheated myself out of it.

At another time in my writing career, I might have turned back, too daunted to try and write the book I had conceived. In my lifetime of writing, not writing, publishing, and not publishing, I have been afraid of a lot of things. Failure, of course, the first hurdle. Then success, because if I successfully write and publish this personal thing, someone is bound to read it—Oh no! And then imposter syndrome, the fear that someone will find me out for the grasping hack I am. That’s the Writer’s Triad of Irrational Fears, probably, that any direction you turn will lead to one of those quicksand pits we were all so afraid of in the ’80s.

We’re not afraid of quicksand anymore. We’ve been told that there’s no such thing. No problem. There are enough real worries. We don’t need to borrow any from Gilligan’s Island reruns.

Sometimes when the news day is bad—and it is very bad, the day I’m writing this—I wonder if writing little escapist murder mysteries does any good in the world (and of course if you’ve read them, are they escapist? If they cover topics like campus shootings and domestic violence? These are real concerns I have encountered, not Mini Cooper-sized spiders). Whenever I start to doubt, I remember that humans developed storytelling skills before they developed farming. Stories before food. Stories as a tool for survival. And I remember the way all my bookish friends rally around each other and strangers, too, in times of crisis. I remember the way I felt seeing the Winged Victory of Samothrace at the Louvre, like the history of the world was collapsed, accordion-like, and small, but also how amazing it was to be a part of it. I remember that when I am stressed, the one thing I still want to do is pick up a book and read, for that same expansive feeling, that same connection. I suspect I’m not alone.

These days I have a whole new set of fears than I used to, most of them exceedingly rational. Writing through them is the only strategy I can come up with. It isn’t escapist, most days. It is only a mirror, reflecting the hard light of real life. But a reflection of light is still light, isn’t it? And maybe when I manage to find the words and share them, reading what I write is a strategy that helps you escape from your fears, too. No giant spiders, I promise.

Readers: What is your irrational fear?

Bio: Lori Rader-Day is a three-time Mary Higgins Clark Award nominee, winning the award in 2016 for her second novel, Little Pretty Things. She is the author of Under a Dark Sky, and of The Black Hour, winner of the Anthony Award for Best First Novel, The Day I Died, a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark, Thriller, Anthony, and Barry Awards. She lives in Chicago, where she is active in Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America and co-chairs the mystery conference Murder and Mayhem in Chicago.


23 Thoughts

  1. You put it so well, Lori. I finished reading Under a Dark Sky this week and LOVED it (readers, go find a copy now!). I have lots of irrational fears: worms on the sidewalk, for one (and I’m a former farmer, go figure), walking on grates, and the claustrophobia of tunnels. But my biggest fear is that something bad will happen to one of my sons.

  2. So many wonderful observations–like passing on stories, long before there were written words. Our fears have kept the human race going for a very long time, so they are an essential part of being human. Books now provide at least a temporary antidote, because the author can engineer a satisfying ending, in the face of reality.

  3. Welcome to the blog Lori! I’m not sure if I have irrational fears–after all, snakes can kill you. Even little green ones can scare you to death. To me, that’s not irrational.
    Can’t wait to read this book! Looking forward to seeing you at Bouchercon!

  4. Congrats on the new book, Lori! As for irrational fears, roaches are the first thing that come to mind. I know they can’t really hurt me, and yet I’m afraid of them. Luckily the cats have no such fears and are all too willing to help me oust those little creatures when they find their way inside!

  5. Thanks for visiting today, Lori! I share Edith’s fear of something happening to my children. But like Julie, I am not so sure it falls into the category of irrational. I am, however, absolutely and irrationally afraid of anything touching, especially squeezing the bend of my elbows, or the backs of my knees. I just go berserk when it happens. My heart hammers, I break out in a sweat and the person who has done it had better duck. I understand it is sort of crazy but I can’t seem to help it. Fortunately, it is not the sort of fear that crops up on a regular basis. Unfortunately, I don’t think it would support a whole book…

  6. Biggest irrational fear? I’m drawing a blank at the moment, although when I hear an unexpected noise in the dark, I do freak out a little. I promise, only a little.

  7. Lori, big congrats on the new book! I have a fear of mice, but like some others have said, I don’t think it’s an irrational fear. And hearing their little toenails scraping against the inside of a wall is even more terrifying to me than seeing one race across the floor!

  8. Great post, Lori! Since you ask, I have an irrational fear of not having a pen that works. This fear developed in law school when we wrote our exam answers in blue books. I did in fact run out of ink on more than one occasion, but had extra pens sitting on the table at the ready, so many extras that I was popular to sit next to during exams so others could take my pens. And now, there’s a dozen in my office pencil drawer plus a package of new ones unopened, several on my home desk, few in my purse, a dozen in my briefcase, half a dozen in the kitchen junk drawer, a few laying around the house, and two-three stashed in a couple bedroom drawers and in the bathroom drawer. ‘Cause you never know when you’re brushing your teeth if you’ll need to write something down.

  9. I’m afraid of being in a car wreck. Fender bender or big crash; it doesn’t matter. They all worry me.

  10. My “irrational” fear is birds…big birds, little birds…doesn’t matter. When I was about 5, a neighbor’s goose chased me…freaked me out. Then when I was an older teen, a friend had a parrot that liked to land on people’s shoulders…. Well, let’s put it this way, take a moderately large bird that likes to fly in fast, add in someone who FREAKS OUT over birds anywhere near her and has long hair and you have a recipe for disaster! I had a screeching, wing-flapping bird tangled in my hair as I waved my arms around wildly and screamed bloody murder! Some might say irrational fear, I say rational fear…you try having a bird tangled in your hair flapping it’s wings against your head!

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