Monday, 7 September 2015

I didn't choose the story, it chose me ......

My debut novel, The Dark Inside, should probably not exist.

Loosely-based on a real life serial killer case from 1946, it follows disgraced New York City reporter, Charlie Yates, as he's sent to Texarkana, a small town on the Texas/Arkansas border, to investigate a series of brutal attacks on young couples. In the face of hostile cops, secretive reporters and terrified citizens, Charlie quickly realises there's more to the murders than anyone is willing to admit - and his pursuit of the truth could cost him everything.

When people hear what it's about, the question I'm most commonly asked is why I chose to set my novel in such a distant time and place. There's no straightforward answer.

I'm a lifelong Londoner, born decades after the murders took place. I've visited the USA more than twenty times, but before I started writing the book, I'd never been to Texarkana, or either of the states it straddles. Moreover, my previous attempts at writing - one completed novel and tens of thousands of words of false starts - were set in London in the present day - taking 'write what you know' at its most literal. When I stumbled across the case the novel is based on, I was thirty-thousand words into writing a different manuscript. I dropped it immediately, to start researching the book that became The Dark Inside.

The Texarkana Moonlight Murders, as the case became known, gripped me from the second I started reading about them. The facts of the case, while tragic, horrifying and not to be trivialised, were not extreme by serial killer standards: five dead, three more seriously wounded; the victims mostly young couples, attacked in lovers' lanes. The killer was never caught, but the attacks stopped after several months, and life slowly returned to normal. Nonetheless, I felt an incredible nervous tension as I read what took place.

The terror was in the details. The first couple attacked survived to tell their story: they were parked up on a rural lane after a date night - like all kids their age, the only place they could get some privacy. Without warning, a flashlight beam came on. Someone shone it right in their eyes. Alarmed, but not yet knowing the source, the couple peered out into the darkness. It was then that the young woman saw a man standing a short distance away, a hood over his head with holes for his eyes and mouth, and a gun in hand.

It's the stuff of nightmares - an armed man stepping out of the darkness. Coming for you. Isolated; vulnerable. Terrified.

It went on like that, and as I read, I began to understand the climate that developed in Texarkana. Fear, mistrust, paranoia. Disbelief. Helplessness. This was the start of it, for me; a sense of the atmosphere that would form the backdrop of story - if it could be recreated in print. At the same time, I could hear the voice of the protagonist coming together in my head. Charlie Yates didn't arrive fully-formed - like any character, he grew over time and as the writing progressed - but his voice, the voice needed to tell the story, was there from the start. A certain tone; a man with too many bad miles on his clock, who thinks he's experienced the worst of humanity - but who's about to be embroiled in a nightmare that
makes everything before it pale.

I guess what I'm saying is that, in some senses, I didn't choose the story I wanted to write - it chose me. That sounds wishy-washy, but what I mean is that the starting point for this novel wasn't me sitting down and planning where and when I wanted it to be set, who the characters were, what the plot was. I'd done that with my previous books, and it led me to the same place each time: London, present day, characters who were a lot like people I knew. This was different; it was being gripped by a feeling, and a certainty that there was no other book I wanted to write. If I'd thought too hard about the challenges of setting the story in such an unfamiliar place and time, I might never have had the guts to try. As it was, none of that mattered to me - I had the story I wanted to tell, and nothing else was going to interest me until it was done.

I had a blast writing The Dark Inside, and equally its sequel. I've learned to trust my instincts in the process; I'd encourage any aspiring author to do the same.

You can follow Rod Reynolds on Twitter @Rod_WR

The Dark Inside by Rod Reynolds is out now (Faber & Faber, £12.99)

1946, Texarkana: a town on the border of Texas and Arkansas. Disgraced New York reporter Charlie Yates has been sent to cover the story of a spate of brutal murders - young couples who've been slaughtered at a local date spot. Charlie finds himself drawn into the case by the beautiful and fiery Lizzie, sister to one of the victims, Alice - the only person to have survived the attacks and seen the killer up close.  But Charlie has his own demons to fight, and as he starts to dig into the murders he discovers that the people of Texarkana have secrets that they want kept hidden at all costs. Before long, Charlie discovers that powerful forces might be protecting the killer, and as he investigates further his pursuit of the truth could cost him more than his job...

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