Research is a critical component of my day job, working as a forensic psychologist. Before I ever sit face to face with an inmate to evaluate his violence risk, rest assured I’ve done my homework. I’ve poured over his prison files like the map to a buried treasure, wandering down rabbit holes, following dead-ends, and collecting clues to help guide me into uncharted territory. Through my research, I develop hypotheses that I can test in my interview. Did the inmate’s head injury contribute to his impulsivity? Did her history of trauma play a role in her violence against others? Through research, a patient’s history comes alive and sheds light on the man or woman before me as a complex and multi-faceted individual.
Crafting suspenseful fiction is no different. With every new book comes research, whether it be cracking open my Practical Homicide textbook, consulting with a firefighter or policeman, watching an episode of Forensic Files, or simply asking the almighty Internet. And any thriller writer worth their salt will tell you they’d rather you not look at their Google search history…especially if you’re an officer of the law. Because it might be hard to explain that search for best ways to dispose of a body. Just as research helps me better understand an inmate-patient, delving into the details of my story gives life to my characters and often spurs new ideas.
Many of my books are set in the San Francisco Bay Area, which I have been lucky to call home for the last twenty years. San Francisco and its neighboring cities, Oakland and Berkeley, offer a multitude of magical, creepy, and unusual places to form the backdrop of a story. Research here doesn’t feel like work at all but more like a staycation.
When I started writing The House Sitter, I pictured the main character, seventy-year-old Iris, living in a majestic Victorian that towered above the others on her block. Lonely Iris often spent her time at the attic window, spying on her neighbors with the binoculars her dead husband left behind. After scouting several spots in San Francisco, it became evident that Iris’s residence would be located in posh Pacific Heights, which is known as much for its opulence as its panoramic views of the Bay. As the story unfolds, the home, itself, becomes a character, holding the dark and precious secrets of its occupants.
I visited Pacific Heights on a windy fall day, snapping photos of the nearby Presidio, trudging up the Lyon Street Steps, and wandering through Lafayette Park, all of which make an appearance in the book. Pacific Heights was also the setting for the 1990s cinematic thriller by the same name, starring Michael Keaton, Melanie Griffith, and Michael Modine. A movie that, similar to The House Sitter, takes the tenant from hell to a whole new level.
The other two main characters in The House Sitter, Seth and Lydia, had their own story to tell me, a story that would unfold across the Bay in Oakland and Berkeley. I quickly realized that Seth had a problem. He just couldn’t stop betting on the horses at Golden Gate Fields. As I researched the racetrack on Google Maps, I found myself drawn to a small outcropping of tree-covered land that extended into the bay: the Albany Bulb. I donned my researcher’s hat again and began my search.
Though I’ve visited the racetrack several times, I’d never heard of the Bulb. But it quickly captured my imagination. Once the sight of a massive homeless encampment, the Bulb has long been known for its unusual artwork made from the reclaimed refuse left behind, including the most famous of the Bulb statues, The Beseeching Woman, by artist-attorney, Osha Neumann. The fifteen-foot woman, made of metal and wood, stands on the shoreline, reaching her arms out, her intentions unclear. To envelope, to greet, to implore, to smother. Streaking behind her, her driftwood hair caught by the wind. The Bulb saw its first artwork in the 1990s, when a collective known as Sniff began to paint old concrete blocks and pieces of plywood. An amphitheater was erected, and larger works like the Beseeching Woman soon followed.
The Bulb also has a connection to a real-life murder, that of Laci Peterson. In 2003, Peterson’s body was discovered washed ashore at Point Isabel, near the Bulb. In order to deflect suspicion from his client, Scott Peterson’s attorney, Mark Geragos, suggested that a Satanic cult at the Bulb had been responsible for Laci’s murder. Ah yes, the Bulb has certainly proved itself thriller-worthy.
I decided I needed to visit this eclectic place to see it for myself, and once I had, I knew it would play a prominent role in my story. With the wind whipping through my own hair, I stumbled across concrete and rebar, past strange creations and curlicue mazes. I got lost more than a few times and took a rest near a rock, painted with a message: Aliens Exist. Finally, standing next to the iconic Beseeching Woman, I found what I had come for. Inspiration.
The House Sitter by Ellery Kane (Bookouture) Out Now
‘You’re just the girl I’ve been looking for,’ Iris told me, her blue eyes sparkling, when she offered me the job as her live-in helper. Little did she know, I thought the exact same about her. And she was wrong to trust me... As I clean Iris’s large, old house in Pacific Heights, my boyfriend Seth works outside, tending to the lawn and fixing the broken gate. I can’t help but notice Iris’s steely eyes watching our every move. Does she know why we’re really here? Most days we live in perfect harmony, but today Iris is confused. She thinks we moved in uninvited. I pass her a tablet from the medicine cabinet, knowing she’ll soon calm down and remember how lucky she is to have found us. Later that night, the police arrive to find Iris’s perfect house turned upside down, the telephone lying on the floor, its cord severed. They walk through each room, calling out, but the house remains totally silent. You will think you know what happened that night, but when the police discover something unexpected hidden amongst the wreckage in Iris’s bedroom, you’ll find you don’t know a thing.