The Crime Readers' Association

How Working in a Safe-House influenced my Writing

31st October 2018

AJ Waines chats to the CRA about the background to her latest psychological thriller, Perfect Bones.

I can honestly say that when it comes to personal experience of the ‘criminal mind’, fact, for me, is just as chilling as fiction. That’s because before I became an author, I was a psychotherapist for fifteen years, working from time to time in a safe-house for ex-offenders. The residents were from high-security institutions; women who had served sentences for arson, stabbings, suffocating and all manner of fatal attacks.

Since then, I’ve been transforming my hair-raising experiences into psychological thrillers and my latest, Perfect Bones, is released by Bloodhound Books on November 8th. It’s my eighth thriller and I’m delighted to say I’ve now sold nearly half-a-million books worldwide.

So, how has my writing been influenced by working at the safe-house?

Surprisingly, I came away from my encounters with these women feeling more sad, than disturbed. The women had grown up with stabbings, shootings and muggings; they knew no other kind of life. Most had a fragile personality-type, were easily led and got involved with criminal activity because their brothers/sister/mothers lived that life too. Often anti-establishment, they were seeking leadership, gang-culture, excitement and risk-taking. More often than not, they were simply looking for a sense of “family” and belonging.

Since working in the safe-house, I’m inclined to cast women rather than men as the culprits in my books, but they’re never ‘monsters’. While I write about killers and serial killers, they aren’t thugs or callous maniacs. There’s very little violence and gore in my books and far more about harrowing mind-games and dark, driven motives behind the radical acts involved. I’m also fascinated by the differences between law-abiding citizens and those who cross the line into serious crime. I love writing about revenge, secrets and lies! As a result of all this, readers often say my books have a good deal of humanity about them.

So, how ‘safe’ was it?

The ‘safe-house’ wasn’t necessarily safe for everyone! During one of my visits, a woman set fire to her room and others self-harmed, as cooking knives and personal property was available as part of the rehabilitation process. Most residents were on antipsychotic medication or drugs for anxiety or depression, so mood-swings was an issue.

The location and confidentiality was very strict, as you can imagine – a place for the women to re-adjust to the idea of integrating back into society. I was there to offer a listening ear for personal problems and fears of going back ‘outside’. Spending time in that volatile setting was tough, but it gave me lots of raw material to slip into my novels!

The new book

In Perfect Bones, the sole witness to a gruesome attack – a teenage artist living on a narrowboat – is traumatised and can’t utter a word. That’s when gutsy protagonist, psychologist Samantha Willerby, is given seven days by the police to coax information from him about the killer. When he finally makes a sketch, it’s not what anyone expects – but by then another murder has been committed…

One of the techniques I used in the safe-house was art therapy and in the novel this method is used for the mute witness. The technique is great for people who can’t express themselves or find it hard to open up to someone face to face. When you focus on a drawing in front of you, it takes the pressure off ‘communicating’. No artistic ability is required; stick-people, doodles and blobs are perfect!

I was deeply affected by the individuals I met and still wonder what happened to them and how their lives turned out. Did they re-offend and end up back inside? Did they turn their lives around? As an author, I like to pose the question ‘how would you react in this tricky situation?’ just as, when I think of those women, I wonder how I would have turned out if I’d had their dysfunctional backgrounds, violent environment and deprivation to cope with.

Find AJ Waines’ books here and visit her website and blog, or join her on Twitter, Facebook or on her Newsletter.

Find out more about Alison here

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