Writing Psychological Thrillers – How far can you go when you’re sworn to secrecy? By AJ Waines
As a former psychotherapist, I’ve been faced with enough guilty secrets, obsessions and shocking revelations to keep several novelists busy for the rest of their lives! My work involved connecting with ex-convicts from high-security institutions, where I learned a lot about the so-called ‘criminal mind’ (more on this later), but I also worked with ordinary people, just like you and me, who’d been hiding guilty secrets and were admitting to affairs, fraud, even unsolved crimes.
Within the four walls of the psychotherapist’s ‘confessional’, I’ve been confronted with some unnerving disclosures during my fifteen years’ experience. I once worked with an elderly man who brought me a photo of the mannequin he kept dressed in his dead daughter’s clothes in the corner of his sitting room. Another client was convinced he was a reincarnation of ‘The Messiah’. I’ve slightly changed the details here, but other examples are too sensitive and poignant to reveal to you.
So how far do I go? How much of my writing is limited by ethical constraints?
When using real-life material in my fiction, I have to scrutinise every aspect and alter anything that could identify an individual. As a result, I’m confident that no one reading my books would ever come across their own Doppelganger within the pages. More often than not I use a fragment of a patient’s experience and turn it into something fresh. In the above example about the mannequin, the macabre image stayed with me and led to the opening hook for The Evil Beneath, where the protagonist discovers a body in the Thames and is shocked to find the corpse is wearing her own clothes. That one striking idea set in motion the entire story.
Readers sometimes ask if real patients end up in my stories, but I tend to use a combination of fascinating character traits, instead. In Lost in the Lake for example, Rosie, the sole survivor of a crash, demonstrates several dysfunctional behaviours I came across in my work. Rosie is a misfit because of her grim background, struggling to make friends but trying too hard, so she pushes people away. Her low self-esteem makes her clingy even though she’s forthright and obsessive. When she makes up her mind about something, she won’t let go and it is that which takes the novel in a disturbing direction…
Only once have I put a real person more or less directly on to the page – and, of course, I can’t tell you which character that is..!
One of the most interesting aspects of my work with ex-offenders was my gut-reaction when spending time with them. Far from feeling revulsion or disgust, the overriding emotional response I felt was sadness. Most of my client group were women, struggling to cope in dire circumstances, caught up in domestic violence, drug abuse or poverty. They felt they had no other course of action open to them, other than to lash out. Others claimed they were protecting their children and chose a passive-aggressive approach, resorting to arson or poisoning, rather than physical attacks. Setting a fire meant they could walk away and let fate decide what happened. These individuals found themselves so deeply entrenched in unmanageable situations that they felt they had no escape.
There’s no doubt that many ‘real-life’ psychotherapy situations make for gripping material now that my full-time career is writing crime fiction, but I will always be careful and respectful about how I present it.
The author has sold over 400,000 books worldwide and topped the UK and Australian Kindle Charts with her number one bestseller, Girl on a Train. She has publishing deals in France, Germany, Norway, Hungary and USA (audiobooks). Visit her website and blog, or join her on Twitter, Facebook or sign up for her Newsletter.