When people ask me what I do for a living, nine times out of ten I tell them I’m a stay-at-home dad. And that’s true, mostly—I do watch my son most of the day. I’m only a writer from about ten at night to midnight when my wife and little boy are asleep. When my wife and I came up with this arrangement, I never expected it to help me become a better writer, but it has.
I write crime novels mostly, but I enjoy reading psychological suspense, books that are exciting not because they’re filled with car chases and gunfights, but for the uncertainty they evoke in their readers. They leave us on edge the entire time we’re reading them. Gillian Flynn did this marvelously in Gone Girl. Sometimes it’s hard to root for her deeply flawed [but superbly written] characters, but it’s hard not to feel a pervasive sense of angst while reading her books.
About two years ago, I came up with what I thought was a brilliant idea for a psychological suspense novel. To save her life, an average guy helps his girlfriend disappear and then frames her evil and quite powerful stepfather for her murder. Then, nine years later on the evening after the wicked stepfather is executed and when my hero is married and has everything he’s ever wanted in life, his former lover returns to upend his entire world.
I loved the idea, but as soon as I sat down to write it, I realized I had no idea how. I knew theoretically how to write a suspense novel, but I felt like a man without a sense of smell trying to describe an old English rose garden. There was something missing. So, I shelved that idea for a while, and then, as it often does, life happened. My wife and I had a wonderful, healthy little boy who taught me more about suspense than I ever expected to learn.
I’m sure the moms and dads reading this are nodding along right now, but if you’re not blessed / cursed with children, this will take some explaining. I learned what suspense was by taking my son to church. It’s sounds benign and maybe even a little old fashioned, but Sunday morning church services have become the most terrifying hour of my life. I have no idea what’s going to happen, but I’m practically guaranteed that something will happen and it will be horrible and / or mortifying.
Maybe my son will vomit on the sweater of the nice elderly woman beside us. Maybe he’ll burp so loud while the congregation is silently praying that the minister will feel compelled to mention it during his sermon. Maybe he’ll start screaming the F-word at the top of his lungs while my wife and I frantically dig through the bottom of our diaper bag for a pacifier. [For the record, he’s trying to say “truck,” but no one believes us when we say that.]
These have all happened, and I’m pretty sure they’re going to happen again. That, I’ve discovered, is the essence of a good suspense story. Psychologically complex characters are great, but they’re only part of the puzzle. You need danger on the horizon to truly enthrall. My boy taught me that. I’m terrified of what he’ll teach me in toddlerhood.