The Fear Factor

In which L.J. Sellers explains why letting bits of your personal life spill into your pages may not be a bad thing.

In my personal life I try to be optimistic, but in my fiction I write about my fears. It’s been true since I sat down to write my first novel. At the time, Jeffrey Dahmer was in the news and my greatest fear was that a sexual predator would kidnap and kill one of my three young boys. So I wrote a story about a woman who tracks down her son’s killer. The experience was cathartic, and I continued the practice in future novels, because as it turns out, many readers share the same fears.

Being kidnapped and held against my will is another dominant fear for me and millions of other women as well—because it happens!—so the theme occurs often in crime fiction novels, including two of mine (The Baby Thief, Secrets to Die For).

Most of my stories though have elements of fears that are very personal to me. For example, when I wrote The Sex Club, the first book in the Detective Jackson series, my son was in Iraq and I worried constantly that he would die. My sister had just succumbed to cancer and I grieved for her and worried for other members of my family. So Kera, my main female protagonist, was dealing with those elements. Right or wrong, I couldn’t separate those emotions from my writing and they ended up on the page.

Soon after that, my husband was diagnosed with retroperitoneal fibrosis, which triggered all kinds of fears for me. He faced a life of pain, multiple surgeries, and likely an early death. Without being consciously aware that I was doing it at first, my Jackson character started having pain and health issues. Eventually, he was diagnosed with RF, and in Thrilled to Death, he underwent a surgery, very similar to the one my husband experienced. Readers tell me they enjoy my characters, who are realistic, yet unique, so incorporating true-to-life, frightening details adds richness to my stories while helping me work through emotional challenges.

In late 2009 when I was writing Passions of the Dead, I was dealing with unemployment: mine, my husband’s, my brother’s, and dozens of other people I knew. I witnessed the devastating effect it can have on families. That fearful theme became dominant when I outlined the story. My Jackson novels of course are always about crime, murder in particular, and my main goal is tell a great story. But every fictitious crime needs a unique, complex, and compelling motive, and I look for those motives in the fear I’m experiencing.

Some of my fears are more social and universal. I fear that as a society we have wrongfully imprisoned hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people. Dozens of news stories about the release of prisoners wrongfully convicted continue to feed this fear, so that issue, which is often the result of coercion or intimidation, is part of the plot in Dying for Justice, the fifth Detective Jackson novel.

Right now I fear for the future of our county if the economy doesn’t improve. I also fear for our comfort and safety if the extreme weather patterns continue and grow worse. So I’m writing a futuristic thriller in which those fears come into play. Guilt and redemption are also prominent themes in The Arranger, which will release in early September. (If you’re a book reviewer and would like a copy, please email me.)

Soon I’ll start work on the next Jackson book. I have a list of ideas, many culled from true crime cases found in the news. Regardless of what I decide in the beginning though, you can bet that as the plot develops, whatever fear is most prevalent on my mind will surface in the story.

What fears do you like to read about in fiction? Which fears are too intense for reading pleasure?


This is a cross-posting from The Crime Fiction Collective blog.

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