As an avid reader of crime novels, one of the things that always intrigued me is how crime writers come up with their characters – and the killers in particular. How do they get inside the murderer’s head to create such a twisted and cruel character while remaining believable and not far-fetched? Well, Hodder & Stoughton author Fergus McNeill stopped by Books, Biscuits, and Tea to reveal it all. Fergus’s début, Eye Contact, was among my favourite reads of 2012 and the fact the sequel, Knife Edge is coming out in late September makes me grin every time I think about it. He’s one of my (newest) favourite crime writers so it’s a huge honour to have him here on the blog. So, without further ado, please give a warm welcome to today’s guest, Fergus McNeill himself!
Whenever I’m writing, I want to stimulate an emotional response in the person who’s reading. For me, it’s not just about communicating ideas, it’s about communicating feelings too. And because my novels are contemporary crime thrillers, there’s a good chance that one of those feelings will be fear.
I ought to be pleased when I make that kind of connection with a reader – and of course I am – but it can be problematic sometimes. Like the first time I met my agent, Eve White.
We’d agreed to get together at her office to discuss representation and, because of other appointments with my day-job, arranged a time around 6pm. When I arrived, the place was empty, save for Eve and her assistant. We sat down and started chatting, and I thought nothing of it until, after ten minutes or so, I noticed Eve giving a covert signal whereupon the assistant stood up and went home. When I asked her about it later, Eve admitted that she had been rather nervous about being in the same room as the person who’d written that character and had told her assistant to stay until she was sure I was “all right”.
I’ve spent a lot of time since then reassuring people that I really am a nice guy. Honest!
All the same, it was actually quite pleasing to know that my words on a page had conveyed that sense of unease. And I do sort of understand the way she felt, because there have definitely been points in the writing process where I’ve managed to scare myself. One example that comes to mind is a research trip I made to Bristol while working on my first novel, Eye Contact. The story features a killer who targets random strangers – typically the first person to make eye contact with him after a certain time of day. Every potential victim is given a head start – a 24 hour grace period – before the killer starts looking for them and begins to hunt them down.
One of these hunts involved a train journey that I had never taken, and I was finding it tough to capture the atmosphere. In the end, I decided to visit the locations in question, and actually do the journey myself, hoping it would give me some inspiration and insight. I had no idea how much!
In the book, my killer is following a woman as she leaves work and catches a train home from Clifton Down station. I arrived at the station, just as the train was pulling in, and hurried down the ramp to the platform, joining the other passengers who were climbing on board. I sat down and glanced around, noticing a woman with blonde hair just a couple of seats away from me. She wasn’t looking in my direction, and I started to imagine how it might be if she were the victim. The journey takes a little over twenty minutes and there are five stops. In the book, the killer follows his target all the way to the end of the line: a bleak little village called Severn Beach. At each station, I waited for the woman to get up and disembark, but she remained in her seat until the very last stop. Just like my fictional victim.
By now, I was really starting to understand the terrible thrill of the chase and, as she walked out of the station and turned left, I had a powerful sense of déjà vu – the character in my book lived near the waterfront promenade, and that’s where this woman was heading. It had never been my intention to follow anyone, but here she was, her heels clicking along the pavement ahead of me. I maintained a discreet distance between us, thinking how my killer would avoid being noticed, wondering how he would feel, imagining what would be going through his mind. I began to worry that the woman would turn around, that she might notice me – because that’s what my killer would be thinking. But she never looked back, just turned down a side road, walked up to a pleasant little house, and unlocked her front door. She didn’t notice me as I walked past, just as my killer would do, and in that moment I felt my stomach turn because I knew – really knew – what it would feel like to be in his shoes.
Even now, the hairs are standing up on the back of my neck as I write this. Needless to say, I’ve never done anything like that again – the whole experience left me quite shaken – but any time I need to get inside my killer’s thoughts, I grit my teeth and remember how it felt. It’s all part of a process that involves writing “on-location”, using music to manipulate my mood, and generally inhabiting the characters as much as I can.
So when readers tell me they got a real “sense of place”, or they experienced grief, fear, or exhilaration from reading, I know just how they feel. Because I’ve been there myself.
About the book
If you look him in the eye, you’re dead.
From the outside, Robert Naysmith is a successful businessman, handsome and charming. But for years he’s been playing a deadly game.
He doesn’t choose his victims. Each is selected at random – the first person to make eye contact after he begins ‘the game’ will not have long to live. Their fate is sealed.When the body of a young woman is found on Severn Beach, Detective Inspector Harland is assigned the case. It’s only when he links it to an unsolved murder in Oxford that the police begin to guess at the awful scale of the crimes.
But how do you find a killer who strikes without motive?