he genres of crime fiction, mystery, and horror are fascinating and have become immensely popular. As someone who has been turned off from going to bed with nightmares, I finally understood my push-pull relationship to the dark world of horror. There’s something alluring in terms of how the storytelling works. And wouldn’t you know it... I talked with D.M. Pulley for WOW’s dark and twisty issue after meeting her at a Cleveland writing workshop. What synchronicity!
D.M. Pulley lives in northeast Ohio with her husband, two children, and a dog named Hobo. Before becoming a full-time writer, she worked as a professional engineer rehabbing historic structures and conducting forensic investigations of building failures. D.M.’s structural survey of a vacant building in Cleveland inspired her debut novel, The Dead Key, the winner of the 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Since then, Pulley has sold over a half million books worldwide, and her work has been translated into eight different languages.
D.M.’s historical mysteries shine a light into the darker side of life in the Midwest during the twentieth century, when cities like Detroit and Cleveland struggled to survive. Her latest novel, No One’s Home, unravels the disturbing history of an old mansion haunted by family secrets, financial ruin, and murder. The abandoned buildings, haunted houses, and buried past of the Rust Belt continue to inspire her work.
WOW: I’m so excited to have you as a featured guest for this dark and twisty WOW! issue. So many (including me!) can learn from your encouragement and wealth of information. Maybe after this interview I’ll have the courage to read your novels. (I’m such a chicken!) First off, can you clarify this comment regarding crime fiction, thriller, and paranormal? “I would also add that horror works best when it adheres to an internal logic, which means defining a set of parameters or rules.” Are these necessary considerations one and the same?
D.M. Pulley: I believe what this person is trying to say here is that when a story loses its own sense of logic and becomes untethered to any relatable form of real life, the suspense loses its hook. Eventually, the readers can no longer suspend their disbelief, and the story might even become ridiculous.
Readers only feel suspense if they fear something happening that they can understand—physical harm, the loss of a loved one, etc. There must be tangible consequences for the character’s choices; but in a world where literally anything goes, nothing can be trusted as truth, and nothing really matters.
“Tension and suspense need three ingredients to work: likable characters, high stakes, and not knowing what will happen next.”
WOW: Thank you so much for clarifying horror from a storytelling perspective. I can see how this can also affect one’s psychology. Let’s shift gears and talk a bit about the writing process. What are some of the key blunders writers may make when attempting crime fiction or horror?
D.M. Pulley: I don’t know about other writers, but here are some of the mistakes I’ve made in the past when writing the first and second drafts of my Gothic crime novels and historical thrillers:
- Unsympathetic characters: If your readers don’t care about the characters in the story, they won’t be intrigued by their struggles or feel the suspense. Simply put, if they don’t care about the people, they don’t care about the story. A writer’s number one job is giving the readers characters that make them feel something. I worked hard during the rewrite of The Dead Key to make my protagonist, Iris Latch, more likable and relatable by improving her backstory and showing her soft side. In the end, not every reader was rooting for her, but my target audience found someone they could care about.
- Rushing the ending: A good mystery/thriller leads the readers through a web of suspects and intrigue with more questions than answers until they reach the shocking conclusion. However, the old trope of the detective giving the big “a-ha speech at the end, where all the red herrings and dead ends are explained, can ring false and feel rushed. Pacing the ending and giving a satisfying resolution to every problem in the story takes practice. Looking back, the conclusion of The Dead Key feels a little frantic to me with so much information being divulged in the last three chapters. My most recent books, The Unclaimed Victim and No One’s Home, maintain a more even pacing, as the villains are revealed, and the falling action gives closure to the characters.
- Throwing out the mold: Many writers want their books to be so original they “break the mold,” but throwing the mold out altogether without studying it is a mistake. There are essential ingredients to most genre novels (see the craft book, Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, for a breakdown of story essentials). Editors tried to warn me during rewrites for my first novel that I needed an “inciting incident” and “at least three red herrings” and several other rules of thumb to make my mystery work. I didn’t always listen, but I couldn’t ignore the fact that mystery and horror readers have certain expectations. You must solve the mystery. You must start a page-turner with a bang. You must have subplots and supporting characters that add depth and intrigue to the main story. You must maintain tension and suspense, or the story falls flat. Your story doesn’t have to be formulaic, but it must satisfy the contract between writer and reader and meet certain expectations to be successful.
WOW: Wow, I can see how these great tips can also apply to all fiction and even nonfiction as well. An important aspect of horror/crime fiction/paranormal is maintaining tension. How can writers achieve this?
D.M. Pulley: Tension and suspense need three ingredients to work: likable characters, high stakes, and not knowing what will happen next. If your readers don’t care about the characters, they don’t feel any tension when the characters face danger. Again, making the reader care about the protagonist is the writer’s first job.
If the stakes are low (e.g., will there be enough flour to bake the cake?), so is the tension. High stakes mean risking everything—jobs, loved ones, life itself. In crime fiction, the protagonist’s own life is often in danger at some point in the story (usually the climax).
Finally, the writer must keep the reader in the dark about what will happen next. I achieve this by keeping myself in the dark as I write the novel. I do not outline my first draft, so I have no idea what will happen next. This technique keeps me in suspense, and as an experienced reader, I can sense what would be most intriguing and unexpected around every corner.
WOW: Yes, getting your readers to care seems to be key to sustaining their attention, especially in our fast-paced digital world, where everyone’s focused on the next best thing. Let’s talk about the role of research, critical to the process. How much does one need to research when it comes to paranormal/thriller/horror/crime fiction? Are these considerations one and the same?
D.M. Pulley: Research is the same no matter what genre I’m writing. I read everything I can about a certain event or time period—old newspapers, novels, police records, court transcripts, and nonfiction books. I research until I can close my eyes and see, smell, and hear the setting. I research until I know my characters inside and out.
Research ends up being one of the most enjoyable parts of the process, and it often shapes the story, as I jump from newspaper to newspaper, searching for answers and finding new and interesting details. A murder in 1931 inspired much of my latest novel, No One’s Home. I researched the family, the city, and the time period until I could dream myself into that dining room and hear the characters talking.
“In my opinion, crime novels ARE horror novels.”
WOW: Wow! I love this! Now you sound like me—obsessed with the “research”—only as a memoirist, I’m “researching” the memory, trying to tap into the voices as a way to also stimulate my senses. I thought you might also speak to this comment: “We need to address things in our horror that disturb and unsettle us, and there will most definitely be other people out there who are scared of the same things.” In your opinion, does this also apply to the crime fiction and paranormal genre? From a craft perspective, what are some of the essential things writers need to bring these feelings (and ideas) to life?
D.M. Pulley: In my opinion, crime novels are horror novels. What could possibly be more terrifying than assault and murder? What sort of monster could we dream up that would be more terrible than a real person harming your son or daughter? Horror novels tend to examine these fears metaphorically through an exaggerated lens while crime novels chase the monsters and bring them to justice. Regardless of how they’re framed, these books tap into our fear of death and loss.
The hardest thing to do when writing a horrifying scene is to exercise restraint. It’s tempting to bludgeon the reader over the head with emotive language describing the character’s every terrifying thought and feeling. The shaking hands. The urge to throw up. The hair standing on end. I’ve had to learn to trust my audience to react with the appropriate human emotion and not spoon-feed them what they should be feeling. A truly terrifying passage is brief. It’s a gut punch that leaves the reader hanging, jaw open.
WOW: Thank you so much for this clarification. I was wondering about how these genres intersect, and you spelled this out perfectly! Regarding this same quote as in the above question, I was wondering if you could share some ways to get in touch with these feelings? Because fear is a very strong emotion, I’m wondering if this writing process is more complicated than it looks?
D.M. Pulley: I write Gothic suspense because I was born with a creeping, crawling fear of everyday things. My poor mother didn’t sleep through the night for many years because I would wake up screaming with nightmares. I used to sleep in my closet to escape the monsters lurking under my bed. Basements are torture chambers. Abandoned houses are dens for ghosts and vampires. That old woman on the street corner is clearly hiding something dark and terrifying in her purse.
Fear and intrigue are just the way I see much of the world. I’m not sure that I have advice for getting in touch with these emotions since I’m more often looking for a break from them. Instead, I would suggest that we all have our own aesthetics and worldview, and writers do best when they find their own style of storytelling. For example, I wouldn’t recommend that writers take on a dark crime novel if they prefer light romance.
That said, writers need to tap into their own experiences to inject fear or suspense into a story. Brainstorm a list of things that frighten you, the weirder the better. These fears are often universal as are the following: fear of the dark, fear of wild animals, fear of the unknown, fear of strangers, fear of bodily harm, fear of death. Journal whenever something gives you a jolt—a spider in the face, a near-miss accident, a kid screaming. What does it feel like? What are you thinking? What’s the worst part of it? How long does it last? Use these details to add realism to a scene but also use restraint. Readers will fill in the appropriate emotion given the chance.
“A truly terrifying passage is brief. It’s a gut punch that leaves the reader hanging, jaw open.”
WOW: Thank you so much for personalizing your “fear side of the street.” Your response reminds me of Stephen King’s need to “feed the gators” and why he writes horror. As you probably know, one of the challenges facing crime fiction writers is that of pacing. Because so much of crime fiction/paranormal/horror depends on suspense and tension, (as in question #1) how do you pace a thriller effectively?
D.M. Pulley: Great question! I’m still learning how to pace stories effectively. I like Benjamin Percy’s advice in Thrill Me when he suggests that action sequences should always be followed by calmer scenes, where the characters regroup and reflect. This allows the reader to breathe without breaking the tension. I can only add to this by saying: don’t rush the ending. I now try to take the last quarter of a book to pace out the climax and the falling action. Once the tension is broken after the big reveal, there is still more story to resolve; and the more you rush, the less closure the reader feels.
WOW: I’ll have to check out that title—it sounds like a helpful resource for understanding the story arc. Let’s shift gears a bit and talk about your publishing experience. I noticed you’ve been published by Amazon's thriller imprint, Thomas & Mercer. How did this deal come about, and what has been your experience? Any publishing tips for the newbie author?
D.M. Pulley: I owe my writing career to Amazon Publishing and the wonderful editors at Thomas & Mercer. They discovered me in 2014 when I won the Amazon Break Through Novel Award and have continued to nurture me and my writing ever since. I enjoy the sense of collaboration working with them and the innovative ways Thomas & Mercer reaches readers.
- Finish the book.
- Read everything you can (I recommend On Writing by Stephen King, Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy, and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder).
- Keep your first novel to around 80,000 words.
- Research the bookstore and know exactly on which shelf your novel should sit.
- Read the competition.
- Network with other writers at conferences and local writers’ groups.
- Be willing to work and rework your novel. My first novel took five years and six rewrites to get published.
- Don’t give up!
WOW: Wow! These tips are encouraging especially for the newbie writer looking to break into this genre. Just a few more craft questions: What are some of the things to consider when it comes to creating twists and turns in both characters and plots?
D.M. Pulley: Readers are smart. They’ve been consuming stories since they were toddlers in the form of books, movies, television, and video games. Chances are, they’ve seen a story like mine before. When I sit down to write, I think about their expectations and find a way to play them to my advantage. The killer is always the one they least suspect, so I figure out who that innocuous character might be, standing there in the corner, and put the knife in someone else’s hand. I make a list in my head of everything that might be lurking behind the locked door and turn each one over in my mind. What would I want? What would I hate? What would I expect as a reader? There should always be at least three plausible answers. Lastly, as a reader myself, I write the novel, as I would like to read it. I don’t outline the first draft; I just discover the story, as though reading it for the first time. If I don’t find it interesting or suspenseful, neither will anyone else.
WOW: I absolutely agree. Great advice. Your response reminds me of the late Toni Morrison who famously said, “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” What is the most compelling way to end a crime fiction novel? Any thoughts or suggestions for paranormal/thriller/horror?
D.M. Pulley: The adage goes that a mystery begins with a dead body and ends with a dead body. I certainly haven’t followed that rule in all my books, but many crime novels do. For me, the most important thing is to solve the primary question of the book. What was inside the safe deposit boxes in The Dead Key? Where did Jasper’s mother go in The Buried Book? Who was the Torso Killer in The Unclaimed Victim? What is haunting the old house in No One’s Home?
If I’m not bringing the villain to justice at the end of the novel, I must at least bring some sense of closure for the characters. The protagonist needs to end the story in a wholly different place from where s/he started, and that means confronting the demons and resolving their most pressing problems. S/he needs to have earned some piece of what s/he wanted in the beginning of the story. Beyond that, I prefer an ending that leaves a few loose threads undone and the future a bit uncertain, so the readers are left to answer for themselves what will happen next.
“Don’t rush the ending. Once the tension is broken after the big reveal, there is still more story to resolve; and the more you rush, the less closure the reader feels.”
WOW: You make a great point for closure while still leaving some room for speculation. You’ve written five crime fiction novels now, and another recently submitted for review. What have been some of the lessons you’ve learned as a five-time author?
D.M. Pulley: Here’s a little list of the top ten things I’ve picked up over the course of five years and five books:
- A writing goal of 1,500 words a day works for me.
- I write best in pajamas when I’m still half-asleep.
- Even the worst writing days are better than no writing days.
- The research is never done, but I must stop and write at some point.
- The real work happens in the second draft.
- Every book is different.
- Storyboards are my friend.
- Everyone hates writing the synopsis.
- Most writers suffer imposter syndrome at some point.
- Better reading leads to better writing.
WOW: Thank you so much! Your answers validate the importance of not rushing the publication process, and I love how you make everything so accessible for someone like me who isn’t so familiar with the genre. I might add that I just signed up for D.M. Pulley’s monthly newsletter, so I could download the first chapter of her latest book, No One’s Home. I guess you can say I’m slowly warming up to the genre! I’d love to hear from anyone out there who has written crime fiction, paranormal, horror, or mystery. What has been your experience?
Dorit Sasson is an award-winning author of the memoir Accidental Soldier and the upcoming Sand and Steel: A Memoir of Longing and Finding Home. As a book marketing and writing coach specializing in nonfiction, she helps authors use SEO more effectively to get the word out about their books and build their platforms effectively. She hails from Pittsburgh. Email her at sassondorit[at]gmail[dot]com.