Kathryn Reiss on writing Kathryn Reiss



Thrills and Chills

Prickles at the Back of the Neck: Writing Suspense Fiction

by Kathryn Reiss

I do not associate with murderers, imposters, or kidnappers, and my life so far has been blessedly free of danger. I’ve never stumbled through a time portal, however much I’ve hoped to find one, nor have I chanced upon a magic talisman, though I keep close watch. Ghostly sightings, likewise, have been disappointingly few and far between. I think I’m probably like most of my readers in that I get my thrills by communing with fictional characters in books who have all the adventures that continue to elude me.

My books are not based on personal experiences but on my interests. I write the same sort of thing I love to read: murder mysteries and time travel tales and creepy stories of the supernatural--and especially about kids and teens who stumble upon magic, and then have to deal with the consequences.

Often the magic discovered in my stories leads my characters--modern teens--into the past. I have a keen interest in history, and how the past affects our present. One of my favorite quotes comes from William Faulkner, who said: “The past is not dead. In fact, it is not even past.” I’ve used his idea in most of my books.

A story from the past figures importantly in the plot of each novel, and has bearing on the characters’ lives. In Paint By Magic, there is a tragic event from decades past which needs to be investigated and understood before peace and safety in Connor’s life are possible, and there are ghosts from long ago in Sweet Miss Honeywell’s Revenge who need Zibby’s and Jude’s help before they can rest, and there are secrets from another era that have bearing on the here and now in Pale Phoenix, leading my intrepid characters, Miranda and Dan, to travel centuries backward before they can save the day.

But connection to the past comes not only through physical time travel or contact with ghosts. In PaperQuake, past meets present via a paper trail of letters and diaries; in Dreadful Sorry via dreams and visions; in Time Windows via an antique dollhouse, and in both The Glass House People and Blackthorn Winter via the route most common to us in real life: memories.

The best suspense fiction pulls readers in fast and keeps them riveted to the characters’ struggles. Yet too often for my liking, creepy stories tend to be violent, offering graphic descriptions of blood and gore to capture and hold the readers’ attention. To my mind, that device seems too easy--a cheap ploy. I’m trying, instead, to write stories that make readers burrow under their covers, holding their breath as they follow my characters into unexpected places, exploring the dangerous, uncharted territory of magic. I’m hoping they’ll refuse to turn out their bedside lights until the last page. I can feel I’ve done my job as a writer if I leave my readers with two things at the end of a book: First--a new sense that all sorts of things they never thought of before just might be possible, seen and unseen, past and present--much as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet:
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
And, second--a delicious prickle at the back of their necks!

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