Writing Serial Killer Thrillers –BLOG POST IN THE STRAND MAGAZINE
In this blog, thriller writer Rick Reed discusses writing serial killer novels. In the next blog he will discuss the various categories of serial killers, motivation, mobility, profiling value, importance of body count. In future blogs he will discuss the international aspects to serial killers. Rick was a homicide detective and gained a unique perspective when he caught a serial killer in 2000. He retired from law enforcement after 26 years. He earned two Masters Degrees and became a professor of Criminal Justice. He has developed and taught a course titled Serial Killers the Global Perspective. He is the author of the Detective Jack Murphy thriller series.
I must confess up front that I can’t teach you how to write. I can only tell you what I have learned about serial killers and my own style(s) of writing serial killer thriller novels.
I have the advantage of having arrested numerous murderers. A murder is the intentional killing of a human being. Anything else is homicide. I’ve been to the murder scenes, talked to the witnesses, observed the autopsies, talked to the victims and suspects families, interviewed the suspect, prepared case files, met with prosecutors and have taken the witness stand. That is quite an advantage if you write books about murder.
I don’t write about the actual crimes or use actual crimes in my stories. However I do take all of the real situations I’ve been involved with and break them down to their basic components: What led up to the crime? What was the trigger? Who did what? Why? How did they decide on the method of killing? Why? What was the motivation? Anger, fear, defense, loss, hurt, greed, sex denied, abandonment, or did they just want to kill? How did the suspect act at the time of interview? How did they act in court?
Sometimes there is no reason except fulfilling a need, like hunger, thirst, relief of pain. They may want to see If they could get away with it? Notoriety? Some incidents spur copy-cat killers. I imagine there are several murders that are planned to look like the original killer’s work to avoid detection. Or like politicians, they want to leave behind a legacy. Some serial killers started out wanting to know what it felt like to take a life? In one of his last murders Bundy had sex with a minor female while strangling her. He said he wanted to feel her die. We can psychoanalyze a killer all day and still not know his drive to commit the worst of crimes. What do they look like? None of us—without knowing ahead of time—could pick a serial killer out of a line up. There is good and evil in all of us.
I use bits and pieces of real characters I’ve known. Some I’ve read about and mix them together. If I need a particular personality I can usually find it among the people I’ve dealt with. I worked in the county jail for 6 years before joining the police department so I have an abundant crop of people to choose from. I know how they talk, how they move, what they like, who their family and friends are. This allows to me put a face (the strongest personality) to my character and I can become them while they are acting or talking. The character decides their own course of action in most cases. Of course, if you use a real person please change the name and description.
The location of the crime and condition the body is found in is very important:
Where was the victim killed? Was the body transported and dumped? Was there and attempt to hide the victims identity? Why? How were they killed? Was it overkill? Rage?
The ex-boyfriend/serial killer I caught had dismembered and spread body parts over three counties. Her head was found maybe 500 yards from the residence of the victims youngest daughter. He said he wanted the daughter (who had never liked him) to look out her back door and not know her mom was right out there. Sick? Yes. Rational? No. But it was an indicator of his personality. Punishing women for slights. This was a theme for his killings.
I’ve been in an actual serial killers head and it’s hard to come back to normal. When you see evil through their eyes it changes you forever. I call this PTKD, Post Traumatic Killer Disorder. In 2000 I was working in Bunco Fraud (white collar crime). A bank fraud, check kiting case turned into a missing person and then into a murder investigation. I worked in Indiana but caught up with the suspect in Ohio. After several hours he admitted that he’d killed the victim (an ex-girlfriend), cut her into pieces with a knife, scissors and a Sawzall, then spread the body parts over three different counties.
When I found the victim’s torso it was wrapped in a bloody sheet, put in a plastic yard bag, stuffed in a clothes hamper and tossed out in the area of a stripper pit. The torso had underwear on but no other clothing. The underwear was on inside out. Maybe she put them on wrong but the woman was very meticulous in every other part of her life. I believed the killer had put them back on the torso after killing her. Why? He told me. He said “She was a modest woman. I didn’t want her to be found like that.”
Another earlier victim was dumped on a gravel shoulder/ditch beside a county road. This one was totally naked and displayed on her back. He was in a rage because he had paid her for sex and when he came out of the restroom after the deal was concluded he caught her stealing money from his wallet. I asked why he dumped her like she was found. He said she was a hooker and had almost no breasts. She wouldn’t take her top off while they had sex because she was ashamed of that part of her anatomy. He said he left her on her back, stripped naked, because he wanted to humiliate her. He wanted the whole world to see she was flat. He had transported that body to a different county to dump her to confuse the investigation.
I was with this guy for just under 60 straight hours (he got breaks to rest, eat, bathroom, etc.) but I continued to work. While I was with him I had to take on a different personality. Become the person he needed me to be, but strong enough to be an equal in the conversation. I didn’t interrogate him. We talked. I found at the end of this I truly had some compassion for him and a great understanding of how he came to do his crime. He was sexually and physically abused as a child and his mother knew but didn’t protect him. He hated women. He killed women. He sexually and physically abused them. When I had him arrested in Ohio he was on his way to kill his brother and the brothers wife and kids. He was mad at them. Especially the wife.
He pleaded guilty to the one murder that was in my jurisdiction, the other murder was never charged by that jurisdiction. He later admitted to me that he’d killed thirteen other young women from Pennsylvania to Nevada. I interviewed him for weeks at a time over a two year period and was only satisfied I could prove only one of the thirteen murders. He said several times he was afraid of the death penalty.
How I write:
I don’t start with an outline. Here’s why. When I was a detective I let the suspect do most of the talking. With every fact they gave me it locked them into a location, time, reason, who was where, when, etc. If they changed their story I had two or more versions to investigate. One would be true, the others lies. If they were lying what were they trying to hide? They lie when they don’t want you to look in that particular skeletons closet.
Writing is like that. Characters lie. Investigators lie. All for a reason. Victims and witnesses lie too. The victim or witness might be the bad actor. The victim and witness can be in cahoots. (I like that word.) All this makes the story real. Dialog is usually the best way to drive a scene.
I start with a look at my killer. What does he want? Then I come up with his victim. Then I start writing. When I have about 60 pages I go back and do a chapter outline. Very minimal. Just enough to remember who was in the scene (Col. Mustard killed Prof. Plum), where it happened (library of victim’s house), day and time (Day 1 around 10am). This is my timeline and outline combined. If weather is a factor you don’t want a character going out in the winter without a jacket. If they are wearing a jacket how does it affect the action in the scene? Plausibility.
Before I start writing I always have an idea what I want to write about. The idea leads me to the plot, the plot introduces the characters and before you know it, the novel comes to an end. I never have an ending in mind. I like to be surprised. I figure if I’m surprised, the reader will be too.
After the initial burst of writing I always find I need more research than what I thought I knew. Never trust what you read in the news. Serial killers don’t all wet the bed, torture animals or start fires. (Macdonald’s Triad) Luckily, if you write fiction, you can lie all you want about the killer’s reasons, life, desires, etc. But you still need to understand your killer to get in his head. This sounds easy. It’s easy to get in, but getting out… Now that’s the trick. You pay a price for writing thrillers with a serial killer character.
My real life serial killer:
He went to prison and a couple of years later strangled his roommate to death, packed up his belongings, called to the front desk and told them, “You’d better get down here. He’s going to start stinking.” He is currently serving two “Life Without Parole” sentences in Indiana in Super Max.
In my next blog I will discuss the types of killers and what qualifies them as a serial killer. How many serial killers are there among us? And I’ll add some inks to research studies.
Rick Reed is the author of the nine Detective Jack Murphy thriller series and a true crime book. . Rick was a homicide detective and gained a unique perspective when he caught a serial killer in 2000. He retired from law enforcement after 26 years. He earned two Masters Degrees and became a professor of Criminal Justice. He has developed and taught a course titled Serial Killers the Global Perspective. He is the author of the Detective Jack Murphy thriller series. You can reach him through his website at www.RickReedBooks.com or through www.KensingtonBooks.com.