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The Sirens of Suspense




Robert Daniels is a clinical psychologist in Atlanta, GA, who is now writing full time. ONCE SHADOWS FALL is his debut novel, available now from Crooked Lane Books.

Find Robert on Facebook and Twitter.



Several years ago when I began working on Once Shadows Fall, I decided to read every book I could find on the craft of writing. They ranged from “Creating Fascinating Characters” to “How to Develop Scintillating Dialogue.” None of them told me, except in the most general terms, how to develop a villain whose pure evil would jump off the page.

A chance meeting with Robert B. Parker during a book convention changed all that.

He was waiting to meet some people and approached me to ask if he could sit at my table. The bar was crowded and there was nowhere else for him to sit, so I said sure. At first, I didn't recognize him. We began talking and he noticed the manuscript I'd been scribbling furiously on and inquired if I was a writer.

“Trying to be,” I said.

To my everlasting embarrassment I asked if he was also a writer.

“Not everyone thinks so,” he said, and took a sip of his beer.

You can't make this stuff up.

He went on to ask about the story and listened politely when I told him—at some length. Eventually, I got around to admitting I was stuck on my villains. He further surprised me by asking to see what I had written. I wasn't sure that was a good idea, but I gave in. I then glanced at his name badge and realized who I was talking to. Feeling like a complete idiot, I slid the papers over.

Twenty minutes later he was still reading. Every once in a while he would pause, look at me, and go back to the manuscript.

Ultimately, he checked his watch, glanced toward the lobby, and spotted his party. He held up a hand for them to wait.

“So, Robert, what do you do when you're not imitating Thomas Harris?”

I felt my face go warm, but answered I was a psychologist.

Parker nodded again, then said, “You've got something here, kid, but you need to develop Howard Pell (my villain) and his disciple more. They're too mechanical and what drives them isn't coming through.”

“How?” I asked.

He reached forward and tapped me on the forehead with this finger. “You've probably come across a number of interesting types in your profession. If one person doesn't fit, take the best of them, or the worst as the case may be, and combine the traits. There's nothing wrong with creating a multisided character.”

A few months later, an Atlanta attorney asked me to interview a client of his who'd been accused of going on eight year killing spree.

As a psychologist, you're supposed to maintain a level of detachment when conducting clinical interviews. I did just that, but the longer we talked the harder it became. The sessions spent with this man were some of the hardest in my career. His eyes were dark brown, and as hard as agates as he described what he had done to his victims and his reasons for doing so. None of it made sense. The narrative was chilling enough and delivered with an utter lack of emotion. No guilt. No remorse. Nothing. This is where the phrase, “I perceived I was looking at a disease, an aberration that shouldn't exist in this world,” comes from in the book. He might just as well have been discussing the stock market.

That night I went home and wrote for fourteen hours straight.

The bottom line when creating characters, and villains in particular, is to suggest certain things about their mind set so a reader will make up his or her own mind. People don't easily surrender beliefs they've arrived at on their own. Regardless of how clever or intricate a plot is, it all comes down to character. No one ever tuned in to Star Trek to see Captain Kirk fire a phasor. They tuned into Star Trek to see Captain Kirk who happened to be holding a phasor.

Howard Pell and his acolyte, the Soul Eater are a blend of three people I interviewed, analyzed, and treated over the years. What made them frightening was that on some level each maintained an awareness of what they had become, but had no idea why they turned out that way. For them, the world was a place of their own making, their reality the only one that mattered.

So, building on Thomas Harris's, Hannibal Lecter and Robert Parker's advice to trust myself and draw on what I knew, I set out to create monsters that walked on two legs.

The following year I returned to the convention to find Bob Parker and thank him. But I never saw him again. After asking around, I was told he had passed away several months earlier.

Dejected, I went down to the bar just before closing and ordered two bottles of Blue Moon Pale Ale. Only the bottles, no glasses. For several minutes I sat there watching the ebb and flow of people moving across the lobby. I then touched the bottles together and whispered a word of thanks to the man who had helped me, took a long drink, and walked back out into the quiet evening


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