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Want to Write the Next Gone Girl? Illuminating the Edge of Dark Contemporary Fiction

[1]Please welcome multi-published and USA Today bestselling novelist Kaira Rouda [2] to Writer Unboxed today! Kaira’s latest novel, Best Day Ever: A Psychological Thriller [3], released just last month. A little more about her:

Kaira is the author of Here, Home, Hope, The Goodbye Year, In the Mirror and All the Difference. Her stories explore what goes on behind closed doors of seemingly perfect lives. She lives in Southern California with her family, and is at work on her next novel.

We’re thrilled Kaira is with us today to share what she knows about writing dark contemporary fiction, and its many secretive characters. (New York Times bestselling author Kimberly McCreight called Kaira’s narrator in Best Day Ever, “unreliable and chillingly unrepentant.”)

Learn more about Kaira on her website [2], and by following her on Twitter [4] and Facebook [5].

Want to Write the Next Gone Girl? Illuminating the Edge of Dark Contemporary Fiction

It’s so great to be back at Writer Unboxed. My first post here was back in 2011 when my debut novel, Here, Home, Hope, was published. Described as featuring a woman with a mid-life makeover, my first novel’s cover is adorned with blue hydrangeas and a woman rocking contentedly on a porch. It is a sweet, happy suburban story complete with an inspiring Things to Change list, right?

Sort of. . .

I love to write stories about what goes on behind closed doors of seemingly perfect lives. My debut is contemporary fiction, with shadows. To me the story isn’t in the perfection, it is in the darker side of suburban life. Even in my seemingly benign first novel, characters deal with eating disorders, alcoholism, adultery and other edgy, dark elements. But essentially, the story hinges on optimism, humor and heart. A woman finding herself again.

Four novels, one short story and a couple of romance series later…

I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned about the publishing industry, about genres, about agents and publishers, about publicity and social media. I’ve joined organizations such as WFWA, RWA, ITWA and The Tall Poppies. I’ve even been to Book Expo in New York. But mostly, I’ve learned to trust my gut, to write the story I want to read. And so far my gut seems fixated on topics of privilege and secrets. And the fact is, despite our best attempts to fake it, nobody’s life is perfect.

Since my debut, I’ve released several more books all set in the suburbs and all dealing with heavy themes. One features a young wife and mother with serious cancer, and an ex-boyfriend who isn’t what he seems. Another features a protagonist who is also a murderer.

Best Day Ever is my most overtly dark book yet and is considered psychological suspense. I’m not sure where the exact tipping point is between dark women’s fiction and psychological suspense, but this one has crossed over. The protagonist, Paul, is a suburban husband and father who seemingly loves his wife and their perfect life together. But, of course, everything is not what it seems. It’s a heavy book but, to me, topics that reveal the sinister side of life test my characters and help them grow on the page.

It’s a fact of life, no matter how we gloss things over on our social media posts, bad things happen all the time. To good people. To bad people. We make mistakes. We choose the wrong people to love, to trust. It’s how we respond to these challenges, these scary surprises in life, which is where the real stories are.

Think you want to write the next Gone Girl? No, you don’t. You want to write your truth, your great story in your own way.

But…

Domestic suspense is big right now. Psychological thrillers are selling like hot cakes. We all know you shouldn’t chase trends, but what you should do is always push yourself and your stories. If you think it would be fun to write darker, twistier stories like Gone Girl, then by all means, you should try. Especially if you enjoy reading Ruth Ware, Liane Moriarty, A.J. Banner, Kimberly McCreight, Mary Kubica, Kimberly Belle, and you watched Jessica Fletcher and read Nancy Drew. It’s probably there, inside you.

Do you already write on the lighter side of life? Why not jump into the edgier shadows with me?

Here are a few things I’ve learned:
[6]

  1. There is a story lurking behind every door on your street, every floor of your apartment building. Listen. Find one that feels real to you.
  2. Most of us live within a community, and with that comes pressures and drama that can feel singular but tends to be universal in theme. I cannot tell you how many times a reader has said she thought one of my fictional suburbs was hers in disguise.
  3. Watch Law & Order. Read People magazine. Vanity Fair. I mean, there are grown ups behaving badly all over the media if you need extra inspiration.
  4. There are degrees of darkness. I personally don’t like to write about children missing or harmed, but that’s just me. Know your own line.
  5. Despite serious themes in this type of fiction, you need to balance dark with light. It is not the twists and turns, the shocking reveals, that stick with your readers in the end. It’s how you make them feel.
  6. Your browser history just got very interesting. To research Best Day Ever, I spent a lot of time in chat rooms created for survivors of relationships with narcissists. And of course, the narcissists would pop in and defend themselves, their kind. Truly chilling.
  7. Your goal is to create a fictional world that feels real. As an author, you need to feel comfortable there. And then have fun creating your story.

Welcome to the dark side. And write on!

Do you write darker fiction? Did you struggle to ‘go there’? How did you face that edge, and push yourself over it to write it? Share your stories in comments.