Murderous Thoughts: From Nonfiction to Fiction

Jan 11, 2023 | 2023 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze

by C.B. Peterson

Have you ever wished another person dead? Maybe you’ve envisioned an especially aggravating boss slipping and falling on her way into the office so that she was permanently excised from your life? Or gleefully imagined murdering your upstairs neighbor, the one who makes your life a living hell with their loud music at 2 a.m. and inconsiderate parking?

Well, according to psychologists, these homicidal thoughts are pretty common. Indeed, according to criminal psychologist Dr. Julia Shaw, honorary research associate at University College, London, 1 out of every 2 of us has brief murderous thoughts about another person. What’s more, these thoughts aren’t always a bad thing.

Of course, most people don’t act on these fantasies. They think about the consequences of a murderous act, and may even feel empathy for their homicidal target, then stick to their moral code, according to Shaw.

But what if homicidal thoughts actually did lead to murder? That’s the question at the heart of my first domestic thriller, I Want Him Dead. What would tip a person from merely wishing someone dead to actually doing the deed? And what would make the protagonist, if not entirely sympathetic, at least understandable in her motive?

I thought immediately of a mother wanting to protect her child. I imagined suburban mom, Amber Stillman, with two children, a handsome husband, living in a nice house in a middle-class, small insular community, similar to the island of Alameda near San Francisco, where I live.

Amber also needed a scapegoat for her brittle, failing marriage, her son’s growing independence from her, and her younger daughter’s troubles. What better scapegoat than her son Ethan’s new best friend, Trevor? A friend Amber thinks exerts a dangerous, evil influence leading her son off the path she’d chosen for him. Could Amber murder to protect Ethan and save her family? Maybe.

Here’s the opening of the novel.

From my perch atop the hard aluminum bleachers, I see Trevor in his white pickup truck, circling the high school parking lot like a shark. The truck’s distinctive throaty rumble, a sound I’ve come to loathe with every fiber of my being, drowns out the boys’ shouts on the soccer field. Then Trevor honks his air horn a few times, piercing my every nerve.

Instinctively, I grit my teeth. Hard. Pain shoots through the cracked molar I’ve been meaning to get fixed.

I dream of killing him and wonder how. Set his truck on fire? Slice the brake cable? That’s if I could find it. Too obvious. The police could trace that. Spike his drink with antifreeze? He’s such an idiot. It would be easy. I bet he wouldn’t even notice.

I curse him under my breath. Why can’t Trevor leave Ethan alone?

The novel is told from a number of viewpoints: Amber’s, her husband Matt’s, Ethan’s, and a detective’s. I wanted to see if I could write a thriller in multiple points of view, like some of my favorite authors, and if I could keep the reader guessing as to who actually kills Trevor.

No spoilers here. I wrote this novel, the first I published, in 2022 in a few months during a tough time in my personal life. Being in Amber’s head was the most fun I would have all day. And I couldn’t wait to sit down at the computer to get into her head and escape my own.

I’ve wanted to be a novelist since the fifth grade when I wrote my first mystery. Fast forward several decades in which I’d gotten a PhD in English, taught college writing for many years, married, had a family, then quit academia to focus on nonfiction writing, supporting myself as a freelance journalist and health writer, which I am now.

Before COVID hit, I’d written three mystery novels and started revising them in lockdown. But working all day as a nonfiction writer, and then revising the novels, just made me miserable. Lockdown was hard enough. I wanted something fun. I wanted a thriller to take me away from my life just as I do when I read thrillers. So, I abandoned the mystery revisions and started with Amber.

It was only as I was finishing the draft that a scene from my own life came back to me. It was over a decade ago when my son was in elementary school. I remember standing with several other mothers at after-school pickup waiting for our kids to come out of the classroom.

I overheard one mother saying loudly and quite heatedly how she wished several girls in her daughter’s class dead. She wanted them killed. Every single one of them. They’d been excluding her daughter from playdates and sleepovers, and generally ostracizing her daughter who was devastated by their behavior.

I was shocked that someone could vocalize such murderous wishes. And to a group of other parents no less. Looking back, I’d probably stored this shocking scene in my unconscious, and it came out when writing about Amber and her family.

That’s the thing I love about writing fiction. Unlike my nonfiction, I don’t outline, and I never know what’s coming next. When I recalled this real-life scene, I felt relief. Amber was in good company. But does she go further from just thinking about murder? I hope you’ll read the novel to find out.

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C. B. Peterson is a Bay-Area writer whose short fiction has recently appeared in Pulphouse Fiction Magazine and Kings RivervLife Magazine. A nonfiction writer by day, her essays and articles have appeared in dozens of publications from Glamour to WebMD and is the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Nonfiction. I Want Him Dead is her first published novel. Find her at

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