by Claire Douglas
Some of my favourite thrillers are the police procedural variety, but I’ve always shied away from writing one myself as I imagine it would entail a lot of research on what it’s like to work within the police force. So instead, I tend to have a journalist as the ‘detective’ in my thrillers because I used to be one. After all, as the saying goes, ‘write what you know.’
In my recently published thriller, The Girls Who Disappeared, my main character is Jenna Halliday, an ambitious reporter working for the BBC. She’s been sent to the fictional town of Stafferbury, Wiltshire, in the UK to create a podcast about the strange disappearance of three girls who went missing from a car crash twenty years before. The only survivor back in 1998 was the driver of the car, Olivia Rutherford. Olivia was left with life changing injuries from the accident and, as a result, is very closed and distrustful of others, particularly strangers.
My main challenge was making Jenna sympathetic. Journalists quite often have a bad name and can come across as too hard or too ruthless; driven to get a story at whatever the cost. I wanted the reader to like Jenna and to root for her as she uncovered the truth, whilst making her strong and ambitious enough to get the job done. Ultimately I wanted the reader to relate to Jenna, so to humanise her I decided to make her the mother to a young son, with a husband who has recently left her after fifteen years of marriage, but hasn’t said why. It was essential for Jenna to be warm and caring despite her strength and purpose. To counteract her confident personality, I made the other main character, Olivia, who also narrates sections of the story, quieter, more afraid, and nervous. The way Jenna gets Olivia to open up and to agree to tell her story needed to be authentic but also not too pushy so that the reader doesn’t lose sympathy for Jenna.Of course, with a mystery such as this, it wouldn’t be realistic for Jenna to do it alone. She would need the help of a police contact, so I created Dale, a cold-case expert, to look over the case. As he was only a side character, I didn’t need to have in depth knowledge of how the police force worked. I enjoyed writing the relationship between Dale and Jenna as they hit it off straight away, although both are trying to hold back, each not quite trusting the other, and aware they both have secrets of their own. As a journalist, I had various police contacts, and reporters can sometimes work closely with a detective if it’s mutually beneficial. My aim was to make Jenna and Dale a great team.
Some of my favourite books have journalists as the protagonist, like Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. I used this excellent thriller to inspire me to write Jenna. Even though Jenna isn’t as damaged as Flynn’s Camille, they both have their demons and their reasons for wanting the case solved, which make them the ideal protagonists to tell the story.
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