Carl Vonderau is the author of thrillers Muderabilia and Saving Myles. You can find out more about him on his website www.carlvonderau.com, or by clicking here, read his last post here, and buy his books here.
The age-old adage for writers is to write about what you know. My philosophy is to write about what you would like to know…and then fill it in with what you do know.
My first book was called Murderabilia. The protagonist was hiding a terrible secret. His father was a serial killer who photographed his female victims. So did I write about what I knew? Dad had his hobbies, but that wasn’t one of them. So how did I get into the minds of a serial killer and the son of a serial killer? The first part wasn’t so pleasant. I read about serial killers and what might have motivated them. Many were born with sociopathic brains that just needed to be triggered. Born crazy doesn’t cut it for fiction writers. The reader must feel a reason for the killer’s actions. The father in my book was triggered by terrible childhood abuse from his mother. As Wordsworth said, “The child is the father of the man.” Did I have any experience of childhood abuse? None. Well, maybe if you count being raised as a Christian Scientist. But not really.
The next question I had was what is it like to be the child of a serial killer? Again, I had to do some research. I read a book by Melissa Moore, the daughter of the Green River Killer, and articles about Kari Rawson, the daughter of BTK. I also went to the internet to learn about the experiences of children of other serial killers. The emotional core I wanted to concentrate on was how the stigma affected the killers’ children. I could imagine the terrible guilt and shame these people had to feel. I saw all the questions they would ask themselves. Like: Who should I tell about my father? What does it mean that I loved a father who could do that to people? When do I reveal to my children the terrible legacy that they share? Is there a genetic component that I or my children might be carrying? These questions produced real emotions based on experiences I never had.
My next book, Saving Myles, was published this past August. It’s about a family pulled apart because of a workaholic father and a troubled teenager. The parents sent their son to a residential treatment center and he came home a year later, seemingly cured. Then he snuck off to Mexico to do a drug deal, only to be kidnapped. The parents had to get involved in money laundering to save him a second time.
You’re probably wondering how I know about money laundering. I’m a banker so…personal experience? I did once have a potential client in Montreal who seemed to have a project in Northern Quebec that looked like a front for money laundering. But other than that? Not really.
So I had to go out to experts to grab some knowledge. An organization that helped was the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists. This is a worldwide organization with thousands of members. They train people in the financial industry on how to spot and report money laundering. I took a few of their courses and went to some of their meetings. I was the only writer, which they must have found weird. I soon learned that one of the principal ways money is laundered is through international trade, which I used to finance. It’s estimated that 7% of all U.S. trade actually involves money laundering. My banking experience also led me to invent a way to launder money I haven’t seen anywhere in the literature.
Other people also helped me. Through my attendance of the International Thriller Writer Conference I made contacts at the FBI and the DEA who talked to me and listened to my ideas. Again, the key was gaining knowledge I didn’t have, and then combining it with what I already knew.
One of the interesting stories I heard involved potatoes. A Latin American drug cartel used its cash to buy potatoes in Idaho. They shipped them to Latin America and sold them to food producers, presumably to make French fries. The creativity used in money laundering is astounding.
Another problem I had in writing Saving Myles was that much of the book is set in Tijuana. I didn’t know the city, but I have friends who work for the YMCA there. They showed introduced me to locales where the scenes could take place. I got a feeling for those settings that I tried to translate to the page. Here’s a picture of the entertainment area I used as a basis for where the kidnapping occurred.
Bottom line? If you don’t know about something you can still write about it. It’s fun to learn, and the research inspires ideas you never would have thought of without it. Then combine what you learn with what you already know.