Insight / novels / Research / Thriller

Asking Questions, Writing Answers

No fiction is created in a vacuum; at the core of all writers is a jumble of thoughts, experiences, beliefs, emotions and lots of odds and ends, all waiting to be tapped and then assembled to form story. Every one of my novels, whether it’s a humorous children’s story about a truck-driving grandmother or a burping bushranger, has resulted from mining snippets of my subconscious and then deliberately shaping them.

– by Dianne Bates

My latest novel, The Girl in the Basement (Morris Publishing Australia), is about a teenager abducted on her sixteenth birthday by a psychopathic serial killer who wants to create a family. Thank heavens I’m not a psychopath, but at times in my life I have experienced feelings of rage and of revenge, emotions which I explored to create Psycho Man. And too, I still remember how it felt to be a teenager: it was much easier to mine those memories to create the Libby Bramble. Both Libby and Psycho Man demanded to be heard, so I wrote the book using multiple viewpoints: Libby tells her story in first person while the kidnapper’s story is told in third person. I wanted to show Libby always living in the moment whereas the kidnapper, being more elusive and anonymous, needed to be presented in a cloak of mystery. The use of present tense throughout the novel means there is more immediacy to the story as events unfold.

The Girl in the Basement is based on the real-life discovery in 1987 of a Polaroid photograph picked up by a shopper in a Florida (US) car park. It showed a teenage girl, and a boy about ten who were both bound and gagged and who appeared to be in the back of a van. Disturbed by the photo, the finder took it to police.  Hundreds of stories with the picture were run in national media, including a TV program, Missing People. This resulted in the parents of both children contacting police. The boy was said to be Michael Henley, who had gone missing from a camping trip 17 months earlier. The girl, identified as Tara Calico, had disappeared 75 miles away a year earlier while out cycling. Both Michael and Tara were from New Mexico but were unrelated. For their parents, it was the first inkling of what had happened to them.

I was distressed by the story and often wondered if either of the victims were ever found. As it turned out, there were numerous unconfirmed sightings of Tara in 1988 and 1989, mostly in the southern half of the United States. However, she has never been found, alive or dead. Remains found in the Zuni Mountains in June 1990 were eventually identified as Michael’s. It is believed he died of natural causes. Thus the identity of the boy in the photo is still unknown.

In developing a storyline for the novel, I needed to ask and answer many questions. What if a demented man is lonely and wants a family? What if he stalks young girls looking for one who is ‘ideal’? What does he consider ‘ideal’? Where would he keep her and for how long? What if he also wants a ‘son’? How does he capture his victims? What if the children he imprisons are resistant to his efforts to tame them?

A long time spent thinking and making notes and linking answers to one another resulted in a storyline beginning to develop. Next, I needed to consider where to begin the story. I needed to know, too, whether the kidnapped teenage girl and the younger boy ever escaped, and if they did, how? What might happen during their time of imprisonment? I needed, too, to think about and to map out background stories for my main characters – their present and past relationships, where they lived, what motivated them in life. And, too, I needed to plan settings, especially the house where Psycho Man keeps his captives. How might he treat them there? What freedoms, if any, might he grant them? How does he keep them alive? Importantly, does he allow them to live?

The Girl in the Basement sets a scenario of how the combination of being a teenage girl, over-indulging in alcohol, being alone, being in the wrong place, and being very unlucky can predicate abduction. More than any demographic, young women are likely to be victims of crime, especially kidnapping, so it’s not surprising that teenage girls would have a fear of being abducted by a stranger. Wikipedia reports dozens of cases of kidnapped victims over the past century; some have been found alive, but many were murdered. I was helped in my understanding of the psychology of a captive by reading about the experiences of young females such as Jaycee Lee Dugard, Natascha Kaumpsch and Sabine Dardenne who were held by different psychopaths at different times in different countries. Dardenne’s book I Choose to Live, about her 80 days in captivity, gave me a real insight into the experience and mindset of being kidnapped.

The Girl in the Basement offers readers an insight into how it is possible to survive one of the hardest curveballs that life can throw so I needed to present Libby, the hero of the story, as a young woman who is resilient, resourceful, independent, caring, and brave. And I needed the reader to understand what it must be like to be unhinged, as Psycho Man doubtless is. I needed to show how he functions in ‘normal’ society, just as Ariel Castro, the abductor of three young women in Cleveland, Ohio, fooled many people for so long by appearing to be ‘normal’. Reading many real-life crime books and crime novels helped me enormously in preparing to write and to actually craft my psychological thriller.

The writing of The Girl in the Basement (which underwent numerous draft titles) took about five years. Before submitting it to a publisher, I not only underwent weekly copy-editing workshops with my husband, award-winning YA author Bill Condon and a group of three other published authors, but I also paid for the finished draft to be assessed by a professional, in-house editor. She made many suggestions, all of which I followed in order to finish with a manuscript I finally decided was publishable.

My experience with major publishers is that they invariably spend up to 12 months (often longer) sitting on their manuscript slush piles. As I wasn’t prepared to wait this long, I took a gamble on a relatively new publisher, Morris Publishing Australia, based in Brisbane. Luckily I received a reply before too long and it was positive.

Publisher Elaine Outson – who has 27 years in marketing — has been wonderful to work with, and has produced a book with a cover and design that I’m really happy with. Her print book distributor is Dennis Jones and Associates http// and the e-book is available on Amazon.

Dianne Bates, is well-known in the children’s book world, having published over 120 books and won the Lady Cutler Award for distinguished services to children’s literature. Di has won numerous grants and literary awards for her books, some of which have sold overseas and in translation. She lives in Wollongong NSW with her award-winning YA author husband, Bill Condon and is currently writing another crime novel. You can find out more about Di, her books and other projects at:

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