Mystery Scene continues it series in which authors discuss their writing process. In this essay, Dana Ridenour writes about how her career in the FBI influences her novels.
Author Dana Ridenour, left, is a retired FBI agent who spent most of her career as an FBI undercover operative, infiltrating criminal organizations including the Animal Liberation Front, an organization of domestic terrorists. Her debut, Behind The Mask, is based on her personal experiences working as an undercover agent, and won numerous literary awards and was named one of the best indie books of 2016 by Kirkus Reviews.
Her second novel, Beyond The Cabin, is set in the South Carolina Lowcountry, and was awarded the 2018 Royal Palm Literary Award for Best Thriller or Suspense.
Below The Radar was is her latest novel.
Ridenour lives in Beaufort, S.C., where she is working on her fourth novel.
How my life as an FBI Undercover Agent Helped Me See Both Sides
If you have read any of the books in my Lexie Montgomery FBI series, then you know that I’m not afraid to write about contentious subject matters. As an undercover FBI agent, I spent years using deception to gain information and evidence for criminal prosecutions. The world is not black and white and undercover agents operate in the gray.
Subjects are not all bad and law enforcement officers are not all good. There is good and bad in each of us. My undercover experience has given me the insight to write about controversial subject matters in a tactful, unbiased manner.
Here are a few suggestions for writers who deal with contentious themes.
If you’re going to write about a sensitive topic, please do your research. There are always two sides to the topic and you need to understand both sides. My first long-term undercover case in the FBI required me to infiltrate a radical animal rights group.
My mission was to target the radical extremists who were committing serious crimes such as arson. To accomplish this mission, I had to immerse myself into the activist lifestyle. I learned their culture and beliefs. This remarkable experience helped me to understand the animal rights extremist ideology and later served as the basis for the three books in the Lexie Montgomery series.
Most people assume that I dislike animal activists, but that’s simply not true. In fact, I have a great respect for the men and women who champion the various animal rights causes. Because of my time working undercover, I was able to experience the activist culture and way of life.
I encountered so many marvelous people who devoted their lives to saving animals. There is nothing wrong with being an activist. In fact, our country was founded on the ideology that as Americans we have the right to protest and change what is wrong in our country. However, the right does not apply to individuals who break federal laws and put innocent lives in danger.
As a writer, you have to draw on your life experiences to help you effectively write painful or controversial moments. Use your personal insights to make your character’s responses believable. Use empathy to be a more compassionate writer.
In my novels, Special Agent Lexie Montgomery is the “good guy”, but I didn’t want to simply use the activist characters as “bad guys.” I wanted to intelligently show both sides of the issue which would force readers to think about the implications of the subject matter on their own lives. I wanted readers to examine their own beliefs and worldviews.
In all three of my novels, healing is a theme.
My main character faces difficult obstacles and things don’t always end up as she would like. She has to find a way to heal, overcome and find hope again. Life has a way of kicking us in the teeth, so I enjoy writing about finding light after overcoming a dark, turbulent time in life. Showing the raw, vulnerable side of a character makes the character more interesting and believable.
When writing about sensitive topics, always treat the subject with respect. Unless you are intentionally writing a piece where the goal is to shock the reader, try to not disrespect one side or the other. Think about why you are writing the piece and if you are allowing your own biases to dictate the direction of your story.
Face it, it’s difficult to be 100 percent objective. From early in life, we are conditioned to take sides. If your goal is to write an opinion piece, then consider at least acknowledging counter arguments and be respectful of the other side.
Always consider your audience when writing a piece that deals with sensitive subject matter. Writers have to determine the best way to deal with extreme violence and other horrible atrocities.
When I worked undercover, I witnessed so much brutality and barbaric acts against animals.
As a writer, I considered my target audience to determine how much savagery to include in the novels. Part of me wanted to show the readers what I had seen and give them a vivid image of the brutality. If I did this, I knew the squeamish readers would slam the book shut and never finish the novel.
The goal is for people to read my stories, not run away screaming. I found the middle ground, allowing me to tell my stories in a realistic manner without offending people.
When writing about controversial subject matters, always remember there are two sides to every story. If you show integrity and compassion, people will read your work.
During a recent trip to San Francisco, my husband and I were able to take a few days and drive down to Monterrey and Carmel.
I have always thought this is one of the most beautiful areas of California, and we made the most of it by spending several days in Monterrey, visiting the aquarium, walking around Carmel and making the 17-mile drive of Pebble Beach.
So what does this have to do with mysteries.
It had been 22 years since we visited this area—the last time was for my first Bouchercon held in 1997 in Monterrey.
This Bouchercon hooked me forever on the conference. Since then, I have only missed two.
Before this Bouchercon, I never knew such an event existed.
I think this was one of the largest Bouchercons—2,200 people attended if I am remembering correctly.
I fondly remember meeting Bill and Toby Gottfried, who put on a hell of a conference; being introduced to Donald Westlake and Sara Paretsky; meeting this new author who had just won an award, Harlan Coben; having a long conversation with Charlaine Harris about her Shakespeare series; hearing Val McDermid talk about her watch; participating on my first Bouchercon panel moderated by Janet Rudolph. At night, we heard the seals barking.
I bring this up because it is nearing time for another Bouchercon.
This year, Bouchercon will be Oct. 31 through Nov. 3 in Dallas.
Guests of Honor include Peter Lovesey, Hank Phillippi Ryan, James Patterson, Deborah Crombie, Felix Francis, Harry Hunsicker and McKenna Jordan.
In addition, there will be hundreds of other authors representing every aspect of the mystery genre.
In addition to the numerous authors, Bouchercon 2019 celebrates the 50th of anniversary of the convention.
Plan to party in Dallas.