By Oline H. Cogdill

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.


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