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Joe Hart: Five Things I Learned Writing The River Is Dark

In a small town along the Mississippi River, separate but nearly identical attacks have left two married couples brutally murdered in their homes. A young boy—the lone survivor of the killings—now lies comatose in the hospital. And the police’s only lead is the boy’s terrified description of the assailant: a “monster.”

Enter former homicide detective Liam Dempsey, whose estranged brother fell victim to the killer. Dragged into the investigation as a suspect, Dempsey vows to solve the case and clear his name. But two things stand between him and the truth: a web of local politics, and the grim secrets the victims held close. All the while, a murderer with boundless hatred continues to raise the body count.

As the troubled ex-cop tries to pull justice from the town’s emotional wreckage, he realizes that his could be the next life lost to the killer’s ruthless, twisted plan for revenge.


I’ve always been a horror writer. Since the moment I picked up The Shining at age 11 I was hooked. That creeping sense of wrongness in a novel that’s just inexplicably there, that’s my drug. So after writing several horror novels I decided I wanted to write a more traditional thriller, partly because I like to push my boundaries and partly because of my admiration for some of the excellent thrillers I’ve read in the past. But when I started writing, the horror kept slipping in like a draft through a cracked door. I’d write a scene and then look at it and say, that would be at home in nearly any horror novel. It bothered me for a while but after reading it over and over, I realized it worked. A thriller is the better-dressed sister of horror, and once I knew that it was okay to let things ride, the book began to flow smoothly.


At least for me anyway. I know, I know, I just said I incorporated horror into the book, but since I was writing a traditional thriller and not a supernatural one, I had to play by the rules. If a man is killed in a locked room in a traditional thriller, you as the author have to figure out an ingenious way that the killer was able to get in and out of the room that readers aren’t going to find obvious. If a man is killed in a locked room in a supernatural thriller- the ghost did it and walked through the wall, end of story. Playing within the boundaries of a human adversary was trickier than writing about a monster or a ghost because mortals are governed by more laws, and thus, so is the writer.


Everyone says to write what you know and settings definitely fall under that advice. But even with Google Earth I find that going to a place and absorbing it in person always has a deeper affect on me for when I start creating a setting. I live in Minnesota and I think lots of people would be surprised at how diverse the landscape is. In the south we have flat plains and farmland, the center of the state can be hilly and scattered with fields as well as forests, and the north is basically one big amalgam of trees, swamp, and lakes. Not to mention we’re bordered by Lake Superior and there’s some places with some pretty wicked cliffs. I used the cliffs in The River Is Dark several times for different purposes- sometimes metaphorically and sometimes as a physical antagonist. I know it’s not feasible for everyone to travel where they want to set a book, but take a moment to look at the places that are right outside your door, you might be surprised at how unique they are.


When I started writing River I wasn’t sure that my characters would be continuing past that book, but about mid-way through I knew that they had much more potential than just a single story. I began to see multiple books in their future and when I did, the first thing I asked myself was what are the long-term arcs for each character? Now I already had the short-term arcs figured out (this is what I call the arc the character travels through in a single book) but I started to look beyond that, started to see what the future had in store for each of them. When ideas began floating around for the next few books, I could see an overall path that the characters would take. This is important because it ties directly into theme, and plot, sub-plots, and overall conflict. If you know your character well, the bulk of the story they travel through will emerge for you like headlights illuminating a road. They’re your people, the most intimate you’ll ever be with someone in the fact that they share your mind. Know who they are and where they’re going, they won’t lead you astray.


This is one of my favorite quotes from Mr. Bradbury just because of the simplicity of it and also because it reminds us of a primary benefit of writing: FUN. I learned this when I wrote my very first short story at the age of 9, but it’s still as true today as it was then. Writing is work and sometimes it’s hard, but you should always be able to find joy in it. If not, then why choose to do it? Find glory and elation in your work, pull out the stops and cut the brakes. Roll that soapbox-car of a novel to the edge of the hill, rub your hands together and say HOLY SHIT, THIS IS GOING TO BE FUN!

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Joe Hart was born and raised in northern Minnesota, where he still resides today. He’s been writing horror and thriller fiction since he could hold a pencil. He is the author of six novels and numerous short stories, including the books Singularity, Lineage: A Supernatural Thriller, and The Waiting. When he’s not writing, Joe enjoys reading, working out, watching movies with his family, and spending time outdoors.

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