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Stranger than fiction: how true crimes inspire my writing by Rachel Amphlett


There’s one particular question that authors are asked on a frequent basis: where do you get your ideas from?

For me, it’s an easy answer – I’m a news junkie, and I spend an hour or so every day reading the headlines to seek out that one particular story that makes me stop in my tracks and think “what if?” and often it’s found in true crime.

The first book in my Detective Kay Hunter series, Scared to Death grew from such an idea.

Could you really scare someone to death?


Think how frightened you’d be if you were burgled in the safety of your own home. You’d be terrified.

It comes down to our evolutionary programming – that “fight or flight” mechanism that protects all species and is our body’s physical response to being scared.

When faced with a life-threatening situation, our heart rate increases, sending blood to our muscles so that we’re in a position to run away. The nervous system creates adrenaline to signal to our body that it needs to enter the flight or fight mode. Adrenaline can be toxic in large amounts – and deadly for the heart muscle.

'Scared to Death' by Rachel Amphlett
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Of course, your body returns to normal once the danger has passed but what if that danger didn’t pass? What if you received such a fright that the subsequent adrenaline spike stopped your heart?

Now that I had my method, I had to find out if it was believable. Had it ever happened in real life, and was there documentary evidence to prove it?

A quick search brought up several stories of people being scared to death. 

Discounting larger events, I honed in on true stories about investigations into sudden deaths caused by fright and was amazed to discover that a lot of research has been carried out by medical experts over the years. Often the victim had heart issues prior to death, but it was possible.

“Everybody has motive for what they do. Something that drives them.”

Rachel Amphlett

So, I had my method and I had my supporting documentation to prove that it was viable. All I had to do now was think about a frightening situation within which to place my victim.

As the idea progressed, the story evolved into a kidnapping gone wrong and, sadly, this does happen.

Sometimes it’s because the family have chosen not to involve the police at the kidnappers’ insistence when in reality, the police in the UK (where the story is set) are very capable of managing kidnapping incidents – which is why you rarely hear about them.

But, every now and again a story appears in the news where a person is found murdered following a kidnapping gone wrong and it was reading about one of these that got my writer brain thinking.

My bookshelf today is littered with books about forensics, anatomy of motive, information about criminal psychology – all based on true crimes that have been solved over the years. It may be that I only need the information in one or two chapters of these books, but that information is critical.

When sketching out the initial idea for a new story, one thing I do is ascertain what motivates each and every one of my characters. It doesn’t matter if they’re one of the good guys, or one of the bad guys. Everybody has motive for what they do. Something that drives them.

'Gone to Ground', the latest in the Detective Kay Hunter series.
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My antagonist in Scared to Death is motivated by power and revenge, and readers are given an insight into why this is the case. I wanted to create an uncomfortable sensation of empathy towards the killer; a way for readers to understand what had happened in his past and why that had affected him so much that his only recourse is to kidnap and then kill his victims by frightening them to death..

His victims are healthy when he finds them, and I won’t spoil the story by telling you how the killer actually scares them to death, but by bringing all these true crime elements together into one story gave me a serial killer who gets a kick out of increasing his victims’ heart rates by placing them in situations guaranteed to make them panic.

Scared to Death is a dark, twisted, page-turning murder mystery and one that I hope you’ll enjoy listening to here.

More Audiobooks by Rachel Amphlett on hibooks

About the author

Rachel Amphlett writes crime fiction and spy novels, most notably the Dan Taylor espionage novels and the Detective Kay Hunter series, as well as a number of standalone crime thrillers.

After spending 13 years in Brisbane, Australia, Rachel has now returned to the UK. She’s a member of International Thriller Writers and the Crime Writers Association, with the Italian foreign rights for her debut novel, White Gold sold to Fanucci Editore’s TIMECrime imprint, and the first four books in the Dan Taylor espionage series contracted to Germany’s Luzifer Verlag.

A keen traveller, Rachel holds both EU and Australian passports and can usually be found plotting her next trip two years in advance, usually with a crime fiction festival tacked on for good measure!

Steve Partridge

Steve is from the UK and has lived in London, Bulgaria, and Berlin. He studied Christian theology at King’s College London and spent several years working in publishing. His articles, books reviews, interviews and essays have been published in a range of digital and print magazines. In 2012, he was shortlisted for the Brighton Fringe Festival Writers Prize. His obsession with books and writing led him to start his own ‘BookTube’ channel on YouTube (to which you should probably subscribe). You can find him talking nonsense on Twitter @StPartridge.

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