How to Write Suspense Based on True Events

Image Credits: WIN-Initiative / Getty Images

By Susanne Jansson, author of The Forbidden Place

I first learned about “bog bodies” by watching a documentary about the phenomenon in Northern Europe—humans who were sacrificed to the gods during the Iron Ages were buried in bogs, and the unique biology of the wetlands preserved their bodies. I knew instantly after watching that I had found the theme for my very first suspense novel, The Forbidden Place.

Bog bodies felt almost too mysterious and enthralling to be true, but true it was. Here’s how I took those eerie real-life events and transformed them into a suspense novel.


How to Write Suspense Based on Real-Life Events


#1: Marry the right person (or gather expert knowledge from your inner circle)

My husband, who is a biologist, had no choice but to sit through my seemingly endless questionings on the composition and functioning of wetlands. We’re talking years, off and on.

#2: Find other experts you need

If a story is based on real-life events, you’d better get your facts straight. The experts will most likely enjoy talking to you (although maybe not for years). In my case, the most important person was the archeologist and now retired director of a museum in Denmark where one of the most famous bog bodies, The Tollund Man, is displayed. Bog bodies had, more or less, been his (professional) life.

#3: Don’t overdo it

You can approach your subject from different angles; you can talk to experts, read reports and visit important places, you can look for other people’s creative take on the subject, poetry, movies, arts, whatever. Great. But before you get exhausted, make sure you have energy left for the most important part, which is…

#4: … make the subject your own

Don’t let the stories stay untouched on the surface just because they are “real life ones.” Sit with them, sleep with them, walk with them—let the essence of it all dive into your being and see what it brings out. You’ll be surprised (which to me might be the most precious gift of the whole writing process). In the beginning, I did just enough research to light this spark, and it actually wasn’t much more than watching the documentary and taking notes. It wasn’t until later that I did the rest

#5: Don’t force it, but don’t wait for too long

If you’ve found an interesting subject that wasn’t created by your fantasy, chances are someone else has too. It took me about six years to finish The Forbidden Place since I was working as a freelance journalist at the same time (and learning how to write a book). I was increasingly nervous that another writer had gotten hooked on the same subject, and would publish a book before me. Luckily it didn’t happen, at least not to my knowledge.


Books by Susanne Jansson