Imagine waking with the feeling that someone is watching you. Imagine opening your eyes and seeing a stranger’s shadow just beside your bed. Just the thought of it is enough to send a chill down anyone’s spine – which, of course, is exactly what Lake Macquarie author Jaye Ford was hoping for when she penned her latest thriller Darkest Place.
Described by the Sydney Morning Herald as a “well crafted... psychological chiller,”Jaye’s fifth thriller in five years tells the story of Carly Townsend, a woman desperate to start over after a decade of tragedy and pain, who’s dream of a new life is shattered when she is repeatedly woken to find the shadow of a man standing next to her bed watching over her.
It is a premise that taps into an almost primal fear of being watched without knowing it - that sixth sense that sends your heart racing and causes the hairs on your arms to stand on end.
Jaye said after writing several novels where the “bad guy” was at a distance, she was interested in how her main character would react when the threat was far too close for comfort.
And given her background as a journalist, it is little wonder part of her inspiration for the set-up came from real life.
“Any story is the joining together of lots of different ideas,” Jaye told intouch Magazine.
“I had written a couple of stories where the bad guy was kind of at a distance, the unknown thing way out there freaking the main character out, and I really wanted to write a story where the bad person was really in her face and explore what that would be like.
“So my immediate thought was ‘What if someone was getting into your bedroom?’ because that’s in a sense your most intimate space, especially in the dark. For a woman on her own, the thought of somebody being in your bedroom when you wake up is terrifying.
“When I started to do a little bit of research for the novel trying to work out how it might work I came across lots of stories of that happening.
"A friend sent me an article from a newspaper in Queensland where the police had put an identikit photo out of this man who had been breaking into homes. There had been about five or six women, and they’d woken up with this man in the room with them and a couple of them woke up and he was
actually on the bed with them."
“I just thought ‘Oh man, that is so scary’ and it still kind of gives me the chills when I think about it, so I thought that was a nice place to start; a bit of reality is always a nice place to start.”
The twist in the tale comes from the fact the heroine in the novel lives on the fourth storey of a converted warehouse and with the doors and windows locked and no sign of a break-in each time she reports it, everyone, including Carly herself, begins to question if the man is even real.
What is real, outside the pages of the book, is the setting Jaye has used for Darkest Place, with much of the action taking place in the streets and harbourside areas of Wickham.
And it’s not the first time the Hunter has played a starring role in Jaye’s thrillers, with her debut novel, Beyond Fear, set in a fictional town on the outskirts of Dungog and all but one of her other books featuring a local setting.
“I love to write about places in the Hunter, so all of my books except one have been set in the Hunter somewhere - I find it really great to use settings that I know and love and turn them into a crime scene,” she said.
“Most of the time the settings start as a real place and then they kind of get mixed up in my head and I move the furniture and the landmarks all around and then I give it another name so people aren’t walking into that place and saying ‘Well that building’s not there.'
“[In Beyond Fear] I actually created a little town just outside of Dungog and when I was writing that I had my map out of the area, I actually worked out where Dungog was and where this little town might be.
“Already Dead, which is the book before Darkest Place, was set on the headland just above Bar Beach there, and it is such an iconic spot that I had to use real places except for a couple of cafes and restaurants they went to, which were invented.
“The last one, Darkest Place, was set in Wickham. Although where exactly is never actually mentioned, anyone who knows that area kind of knows the warehouses there and the harbour where a bit of it is set.”
Jaye said while many Australian thrillers at the time she began writing were set in the major cities, she was inspired to use the Hunter as her backdrop by the work of her American counterparts.
“When I first started writing crime I was reading a lot of American crime and the authors were setting it in regional areas where they grew up or where they were living,” she said.
“In Australia at that time most of the settings for crime stories were in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra or the outback.
“But I live here, and there are some fantastic places in the Hunter. You’ve got hills, farms, beaches, city spaces and more regional spaces, so I thought I’m going to set it somewhere I know and love like the Americans do.
“I wasn’t really expecting to sell anything, but that first book sold right through Europe, and I was getting some really interesting responses from the publishers over there saying readers actually really liked the ‘exotic’ settings (which I always think is really funny). But I guess if you live in Europe the Australian bush and the beach and all that kind of stuff is really exotic.”
While Jaye may have not expected her first book to sell – it took her 10 years of writing and rejections before she was finally published – the reaction to her work since then has been overwhelmingly positive, with her five thrillers selling worldwide, published in nine different languages.
She has also published one romantic comedy under the pen name of Janette Paul titled Just Breath, that she actually wrote before her debut thriller Beyond Fear in 2011 but which didn’t get released as an eBook until 2013.
And it won’t be her last foray into that genre, with the Lake Macquarie author happily swapping the fear and terror of Jaye’s world for the lighter side of life as Janette for her next project.
“I tend to take on some of the characteristics of the main characters (when I am writing) because, in a sense, you’re acting that character in your head. I’ve found with each of them I kind of took on some aspects of their personality, which has been good and bad,” she said.
After writing Darkest Place Jaye says "I ended up in quite a dark place so I was quite ready to think about a different kind of project, and my publisher came to me and asked would I be interested in writing another romantic comedy.
“I was feeling I really needed to step away from the dark and gritty stuff for a little while. I’d love to go back there but I just really needed to clear that out of my head, so I’m really enjoying being funny again.”
Already two-thirds of her way through the new romantic comedy, it is due out in April or May next year.
Darkest Place by Jaye Ford is out now at all good bookstores through Random House. Visit www.jayefordauthor.com to learn more information about Jaye and her books.