Rachel McLean

– Thrillers That Make You Think

The Dyer Family: Dysfunctional or Just Unlucky?

My first novel, Thicker Than Water, centres on one family: the Dyer family. Jess and Ben are brother and sister and Ruth is Ben’s wife. And then there’s Sean and Ollie, Ben and Ruth’s five year old twins, and Sonia, Ben and Jess’s mother, who died a few years earlier.

The book opens to conflict within the family. Jess has just been elected to Ben’s old job as steward of their isolated refugee community. Ben had been campaigning to stay on in the job past the normal term of office but didn’t succeed. He’s resentful and angry, and to be honest behaves like a bit of a jerk at the beginning of the book.

Here’s an excerpt from an early chapter that gives you a taste of that tension:

“Tell me what to do,” Jess muttered, her hands trembling. She didn’t need this on her first day as steward.

“It’s alright,” Ben replied through gritted teeth. “I’ll sort it.”

He approached the climbing frame. She reached out to put a hand on his arm.

“It’s my job now. I just need you to tell me what to do.” 

He turned to her, eyes flashing. “You don’t know what you’re doing, sis. Should have thought of that last night.”

But then disaster strikes. Jess decides the villagers must answer a distress call at sea, despite Ben’s reluctance. They rescue three men, one of whom turns out to be a figure from Ben’s past.

When the men kidnap four women, including Ruth, the village descends into chaos and Ben begins to lose his grip on sanity. Jess has to step up to the plate and find leadership skills she didn’t know she had. And Ruth finds an inner strength she also didn’t know she had, when faced with the reality of what her captor Robert wants to do to her…

When I first wrote the book, Ben was successful in winning that third term of office. I painted him as a clever, scheming, would-be politician. But then I realised that things would be much more interesting if I put Jess into his role. Partly to create conflict (conflict is always good!), but also so that she would have to undergo change and develop skills she didn’t know she had.

And then there’s Ruth. When I first planned the story, she was a minor character, a MacGuffin really. But I soon realised that in order for readers to understand the danger she was faced with, I would have to write some of the story in her point of view. Her role grew and grew, to the point where she became my favourite character.

And it seems she’s readers’ favourite character too. She’s a solid, dependable type at the beginning, the sort of woman who juggles multiple roles, supports her family when they’re not coping very well, and worries about other people more than herself. This doesn’t mean her capability isn’t resented; on the family’s journey north, she looked after Ben’s mother Sonia, who was slowly dying. Jess still feels guilty that it wasn’t her who tended to and protected Sonia, and some of this guilt manifests itself as resentment.

But when Ruth finds herself at the mercy of Robert Cope, she has to find elements of her character that have never previously come to the fore. And at the end of the book, she really surprises us…

Ruth and Jess also feature in Sea of Lies, which is currently being edited and will be out in March. You can pre-order that book now or if you haven’t already done so, read the first book, Thicker Than Water.

And if you want to learn about why the Dyer family decided to head north and how they ended up at the village, you can join my book club to read Underwater, the prequel stories to Thicker Than Water.

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