Charleston thriller author releases second book following success of A Flicker in the Dark
By Jenny Peterson
Stacy Wilingham watches a lot of crime documentaries. Call it research for her wildly successful career as a thriller novel writer. Her twisty A Flicker in the Dark debuted in January of this year at No. 9 on the New York Times bestsellers list and has since sold hundreds of thousands of copies and is being translated in over 30 languages.
“I took an abnormal psychology class in college which got me interested in criminal psychology,” said Willingham, who lives in West Ashley.
A Flicker in the Dark is set in Louisiana that centers around psychologist Chloe Davis, the daughter of a convicted serial killer, and the copycat killer who has emerged 20 years later.
“I was watching a documentary one day and saw a picture of a serial killer walking his daughter down the aisle at her wedding—and at that point he had killed 10 people and nobody knew at that time—and I started thinking about how it was a unique point of view to tell about a serial killer in the eyes of the daughter. That’s why I decided to start the book with Chloe planning her wedding.”
A Flicker in the Dark has been optioned for an HBO series produced by actress Emma Stone.
“When I first got on the Zoom call with Emma, I was stunned into silence,” Willingham said.
The Daniel Island native and Wando High School graduate originally signed a two-book deal with publisher Minotaur, a Macmillan imprint. She recently signed another two-book deal with the publishers, bringing her total commitment to four thrillers.
Her second book, All the Dangerous Things, is set to be published in January 2023. She said it took eight months to write the first draft. The process takes upwards of a year from submitting a draft to her agent to when it gets published.
“All The Dangerous Things is a similar thriller in that it focuses on a female 30-something protagonist—a young mother whose son is taken out of his crib. The protagonist is also a little bit of an unreliable narrator, which is intertwined in the storyline,” Willingham said. “I’ve been consuming a lot of missing children-type stories for research for it.”
All the Dangerous Things is set in Savannah and her third book is set on a fictional college campus in Charleston. Willingham said she often takes walks in her Charleston neighborhood or sits on the dock at her parents’ house in Daniel Island to inspire her descriptive settings.
Willingham always dreamed about writing thriller novels, even as she worked a day job in marketing.
“I wrote a big chunk of A Flicker in the Dark at the Harbinger coffee shop downtown on my lunch breaks,” she said.
While working full-time, she enrolled in graduate school to get her MFA specifically to write a novel as her thesis.
“It gave me a three-year deadline and a committee of thesis advisors to give me feedback,” she said. While she said she was never able to get that thesis novel published, she credits it with kickstarting her writing career.
“I love writing twists. I have so much fun filling in and dropping the red herrings to misdirect people. It’s such a challenge dropping clues in just the right way,” she said. “You need to pepper them in so the reader picks up on them, but won’t realize it’s important until later. I love the process of figuring it out myself; that’s what makes this genre enjoyable.”
She considers herself a “pantser” writer—meaning someone who writes by “the seat of their pants” rather than plotting out the entire book in advance, which she said allows her to be creative.
“When you read a thriller, it’s like trying to put together a puzzle and that’s what it’s like when you’re writing it, too,” she said. “For me, the ending of a book is always the hardest part, because you want it to be shocking but believable, realistic and satisfying.”
After her initial two-book deal, and an advance from the publisher, Willingham was able to quit her job to focus full-time on writing her novels.
She still sends her first drafts to her parents and sister for feedback before sending it on to her agent and editor.
To celebrate her second book, Buxton Books downtown will hold a launch party in January which will be open to the public to buy copies and meet Willingham. More details can be found on the Buxton Books Facebook page. Her third book is set to be published in 2024 and her fourth in 2025.
“I’ll keep writing these novels as long as ideas come and they keep letting me,” she said.