Creating Suspense Out of the (Seemingly) Mundane

Suspense (noun) — Anxiety or apprehension resulting from an uncertain, undecided, or mysterious situation. Amer. Heritage. Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed.

Casting Demons Into Swine begins with a letter found on a kitchen table, addressed to Malcolm Cromarty. To sum up his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s message, she didn’t appreciate moving to a new place far from home, her family didn’t think Malcolm was right for her, and she took the furniture, but left the dog. Why start a 900-page, three-novel story here? You could say that Malcolm is a proxy for my early career. Both of us are veterinarians, neither of us was raised on a farm, both of us started our careers in a primarily large animal practice, and both were strangers in the community. Quick author’s note—our professional lives were more in synch than our personal matters.

So, if Malcolm serves as the central figure and guide for the story, we need a point in time—the 1980s. During this decade, Ronald Reagan was president, the NASA Space Shuttles were active, athletes competed in the summer Olympics in Los Angeles and Seoul, MTV and punk rock dominated the music scene, Willie Nelson organized the first Farm Aid concert in Champaign, Illinois, and few, if anyone had PCs or cell phones—no Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc. The place was central Pennsylvania, an area of long narrow valleys (four to five miles wide, over thirty miles long), with predominately small Amish and Mennonite dairy farms. The ridges contributed a slice of Appalachia, geographically and culturally. Had James Herriot, the veterinarian who wrote the All Creatures Great and Small series—which influenced my choice to be a rural veterinarian—had the opportunity, this area would have provided great material for his memoirs. Similarly, most of the “farm veterinary cases” that Malcolm encounters are essentially memoirs of when I was in practice. Yet, I chose to weave these tales into a bigger story based on suspense fiction. Why?

Beyond my personal interest in reading suspense and mysteries, three catalysts swayed me to suspend reality. The first was the unique culture of the Amish community where our practice was centered, Mifflin County. This county had the highest percentage of Amish per capita in the U.S., at least four decades ago. There were many diverse sects (or districts) among the Amish and Mennonites, that prescribed various lifestyle codes of conduct. Also, the Byler Amish (yellow top buggies) and the Nebraskan Amish (white top buggies), if not unique to this area, were very nearly so.

Secondly, this valley and surrounding mountains were stunning in their natural beauty and inspired me to look beyond the day-to-day tasks, and fostered a special sense of place. Perhaps coming from Illinois, where much of the land, though prime farmland and offering stunning sunsets, is flat as a pancake, the ‘valley hidden between the ridges’ stoked my imagination into getting a sense of the mysterious. When the long shade of the mountains crept across the valley late in the day, or the clouds got caught in the summits and seeped onto the farms and dense forests below, it was easy to conjure up visions of the supernatural.


But the biggest driver for me to spin tales of suspense was a series of events that impacted the community, with dire consequences. I saw an opportunity to stretch the tales a little wider and deeper, and consider human nature in response to these crises. While embellished, all of these stories are based on actual challenges faced by the community. ,

Thus, combining a peculiar culture and geography with extraordinary hazards, thrust Malcolm to go beyond my own experiences with rabies, barn arson, and lost farms. The plots wrap around these events, but the substance is the reaction of everyday people to the challenges—farm families, veterinarians, barflies, barbers, mechanics, volunteer firemen, cattle dealers, carnival hucksters, coffee shops waitresses—some are villains, some are heroes, and others somewhere in between. It’s fertile ground for storytelling. Add conflict and a bit of the supernatural, empathy, and humor—and suspense is created from the seemingly mundane.