Barbara Nickless is the bestselling author of the Sydney Parnell crime series. Her essays and short stories have appeared in Writer’s Digest, Criminal Element, Penguin Random House, and other markets. She also teaches creative writing to veterans at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs.
Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
While casting about for story ideas, I was horrified to learn of the dangers suffered by undocumented workers and women seeking asylum in the U.S.—particularly those who work as night janitors, or out in the fields, or in other situations where there is no one around to discourage attackers or intervene if these women are targeted.
Bernice Yeung’s book “In a Day’s Work: The Hidden Story of Sexual Violence Against America’s Most Vulnerable Workers” clinched my concern for these women and my interest in telling their story.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
Around the same time, I stumbled across a few articles about toxic masculinity. The term refers to the kinds of aggression generated by a warped idea of what real masculinity is. In my novel, I do a deep dive into a frightening, deadly, and very specific form of toxic masculinity.
Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
I decided to skip the prologue, which introduces the bad guy, and go straight to the first chapter. This allows me to introduce my detective, Sydney Rose Parnell, and her K9 partner, Clyde.
It also gives a heads-up to readers who are familiar with the series that Sydney has transitioned from serving as a railroad special agent to being the youngest (and only female) detective in Denver’s Major Crimes unit. The first chapter also introduces a level of suspense as we dive into the mystery.
Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book?
My publisher and I agreed—back when they bought the first book in the series—that at some point Sydney and Clyde would transition away from the railroads. “Gone to Darkness” is that book. I wanted a story that firmly established her as a traditional detective while also including aspects of the railroad.
I’ll also admit to wanting to explore my own experience with toxic masculinity during my time in corporate America. Ninety-nine percent of the men I worked with were wonderful, and some became life-long friends. It’s a shame that a small minority can wreak such havoc.
Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?
The bad guy certainly had a mind of his own and surprised me at every turn. But then, so did his victims. They proved to be stronger than I expected—just like the real women whose stories influenced my own.
What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
I was surprised to learn that violent encounters with people like those I describe in my book are more common than I realized. Even as I wrote, more stories were hitting the news. I felt as though the headlines were ripped from the pages of my novel.
On a more personal note, I continue to be surprised—with each and every book—that around the time I think I’ve figured out how to tell a story, the story reaches up to bite me. Every novel is different, and thus I’ve learned that my process has to be a little different.
Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?
One early reader gave me a one-star review because he found certain aspects of the plot highly unlikely. The funny thing is, the aspects he mentioned were based on actual events. Yes, toxic masculinity is a thing. Yes, sometimes—all too often—it turns violent.
On the whole, though, people have loved the book. Or at least I think they have. My practice is to read the early reviews, then stop looking. Once a book is released and I have some sense of how it’s going to be received, it’s time to move on to the next story. Looking back doesn’t serve me.
Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
I am extremely fortunate that writing fiction is my full-time job. I go to work as a writer in the same fashion I used to go to work for a high-tech corporation: get up, get dressed, pour some coffee, and settle in at my desk at the same time every day.
I usually write new material in the morning, then edit in the afternoon. A long, contemplative walk in the late afternoon (depending on the weather) often helps with any plot or character development issues.
I end the workday by pouring a glass of wine, musing on the day’s work, and planning what scene I’ll tackle the next day. (That’s so I’m not too terrified to face the blank page the following morning.) Wash, rinse, repeat five days a week. Evenings and weekends are for research.
Of course, I wasn’t always able to write full-time. I used to squeeze in writing whenever and however I could. Lunch breaks. Weekends. A short vacation. I took a notebook everywhere and thought about stories while I drove or cooked.
Tell us about your next project.
During the pandemic and after a personal loss, I turned for comfort to my old standby: research. Specifically, researching the kinds of topics I loved during my undergraduate days—Vikings,
Old English stories like Beowulf, and even how Sherlock Holmes uses deductive and inductive reasoning to solve crimes. I told my editor that I was including way too much research in the novel. She told me to leave it in as I wrote—we’d figure it out later.
And, as I expected, I had to remove a lot of the research I’d included. As one example, readers really don’t need to know about all of the runic alphabets, how they differ from each other, and how the differences came about. But I sure had fun learning how to tell my runic alphabets apart!
The book is called “At First Light,” and it features a unique hero detective. He’s a forensic semiotician—that is, he studies the signs, symbols, and writings left behind by murderers. His job is to profile violent killers even as he navigates a world made difficult by his dwarfism.
Why dwarfism? As I cope with multiple eye surgeries and the terrifying consequences, I begin to understand how tough it can be to make your way in a world that isn’t very accommodating to those who are differently abled.