Inspired by the headline “Landscapers Find Skull in Mulch Bed,” Jamie Mason’s debut novel, Three Graves Full (Gallery, Feb. ), follows the misadventures of Jason Getty, a shy widower with a secret buried deep in his backyard. Mason, co-editor of AuthorScoop, a daily literary and publishing news net, spent the past decade writing Three Graves, with starts, stops, and a slew of rewrites.

Besides a morbid news headline, Mason, 42, was influenced by her childhood love of TV shows like The Twilight Zone, Hitchcock, and Dark Shadows. “They ran on reruns at midnight, and watching Hitchcock, it was kind of funny. It was scary too, but you know how you’ll bang your elbow and end up laughing? You’re holding your elbow and wondering why you’re laughing, but you just can’t stop laughing. For me, that was Hitchcock, and that sensibility was instilled in me from toddlerhood.”

Mason also believes in books that exemplify “a great use of language.” For Three Graves Full, she says, “I wrote this first draft, and you write it, and you write it again, and then one more time, and then you write it again. When I finally felt like it was done, I started querying agents. I had several agents ask to read it, and a couple of offers.” Mason chose Amy Moore-Benson of AMB Literary Management.

“The book went out on submission, and one editor in particular wanted something else to happen. She didn’t know what exactly—just something more. I felt like I had written it so many times that, how could anything else happen? My husband asked me a question. He said, ‘What if there was a mistake?’ Something clicked. I did an entire rewrite, and while the original editor did not pick it up, it did land an editor.”

Mason’s protagonist and storyline are awkwardly hilarious. “One of my very favorite things about the book,” says Mason, “is how Jason is so offended that there is a body out there.” Jason Getty buries the corpse of his victim at the edge of his property because he thinks it’s the polite thing to do. But when the landscaping company he hires digs up two new corpses hidden directly under his rose bushes—corpses he knows nothing about—he’s horrified that he’s been living so close to them.

It was crucial for Mason to humanize Jason, and his development proved the greatest challenge of the novel. “The biggest hurdle I had to overcome was for the reader to be able to be okay with what Jason has done,” she says. “The single best piece of writing advice I ever heard was that every character thinks they’re the hero of the story. They do what they do from the place of, ‘I’m allowed to do that,’ even if that is something completely psychopathic.”

For Mason, it comes down to character believability, and she references Stephen King and how he is “a genius about character, but the templates he sets up are absurd. The idea of a clown living in the drain is ridiculous, but [King] sets these characters up and you believe it. [Writers] can create aliens or werewolves or alternate realities—anything. Once you’ve created a paradigm, you have to believe what the characters do within it. If the reader believes in the character, the paradigm isn’t questioned.”

There are no aliens, or clowns, or werewolves in Three Graves Full, but there is a strong sense of darkness. To go to the place where she could tap into the mind of a killer was often uncomfortable for Mason. “There are about 260,000 words in common usage English. So, as an author, you have 260,000 buffers between you and the deed,” she says. “Authors are performing an approximation of the deed, but not the deed itself. The buffers keep the land of imagination ripe and realistic, but divisible. Fearlessness is putting yourself out there.”

Putting herself out there has paid off for Mason. In Three Graves Full, the macabre is a heavy but fitting cloud over the story. “I wonder why we like darkness in fiction,” she says. “Are we big fans of people getting murdered? Robberies and terror, do we really like that? No. We don’t. We go to fiction because we have a limitless capacity for empathy and outrage, and reading is how we condition those muscles.”