HUNTERTOWN — Dawn Merriman’s Huntertown pig farm is quiet, peaceful — tucked away just on the edge of the Allen-DeKalb county line. “Nothing exciting ever happens” there, but in her imagination it’s anything but a cozy home.
Merriman, the author of several murder mystery novels based right here in Indiana, has long had a fascination with murder, and the idea that a killer could be lurking in her own hometown.
“Nothing like that ever happens around here, but I see murder in everything,” she laughed. “There’s a lot of dead body talk in this house.”
Merriman, a Huntertown native, has written four novels just in the past year — the most recent one going live on Amazon this month. But that spark came after 17 years without writing, when she put her writing on hold to raise her children.
“For years and years and years I put it on the back-burner,” Merriman recalled. “When I published that first book, I about died. I drove past my old farmhouse where I would sit on the floor and scribble those stories, and I just looked up at my old bedroom window and cried and said ‘You did it.’”
For Merriman, that moment was the culmination of a passion she’d developed at a very young age.
“Stories were always in my head” she said. “From the age of 12 on, I spent most of my time sitting on the floor of my room, frantically scribbling stories into notebooks.”
Merriman wrote her first novel in middle school, and completed a second one during her freshman year at Carroll High School.
“My English teachers at Carroll were very supportive,” she recalled. “One of them submitted my short story ‘My Name is Mud’ to the Northeast Indiana Young Writers Contest. I won the grand prize for that creepy story. It was the first time I thought I might actually have some talent. I still have a copy of that story printed in the old purple mimeograph ink. It makes me smile.”
Merriman continued to write, finishing another novel in high school, and she started several more that were never finished.
“I remember all through high school, everyone was out on a Saturday doing stuff, and I was at home listening to music and writing novels,” she laughed.
When she was 24, she completed what she believed to be her first marketable book.
“I did land an agent for that book, but in the ’90s, getting published was like winning the lottery, and I didn’t have the right numbers,” she said.
Merriman spent nearly the next two decades raising a family and channeling her creativity into running several local businesses, including Camo Diva, Merriman Auctions and Barefoot Farms Mini Pigs. Though she continued to write the occasional short story, “life was too busy to focus on a full novel.”
In the summer of 2018, the idea for a new murder mystery novel popped into her head — this one sparked by her love of true crime.
“I watched all the shows and read mystery books,” she said. “I call it my dinosaur. In ‘Jurassic Park,’ (Michael Crichton) talks about how children learn all they can about dinosaurs because it makes them feel they have control over these scary monsters. Studying murder and crime is like that for me, learning so I can control the fear of the unknown.”
It wasn’t just the fear of the unknown Merriman was trying to control, but her own mental health as well. Merriman speaks candidly about her experience with severe depression, and how her novels have become a form of therapy.
Merriman released her first independently published novel, “How Murder Saved My Life,” in February 2019. Though it’s fictional, those closest to Merriman know its main character, Zoey, is an exaggerated portrayal of herself.
“Writing that book literally saved my life,” she said. “It took the darkest parts of my disorder and I had to put it on paper, analyze the words and read them over and over. Having to analyze everything that voice was telling Zoey helped me understand what my own awful voice was telling me, and it was just amazing how it took the power out of it.”
Merriman hopes Zoey’s journey can help others struggling with depression as well.
As her obsession with murder mysteries grew, Merriman set herself a new goal — completing a series. After months of studying the storytelling craft and independent publishing, Merriman released her second novel, “Message in the Bones,” the first in a five-part series, in October. She finished its sequel, “Message in the Fire,” just a month later.
“I wanted to write a series with an overarching story across the five books, but with a contained mystery in each book as well,” Merriman said. “There’s also a romantic component. It has been a trick to line all that up and still tell a compelling story.”
Merriman is always hard at work, and as soon as a story pops into her head, she has to write it down. She released her most recent standalone book, “Marked by Darkness,” on Feb. 2. The book tells the story of a former detective, Maribeth, whose family was murdered by a serial killer she once hunted. Merriman describes the story as “a twisty, creepy serial killer thriller with hints of the supernatural.”
“I like the intricacies of solving something,” she said. “It always starts with ‘What would I do if I found a dead body in my field’ or something.”
Merriman attended Carroll High School until the beginning of her junior year, before completing high school in Vero Beach, Florida. She and her husband have six children between the two of them. She still breeds miniature pigs and meat pigs on her farm.
Merriman’s novels can be found on Amazon or at DawnMerriman.com. You can also sign up for her newsletter to receive a free copy of her award-winning short story “My Name is Mud,” exactly as it was written when she was in high school. You can also follow her on Facebook at DawnMerrimanAuthor.