thrillers

Live Deeply: 9 Questions With Snow Author Mike Bond

mike-bond-headshot.jpg

By Sean Tuohy

Three hunters stumble onto a crashed plane filled with cocaine in the Montana wilderness.

That’s the premise of acclaimed author Mike Bond’s latest thriller, Snow.

Bond recently took a few minutes out of his day to sit and chat with me about the new book and his advice for aspiring writers.

Sean Tuohy: When did you know you wanted to be a storyteller?

Mike Bond: By the time I was 10 I was writing poems and thinking of stories. To the young the world is magical and full of stories. All you have to do is write them down.

ST: What authors did you worship growing up?

MB: I never worshipped anyone, but I read everything, especially Hemingway, Edna Ferber, Jane Austen, the Brontës, Walter Scott, Jack London, Willa Cather, Poe, Camus, Sartre, St. Exupéry, Tolstoy, and many others.

ST: What is your writing process like? Do you outline or just vomit a first draft?

MB: I tend to write each book differently. Most I just pick up at the first sentence and write a lot of it without an outline. Or I outline only the next several chapters as I go along.

ST: What inspired Snow?

MB: I was bowhunting with a friend on a two-week horse trip back into the Montana wilderness. The constant snow and frigid conditions, plus several unpleasant encounters with grizzly bears, started the process.

ST: Snow follows four characters, but the breakout is a former NFL player named Zack. Where did this character come from?

MB: I played a lot of football, tried to make it into the NFL, but like so many football players I got so repeatedly injured that there was no way. I love playing football but have no use for watching it on the idiot box. (That’s the difference between living and being entertained.) I know a lot about the game and have a lot of friends who’ve played it, and I wanted to show it as it really is. Zack is the average football star today—multiple lifelong injuries, traumatic brain damage, constant pain, atavistic impulses, and lots of painkillers and other drugs.

ST: Snow is an edge-of-your-seat thriller but it has a fantastic human element to it as well. When writing, do you focus more on the character or the plot?

MB: I just tell the story as it is told to me. Often I can’t tell it right and have to keep rewriting it till the drama I’m seeing in my head is correctly depicted on the page.

ST: What’s next for Mike Bond?

MB: I’m finishing a 1,000-page epic on the 1960s, due out next year. And finishing the third in my Pono Hawkins series, also due out next year. This one is set in Tahiti and Paris.

ST: What advice do you give to young writers?

MB:

  • Live deeply or you won’t have much to write about.
  • Writing is developed from experience—from many places, lifestyles, experiences, relationships, dangers, fears and great joys. Write about that.
  • Don’t write about what you don’t know about or haven’t lived through.
  • Avoid creative writing classes, writing clubs, and any other collective self-reassuring groupthink.
  • Don’t ever tell people what you’re writing about till it’s done, or you can kill the deep subconscious affinity between yourself and it.
  • Expect to write a million words before you begin to get the hang of it.
  • It’s very difficult these days to get published. But writing daily is a very good way to “Know Thyself” as they used to say at Delphi.
  • Don’t expect too much of yourself. If the writing is fun, keep going. If it’s not, stop. If it’s boring to you it will be boring to the reader too.

ST: Can you please tell us one random fact about yourself?

MB: I love wild animals, wilderness, women, booze, fast cars, mountain climbing, and risk.

To learn more about Mike Bond, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @MikeBondBooks.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archive

A Conversation With What She Knew Author Gilly Macmillan

Gilly Macmillan

Gilly Macmillan

By Daniel Ford

Throughout 2015 we’ve had more than our fair share of thriller authors offer up their advice to aspiring writers. The list includes the likes of Paula Hawkins, Ace Atkins, and Robert Ellis.

Gilly Macmillan, whose debut thriller What She Knew promises to be a holiday hit, adds to that tradition by talking to me about her early influences, how she develops her characters, and the inspiration behind What She Knew.

Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to become a writer, or was that something that grew organically over time?

Gilly Macmillan: Although I’ve always been a big reader I never had a very clear ambition to become a writer.  I’ve always enjoyed writing—whether essays or fiction—and as time went by I suppose became curious as to whether I could actually write a book.  I think it was that curiosity which drove me to start What She Knew, and tough it out until I got to the end (it wasn’t the first book I’d started).  I think I work best when I’m focused on a project, so completing a book was a good, specific goal for me, and becoming a full-time writer as a result of that has been a wonderful and unexpected bonus.

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

GM: The first contemporary crime book I read was Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg and that got me hooked on the genre. As a child I read very widely, and I loved Agatha Christie. I also read a lot of Ruth Rendell, her Inspector Wexford books first, and then the novels she wrote as Barbara Vine. Having said that, I also enjoyed reading in many genres, and still do. I’m very unfussy about genre so long as there is good writing and strong characters. Then you can’t tear me away. So I would also mention Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ernest Hemmingway, Salman Rushdie, and I could go on and on!

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?

GM: I do listen to music, because it allows me to block out all the distractions around me. My playlist is usually geared towards the book that I’m working on. My second book, for example, is about a teenage piano prodigy so I listened non-stop to piano recordings. For What She Knew I had different playlists for each narrator. I listened to a lot of choral music to create Rachel, and that sense of tension that’s always with her in the book, but for Jim Clemo the music was more bullish, and energetic, to match his ambition.

Generally I start writing at around 8:30 in the morning, right after I’ve dropped my kids at school, and that early session is my most productive. I keep going until around 11 a.m. when I break to walk my dogs. After that I work again, but it’s often less creative, depending on the day, so I might check social media, reply to emails, that kind of thing until it’s time to collect my kids from school. 

I have a desk in the basement of our house, and that’s where I work when I’m at home but I’m often distracted by all of the domestic stuff that needs doing (I share my space with the laundry!) so I often go out to a café and work there. That’s a nice thing to do as it stops you feeling so lonely, though headphones are essential to stop me tuning into other people’s conversations. Another favourite place to work is the university library in our city.

My planning is a little bit haphazard (editors, look away now!). I tend to follow my gut and develop characters or ideas as they come to me, or as I’m writing. As I write, I have to have such intense concentration when I think myself into the heads of my characters, that I find that that process often sparks ideas much more effectively than a more formal attempt at planning. When I’ve got a good mass of material, and fairly developed characters, and plot lines, I slowly begin to knit it all together in my head. I fill notebooks with ideas and put Post-It notes all over the walls of my office to keep track of plots. Eventually, after what often feels like a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, and many words written (and often deleted too) it all comes together, and that’s a wonderful moment.

DF: What inspired your debut thriller What She Knew?

GM: I wanted to write a page-turner, because I love to read them so much, and I wanted a scenario that many people could imagine happening to them so that my story would have to potential to resonate with a wide readership. So, quite simply, was to think of a scenario that would represent my own worst nightmare, and that came to me very quickly: it was the thought that one of my children might go missing and I wouldn’t know what had happened to them, and I knew this would strike a chord with my people. I was also inspired by wondering what it would feel like to be at the center of a high profile case like that, with all of the public, media and police attention that would result. I wanted to give a voice to a character in that situation because when we experience cases such as the one in the book as a member of the public, we almost never get to hear the voices of the people at the center of them, and that intrigues me, because you always wonder, what do they know?

DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters in What She Knew? How do you develop your characters in general?

GM: I have put aspects of myself into my main character Rachel, for example I have worked as a photographer, and I am a mother. I also drew on my own experiences to try to imagine the very raw emotions that Rachel goes through after her son disappears. For example, one of my children was dangerously unwell as a baby, and we feared for a long time that we would lose him (though thankfully he recovered fully), but I definitely drew on my memories of that period in our lives to feed into Rachel’s narrative. I think that I’m always observing other people so little bits of people that I know probably do creep into the characters, though I’m very careful not to base any characters closely on real people. That could be very difficult to explain! In general I develop my characters partly through detailed research, partly through observation and partly through gut instinct, by which I mean that once I’ve got a broad idea about a character I try to imagine myself into their situation as deeply as possible to try to work out what they might do or say or feel, and I hope that gives their motivations and behavior some kind of authenticity.

DF: The thriller genre has certain built-in tropes that can deter some writers from taking the plunge. How did you ensure that your tale was original?

GM: That was definitely something that I was very aware of and I think my biggest challenge in that respect was my detective character. To make him feel like an individual, instead of a mash-up of previously existing characters, I met with some real (retired) detectives and listened to what they had to tell me about the realities of their work life. I hoped that examining how working on the case affected my detective might help to bring him to life, and that led to my decision to try and present his narrative in slightly unusual way, by using the transcripts of his therapy sessions as well as his own report of what took place. I also tried to steer clear of some of the more obvious attributes fictional detectives can have, such as a substance addiction of some sort. Having said that, I think it’s important to give readers something of what they expect from the genre so while I took pains to try and ensure the book wasn’t derivative, I also really enjoyed writing in the genre. The thriller genre has the advantage that it includes a wide variety of books and I think its boundaries are very elastic, so I felt very free to try to write as well as I could and present my story in different ways in places, to try to entertain what I think of as very intelligent and passionate readers of the genre. I felt that to be a great challenge, and one I really hope I’ve risen to.

DF: When you finished your first draft, did you know you had something good, or did you have to go through multiple rounds of edits to realize you had something you felt comfortable taking to readers?

GM: At the end of my first draft, I felt that I had a strong character in Rachel, the mother of the missing child and there were some passages of prose that I was happy with, but I was also aware that it was very far from resembling a publishable book. There were all kinds of structural problems with the story at that stage, to say the least. I went through a long process of edits once I had an agent, and then again once a publisher had bought it, and that turned the book into something that I was finally comfortable taking to readers. It was very hard work, but I learned so much from going through that process that it was invaluable too, especially when I had to write my second book to a publisher’s deadline.

DF: How long did it take you to land an agent and publish your novel?

GM: I had tried to write several different books for about three or four years, in a very part time sort of way as I raised my family, but really got to work properly on What She Knew about eighteen months before I was confident enough to send the first three chapters of that first draft to four agents. Three weren’t interested, but one of them contacted me after about a month to say that she’d read it and she would like to see more. When I sent over the rest of the book she offered to represent me on condition that we work together to improve it, and that we meet to see if we would get along with one another. We hit it off when we met so I was delighted to agree, and her input and advice were invaluable, even though we didn’t always see eye to eye on everything! After a year of work on the manuscript she was happy to submit it to publishers and I got my first book deal very quickly after that, which was extremely exciting, though the first thing that happened subsequently was more work on the book to improve it further under the guidance of my new editor! It was published in paperback nearly 18 months after that book deal was agreed.

DF: Whose work should aspiring thriller writers be reading right now?

GM: Oh my goodness! There are so many great thriller writers out there that it’s hard to chose. I love the work of very well known and classic writers such as Ian Rankin, James Lee Burke, Benjamin Black, and Georges Simenon. New writers I’ve discovered this year, who don’t necessarily fit precisely into the genre but have nevertheless written complex, thrilling and page-turning books include Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, a quiet, yet compelling mystery surrounding an unexplained death, Jill Essbaum’s chilling portrayal of a psychological collapse in Hausfrau, and Ryan Gattis’s absolutely brilliant, shocking book about the lawless backdrop to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, All Involved. All three felt fresh and exciting to me.

DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?

GM: Be prepared to work very hard, over a very long period of time, and know that there are no guarantees at any stage of the process. Listen carefully to any advice you can get from industry professionals along the way and, most importantly, hold your nerve!

DF: What is one random fact about yourself?

GM: I collect ceramics, they’re a passion of mine. The last thing I bought was a set of four ceramic houses that are chunky, and geometric and remind me of the sort of places you read about in Scandinavian noir thrillers.

To learn more about Gilly Macmillan, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @GillyMacmillan.

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A Conversation With Thriller Author Robert Ellis

Robert Ellis

Robert Ellis

By Sean Tuohy

Robert Ellis takes readers into a world filled with dark characters and twisted crimes in his best-selling novels. His latest novel, City of Echoes featuring LAPD detective Matt Jones, has garnered major praise.

Ellis talked to me recently about his writing career, his research process, and what inspired Matt Jones and City of Echoes.

Sean Tuohy: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Robert Ellis: I spent most of my early life wanting to make films, but was always an avid reader. In high school I used to skip classes and go to movies. Then one day I discovered City Hall. I sat through several murder trials, which absolutely blew my mind. I mention it because this was really where my writing began. Seeds that wouldn't bloom until many years later. I wrote the trials up as short stories and turned them over to my English teacher (which almost got me kicked out of school!). I also co-edited the school newspaper, so writing was always a part of my life.

But this is a tough question because it took me another six years before I decided that I really wanted to become a writer. I remember the exact moment it happened, and it's a difficult memory to deal with because it came with a certain price. I was 24 years old and driving a VW bus west on Route 70 about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh. It was a hot summer day in August and I was on my way to graduate school for an MFA in film production. Traffic had been reduced to a single lane because of road construction, and I was sandwiched in between two tractor trailers.

I'm sure you can guess what happened. Everything was good until the truck in front of me came to a sudden stop. When I checked the rearview mirror I thought the truck a hundred yards behind me was going to stop as well. After a few moments, I checked again and guessed that the driver had fallen asleep at the wheel. The truck was coming right at me, full speed ahead. I had enough time to get the VW bus into first gear, pop the clutch, and turn the steering wheel. I didn't have a seatbelt on, and was knocked unconscious on impact. The van was totaled. I must have been out for 10 or 15 minutes, because when I woke up, there was a crowd standing in front of the wreckage thinking that they were looking at a dead kid. It was a really horrendous time. An entire family had died in the same accident on that very spot one week before. Another family died on the same spot one week later. To this day I have no idea how I survived except to say that I knew it was coming for about five seconds. But the bottom line was that I passed through this near death experience a changed human being. My perspectives had changed, my entire world. Suddenly an MFA in film production didn't seem so necessary any more, especially because I already had a BFA in the same subject from the same university. Life was no longer infinite. I couldn't handle wasting time repeating lessons I'd already learned.

As it turned out, Walter Tevis, the novelist who wrote The Hustler, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and The Color of Money was teaching in the university's English department. With his help, I quit school after the first quarter, rented a small house, and started writing. I never dreamed that one day I would create an epic thriller like City of Echoes. I never thought anything like this would happen, and I'm very grateful to everyone who helped me get to this point as a writer!

ST: What authors did you worship growing up?

RE: Elmore Leonard's Unknown Man No. 89 and The Switch changed my life. Before Leonard I had been reading things like John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps, Doyle's The Complete Sherlock Holmes. But Leonard was the first author who brought the seedy side of life into the forefront for me. Leonard was my introduction to characters who were essentially losers, and the whole thing made me laugh. I love to do this in my own writing now. All of my novels involve a character like this, usually an opponent who's out in the open (meaning that he's not the main opponent even though the reader thinks he is). Writing about Martin Fellows in City of Fire, Nathan G. Cava in The Lost Witness, or LAPD Detective Dan Cobb in Murder Season, is absolutely the best part of making a story. Fleshing out characters like these is what makes it fun. When I wrote The Dead Room, specifically the chapters from Eddie Trisco's point of view, I wrote each one in a couple of hours, then ran out of the office into the living room laughing, even cackling. Every one of the Eddie Trisco chapters, actually every chapter with any of the characters I just mentioned, was published as written. That's something I never thought about before. These chapters with these characters never required editing. It must me that when a writer creates characters like these, the writer is truly at play. I know actors feel this way about playing the "bad guy." They say they love it.

ST: What is your writing process like? Do you outline?

RE: I've heard many authors claim that they do not outline. In fact, it may be possible to write a detective story without outlining. At the same time, one of my favorite authors of detective fiction once said that he doesn't usually outline, but did for three of his novels. When he named the titles, I didn't say anything, but those three works are by far his best novels.

While it may be possible to write a detective story or a formulaic mystery without an outline, there is no possible way to write novels like mine, all-out thrillers, without an outline. Writing a thriller means that your story is layered. In order to pay the story out and entertain your readers, it's all about the number and intensity of the twists and turns toward the end. The reveals. Your hero's revelations. It's not a casual process. No one could "wing it" because the writer needs to set the moment up.

This is how I look at it. You can't make a great movie without a great screenplay. You can't build a great building without a great set of architectural plans. You can't paint a great painting without a great rough sketch or great subject. Why would a novel be any different? A novel is the most complex work of art in any medium. In a novel, the author is creating an entire world. How could anyone begin to build that world if they didn't have some idea of how they wanted it to turn out in the end?

ST: What is your research process like?

RE: I love doing research. I've walked through every inch of Police Headquarters in Los Angeles where Lena Gamble works. I've toured prisons outside Philadelphia, the morgue at Yale University Hospital in Connecticut, and even climbed to the top of the Capitol Dome in Washington in order make sure the final chase in Access to Power was accurate. Most, if not all, of the details in my novels, including all of the DNA stories in City of Fire, are factually true. And as I'm often asked by readers of City of Fire—yes, it's true. If someone in your family survived the Black Plague in Europe so long ago, then you have a gene that mutated in such a way that you are immune to HIV.

I think things like this make the novel feel more real. Like we spoke about before, a novelist is setting his or her story in a place. That means that they're creating a world. Anything a writer can do to give that world detail will really pay out in the end.

ST: In City of Echoes we meet homicide Detective Matt Jones. Where did he come from?

RE: This is a great question because when I started research for City Of Echoes and began fleshing out a story, the hero wasn't Matt Jones, but Lena Gamble. When I begin a new project I start a journal dedicated to the new novel. This is the document where I type in my ideas, a possible premise, odd facts, anything and everything is in this file. This is also the place where I work out my new ideas and basically ramble and think out loud. At the end of the project this file could be 75 pages long. I mention this because I just took a look at my journal, and for the better part of a month, City Of Echoes was all set to be the fourth Lena Gamble novel.

The reason I made the switch to a new character in LAPD Detective Matt Jones was that Lena Gamble had too much experience to be the lead in this story. Remember, this a thriller, not a detective story. In detective stories you have characters like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. There's nothing innocent about the hero in a detective story.  The big difference, the key difference, is that in a thriller, your hero is also the victim. That is a very important concept that even most publishers don't get. Everyone wants to call every work of crime fiction a thriller. But nothing could be less true. In a thriller, the hero is usually a complete innocent. This is the way Lena Gamble began in City of Fire. A female detective just promoted to the elite Robbery Homicide Division and completely green. But by the time Gamble works through her third homicide case in Murder Season, she's right there with Sam Spade.

City Of Echoes is about a lot of things—greed, Wall Street, family and friendship, truth and beauty, and ultimately, love and death. As a boy Matt Jones was abandoned by his father when his mother died. He was raised by his aunt in New Jersey, and when he went to Afghanistan as a soldier he became best friends with Kevin Hughes, a young LAPD cop. After their tour of duty, Hughes convinced Jones to move to Los Angeles and become a cop. That was five years ago. When City Of Echoes begins, Matt Jones is working his very first night as a homicide detective. And unfortunately, the murder is a personal outrage making his challenge extremely difficult, and his survival, very much in doubt. That's what makes City Of Echoes an epic thriller.

ST: What attracts you to the mystery genre?

RE: Someone who wants to write novels has a lot of choices. From general fiction to sci-fi to romance to young adult to crime fiction. For me crime fiction is a more fascinating genre to explore ideas because it seems to mirror real life. Crime fiction, and by that I mean detective stories, crime stories, and thrillers, define and detail and question and criticize the world we live in today. And let's face, getting justice in the real world is very much an uncertainty. As most of my readers know, my novels are about more than the murders or even the story. It gets back to building that world we spoke about, and deciding what to put in, what to leave out, and what might, if you're lucky, push your story to the edge.

ST: What is next for Robert Ellis?

RE: Writing City Of Echoes was a very special experience for me. My editors have always said that they believe each one of my novels has been better than the last. This feels true to me, and I think the reason might be that I still feel like I'm learning. With each new novel I feel like I'm starting from scratch and have to learn how to do it all over again. Maybe it's because of the car wreck I survived.

Keeping this in mind, I'm very lucky to have an editor and publisher who, when confronted with anything out of the ordinary, anything that might seem experimental, don't ask why? At least for me, this time around, they said why not?!

My next novel is The Love Killings, and it's not quite a second book in the Detective Matt Jones series. Instead, it's an actual continuation of book one, City Of Echoes, which comes to the last page with a lot of loose ends. So much is still up in the air. So this is what going to happen. City Of Echoes plays out. Then, after only six weeks in story time, The Love Killings begins and the chase is on. I'm really jazzed about this, and can't say how much I appreciate the creative freedom I've been given. Let's hope it works!

ST: What advice do you give to aspiring writers?

RE: The first professor I had in film school was Joseph L. Anderson. At the time, Joe was the leading American authority on Japanese film in the country and beyond. Joe spoke perfect Japanese, worked with Akira Kurosawa on “Throne Of Blood,” and produced the Japanese Director Series for PBS. The first thing he said in my first film class was that your success as an artist depends on your ability to know the difference between good and great. Forget about personal biases and personal opinions. There's a difference between something good, and something great.

You need to see it, and you've got to know it, in order to study and learn from the artists who are pushing the genre forward. That doesn't mean that reading a really bad novel or watching a film that sucks isn't going to be helpful. It's just important that a new writer understands the difference.

After that, once a new writer gets off the ground, he or she needs to learn how to take criticism. From fellow writers, editors, advisors, from everyone the new writer trusts who knows something about stories and writing. Don't ever take it personally like I do (laughs)!

ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?

RE: I love to cook. I love my dogs, Harry (Bosch) and SamE (Elvis Cole). And drinking wine while listening to music is pretty good, too.

Learn more about Robert Ellis, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @thrillerwatch.

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Pouring Gasoline On the Fire With Horror Author Joe Hill

Joe Hill

Joe Hill

By Sean Tuohy

Twisted, dark, funny, and filled with a heart (dark heart, maybe), Joe Hill is an author whose stories are filled with characters so full of life that they fill the seats beside you. His stories are injected with so much humor and original prose that you are instantly brought to another world. 

Hill's novels cover the gamut of storytelling: Heart-Shaped Box is about a former rock star who buys the suit that a man died in and is haunted by his ghost; Horns features a young man who wakes up to find out he is growing horns from his head and then develops dark, magical powers; and NOS4A2, in which a young woman uses her powers to fight a supernatural evil.

I was lucky enough to speak to Hill about his writing style, his next book, and what books are currently cluttering his nightstand table.

Sean Tuohy: What authors did you read growing up?

Joe Hill: The first writer I really fell for was Arthur Conan Doyle. I had a deal with my parents: bedtime was at 9:00 p.m., but I could stay up an extra half hour if I was in bed reading a book. I soon discovered a half an hour was exactly enough time to read a Sherlock Holmes story. I read them all, over the course of about three months… The Sign of Four and the other novels usually required a week to finish. It’s possible I owned a Sherlockian Calabash pipe and sometimes wandered the house, gumming it thoughtfully, and looking for things to detect.

I loved Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels, which were full of slaughter and betrayal.

I read comics without discrimination or judgment: good comics, bad comics, hilariously bad comics. For a year or two I was very emotionally wrapped up in the soap opera of Chris Claremont’s X-Men. I once stalked Chris Claremont at a Boston SF Convention.

I was (and still am) a big fan of Tabitha and Stephen King. I’ve read both extensively.

ST: Was there one book that you connected with above all others?

JH: I read The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs over and over. It is, in some ways, like the perfect Harry Potter novel; it just happens to have been written about 30 years before J.K. Rowling got started. A lonely orphan discovers he’s related to a wizard and must learn how to cast spells himself, so he can defeat the doomsday plot of a terrible sorcerer who has returned from the dead. Sound familiar? But instead of Hogwarts, the setting is New Zebedee, Conn., and instead of art by Mary GrandPré, the illustrations were provided by Edward Gorey. I’ve reread the book more than once as an adult and it still retains all its old power. I’m persuaded the novel itself is a perfect, compact work of enchantment.

In a lot of ways, Locke & Key, the comic I wrote for six years, wouldn’t exist without The House with a Clock in its Walls.

ST: When did you start to have ideas of becoming a full-time writer?

JH: Both of my parents are novelists. I started goofing off on a typewriter about three minutes after I learned you could string letters together to make words.

In junior high, I discovered role-playing games, and I was a dungeon master for a couple of years (although the game my friends and I loved to play was not Dungeons & Dragons, but Call of Cthulhu). In high school, though, I was a boarding student at a tony Massachusetts academy, and role-playing more or less ended. Make-believe with a group of friends quickly came to seem a little shameful. I started writing every day, stories of fantasy and horror, to fill the hole.

ST: Do you outline your stories or just sit down and begin to write?

JH: Ah…neither really.

I work very slowly. A short story takes one to three months. A novel might take anywhere from a year to five years. Whereas I generate ideas very quickly, I have a couple decent ideas for stories every week.

When I finally start a story, it’s already been living in my imagination for months, or maybe years. I know the first scene. I have some big set pieces in mind. I know things about the key characters. I almost always know the first sentence. Very little of this is written down, although I might have a couple notes scattered across my journals. But no outline, just an unmapped island that I’ve been visiting in my daydreams.

I think outlines are a mistake. Or at least, I know they’re a mistake for me, and I suspect they’re often a mistake for most other writers. It’s more useful to develop a single interesting situation, and a few characters you want to investigate. Develop someone who has regrets, a strong personal code, a few helpless compulsions; develop someone who can’t control or can’t express their anger; someone who has a distinctive, interesting voice; someone driven, either by their demons or their angels. Drop a really engaging character into a gripping situation, and you don’t need to outline. You can just sit back and watch the fireworks. Outlines choke off any chance of discovery, of surprising yourself.

ST: Last year, the movie “Horns,” based on your novel of the same name, was released in theaters.  How did it feel seeing the world and characters that you created on the big screen?

JH: In some ways I like the movie better than the novel. I’m proud of the novel. I worked hard on it, and I think it’s fun to read, that the pages turn quickly, that it explores interesting themes and ideas. But I had a nervous breakdown while I was working on it. I was terrifically depressed. My marriage ended. It was a sad, confused time for me, and my feelings about the book are wrapped up in a lot of personally unhappy memories.

The movie, on the other hand, is a lot of fun. Daniel Radcliffe and Juno Temple gave it everything they had, and their moments together are beautiful and heart-rending. Alexandre Aja got the book’s atmosphere of lush summery romance, and also its sick sense of humor, and managed to capture both things on the screen. In the end, it didn’t do well in the marketplace, but I think it was always a tough sell. In some ways I’m surprised it got made at all. It’s the least commercial thing I’ve ever written: a weird horror-satire, a surreal, “Twin Peaks”-sy riff on The Metamorphosis.

Late in the game, a PR person came up with the world’s best tagline: Horns: Grow a pair. I wish I had thought of that. If we had slapped that line on the cover of the book, we would’ve sold a billion, billion copies. Sigh.

ST: Do you have any rituals you have to complete before or after writing?

JH: Um, besides routine procrastination? Like lots of modern writers, I’d so much rather screw off on Twitter than actually do my job.

Which doesn’t make a lick of sense. When I sit down to work, and I finally begin to build sentences, it almost always makes me feel good. I like myself best when I’m writing. Or maybe that’s not quite right: maybe I mean I know myself best when I’m writing. Or have a chance to visit with my best, smartest self.

I get up every hour to make a cup of tea. That’s the one ritual. It takes three cups of tea to get through a normal day of work. Then I’ll have a fourth, late in the afternoon, when I sit down to read.

ST: Are you still a reader? If so, what are you reading now?

JH: I’d give up writing for a living before I’d give up reading for pleasure. I think of myself as a father first, a reader second, and a writer only a distant third. I love other people’s sentences much more than my own, and I hope I never get tired of a good story.

I’m usually reading two or three things at once. At the moment I’m working my way through a big heavy collection of short stories by Irwin Shaw, the tenth book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, and Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log.

That’s a pretty good representative example of what I might be reading in any given month. The short story might be my favorite form; if I have a favorite genre, it’s not horror but historical fiction; and I read a broad range of non-fiction, from history to true crime to pop cultural analysis.

I just finished David Mitchell’s novel, Slade House, which is out this October. It’s his most surprising book yet, and maybe the last book in the world anyone would’ve expected him to write: a red-in-tooth-and-claw supernatural horror thriller. It’s a little like if Wes Craven hired Umberto Eco to reboot “Nightmare on Elm Street:” erudite, witty, as finely wrought as a Fabergé egg, but also unrepentantly terrifying.

ST: What advice do you give to aspiring writers?

JH: Over the years, I’ve had a lot of good advice from some brilliant writers. But I never really learned that much from all the kind, well-meant suggestions and clever tips. They didn’t stick with me. Just about everything I learned about writing a good book I learned from reading lots and lots of good books. I studied the novels I loved. I read them over and over, sometimes with a pen and highlighter, taking notes. Once, I spent a month rewriting the first five chapters of Elmore Leonard’s The Big Bounce, just to get the feel of his sentences.

ST: What does the future hold for Joe Hill?

JH: I’m the guest editor for the inaugural edition of Houghton-Mifflin’s Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy. That’ll be out this October. And I’ve got a new novel, a dark modern fantasy called The Fireman, which will be out in the summer of 2016. It’s about a plague of spontaneous combustion; it’s my version of The Stand, soaked in gasoline and set on fire.

ST: Can you please tell us one random fact about yourself?

JH: I have never lost a game of Boggle.

To learn more about Joe Hill, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @joe_hill.

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Fiction Sleuth: 10 Questions With Author Ingrid Thoft

Ingrid Thoft (Photo credit: Doug Berrett)

Ingrid Thoft (Photo credit: Doug Berrett)

By Daniel Ford

Author Ingrid Thoft’s Fina Ludlow series has everything a Writer’s Bone reader loves: a strong, fearless female private investigator, a story with emphasis on characters and relationships, and a Boston setting. Her newest novel Brutality, which comes out June 23, features Boston P.I. Ludlow tracking down an assailant accused of assaulting a soccer mom in her kitchen.

Thoft recently answered some of my questions about her early influences, writing about Boston, her new novel, and what’s in store for Fina Ludlow.

Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Ingrid Thoft: My mother thinks my path was clear when I decided at a young age that despite getting our small town newspaper, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times delivered every day, there was a hole that could only be filled by my own newspaper. I distinctly remember creating copies on a typewriter and illustrating them myself. Articles covered things like world hunger and Jimmy Carter’s peanut farm—real hard-hitting stuff. 

As I got older, I knew that I wanted writing to be the mainstay of my work, but you don’t generally become a novelist the day you graduate from college. Instead, I wrote in various settings including a non-profit, an interactive company, and in the human resources office at Harvard University. Most of the work I did was geared toward employees, and although the content of my current writing is very different, I developed skills like meeting deadlines and adopting the style of writing to suit the audience, both of which have served me well.

I can’t talk about writing without talking about reading. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and reading is to me like breathing, eating and sleeping—essential to survival. Being able to spend my time on both sides of that equation—reading and writing—is a tremendous privilege and a source of much satisfaction.

DF: Who were some of your early influences and current favorites?

IT: I sound like a broken record, but I can’t overstate the importance of the Nancy Drew books by Caroline Keene. The series has it all: intrigue, danger, suspense, and strong, smart female characters. Reading those books taught me that women can not only be detectives, but also write detectives. I also love the fact that Nancy is shared by multiple generations; my mom loved the books, my sisters and I loved the books and my nieces love them, too. Other favorites from childhood are the Encyclopedia Brown series and the Choose Your Own Adventure books. 

My current favorites are many of the names you might expect; Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Ace Atkins, Reed Farrel Coleman, Ann Cleeves, Chevy Stevens, and Elizabeth George. I recently enjoyed Suitcase City by Sterling Watson and Now You See Me by S.J. Bolton. On my TBR list is Vanished by Joseph Finder.

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline? Did your process change at all between your first novel, Loyalty, and Brutality?

IT: I never listen to music when I work. I find it too distracting. I like quiet with the exception of the soundtrack of downtown Seattle, which is just outside my window. Sirens, car horns, and the occasional street musician serve as good background noise.

My writing process can best be described as “herding cats” in that I always wish it were more straightforward, but I don’t think that’s the nature of the beast. I start with a general concept that raises lots of interesting questions. For example, in the case of Brutality, I was fascinated by the relationship between sports, health, money, and our sense of identity. As the body of compelling data grows, why do we continue to participate in activities that compromise our health? How do we define entertainment? What are we willing to sacrifice in the name of toughness, and what happens to our identities when certain activities are no longer a part them? Once my brain is working on the questions, I come up with a general plot and then write extensive character studies to populate the universe I’m creating. I can tell you all sorts of things about the characters that will never explicitly show up on the page, but I believe their backstories make them more three-dimensional. When I start writing, I know where I want the story to end up, and I usually outline the first chunk of pages—30 or so—and continue to do that as I progress. Lots of things change during the actual writing phase, and I may alter the course while I write, but I couldn’t sit down and start without some kind of plan. I liken it to captaining a sailboat; you should have a map and compass with you, but if conditions change, you need to respond accordingly. I like to think of it as a loose framework that fosters creativity.

The most significant change from one book to the next is that I’ve gotten more confident about the process itself. At those moments when I feel like I’ll never finish or a plot point will never be resolved, I can remind myself that I’ve felt that way before, and it’s always worked out in the end. 

DF: How did the idea for Brutality originate?

IT: I’m always keeping my eyes open for a good story or usually just the kernel for a good story. This entails reading the newspaper, reading news online and watching true crime television shows. The entire book writing process takes a year so I have to find a subject matter that holds my attention. I can’t expect readers to be interested if I’m not!

I don’t remember the exact moment that I got the idea for Brutality, but I had a general sense that there was an interesting turning of the tide that was happening in terms of sports and concussions. This is to me an extremely juicy topic, and my goal is always for my books to pose complicated questions for readers with no easy answers. I especially like situations where one’s theoretical and practical responses might actually be different. Maybe you’ve read the research and decided your child shouldn’t play football due to the risks, but what if you were raised in a football-loving family? What if the family rituals certain around football? What if you identify strongly as a fan? It’s between that rock and a hard place where the most interesting stories live.

DF: How much of yourself ends up in your main character Fina Ludlow?

IT: This is a tough question for me to answer since she wouldn’t exist without me, but we are different in many ways. I have only sisters, no brothers, and I had a great relationship with my father when he was alive and have a wonderful relationship with my mother. I think that the qualities we share are being independent, determined and hard workers with a strong belief in standing up for what we think is right. We differ in that Fina says things I’d like to say, but I’m way too polite to actually utter them! That’s the great thing about fiction; you can make people say and do exactly what you want them to without any real-life consequences!

DF: Since you’re a Boston native and that’s where your books take place, what details of the city did you want to capture and what clichés about Beantown did you hope to avoid?

IT: One of the things I love about Boston that I wanted to convey in the books is the breadth and depth of the city in terms of its people and their passions. There are so many world-class things about the city: its medical facilities, higher education, the arts, professional sports teams, as well as a strong sense of pride and history that shows up in things like the multiple generations of families who serve in the police and fire departments. People from all over the world come to Boston, and on any given day a visitor could be seen by a specialist in a top-notch hospital or watching a baseball game sitting above the Green Monster. I wanted Fina’s adventures to reflect that diversity. She may spend time interviewing a potential client in the ICU at Mass General or visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, but you’ll also find her at Kelly’s Roast Beef eating fried clams and a lobster roll. It’s fun for me and readers to ride along with her.

I wanted to avoid the misconception that everyone from Boston or its environs has the typical Boston accent. Lots of people do, but lots of people don’t. This was an interesting issue when we were casting for the audiobook. Some of the contenders had badly done Boston accents—trust me, there’s nothing worse—and it was really distracting. The voice actress who has recorded all three audio books, Rebecca Soler, does a terrific job without the accent. She’s also from Boston, which proves my point that the accent isn’t a given!

DF: We did a podcast interview with Boston P.I. John Nardizzi who also used his professional skills to develop a writing career. What did you learn through your program at the University of Washington that helped you create your series?  

IT: I learned a lot of practical information in terms of detection that Fina employs, like how to mine information from public records and how to conduct effective interviews, but the thing I was most surprised by was my shifting attitudes toward personal injury attorneys. One of my instructors did a lot of work for the kinds of attorneys who advertise on television, like Carl Ludlow, and I learned that in certain circumstances, those attorneys are the only thing saving victims from financial ruin. Perhaps a single mother is injured in a car accident that wasn’t her fault, but if she doesn’t have health insurance or other safety nets, the dominos in her life can quickly fall. Maybe she misses work to go to physical therapy, but then she can’t pay for day care, and then she loses her job, but has no one to watch her kids when she looks for a new job, and what about all those doctors’ bills? Many of us are lucky enough to have layers of support that keep us from the brink—both financially and emotionally. For people who don’t have that, personal injury lawyers can be lifesavers.

One of my primary motivations for earning the certificate in the UW program was so that I could create a character who knew her stuff. Fina breaks the rules and some laws, but that’s always a conscious choice on her part. She’s not incompetent; she just marches to the beat of her own drummer!

DF: Now that you have three novels under your belt, what’s next?

IT: I’m putting the finishing touches on book number four in the series, which will be published in June 2016 with the plan to continue the series. The first two books are in development at ABC to be a television series, and although I don’t have any involvement in the creation of the show, I’m really anxious to see the producers’ interpretation of the universe I’ve created. I always enjoy the opportunity to meet readers and look forward to doing even more of that this year. I’ll be attending the Bouchercon Convention in Raleigh in October and speaking at the Book Group Roundup in Colorado Springs in November. It’s particularly energizing to interact with readers when I’m starting the next book in the series; their excitement is contagious!

DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?

IT: I like to quote Winston Churchill when giving advice to aspiring writers, but with a caveat. He said, “Never, never, never give up” and I believe that may be the only difference between a frustrated unpublished writer and a published writer. The caveat is that you have to learn to accept criticism and to incorporate feedback so as to improve your work. You need to be thick-skinned to be a writer, and if you can’t bear to hear negative feedback or are convinced that your work can’t be improved, you might be in the wrong line of work. The critical question to keep in mind when fielding criticism and suggestions is: “Does this make the work better or just different?” Better is better, but different is just someone else’s book.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?

IT: As a sixteen-year-old, I worked the 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. shift at a small local AM radio station. I did everything—wrote copy, called police and fire stations for news, and delivered on-air segments, including sports. I pity the Red Sox fans who had to suffer through my game reports. I read copy from the wire, but I had absolutely no idea what I was talking about, and I have to imagine that was obvious!

To learn more about Ingrid Thoft, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @IngridThoft.

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Seeking Old School Thrills With Author Tom Claver's Debut Novel

Tom Claver (Photo courtesy of the author)

Tom Claver (Photo courtesy of the author)

By Daniel Ford

I'm fairly certain I would have enjoyed Tom Claver’s debut thriller Hider/Seeker even without the rabid endorsement of my jewelry biz buddy Peggy Jo Donahue.

His main character, Harry Bridger, makes a living helping people run from their enemies, however, his life becomes endangered after he arranges for Angela Linehan and her son to disappear abroad from her violent husband in London. Throw in a ticking clock, an ex-wife, and a Central American location and that’s a novel I’m going to finish in two nights (one with the right blend of coffee).

Also, first lines in a thriller tend to be even more important than in literary fiction and Claver lands a beauty: “Harry had sat in the restaurant for over an hour, bloating his empty stomach on grissini and cold Prosecco.” Yes, please. 

Claver recently answered some of my questions about how he first became interested in writing, his writing process, how the idea for Hider/Seeker originated, and how he went about getting his work published (He also earned Writer’s Bone favorite status by referring to me as a journalist).

DF: Did you grow up wanting to be a writer, or was it a desire that built up over time?

Tom Claver: I always wanted to make films since I was small. I used to like drawing comic strips, mainly about the U.S. Cavalry as I was mad about cowboy films, particularly those made by John Ford. But it was not until I was studying for an economics degree in London that I became interested in writing. I enrolled in a creative writing course set up by Dr. Rod Whitaker, a visiting U.S. professor from the Department of Radio, Television, and Film at the Austin School of Communications in Texas. His opening line in his first class caught our attention immediately. “Sorry, I’m late, but I’ve just been on the phone to Clint Eastwood.” Needless to say, I was all ears from that moment onward as he told us about a blockbuster thriller he’d written called “The Eiger Sanction.” Eastwood had just bought the rights and was going to make a film of the book. I think it was right there and then that I wanted to write a thriller as it was something I’d never contemplated before.

Whitaker was quite a character who wrote under the name of Trevanian, although he had several pseudonyms and wrote across different genres. He kept his identity a secret, but didn’t seem to mind sharing it with us in London. Despite achieving best-seller status he avoided interviews and publishers promotions that would reveal his true identity. Sometimes he would send imposters to represent him at interviews, just for fun. However, in 1979 he publicly revealed his true identity in an interview with The New York Times Book Review. He scotched a long-running rumour that Trevanian was actually the thriller writer Robert Ludlum. You can read more about him at my website.

After finishing my degree, my interest fell more in the direction of making films. One 30-minute film I scripted was distributed in British cinemas while another short I wrote and directed was sold to Central Television in the U.K. I started writing feature length scripts, one of which formed the basis of Hider/Seeker. It had another title and was genuinely in an awful state, but the BBC saw something and invited me to discuss it. Nothing happened. I then decided it was time to stop writing and raise a family.

But the desire to write a book never left me. The turning point came just over ten years ago when I decided to teach myself to write a thriller, more as an academic exercise. By reading books about writing and by sending my work for professional critique, I gradually improved. Two unpublished books later, I decided to take another look at the film script I’d sent to the BBC. I re-worked it into Hider/Seeker.

DF: Who were some of your early influences in the crime genre, and which modern crime writers are you currently hooked on?

TC: This is not an easy question to answer. I read thrillers as well as other books of fiction while I was growing up and I think subconsciously they determined the style of writing I have today. It was anything from Raymond Chandler to Philip Roth. I also liked John Updike a lot.

Ian Fleming was compulsory reading for young boys wanting a bit of titillation and action. I also enjoyed the adventures written by Alistair MacLean. But when I discovered Len Deighton, I think that brought it full circle. Deighton’s sardonic hero in the Ipcress File was a bit like Chandler’s Marlowe.

But it was much later in life that I started reading Dashiell Hammett who I then realised was the grandfather of these types of thrillers. The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man are effortless reads. Such perfect economical sentences. It’s something that American writers are good at in my opinion.

But I’m fundamentally a Hitchcock fan and when I saw “The 39 Steps” as a young boy, I thought it was the most exciting film I’d ever seen. It was only when I was on holiday in Scotland in later years that I read John Buchan’s book, which incidentally is a 100 years old this year. I admired the book tremendously because the set-up used by Buchan had such a contemporary feel, providing you could ignore the anachronistic characters he describes in Edwardian Britain. You can read more about Buchan’s impact on thriller writing in a blog I’ve written.

Buchan was the first modern thriller writer and Hitchcock’s rebooting of the story years later paved the way for the chase thriller. I’m a sucker of the man-on-the-run theme and in my debut thriller, Hider/Seeker, I have used it in an inverse way.

Among the contemporary writers, I like Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series. I’m also a fan of Olen Steinhauer and his creation of Milo Weaver. Similarly, I have a soft spot for Martin Cruz Smith’s Russian investigator Arkady Renko. If anyone ever thinks of remaking Gorky Park as a film, they might like to focus on the second half of the book, which was totally ignored in the original film.

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?

TC: I work from one-line plots that I collect and file. When starting a new novel, I’ll try out a few of the plot lines to see how they feel. I might play around with the angles or setting, but once a story obviously has legs, I go for it. But I normally want to test out the early chapters and send them for critical appraisal along with a synopsis. I just want to see how the story is coming across to an outsider and whether they flag up something serious that I’ve not thought about. Once I’ve written the book, I don’t look at it for a minimum of six weeks, then read through it again. It then goes to another editor for critical appraisal. A long period, and I mean a long period, of re-editing the book follows until I’m ready to send it to an editor for editing.

You are the second American journalist to ask me if I listen to music while writing. The answer is no! I don’t like my thoughts being influenced by someone else’s mood or words. And it is also a big no to outlining. I prefer my characters to work out the story for me.

DF: Where did the idea for Hider/Seeker originate? 

TC: As I mentioned earlier, it started as a film script some 30 years ago. I vaguely remember watching a television documentary where a divorced father who had been denied access to his son by his ex-wife enters his son’s school unannounced and takes him away. It frightened me at the time, as the boy was clearly alarmed, and I thought it was definitely a scene I would like in my film. Then I worked out a story about why someone would need to take a boy out of school in that way. My aim was to have a story with a 1950s feel but in a contemporary setting. You’ve probably gathered I like older crime novels. However, I feel strongly that novels should be written in the present as this is our time to reflect what is going on around us.

DF: How much of yourself ended up in your main character Harry Bridger?

TC: I’m short and bald. Harry is tall with a mop of blond hair. Perhaps I share his North London wit.

DF: The crime genre has certain built-in tropes that can deter some writers from taking the plunge. How did you ensure that your tale was original? 

TC: Bertolt Brecht, an aficionado of the thriller genre, once said that the aesthetic quality of the detective novel is derived from the variation of its fixed elements. Yes, there is a formula to crime novels but the fun is using these same building bricks that have created this formula in a different way each time. The originality is what the writer does with the bricks that have been passed down to him or her by previous writers. To those of us who love this genre, we know that not all crime books are the same as some literary snobs enjoy pointing out.

The Coen brothers’ “The Big Lebowski” is a slobbish reincarnation of Marlowe. They not only rebuilt the character on a familiar likeable guy, but they also borrowed the premise of the story, i.e. one of mistaken identity, from Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, which Hitchcock also reused in “North by Northwest.”

DF: When you finished your first draft, did you know you had something good, or did you have to go through multiple rounds of edits to realize you had something you felt comfortable taking to readers?

TC: I knew the story was good when it was in a film script form because the BBC invited me to discuss it. So I was pretty confident that people would like it. My main concern was the style of writing. You could present the same story different ways. In the end, I chose a simple linear story as that helped to speed up the action as there were no distractions of sub-plots. This made it feel like the story was being told in real-time. I would not have published Hider/Seeker if the editor said it was not of a publishable standard. I didn’t prompt him, he just came out with it in his final report.

DF: Now that you have your first novel under your belt, what’s next?

TC: Everyone is asking me this. Let’s just say it is set in a very cold place.

DF: What advice would you give aspiring authors?

TC: Don’t give up like I did. It’s a big regret of mine. But at the same time don’t starve or you’ll never write your first book.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?

TC: I’m a coffee addict. I have a fantastic Italian espresso machine that makes coffee that would wake up the dead. My favourite brand of coffee is Kimbo Espresso. I recall visiting Balzac’s house once while holidaying in France many years ago and being more fascinated by his coffee machine than his books on display. I know, I’m a complete philistine. Perhaps I am more like Harry Bridger than I thought.

To learn more about Tom Claver, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @Tom_Claver. Hider/Seeker is available on Amazon

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Master of Disguise: 11 Questions With Author Erica Wright

Erica Wright (Photo courtesy of the author)

Erica Wright (Photo courtesy of the author)

By Daniel Ford

I’ll have plenty more to say about Erica Wright’s The Red Chameleon in next week’s 5 Books That Should Be On Your Radar post, but for now I’ll tell you that Wright’s main character, private investigator Kathleen Stone (or is it Kat? Or Katie? Or Katya?), is the perfect blend of brassy, troubled, and master of disguise.

Wright talked to me recently about what she wanted to do before discovering writing, the origins behind The Red Chameleon, and how she fell in love with her characters.

Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to be a writer, or was it a desire that built up over time?

Erica Wright: I wanted to be a zoologist until eighth grade biology class when we dissected a frog, and I passed out. My teacher was close with my mother and thought, "How am I going to call Paula and tell her that I killed her daughter." I survived, though, so they're still friends. I have been writing poems and stories for as long as I can remember, but never considered pursuing publication until my twenties. I grew up in a town of 500 people, and while their professions are varied (the coolest is a beekeeper who owns her own farm), there are no novelists that I know of. So it was a gradual realization that I could write for a wider audience than myself.

DF: Who were some of your early influences in the crime genre, and which modern crime writers are you currently hooked on?

EW: The first book I remember re-reading as a child was Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn. It's not a mystery, but it set the tone for my gothic interests. I've never met a ghost tour I didn't like. In college I went through a Poe phase, but also enjoyed Doyle. (Do we have to say Sir Doyle?) I'm pretty sure that I would still be obsessed with the BBC "Sherlock" if I'd never read The Hounds of Baskerville, but there's also something fun about re-imagining the classic stories. In terms of modern mystery writers, I'll read anything by Sara Gran or Megan Abbott. And I love my press mate M. R. C. Kasasian's Gower Street Detective books, another take on Sherlock Holmes.  

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?

EW: My background is in poetry, so my favorite part of fiction writing is the routine. With a new poem, there's a lot of work that doesn't feel like work. You're walking around the block, thinking about whether "shatter" or "shudder" works better in stanza three. When focusing on a novel, I set daily goals for myself, say, two hours or two thousand words. While I might have to heavily edit what I produce, the effort is satisfying. I didn't use an outline for the first draft of The Red Chameleon, preferring the so-called "pants-ing" method. Of course, that meant that the first draft needed some overhauls to get the plot in shape. I used a loose outline for its sequel, The Granite Moth, and have a detailed outline for the third book. Maybe next time I'll be done experimenting and can settle on an approach that works every time. Probably not.

DF: Where did the idea for The Red Chameleon originate? 

EW: I started teaching in the English Department of John Jay College of Criminology in the fall of 2006. My students were pursuing careers I knew nothing about. They wanted to be detectives, forensic specialists, CIA operatives, FBI agents. I started researching these fields to have something to talk about during our conferences. Since most graduates would end up in the New York Police Department, I became somewhat familiar with the training requirements and different opportunities. While I hoped that none of them would go undercover, an often dangerous and demoralizing job, I was fascinated with this small part of police operations. I was also reading a lot of mystery writers at the time—Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, M. C. Beaton—so looking back, it almost seems inevitable that I started tinkering with this book. At the time, it surprised me.

DF: How much of yourself ended up in your main character Kathleen Stone?

EW: In his book Here Is New York, E. B. White writes, "On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy." I remember reading that opening sentence in the Strand bookstore and feeling a thrilling jolt of recognition. Small town life has its advantages, but privacy isn't one of them. I lived in the city for 13 years, and it was great that nobody knew what I was doing unless I told them. Kat takes her need for privacy to whole other paranoid (rightfully, it turns out) level, but I definitely share that impulse.

DF: When you finished your first draft, did you know you had something good, or did you have to go through multiple rounds of edits to realize you had something you felt comfortable taking to readers?

EW: I fell in love with the characters as I wrote, particularly Dolly. I sat down to write a scene that conveyed Kat's wigmaker, Vondya Vasiliev, as a sort of mother figure. Then Dolly, a drag queen at a famous club called The Pink Parrot, was there, just hanging out. In the books, Dolly sort of insists on being Kat's friend, and that's how I felt about him as a character, too. He insisted on being in the book. What I mean to say is that when I finished my first draft, I knew I couldn't abandon any of these people even though the plot in general and many scenes in particular needed some major rewrites.

DF: The Red Chameleon has gotten some great reviews from the likes of The New York Times Book Review, O Magazine, and Publisher’s Weekly. What has that experience been like?

EW: Fainting goats have nothing on me. As might be obvious from my frog story, if I'm overwhelmed, I fall right over. I managed not to pass out when I read The Times review, but I started sweating and my ears started ringing. It has meant a lot to me that reviewers have written about my book. Not only is it a debut, but it's out from an independent publisher. Even the ambivalent responses haven't bothered me because I know how much effort it takes to read a book and articulate a viewpoint. Book people are the best people.

DF: How do you balance writing and marketing your work (i.e. book tours, engaging with readers on social media, etc.)?

EW: I set aside a little time each week for what I think of as the business side of writing. I see if I have any work that's ready to be sent out, query bookstores about readings, make sure my website doesn't look too amateurish. Last week, I spent an hour creating a newsletter signup form via MailChimp. (My brother's a tech genius, so hopefully he's not reading this. I'm sure that should have taken me about five minutes.) In general, though, I think it's better not to stress about self-promotion. I definitely post to Facebook and Twitter about personal news, but try to make sure that the majority of what I share is about other people. Or, you know, breaking taxidermy news.

DF: What’s next for Erica Wright and Kathleen Stone?

EW: A sequel to The Red Chameleon, The Granite Moth, will be released this November, so lots more shenanigans.

DF: What advice would you give aspiring authors?

EW: Root for others as much as you root for yourself. And if that sounds cheesy, I promise that it's actually kind of selfish, too. If you celebrate the success of friends, you get to have a lot more cake.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?

EW: I was named after Erica Kane, Susan Lucci's character from "All My Children." Well, “named after” might be a bit of a stretch, but my mother watched the show and liked the name, so here I am. No Emmy, but I do like a good villain. 

To learn more about Erica Wright, visit her official website or follow her on Twitter @eawright.

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Getting the Words Right: 8 Questions With Author Chuck Grossart

Chuck Grossart

Chuck Grossart

By Sean Tuohy

After 20 years serving the government, retired Air Force Colonel Chuck Grossart turned to storytelling.

Grossart has been engrossing readers since his first thrilling and dark book became a 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Finalist.

In his latest novel, The Gemini Effect (due out April 1), Grossart tells a fast-paced story about bio-warfare and the end of all mankind. The former missile launch officer recently talked to me about about his new book, his research, and his writing style.

Sean Tuohy: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Chuck Grossart: I always thought about writing fiction while growing up, but never put fingers to keyboard until my late 30s. I was stationed in Alaska at the time, on a one-year remote tour for the Air Force, and had just finished reading an absolutely horrible horror novel (which would seem like a good thing, but it wasn’t), and I thought, “Sheesh, if this guy can write a novel and get published, I surely can, too!” 

So, that night, I began the draft of what would become my first novel, titled, The Coming. When I finished it a year or so later, I was sure an agent or publisher would scoop it up right away, but, boy, was I wrong! When those first rejections started coming in (including one that was dated the day prior to when I’d stuck it in the mail…that was extra-special!), I was shocked. How could anyone not like this? It’s a great story!

Well, it wasn’t. It was too long (700+ manuscript pages for a first novel), and it stunk. I was, however, able to peak the interest of one agent (Anne Collette of the Helen Rees Literary Agency), and for a couple of years (in her “off time”) she tried to help me take the story where it needed to go.

After about 100 or so rejections (including a couple from the same literary agency that represents me today!), I finally decided to self-publish through Smashwords. I also decided to enter the novel in the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, and much to my surprise, it actually made it to the quarterfinals before getting cut. In 2012, I entered my second novel, titled The Mengele Effect (which I’d written 2003 through 2005), and it got cut in the first round. Same results in 2013. In 2014, however, The Mengele Effect won the sci-fi/fantasy/horror category, was re-titled The Gemini Effect, and is currently out there as a Kindle First selection for March 2015.

My journey has certainly not been typical, but it has been long. If there’s a lesson in there, I would say perseverance is important, as is the ability to take a step back and realize when something you’ve written needs work…possibly a great deal of work!

ST: Who did you read growing up? What type of books did you enjoy?

CG: As a kid, I devoured “Star Trek” novels as fast as I could (yes, I’m a hopeless Trekkie), along with anything dealing with airplanes and World War II in the Pacific. My father flew C-47s in the China/Burma/India theater during the war (1944 through 1945), so anything having to do with the Pacific theater was right up my alley. It wasn’t until high school that I discovered another series that I still, to this day, absolutely love, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series. Then, I discovered Stephen King’s The Stand, and, boy, was I hooked. I devoured everything he’d written to that point, and became one of his “constant readers.” Then, later, came Tom Clancy, Dean Koontz, Robert McCammon, John Saul. I’m still growing up (according to my wife), and the list continues to grow!

ST: What effects did your military career have on your writing?

CG: Zero. Writing in the military is completely different—short, concise, dry and technical, get an idea across, do it quickly all in order to get a decision maker to make the decision you’re trying to get. Some might argue that the “short and concise” part also applies to fiction, and I suppose it does in an economy of words sense, but military writing reads differently.

ST: What is your writing process like?

CG: I’m not too sure I even have a process! I know some writers are incredible organized when they start out to write a story. They plot-out the whole thing, keep track of their plot points, etc. I start that way, too, but it soon becomes almost worthless as I find my stories seem to take on a life of their own and I end up tossing most of the initial prep work.

What I enjoy the most about writing is crafting a story that someone will enjoy, and remember. If I can take my reader into the world that I’ve created for them, convince them to suspend disbelief as much as they can, surround them with things that touch on their emotions—happiness, fear, excitement, dread—and leave them wanting more when they’re finished, then I’ve done my job. Some people have a hard time suspending disbelief as much as I’d like them to, and that’s okay. They can (and will) find something else to read. For the most part, though, I feel my stories have been well received, and for that, I’m grateful.

The worst aspect about writing is time, that finite commodity we all seem to have too little of. For me personally, I find my writing time falls at about the same time everyone else in the house has headed off to bed. Definitely makes for some late nights and some very early mornings!

ST: Your newest novel, The Gemini Effect, deals with biowarfare. What kind of research did you do for this novel?

CG: There’s an easy answer for this question: Google is a wonderful thing!

ST: How much of yourself do you find in each character you write?

CG: Every writer, naturally, includes a tiny bit of themselves in each character—similar fears, wants, desires, strengths, weaknesses—because that’s simply unavoidable. But I think for me personally, life experience counts a little more. For example, I have two daughters; as such, I will never write a weak female character. If I ever have a female character that says, “Oh, just hold me,” someone needs to track me down and slap me silly. My daughters are both beautiful young women, but shrinking violets they are not. They can definitely stand their ground if pressed, and one is even a better shot than I am!

Most writers would probably agree with me when I say that watching a character grow and develop beyond what you initially envisioned during the life of a story is really a cool thing. They can, and do, develop a life of their own, and may end up not resembling anything about you at all. In my chosen genre, I would count that as a good thing in some cases!

ST: What advice do you give to first time writers?

CG: Simple. Write/edit. Write/edit some more. Then, write/edit again. And, keep in mind that you’re writing can always be better. It’s definitely a learning process, and it never ends.

I think a lot of first-time writers believe what they’ve written is really, really good when in reality, it just might be really, really bad.  Like I said earlier, The Coming, in its original form, was really, really bad (which is one reason you won’t find it anywhere!).  Even with The Gemini Effect, I learned a ton while I went through the developmental and copy edit process with my editor at Amazon’s 47North, Jason Kirk. I have a post on my blog that describes in detail how Jason and I worked together to take my self-published novel The Mengele Effect—which had just won a nation-wide contest, but still needed some hefty tweaking—and transform it into what it was striving to become; The Gemini Effect.

Two other ways I improved my writing skills were to join a local writers’ group (The Nebraska Writers Workshop), and to try my hand at writing flash fiction.

Joining a writers group was really eye-opening; I was exposed to a number of different genes and skill levels, and found it very rewarding. The most important thing about joining a writers group is to be thick-skinned—be able to accept criticism, and use it to improve your skills. I’ll touch on that again a little later.

Writing flash fiction paid quite a few dividends. While perusing the titles at Smashwords.com, I ran across a short, flash fiction horror story. I read it, enjoyed it, and did a little research. Flash fiction—stories with word counts anywhere between 300 and 1,000 words—seemed like a perfect way for me to put pen (fingers) to paper (keyboard) and give birth to some of the ideas bouncing around inside my misshapen noggin. They wanted out, so I obliged. My initial venture into flash fiction was titled Ripple. I wrote it on a Saturday afternoon, and published it on Smashwords the next day. For me, the magic of crafting short stories began a few hours later, when Ripple received its first review. Two little words. One was "definitely," the other, "disturbing." With that, I knew I'd hit the exact mark I was aiming for. I highly recommend new writers try writing some flash fiction, as it teaches tight structure, tight plots, and helps a writer learn how to cut all the unnecessary chaff to keep it within a certain word count.

Also, like I stated earlier, learn to have a thick skin. Be willing to accept constructive criticism, and shrug-off the vitriolic criticism that every writer eventually receives. Is this an easy thing to do? No. Not. At. All. Like everything else, it’s a learning process. To paraphrase Isaac Asimov, there are two types of writers: Those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review. The first time you receive a bad review, it may feel as if you’ve just shown your newborn baby to a stranger—that baby is the most beautiful, precious thing you’ve ever seen—and the stranger says, “Wow, that is one ugly baby! How dare you bring such a horrid creature into my world!” Then, after the stranger vomits a few times (on your shoes), a crowd gathers, they chase you back to your castle with torches and pitchforks, and everything goes up in flames, especially your confidence as a writer.

One thing to remember is that a review is a message from a reader to other readers—it’s not directed at you. Some authors I know never look at reviews, good or bad. But, if you do, don’t take it personally. Even though someone just called your precious baby ugly, don’t ever let it kill your desire to write, and don’t ever respond. Let me say that again: No matter how badly you want to, don’t respond. Once your story is out in the big bad reviewer world, it has to stand on its own two feet. It’ll get praised, and it’ll get bullied, and you have to stand back and let it happen.

If you do get a nasty one, and it’s bugging you, keep this quote from Teddy Roosevelt nearby (it helps):

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

ST: Can you please tell us one random fact about yourself?

CG: Only one? My whole life is composed of random facts! But, if I had to choose only one, here you go, and remember, you asked: 

Back in the 1970s, James Doohan—Scotty from "Start Trek"—came to the Northglenn Mall in Northglenn, Colo., which was close to where I grew up. I took a red shirt, taped some construction paper rank stripes on the sleeves and made a construction paper engineer’s badge, which I pinned on my chest, and actually went out in public to meet him. I was 34 at the time. Or maybe I was 11? You decide.

To learn more about Chuck Grossart, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @ChuckGrossart

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Author On The Rise: 9 Questions With Paula Hawkins

Paula Hawkins  Photo credit: Kate Neil

Paula Hawkins
Photo credit: Kate Neil

By Daniel Ford

For a two-week span, I couldn’t turn around without some mention of Paula Hawkins’ novel, The Girl on the Train.

The book, which revolves around a voyeuristic commuter, was reviewed more than favorably in The New York Times Review of Books and earned a gushing feature in Entertainment Weekly. One reviewer even said that the debut thriller is “better than Gone Girl.

Hawkins recently answered some of my questions about her love of creativity, her early influences, and how the idea for The Girl on the Train originated. Owing to the book’s reception, and the passion in which Hawkins talked about her craft, I’d wager readers should be prepared to make plenty of room on their bookshelves for what she comes up with next.   

Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to be a writer, or was it a desire that built up over time?

Paula Hawkins: I loved creative writing as a child. English Literature was always one of my better subjects. Later on, I decided I wanted to go into journalism. I lived in Africa as a child. My father was an academic but he also wrote quite a bit for the papers, and he knew lots of journalists, who used to visit the house often. They were always interesting people who told amazing stories. They made me want to write.

I had dreams of being an intrepid foreign correspondent, but it turned out I wasn’t really brave enough, so I wrote about business and finance in London instead. I wrote fiction on the side, secretly, for myself. It wasn’t until relatively recently that I began showing my writing to others. I thoroughly enjoyed being a journalist, but I never lost the desire to create, to make things up rather than to record.

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

PH: Agatha Christie introduced me to the crime novel, and much later Donna Tartt showed me the possibilities of the thriller with The Secret History. Then of course there are the great books that you read at school, that you know better than any others; novels such as Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë, The Outsider by Albert Camus, and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?

PH: I write in silence. I do outline; I’d be too nervous to just start writing without a sense of where I was going to end up. That said, there are surprises as you go along—characters change and develop, they become different people from the ones you thought they were going to be.

DF: Where did the idea for The Girl on the Train originate? Was it something you’d been thinking about for a long time, or did it come to you like a bolt of literary lightning?

PH: The germ of the idea, of a commuter seeing something shocking from their daily commute, had been in my head for years. The character of Rachel, the woman with a drinking (and associated memory) problem, had been in my head for a bit, too. It wasn’t until I put the two things together, until I put Rachel on the train, that the idea coalesced and became something I knew I could write.

DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters?

PH: There are small bits of me in all the women in The Girl on the Train (and possibly in a couple of the men, too). But the main the characters are works of the imagination.

DF: When you finished your first draft, did you know you had something good, or did you have to go through multiple rounds of edits to realize you had something you felt comfortable taking to readers?

PH: I never know whether something’s any good or not! I wrote about a third of the book before showing it to my agent and her assistant, both of whom I trust completely. They were really excited about it, so that got me excited, too.

DF: Your book has gotten some rave reviews from the likes of The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly and was optioned by Dreamworks. Now that you have your first novel under your belt, what’s next?

PH: I’m writing my second book at the moment. I’m not talking about it too much just yet though. It centers on the relationship between two sisters, one of whom is dead at the beginning of the book. It has quite a gothic feel, I think.

DF: Whose work should aspiring thriller writers be reading right now?

PH: Oh god, there are so many, and it really depends what sort of thing interests you. If spy thrillers and international terrorist plots are your thing, try Terry Hayes’ I Am Pilgrim. If you are more interested in dangers lurking closer to home, The Silent Wife by ASA Harrison, Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty, or How to Be A Good Wife by Emma Chapman are chillingly brilliant. If you appreciate a book with a broader social context, I’d try So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman, or Long Way Home by Eva Dolan. Or if you’re in the market for a literary mystery, the Jackson Brodie novels written by Kate Atkinson are close to perfect.

DF: What advice would you give writers just starting out?

PH: Perseverance is all, and whenever you’re feeling disheartened, read On Writing by Stephen King. He knows of what he speaks, and he’s really funny, too.

To learn more about Paula Hawkins, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @PaulaHWrites

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

The Importance of Pacing: 8 Questions With Thriller Author Ben Coes

Ben Coes

Ben Coes

By Sean Tuohy

Many writers haven tried to bring the halls of power to life. Few have actually worked within them. Best-selling author Ben Coes began his career a political speechwriter in Washington D.C. before focusing his attention on thrillers.

David Morrell, the creator of Rambo and Writer’s Bone podcast guest, called his first novel, Power Down, “a fresh, exciting thriller” with action scenes that were “big, vivid, and authentic.” Coes has now written four novels in total and shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.

Coes took a few minutes to sit down and talk about his career, his process, the importance of pacing, and why writing is like building a house.

Sean Tuohy: When did you decide to write a thriller?

Ben Coes: In 2007, on New Year’s Day, I woke up and looked at my wife, Shannon.

By way of background, I had been thinking of writing a thriller for several years. I love thrillers and thought I could use my background in finance, politics, and the energy industry as part of a book about terror coming to American soil. But as much as I thought about it, I never actually started writing. So on this particular morning, I told Shannon for the first time how I wanted to write a book.

“Then get up and start writing,” she said. And I did. That morning, I wrote what became the first chapter of my first book, Power Down.

ST: How long did it take you to complete your first novel?

BC: Oh, man, just answering this question brings back horrible memories. It took about two years, maybe a little more. The actual first draft took about six months. The editing process took much longer.

I’ve always known how to write, but the construction of a novel isn’t just about words. It’s about pace, plot, character development, tension, and a million other things. My first stab at Power Down was a well-written mess. So I sought out help in the form of an experienced editor, a veteran of the publishing industry who’d worked with a number of authors. Using an analogy he took from the worked of architecture, he politely explained to me that I’d built a house but placed the kitchen on the third floor, the garage in the basement, and that I was missing a roof. In other words, I had to learn how to build a real novel.

If I’m a successful author, it’s because I listen to advice and guidance. It’s a very important quality to have as a novelist. I learned that skill working as a White House-appointed speechwriter. My boss, Betty, was a tough critic, and thank God for that. A writer needs tough critics. Most people don’t like to have their work torn apart and criticized. But it’s absolutely essential if you want to be a novelist.

ST: Your characters feel so real, are they based on any real people you have met while working with the government?

BC: Well, first of all, thanks for saying that. The most important thing I’m trying to create in my books is authenticity. My characters are a mixture of people I know and people I imagine. I like to take qualities I like in some of my favorite people, or dislike in some of the people I don’t like, and embed them in the characters in my books. Sometimes, as in the case of Teddy Marks, from Power Down, the character is based entirely on someone real. The real life Teddy was my godfather. He was a Navy SEAL who fought in Vietnam. He was a very important part of my life until his death from cancer a couple years ago. Teddy helped me understand certain key operational aspects to covert war, and certain experiences he had are re-created in my books, including the final battle scene in Coup d’État, my second book.

The hardest challenge to making a character feel real is how you do it with characters that are not based on real people. Dewey Andreas, my hero, is a good example. He’s made up, and yet for my readers, and for me, he feels real. Why? I think it’s because I endeavor to show him in his raw light, with his flaws and his strengths, and to show those little moments that we all have, the unglamorous moments. At the end of The Last Refuge, Dewey plays a game of quarters with a buddy. It’s one of my favorite scenes.

ST: Your thrillers stand apart from the rest because they are ground very much in the real world. Do you believe this enhances the experience for the reader?

BC: Thanks for saying that. I believe very strongly that the best thrillers use current events as a foundational element to the plot. I want current dangers and threats to play an actual role in my books versus simply using current events as ornamentation or backdrop. The reason I do this is because, for the reader, hopefully the feeling they get is that what they’re reading could in fact happen.

Power Down is about terrorists attacking a U.S. energy company. Coup d’État is about India and Pakistan and their ongoing conflict, a conflict which is especially perilous today due to the fact that both countries possess nuclear weapons, and one of the countries, Pakistan, is 98 percent Muslim and filled with jihadists. The Last Refuge is about Iran and Israel, and Iran’s ongoing surreptitious work to develop a nuclear bomb. Eye for an Eye, my fourth book, involves China’s ongoing technological war against America, a war which U.S. policy makers are only beginning to do something about. My next book, Independence Day, is about nuclear weapons that were formerly in the possession of the Soviet Union; it features an attack on the U.S. that one source of mine, a former high-ranking Pentagon official, told me was the number one terror threat facing America.

ST: What affect did your background have on your writing?

BC: My background is important in two ways. First, I worked at the White House and on several political campaigns. I think I understand that world where politics and national security intersect.

More important than the experiences I’ve had, however, was the training I had as a speechwriter. That’s when I learned how to have my work edited; to welcome feedback no matter how harsh.

ST: What is your writing process? Do you outline?

BC: I wake up very early – usually around 5:00 a.m. – and start writing. I am almost never psyched to start but I do it anyway because, if you are a writer, you write. No matter what you feel like, you write. Writing for me is a blue-collar job, like laying bricks or hammering nails. Writers write, not because they feel like it, because oftentimes you don’t. Writers write because they have to.

I don’t outline because I think it robs a thriller of the spontaneity a thriller needs. My best scenes invariably are the result of in-the-moment ideas I have while writing a scene; unplanned and therefore unpredictable, the way actual ops unfold.

ST: What advice do you give to new writers? 

BC: If you want to be a writer, you must write. Writers write. If you don’t write, you’re not a writer.

To write every day, there are steps you can take to help make it easier. Establish a routine. I like early in the day because you get it out of the way, and also because I don’t like writing at night, though I often do write at night. Set an operational goal for your writing—either word count or page count. I need to write five pages a day. That’s my minimum. Sometimes I can do that in an hour, sometimes it takes 18 hours. But if I don’t produce those five pages, I feel like I’ve failed that day.

Keep writing until you have a completed book. Don’t give up. When you do finish, then it’s time to get help. Be patient. Find the right people to help you. Don’t just start firing off a completed manuscript until you know it’s good. The process of finding an agent and ultimately a publisher is the last mile of a 26.2 mile marathon. You want to go into that final mile with your best possible work.

ST: Can you please give us one random fact about yourself?

BC: I go through about a bottle of Sriracha a week.

To learn more about Ben Coes, check out his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @authorbencoes.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Perry Mason Disciple: 10 Questions With Crime Writer J.T. Ellison

J.T. Ellison

J.T. Ellison

By Sean Tuohy

You know those things that go bump in the night? Most of us tend to hide under the covers. The New York Times best-selling author J.T. Ellison runs toward the sound with a flashlight in one hand and a note pad in the other.

With the help of favorite television lawyer Perry Mason, Ellison took her love for the macabre and mystery a step further and began writing novels about killers, cops, and everything in between. Her next novel, The Lost Key, was written with Catherine Coulter and comes out Sept. 30.

I sat down with Ellison to talk about her career, Perry Mason, and what the future holds.

ST: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

JTE: I read very early, and was advanced for my age. So I was probably 8 years old and was writing some poetry and little short stories. I received my first rejection at 10 years old. My grandmother sent a poem I’d written to True Confessions magazine. Of course they said no…it was about slavery!

ST: You lived in rural Colorado and than moved to Washington D.C. Did this have an affect on your writing later in life?

JTE: I think it did. I was very sheltered in Colorado. We lived on a dirt road 40 minutes from the nearest town. There was a great group of über-smart people around, but it was small, and while my parents were wonderful about exposing me to culture, D.C. was so much more accessible and immediate. Politics permeated every discussion. We could go to the symphony and opera all the time, and did. There were so many different kinds of people, from all over the world. It was incredibly different, and helped round me out.

ST: How long did it take you to complete your first novel?

JTE: About a year. I did six months of research before I started writing. But I had a lot of stops and starts until I settled down to it full-time in 2003.

ST: Can you describe what influence Perry Mason had on your writing?

JTE: I thought Perry Mason was God when I was growing up—not a god, but God himself. No flowing beards and pearly gates. When I said my nightly prayers, it was a sober man in a black suit I was talking to. That may be where my crime fiction fascination came from.

ST: What draws you to crime fiction? Is it the mystery, the characters, the problem solving?

JTE: All of it. I’m fascinated by how awful people can be to one another. How cutthroat and mean and deadly. And how some people will fight to stop those capable of committing such heinous acts. I like white hats and black hats, like examining the why behind the crimes and the effect crime has on normal people.

ST: What is your writing process like?

JTE: I write daily, and shoot for 1,000 words a day. I do business first thing and really settle into my writing day around 10:00 a.m. or 11:00 a.m. I write until my husband gets home, with an hour break for lunch. I definitely do my best work in the late afternoon. I am not a morning person. There’s a lot of tea being pumped into my system.

ST: Do you have an in-depth research process?

JTE: I used to. I did a lot of hands-on work—ride-alongs, autopsies, and interviewing everyone I could find. Now it’s catch as catch can, skimming the important parts and supplementing on the go as I write. I have a great assistant who can grab details for me, and I read a lot of non-fiction. So much of my work is topical, sometimes too topical. So I can do research by reading the daily news.

ST: What does the future hold for J.T. Ellison?

JTE: More books, and more writing. I have a few more under contract right now, and ideas for more to come. The mass market of When Shadows Fall releases Aug. 26, the mass market of my first collaboration book, The Final Cut, with Catherine Coulter, comes out Sept. 2. The Lost Key, also with Catherine, comes out Sept. 30, and my next Dr. Samantha Owens book is due out in June 2015. No rest for the wicked, eh?

ST: What advice do you give to up and coming writers?

JTE: Read everything you can get your hands on. Read in your genre so you know what’s out there and what the standards are. Read Stephen King’s On Writing and Elizabeth George’s Write Away. Make lists. Journal. Anytime something strikes your fancy, write it down. Work everyday. Guard your writing time, it is your most precious commodity. Don’t give up. Simultaneously submit. Believe in yourself. If you’re hitting roadblocks, read The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield. If you have real writer’s block, try The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.

ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?

JTE: I like golf. I am inches from being a crazy cat lady. And I am a really good shot with a pistol (Did I mention I am not a fan of math?).

To learn more about J.T. Ellison, check out her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @thrillerchick.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Always Be Writing: 10 Questions With Thriller Author Brett Battles

Brett Battles

Brett Battles

By Sean Tuohy

Brett Battles ushers his readers into a world filled with shadows, shady dealings, and deadly characters. Just like the hero in his novels, Freelance Intelligence operative Jonathan Quinn, Battles navigates the world of international thriller writer with ease and an eye always set to the future.

Brett was able to sit down and talk about his writing process, the meaning of well built characters in thriller novels, and the future of Jonathan Quinn.

Sean Tuohy: When did you start writing? Was it something that came to you naturally or was it developed over time?

Brett Battles: First story I wrote was in sixth grade. At that time, I told anyone who asked what I want to be when I grow up that I was going to write books. It took me a while, but I finally fulfilled that 11-year-old me’s prediction.

ST: How long did it take you to complete your first novel?

BB: Hmmm, that was a long time ago, so I don’t remember exactly, but I think it took about a year and a half. As a side note, it’s one of my two desk novels (books that will probably never see the light of day). It served its purpose, though. Proved I could finish a full novel, and showed me where I needed to improve. Hey, when you first learn how to play baseball, you don’t immediately get called up to the New York Yankees and inserted into the starting lineup.

ST: As a thriller writer do you believe in letting the action build or just throw the reader right in to the mess of the story?

BB: It all depends on what serves the story best. I’ve done both.

 

ST: Jonathan Quinn is not the standard hero, where did this character come from?

BB: So many places. I have always had a love of spy type thrillers, and wanted to write my own, but I didn’t want to go down the typical James Bond/Jason Bourne route. I’ve also always had a fascination with what I think of as the after story. In other words, what happens after a big event occurs—like after an assassination or car crash or secret meeting gone wrong. I combined these two interests (and other things I’d been thinking about) to create Quinn, a man whose job it is to make the bodies disappear, so basically the ultimate after character.

ST: How important are characters to a thriller novel?

BB: There is nothing more important. You can have the most ingenious plot ever with the coolest twist anyone has thought of, but without good characters the story will fall flat.

ST: What is your writing process like? Do you outline?

BB: I might write down a few notes, but I don’t outline. Why? Well, honestly, I find outlines too restricting. When I follow one while writing a book, I feel like I’m just typing. What I want to feel is the excitement a reader feels when they read a book. I get that when I write without a net. I love the process of discovery as the scene develops. Do I paint myself into corners on occasion? Oh, yeah. But I just back right out and turn in another direction. The only exception to my no outline policy is when I write a book with someone else, like the Alexandra Poe series I write with Robert Gregory Browne. We outline those ahead of time so that we both know the story.

ST: Do you do any research before starting a new project?

BB: Again, depends on the story. Sometimes, yes. Often, though, the research comes as issues arise.

ST: What advice do you give to up and coming writers?

BB: Always be writing. I don’t mean always be putting words on paper or a screen. But real writing is a 24/7 gig. See story everywhere. Describe in your head the people you meet. Look for the little things in real life that will make your story connect with readers. And when you do put those words down, always be open to learning more and improving your craft. I’m constantly trying to improve, and will undoubtedly be doing that through the last thing I ever write.

ST: What does the future hold for Brett Battles? Any upcoming projects?

BB: I always have something going on. Just finishing up a new standalone novel that should be out in August called Rewinder. It’s a thriller with a bit of a sci-fi edge. And I’m really excited about it! Later in the year, the seventh in my Project Eden series should be out. And, of course, more Quinn next year!

ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?

BB: I love peanut butter and ketchup sandwiches. No lie.

To learn more about Brett Battles, check out his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @BrettBattles.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Unlocking The Mystery of Writing: 10 Questions With Author A.G. Riddle

A.G. Riddle

A.G. Riddle

By Sean Tuohy

In a marketplace crowded with countless ebook authors, one name stands out: A.G. Riddle, author of the award winning and best-selling The Atlantis Gene series. The well-crafted series explores the origins of mankind and is filled with great detailed research and edge of your seat action scenes. In my opinion, its is one of the best original ebook series currently on the market.

I sat down with Riddle and talked about the origins of his writing career and his future plans.

Cover of Book 1 of The Atlantis Gene series

Cover of Book 1 of The Atlantis Gene series

Sean Tuohy: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

A.G. Riddle: I didn't grow up wanting to be a writer. I had a reasonably successful business career and was looking for my real calling in life. I thought that could be writing, but I didn't realize it until I finished my first draft of The Atlantis Gene. It was an amazing feeling—finishing and being proud of what I'd created (it's not a perfect novel by any means, but it was the best I could produce at the time, and that's how I measure success).

ST: Who were some of your early influences?

AGR: I loved sci-fi as a kid. I would watch and read about anything I could get my hands on. "Star Trek," "The X-Files," "Star Wars."

ST: What is your writing process? Do you have any pre- or post-writing rituals?

AGR: If I'm in the thick of writing, I usually read the previous few chapters and consult my outline, then get started. If I'm in the research phase, I look at the background and see what I need to fill in; it's a little more methodical then.

ST: How did you get started publishing? Was it through the traditional publishing road or did you go the ebook platform?

AGR: Ebook only. I really wanted to get my work out there to see what folks thought. I hadn't told anyone I was writing a novel except my mother and girlfriend. When the book became popular in the summer of 2013, I considered taking a traditional publishing contract, but I decided that I didn't want to give up the freedom of self-publishing.

Cover of The Atlantis Plague

Cover of The Atlantis Plague

ST: The Atlantis Gene is one of best and original thriller series to come down the pike in years. Where did the story come from? Had it been brewing in you for years or did it just come to you?

AGR: First, thanks! I spent almost two years researching and writing The Atlantis Gene. I started with a mystery that had always intrigued me: 70,000 years ago, the human race almost went extinct. From there, I did a lot of research and wrote a ton of background, pulling together several topics of interest for me (everything from Nazi conspiracies to Atlantis to autism research).

ST: The third part of your Atlantis series, The Atlantis World, will be coming out shortly; did you always know that this was going to be a series?

AGR: I had written the long-arc of a series, but I didn't know how many books it would be (or if anyone would turn out to read them). I had already started on the second book when The Atlantis Gene came out, otherwise I never would have been able to write and release the trilogy so quickly.

Cover of The Atlantis World

Cover of The Atlantis World

ST: Unlike so many thriller novels your series has well-crafted characters, do you believe having strong characters is the back bone to a solid thriller?

AGR: I do. I have to admit, I'm a sucker for a high-concept, plot-driven story, but what I really love is a character-driven story with some big ideas at the center. That's what I try to write.

ST: What is next for you as a writer, a new series or maybe a stand alone novel?

AGR: A new series. I've been working on it a while, and I still have a lot of work to do. And, I'll have a few announcements soon regarding the Atlantis/Origin mystery series.

ST: What advice would you give to up and coming writers?

AGR: Don't let anyone else define success for you. Figure out what you want from writing, then set your own goals (and adjust them based on what you learn).

Success to you might mean writing the book you want to write. Or it could mean earning enough money to take your spouse out to dinner once a month. Or making some list. Or selling X number of copies.

Take some time to figure out what's really important to you, and when you do, don't listen to anyone else. Success isn't a one-size-fits-all in the business of writing.

ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?

AGR: I grew up in a small town in North Carolina with only one stop light.

To learn more about A.G. Riddle, check out his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @Riddlist.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Mystery Writer Rebecca Cantrell on Why Writing Should Be Fun

Rebecca Cantrell (Photo Courtesy of the author)

Rebecca Cantrell (Photo Courtesy of the author)

Not many people would give up the sand and surf of Hawaii to move to Berlin, but that’s just what award winning and New York Times best-selling author Rebecca Cantrell did.

For those of you who don’t know, Cantrell writes the popular Hannah Vogel mystery/thriller series that is set in Berlin in the 1930s. According to her official website, the Vogel character was inspired by a faded pink triangle found on the wall of the Dachau concentration camp and her time going to school in Berlin in the 1980s (is it us, or does this sound like #badasswriter fodder?).

She graciously took some time away from Hannah’s world to answer Writer’s Bone’s questions about her life as a writer.

Writer’s Bone: What is a word or phrase that you hate to hear about the writing craft?

Rebecca Cantrell: Writers must suffer for their art. Every time I hear that it drives me crazy. If writing isn’t fun, why do it? I have lots of fun writing and so do most other writers I know. It doesn’t have to be about suffering.

WB: You were 7 years old when you decided to become a writer. How did you go about reaching your goal?

RC: I read every spare moment as a child and teenager (I still do), and I started writing all the time. I wrote poems and short stories as a kid, plays that I convinced other children to act out in my early teen years, and bought my first electric typewriter with my babysitting money when I was 14 years old and clacked away on it just about every day.

WB: Reporter Hannah Vogel just leaps off the page and grabs you by the neck and pulls you in. Where did the inspiration for this character come from?

RC: Thank you! Hannah Vogel was first invented as a counterpoint to her brother, who was the murder victim in the first novel, A Trace of Smoke. She’s not based on any one person, historical or otherwise, but has very much determined her own character since her very first page.

WB: What are the similarities between you and Hannah Vogel?

RC: Probably more than I’d like to admit. I think we’re both stubborn and have a strong sense of right and wrong that gets us into trouble. I don’t have her reckless streak, I’m happy to say.

WB: You are one of the few modern authors who write short story fiction. Do you have a preference of short stories or novels?

RC: I think short stories are enjoying a Renaissance right now. For years I wrote nothing but shorts stories, but now I have to fit them in between novels. I like them both for different things. You can pare things down to one essential moment in a short story, without having to build the structure of a novel around it—you can show a moment in a different way. But I also like the sweep and space of being able to add in more time and setting and emotions in a larger work. I’d like to do more of both.

WB: Do you have any new projects in the works?

RC: Let’s see. I just released The World Beneath, the first in a series starring Joe Tesla, a millionaire who is stricken with agoraphobia and lives in the tunnels under New York City. I plan to be working on the second in that series later this year tentatively titled The Danger Below. I’m currently writing Blood Infernal with James Rollins. That’s the third book in the Order of the Sanguines series. And early next year I want to get back to Hannah Vogel, with a new book set in 1945 as the Russians are taking over the city where Hannah will be going in with American troops as part of Operation Paperclip. I’m also putting out a new short story, The Man in the Attic, next month set at the beginning of World War II but with some fantastical elements.

WB: Describe your process for writing a novel. What do you do from the idea to the moment you write “the end?”

RC: First off, let me say that I don’t recommend this process to anyone. There are way more efficient ways to work. My process is that I have an idea for a book. Sometimes it’s a moment in history I want to explore, other times it’s a moment in the life of a particular character. Then I do loads of research, particularly for my historical novels. I love learning everything I can about my characters’ worlds so that I can walk in their footsteps and hope that readers can walk with me. After the research, I develop a plot for the book. Then I write the first 50 pages and discover that my plot isn’t working as intended. Then I re-plot and write 50 more pages and get stuck again. On my co-writing projects with James, I get stuck every 100 pages. I’m guessing that means that two pair of eyes can see further ahead into the story.

WB: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?

RC: I wrote my first short stories on that typewriter I bought when I was 13 while living a haunted house. Surprisingly, it was not horror. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t very good. But it was a start.

You can learn more about Rebecca Cantrell by visiting her official website, or following her on Twitter @rebeccacantrell.

For more interviews, check out our full archive

Why Screenwriter and Novelist Derek Haas Loves Making Readers Cheer for a Hit Man

Derek Haas (on left)  (  Photo credit: Elizabeth Morris, p  hotos courtesy of Derek Haas)

Derek Haas (on left)  (Photo credit: Elizabeth Morris, photos courtesy of Derek Haas)

By Sean Tuohy

For the better part of a decade screenwriter/novelist Derek Haas has entertained and thrilled audiences across the globe with his adrenaline-pumping writing skills. Haas helped pen “3:10 To Yuma,” arguably one of the best westerns of the last 10 years, and is the co-creator of NBC’s “Chicago Fire.”

When Haas isn’t lighting up the silver and small screen, he is busy exciting readers with his Assassin Trilogy, which follows international hit man Columbus. His latest novel The Right Hand chronicles C.I.A. Austin Clay’s investigation into a deadly mystery and is one of best spy thrillers of recent memory.

Haas graciously answered some of my questions regarding his life as a writer.

Sean Tuohy:  Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get your start as a professional writer?

Derek Haas: I always wanted to be a writer. I went to school at Baylor University and stayed for graduate school in English Literature.

My now partner Michael Brandt was doing the same thing, only getting his MA in Film. We teamed up soon after college and started writing together.

A screenplay we wrote fell into Brad Pitt’s hands and he wanted to make the movie. He never did end up making it.

However, that got us our start.

ST: Was there a time as a writer that you felt hopeless about the craft?

DH: There have been times when I felt like the machine that is Hollywood would chew us up and not let us get any of our scripts produced, but to be honest, I haven’t had self-doubt about our writing.

Don’t get me wrong, we may not have always turned in the greatest draft, but I have confidence we’re strong writers.

ST: Who were some of your early influences?

DH: My earliest influence was Stephen King. I just think he’s a master storyteller. He knows how to manipulate pace and make his readers keep turning pages. He’s the greatest campfire storyteller of all time. On the movie side of things, I’m a big admirer of Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola.

ST: What made you realize that you were a storyteller?

DH: I think the first time I wrote something that got the reaction I wanted—laughter, emotion, or a lump in the throat. I started writing stories when I was still in elementary school, and it seemed that I could always surprise people with my words. I still try to do that.

ST: Your Assassin Trilogy follows world-traveling hit man Columbus. Where did this character come from?

DH: I’m always attracted to characters that are gray; just when you want to like him, he does something to turn you away from him, and just when you want to condemn him, he brings you back. How could I make readers cheer for a contract killer? It was a great challenge. I do love writing him.

ST: You write about the unseen underworld—assassins, gangsters, and spies. Where does this interest stem from?

DH: Brandt and I spent a little time with FBI agents in Quantico and I remember one of them talking about a hit man—a contract killer—and it piqued my interest. I started to wonder about what twists and turns a life might have taken to put him in that position to where he kills people for a living. I just love crime stories. Elmore Leonard was also a big influence.

ST: All writers have a great work that is unproduced and sadly may never see the light of day. For example, Doug Richardson’s “Hell Bent,” Quentin Tarantino's “40 Lashes Less One,” and Lem Dobbs “Edward Ford.” Do you have a screenplay or novel that has yet to be produced or published?

DH: Michael and I wrote a movie called “MIAMILAND” that we’ve been trying to get produced for a dozen years. We love it. It’s a crime story where two overeducated con men have to go to Miami and separate a mobster from his money. Some day!

ST: What made you realize that you were a storyteller?

DH: While other kids were drawing pictures, I was writing stories. I asked for a typewriter for my 10th birthday. It was innate. I just had to do it. I pinch myself every day that I’ve made a living from doing it.

Derek Haas writing stories in his youth (  Photo credit: Molly McCoy).

Derek Haas writing stories in his youth (Photo credit: Molly McCoy).

ST: What is your writing process? Do you outline your work before hand or just jump in to it?

DH: With screenplays, Brandt and I outline pretty extensively.

It’s the nature of the business. The producers or studio or network want to see what they’re going to get ahead of time. With novels, I just have a vague idea of what I’m going to do. I generally know my beginning, middle, and end in broad strokes. Other than that, I just plow ahead and let the story take me wherever it wants to go. That sounds like hippy-dippy writer-speak, but it’s true. I don’t want to get bogged down with an outline to which I have to adhere. No thanks.

ST: You are both a novelist and a screenwriter, which do you prefer to write?

DH: I love them both. I get to flex different muscles. Prose makes me happy, but when an actor or a director makes a scene even better than you imagined there’s no feeling like it.

ST: What is your best moment as a writer?

DH: Brandt and I were on a rooftop in Miami and it was hot as hell out and 300 people were standing around a set and then the director yelled action and two actors said the words that were in our heads. And it was three-dimensional and real and not just words on a page sitting on someone’s shelf. I almost started crying. (The scene never made the movie.)

ST: What is one random fact about yourself?

DH: I piloted the bullet train between Paris and Marseille once. True story.

Follow Derek Haas on Twitter @derekhaas, or visit his official website.

For more interviews, check out our full archive