Pacing, Romance & Physics: Please welcome Siri Mitchell

Please welcome Siri Mitchell to the Miss Demeanors. Siri is the author of 14 novels, but State of Lies is her first suspense novel. I had a number of questions for her about a number of things, and here’s what she had to say.

You’ve written a number of romance novels, and you clearly know how to write a romantic scene. What do romance novelists know that suspense novelists should know? 

Thank you so much! Most writers would say they are either plot-driven or character-driven. I came to plot-driven suspense by way of character-driven romance and historical fiction. If romance novelists have a trade secret it’s their conviction that character development matters. A suspense novelist can send any old character through a twisty labyrinth of secrets and betrayals and bombs and cliff hangers, but unless that character feels real to the reader, unless there’s an emotional connection, the story won’t resonate. It might be a thriller of a read, but it won’t have any weight or substance.  

2. Your protagonist, Georgie Brennan, is a quantum physicist and some of my favorite parts of the book were when she drops in little bits of information about physics, such as black holes. How did you decide to give her that career?

I’m so glad you enjoyed those parts. I was listening to George Musser talk about his book, Spooky Action at a Distance, on NPR several years ago. It’s about the history of quantum physics. A little voice in my head insisted that I had to read his book. I had no idea why – I never even took physics in high school – but I’ve come to rely on my subconscious for book recommendations. It always seems to know, long before I do, what I’m going to be writing. I wish I could say I decided what kind of person my main character, Georgie, was going to be, but all my characters get sent to me from some sort of Character Central Casting Agency. When she walked into my story, she told me who she was. (Central Casting clearly knows what they’re doing! Her career fit the themes of the story quite well.)

3. Georgie finds out fairly early on that her husband is not who he said he was. Trust seems an important theme in the story. Can you talk about that a bit?

Trust and truth are so important in relationships. My parents divorced about twenty years ago and at the time I remember looking back on my past thinking, ‘Are any of these memories I have true? When I thought our family was having a great time together, were my parents actually miserable?’ I had never doubted the way I perceived things until then.

When you trust someone, you build your relationship on a foundation that you never go back to examine. You simply assume that it will hold the weight of the things you build on top of it. Once trust is gone, you have to dismantle everything and go back to the very beginning to figure out where things went wrong. What was the first thing that was untrue? How many things were built on top of it? And what other things were connected to that structure? It’s very destabilizing and disorienting. You have to ask yourself if it’s worth the effort to tear down everything and rebuild. If not, if you decide to pretend ignorance, you have to be willing to overlook a lot of unstable construction.

It’s interesting that Georgie’s questions – How do we know who is speaking the truth? Who gets to decide what’s true? – have turned out to be the same questions we’re all exploring in national politics at the moment.

4. The pacing of your novel is fabulous. This was truly a book you could read in a night. What tips could you share with our readers?

Thank you! I worked so hard on pacing as I wrote this book. I’d been writing historicals for many years so I had some work to do when I decided I wanted to write in a different genre. Suspense is very plot-focused. I did a lot of homework to strengthen my plotting and pacing skills. I read about 20 bestselling suspense titles. Then I searched for interviews of those authors, hoping to pick up tips from them. After that, I worked through several books on how to write suspense. I’m really happy with the result. As far as tips:

  1. Don’t think; don’t talk; do something. My first instinct had always been to have my characters talk about things. Or think them through. That is death to pacing! If your characters have to think, then let them do it while they’re on the run.
  • Get your main character in trouble quickly and then keep her there.
  • Make your main character decisive. Passive characters are not heroic. This doesn’t mean your heroine has to make the right choice all the time. She can make the wrong choice for the right reasons or the right choice for the wrong reasons, she just can’t let someone else make her decisions for her.
  • Plant red herrings that have to do with total coincidence or people simply going about their day, doing the things they do all the time. It magnifies the atmosphere of paranoia.

5. I love path to publication stories. How did your first book come to be published?

The short answer is that I told a lie in church. Here’s the long version:

My husband was in the military and for one of his assignments, we were posted to France. Prior to moving, we were both sent to language school to learn French. One of the things that we did was develop a ‘small talk’ dialogue. “Hi! My name’s Siri. I’m an American. My job is ____.”

I had been working as a secretary before language school. The rest of my language class was army officers. Most of them were special forces and green berets and I had a feeling that if I said I was a secretary I would end up doing all the tedious work. So I said I was a writer instead. That made points with the French teacher and it also got built in to my dialogue.

Fast forward to Paris.

Our first Sunday at a bilingual church I was introduced to a Frenchman. I went through my spiel but when I came to ‘and I’m a writer’ (because who would know that I wasn’t?), he stopped me and said, ‘But we have a writer! She’s British. I’ll introduce you.’ Well, this woman wasn’t just a writer, she was a real writer with published novels who had also been recruited by the British secret service during WWII. (She was interviewed on The Moth. You can listen to her story here: https://themoth.org/storytellers/noreen-riols ). Every Sunday after that, she would ask, “How is your writing coming? When can I read your book?” I could only put her off for so long. And the choice was then to admit that I’d lied to her – in church! – or to just write a book that she could read. The easiest choice was clearly to write a book.

It took 10 more years and 3 more books until I was picked up by both an agent and a publisher, but Paris is where everything started for me.

6. You seem to have strong feelings about semicolons and Oxford commas. Can you elaborate on that?

I always feel like I have to stick up for the semicolon! It’s a perfectly respectable punctuation mark. Apparently some people think it’s too formal and stodgy; I don’t agree.

The Oxford comma feels to me like that annoying person who’s always stepping in front of other people to take credit for their work. I want to take him aside and say, “Do you not see ‘And’? He’s right there. He’s doing the same thing you are, only better. Step aside.”

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