Tag: psychological thrillers

psychological thrillers

When To Write And When To Read

Hemingway supposedly said write drunk, edit sober. As a thriller writer, I tend to harness my anxiety for my art. I write caffeinated and edit extra caffeinated.  But there’s little I love more than reading on a beach. Writers need to read. To know the market and understand what kind of stories have been told and what still needs telling, we have to read the best sellers in our genre.  I don’t read when I am writing because I fear unconsciously appropriating another author’s voice, or that of one of her characters. On vacation, however, I tend to read a book-a-day.  I have been on vacation since Friday. Since I write psychological thrillers, I’ve read the following.  This is currently my reading view:  

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Must A Main Character Be Like Me?

I am in the midst of rewriting large portions of my fourth book this week. There are three POV characters in this story. One is an African American female police officer, aged 27, single sans kids. She’s been a cop for three years and is very smart with a high EQ, but a troubled history. Another is a hugely successful 37-year-old Black female orthopedist of West Indian descent that armchair quarterbacks injuries on a sports network as a medical commentator. She’s in a heap of trouble. The third is a 35-year-old former Caucasian attorney turned stay-at-home mom to twin boys, one of whom is autistic and homeschooled. She’s a walking anxiety disorder with a sharp wit. All the characters are American. None of them are particularly like me, though I am sure my personality and observations bleed into all my characters. Specifically, their back stories and cultural heritages don’t match my own (though the orthopedist is of West Indian descent and so is the Jamaican half of my family).  I have things in common with all of my POV characters, though. And, most importantly, I’ve done my research.  All this writing has me thinking this week about character creation. How like me should my characters be? How much latitude do I have, as a fiction writer, to create characters that have different cultural heritages and American experiences than my own?   In practice, I tend to err on the side of a lot of latitude, providing I’ve done the research and have a connection to the character so that they come across as a real person and not caricature. For The Widower’s Wife, one of my characters was a white male insurance agent math whiz. I am not white. Not male. Not an insurance agent. And definitely not a math whiz. But, I interviewed a female friend insurance agent and am married to a former math major. I’d felt like I’d done my homework. Still, I’ve been known to take too much latitude in my life. So, I asked the MissDemeanors for their take.  Q. When you write main POV characters, do you create people that share your gender and ethnicity or do they come from other cultures? Why? Alexia: I write main characters who share my race, gender, and socioeconomic background because I spent the first 47-ish years of my life not finding many/any middle class, African American, female main characters and I got tired of not reading about anyone who looked like me. #representationmatters. Susan: I tend to write main characters who share my race, gender, etc. because I feel I have something authentic to say from that point of view. However, I did write a novel with a protagonist who was an Indian young woman, and that was a challenge, but I tried to get around it by making sure she and I had points of intersection. So I made her a Christian. I definitely populate my fictional world with a wide variety of people.  Michele: I’m going to sound apologetic here, but the truth is I don’t feel qualified to write from the point of view of someone ethnically or racially different from me. I do feel I can write from a male point of view and I’ve written gay characters with some authenticity, probably because I have gay family members and friends. What I try to do is appeal to the universal themes and desires that all human beings struggle with. I applaud those who can write with more diversity than I and enjoy reading those stories. Alison: I have an extremely detailed knowledge of my ancestry because I grew up Mormon. I can go onto a Family Search website and see my ancestry (including when everyone was baptized and received various temple ordinances), which is mostly English and Swedish, with a little Scottish, Irish and Welsh thrown in. If you go back several centuries, there is some French. Needless to say, my experience is that of a fish-belly white woman. My protagonist, Abish Taylor, is also white (but, wait for it, she has auburn hair). Before my editor convinced me to write Blessed be the Wicked entirely from Abbie’s PoV, my favorite voice was that of the male police officer and returned LDS missionary. He’s also descended from Mormon pioneer stock, which means some variation of the British/Scandinavian mix. I’ll be honest, I don’t know if I could convincingly write another ethnicity for three main reasons: ignorance (I don’t know what I don’t know), fear (I’d be afraid to get something really wrong), and anxiety (I wouldn’t want to offend someone if I did get some thing wrong). Tracee: Susan and Cate may remember we (or I) were asked a version of this at our book even last year in Manhattan. The specific question was how did I feel about writing from a man’s point of view. For me the intersection or commonalities of culture and sociology economic situation are more restrictive than gender. On the other hand, if I really felt a story needed a character outside my comfort zone I think I would try. On the other hand…. would I get it right? I would never write a character simple to check a diversity box. I don’t think that’s fair to who ever really lives in that box. We all deserve authenticity. Paula: It’s a tricky question. I believe literature should reflect the multicultural world we live in and as an agent I try to do my part to champion writers who contribute to that multiculturalism. As a writer I believe that writers should in theory be able write about anything or anybody, but in practice in my own writing I am more cautious. My mystery A Borrowing of Bones features characters of different genders and ethnicities, but so far I only feel comfortable writing from the point of view of characters ethnically similar to myself. I do write his and her points of view, but both my hero and my heroine are former military and having been raised in a military family I hope that helps me pull it off. Robin: Authenticity is important to me – if a character is unrelatable they’re not fun to write and less fun to read. I have no problem writing in the voice of different genders. My best friends have always been men and they’re used to me asking lots of (sometimes inappropriate) questions. Socioeconomic diversity isn’t a problem, either. I’ve personally experienced the gamut on that so I have my own life to draw on. I’m also comfortable with writing gay or straight characters, being gay myself and having grown up, lived, and worked around straight people. Ethnicities are trickier because I worry about getting it wrong or the character feeling 2-dimensional. That’s where I proceed with caution and get guidance from friends. Looking back at the stories I’ve written, all have been set in and around San Francisco so multiculturalism is part of the world-building. Not to mention one of the reasons I love the SF (and NYC). When it comes down to it, though, it’s service to the story. I agree with Tracee, I won’t go out of my way just to tick a particular diversity box.  

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To Google Maps, with Love

I recently wrote a short story for an upcoming anthology inspired by the music of Lou Reed. My story, Pale Blue Eyes, based on his song, could not take place in New Jersey or New York, the states with which I am most familiar, having lived in both for years. Something about the rumble of Lou Reed’s gravelly tenor refused to let me throw the characters inspired by his songs in the fast-talking, faster moving Manhattan area and its environs.  So, I set it in Las Vegas. Part of it takes place on the infamous strip, which I’ve been to. But the far more significant part of the story takes place at Las Vegas’ Red Rock Canyon State Park, which I have never visited.  Thanks to Google, though, I could virtually visit. The Internet Giant’s map site let me walk through the Calico Tanks trail, showing me all the scenery I might see on a given day, every step of the way.  I could see the dusty trail, the striated red rock formations and the prickly scrub brush lining the narrow foot path.  I could view user uploaded images at different points in the day of the giant red rocks.  Thanks to associated links, I could even visit pages where visitors discussed everything about the park from the smell of the air, to the weather in the month that I had set my story, to the way the sun sets.  I think the site really changes the game for writers, most of whom can’t afford to travel solely to inform a new book or short story.   Have you ever written a story in a place that you have never been? What tools did you use to research it?         

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How Literary Can A Little Murder Be?

 First off, my sincere apologies to our readers and fellow Missdemeanors. May arrived without my flipping back the calendar. In my frenzy to complete my fourth novel and finish editing my third book before my young kids finish school for the summer–diminishing my workday to the dwindling hours when the sun isn’t up–I failed to notice April’s exit. Consequently, I also didn’t realize that it was my week to blog. Mea Culpa! The book I am currently writing has been my most time consuming and challenging to date. But, that’s a good thing. Each novel I undertake forces me to think harder, not only about the intricacies of plot and character, but also about what the heck I want to say as a writer. What questions do I wish to pose to readers? In what debates should we engage? How can I craft a story that works both as an entertaining and page-turning puzzle filled with “real” characters that also manages to say something meaningful? (Or, at least, spur interesting book club conversation.)   In my upcoming book, Lies She Told (Shameless Plug: IN STORES SEPT. 12), I wanted to explore the creative process, to grapple with questions such as: Where do story ideas come from? How might an author’s own history influence the scenarios that she envisions and the characters which she invents? Is storytelling a way for authors to wrestle with their own demons? And, if so, is writing an inherently selfish pursuit? Or, is the human experience sufficiently universal that writer and reader will identify with the struggle against the same obstacles and, therefore, find similar catharsis by The End. (COMMENT BELOW!) The resulting book revolves around a writer whose fiction hints at clues to a disappearance in her actual life, forcing her to confront buried secrets about herself and those closest to her. It’s told from the perspective of Liza, the author, and Beth, the first person protagonist in Liza’s under-construction murder mystery. In addition to being an intriguing, taught, satisfying psychological suspense thriller with well-developed characters (I think all these things and pray readers do too.), I also really hope it makes folks consider some of the aforementioned questions that kept me up at night. The novel I’m currently working on was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Considered Woolf’s most experimental novel, The Waves follows six characters with distinct life philosophies from childhood through adulthood, exploring the paths delineated by each person’s inherent desires and seemingly innate visions of self. It does this through richly poetic soliloquies that made me want to cover a room in quotes. (And, it also maddeningly skips POV without warning, perhaps because—spoiler alert—all the individuals might be aspects of the same person.) Because my agent reads this blog, I should state that I am NOT writing a poetic or experimental thriller (either of which would surely negate my contract). I am, however, working on a murder mystery/ psychological suspense involving six characters inspired by The Waves’ protagonists. Each character in my third-person narrated story (had to get around the POV problems somehow) possesses a distinct world view, corresponding needs, and sense of his or herself similar to a counterpart in The Waves. But, since I’m a thriller writer, these characters’ unique perspectives also give rise to defined ideas about marriage and the relative responsibility that individuals within a couple have to themselves, their partners, and their children, which clash with the other characters’ visions to disastrous ends.  A question I’m toying with in this book, tentatively titled Shallow Ends, is does the institution of marriage require a particular worldview and type of person (or, at least, a person willing to morph into that type)? I’m also exploring my own questions concerning how much literary fiction and even experimental fiction can meld with the conventions of the mystery/thriller/suspense genre. Do mysteries allow the depth of exploration of the human experience claimed by literary fiction? Obviously, I think my favorite genre does or I wouldn’t be writing my current book. In fact, I think there are a ton of wonderful recent examples. Emma Cline’s The Girls, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, pretty much anything by Herman Koch. But the fun of publishing a novel isn’t finding out what I think, it’s struggling to communicate my ideas with readers in an entertaining way and, after executing that to the best of my ability, starting a conversation. In the end, what matters most, regardless of genre, are the thoughts of the person turning the page. 

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My Relationship Status With E-Books: It's Complicated.

 As a reader, I love e-books.  I love their immediacy. If I hear about an interesting novel, within seconds I can have it on the Kindle app on my iPhone or on my e-reader device. Books arrive to me faster than prime shipping. It’s like living in a library with all the new releases.     Digital books are also cheaper than hardcovers. E-reader apps have built in highlighters so I don’t need to sit with a sharpie by my bed to make note of favorite passages. Best of all, they have built in dictionaries. Never must I stumble on a word like Margaret Atwood favorite “alacrity” (definition: brisk cheerful readiness). As a writer, though, e-books can be infuriating. Aside from the sheer economics of them (many writers I know that have both physical and e-books earn less off their digital books), there’s the black box of sales reporting. While Amazon gladly releases Bookscan data detailing physical book sales, there is no tool tallying digital downloads that can be seen by outside authors. There are apps that allow me to guess based on my hourly-changing Kindle rank what my sales are likely to be, but I do not know how accurate these are. For example, today, The Widower’s Wife is #70 in all Kindle books. According to JungleScout, that rank would mean I was likely selling over 1,000 books per month. Kindlepreneur has a formula that would put that at over 1,000 books per day. Big difference. Who is right?  I don’t know if either of them are even close. Some discussion groups say that a better estimator of sales is to take the number of reviews and multiply them by 100.  I assume my publisher has this data–or at least gets reports on a monthly basis–but they probably won’t say anything until my first check is in the mail. I’ve asked… What are your thoughts on digital data? Is your publisher forthcoming with information? Do you use calculators? Is it all a black hole until that royalty check comes in?  

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POV In Setting A Scene

Clouds loomed over the ocean, a gathering black mass in the darkening evening that gradually assumed the shape of a ghostly pirate ship moored to the horizon. Light crackled in the dense fog like the flash of light before cannon fire. The expected blasts never sounded. The squall, visible as day over the dark, still water, was still too far away for thunder. Lightening can be seen for fifty miles or more, though. The storm was silent. But it was coming.  If I were writing a new thriller, this is how I might describe the electrical storm my husband and I witnessed last night in the North Fork of Long Island. The tone is foreboding. The clouds are likened to a pirate ship; the lightening flashes to cannons. Pirates and war are never welcome. The POV character describing the storm is not an optimist. She or he is anticipating something bad happening. Perhaps there’s something in his or her past that explains this sense of dread. Perhaps he or she just senses something about to go awry in the future. Either way, the person seeing this storm is not in a romantic comedy. In real life, I’m in the midst of a family vacation. The worst I am expecting is a tantrum or two from my four-year-old. If I were to describe the storm as myself, I’d use very different language. Something more like this:  Thick clouds settled in on the horizon, a blackout curtain hung low enough to allow the first stars to peak from above. I snuggled deeper into my husband’s side, placing my head on his pectoral rather than his sunburned shoulder. I remembered the opera. We went every year for my birthday. I loved the drama of it all. The heavy curtains. The ornate chandelier. The vocal acrobatics. This might be better.  The clouds began flashing as though behind the curtain a thousand papparazos snapped the performers photos.  Anticipation thrilled through me followed by a pang of motherly guilt. The kids would miss quite a show. Maybe I should wake them? Then again, they could spoil this. They were young enough to be scared by lightening, to fear the sudden thunder cracks or complain about the quickening wind, unable to fully understand that the steady brush against our skin was the only reason anyone could be outside at this feeding hour. Mosquitoes and no-see-ums rage against the dying light. Any other way, we’d be eaten alive.   Not tonight. The lightening flashed. The sky whitened like daylight and then switched to black. God flicking the switch. Night. Morning. Night. Morning. Every strike was better than fireworks. Brighter without the battering of my ears. The storm was far away enough to enjoy. Close enough to smell. The air held the fresh scent of electrified oxygen. I inhaled the atmosphere and leaned deeper into my spouse’s side. It would be at least an hour before the rain. We would enjoy every minute of it.   

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Continuing a series after the big reveal. Case Study: Mr. Robot

Mr. Robot is my favorite television show. About mid-way through the first season, writer Sam Esmail reveals–SPOILER ALERT–that the main character, Elliot, suffers from a form of schizophrenia. The protagonist, Elliot, and the antagonist, Mr. Robot, are the same person!  Some critics argued that the show would have difficulty after such a big reveal. How could Esmail ever again surprise the audience post pulling the Palahniuk card? Won’t the viewer get bored watching Elliot battle clearly defined demons?  Season two started this week and I think Esmail has answered those questions with a resounding No. As long as the characters are interesting and have new challenges that allow them to evolve, it’s easy to watch and wait for the next big reveal.  The key is the confidence the audience has in the writer to take us to new places. As Esmail wrote, “A con doesn’t work without the confidence.” And what’s a series except a long con–a story that continues to confound our expectations with each new plot twist?  

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Writer's Best Friend

Writing is a lonely job. Your only friends are the voices in your head and, if you’re a mystery writer, at least half of those voices are not the kind of people you want to encounter on the street. The other half are supremely stressed out about something dramatically awful. As a domestic suspense writer, I often feel that I spend all day sympathizing with someone who is having the worst day/week/month of their lives. It’s exhausting. And, after I’m done spending all day with my main character-in-crisis, I need time to recharge before I deal with people who expect me NOT to act like someone who has been talking to a woman running from, say, human traffickers.  Wine helps me destress. But nothing compares to my dog.  If I am writing an intense scene, my dog seems to know. He’ll come by and put his head on the knee not balancing my laptop, reminding me that no matter where I am in my head, my physical person is safe in my house with a furry companion. Petting him after a marathon writing session brings me back to reality. Walking him gets my muscles moving after sitting for hours, hunched over a laptop. Apparently, moving major muscles helps the mind. (More research on that here.) So, here’s to my dog. You’re cheaper than a shrink and you work for food.   

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