One of the best things about being a member of Murderati is getting to get to ask other writers questions about how they work, generate characters, etc. This week, I had so many questions I’d been wanting to ask Allison Brennan, one of my favorite authors, and I thought you’d all enjoy her answers as much as I do, so I’ve asked her permission to post this Q & A here. Please come ’round and give a hearty welcome to Allison and tell us whether you start with character, ideas or some combination, and as an added bonus, everyone posting in the comments will be up for a drawing for her last trilogy and her new paranormal out Dec. 26th. That’s four terrific books! Comments open until next Saturday at midnight and I’ll announce the winner next Sunday!
And on to the interview:
1) I’ve got to tell you, that from the first sentence of your story "Deliver Us From Evil" in the What You Can’t See anthology (out Dec. 26th), I was utterly riveted and it made me want to pick up the book right then. Tell me a little bit about what inspired the story.
Back in August of 2003—before I sold, before I even had an agent—I had an idea for a supernatural thriller series. I started writing it, but it was shortly after this that I found an agent and sold THE PREY to Ballantine. So the supernatural was put on hold for awhile. I sold in romantic suspense, a different genre, and I was very happy to do so. I love romantic suspense. It’s the best of both worlds, as far as I’m concerned.
But I still thought about this series and told my agent about it. She loved it—but because of my contract, I couldn’t sell it yet. Then an opportunity arose to be in an anthology with two people I adore, Roxanne St. Claire and Karin Tabke. My agent said, “What about the paranormal?” And I said, “Well, it’s a series but . . . let me think.” Five minutes later I came up with the idea of a prequel to the series. I know how the first book of the series starts, but I had been stumped on the hero’s back story which made getting past page 100 really difficult. The novella is the prequel to my series. It stands alone. The hero of the series is in a coma the entire novella, but at least now I have his back story and I’m happy with it.
2) "Deliver Us From Evil" is a departure for you in that you’re dealing with an aspect of the paranormal, and with pure evil. Were there any differences to writing a supernatural thriller vs. a suspense-thriller? If so, how did you handle those differences?
I found writing supernatural to be very freeing. I love everything supernatural. Growing up, I read Stephen King, John Saul, Peter Straub, Edgar Allen Poe, and many more. Remember the television series “Friday the 13th: The Series?” I loved it. But for me, I wanted my paranormal to be grounded in reality. Meaning, I wanted to write about supernatural things that I thought really could happen. There are so many unexplained things in our world, exploring the good and evil in them is enticing.
In paranormal, you get to make up the rules. Rather than writing about a human being who is evil, I could explore the roots of evil itself, as well as the human fascination with things like the fountain of youth, power, immortality. Because ultimately, no demon would have any power if we humans weren’t flawed and desiring more: more life, more wealth, more stuff. It helps that I believe in ghosts and demons and things that go bump in the night. So I thought, what would scare me the most? And I started writing about it.
My mom just read the ARC of WHAT YOU CAN’T SEE. She doesn’t read much paranormal anything, but loves crime fiction. She called me excited. “I loved it. It was still a crime story, but with a demon.” Exactly. It was what I wanted to accomplish. A supernatural story set in our world. BTW, my mom didn’t tell me she loved it just because she’s my mom. Believe me, I know exactly which books of mine my mom didn’t like as much, and if you ask her she’ll tell you exactly why she didn’t like them, as well as which of mine are her favorite.
3) I know some writers love the short-story or novella length, while others grip onto the novel length with every survival instinct they have. You’ve done all three: novel, short story (a fantastic tale in the Killer Year anthology), as well as the novella length. Were there challenges to writing something shorter than what you’re used to? And if so, how did you handle those challenges?
Hell yes. It took me longer to write a 39,000 word novella than it took me to write my last 100,000 word novel. Every word matters more when you write short. In the KILLER YEAR antho, they wanted 3-5K stories. I wrote a 7,500 word story and it took me a week to cut it to 5,900 and then I emailed JT and begged for those 900 extra words. She said fine, because Gregg came in short (Thank you Gregg! Oh, and his story is incredible. Makes me feel completely inadequate that I needed three times as many words as he did, and he packed a bigger punch.)
I didn’t handle the challenges all that well, but in the end, I loved the shorter stories so much. I think writing short taught me a lot about brevity. (Aside: When I was a junior in high school, my American History teacher gave me an ‘A-minus’ on my final essay. He wrote, “You brilliantly wrote in ten pages what could easily have been said in five.”) Needless to say, short is not my strong suit. And even though I kept the novella to under 40,000 words, I still went waaaaaaay over the 30,000 words my contract specified.
The KILLER YEAR antho was my first short story ever. I’m writing another now and already, I can see I’ve improved in how I approach writing short—more action, less back story, fewer characters, and no subplots.
4) You always have fascinating characters, and I know you write three books a year, plus the other works (short stories, etc.) Finding a character and getting the details are generally different for every writer, so I’m curious: how do you brainstorm characters? Do you write out descriptions, do a dialog with the character, chart them, or something else? What inspires you, character-wise?
(blushing deeply) Thanks Toni. I think your phrase “finding a character” is how I do it. I find out all about them as I write the book. I generally know a little bit about my characters, but not much. I don’t really know enough until I get them on the page. I don’t write out descriptions (which really screws me during the copyedits sometimes), I don’t dialog with them, chart them, or anything that would considered “plotting” (shivers.)
What I do is start with the idea. Like, “Earthquake under San Quentin.” I knew from SPEAK NO EVIL that Theodore Glenn had been convicted of killing four strippers in San Diego, but it was a throwaway line to get Will Hooper out of town because I didn’t need him in the story at that point. But when I started my prison break series, Theodore became my villain. I wrote the scene of the earthquake and put Glenn there. What was he doing? He had something in his hand. It was a letter. To Robin. Who the hell is Robin? Right—she testified against him. Then he shreds it in anger. Wow, he has some emotion there—the only emotion he has. So you can see I learn about my characters as I write. They sort of tell me. Usually when I get stuck writing it’s because I start telling my characters what to do rather than letting them do what they need to do.
I did know that Glenn came from a good family, wasn’t abused as a child, and he isn’t a traditional serial killer. Usually when I get in their heads I figure them out. Sometimes they come fully formed, like Joanna Sutton my heroine in TEMPTING EVIL. Sometimes it takes me a little digging, like Kate Donovan in FEAR NO EVIL. She was such a tight-lipped bitch, er, heroine, it took me awhile to figure out what made her tick. Anthony Zaccardi in the novella came fully formed, it was the heroine Sheriff Skye McPherson that I had a bear of a time with. Again, because she’s a closed, private person and just didn’t want to open up.
5) I’m blown away by your descriptive prowess–I can see the places and feel as if I’ve been there after reading your books. I know you haven’t traveled to every place you’ve described, nor seen all of the crimes. How do you research the locations and details? Do you spend a lot of time researching ahead of time, or on the fly? Do you map your world out and use only real-world details, or do you fictionalize parts? And how do you ultimately decide where your next series will be set?
(Blushing again—the check’s in the mail, Toni.) I’ve always felt my descriptions were lacking. I get bored easily, so I don’t like to over-describe anything. In fact, I usually layer in description after I write the book. Like—during editor revisions. I research most everything on the fly. Major story plot points I usually know ahead of time. For example, before I started writing KILLING FEAR, I talked to a former corrections officer who worked on death row to find out where my prisoners needed to be to escape, what wall needed to come down in the quake, etc. I couldn’t start without having that information. But like now—I’m 60 pages into book three and I found a body submerged in a river. Okay, I knew the guy was dead, but I had no idea anyone was going to find him. So I stopped writing and did some research on underwater forensics just to make sure that my cops weren’t being stupid in how they retrieved the body and vehicle. In FEAR NO EVIL, my last book, I had to understand how webcams worked and how they could be masked. Well, no one (okay, I don’t) want to be bored with pages of explanation about how packets are sent and bounced around satellites and given false DNS numbers or whatever (that was a year ago, I pretty much forget everything I learned.) So I talked to an IT friend of mine who explained ad nauseum everything I needed to know. I wrote two pages where my heroine explained this to the hero. Boring. I cut and cut and trimmed and got it down to the basics—two short paragraphs and then a couple well-placed sentences further along. I wasn’t bored, my hero wasn’t bored, and hopefully my readers weren’t bored! I sent the paragraphs to my IT guy and he said, “Yeah, that’s exactly it.”
As far as setting—after getting knocked when I got something wrong about Seattle, I’m tickled to be writing a book set in Sacramento, where I’ve lived since 1989. When I write about places I haven’t been or haven’t been for a long time, I try to contact locals for big picture questions. The rest I get from maps and photos. It’s the map I was using of Seattle that screwed me up, though.
In TEMPTING EVIL, I actually planned on going up to the Centennial Valley to visit for a long weekend, but with five kids it’s really hard to just drop everything and go on a trip. So I ended up talking to two people who live there. One in particular was a huge help to me getting a sense of the area and what to expect. For THE HUNT, which was set in Bozeman, I relied a lot on my husband who went to MSU, and my brother-in-law who is a wildlife biologist.
6) After the two anthologies you have another series coming out, starting January 29th which follow three stories after a disaster frees prisoners from San Quentin. Tell me a little bit about this trilogy, what inspired it.
Well, I needed to come up with an option book idea. I panicked—I had no ideas. Okay, that’s not true, I had a lot of ideas, but none of them were romantic thrillers like I’d been writing. In fact, one of my ideas is a western-set historical crime novel centered around pre-1900 San Francisco. Then I read a newspaper article about the latest seismic report for San Quentin at the same time as the Gov started transporting prisoners out of state because of prison over-crowding AND an article about some legislators talking about selling San Quentin because it’s on 437 acres of prime California real estate. Earthquake. San Quentin. Story.
Well, it’s funny how our muses work at planting clues to future books. I had never planned on writing about any of the characters from my NO EVIL series again. As far as I was concerned, they were over and done with. But I got a lot of mail about characters from those books and if they were going to get books of their own. Then I remembered that in the middle of SPEAK NO EVIL, Will Hooper—my heroine’s partner—had to go to an appeal court hearing to testify against Theodore Glenn, who he had put in prison for murdering four strippers. I read that scene again and Glenn was incarcerated in San Quentin. Wham! He became one of the escapees. It just sort of came together and that’s KILLING FEAR.
As far as books two and three go, the second book I had a one-liner: two escaped convicts trapped with romance writer in the middle of a snow storm. In book three (PLAYING DEAD), the last escaped convict is innocent and he has to convince his daughter, who testified against him for murdering her mother, that he’s innocent and to help him find out what happened fifteen years ago. That’s the book I’m writing now, and to be honest—though I have some ideas about the story—I have no idea who did it. That’s half the fun of writing.
7) Do you start your story with the characters, the ‘what if?’ or some combination? And how do you know when you’ve hit on "it" — the idea that will sustain a trilogy?
I start the story with a situational premise and characters. Sort of. Kind of. It really depends. Since I always believed that “story is character,” they develop simultaneously. I don’t always know when an idea will sustain a trilogy—I had three different ideas and my agent picked the earthquake story. And she was right—the other two weren’t bad, they just didn’t have the punch of the prison break trilogy.
8) You’ve got a terrific panel you teach on being a "panster" instead of a "plotter." While I know you can’t go into a panel’s worth of detail here, tell us about what it is about ‘pantsing’ that you like so much, what it brings to your writing, and how you handle foreshadowing and pay-offs if you haven’t plotted out where you’re going. (Because clearly, you handle these well.)
Stephen King said in his book ON WRITING (which I love, and it’s even better on audio) why should we be control freaks? All stories have to come out somewhere. I’ve found that I don’t like to plot because if I know what’s going to happen, I get bored with the story.
I like the discovery of character and story as I go along. I have the premise—I know the external conflict (i.e. escaped prisoner seeking vengeance on those who put him behind bars), but until I get in his head I don’t know why. What makes him different than all the other vengeful serial killers out there? What makes him tick? Why should I tell this story? Why doesn’t he just go down to Mexico and disappear? The guy has money, why is he risking his life and freedom for revenge? It’s these kind of questions I answer as I get into his head. But I don’t know them when I start writing. It’s like a puzzle without having a box. All the pieces are in my head somewhere and as I write, I start putting them together and seeing the big picture. I’m also not scared of writing crap. I dump the story out there the way it unfolds, then I can go back and layer in foreshadowing and all that other stuff. Usually, it’s already there and I just have to clean it up—I just didn’t know it when I was writing. The muse is scary sometimes.
9) I have yet to fathom how you write three books, plus short stories, plus a novella, plus regular blog entries at Murder She Writes and Dishing with the Divas, plus your own website and still have time to raise five kids. I am pretty certain there are four or five of you running around out there somewhere. So how do you do it? What sort of writing habits do you have?
First, I gave up cleaning. It was a huge sacrifice, but it had to be done. My minions, er, children pitch in and help (I pay my minions well, so no calling child protective services on me!) I used to love cooking, but I have six picky eaters (five kids and a husband) so now quick and easy is always on the menu. I cook extensively and bake only three days a year—Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Easter. The other 362 days it’s 20 minutes or less . . .
It helps that all my kids are in school—the youngest is in preschool. So I write five days a week from 9-3. I have to stay disciplined, which is hard because I’m the world’s biggest procrastinator. This means that inevitably, about two weeks before deadline, I’m writing several nights a week (Starbucks is open until ten in my town—11 on the weekends–and there’s a bar open until after midnight . . . ) and I’ll write Sunday afternoons. Afternoons during the week and Saturdays are usually full of kid stuff and lots of driving.
10) What’s the best writing advice you’d like to pass along? And what’s the best "life advice" you’ve ever received?
The best writing advice I ever got was from Stephen King’s ON WRITING. I’ve read it twice and listened to it twice. I highly recommend it, even though I still have a love affair with adverbs. They are a perfectly acceptable part of the English language, I don’t think they should be banned. King reminds us that it’s all about the story. The story comes first. Everything else is secondary. When I get stuck or worried that I’m not any good or it’s all been a fluke, I remember that it’s about the story—my story—and I have to write it my way.
As far as life goes, don’t sweat the small stuff.