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Posts Tagged thrillers
My guest this week is the author of Girl on a Train. No, another girl, another train. I first came across her work when she wrote very entertainingly about how her psychological thriller had been mistaken by readers for the much-hyped title by Paula Hawkins. And they were happy to have found her, for she gained many new fans. I then discovered she used to be a musician, and has played in all the major London concert halls, so I had to enquire whether music played a role in her writing. It certainly does – she has written a haunting, thoughtful post about the music that helped her layer her work with complexity, loss and betrayal, especially movie soundtracks like Blue Velvet and Let The Right One In. She is AJ Waines and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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My guest this week had talismanic pieces of music in his mind while he wrote his debut thriller. Indeed he says the music was such a guiding force that he cannot imagine how anyone reading the book could not hear it too. He chose anthems to embody his characters, their state of mind, their dilemmas and the way they change in the story’s events. They are protest songs, wry looks at characters who are abandoning their principles and songs of obsession and downfall. I’m also delighted to report that he includes Peter Gabriel – one of my long-time favourite musicians. He is Paul Sean Grieve and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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‘Abhorrent combinations… fear not as the music writes the story for you’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Josh Malerman
My guest this week says his novel was written in a trance. He rented an attic from a musician, who he could hear practising in the rooms downstairs, brought along a cageful of finches and set them free to fly around him as he typed. You’ll see from the title why they seemed like a good idea. These avian muses were also treated to the soundtracks of several movies – Rosemary’s Baby, The Fog and Creepshow – which doubtless helped them get further into character. When he needed to crank up the intensity, there would be two songs howling at once – the radio at one end of the room, classical music at the other. My guest reports that sometimes his birds got tired and stared at him. This endearing aural vandal is Josh Malerman, his novel is the post-apocalyptic thriller Bird Box, and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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My guest this week describes his writing as a constant state of striving – to achieve the same visceral punch of great music. His books come to him that way too – protagonist, thread and plot in one hit. In fact I’ve actually seen this thunderbolt descend; I was with him on a course one day when he told me he’d just overheard a conversation that gave him an entire plot and its characters in an instant. After that comes the hard work, of course, and music helps him return to that state of fever. The novel he is talking about this week is the first in a crime series, set in the final years of Moorish rule in Spain, and its soundtrack is full of sweat, guitars, lutes and bass. He is David Penny and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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My guest this week says she always begins a project by assembling a sequence of music tracks. To start with, she notices every word and note, but after a while they settle into a familiar environment – a mental writing room that claims her attention and tells her it’s time to immerse. The novel she’ll be sharing with us is set in 1938, so her soundtrack is a mix of her own favourite contemporary songs to help capture the mood, and then a lot of material from the period of her story to conjure the historical period. She is NYT bestselling thriller author Rebecca Cantrell, and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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I’m finding it so curious to see how many novelists in this series are inspired by Bruce Springsteen. He’s probably not the kind of artiste people would imagine if you mentioned using music as a muse to write, but he’s behind so many characters and character dilemmas. My guest this week has compiled writing soundtracks ever since he was at school, and still keeps mixtapes from that time. He revisits them occasionally out of amused curiosity, and says that Springsteen gave his characters a gritty humanity he couldn’t otherwise have found. Decades on, he’s using soundtracks just as much as ever – sometimes not to write, but to fill himself with the book’s mood before he sits down at the keyboard. He is Will Overby and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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My guest this week says his friends assume his crime novels are inspired by other noir thrillers, but they’d be wrong. His novels have all come from songs. An opening scene sprang from Springsteen; the relentless grind of a fight from House of Pain; a tender moment from the soundtrack to Gladiator. He is Terrence McCauley and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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Sometimes I find there’s an inexplicable moment when the tune in my ears tells the story back to me and from then on is part of its world. My guest this week became wedded to a Ravel piano concerto when it started at exactly the moment he began a long, brooding sequence with a killer. He likes to write in public places and his playlist is forever topped up by suggestions from his wide fanbase. Indeed his musical roots run deep; in the 1970s he was in a band that recorded an album for Universal and which ultimately, minus him, became the gazillion-selling group Bread. How cool is that? As cool as this – songs he’s written have been recorded by a number of top artistes in several genres. Now he’s an Edgar- and Macavity-nominated author of thrillers and mysteries. Could it get any cooler? His name is Timothy Hallinan and I’m thrilled to have him on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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Ideally we’d all write from personal experience, but most of us have much bigger imaginations than our pockets, lives, bravery levels or the laws of the land can accommodate. So we have to wing it from research.
Ghostwriting is the ultimate rebuke to the idea that you write what you know. We pretend all the way, even down to our identity, outlook and heart. When I was ghosting I became a dab hand at travel by mouse – there was no way the publisher paid enough for me to jet to my book’s location. Or would spring me out of jail.
So here are my tips for bridging the experience gap.
Good first-hand accounts
Obviously the web is full of blogs about just about anything. They’ll give you up-close, spit-and-sweat details from those who are living the life. But look further afield. Good memoirs and novels will not only provide raw material, they’ll show how to bring a place alive on the page.
There are scores of books published for writers who want to bone up on unfamiliar areas – whether crime, ways to kill or die, historical periods and what might be possible in steampunk. Or how to write a vampire novel. Some of you may know I’m an obsessive equestrian, and Dave’s roleplaying fraternity used to ask me constant questions about what you could do with horses until I wrote this piece for them.
What everybody else may already know
If there are famous books or movies that tackle your subject or feature your key location, get acquainted with them. Some readers hunt down every story that features their favourite keywords. They will not be impressed if you miss an obvious location for a murderer to hide a body, or an annual festival that should muck up your hero’s plans.
Flickr is wonderful for finding travellers’ snaps. But don’t discount professional photography. The best captures the emotional essence of a place, not just the visual details. I wrote one novel set in India and found a book of photographs of the monsoon. Those exquisite images of deluge gave me powerful, dramatic scenes.
Before the days of broadband, my go-to was National Geographic on searchable CD-ROM. I bought it as a Christmas present for Dave many years ago and probably you can now get the same thing on line. Sublime photography and descriptive writing that will get your fingers tapping.
Befriend an expert
Misapprehensions are inevitable if you’re appropriating others’ experiences. If possible, tame an expert you can bounce ideas off – especially if you’ve hung a major plot point on your theoretical understanding. When ghosting, I could ring my ‘authors’ for advice, but they weren’t always available so I found other sources to get my facts straight.
You’ll be surprised where these experts could be hiding. I never noticed my neighbourhood had a diving shop until I needed to write scenes featuring scuba. They were flattered and excited when I asked if I could pick their brains for a novel. When I was working on My Memories of a Future Life, a friend mentioned her family knew one of the BBC Young Musicians of the Year. Voila – I had an introduction to a concert pianist. Right now, I’m recruiting high-altitude climbers and pop musicians. Say hi in the comments if you know any.
What do you use to write what you don’t know? Share your tips in the comments! And do you have any research needs at the moment? Appeal for help here and you may find your perfect partner!
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Often, writers are gearing up to reveal a big threat in the meat of the story, but fail to give us enough in the early chapters. Instead they show the characters living their lives, surrounded by their important folk. They may show us back story, and what the characters don’t want to lose. This is all useful groundwork – but they are in a state of stability.
What’s missing is the sense that the character is venturing onto a tightrope. The unknown knocking at the door. The trampoline on the balcony.
Genre and generalisations
How obvious you make this instability depends on your readership. Children’s and YA novels have to be pretty literal, while literary novels for adults might create pressures of agonising subtlety. Passages that would be aimless cogitation in a thriller might be enthralling dissonance in another genre.
But whatever you are writing, you still need jeopardy. So if your characters are looking too comfortable, what can you do?
Cut the throat-clearing
The simplest answer is to ditch the throat-clearing and get to the main threat sooner, then generate some complications to spin out afterwards.
Foreshadow with mysterious symptoms
But you might be better to keep your main conflict where it is. In that case, you need a build-up – but one that isn’t aimless.
Start from your main conflict and spin it out backwards, creating less severe problems that will lead to the flashpoint. Like mysterious symptoms that warn of a medical catastrophe, these can give that tingling sense that the character’s world is becoming irretrievably unstable.
Is there any normal activity that they start to find more difficult? Is there a tricky choice they might have to make early on? And could the character handle these in a way that makes everything more precarious? Could they think they’ve sorted it out but find they’ve made it worse?
Sometimes writers try to add jeopardy with a deadline. The gangsters are coming. Or the bomb will detonate. That can be effective if introduced late, but plot timebombs have a short shelf life. If you start them ticking too early and never escalate the problems in another way, the reader can get numbed.
Other characters are a terrific source of instability. Is there something your main character has to do that puts them at odds with other people who are important to them?
When I fixed Life Form 3, I looked closely at the other characters. I found:
- relationships where there was tension, and I made more of it
- ways for characters to spoil things for each other
- a way to give an early warning of the main threat, by making a diluted version afflict another character
I also looked for where this new, more desperate situation might lead to alliances. This gave one character a much stronger role, and became a catalyst for other tensions that richocheted through the story. He emerged with some strong beliefs that made him a far bigger player than he was originally designed to be.
Stories need a sense of instability to tweak the reader’s curiosity. If you need to add more, you can often find the roots in your main conflict and characters.
Have you had to add jeopardy to a story – and how did you do it? Let’s talk in the comments!
If you found this post useful, you might like the follow-up to my book Nail Your Novel. It’s currently in edits and I’m still debating the title, but it will be stuffed with craft advice. If you’d like updates about this and Life Form 3, sign up to my newsletter
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