Heather Gudenkauf knows her way around a gripping suspense yarn. Her first two novels were bestsellers and established her as a writer to keep an eye on in the genre. Her third book, One Breath Away, releases this week and she told Tip Sheet about her successful writing formula.
Every author has a unique process for writing. Here are my basic rules to write a literary suspense novel:
Location, location, location. Actually the writer’s location doesn’t matter a bit – it’s where everyone else in the family is that is important. I’ve been known to lug my laptop from room to room trying to find a secluded spot to work on my current project. I’ve resorted to taping do not disturb signs to doors, hiding out in the woods behind my house, and even leaving the state to do my writing. You would think that just waiting until the dead of night when everyone was asleep would be the most effective time for a suspense writer to create. It’s dark, the only sounds are creaky, whispery moans with periodic coyote howls and owl hoots. Not for me ~ too scary.
Sustenance. Food and beverage is a must when preparing for a marathon session of writing. As for food, nibbly snacks like trail mix, grapes, or M&Ms are best. Avoid any food that requires a spoon, a fork or two hands as it impedes the writing process. However, it can be done. My drink of choice is a big (huge really) Diet Coke with lots of ice and a skinny straw – the size of the straw does make a difference. When you’ve written yourself into a corner or a particular character is giving you fits, alcohol is perfectly acceptable. Just be careful with this or in twenty years you may find yourself writing your tragic memoir from a detox center or jail, whichever comes first.
Ambience. Your personal comfort is paramount when writing. Some people need complete silence in order for the creative gods to smile down on them. Not me, I need some noise. Right now I’m listening to a lot of Mumford & Sons set at a rather high volume. If it is too quiet I can hear my children beyond the locked door asking me to fix them something to eat.
After these first three basic needs are met, it’s time to get down to the business of writing your novel.
The Premise. The premise for your literary suspense novel needs to be, well, suspenseful. Like most writers, I’m a collector of possible topics for my novels. I scan newspaper headlines, listen to talk radio, and pay special attention at social gatherings for possible storylines (just kidding, friends). Interestingly, as a writer of suspenseful, domestic dramas, I am constantly asked by well-meaning people about the awful childhood I must have experienced. I guess it would add an air of mysteriousness to me if that were the case, but I’m proud (and relieved) to have had a blissfully uneventful childhood with two great parents. However, it is perfectly okay to infuse life experiences into the creation of your suspense novel. For example, in my new release, One Breath Away, an unknown gunman enters a small school, terrifying the teachers, students and townspeople. While this specific event did not happen to me, when I was in college I was on campus when a disgruntled former graduate student opened fire. This event left an indelible emotional mark on me and twenty years later, the concept found its way into the pages of my novel.
The Characters. The characters in your literary suspense novel need to capture the hearts and minds of your readers. Develop characters that your readers instantly care about. Once readers become invested in what happens to those who inhabit your books, they will stick around to the very end. Early readers of One Breath Away, immediately identified with Mrs. Oliver, the third grade teacher who is charged with protecting the children of small-town Broken Branch from the lone gunman. My first grade teacher was exactly like Mrs. Oliver, one reader told me.
World Domination. Where else in your life is there the possibility for such ultimate control? As the writer, you not only give birth to your characters, but you have the power to plunk them down into any setting and any situation (insert maniacal laugh here). Theoretically, you determine life and death. That’s just in theory though. I tried to kill off one character in One Breath Away several times, but this person Just. Wouldn’t. Die. Makes you wonder who is really in control…
Now that you have all the components needed to create your very own suspense novel, there is no time like the present to get started! Grab that drink, lock that door, scan the headlines, dig deep for those disturbing childhood memories and start writing!
In all seriousness, the most important thing in being a writer is to simply put pen to paper. If a teacher from Iowa (me!) can do it, so can you. Dream big, never give up and write it all down along the way.