Let me start by admitting something that may be a little shameful, a little anathema, on a site like this: I’m not a crime fiction aficionado. Honestly, I read other genres much more extensively. I’ve never read Agatha Christie (gasp!), Lee Child, Gillian Flynn, Harlan Coben, Dean Koontz, James Patterson, John Grisham etc. Sadly, the list goes on. Are you still reading? Am I still invited to this club? Maybe, maybe not.
Let me also say, I fully enjoy the thriller/crime/mystery genre. I love Tana French, Kate Atkinson, and Val McDermid; I especially enjoy thrillers that toe the line between other genres like Julie Phillips’ Disappearing Earth or Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. But I don’t read fiction to watch car chases, solve clues, or guess who dunnit. The truth is, I often don’t really care. Oh man, I AM gonna get kicked out of this club! Let me explain.
Writing Jeanie King
When I sat down to write what would eventually become The Lost Kings, in my mind, I was writing a very different book. But fiction often surprises us. I knew I wanted to write about mental health through a character recovering from trauma. From there, I wanted to tell a story about a girl reconnecting with her father years after the traumatic experience. As I began to put the pieces into place, I was fairly certain I was writing some sort of character-driven bildungsroman. I cared about the exploration and evolution of my main character more than I did about any twist or mystery involved in the plotline. So how did it end up taking that turn into the thriller genre? Good question. In part, I don’t really know. Which sounds unsatisfying, but in the world of creativity, I find that things are a lot less set in stone than we like to portray them. When I get asked during interviews where my inspiration comes from, I often give some sort of concrete answer that’s mostly true. However, the reality is, inspiration comes from that amorphous haze that hovers above your head and is informed by your childhood experiences, the books you’re reading, the shows you’re watching, the people in your life, and your current mood. But it’s also something more than that, something unique about who you are as a person and as a writer. It’s something more mystical, more airy-fairy, something that you rub crystals for and make your sacrifices to under the light of a full moon. You can’t talk about it a lot, or it might just go away. I’ve probably said too much already. Basically, I try my best to stick to my gut when writing the plot, to listen to my characters, and when in doubt, trust my agent and my editors who very much helped me mold this book into what it became.
What is a thriller?
I’ve had people ask me this a lot and I find myself not really having a great answer. “A thriller is a book that is thrilling,” feels a little too vague. But “A book with a mystery, crime, dead body, or missing person” feels too reductive. However, these are often the qualities you find in the mystery/suspense/crime fiction genres. But it’s not quite enough, is it? A thriller can also be a deep exploration into a culture or time period or social issue. A thriller can be a character study, a comedy, satire, or a science fiction romp through the universe. In essence, a thriller, like any genre, can and should be able to do anything it wants. Therefore, it’s hard to put it into a box or to break it down to its base materials. I once heard David Mitchell talk about genre as merely the different colors of paint he uses to create his art—in this way, genre, in the end, is just tool bookstores use to organize their shelves. I like looking at it like that. That’s why, when I sit down to write, I don’t really think about what genre I’m working in. I don’t crack my knuckles and say to myself, “Time to write some crime fiction.” I simply tell the story that I want to tell and see what comes out. In The Lost Kings, I told the story of Jeanie King, using whatever colors looked best on her.
Plot is not a dirty word
I forget who said it, but I feel like it’s as true today as ever. Plot is NOT a dirty word! High-brow literature professors who turn their noses down on genre fiction aren’t allowed to speak any kind of wisdom into my life, to give any criticism on my work, nor are they invited to my birthday party. Thankfully, instead, I had professors who told me things like “It’s all literature.” And that’s the real dirty secret. It’s all an escape, a lens to look at humanity, a device to inspire and practice empathy, and, yes, a means of entertainment. And while I thought I was writing a character study on trauma, the truth of it is, I also like things to happen in my fiction. I like story. I like plot! I don’t outline very heavily, but I do like to have some idea of where I’m going. The key takeaway here is movement. I like for the plot to move forward and for the character to move forward with it—or, better yet, for the character to be the one moving the plot onward with her actions. This movement, in the end, is the core reason, I think, I end up writing thrillers.
Why I read fiction
Overall, I, like you, read fiction to feel something. Sometimes I want to be thrilled, saddened, mortified, disgusted, devastated, or even triggered. I want to feel human. I want to feel alive. And usually, that takes more than just plot, more than a good twist or a well-thought-out mystery. It takes characters. I can follow a fascinating character through a boring story, but I can’t follow a boring character through an action-packed plotline. The best-case scenario, for me, is to create complicated characters who do interesting things, place them in drama-filled situations, and watch as an exciting plotline bursts forth like so many colors of the rainbow.
Finally, to the real, selfish, reason I wrote this essay. Now that you know my preferences for fiction in general, give me your recommendations! What books fit my criteria that I have to read? What characters are so good they’ll hold my attention? What mysteries are made fascinating because of the character development? What crime novels will make me feel something deep in my bones? Help me navigate the depths of the crime/mystery/suspense/and thriller fiction; as you now know, even though I write in this genre, I’m really a complete newb!