1. How did publishing your first book change your process of writing, if at all?
With each book my process has become more streamlined, but the biggest change is that, five books in, I feel more in control. That doesn’t necessarily mean it gets easier. Self-doubt always, always creeps in, particularly when I’m writing my first “skeleton draft,” which is a first, very loose version nobody will ever see. It’s rough, dirty and…terrible—my skeleton drafts always have been. However, I’ve learned to trust my writing process. If I can get the bones of the story on paper, I’ll add layers and complexity as I go over the novel again and again in preparation for my editor’s eyes. I accept the finer details will come as I work through the story. Just like most people who draw, paint, or write music or books, the first draft will never be my best work. I’m glad I’ve accepted that because it stops me from being overly self-critical when I start a project. I’m also more disciplined than in the past because I have deadlines. And I’ve always loved deadlines—especially beating them.
2. What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
It depends on the novel. For Time After Time (my debut, a rom com) there were geographical considerations, and, as the novel took place from the 1980s to the 2010s, I had to ensure my references to pop culture were accurate. In The Neighbors, Her Secret Son and Sister Dear (suspense / psychological thrillers) there were similar geographical issues to consider, but I also had to research legal details. I sought the help from an advisor from child services, a lawyer, a medical examiner, and a police detective, to name but a few. I’m continually amazed how people are so incredibly generous with their time, knowledge and expertise when I call and say, “I’m an author, honest, and I have a few weird questions.” For example, fellow author Bruce Robert Coffin is a retired police detective, and he’s helped me get away with fictional murder multiple times. His input is incredible!
I don’t do a lot of research before I start writing but tend to put placeholders for areas that need fleshing out, and go back to them after I’ve finished my first draft. That way I’m not spending hours on facts that don’t make the cut, or getting sidetracked by facts which are interesting, but potentially irrelevant to the story.
3. Which thriller author inspired you to get into this genre?
Jennifer Hillier. I was waiting for my son at our local library when I spotted her debut, Creep, on a shelf. Intrigued by the cover, I picked it up, read the blurb and took it home. I devoured it in a matter of days and it was career changing.
When I was younger, I mainly read thrillers, but after a personal tragedy in my early 20s, the only thing I could stomach was light-hearted reads. Creep reminded me of my love of thrillers, and I realized the second book I was working on, The Neighbors, was far grittier than my debut. Jennifer’s book gave me that final push I needed to cross over to the dark side. Fun fact: we live in the same town and have become great friends. Jennifer is an inspiration and fiercely talented, and I have all her books. I’ll read anything she writes!
4. What’s the one element of a thriller novel that is a MUST?
Plot twists and secrets. I want to be surprised when I’m reading a thriller, although that can be said for any genre, so I guess you need to throw in a dead body or two somewhere as well.
5. Where do you get your ideas?
So far, I can pinpoint exactly how each book started. Time After Time is a story about a woman who’s unhappy with her life, which was me when we moved to Canada and my HR company crashed and burned, although the rest of the novel is fictional. The idea for The Neighbors came to me when two houses on our courtyard went up for sale, and I wondered who might move in. Her Secret Son stemmed from a news segment I saw while I was at the gym (probably wishing I were eating cake instead).
I’ll elaborate a little more for Sister Dear: I heard a radio segment about a woman who’d found a wedding ring at a playground and was trying to locate the owner through social media. It got me thinking—what if the woman found out the ring’s owner had a dream life, and felt jealous? The more I thought about it, the more twisted things became. I realized the individuals had to be related somehow, and if I made them half-sisters it would add to the drama and intrigue. It seems some of the most despicable acts are carried out within families. That was something I wanted to explore.
6. Has there ever been a moment in your life that inspired one of your thriller novels?
No, I can honestly say that, thankfully, my books aren’t true crime! I do sprinkle little details here and there my family might recognize. Superman pajamas, a stuffed toy, those kinds of things, but otherwise I don’t pull from my life.
7. What is your writing process like?
Very structured, and the more I write, the more I plan. My novels start with an idea—something that pops into my head such as the radio segment for Sister Dear, or a newspaper article or a discussion I overheard. I noodle the thoughts around for a while as the main characters take shape. The next step is to write an outline. I start by jotting down the big picture plot points, which I then use as stepping-stones to build and write the rest of the outline. I fill out personality questionnaires for my main characters to understand them better, and search for photos on the internet to build a gallery I stick on my pin-board. By this point I’m raring to go.
At first, I write a basic, largely unedited manuscript that’s about two-thirds of the final word count, then layer and develop until I’m happy calling it a first draft, and send it to my wonderful editor, Emily. That’s when the real editing work begins, which is incredibly exciting because I know the story will become a thousand times better with her expert input.
8. Do you find it easier to write character and dialogue for the opposite sex because you are the opposite sex? (A woman writing a man’s part and dialogue for example).
I love writing men and women equally, dialogue, and otherwise. My first experience of writing a male point of view character was in The Neighbors, and I adored working on Nate’s chapters. In Her Secret Son, the entire book is written from Josh’s point of view, and it was such a great challenge to do so. Sister Dear is exclusively told by my protagonist Eleanor, but next year’s book features three characters, two women and one man. The one after that will be a man’s point of view and I’m itching to get started because I can hear his very distinctive voice in my head.
To be honest, I try not to overthink whether I’m writing a man or a woman. The important thing is to give them a voice, develop their character, and make them seem as real to the reader as they are to me.
9. When you’re not working on your latest novel, what do you like to do for fun?
I love getting outdoors for a hike, I’m a huge fan of the movies (I love the trailers!), I go to the gym and participate in a few obstacle runs in the summer (I live for the mud and obstacles, I’m rubbish at the running part). We have three teenage boys, so my husband and I spend time with them as often as they’ll let us. Watching films as a family is one of my favourite things. There’s something deeply comforting about us having a laugh together and just hanging out.
10. What kind of advice would you give to aspiring thriller READERS?
Try different sub-genres, of which there are many. Perhaps you love police procedurals, or psychological thrillers may fascinate you. Maybe you don’t want something overly graphic, so cozies might be to your taste, or alternatively you could go hard-boiled noir. I think some people have the impression thrillers are all blood, guts and gore, but that’s not the case. There’s something for everyone. Take Jill Orr, author of the Riley Ellison Mystery series. Sure, people die in her books, but her novels are laugh-out-loud funny. She’s a comedic genius.
11. What advice do you have for writers?
Read as much and often as you can and listen to audio books. I wrote an article about how the latter make you a better author here. Write, even if you think it’s rubbish, because an empty page is impossible to edit. Another tip someone once suggested was to skip ahead if I couldn’t get a grasp on a chapter or scene, that I should focus on another part of the manuscript and trust myself enough to backfill later. It was revolutionary to me, and it beats the heck out of staring at a blank page or shoving my hand in the cookie jar. Also, I was advised to read my manuscript out loud. Every. Single. Word. Doing so helps avoid repetition, improves cadence, and zaps stilted dialogue. And, finally, share your work. It can be scary, but it’s the only way you’ll get feedback and improve your craft.
12. What is the first book that made you cry?
I have absolutely no idea, but the last one was Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell. I was a blubbering mess, which doesn’t happen very often! Stiff British upper lip and all that.
13. What is your writing Kryptonite?
Self-doubt. Having some isn’t a bad thing, but you can’t let it rule you or you’ll never finish a manuscript. Also, if I don’t have a deadline I tend to procrastinate, so I set my own, and make sure I beat them.
14. Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
Yes, absolutely. When I was in my thirties we had three kids in 16 months (twins the second time around, I’m not an alien, I promise) and while my husband was a stay-at-home dad, I was the CEO of a European IT recruitment company. I was so busy, I don’t think I picked up a novel in five years, and I missed them dearly. I’m so glad reading books is such a large part of my job now, and I love every minute.
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Author Bio: Hannah Mary McKinnon was born in the UK, grew up in Switzerland and moved to Canada in 2010. After a successful career in recruitment, she quit the corporate world in favor of writing, and is now the author of The Neighbors and Her Secret Son. She lives in Oakville, Ontario, with her husband and three sons, and is delighted by her twenty-second commute