Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my pleasure today to welcome award-winning mystery author and investigative reporter for 7News in Boston, Hank Philippi Ryan. I recently read her The Murder List, and cannot recommend it enough. I’m hoping to get my hands on The First to Lie soon! I’ve highlighted some of it in blue, but really, all of Hank’s advice is worth checking out.
1. What does your typical writing day look like?
A typical writing day. There’s what I wished it look like, and what it actually looks like. I am incredibly organized, with to-do lists, even prioritized. And every morning when I get up and I am embracing my coffee, I have the highest expectations. And then it all begins to fall apart.
My editor calls, or the publicist needs something, or I forgot to go on Instagram, and of course someone has to do the laundry. In order to prevent this inevitable chaos–and I know this sounds bizarre–I make an appointment with myself to write. I allow myself to do promotion and administration and all the other things that come with writing life, but only up until a certain time. And I at that appointed hour, I stop. And I focus on my work. To make sure this happens, I actually—confession–set a timer. For 34 minutes. I promise myself I will not look at email or the Internet or do anything else except right. And somehow when I force myself to focus, I don’t even hear the timer go off, and I am underway.
Sometimes this plan even works.
2. Your novels are very atmospheric. For aspiring writers, what would be your top three tips to make the settings of their novels vivid?
Make it cinematic. Make it specific. Make it personal.
First, don’t think of it as setting, like this separate element you stick in. Setting is more than geography, it is why characters do what they do. It is motivation, it is equipment, it is conflict, and it is full of obstacles. Setting is why characters decide what they decide. One of the one of my favorite things that readers say is “ I loved your book, I could just see it!”
So be cinematic. Make it a movie. I try to make each paragraph as visual as I can, as if I were describing a movie. I want to give readers a movie in their mind.
Be specific. Specificity is key as well. Is it a Mies van der Rohe coffee table, or a rickety board set on orange crates? Is it a banged up four-door Chevy sedan, or a British racing green jaguar? Why? Those items are setting, too, because each element picture is important, and does more work than just being there—it is why the story moves forward.
Make it personal. Describe the setting through the eyes of the point of view character. And use it to illustrate the characters’ goals. A harried mom opening the door on a snowy day will have a different description of snow than a 10-year-old who is delighted to have a snow day. What words would each of them use. They would be different, right? If you make it personal, you get setting and character and motivation, all in one.
3. What extent of research do you put into your writing, and what are the research pitfalls writers must watch out for?
Tess Gerritsen said it best. She said, “You can always tell when a writer’s research slip is showing.” And that means, of course, that it’s always clunkishly clear when the research is not woven seamlessly into the story. Research is not useful or illustrative or even engaging if it sounds like the author just googled and looked something up. Research is the seamless involvement of the reader in a setting and situation that feels real. In The First To Lie for instance, I immersed myself in the pharmaceutical industry, and tried to understand the goals and motivations and conflict and calculus of that high-stakes high-pressure world. Then I put all my research away, and wrote the story.
4. Your novels grab the reader on the first page, and never let go. What tricks can a writer use to write a riveting first page?
I think the key of a terrific first page–and thank you for the wonderful compliment!–is that the reader must instantly care about the character, and be invested in them and understand their motivation. On the first page, we must know who we are on the book train with, exactly where they are and where they think they are going, what they think they want, and how invested they are in that.
It’s just what I would have learned in journalism school had I ever attended: a good first page must clearly and specifically ground the reader in the 5Ws–who what when where and why.
My trick for that is to ask myself: if I close my eyes after I read this, can I imagine it? Can I envision it? Do I care about it?
5.You keep the pace at a very high clip in your thrillers—could you share a few tips on how to do this?
After all these years as a television reporter, with news directors asking for shorter and shorter stories, I have learned that writing a page turner means the pages cannot be too heavy! I just try to take out everything that isn’t the story, everything that doesn’t advance the story, everything that is not forward motion. I ask myself, for every sentence: what work is this sentence doing? What do I mean by it? Do I really need it? I do not think of editing as killing my darlings — if they are clogging my pacing, I am delighted to delete them. I think the delete key is one of the most powerful tools a writer can use.
6. Could you recommend five thrillers that you have enjoyed reading?
Oh, this is too difficult. Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth. The Charm School by Nelson DeMille. Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths. Dervla McTiernan’s The Scholar. Oh, Stephen King’s The Stand. Does that count? I don’t know how he pulled that off. It is still amazing. What a storyteller!
7. Do you outline your novels? If yes, what writing advice would you give to someone outlining their novel? (If you do not outline your novels, what are the advantages of writing spontaneously?)
Not a day goes by that I do not wish for an outline. Truly. It would be so lovely to be able to plan. But no, I have no idea what is going to come next until I write the next sentence, or the next paragraph, and the next scene. So when people say: wow, the twists and the ending of THE FIRST TO LIE, you really surprised me! I say yeah, wasn’t it a surprise? (Talk about a surprise ending–I surprise myself.)
I think the advantages of writing spontaneously include the joy of having a terrific idea, and the sudden understanding of what may happen next. Somehow, when this works, the stories feel exquisitely realistic, when people are behaving in a way that is surprising but authentic. I am fascinated by the idea of ideas – – where they come from, and why they bloom. I will never understand it, but I embrace it, and I think that is the only way I can work.
If I had to give it a history, I would say that because of being a reporter, I am comfortable not knowing how a story will end. When I am writing my investigations for television, I am out there searching for the story, right? If I knew what happened, it wouldn’t be news. So I feel the same way in writing my novels–I am always searching for the story.
8. When writing a series, how do you keep things fresh for your readers and yourself?
I’ve written two series, one with four books and one with five. The question of how to keep it fresh– and I hear this from time to time–is honestly kind of perplexing to me. I do not try to keep my real life fresh, right? Newness and new experiences and surprises happen because I am alive, and because the world is always somewhat out of control. So in a series, I have created real characters who live in a real place, and because they are real and curious and motivated, they will have new and fascinating adventures. So my possibly surprising advice is: don’t worry about it. Give every book one hundred percent, put it all on the table. And you will be surprised about how the well of your imagination re-fills for the next time.
9. What is the world and setting of your new book The First to Lie like?
I’m not a fan of graphic violence on the page, or graphic sex on the page or, or even too much inappropriate language. But I am enchanted with deception, and manipulation, and psychology, and gaslighting.
So specifically, THE FIRST TO LIE takes place in Boston and in a chic town near Chesapeake Bay, Maryland. In the world of journalism, big pharmaceutical companies (and the promises and calculations they make), and in the system of justice, personal and professional.
It takes place in mother-daughter relationships, in the passion to have a family, and in the destruction that comes after a devastating decision.
Two smart women, each faced with a shocking childhood betrayal, set off on an obsessive path to revenge, no matter what family secrets are revealed. It’s a high-stakes psychological cat and mouse game, but which character is the cat?
It takes place in the philosophical world, too: the world of ethics, and decision-making, and the rights of the individual versus the needs of others, and how far a journalist or executive or daughter would go to get what they want.
10. What is that one thing you’d like readers to know about The First to Lie before they dive into the book?
I love that readers are wise, and intelligent, and I know they are trying to solve the mystery before the author reveals it. I hope that readers, in this case, might just let this story take them away into Ellie and Nora’s world, and understand that since I did not know what was going to happen, there’s no reason they should try to figure it out either! But I do hope that it will not only make them miss their stop on the bus because they are reading so intently, but that when they close the book they’ll feel satisfied and surprised and entertained, and maybe think of the world in a little different way.
Have you read author Hank Philippi Ryan’s novels? (If you haven’t, you’re in for a treat!) Do you enjoy reading thrillers? Do you have questions for this award-winning author?
Hank Philippi Ryan is the nationally bestselling author of 11 mystery novels. She has won multiple prestigious awards for her crime fiction: five Agathas, three Anthonys, the Daphne, two Macavitys, and for The Other Woman, the coveted Mary Higgins Clark Award. National reviews have called her a “master at crafting suspenseful mysteries” and “a superb and gifted storyteller.”
Go to the site to see the other participants. In this group we writers share tips, self-doubt, insecurities, and of course, discuss the act of writing. If you’re a writer and a blogger, go join rightaway!
The August IWSG question: Have you ever written a piece that became a form, or even a genre, you hadn’t planned on writing in? Or do you choose a form/genre in advance?
Well, almost all my work starts as short stories or flash fiction. Other than the novel I’m currently working on, everything in my fiction folder started life as a piece of flash, even my debut novel, You Beneath Your Skin!
It is available in India here.
Reviews are appreciated–please get in touch if you’d like a review copy.