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Want Fab Tips on Writing Great Characters and Plot from a Bestselling Author? #IWSG

By 05/07/2023August 29th, 2023Featured, guest post
If you're a writer, what does your writing day look like? Do you have questions for Karen Dionne?

One of the absolute joys of my blogging life at Daily (w)rite is getting to interview authors and publishing professionals. I learn so much from their wisdom, and through their guest posts and interviews, I get to share that learning with all of you.

Today on the site we have #1 Internationally bestselling thriller author, Karen Dionne, whose smash hit The Marsh King’s Daughter sold in 25 languages and is being released as we speak as a major motion picture starring Daisy Ridley, Ben Mendelsohn, Garrett Hedlund. So if you haven’t read it yet, now is a good time.

In its starred review, Publisher’s weekly called her novel The Wicked Sister,   “A devastating, magical realism–dusted psychological thriller . . . a haunting portrait of a family hurtling toward the tragic destiny they can foresee but are powerless to stop.”

I asked Karen questions about her writing life, and the writing advice she’d like to share. Here are her generous, very helpful responses:

1. What does your writing day look like?

 I’m a morning person, so I usually get up between 5 and 6 AM. After I’ve solved the New York Times crossword puzzle (or not), nailed Wordle, and reached genius level playing Spelling Bee, I’m primed and ready to write!

What do you think an author's life is like? If you're a writer, what does your writing day look like? Do you have questions for Karen Dionne?I wish that I could say I have enough discipline not to look at my email or social media, but sadly this isn’t true, so I write in a rustic studio in a pretty patch of woods on our property. The studio does NOT have Internet access, so aside from the birds and squirrels who come to visit (and very occasionally, a deer or a baby raccoon), I can work without distractions.

At noon I take a lunch and exercise break. I live on a small lake, so I might go out in my kayak to spy on the wildlife, or I might do something physical around the house – there always seems to be something that needs shoveling or raking – anything to get outside and get moving.

After that, I catch up on emails and other writing business, write for another couple of hours, and then I’m done for the day. After a lovely supper prepared by my husband (who is a much better cook than I am), I’ll relax on the porch bed on our patio with a glass of red wine and watch the sun set over the lake, or we’ll take out our pontoon boat for a change of scenery, or if the weather is warm, we’ll tie our inner tubes to the boat and float and sip and talk. If this sounds like the perfect writer’s life, it is!

2. One of the challenges while writing a novel is getting the timeline right. You do it beautifully—would like to share tips and pitfalls? 

 Every novel is different, but in general, when writing psychological suspense, the important thing to remember is to keep the timeline as short as possible. Both The Marsh King’s Daughter and The Wicked Sister are told in dual timelines, and in both, the present-day events take place over just a few days. And while the events in the portions set in the past span a dozen or more years, I only present vignettes of key moments or climactic scenes that inform the story’s present, which helps keep things moving.

When constructing a story with a dual timeline in alternating chapters, it’s also essential that each succeeding chapter builds on the one that came before it. While technically, you’re telling two distinct yet related stories, you’re still creating a single book, so the stories need to mesh seamlessly to explain and enhance each other.

Admittedly, a complicated structure is a lot to juggle. While I’ve never been inclined toward using Post-It notes or storyboarding, I have printed out my novel, cut the pages into scenes, and then rearranged them on a long table or on the floor so that I can literally see how the story flows.

3. Authors are often able to convincingly depict a character in a novel, but to match the plot arc of the novel to the arc of its character is difficult. How do you handle this? Do you find yourself starting with a plot idea or a character voice?

For my early science-based thrillers, I began with the plot and then created the characters that I needed to tell the stories—hopefully interesting and engaging characters, but still, the story came first.

That changed when I woke up in the middle of the night with the first sentences of what was to become The Marsh King’s Daughter fully formed in my head. The sentences are:

If I told you my mother’s name, you’d recognize it right away. My mother was famous, though she never wanted to be. Hers wasn’t the kind of fame anyone would wish for: Jaycee Dugard, Amanda Berry, Elizabeth Smart—that kind of thing, though my mother was none of them.

In the following days, this character kept talking to me, and I kept writing snippets in her voice, until eventually, I decided I would have to find a story for her. I pulled my childhood books of fairy tales off the shelf thinking that I could use a fairy tale to structure the story events similar to what Eowyn Ivey did with her Pulitzer Prize-nominated debut novel The Snow Child. When I found Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Marsh King’s Daughter,” the fit was so perfect, I knew this book could be something special.

Now I always begin with the character. I’ve learned that when you do, who the character is, what he or she wants, and what they’re willing to do to get it become the central issues that drive the story. Even if the character doesn’t appear to me as fully formed as Helena did, I still need to spend time to really get to know them before I can think about what’s going to happen to them. A terrific and compelling character will tell the writer what they want to do.

4. Your novels are very atmospheric. How do you achieve this visceral sense of place?

 I always remind myself that the reader doesn’t need to know everything about the setting; they only need to visualize it well enough to get caught up in the story. At the same time, you don’t want to confuse your reader, so you need to be sure that you include enough detail for them to follow the path you’ve laid out without getting lost.

It also helps if you’re writing about a place that you know well. Writers might think that this very familiar place where they live or where they grew up is nothing special and that no one will want to read a book set there, which is why I set my early books in Antarctica and at Chaiten volcano in Northern Patagonia, Chile—places I thought of as exotic.

But after I started writing books set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where I lived for 30 years, I discovered that familiarity brings one’s writing to a whole other level. There were so many times as I was writing the book that I’d include a detail about the natural world and think to myself that I never would have found it no matter how much I Googled because I lived it.

Interestingly, the New York Times Book Review said that one of the things that make The Marsh King’s Daughter “so superb,” is the authenticity of the setting. “When Dionne describes the swamp maples that make a cabin invisible from the air, or the way one digs chicory taproots, then washes, dries and grinds them to make a coffee substitute, it seems effortless, plain that her fluency has a deeper source than Wikipedia.” True!

5. What are the five thrillers you’ve recently enjoyed reading? 

 I’m partial to wilderness thrillers since that’s what I write. Recent favorites include One Step Too Far by Lisa Gardner, The Tally Stick by Carl Nixon, The River at Night and Into the Jungle by Erica Ferencik, No Exit by Taylor Adams, and Forsaken Country by Allen Eskens.

And while not technically thrillers, I highly recommend Alma Katsu’s The Hunger, which offers a supernatural take on the Donner party, and The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey I mentioned earlier. Both books are set in wild places, and both absolutely blew me away.

6. If you could give your younger writing self some advice, what would it be?

 Four things:

a. Be patient. Publishing is a long game. It takes time to learn how to write, time to find an agent, time for a novel to work its way through the publishing process, time to get that first check. While occasionally a writer will hit it big with their first book, most authors establish their career over a period of years or even decades.

b. Don’t quit. A writer can break out at any time. The Marsh King’s Daughter was my fourth published novel. If you haven’t yet reached your publishing goals, don’t give up! You never know what might be right around the corner.

c. Try something new. After 20 years of writing midlist novels, I hit it big when I switched from environmental thrillers to psychological suspense. Just because we start writing in a certain genre doesn’t mean that’s where our strengths lie.

d. Reach. Grow. The Marsh King’s Daughter uses many writing techniques that I’d never tried before: a dual timeline, tense shifts, multiple flashbacks, incorporating a fairy tale, creating imaginary characters, and much more. In fact, I was so far outside my comfort zone, when I sent the first chapter to my agent, I honestly didn’t know if it worked. He loved it and told me to keep going. He also told me much later that the chapter I’d sent him was so good, he didn’t think I had written it! So, by pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, I discovered that I am a better writer than I knew.

7. In brilliant and exciting news, The Marsh King’s Daughter is being adapted into a film. What has the process been like for you as an author?

Every time I answer this question, I still can’t believe it’s happening. It’s such a rare thing for a book to be optioned for film; rarer still for the movie to get made, even rarer yet for the movie to be slated as a theatrical release. I’m amazed that so many uber-talented people chose to use their time and talents to bring my story to the screen.

PC: Black Bear Pictures

Just how talented are they? The producers, Black Bear Pictures and Anonymous Content, are responsible for movies such as The Imitation Game, Spotlight, and The Revenant, and the screenplay was written by the screenwriter who co-wrote The Revenant. The Marsh King’s Daughter movie was directed by Neil Burger, who’s known for films such as Limitless, and Divergent, and the movie stars Daisy Ridley, Ben Mendelsohn, Garrett Hedlund, and Gil Birmingham. Wow!

People ask if I had any input in making the film, and the short answer is, I did not. If I had had more screenwriting experience, or if the people who were involved with the project had had less, things would have been different. But I was more than happy to leave the adaptation in their capable hands.

The film is finished (I’ve seen it, and it’s wonderful!), so as soon as we know the release date, you can bet I’ll be clearing my schedule and booking my flight to attend the premiere. And yes, I’ve already bought my red-carpet dress!

8. What’s next for you, and where can readers find more of your work?

I’m very close finishing a third psychological suspense set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The Marsh King’s Daughter used the wetlands as its setting, while The Wicked Sister takes place in the forest. This next book takes place in Grand Marais, on the shore of Lake Superior, and the lake features prominently in the story.

Readers can find my books in all formats online, in bookstores, and in libraries. I’m also fine with people buying my novels at used bookstores or borrowing them from a friend. The important thing is that people read and enjoy them!

I’d also like to encourage folks to sign up for my newsletter, either through my website at, or by texting Marshking to 66866, especially if they’d like to know when the movie will release. Although if anyone happens to live within a hundred miles of my house, I’m sure they’ll see the fireworks going off!

What about you? What do you think an author’s life is like? If you’re a writer, what does your writing day look like? Do you have questions for Karen Dionne?

This is the first Wednesday of the month post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. The question for this month is: 99% of my story ideas come from dreams. Where do yours predominantly come from?
So many of my stories come from writing prompts. If you check the 15-year archives of my blog, you’ll find tonnes of fiction based on story prompts. Both my novels published so far, You Beneath Your Skin, and The Blue Bar, have sprung from story prompts!
Founded by the Ninja writing female charactersCap’n Alex J. Cavanaugh, the purpose of the group is to offer a safe space where writers can share their fears and insecurities without being judged.
This is a wonderful group–if you aren’t a part of it, I urge you to join in!
The awesome co-hosts for the July 5 posting of the IWSG are PJ Colando, Kim Lajevardi, Gwen Gardner, Pat Garcia, and Natalie Aguirre!

My literary crime novel, The Blue Bar is on Kindle Unlimited now. Add it to Goodreads or snag a copy to make my day. The sequel, The Blue Monsoon is up for pre-orders! And if you’d like to read a book outside the series, you can check out You Beneath Your Skin. All info about my books on my Amazon page or Linktree.

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Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her next literary crime thriller, The Blue Bar, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency, and was published by Thomas & Mercer on January 1, 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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  • dgkaye says:

    Fantastic interview Damyanti. Thanks so much for introducing us to Karen and her valuable tips. 🙂

  • Thsnks for this lovely interview, Damyanti. I thoroughly enjoyed this engaging look into Karen’s writing life, drooled at her rustic studio and woodland/water setting and dinner-cooking hubby. Thanks for giving me some great books to add to my TBR list🙂

  • Sonia Dogra says:

    Lots to takeaway from this interview. And that writer’s day … wow!

  • Jemima Pett says:

    More books for my TBR! And I’m glad to know her characters took over… makes me feel a lot better!

  • She gets to see her story on the big screen! That’s very cool.
    I think dual timelines would confuse me.

  • cleemckenzie says:

    I found it interesting that your story ideas come from writing prompts.

    Thanks for the interview with Karen. I admire anyone who can write a compelling psychological thriller.

  • That’s so interesting that your ideas come from story prompts. I’ve never really used them.

    • DamyantiB says:

      One of the many things I love about being able to do these author interviews and receiving your comments — learning how methods vary from writer to writer!

  • arlene says:

    Nice interview Damyanti. I hope I could find her book here.

    • DamyantiB says:

      Thank you, Arlene! Yes, her books are linked in her bio at the top, if you want to check them out.

  • jlennidorner says:

    Fantastic interview. I love the tip about creating with characters first. Sounds like a great book and upcoming movie.
    July 4 is Alice in Wonderland Day, a commemoration of when the story was first told to the Liddell sisters by Lewis Carroll in 1862.

    J Lenni Dorner (he/him 👨🏽 or 🧑🏽 they/them) ~ Speculative Fiction &Reference Author, OperationAwesome6 Debut Author Interviewer, and Co-host of the #AtoZchallenge

    • DamyantiB says:

      Thank you for visiting the blog! And thanks for sharing that interesting fact — I had no idea!

  • I love that your husband cooks for you. Mine does too!

  • I think every writer’s life is different, particuarly if they’re working a day job to support themselves. Since I’ve started writing full-time, my average day consists of breakfast, exercises, and coffee with my husband. I’m then at my computer all day and most of the evening with a few breaks.

    • DamyantiB says:

      It definitely varies from writer to writer. But sitting at the computer all day is part of my routine, too 😅

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