What’s it like to work as a suspense writer? Like, your whole job is thinking creepy thoughts, putting them on paper, and then sharing them with people? I, for one, think that sounds amazing.
Luckily for us, my friend J.H. is telling us about her work today!
Tell us a bit about yourself!
I write under the name J.H. Moncrieff and I’m a full-time novelist. While I’m based in Canada, I travel all over the world to research my books. Already this year I’ve visited Egypt, Cuba, Shanghai, and California.
Were you always interested in suspense?
I’ve always been interested in what makes people tick, and books that scared or thrilled me were my favorites. As a child I loved Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin and Devil’s Gamble by Frank G. Slaughter (seriously—I was a weird kid).
Some of the Trixie Beldon mysteries were pretty spooky too, The Mystery of the Whispering Witch in particular. And Stephen King has been a favorite since I discovered his books at age nine. Contrary to what a lot of people believe, he doesn’t just write horror.
How did you get into writing novels?
I’ve been writing novels since I was five years old. It’s always been the only thing I wanted to do, once I grew out of the cowgirl stage. Sadly, the series I wrote back then—about a family of fish living in terror of a bear who inexplicably managed to stalk them underwater—remains unpublished. 🙂
How is writing a suspense novel different than writing ‘traditional’ stories?
The ending of each chapter needs to drive the reader to the next. Tension should be kept high throughout the story, and hopefully the ending is unexpected (although I don’t believe in gimmicks or those over-the-top twists).
I recently saw a movie where the victim turned out to be the killer, even though the killer was shown to be a different gender, size and age. That twist didn’t even make sense. I rolled my eyes so hard I nearly hurt myself.
How do you start to layout your plot? Do you figure out the twist and work backward from there?
All my books start with a “What if..?” premise. For instance, in City of Ghosts, I was in an actual ghost city in China and realized how spooky it would be if someone was trapped there overnight. Then I thought, “What if he wanted to be trapped there?”
In a day or so, sometimes more, the protagonist will show up and start telling me his or her story. What happens in my books is always a surprise to me. I discover the plot exactly how my readers do, page-by-page.
Are there any suspense tropes you specifically try to avoid?
The gimmicky twist endings, as mentioned above. Contrived romances—I have a lot of male friends and I don’t believe every male-female interaction has to result in romance or sex. In the beginning of my GhostWriters supernatural suspense series, Jackson and Kate were friends, but as the story unfolded, I could tell there was something else going on below the surface.
I didn’t force it, though, so they also get on each other’s nerves and bicker quite a bit. I like characters who are believable and flawed, who grow throughout the story. There are a lot of cookie-cutter suspense books where all the women are supermodel gorgeous, successful, brilliant, and perfect. Who can relate to that?
How do you build excitement and suspense in your readers? How ‘obvious’ or ‘hidden’ do you make your clues?
Since the characters are telling me the story, I try my best not to interfere. If I’m on the edge of my seat while I’m writing and am surprised by the outcome, I hope my readers will be as well.
What are some of your favorite underappreciated suspense books or movies?
I love the psychological thrillers from the late ’80s/early ’90s–Single White Female, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct. 2014’s The Guest is in that vein and it’s fantastic.
Underappreciated books would be Chiefs by Stuart Woods (you could also call this a mystery, and it’s slow-moving at times, but wow! So worth it!) and The Poison Artist by Jonathan Moore. The Woman in Black, while marketed as horror, is a great tale of supernatural suspense, as is Stephen King’s Bag of Bones. But I get the majority of my psychological-suspense fix from reading true crime.
What tools/websites/resources have helped you in your writing journey?
Stephen King’s On Writing literally changed my life. I’d gotten so overwhelmed with my journalism career that I’d stopped writing fiction. On Writing got me started again. I’d have a very different life if I hadn’t read that book.
Backspace, a forum for writers, was helpful when I was starting out, but most of all, the advice, encouragement, and support of other writers has been invaluable. Check out Chuck Wendig’s terribleminds blog if you don’t mind colorful language. The Insecure Writer’s Support Group is another wonderful resource.
To pay it forward, I started a podcast with two other writers where we give advice, tips, and share our experiences. Between the three of us, we’ve been through almost everything, so we have answers to pretty much any obstacle or challenge you can think of. We publish a new episode at the beginning of every month.
What have you learned from your writing that ANY of us could apply to our daily lives?
Whatever your passion, if you want to make a living from it, treat it like a business. Show up. Stick to your deadlines. Have a plan. Hire help if you need to and be professional. And, above all, believe in yourself even when no one else does. (I’m still working on that one.)
Thanks so much for sharing your story, JH! Do you guys have any questions for her? And if you love creepy books, which ones are your favorites?