Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Suspense and Brenda Novak

We can’t talk suspense without mentioning NY Times best selling author Brenda Novak and her books. Her Last Stand Series, The Stillwater Trilogy and numerous single titles have kept us on the edge of our seats and left us waiting for her next book. And we also cannot mention Brenda Novak without drawing attention to her efforts on behalf of Diabetes research. For the month of May the suspense exists in the form of an online auction that raises awareness and funds for Diabetes research and gives people the opportunity to bid on some fabulous prizes. To date Brenda Novak’s online auction has raised over $500,000. Tomorrow, the day before her month long online auction begins, Brenda Novak will be guest blogging here at the Chicks and she’s giving away goodies.

I don’t pretend to know all the tricks or tactics involved in crafting a riveting romantic suspense. I do know it involves creating a chilling sense of foreboding, nail-biting urgency, and the clear perception of what is at stake. My current work-in-progress is supposed to be a romantic suspense. Halfway through revision number one, I felt additional research was in order.

The following are some suggestions I came across on creating chills, urgency and learning to turn everyday places into death traps.

Create a worst case scenario. You know your protagonists best, you know how to hit them were it hurts. It’s our job to create the most authentic monster under the bed for each character.

Foreshadowing is a tool in which the writer lays out clues and gives hints of what is to come. Who can forget the soothsayer in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and the grave warning “Beware the ides of March”? It can be a valuable tool used to lead (or mislead) but only when applied correctly. It is not to be overused and it’s important to let the reader be allowed to figure things out for themselves.

The power of the anticlimax. Lull those poor characters into a false sense of security. Have them hearing noises, seeing things, or imagining the worst and then … nothing. Until the next time.

Cast the suspicion of guilt on more than one person. Perhaps your plot allows for the possibility of two potential villains.

Going, going, gone. The practice of killing someone off and escaping sagging middle syndrome. I bet those scenes are fun to write. Time to break out the nasty.

Seldom does a character meet their untimely demise on a brilliant sunlit day. Use the weather to your advantage. Nothing says plunging knife alert like thunder and lightening, an empty house, no power and a character all by his or her lonesome. Cliché but effective. We equate weather with mood, danger, and a host of other things.

Queue the dark, dank, rat infested alley. Or the grain field with it’s shimmering rows of wheat running long side the deserted gravel road. Ah, the setting. Be it scary or innocuous, make it work to your advantage.

Don’t forget sound effects. They function as the soundtrack would in a movie. Don’t neglect any of the six senses.

There are other ways to create suspense. These are but a few. Combine these ideas with the ones from last week’s post and see if you can craft a cunning romantic suspense. Or stop by on Thursday and ask one of the masters of the genre how she does it. We would love for you to stop by and leave a comment so your name can be entered into a draw for free books or a $25 gift certificate for the online auction. Maybe you or a loved one’s life has been touched by Diabetes, come, join our efforts to raise awareness.

Do you have a favorite Brenda Novak book? Do you, like me, have the desire to write a romantic suspense? Do you prefer to read them? Do you get your suspense fix from other romance sub genres? Or other genres altogether? And, as always, share any resources on the craft of writing you deem deserving of mention.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Karen, while I never considered myself a suspense writer, your posts have really made me realize how important it actually is to my wip. While it may not be fantasy-suspense, it should be suspenseful fantasy. The fear factor and dire consequences need to be there, and they're something I sometimes pull back on. I worry that it will feel too blatant or ridiculous if I, as author, try to build up a scene.. as though it will just come across as me jumping out of the closet wearing a plaid linen sheet, trying to make you worry. And of course, you promptly shake your head, and close the book.

But of course pulling back that author voice so I'm not trying to imply that things are serious just makes them sound politely inconvenient, like if Monty Python did murder mysteries.

So I think I need to start applying some of the tools you've laid out, and see what sort of effect I get. No holds barred, hit em where it hurts, and make the reader see how bad things are, rather than awkwardly suggesting they become concerned if it's not terribly inconvenient. Hopefully these tools will help me barrel forward with next month's blitz.

And Karen, six senses? Are we talking paranormals here? ;)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Excellent post, Karen. Since one of my wips is an inspy suspense, I'm going to copy and paste your blog into my Translucent Trust file to keep as a checklist.

My favorite Brenda Novak book isn't a suspense, but it is very suspenseful. It's The Other Woman, a Harlequin Superromance in Brenda's Dundee, Idaho series. I read this book because it was part of the series. I didn't think I'd like it because I don't like books where 'the other woman' is involved. I like reading about the H/h relationship. But, The Other Woman blew me away! It was one of only 14 or so books out of the 115 I read that made my top 10 list that year.

Karen said...

This is were critique partners come in handy. They will let you know if something is blatant or ridiculous sounding. And, like anything, it takes practice, at least that's what I tell myself! Right now I have the feeling the suspense level in my wip is lower then I want it to be.

Hayley, where would Spiderman be with his spidey-sense? Where would my MC be without that feeling in the pit of her stomach? I like to think my sixth sense is intuition.

Karen said...

Thanks Anita. Glad something I wrote struck a cord. I think I may make a list and post it on my wall as a reminder of what I'd like to see in my wip.

I will definitely check out The Other Woman.

Helena said...

Karen, you have introduced a lot of excellent ideas that can be used in any genre. Anything that will keep the reader, and even the characters, guessing what will happen next is good. I like the term "suspenseful" (fiction, romance, fantasy, plug in your favourite genre)

You've given us some good reminders of how to make the senses work to maximum benefit. (I didn't notice the number, as Hayley did. I guess my eyes were not quite functioning.) Hey, I like the idea of intuition as a sixth sense. Just read your reply to Hayley.

I have to admit that I don't recall reading any particular Brenda Novak title, altho I'm sure I have at some time in the past. I do want to now. Maybe I'll win her basket!

My favourite suspense / crime / mystery authors include: Lee Child (for thrilling, chilling crime), Louise Penny (wonderful Canadian mystery writer shortlisted for an Arthur Ellis award this year), and Anthony Bidulka (author whose PI character is based in Saskatoon but travels the world in order to solve the crimes he's hired to investigate). I don't usually read romantic suspense, altho I did read and enjoy some of Lois Richer's Love Inspired suspense titles.

Excellent post, Karen. You've generated lots of food for thought.

Janet C. said...

Excellent follow up post, Karen. I love your suggestions and was running Lady Bells through my head as I read them (ticking off those that I think I've accomplished and making a mental note to double check those other items of suspense). I'm not sure Lady Bells is a suspense - more a gothic thriller? But, like Helena, I like that 'suspenseful' medieval romance.

Now for my contemporary romantic suspense, your checklist is going to come in handy when I rewrite - spew it out on paper first, then layer in those red herrings, foreshadowing, murders :)

I love to read romantic suspense - and Brenda Novak's books are brilliant - I really don't have a favorite, they're all good reads. I like to try my hand at sleuthing, see if I can come to the same conclusion as the author by the end of the book.

Looking forward to reading more of Common Ground and spotting the devices you've listed here. Good job, Karen

Karen said...

Good morning, Helena. I'm all about the suspense, no matter the genre or subgenre.

I enjoy reading Gail Bowen. I'm also going to check out Louise Penny and Anthony Bidulka. Always on the lookout for different mystery authors as I have a couple of mystery buffs in my family.

Karen said...

LOL, Janet. I'm looking forward to finding them in Common Ground too. At the moment I fear they are sadly lacking.

I'm looking forward to winning some Brenda Novak books tomorrow. :)

ban said...

Oh, I LOVE suspense ! I'm so envious of those who can create it in books, movies etc. Unfortunately I've never felt clever enough to incorporate it in my own works ... I imagine it must take such skill to leave sublte clues and foreshadowing throughout. Maybe someday, when I feel more confident I'll tackle it directly. In the meantime - I agree with those who said a little suspense in EVERY genre is a good thing :D

Karen said...

Hey ban, I'm banking on it having more to do with practice then cleverness. ;)

Silver James said...

I'm something of a cross-genre writer. My suspense has paranormal, my paranormal has suspense, and all have a heap of romance. I judge a good suspense on whether or not I've figured out the mystery before the author tells me. I'm not fooled very often. My second criteria is whether or not I enjoyed the book even knowing the outcome. Brenda's books ALWAYS keep me entertained. Lori G. Armstrong, Heather Graham, and Allison Brennan also manage to surprise me occasionally.

As mentioned, using these plot points in books that aren't obstensibly suspense or or mysteries can add layers and depths to a story that keeps a reader turning pages. Great post today, Karen, especially as I'm almost to the point where I can get back to the romantic suspense WIP.

Karen said...

Good because I'm waiting for the next ghost story installment.

I'm a big paranormal suspense romance fan. BIG. As well as a BIG Allison Brennan fan.

Yes, a story isn't much of a read unless it includes a level of suspense.

Happy editing!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karen,
Thanks for a great post. I think romantic suspense and mystery are about my favorite types of books. And although I've only written one romantic suspense I think it is my favorite to write. It's lots of fun to bring in those red herrings, and make life miserable for the hero/heroine. I even got to put in a car chase! I hope to start a new romantic suspense this year and start thinking up cruel things to do to my characters - at least until their happy ending.


Anonymous said...

I have to thank my sister-in-law for letting me know about this site. I am so excited to continue checking out the latest of Prarie Chicks. I am definately going to check out Mrs. Novak's novels and select some summer reading material and I might not wait that long and start one this weekend. Thanks for the great info Janet.

Brenda Novak said...

Hi everyone--

Thanks for the warm welcome. I'm really excited to be here. And I can't wait for my online auction to start. One more day! Hooray!


Brenda Novak said...

Hayley, what a great analogy (about jumping out of the closet wearing a sheet). I hope you don't mind if I jump in with a comment. This sort of reminds me of the American Idol show (bear with me on this). Some contestants who go all out risk ridicule for being corny or too theatrical. But some people can really pull it off. Adam is my favorite. It seems he can do anything and sell it well. That's sort of what we have to do as writer's--be authentic and sell it well, even if it's a little "over the top." It's the over the top stuff that often makes it more entertaining (again, thinking of Adam and how much more interesting he is to watch). Does that make sense?

Brenda Novak said...

Hi Anita--I was flattered to read how much you liked THE OTHER WOMAN. The main conflicts in that book are internal, but I really enjoyed writing it. I particularly liked the hero in that story.

Brenda Novak said...

All this talk about six sense is reminding me of Malcolm Gladwell's lastest book--BLINK. Has anyone read it? It's about all the thinking we do before we even start thinking. LOL

Brenda Novak said...

Hi Janet--Thanks for saying you enjoy my work. :-)

Brenda Novak said...

Hi Silver--I'm glad my books manage to keep you entertained. Just so you know, I interviewed Allison Brennan for an article that will be coming out in RT. We are living parallel lives, as it says in there. LOL

Just so everyone knows, Allison and I will be offering a fabulous trip to San Francisco as a drawing prize in a month or so. Definitely check it out. It includes airfare and hotel stay and a dinner with both of us.

Brenda Novak said...

Hi Janet--I'm glad you're willing to give my books a try. There are excerpts posted at if you'd like to take a peek.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Brenda - this is so fantastic to see you here, but can you do me a favour?

I must have given you the wrong link somehow because we're all waiting for you on the April 30th post.

Can you please try:

I'm really sorry but can you think of this as a practice? I know you don't have time but...