Murder Books Interview with Hannah Mary McKinnon

Please join me in welcoming bestselling author Hannah Mary McKinnon back to the blog. Hannah is an accomplished novelist who specializes in psychological suspense. She is the author of the rom com Time After Time, and thrillers Sister Dear, Her Secret Son, The Neighbors, and You Will Remember Me. And coming May 24th from MIRA (HarperCollins NA) Never Coming Home, a novel that New York Times bestselling author Lisa Unger calls “Fiendishly clever and deeply chilling.”

Hannah Mary McKinnon

Born in the UK and raised in Switzerland, living in Ontario, Hannah is the former CEO of an IT recruitment company, mother of three, wife of one, and co-creator of First Chapter Fun with Hank Phillippi Ryan.

First comes love. Then comes murder.

Lucas Forester didn’t hate his wife. Michelle was brilliant, sophisticated and beautiful. Sure, she had extravagant spending habits, that petty attitude, a total disregard for anyone below her status. But she also had a lot to offer. Most notably: wealth that only the one percent could comprehend.

For years, Lucas has been honing a flawless plan to inherit Michelle’s fortune. Unfortunately, it involves taking a hit out on her.

Every track is covered, no trace left behind, and now Lucas plays the grieving husband so well he deserves an award. But when a shocking photo and cryptic note show up on his doorstep, Lucas goes from hunter to prey.

Someone is on to him. And they’re closing in.

Bruce: First off, congratulations on your upcoming release, Hannah. It must be gratifying to see the early praise Never Coming Home is getting.

Hannah: Thank you so much, Bruce. I’m absolutely thrilled with the reactions so far. Never Coming Home was such a pleasure to write—I found Lucas to be hilarious—and thank you again for your help in making him even more wicked.

Your life has taken you on quite a journey, living in different countries, managing different careers. When did you first know you wanted to be a writer/novelist?

To be completely honest, writing novels wasn’t on my radar at all until we moved from Switzerland to Canada in 2010. When we arrived here, and my HR start-up company failed, it catapulted me into deciding what I truly wanted to do, and whether I would seize the opportunity to reinvent myself. Although I hadn’t written creatively for years, I realized it was what I wanted to do. I’m so pleased I made that decision because I can’t imagine doing anything else now.

What made you decide to write psychological suspense novels?

My debut was a rom com called Time After Time (2016) a light-hearted story about paths not taken. When we were on submission with that book (meaning my agent had sent it to publishers to see if there was interest), I started writing The Neighbors. It felt much darker and grittier than Time After Time and I realized I wanted to write more suspense novels. I enjoy putting ordinary (fictional) people in extraordinary circumstances and exploring what happens to them, and what they do. Let’s not explore what that says about me as a person…

Your books are full of twists and turns. One would think it might be difficult to keep things straight when plotting. Do you create a detailed plot line of the story ahead of time? Or are you more of a seat of your pants author?

Yikes, just thinking about pantsing an entire book makes me shudder. I’m 100% a plotter. I’m very structured in my approach because I need to know where the story’s going, otherwise I’ll meander around for months trying to figure it out.

In terms of process, my novels start with an idea—something that pops into my head such as a news story for You Will Remember Me, or a specific type of character for Never Coming Home. 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.

Next, I write a basic manuscript that’s a little over two-thirds of the final word count, then layer and develop until I’m happy calling it a first draft, ready for my editor’s eyes. That stage is incredibly exciting because I know the story will become a thousand times better with her expert input.

Favorite book?

You must be joking! There’s no way I can pick one. Recent favorites include Woman on Fire by Lisa Barr and Things We Do in the Dark by Jennifer Hillier. Both are incredible.

Can you give us examples of authors who have influenced your writing? How so?

I’ll tell you a story about my great friend Jennifer Hillier. Years ago, while waiting for my son at our local library I spotted her debut Creep on a shelf. Intrigued by the cover, I picked it up, read the blurb, took it home and couldn’t put it down. It was a turning point in my writing career. When I was younger, I mainly read thrillers, but after a personal tragedy in my early 20s, I could only stomach light-hearted reads. Creep reminded me of my love of thrillers and gave me that final push I needed to cross over to the dark side while writing The Neighbors.  

Fun fact: a few years later I met Jennifer at Boucheron, and that encounter led to us meeting for coffees and dinners as we live in the same town, and a wonderful friendship ensued. Jennifer is an inspiration, fiercely talented, and I devour her books. I’ll read anything she writes! Blurbing her latest novel Things We Do in the Dark was definitely a highlight of my writing career thus far.

What advice do you have for authors who are considering writing a psychological suspense novel?

Whatever the genre, I’d advise you to 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 terrible, because an empty page is impossible to edit. 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 share your work. It can be scary, but it’s the only way you’ll get feedback and improve your craft.

I was going to add specifically for psychological suspense, that you should make sure you’re driving the plot forward with every scene and end each chapter on a mini cliff-hanger. Mind you, that’s true for every genre, isn’t it? Whatever you’re writing, give the reader every reason to keep turning those pages, and zero reasons to put the book down.

You embarked on your writing career in 2011. Is there anything you did early on that, given your later experience, you would have done differently?

Honestly, at the beginning I had no clue what I was doing. I had an idea for a novel, and I went for it. I made a ton of mistakes along the way (submitting to agents too early, and not being patient are two examples) and I should have taken creative writing courses far earlier to hone my craft. It probably would have saved me a lot of time and quite possibly rejections from agents. I was naïve in my approach, but I think not knowing how hard it would be was beneficial in some ways because I kept my head down and carried on.

As a series writer I find it pleasant to revisit my characters and their locale with each new novel. I would think that the most difficult part of writing stand-alone novels, as you do, would be getting to know the characters. Do you find that to be the case?

I do a lot of character backstory development during the plotting stages and because I write in first person, I really get into my characters’ psyche. It takes over a year from initial idea to 100% finished product, time interspersed with working on other novels that are at different stages, so get to know my cast well and oftentimes miss them when the book is done.

Have you any plans for a series?

I haven’t written a series thus far, mainly because I feel my stories are complete when they end (although I’ve had multiple requests for a sequel to Sister Dear and You Will Remember Me). I enjoy creating new characters and the worlds they live in, how they’ve become who they are when their story starts. It’s a fun process I don’t think I’ll ever tire of. Will I ever write a series? I’m not sure but never say never!

You’ve had success both as a novelist and a short fiction writer? Which format brings you the most joy? Or do you find them equally gratifying?

Definitely novels. They’re a thousand times harder but the satisfaction is immense. I wrote the majority of short stories during writing workshops, and had fun doing so, but all of my time is now devoted to my novels.

Worst writing advice you’ve been given? Best advice?

Worst: write what you know. It’s incredibly limiting and that’s what we have our imagination for. It’s my job to make stuff up. For example, I know nothing about murdering people (I promise!) but I do so all the time in my books. That being said, you have to research what you don’t know, ask the experts for input, and be very careful and respectful when dealing with characters who have a different background to your own. Having sensitivity readers is so important! My motto is: if in doubt, leave it out.

Best: someone once suggested skipping 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, and it beats the heck out of staring at a blank page or shoving my hand in the cookie jar. Nobody said your manuscript has to be written in the order it’s read.

Over two years ago you and Hank Philippi Ryan started a fun promotional opportunity for authors called First Chapter Fun. I and many others have enjoyed watching you both read from other author’s novels. You’ve got quite a following now. Did either of you ever imagine it would become so popular? Do you plan to continue FCF?

It’s been an absolute joy to see—one of the good things that came from the pandemic. I’m beyond thrilled by how it’s grown considering it all started on a whim. Back in March 2020, when Covid first hit Canada, a group of us were discussing how we could help promote one another and give our books a boost. I half-jokingly offered to read the first chapter of their novels live on Facebook and Instagram, a few weeks later Hank joined me, and here we are with 250+ episodes.

You’ll find us in the Facebook group http://www.facebook.com/groups/firstchapterfun and http://www.instagram.com/firstchapterfun. Hank and I read twice a week, every Tuesday and Thursday on both platforms simultaneously at 12.30 pm ET, and already have readings scheduled until summer 2022. All the previously aired episodes are saved and can be viewed at leisure.

It’s a wonderful community where we share the love of books and introduce new and/or new-to-you authors twice a week. Our goal is to keep your “to be read” pile completely out-of-control and, or so we’ve been told, we’re succeeding.

The one thing that surprised me the most about the writing industry is how genuine, welcoming, and helpful authors and readers are. This project is a way of paying it forward.

I’ve spoken with many writers about the “pandemic effect” on their writing. Have the challenges of the past two years changed anything about the way you write, or subject matter explored in your writing?

I’m very fortunate because our sons are older, so them attending school online from home had very little impact on my writing. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to work at the pace I do if Covid had hit a decade ago.

In terms of subject matter, it’s a funny one. I mention the pandemic in Never Coming Home, but only in a couple of sentences. I have no intention of writing a book about a pandemic or incorporating it heavily into any of my stories. I’m hoping for brighter days when it’s all finally behind us for good.

What’s next for you? Do you have another novel in the works?

I certainly do  Book 7 (slated for 2023) is another psychological thriller. It’s about a woman named Frankie who has some anger issues, and writes a list of people she could work to forgive as a therapy exercise. She thinks nothing of it when she loses her list in an Uber, until one by one the individuals become victims of freak accidents. Frankie desperately tries to determine if the tragedies are indeed accidental, and if not, who’s behind them before someone else gets hurt, especially as one of the names on the list is her own… I’m so excited for this next novel and can’t wait for you to meet Frankie and the rest of my cast.

Bruce: Hannah, thank you so much for taking the time to give us the benefit of your thoughts and experience. Best of luck with your new book, Never Coming Home!

Hannah: It’s been a pleasure, Bruce. Thank you!

Hannah Mary McKinnon is a member of International Thriller Writers, Sisters in Crime, and Crime Writers of Canada. To learn more about Hannah, visit her website at https://hannahmarymckinnon.com

Hannah Mary McKinnon was interviewed for Murder Books by Bruce Robert Coffin.

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