Interview of Novelist Rich Zahradnik

Please join me in welcoming award-winning New York based crime novelist Rich Zahradnik to the blog. Occasionally, we at Murder Books will interview a favorite author in order to help get the word out about a great new book. And it just so happens that Rich’s latest thriller, The Bone Records, was released on November 1st. Having had the honor of reading an advanced copy, I can tell you it is fabulous.

Rich Zahradnik

Rich spent twenty-seven years as a journalist. During that time, he worked as a reporter and an editor—both online and in print media—holding editorial positions at CNN, Bloomberg News, AOL, and The Hollywood Reporter. Rich uses those twenty-seven years to inform his award-winning novels. Currently, Rich provides guidance to the Pelham Examiner, the first community newspaper in the State of New York managed, edited, reported, and written by people under the age of eighteen!

Shamus Award Winner

In addition to winning the prestigious Shamus Award for Best Paperback Private Eye Novel for Lights Out Summer, Rich has also received three independent press awards for the first three books in his Coleridge Taylor mystery series. A Black Sail was named best mystery in the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Drop Dead Punk received the gold medal for mystery ebook in the 2016 IPPY Awards. And Last Words won the bronze medal for mystery ebook in the 2015 IPPYs, and an honorable mention for mystery in the Foreword Reviews competition.

First off, Rich, congratulations on your latest release, and welcome to the blog.

Thank you for having me, Bruce!

  1. One of the things I really enjoyed about The Bone Records was the setting. What inspired you to set your mystery novel in and around Coney Island?

The idea for the book started with the bone records, which were bootlegs of American rock ‘n’ roll songs cut from X-rays in the Soviet Union from 1945-1963. I loved the idea of including bone records in a story, but I didn’t want to set the book in the Soviet Union in, say, 1962. In Brooklyn, several neighborhoods are called Little Odessa because of the large proportion of Russian immigrants that live there. Older immigrants living in these neighborhoods—Coney Island, Sheepshead Bay, Gravesend—would know about the discs, so I set the novel there. It helped that I’m a huge Coney Island fan, with many visits over the years.

  • I very much enjoyed your protagonist, Grigg Orlov. Where did the inspiration for Orlov originate?

I wanted an outsider in an insular community. Grigg’s father came from Russia and his mother Jamaica, which pretty much does the trick with the Russians in his neighborhood, given the racism in that community. He tried to become cop, but his knee was permanently injured when he was jumped by white supremacists at the police academy. That gives him just enough knowledge of police procedure to make him dangerous, but also shows—I hope—that seeking justice—rather than vengeance—is a part of him before his father is murdered. 

  • Coming as you have from a long and storied career in the field of reporting and editing, did you find the transition to fiction author difficult?

Yes, I did. My first failed manuscript failed because I tried to be too accurate, to be a journalist rather than a storyteller. There’s a huge difference between accuracy and the truth. You and I have talked about how this idea applied when you became a novelist after your career as a detective sergeant. You have to use what you know to create the world, but at some point, you have to diverge from how things actually work to create a page-turner of a story. It’s dicey.

  • Prior to The Bone Records you wrote an award-winning four book series. Is The Bone Records strictly a standalone or might this be the start of a new series?

I started out thinking it was a standalone because I wanted one of those on my resume. But I really started to like Grigg Orlov and can see a way to continue his career as some kind of private investigator if the book does well enough.

  • After writing Coleridge Taylor for four books, did you find it difficult to acclimate to an entirely new cast of characters? 

By about the third book in the Taylor series, I knew so much about my main characters that the writing then did become easier—though never easy—because I’d made so many decisions about those people. So yes, creating the new cast and making decisions about each character for the first time was more work than my last couple of Taylor novels.

  • Every novel presents its own unique challenges (at least mine have). Were there any obstacles you faced when writing The Bone Records? 

I’m not sure your blog’s server is big enough for this list. More seriously, switching from a newspaper reporter as protagonist to, in essence, an amateur—the son of the victim though one who may soon be the next victim—required I work a lot harder on motivation for his actions. Keeping him believably in the game when it’s not his job as it would be with a reporter—and with the NYPD and FBI involved with far more capability to solve a crime—required thinking, planning, writing and rewriting. Grigg knows a lot less than he should to take on the case and so I had to find ways to give him assistance that made sense in the story.

Another challenge was the novel’s timing. It takes place in the six weeks before the 2016 election. I have a subplot about that, and my characters can’t help but notice news of what’s going on in one of the wildest presidential campaigns in history. The key for me was to make this work in the story without it seeming a political thriller. The Bone Records is a hard-boiled mystery that takes place in that place and time.

  • Do you have any words of wisdom to share with others who might be thinking about wading into the deep end of the literary pool? 

Writers write. Don’t say, “I have an idea for a story.” Sit down and write. As much time as you can afford as many days as you can afford. Writers revise. Some of what I consider the best decisions I’ve made in my books came during revision. They call it a first draft for a reason. Writers read. Read in the genre you’re writing in and read outside it. Read read read.

  • Is there anything you did early on in your novel writing career that, now armed with hindsight, you would have done differently?

As I mentioned above, had I been thinking more about what’s true, rather than creating an accurate depiction of the journalism business, I might have gotten going further faster with a first novel that worked. Because after that, I lost years in workshops trying to become a literary novelist—which I am not. About 120,000 words worth of false starts until Last Words, the first Coleridge Taylor book, came along.

  • Which authors would you credit with having had the greatest influence on your writing? 

Michael Connelly (for everything), Derek Raymond (for really bringing the black to noir) and Tony Hillerman (for making setting a character in each of his books in a way that is intrinsic to the mood).

  1. I’ve read many different mystery/thriller series over the years and, for me, keeping the characters fresh and interesting over the long haul seems to be a major consideration in maintaining readership. What’s your secret?

I think the main characters need to change in ways that fit with who they are, and more importantly, by learning from life’s experiences. If a character is going to change her mind or attitude about something, you need to either build up to that by planting little things earlier in the story or have a believable life shock cause an emotional reaction and a cognitive rethink. I’ve changed life experiences in my series—Taylor’s newspaper goes out of business in book two—used some romance, which can have ups and downs, though at least in that series, I kept him with the same person from book two on. For me, anyone aside from the hero can die—except the dog, readers won’t forgive you—and that brings change, which I hope keeps it interesting.

  1. You’ve had success as a novelist, a reporter, and an editor. Is there one career that has brought you the most joy? Or do you find them equally gratifying?

Definitely novelist. Don’t get me wrong. I love getting scoops and still do when the Pelham Examiner wins them, but at my core I am a teller of stories who just took some time to get here.

  1. What can readers expect to see next? Are you working on any other projects? Is there a movie in the works?

I’ve started a new novel called Ghost Paper. I wanted to write a story that dealt with the 2,500 newspapers that have gone under since 2004 in America. I’m telling that story through the murder of one newspaper. It’s also a conventional murder mystery, of course. People die too.

Rich, thank you so much for taking the time to share your insights with our readers. Best of luck with your new book, The Bone Records!

Rich Zahradnik is a member of Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers.


To learn more about Rich, visit his web site at http://www.richzahradnik.com.

Rich Zahradnik was interviewed for Murder Books by Bruce Robert Coffin.

Murder Books Interviews James L’Etoile

Please join me in welcoming Sacramento based crime novelist James L’Etoile to the blog, literally. Occasionally, we at Murder Books will interview a favorite author in order to help get the word out about a new book, but this interview is even more special because Jim is joining our Murder Books team! Beginning August 14th Jim will post the first of what we hope will be many blogs for Murder Books.

Jim spent twenty-nine years behind bars. Okay, full disclosure, he is a former associate warden in a maximum-security prison, a hostage negotiator, facility captain, and director of California’s state parole system. He is a nationally recognized expert witness and consultant on prison and jail operations. Jim uses those twenty-nine years behind bars to influence in his novels, short stories, and screenplays.

L’Etoile’s crime fiction has been recognized by the Creative World Awards, Acclaim Film, and the Scriptapalooza Television Script Competition. His novel BURY THE PAST was a 2018 Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award finalist for best procedural mystery of the year. He is a frequent contributor to top short story collections. Jim’s most recent novel, Dead Drop, was released on July 19th. And as I can attest—thanks to an early reading—it is superb.

First off, Jim, congratulations on your latest release and welcome to the blog!

Thanks for hosting me today and I’m honored to be a part of this incredible blog. Who knew, some guy fresh from the slammer would get to come and contribute?

1. I know there has been a lot of attention paid to immigration issues over the past decade. What made you decide to set your mystery novel at the southern border?

Immigration policy and border politics are certainly in the news. There was one event that stuck with me which eventually turned into Dead Drop.

There is prison near San Diego, California, and it’s so close to the international border, you can see the wall from the prison yard. Migrants making their way north used mountain trails to the east to avoid roadblocks and immigration checkpoints. During one visit to the prison, there was a bit more frantic energy around the place than usual because the early morning count didn’t “clear.”

Prisons run on a regular schedule of counts—it’s one of the basic missions of an institution—knowing how many prisoners you are supposed to have and account for every single one. In this instance, the prison’s minimum facility couldn’t clear their count because the number of inmates in their bunks didn’t match central control’s count. Escapes from minimum facilities are common, but they come with inspector general investigations, initiating escape protocols, and notifying local law enforcement and stakeholders all the way up to the governor’s office. It’s not a warm and fuzzy experience…

After a series of re-counts using photographs to identify every prisoner, the problem was found and it was a bit unusual. The minimum facility’s count was “Plus 1”—there was one more body in a bed than they were supposed to have.

As it turned out, an undocumented migrant on the trek north was so cold and hungry that he “broke into prison” for a place to sleep. That set of circumstances settled in my unconscious mind and eventually led to Dead Drop. The journey over the border must be grueling if going to prison is the best option.

2. You have written both a series and a standalone. Is Dead Drop the start of a new series?

I have written series and standalone novels. They both have their benefits. I do enjoy a series because you really get to open up the characters and dive a little deeper into their stories. Dead Drop is the first book in a new Detective Nathan Parker series. I’m looking forward to seeing where the series takes him.

3. I am always happy to see a fellow law enforcement professional successfully transition from behind the badge onto the page. How long have you known that you wanted to write professionally?

I didn’t begin to write commercial fiction until after I retired from the prison system. Two roadblocks stopped me—one, I didn’t think I had the chops to write the kind of stories people would want to read, and two I didn’t think I had the time to sit down and write.

I was wrong on both counts. I thought back to one of the first jobs I had as a probation officer where I’d prepare pre-sentence reports for the sentencing judge. I interviewed the convicted person in jail, talked with the detective, read all the investigative reports, spoke with the victims, and cobbled all of that together in a narrative for the judge, recommending a sentence. I didn’t realize it then, but I had been writing crime stories all along. I knew how to do this. As far as not having the time to write—that’s a priority issue. Watch fewer episodes of Stranger Things and go write. I needed to make writing a priority and carve out the time to make it happen.

4. I very much enjoyed your Dead Drop protagonist, Detective Nathan Parker. Where did the inspiration for Parker come from?

Thanks, Nathan was fun to write and his story came out of a few people and events from my past. Part of Parker’s backstory, and we learn this early on, so it’s not really a spoiler, is his partner was murdered and Parker’s sense of justice and survivor’s guilt takes a toll on his life. Unfortunately, I’ve known too many officers who’ve witnessed their partner being assaulted, stabbed, or killed. That’s something that never goes away and how you deal with an all-encompassing darkness is no easy task. And it isn’t for Parker either.

5. Your vast knowledge of the inner workings of the prison and probation systems is impressive. How much of a leap was it to embark on a border novel? Did you avail yourself to fact checkers from ICE or CBP?

I do use sources to fact check. Some of the details relating to immigration and border management came from as assignment I had in the prison system, overseeing the system’s “Deport Units.” In the 1990’s we had over twenty-thousand inmates serving time for various felonies, but they all had one common factor—they were also foreign nationals who entered the country illegally. They came from every country on the globe, but California being a border state meant a large majority were from Mexico, Central, and South America.

The Deport Units were within prisons located in Southern California (Calipatria, Centinela, and San Diego) where inmates transfer to in the last month of their sentence. Immigration Judges at these facilities held hearings to decide if the inmates would be deported after their prison terms expired, or released on parole.

The stories these men told were harrowing, but they weren’t the same people we see in the news being separated from their families. These were violent felons who had also broken federal law by illegally entering the country. Still, they had the same hopes, dreams, and ambitions to make a better life up north. They chose to do it with a gun, or with violence…

6. Every novel comes with its own unique challenges (at least mine have). What were some of the obstacles you faced when writing Dead Drop?

There were a couple of challenges presented with this book. The first was the setting, in and around Phoenix and the Sonoran desert. I’m up in Northern California, so I can’t look out my window for desert inspiration. I spent a lot of time in Arizona over the last few years, driving around to some of the more remote desert locations. The highway between Phoenix and Tucson is particularly stark. The other challenge was maintaining the storyline—Parker, Billie and what they encounter. I didn’t want this to become a co-opted tale of the migrant experience. That’s not my story to tell. I’ve observed the impact of undocumented migrants firsthand, including a mother who was prepared to surrender her “green card” expecting to face deportation because her daughter was arrested for shoplifting. We can all identify what her fear, hopelessness, and resignation felt like.

7. Do you have any words of wisdom to share with others who might be thinking about wading into the deep end of the literary pool?

Get a snorkel and dive in. I’ve found a number of writers who believe they are destined for overnight success. Lo and behold, instant gratification isn’t bestowed upon them and they become disillusioned and give up. Writing is all about the long game. You need to put in the hours, learn the craft, and put yourself out there. Nothing happens quickly, except maybe rejection. Coming to terms with rejection and not taking it personally is key.

8. Is there anything you did early on in your writing career that, now armed with hindsight, you would have done differently?

I wish I had started earlier. There are so many stories and characters out there, and I won’t have the time to capture all of them…

9. Which authors would you say have had the greatest impact on your writing?

That’s a tough one, because I’ve learned so much from reading great authors. As a writer, I read differently now, looking at structure, character development and dialogue. I appreciate the work that goes on behind the story. I’d have to say Joseph Wambaugh, Elmore Leonard, and Michael Connelly were initial influences. Jennifer Hillier, Karen Dionne, and J.T Ellison are masters of the thriller genre and I learn something every time I pick up one of their books. But there’s one author who shall remain nameless who pushed me to write because it was while reading their book (it was awful) that I told myself, “I can do better than this.”

10. I’ve read many different mystery/thriller series over the years and, for me, keeping the characters fresh and interesting over the long haul seems to be a major consideration in maintaining readership. What’s your secret?

As a reader, I know what I’m drawn to. It’s all about character. I try to give readers a character they can get invested in. They want to see how things turn out for them. I’ve found that readers in general (me included) won’t remember a plot months after reading a book, but when a character sticks with you—that’s magic.

11. You’ve had success both as a novelist, a short fiction writer, and a screenwriter. Is there one format that brings you the most joy? Or do you find them equally gratifying?

Wow. Each format presents its own challenges. I’d have to say the novel is the most rewarding. Telling a story with depth and nuance over 400 pages requires a real investment from the author. When it all comes together and that book goes out into the world, it’s a feeling of relief, pride, and accomplishment.

12. What can readers expect to see next? Are you working on any other projects? Is there a movie in the works?

Dead Drop just hit the shelves and I’m revising the sequel (as yet untitled) now. I like where the second book in the series takes Parker and how he responds to the new challenges coming at him. I have two novels out on submission, so we’ll see where they end up. I’m always working on a project, a short story, or a novel or two. While I’ve had some talk about movie options, nothing’s stuck yet. Fingers crossed.

Jim, thank you so much for taking the time to give us the benefits of your thoughts. Best of luck with your new book, Dead Drop. And most importantly, welcome to Murder Books!

James L’Etoile is a member of Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and the International Screenwriters Association.


To learn more about Jim, visit his web site at http://www.jamesletoile.com.

James L’Etoile was interviewed for Murder Books by Bruce Robert Coffin.

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.

Interview With Hannah Mary McKinnon

Please join me in welcoming bestselling author Hannah Mary McKinnon to the blog. Hannah Mary is an accomplished novelist who specializes in psychological suspense. She is the author of Sister Dear, Her Secret Son, The Neighbors, and Time After Time. And coming May 25th from MIRA (HarperCollins NA) You Will Remember Me, a novel that New York Times bestselling author Lisa Unger calls: “Riveting, smart, and utterly diabolical.”

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.

Forget the truth.

Remember the lies.

He wakes up on a deserted beach in Maryland with a gash on his head and wearing only swim trunks. He can’t remember who he is. Everything—his identity, his life, his loved ones—has been replaced by a dizzying fog of uncertainty. But returning to his Maine hometown in search of the truth uncovers more questions than answers.

Lily Reid thinks she knows her boyfriend, Jack. Until he goes missing one night, and her frantic search reveals that he’s been lying to her since they met, desperate to escape a dark past he’d purposely left behind.

Maya Scott has been trying to find her estranged stepbrother, Asher, since he disappeared without a trace. Having him back, missing memory and all, feels like a miracle. But with a mutual history full of devastating secrets, how far will Maya go to ensure she alone takes them to the grave?

First off, congratulations on your upcoming release, Hannah Mary. It must be gratifying to see the early praise You Will Remember Me is getting.

Your life has taken you on a number of journeys. When did you first know you wanted to be a writer/novelist?

Writing novels wasn’t on my radar 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. After a long while (with a lot of moping about) I realized the answer was to become an author, and I got to work, making a ton of mistakes along the way (more on that later…).

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 out on submission with that book (i.e. my agent had sent it to publishers to see if there was interest), I started writing The Neighbors. I soon realized it was darker, far grittier than Time After Time, and that things may not work out for everybody by the end of the story, which I found more compelling and interesting to write. I didn’t worry too much about switching genres because Time After Time hadn’t sold at that point.

Once I’d finished writing The Neighbors I knew my move to the dark side was permanent. I enjoy putting ordinary (fictional) people in extraordinary circumstances and exploring what might happen to them, and what they might do. I’m not quite sure what that says about me…

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?

Oh, I’m 100% a plotter. I’m very structured, and the more I write, the more I plan. My novels start with an idea—something that pops into my head such as a news story for You Will Remember Me, or a radio segment for Sister Dear—maybe a discussion I overheard. 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 I stick on my pin-board. By this point I’m raring to go.

At first, 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, and send it to my wonderful editor, Emily. That’s when the real editing work begins, which is incredibly exciting because I know the story will become a thousand times better with her expert input.

Just thinking about pantsing an entire book makes me shudder, lol.

Favorite book?

No way! I can’t answer that question. There are far too many too choose from. Recent favorites include Caz Frear’s Shed No Tears and Karma Brown’s Recipe for a Perfect Wife.

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. 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 had a total “fan-girl-moment” which led to us meeting for coffees and dinners, and a wonderful friendship ensued. We live in the same town, which is amazing. Jennifer is an inspiration, fiercely talented, and I devour her books. I’ll read anything she writes!

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 rubbish, because an empty page is impossible to edit. Another tip someone once suggested was to skip 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. 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 way too early, and not being patient are just 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. If I’d known, I may not have continued, although I’ve always been determined (my mum would have said “bloody-minded”…).

As a series writer I find it pleasant to revisit my characters and 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? Do you have any plans for a series?

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 well over a year from initial idea to 100% finished product, time interspersed with working on other novels that are at different stages, so I do find I get to know my cast well. 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). 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 I’m certainly not ruling it out.

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. My motto is: if in doubt, leave it out.

Best: write a “puke draft” first and don’t show it to anyone until you’ve cleaned up the mess. It’s liberating to write knowing nobody will ever see that particular version.

About a year 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?

No, and 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, and within a few days I had over 40 daily readings lined up and officially launched First Chapter Fun. I read for 53 days in a row (didn’t think the “must do hair and make-up” thing through very well), introducing viewers to a new novel and author each day.

In May 2020, I teamed up with my partner-in-fictional-crime, powerhouse author Hank Phillippi Ryan. We created a new Facebook group www.facebook.com/groups/firstchapterfun and www.instagram.com/firstchapterfun. We read twice a week, every Tuesday and Thursday (the days with a “T) on both platforms simultaneously at 12.30 pm ET, and already have readings scheduled until the end of 2021. 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.

You can have a drink with any writer (living or dead) who would you choose? Worry not. If you choose a dead one, we’ll reanimate them for you.

Can we all have drinks together at an event like Bouchercon instead, please? That would be my wish, but if you’re forcing me to choose one person…it would be Michelle McNamara, author of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, and who passed in 2016. Her research into the “Golden State Killer” was incredible. Most of all I’d love for her to know he was caught, and her work is considered instrumental in that.

You have another novel coming in 2022. Can you give our readers a glimpse of what that one will be about?

Book 6 (as yet untitled – I find titles are harder than writing the entire book) is in my wonderful editor’s hands. It’s written from the anti-hero’s point-of-view, which I’ve never done before, and is the story of Lucas, who hired a hitman to kill his wife. A month later, Lucas receives a partial photograph of his wife in the mail. Who sent it? What do they know? And, more importantly, what do they want? I can’t wait to introduce you to my characters (and thank you, Bruce, for helping me get away with fictional murder…again!).

Hannah Mary, 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, You Will Remember Me.

Hannah Mary McKinnon is a member of International Thriller Writers, and Crime Writers of Canada.

To learn more about Hannah Mary, visit her website at: https://hannahmarymckinnon.com

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