Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Allison Brennan takes us to Quantico in STALKED

HALLIE EPHRON: Allison Brennan writes about something much scarier than serial killers and stalkers -- her suspense thrillers are also about romance. As in: there's s-e-x. The result is to humanize her tough-as-nails female characters.

In her newest, "Stalked," FBI trainee Lucy Kincaid gets drawn into an investigation that she'd just as soon stay out of -- the murder of a writer who was researching a serial killer whom Lucy had a hand in taking down. The case cuts too close to Lucy's own past trauma, and besides, Lucy would much rather keep her head down and survive her training at Quantico. But then... not to give anything away, but soon there doesn't seem to be anywhere that she's truly safe.

I personally find it so tricky to blend romance with hard-edged suspense. How DO you do it?

AND... Kimberley Titlebaum! You are yesterday's winner for your thoughtful post from the heart. To claim your copy of "The Twelve Clues of Christmas" contact Rhys off list at authorrhysbowen "at" gmail dot com. She's looking forward to hearing from you!

Any romance has to be organic to the characters and the story. If you force it, it doesn’t work.

Some of my books have more romance than others. I don’t plan it out—it comes naturally from the characters. I’ve actually found it easier to blend in a realistic romantic relationship in the Lucy Kincaid series because I can build her relationship with PI Sean Rogan over time.

In the romantic thrillers I wrote for Ballantine, I had to create a relationship AND a full suspense plot and wrap everything up in a neat bow by the end of the book. With Lucy, her relationship with Sean fits her character—both how they interact, the pace, and the place it has in her life. I don’t write prolonged love scenes. While they’re explicit, they focus on emotion and how the challenges and changes in the relationship affect the suspense storyline.

In a nutshell? The story comes first. Always.
HALLIE: I completely agree!

Of course I've never been inside Quantico, but your setting feels so real. How did you achieve that authenticity?

ALLISON BRENNAN: I went to Quantico.

I love research. In 2009, I had sold the Lucy Kincaid series and then took my first trip to the FBI Academy. I went with the FBI Citizen’s Academy from Sacramento – great program and opportunity for me.

As it turned out, it wasn’t until the fifth Lucy story (Stalked) that I actually set the book at Quantico. So I went back in early 2012 as I was writing Stalked for a private tour with the media representative, who also answered all my arcane questions. While not everything is 100% accurate, I tried to keep all the major facts true-to-life. (Writers sometimes have to take minor liberties for the sake of the story), I hope I captured the basic feeling of being a new agent at the FBI Academy. For example, I used a construction site in one of the scenes—when I was there in March, there was a lot of construction going on, and they assured me it would take them several years to complete all the projects.

I’m also lucky in that I’ve made a lot of friends who are in the FBI and they help me with some of the details. For example, while writing the next Lucy book ("Stolen") I thought I’d written myself into a corner in a previous book. Sean, Lucy’s boyfriend, has a statute of limitations hanging over his head for a crime nearly ten years old. I did some research and couldn’t find a crime that had a ten year statute of limitations. I lamented this fact to my FBI contact and another agent I was interviewing (a recent graduate) and they said simultaneously, “Bank fraud.” Ironically, it fit Sean’s character and the storyline. Needless to say, I was thrilled I didn’t have to fudge on this detail.

I've heard writers advised to get in touch with their own greatest fear, and channel that into their own writing. Would you agree, or do you have some other advice for writers trying to write your kind of suspense-filled page turners?

Yes and no. My greatest fear is that one of my kids will be in danger and I will be able to do nothing to stop it. For example, I had a recurring nightmare after my second child was born that I drove off a bridge and had to choose between saving my newborn or my toddler as the car was sinking.

I haven’t written that scene yet, but I do write about loss, grief, and the frustration of many (particularly in law enforcement) that they can’t stop all the bad guys. I also recognize that there are split decisions that must be made during action scenes and like us, characters may question whether they made the right choice. I also touch on the universal themes of good versus evil, as many of us do who write crime fiction, and have been digging more into the gray areas of the law, when the lines become blurred. I’m having a lot more fun with that!

I also take to heart the advice of Elmore Leonard. “Don’t be boring.” If I’m bored with what I’m writing, my readers will be bored. I’m a ruthless self-editor.

HALLIE: This is your nineteenth suspense thriller published since 2006. Wow! Any tips on how to be that productive?

ALLISON: Write every day. Even if it’s crap, write every day. I can count on my fingers the number of days I’ve completely taken off in the last ten years. This isn’t to say I write 12 hours a day every day, but I write 8-12 hours a day 5 days a week, and 3-4 hours over the weekend.

But I think people shouldn’t focus on what other writers do. They should find a system that works for them. Maybe it’s writing one day a week, but all day long. Or one hour every morning before work. Or not setting a time limit, but writing 2,000 words a day.

When I had a full-time day job, before I was published, I wrote only at night after the kids went to bed—I had to give up television. (Believe me, this was a huge sacrifice for me because I love TV!) I wrote 3 hours every night, 7 days a week, and wrote 5 books in 2 years. Four of the books were garbage. The fifth sold.

HALLIE: What are you working on now?

ALLISON: I’m very excited to start a new series in early 2014. Maxine Revere, an investigative crime reporter, is unlike any of my other heroines and I’m working on her first book, which will be out in hardcover (my first!) She has been so much fun to write because she is different. First, she’s not a cop or in law enforcement and tends to butt heads with those who are, especially if she thinks they’re not doing their job.

As soon as I finished Lucy #6 Stolen (June 2013), I dove into Max’s story. There will still be more Lucy Kincaid books, but I like to stretch and challenge myself and I think Max and Lucy will both be better series because I can alternate between them. I think many authors struggle with boredom, especially if they have a long-running series, and I never want to get to that point.

Thank you Reds for hosting me today! I am seriously thrilled to be here, as I am a huge fan of your blog and your books. You could give a master class in mysteries and suspense!

I’m happy to answer any questions or just chat. I love talking. In fact, I was voted Most Talkative in both middle school and high school, LOL.


  1. Great books. Thanks for coming to Jungle Reds! Dee

  2. Okay, Allison, I’m having a bit of a difficult time believing “Four of the books were garbage,” but if you say so . . . . I’ve really enjoyed the Lucy Kincaid series [read “Stalked” the day it hit the bookstore shelves . . . it really felt as though we were there at Quantico with Lucy and her fellow agents-in-training]. Your new Maxine Revere series sounds fascinating. I’m looking forward to both “Stolen” and Maxine’s story. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us

  3. Welcome Allison, you're such an inspiration! That is one horrible nightmare you described...

    Have you had any pushback from folks at the FBI or Quantico? People who didn't care for the way you were writing that setting?

    And if so, how did you handle it?

  4. Hi Dee! Thanks to you (and Hallie!) for letting me blog with you guys today :)

    Joan: Thank you so much! I'm so glad you're enjoying the series. I'm excited about the new series with Max (she is so different and fun to write!) but Lucy is comfortable :)

    Hi Roberta: No one from the FBI has ever had issue with what I write, but I don't need to vet anything since it's fiction and I never worked for the FBI or any federal agency. Lucy books tend to be more pro-law enforcement where even though there may be bad cops or bureaucracy, in the end they're the good guys. Now Max? She doesn't particularly like cops (or dislike them) and she'll get in their face if she needs to.

  5. Hi Allison,

    Wow, just wow: your productivity, your focus. Inspiring!

    I do have a few questions: In those days when you wrote after work, how did you shake off the work day and refresh your brain? I work as a technical writer all day, and I have a helluva time with sitting back down at the computer after work. Did you have mantras you told yourself when you were plain tired out?

    This is the main thing I'm working on: keeping my energy, focus, motivation up. Any tips?

    Also...You mentioned that you turned right around to start on the new series after you finished Lucy #6. How much do you outline before writing--because that certainly takes time--or are you pantster?

  6. Welcome Allison,
    Your research sounds like a lot of fun - will you be working some of your FBI material into the investigative reporter series, as well?


  7. Allison! You are SUCH an inspiration--and you know, I think of you all the time.

    Once you said to me--just write a good book, Just do it. There's nothing else.

    ANd interested in the Max story, of course! (And I'm here for reporter info, of course!) Did you have the idea for HER first? Or the plot?

  8. Hi, Allison! So glad to see you at Jungle Reds. I love the Lucy Kincaid books, and I'm thrilled to hear you've got a new series coming our, as well.

    Wow! You are so focused and prolific. That's a real inspiration. Do you outline as part of that writing every day?

  9. Hi Allison! Great to see you here today!

    "I don’t plan it out—it comes naturally from the characters." That is why I love your writing so much. I never feel like you have gratuitously dropped sex into one of your books. More than that, however, the romantic parts are very real pieces that are true to your story.

    Like Lisa, I find your productivity and focus inspiring. With the help of my new speech-to-text program (and my service dog Kendall), I'd been writing over 2000 words per day for NaNoWriMo this year. Last night I was mesmerized by the election returns and only wrote a few words. Now I'm motivated to get back and stop making excuses for not writing. Writing crap is scary, but I now realize that it's necessary to just get the words down– get it written.

    Allison, I am so glad that Hallie did this interview with you today. Thanks Hallie!

  10. Lisa: First, I commend you for writing after working all day. It's not easy. I worked in the California State Legislature and one of my jobs was to read legislation then summarize it in plainspeak -- in one page or less! So I understand the brainwork and the need to shift gears. For me, I left work at 5 every day. I had little kids, I couldn't stay late. During the drive home I listened to music (not news) and got the kids, then made dinner and listened to them, helped with homework or watched mindless TV with them, etc. It was my decompress time--I didn't think about work, I didn't think about the book, I just did the simple things. Once they were all in bed, I would sit down and re-read the last scene I'd written the night before to get my mind back into the groove of the story. I wrote anywhere from 10-20 pages a night. Not thinking about quality so much as getting the story down. Editing is a completely different process. If you find you can't write after work, then get up early and write BEFORE work. A lot of people find this easier. Or set aside 6 hours on the weekend for your fiction. The important thing is to make progress, to make a plan and stick with it.

    I don't outline or plot. I start with an idea and go from there. I sometimes think a story to death before I start writing! I've been thinking about Maxine Revere for two years -- who she is, why she does what she does, mostly backstory. I feel like I know her so I when I started her book, I was already in her head. I know the premise -- she goes home for a funeral of a friend who committed suicide and his sister tries to convince her he didn't kill himself. It all ties into the murder of a girl when they were all in high school. Who did it? Don't know. I'll figure it out as Max does! I like moving back and forth because I don't want Lucy to get stale, so taking a break and writing Max helps keep both series fresh.

  11. Hi Jan -- Max is an investigative crime reporter who specializes in cold cases and high-profile trials. Her on-again/off-again boyfriend is an FBI Agent. She tends to piss off the cops. I'm sure my research will play into the story line, but less so than in the Lucy books.

  12. Hank -- you have always inspired me too! :) And you know I'll be picking your brain a lot. Thanks!

    As far as Max ... okay, here's the scoop. Shhh, don't repeat it! I pitched the idea to my agent before he was my agent (I was interviewing 3 agents in 2010 during Thrillerfest.) I had the idea of a true crime writer named Max Revere who had been a character in a previous book, but I'd written him OUT of the story because I knew he was too strong to be a secondary character. I decided he needed his own book or series. So I pitched the idea as a thriller series, and Dan (now my agent) said, "I like the idea, but what if Max was a woman?" And it was instant lightbulb. All the pieces fit immediately, and it was like she looked at me and said, "You should have figured it out on your own, dimwit." I knew her backstory in that moment, it just came to me, and everything else fell into place. The first plot idea came from her backstory -- the girl who was killed when she was in high school. Her best friend stood trial for the murder and it was a hung jury. Now 12 years later he's dead and Max is suspicious.

  13. Hi Linda -- No outlining. The thought of plotting sends me into full panic. I remember when I talked to my agent during the interview he suggested that I start outlining, and I said, "Do I have to?" If he'd said yes, I wouldn't have signed with him even though I love him. Essentially, my rough draft is an 80,000 word "outline" that I flesh out during revisions into a 100,000 word novel and fix all the problems :)

    Hi Reine -- I remember you from Murderati! :) You are really the inspiration because you haven't let your disability hold you back from your dream. Yeah you! I think the key for anyone is to sit down and write. Make forward progress. Make the commitment to write every day. (I'm a big "write every day" person.) Good luck with NaNo!

  14. Allison, I hardly know what to say. I don't know what to say. It's a good thing this is not my thriller. xo

  15. Thanks, Allison. You're right on--progress is what matters, even if it's not as fast as I'd like.

    I like your taking on plotting (not)! And I like that it's working for you. I'm not much of a plotter either, but after attending so many workshops/conferences, I keep thinking I SHOULD be plotting...bah phooey.

  16. What do you drink while you're writng. Tea? Coffee?? Other??? Because I'm going to give it a try.

  17. Hallie -- coffee in the morning, wine at night :)