Every author approaches writing a little differently. Some plot while others are pantsers. Some writers conduct research up front, whereas others may dig up what they need to know as they go along. It’s the unique methods and singular style thriller and mystery authors apply to their work that makes books stand out and differentiates one from the next. When it comes to building suspense, USA Today bestselling and award-winning author Hank Phillippi Ryan knows each author has a secret weapon: their own memories. “I’m the only one who can write a Hank book, because I’m the only one with the Hank backstory,” Ryan says. “It’s who I am. But the key for all authors is, in real life and in fiction, there’s a difference between past experiences and the memories of those experiences. And I think that’s the secret to suspense.”
Given the fickle nature of memory, Ryan – who has written a dozen thrillers to date – doesn’t get caught up with recreating moments precisely as they originally occurred. Memory, she believes, is “a formative, powerful thing,” and we recall experiences “in the context that works for us at the time.” Eventually, she says, that recollection becomes our truth. “So when I delve into memories and experiences, I know it’s only the way I think they happened. What I use in my books is rarely the exact memory or experience – it’s most often simply the trigger for my imagination to take over.”
Here’s more on Hank Phillippi Ryan’s methodology for incorporating personal experiences into her stories and creating that must-have suspense.
Have you ever written a childhood memory into one of your books?
Hank Phillippi Ryan: Sure – but it’s less the actual event than the residual emotions of an event. The feeling of being left out, or being in competition with an older sister, or being made fun of in grade school.
I try to remember what those feelings of humiliation or envy or fear motivated me to do. To want revenge? To be tempted to manipulate or lie? To become obsessed? Empowered? It’s those potentially small triggers that make us who we are today. And mining the memories of how someone made us feel can allow us to create a different fictional outcome, and maybe even get some secret emotional satisfaction. But, bottom line, what matters is writing a compelling story. So we use whatever personal building blocks we need.
What about a memory or experience from adulthood?
Ryan: Memories and experiences that I had as an adult are linchpins of my novels. But again, only snippets or nuggets. It doesn’t need to be – and maybe can’t be – authentically recreated. But that’s not the goal at all, right? Because memories are so wonderfully unreliable, I just accept what I think happened, present a hint of that as part of a character’s life, and see what happens next for them. But because they’re different people, what happens to them will be different. Hurray, fiction.
Do you believe that childhood memories are reliable? Or can they be misleading?
Ryan: Childhood memories for real people are often misleading, because they’re viewed through the prism of who we were then versus who we are now. The First to Lie revolves around teenage memories, which I think are especially unreliable. There are so many high-level emotions in play at that age, and I really tried to plumb that in the book. Sometimes teenagers think their parents are evil, or the world is conspiring against them, or they will never be happy. And their disappointments are earthshakingly devastating. But what if some of that is actually true? All the ramifications of those childhood memories come crashing down in adult life – and that’s what makes the book feel authentic.
Do you use flashbacks as a literary device? How important are they to your storytelling style?
Ryan: Flashbacks, to me, are the emotional and psychological explanations and underpinnings for why people do what they do. But I never want them to stop the book’s forward motion. My goal in The First to Lie and The Murder List (which just won the Anthony for Best Novel of the Year), for instance, was to use a structure that puts what some might consider flashback material into the “now” of the book. It’s not something that happened before; it’s something that happens now, except the now was many years ago. So I don’t begin those kinds of scenes with “I remember when…” I put the reader into the action – so they are experiencing it just as the character does. And then the reader can decide how well the character is remembering what happened! And that creates the dramatic tension to drive the story forward.
Differentiating her thrillers from others is something Hank Phillippi Ryan needn’t worry about, given her masterful ability to seamlessly weave in backstory, convey her characters’ emotions, and build that coveted suspense. Regardless of a writer’s individual style, real-life memories can undoubtedly produce some very memorable stories.
Tessa Wegert is the author of Death in the Family and The Dead Season, part of the Shana Merchant series of mysteries. A Canadian-born former freelance writer whose work appeared in Forbes, The Huffington Post, Adweek, and The Economist, Tessa now lives with her husband and children in Coastal Connecticut.