It’s safe to say most people’s childhood memories include at least one road trip, complete with a canon of “Are we there yet?” and “He started it!” In fact, family memories like this can have a big impact on us as adults – particularly if we happen to be thriller writers.
Such was the case for Samantha Downing, USA Today & Sunday Times bestselling author of My Lovely Wife, whose new thriller, He Started It, was released earlier this year. In He Started It, three siblings set out to recreate a road trip they took as children. In order to secure their inheritance, Beth, Portia, and Eddie Morgan must fulfill their recently deceased grandfather’s unusual wish – but pocked with secrets and lies, the road ahead won’t be a smooth one.
“I definitely remember being bored and antsy on long car trips, and fighting with my siblings, though not to the same level as in He Started It,” Downing says when asked how childhood memories influenced the novel. She doesn’t plot or outline before she begins to write, but because He Started It involves three siblings on a road trip, “it was inevitable that childhood events would be a large part of the book. As it evolved,” she goes on, “they really became a driving force in the story. With siblings, you can never really get away from that!”
For Downing, the trick is to get to the core of a real-life experience and extract what’s most important about it for the benefit of her story. “It’s more the idea of it – or the setup of it,” she explains, “with the details changed to fit what I’m writing. The relationship between the characters is more important than the event details, and often that’s what I’m trying to recreate, whether it’s siblings or friends or a serious relationship.”
One challenge authors face is that childhood memories aren’t always especially exciting, and they don’t always jibe with the characters we create. We retain visions of places and people from our lives, and sometimes recall entire events with utter clarity, but rarely are they exhilarating enough to warrant a place in a thriller novel. That was the case for Downing, who gave the road trip in He Started It a dramatically different outcome. “None of my family road trips were even close to that one, thankfully,” she says, adding, “I feel very lucky I didn’t grow up in a family of sociopaths.”
Still, as a theme, memory features prominently in the novel. “The Morgan siblings have to recreate a road trip that they went on as kids, and a lot of crazy things happened on that first trip, so the theme of memory was central to the story,” says Downing. That shared history is one of the elements that makes this dark and twisted story such a compulsive read. The siblings’ memories of the original trip, which was fraught with trials of its own, have stayed with protagonist Beth, and Downing slowly parcels them out to readers as the group travels from one tourist destination to the next, racking up complications and dangerous threats all the while. “What happened, and who did what, is subject to interpretation – as it always is, even in real life,” says Downing. “No one ever remembers the same event exactly the same way, which is what makes memory so interesting.”
Whether to connect with and convey deep emotions or to seek out ideas for a plot, authors routinely look to their own life experiences. In fact, one such experience factors into Downing’s next book For Your Own Good, to be released in 2021, as well. “In my third book, I do use a specific event that happened to me as a kid,” she says, “though again, it was altered slightly for the book.”
As evidenced by Downing’s stellar work, it isn’t just the ability to mine for raw material that makes a great thriller writer. It’s also knowing how to polish that shapeless mass into a diamond.
Tessa Wegert is the author of Death in tehe 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.