What sparks the idea for a novel? Ask five authors, and you’re likely to get five different answers. For some, it’s the desire to shed light on a particular community or event. For others, it’s the need to communicate an experience. When it comes to thriller writers, it isn’t uncommon to turn an intriguing but ultimately harmless real-life moment into the plot for a spine-tingling story.
Just ask Wendy Walker, internationally bestselling author of thrillers that include All is Not Forgotten, Emma in the Night, The Night Before, and most recently, Don’t Look for Me. In Don’t Look for Me, Molly Clarke disappears during a raging storm. While some assume the emotionally distraught mother “walked away” to start over with a new life, her daughter, Nicole, isn’t convinced. As Molly struggles to get back home, Nicole redoubles her efforts to find her, but an ill-fated decision may put them both in danger. According to Walker, memories, and their impact on the human psyche, factor into several of her books, including Don’t Look for Me.
I asked Walker to share her thoughts on this subject and describe how personal memories inspire her work.
How heavily do you rely on your own memories and past experiences when you’re writing suspense fiction and thrillers?
Wendy Walker: I think that I approach every book and character with all of my collective life experience, training, and memories. All of that informs the psychological motivations and emotional resonance of the characters, as well as some of the twists and turns of the plot. Even the research that I do for each book, which always teaches me new things, begins with something that I already know a little bit about – or enough to be able to ask the right questions.
But in Don’t Look for Me, I actually drew on a real-life moment for the first time in writing a novel. The moment began the same way the story begins for Molly, the story’s main character. I was at a difficult time in my life, had just had a difficult day on top of that, and was stuck in the car for hours, alone, where my thoughts and emotions had nothing to do but spin and grow stronger. When I stopped for gas, I saw a road that went off into the horizon, and my brain sent a flash of a thought: Just walk down that road.
It was so strange and startling that I knew there had to be something there. My research revealed that these thoughts are the result of emotional “hijacking” of our decision making. The rational part of the brain is taken over by powerful emotional turmoil. Not only is it very common, but in some cases, like Molly’s, the thoughts do not pass quickly as the rational brain jumps back in, but instead remain and cause the person to act. I knew then that I had a story to tell!
Have you ever written a childhood memory into one of your books? If so, was it difficult to recreate the memory in the context of a different story? Did it have a different outcome in your novel?
Walker: When I was writing The Night Before, I relied heavily on my childhood memories. The backstory of the two sisters, Laura and Rosie, was well-served by many of the stories my own sister and I had growing up in the more rural part of our community. We played in acres and acres of raw woods, having adventures with the neighborhood kids and sometimes even coming close to danger. But it built inside of us a close bond and also a sense of fearlessness as we got through these scrapes on our own.
Rosie and Laura have a similar bond and the theme of the woods, with their adventure and danger, becomes a central plot line in the book. My research for that was also quite different than with my other books, as I spoke to my sister and compared notes on our memories, which were not always the same! Drawing from real life, generally, in this book, enabled me to tap into some emotional moments that I could build into the bond between the characters.
What about a memory or experience that you had as an adult?
Walker: Don’t Look for Me was the first book to draw from an actual moment in my life, but The Night Before drew from the collective experience of myself and many of my friends who were, or had been, involved in the world of online dating.
It wasn’t until the end of a long-term relationship that I found myself in the world of dating apps – the ones with the swiping! It was shocking, and I soon learned terms like catfishing and ghosting. I heard many stories about the rampant deception involved, from small lies about age and appearance to outright criminal fraud. It took a few years before I decided this could be the basis for a novel, and when I did, I did not develop the characters around anyone I knew but rather a collection of many people and stories I had heard. In this way, I think the story resonates with a wide range of people around the theme of deception in intimate relationships – not just online dating, but in every intimate relationship we have. These are the places that make us uniquely vulnerable to pain, and in this case, anger and even rage.
Do you use flashbacks as a literary device? What purpose do they serve, and how important are they to your storytelling style?
Walker: I have approached backstory in many different ways, but I rarely use flashbacks. In All Is Not Forgotten, the backstories are exposed and examined through conversations the characters have with the narrator. In Emma In the Night, we learn about the dysfunctional childhood of Cass and Emma through Cass’s storytelling in first person, and the facts that Dr. Abby Winter uncovers in her investigation. In The Night Before, these same mechanisms are used – with both Laura and Rosie telling us about their childhood. And, finally, in Don’t Look for Me, the past appears through short bursts of reflections the characters have as they recall tender and loving moments within their family before tragedy struck.
I think the reason I have not relied on proper flashbacks is that I usually write in first person or close third person which allows the characters to tell us about the past directly so the mechanism of a dream or a flashback is not necessary, and doesn’t fit as naturally with the narration style. It is, however, a highly effective device, and I may very well use it in the future!
The forethought with which Wendy Walker approaches her writing and the techniques she uses for incorporating her knowledge and experiences produce thrillers that feel both exhilarating and utterly authentic. Readers are sure to enjoy imagining the real-life moments that inspire her unforgettable 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.