I love thrillers with a strong sense of place, especially ones set in dangerous natural environments. Here are some of my favourites!
@ericaferencik‘s thrillers always have THE most unique settings! #TheRiverAtNight is set on a raging remote river in Maine, where a group of female friends are white-water rafting. It’s possibly my favourite thriller ever! #IntoTheJungle is set in the Bolivian Amazon. It’s full of natural dangers from anacondas and jaguars to poisonous plants. Her latest, #GirlInIce is set in the Arctic.
I love Jane Harper’s novels which all have different settings, from the parching heat of #TheDry, to the lush green national park of #ForceOfNature, to the stormy windswept beach of #TheSurvivors, all equally vividly described.
Sarah Pearse creates the most sinister settings ever! Her debut #TheSanatorium is set in a hotel that used to be a TB sanatorium, her latest #TheRetreat is set on a rocky island known as Reaper’s Rock, which has a very dark history.
Ruth Ware’s books all have very different settings too. Her debut #InADarkDarkWood, set on a hen party at an isolated house surrounded by dense forest, was one of the books that got me hooked on psychological thrillers! The settings are all intense in Lucy Foley’s novels too. I loved the remote hunting lodge in far north Scotland of #TheHuntingParty, complete with icy lake, creepy forest and sinister statues.
Karen Dionne’s #TheMarshKingsDaughter (titled Home in the UK) is set on a harsh, freezing marsh far from civilisation. The author drew off her experiences living off the land for three years with her young family, building a cabin and homesteading. No wonder the setting feels so authentic. #TheWickedSister is set mostly at a remote hunting lodge surrounded by wilderness, complete with wolves and bears.
Australian author @shelleyburr‘s crime debut #Wake is set in a small town in outback Australia. I’ve never been to the outback but I could picture it so clearly! Australian author @KylePerry‘s haunting and atmospheric debut #TheBluffs is set in Tasmanian wilderness with a history of young girls going missing.
I got a two-book deal for Shiver and another psychological thriller. When the time came to write Book 2, first I brainstormed everything I wanted to write about. Writing a book is a long slog, so I wanted to feel passionate about my story. My list included strong female characters, a dangerous natural setting, secrets and lies, romance, twists and a who-do-you-trust feel.
One of my favourite quotes on writing is by Robert McKee in his amazing book Story: ‘We go to the movies to enter a new, fascinating world, to inhabit vicariously another human being who at first seems so unlike us and yet at heart is like us.’ Many of my favourite books are ones that take me to a new, fascinating world. Shiver takes the reader to the dangerous white world of snowy mountains and extreme sports athletes, so I got thinking about what sort of world I could write about in Book 2. As Lee Child says, readers want ‘the same yet different.’
I looked through my reading journal (I keep a careful record of every book I read and my thoughts on it – it’s so helpful!) and listed my favourite reads of 2020, 2019 and 2018 and why I liked them. This provided more guidance as to what I wanted to write.
I summarised several story ideas which I’d been forming over the last few years, discussed them with my agent, wrote 2-page outlines for a couple of them, then discussed them with my UK, American and Australian publishers, to see which they preferred and which would make the best follow-up to Shiver.
The concept for The Bay/The Swell was inspired by two of my absolute favourite novels: The Beach by Alex Garland (I love the way he created a tropical paradise gone bad because of the people there) and Point Break. There are also elements of Survivor and And Then There Were None, with an Agatha Christie-esque ‘locked room’ type setting – the room being a lush national park and windswept beach.
Setting is so important to me. As a reader, an interesting, unusual setting is often why I pick up a particular book. I love dangerous natural settings in particular. After the snowy mountain terrain of Shiver, it made sense to set my next book somewhere entirely different. I decided on a hot beach. For thrillers, it’s always nice if a place is remote with the potential to get cut off, ideally without mobile phone coverage. Australia has plenty such places and I’ve visited a few of them so it seemed logical to set my story there – and my publishers loved the idea.
I spent some time thinking about the nationalities of my characters. I wanted a multi-cultural bunch that would appeal to the publishers who’d already contracted me (UK, North America, Australia/New Zealand and Germany) and also to prospective publishers including those who’d bought Shiver. Since they’d be surfing, it made sense to pick countries that had large surfing populations.
For more ways that I develop characters, see my Insta post.
Then I sketched out a ‘character web.’ John Truby refers to character webs in his fantastic book The Anatomy of Story.
Truby advises writers to aim for as much conflict as possible between the characters to create an interesting plot. I took an A4 sheet of paper, marked my characters on (they were named A, B, C, D etc for now!) and drew lines of conflict between them until it looked like a spider’s web. For example A is B’s boyfriend, C is D’s best friend, E feels sorry for F but doesn’t trust him, B is afraid of C, D is blackmailing A. I’d show you my character web but there’d be major spoilers!
I started with a basic idea of several deaths at a remote national beach, then I decided who was behind them and why. I wanted my main character to have a strong reason to investigate the deaths. Make the stakes personal, we’re often advised in craft books, so at first I thought my main character might be the brother or sister of a victim. I considered the victims being male but my agent felt it worked better with them being females.
In the movie Point Break, the main character is an undercover police officer sent to investigate a mysterious group of surfers who are suspected of being bank robbers. To solve the case, he must first win their trust and become one of them. I love how he gets so drawn into their world, he feels torn between doing his duty and his loyalty to and love for the tribe he has become a part of. I love emotional turmoil, so I incorporated a similar aspect into The Bay/The Swell. Kenna, the main character was an avid surfer until her boyfriend drowned. Now she’s forced back into the sport she quit and becomes addicted once again.
I listed the main events of my story on a sheet of paper and tried to expand them. Then I plotted them onto little squares of paper, just a sentence or two, for each scene. At first I only had about a dozen scenes but some were clearly too long for one scene so could be split into two, then I added plot complications, flashback scenes, and scenes from other characters’ perspectives. When I had about thirty scenes, I stuck them onto a giant whiteboard – the same board I planned Shiver on. I knew from analysing some of my favourite thrillers that I needed around 70-80 scenes for a typical novel (Shiver had 75) so I initially worried I didn’t have enough, but as I started writing, more ideas came to me and the story expanded nicely.
I used several colours of squares: white for the main story from the main character’s point of view, yellow for flashback scenes, green for scenes from other characters’ points of view and blue for the killer. As with Shiver, I spent a considerable amount of time shuffling them around to find the best order to maximise suspense and impact. For more detail on my whiteboard method, see my earlier posthere.
The whiteboard method really helps me. I know what scenes I need to write and how they need to end, so I don’t waste time writing boring transitions between scenes where nothing much happens. Get into the scene late, and get out early, many craft books advise.
An early draft of the story had more deaths. My agent felt it seemed unbelievable and over the top, so I cut one of the deaths. The hard thing about changes like this is it has a domino effect and in future drafts, references to this dead woman kept cropping up like an evil spirit.
By the time I came to write the climax, I didn’t know if I could pull off the ending I’d had in mind, so I brainstormed alternative endings, but my agent wasn’t keen. I discussed it with my publishers via Zoom and the verdict was the original ending was the best option, so I sat down to write it.
POINT OF VIEW
Shiver is told in the first person purely from the main female character Milla’s perspective. I wanted to try something different with The Bay/The Swell, but I loved the first-person voice and found it so much more natural to write than the third person, so I stuck with that for most of the story and added in chapters from other characters’ viewpoints, also in first person.
In an early draft there were several chapters from Sky (the leader of the tribe)’s perspective and several from Clemente (the love interest)’s point of view, but my agent felt these gave too much away, so I cut some of these and replaced them with single chapters from other characters. My publishers felt it seemed odd that a couple of the tribe members didn’t have chapters of their own, so I had to write chapters for them too, which I really struggled with, but once I’d done it, I could see how right they were. The final version has chapters from each of the tribe members – just a single chapter in most cases.
After I had a finished draft, my agent read it and suggested revisions. Later, my publishers took it through multiple structural edits – six rounds in all, which seemed endless! I edit as I write, so by the time I’d finished the structural edits, it was fairly polished. It’s a time-consuming way to work, but it meant the line-edit stage was relatively fast and painless. See my earlier post on my top ten books on writing craft! These are my favourite books for the editing stage.
Shiver barely needed any research, because I’d lived in the mountains as a competitive snowboarder in my early twenties. The Bay/The Swell required far more research. I’m a keen surfer and I’ve lived for twenty years near the ocean here in Australia, but I needed to research rock climbing, sea cliffs, underwater training exercises, rock running, surf photography methods and equipment, breath hold techniques, push ups vs pull ups, personal training and various surf spots in other countries including Mavericks, Pipeline, Biarritz, Cornwall, Devon and Brazil. I did a little research before I started writing and the rest as and when needed. I’m guessing each further book will require more research as I run out of familiar settings and topics!
THE LEAD UP TO PUBLICATION
Many writers start writing their next book at this stage, but I felt so burnt out after two years of the Covid pandemic, juggling my kids as a single mum with work, and the struggle I’d had to my revisions. Instead I focussed on promoting my book, doing interviews and social media, whilst trying to recover from my burnout and other health issues and catching up with my reading. I’ve read so many great books these last few months. See my Insta or Goodreads for some of my favourites!
I was chatting with thriller author J A Andrews on Twitter about how our book titles have changed. All four of his novels changed titles. And both of mine! Titles are so important, yet so tricky to get right. The title is the first thing potential readers see of our books, so ideally we need something catchy, memorable and unique which hints at the story and what genre it is. When I pitched my new thriller THE BAY to my agent and publishers, I called it: THE TRIBE or SURF TRIBE. They didn’t like it. They thought ‘The Tribe’ sounded like a science fiction book and ‘Surf Tribe’ was too niche – it would only appeal to surfers. I brainstormed alternative titles with my agent and publishers. Ideas included ON THE BEACH, THE SHORE, UNDERCURRENT, THE RIP and DARE. In the end, my UK team went for THE BAY. But my American publishers felt it wouldn’t suit their market. Books sometimes do have different titles in different countries, as obviously each country has a slightly different market and publishers want to pick the best possible title for their market. In the US, surfing is seen as glamorous and sexy, my publisher explained, so they wanted to highlight that aspect. They came up with THE SWELL, which I love.
My debut novel changed title too! It was called THE ICEBREAKER when I submitted it, after the warm-up game the characters play at the reunion. My agent, Kate Burke at Blake Friedmann, felt it wasn’t strong enough. Plus ‘icebreaker’ is a type of ship that sails in icy waters! Kate came up with SHIVER at 4am one morning and I will always be grateful to her for that! There are already several other novels with the title ‘Shiver’ but there’s no copyright on book titles so it didn’t matter.
As SHIVER gets translated into different languages, I’m always fascinated to see what title they give it. Sometimes its a direct translation of ‘Shiver’ such as ‘Tremblor’ for my Spanish edition. Sometimes it’s totally different. In Germany, the title is FROST GRAB which means ‘icy tomb.’ The Czech edition is ‘Mraz Pod Cuzi’ which means ‘frost under the skin.’
If, like me, you struggle with titles, my advice would be: don’t fret! You just need a good-enough working title for now. Down the line, your agent and/or publisher might well change it.
I took the UK hardback edition of my new thriller #TheBay for a photoshoot!
Funny story about the rocks in the photo. It’s a famous surf spot here on the Gold Coast: Burleigh Point. When the waves are big, you have to jump off the rocks with your surfboard to get out because the currents are too strong to paddle from the beach.
Twenty years ago I’d only been surfing for six months. I’d just met my future husband (now my ex-husband because we divorced) and he invited me for a surf at Burleigh for our second date.
He clearly overestimated my surfing ability. “Follow me!” he said and jumped off the rocks. Keen to impress, I gamely followed him and jumped, but I timed it wrong. The waves had a bit of size that day and a larger wave rushed in and swept me back over the rocks. The barnacles shredded my feet and legs. I dragged myself back over the rocks into the ocean where I sat on my surfboard, cuts stinging, then realised I was bleeding in about ten places. Thinking how sharks can smell one drop of blood in a thousand Olympic swimming pools, I reluctantly said goodbye to my date and paddled in to the beach, then walked through the town of Burleigh leaving a trail of blood behind me.😂😂
I have a bad record with rocks. Another time, I jumped off rocks onto my board and landed on it badly, breaking several ribs. I’ve also busted fins. I never manage to time it right. These days I mostly stick to beach breaks.
#TheBay is out now in Australia and out on 23 June in the UK. It comes out on 19 July in North America, with its American title: #TheSwell.
Some writers don’t plan their novels. Lee Child, for example, just starts writing without knowing how the story will end. Other writers, like Jane Harper, plan in great detail.
I plan but not in huge detail and my plan changes as I write. I use ‘The Post-It Method’ after hearing other writers describe how it helped them.
My whiteboard is 5-foot high. Some writers use actual Post-It Notes, but I use scraps of paper with magnets to stick them to the board because it’s hot here in Queensland and I need my windows open. The sea breeze would blow Post-its away! Using non-sticky paper also makes it easier to shuffle them around and play with the order.
Each scrap of paper represents a scene. I write 1-3 sentences per scene: the main events, characters, and maybe the setting and/or the time of day. Sometimes I just write bullet points. Both my published novels have around 75 scenes.
I never used to plan my novels. I have four or five unpublished novels, all unfinished and unsubmitted because I got in a mess with the storyline.
My debut thriller SHIVER was the first novel I planned. I spent one month planning and wrote it in six months. The scraps of paper provided a map of the story and made life so much easier! I couldn’t have written SHIVER without planning. The story has a dual timeline and the order of events and reveals is crucial to the story. I spent hours – days! – shuffling scraps of paper around but it was time well spent. I used two colours of paper, one for each timeline. The story is all told from the main character, Milla’s point of view. I like to end scenes on cliff-hangers (or surprises or reveals) where possible, to keep the reader gripped, so I write these onto the bottom of each and highlight them.
I used the same method to plan THE BAY but it took WAY longer, partly due to the drama of Covid school closures, my divorce, and my head injury from a surfing accident, but also the pressure of my deadline, which zapped my creativity and made me panic! I spent several months planning and once I began writing I went down lots of dead ends and had to revise the plan, but the method still helped.
THE BAY is mostly told from Kenna’s point of view, but there are single chapters from each of the other main characters. I used white paper for Kenna, yellow for the other characters, blue for the killer’s point of view, and green for flashback scenes. This gave me a clear picture of how the different viewpoints were spread out.
I wrote a large ‘S’ on scenes that showed surfing, ‘A’ on action scenes, ‘T’ on scary bits of the thriller plot, and drew a heart on scenes that furthered the romance sub-plot. I didn’t want the surfing or romantic scenes too close together, and I wanted more scary bits in the last third.
When I finish the initial planning stage, I usually start off with around 30 scenes and panic that I don’t have enough. Then I start writing and expand some scenes into two or more, add in flashback scenes, and more plot complications develop.
The Post-its Method is particularly helpful with thrillers and crime fiction, in my opinion, and other novels with complicated plots, dual timelines or complicated structures, because it makes it easy to experiment with the order of events.
I’m so glad I found this method of planning, otherwise I might never finished writing either of my novels!
I was born and raised in the UK but moved to Australia fifteen years ago. There aren’t many literary agents in Australia, and many weren’t currently accepting submissions, plus Australia’s smaller population means a smaller book market. Since SHIVER is set in the French Alps and most of the characters are British, I hoped it would appeal to the UK market, so I decided to look for a UK agent rather than an Australian one. Fortunately, UK agents didn’t seem to mind that I didn’t live in the UK.
To find suitable agents, I headed to Jericho Writers’ website. Using their excellent Agent Match search tool, I searched for UK literary agents, who accepted my genre (thriller) and who were actively taking on new clients. The tool brought up about 250 agents.|
For years, I’ve been reading the acknowledgements section in the backs of novels, and blogs and interviews of my favourite authors, so there were a few familiar names amongst this list of agents. I researched each agent individually (giving priority to the agents of my favourite authors) by going to their agency website to learn exactly what they were looking for, and checked their client lists to see if I’d read and enjoyed any of the authors they represented. If they still sounded suitable, I googled them to find interviews with them or their clients, and checked their twitter feeds. I even went as far as reading some of their clients’ books – if I liked the books, I could mention that in my query letter.
This research took several days. I thought about what I most wanted from an agent and decided that most of all, I wanted someone who was hands on editorially. Someone who would read my work and help me improve it. Agents get 15-20% commission on writers’ advances and royalties, so it made sense to me to look for an agent who could add value to my work. I also wanted an agent with enough experience that I felt I could trust their judgement, but preferably someone without a massive list, so they would have enough time for me. I ended up with a shortlist of about 30 agents who I loved.
I felt fairly confident about my query letter thanks to a course I’d done with Curtis Brown Creative a year earlier. I did three short online courses with Curtis Brown in total. (See my interview on their blog where I talk about my experience of their courses.) Their Edit and Pitchcourse is a 6-week online course that looks specifically at your query package: the query letter, synopsis and first chapters. Following the advice on the course, I’d put together a query letter with three paragraphs including an enticing blurb about my novel, a paragraph about why I was submitting to that particular agent, and a paragraph about me and my writing background.
Literary agents may receive up to 10,000 submissions a year, so I deliberately kept my query letter as short as possible – 200 words in my case. My query letter wasn’t something hurriedly drafted. I spent ages on it, forming it weeks before my manuscript was ready, asking writer friends for feedback and revising it over and over. (See the end for the actual query letter that got me my agent.)
The synopsis is widely regarded as the hardest page you will ever have to write. I must have done hundreds of drafts of the synopsis for SHIVER, seeking help from my long-suffering writer friends, who suggested revisions. UK agents commonly ask for a 1-page synopsis. One page in size 12 font with single line spacing and a line gap between each paragraph gave me about 450 words. It’s incredibly hard to condense the plot of a novel into just 450 words – particularly a thriller with lots of twists. It doesn’t help either, that there’s no consensus on whether or not your synopsis should give away the ending of your story. Looking back, I probably spent too long on my synopsis. I went in circles and pulled my hair out over it. Eventually I conceded there’s no ‘perfect’ synopsis and settled on a 1-page document that gave the main plot points.
In February 2019 I submitted my first chapters to four literary agents. I promptly received three form rejections. Two of them arrived within 24 hours of my submission! Devastated, I trimmed my first three chapters, questioning every single word, to see if I really needed it. I was absolutely ruthless. I cut adverbs where possible and made my verbs stronger. If I’d used two adjectives before a noun, I cut the weaker one – or even both. If I had one sentence that meant nearly the same thing as the next, I cut the weaker one.
Kate Burke at Blake Friedmann apparently liked thrillers and cold, bleak settings, so in March 2019, I sent my revised manuscript to her and three other agents, on what I thought was the day after the London Book Fair. Except in my sleep-deprived, mum-of-two-little-kids brain, I’d muddled the date and it was actually the first day of the book fair – the biggest event in the UK book industry. You’d think it was the worst possible time to submit, but amazingly, just four hours later, an email arrived. One of the agents wanted to see the full manuscript! It was lucky my manuscript was edited and ready to submit. If I’d been impatient and submitted earlier, thinking I’d have time to edit, I’d have been in a huge panic! Crossing my fingers, I sent off the full.
If an agent requests to see the full manuscript, writers are advised to inform any other agents they’ve submitted to, so I tapped out an email, but before I hit ‘send,’ an incoming email from Kate arrived, requesting the full. I informed the remaining two agents, and one immediately requested the full. I didn’t get much sleep that night. I woke up to a full request from the fourth agent. And an email from Kate asking if she could phone me my evening – her morning. (There’s a massive time difference between the UK and Australia.)
It was another nail-biting wait. My hand shook as I answered my phone. Kate, in her lilting Irish accent, told me how much she loved SHIVER. I asked about her experience, and what changes if any, she’d suggest making to my manuscript. She asked about my writing, my plans for future novels, and offered to represent me.
Another agent also wanted to phone. I had the same conversation with this agent, then accepted Kate’s offer. One of the reasons I chose Kate was her editorial experience – she’d worked in publishing for ten years before she switched to agenting, and she was very hands-on editorially.
A few people have asked me what changes I made to my manuscript between my first batch of submissions to agents and the second batch. The answer is not much. Mostly just tightening and trying to be very specific and thoughtful about word choice. Maybe I hit the first batch of agents at a busy time of year: they were trying to clear their inboxes ahead of the book fair? Reading taste is so personal. Perhaps the first batch of agents just happened not to be as keen on SHIVER as the agents in the second batch?
Anyway over the next two months, Kate took my manuscript through several rounds of revisions, to make it as commercial as possible, and went on to sell SHIVER in a ten-publisher auction. The first round was a ‘big picture’ edit which pushed me to my limit as a writer and involved me writing 12 new scenes. The other rounds were smaller detail.
Something I found confusing as an aspiring author was knowing the ‘best’ word count for a novel. Each genre (and sub-genre) has a different ideal word count, and if a manuscript is way shorter or longer than the norm, agents (and publishers) may be put off. I’d researched word counts for thrillers and thought my manuscript was about the right length. It was 77,000 words when I submitted it to Kate, but she said it was a bit short. After I’d made the revisions she suggested, she submitted it to publishers at 83,000 words. After several more rounds of revisions from my publishers, SHIVER ended up at around 92,000 words.
My tips for authors who are searching for agents: 1. Edit like crazy. Trim and polish your work to try to get it perfect. Little mistakes may put agents off and look unprofessional. From talking to Kate, I get the impression that agents receive many submissions that are full of typos and other mistakes. 2. Read like crazy. Read recent titles in your genre. You need to know where your book sits in the market: the genre and subgenre. For example, if it’s a thriller, is it a crime thriller, techno-thriller, domestic suspense or psychological thriller? In the query letter you need to mention comparable titles and/or authors (preferably recent big sellers) and reading widely will help you find some. This helps make your book seem marketable.
Here’s my query letter, as I submitted it to Kate. Kate later said it was one of the best query letters she’d seen and used it as an example in a workshop she taught on querying.
And Then There Were None… on a glacier, with snowboarders.
THE ICEBREAKER is a thriller (77,000 words) that I hope could sit beside CL Taylor, Ruth Ware and Laura Marshall.
Secrets are crawling out of the ice. Friendships are turning glacial. And everything’s about to crack…
When ultra-competitive ex pro snowboarder Milla Anderson joins four former friends for an isolated mountaintop reunion ten years on from tragedy, a twisted icebreaker suggests one of them is a killer. But the cable-car isn’t running. There’s no easy way down.
I heard you love strong female main characters, cold and bleak settings, dual timelines and psychological suspense with a mystery at its heart, so I hope The Icebreaker with its feisty heroine and theme of female rivalry in sport might appeal. I see my ‘brand’ as female-led psychological thrillers set in dangerous natural environments, from high mountains to remote surf beaches.
I was once a freestyle snowboarder in the UK top ten like my protagonist. For fifteen years I taught English. Now I’m a freelance writer with 100 sales of short commercial fiction to women’s magazines in the UK, Australia, Sweden and South Africa and thirteen romances to anthologies.
I attach the synopsis and first three chapters for your consideration.
You’ll notice several lines in italics, which are like the straplines you see on book jackets. This was something I learnt in Curtis Brown’s Edit and Pitch course. Note that when I originally submitted it, the title of my novel was THE ICEBREAKER but Kate didn’t feel it was a strong enough title and came up with the suggestion of SHIVER which I loved. It’s just one of many reasons why I’m so grateful to her.