Imagine yourself deep in a forest. You notice your travel companions rifling through your backpack while muttering to themselves at half-volume. Unsettled, you retire to your tent where you find a mysterious key. You don't know what lock it might open, but you have a hunch the others will do anything to get it.
This is just a taste of what awaits the heroine in the novel Reagan's Ashes. I sat down with Colorado-based author Jim Heskett to discuss the art of crafting compelling fiction.
Let's start at the beginning. What were your early influences as a writer?
Stephen King was my first love, and I read every paperback I could get my hands on. Fortunately, he seemed to have a never-ending supply of fiction to consume. I've broadened my horizons quite a bit since then, but I don't think another author has had quite the emotional impact on me that Stephen King has. I can still remember being unable to read his book IT after dark when I was twelve years old. Terrifying. I also learned an amazing amount from reading Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard.
I'm a national park junkie. Our park system is the best thing about America, and it's not even a contest. Since I live so close to Rocky Mountain National Park, I spend quite a lot of time there, and I'm on a mission to hike every trail on the map. I've knocked off about 250 of the 350 miles of trails. It's such a beautiful and lush ecosystem, and that setting allowed me to combine wilderness survival with the mystery plot of Reagan's Ashes, something I've never seen done before. I wanted to write a book that captured the grit and grime of the trail, to recreate the backpacking experience as closely as possible.
Your heroine is a 24-year-old woman with a troubled past. What was your approach in writing from her perspective?
While on the surface, Reagan's Ashes is a wilderness survival mystery (a genre name I just made up), it's also very much a story about Reagan's struggles with her mental illness, and the way her family reacts to her. I wanted to create a character that was strong but vulnerable, determined but unsure of herself, and logical yet prone to impulsiveness. In many ways, she invented herself on the page as I wrote, and that's one of the joys of writing fiction. I don't often know where I'm going to end up when I sit down to work.
Is there a secret to crafting good mystery novels?
I don't know if this is a secret, but the key to a good mystery is how effectively you raise questions in the readers' minds. And not just the main whodunit question, but all the little questions that drive the readers onward. You have to make readers assume they know what's going to happen, then give them something unexpected, yet inevitable. Writers can accomplish this by only doling out the information the readers need to know at that moment, and keeping certain facts in the dark to make the reader curious to know more. In Reagan's Ashes, there is a large mystery driving the overall plot, but each of the major characters has his or her own mystery; some aspect of their personality or backstory that isn't apparent at first glance. Then, when you think you know a character, you learn something new and surprising, which changes your perception. This is the kind of quality that keeps readers up into the wee hours of the night turning pages, which is every writer's goal.
We recently worked together producing the audiobook for Reagan's Ashes. From an author's perspective, how was the experience different from working with print?
As an author, all I have are the words on the page. It's up to me to communicate meaning in the text, and hope that the reader will interpret that meaning in a way that makes sense. Adding an audiobook version creates an entirely new dimension in the experience because the words are performed instead of merely interpreted. I personally love listening to audiobooks. A great narrator can make the prose sing, and communicate the author's intent in a way impossible with the printed word.
What advice would you give to authors looking to write more engaging fiction?
I have only two rules, which are essentially two sides of the same coin. First, write books that people want to read. You can spend years studying the craft and lacing your work with deep thematic significance, but what matters is this: can you tell a riveting story with relatable characters? And second, place storytelling above all. All the technical tricks in the world won't help you if you can't spin a yarn that hooks people and makes them feel something. Readers want to care, so that's your number one job.
Do you have any new projects in the works?
More than a few! I've just released my thriller series The Whistleblower Trilogy. The first book, Wounded Animals, follows a man who comes home from a business trip to find his wife missing and a dead man in his bathroom. I'm also about to unleash a collection of funny short stories entitled Stories to Read While Driving. Finally, I'm finishing up the fourth book in my dystopian/espionage series (think Mad Max meets Tom Clancy) The Five Suns Saga. I am one busy guy.
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