Welcome to the 52nd episode of Interviews from the Void, a discussion series where I interview writers about their writing process, discussing the mechanics of the craft.
In this episode, I chat with New York Times bestselling author Brian Freeman, an ITW Thriller Award winner for Best Hardcover Novel and the writer selected to take over Robert Ludlum’s iconic Jason Bourne series.
A friend of mine and I recently read Brian’s stand-alone thriller “Thief River Falls,” and we were fascinated. Such a neat story with an ending I didn’t see coming. I wanted to know more about Brian’s process and I’m incredibly thankful he was willing to share.
- Why the best thrillers explore the human condition in its most dramatic form.
- Plots evolve as we continue to ask questions of our characters.
- Our process of outlining changes as we grow as writers.
Arthur: First, tell me your writing story. How did you come to be a writer? Did you always know this is where you wanted to be? And how did you land in the thriller genre?
Brian: I got a great question at an event the other day. A reader asked me, “When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer? How long did it take?” The truth is, I’ve never thought of myself as anything else. Writing has been my passion and dream as far back as I can remember. I started to write a mystery novel all the way back in sixth grade, and I finished my first novel when I was thirteen years old. So writing has been a big part of me my whole life.
Why mysteries and thrillers? Well, sometimes I blame my grandmother. She used to tell me, “I’m reading this great new book. It’s got lots of bodies in it!” Needless to say, mysteries were the Freeman family genre. But I also love not only the page-turning twists of mysteries and thrillers, but also the way I can explore the human condition at its rawest and most dramatic. That’s what a great thriller enables us to do.
Arthur: What are a few of your favorite books and why?
Brian: That’s a long list! But let me talk about two. First, my favorite novel growing up was TRINITY by Leon Uris, about the troubles in Ireland. It’s a sweeping epic, full of violence and drama – religious, political, and family. The pace swept me along, despite the long length of the book. But what I remember to this day is Uris’s shocking finale. The novel is told in first person by an Irish revolutionary, and (spoiler alert) the narrator is killed in the final pages of the book. What an unbelievably bold narrative choice – and it perfectly summed up the tragedy of the Irish condition. That told me a lot about what writers can do – and the impact they can have — when they’re willing to break the rules.
Second, I’ve always loved Michael Connelly’s BLOOD WORK. One of the qualities of a great mystery is that it should surround the reader with a cloud of confusion as the twists and surprises unfold – but once the truth is revealed, it should have an elegant simplicity. You want the reader to say, “Of course! That makes perfect sense! Why didn’t I see it before?” That’s what you find in the plot of BLOOD WORK when you finally understand why the serial killer did what he did. Just brilliant. And that’s what I try to achieve in my books, too.
Arthur: Do you mind describing your general approach and process to starting a new book?
Brian: That depends on the type of book I’m writing. A series book works very differently from a stand-alone. For example, if I’m approaching a long-running series like my Jonathan Stride novels, I don’t start with the plot. Instead, I look at the characters and what’s been happening in their lives and where they are emotionally. I think through the issues they need to deal with in order to keep growing and evolving. Then I’ll build a mystery that will draw out those issues and force the characters to deal with them. That’s what keeps a series fresh.
It’s a different process working on a stand-alone, where the characters are all new to me. There I typically start with a couple of themes or concepts – not necessarily knowing how they will take shape in a plot. From that point, I use notepads and white boards and operate in kind of a Socratic method, by asking myself questions and playing out the answers. What if we had a character with this kind of background? What if this happened? How would a twist like this shape the story? In this way, the story and characters slowly take shape in a back-and-forth process. By the time I’m done, the actual plot usually looks very different from where I started.
Arthur: Many thriller plots that I’ve read seem like the result of great planning and a solid outline. How do you approach the writing for your stories? Do you mind sharing your process? Do you start with an outline, or just write and see where the story goes? Or a bit of both?
Brian: In the early days, I used to do exhaustive outlines before beginning a book. That helped keep me focused as I got comfortable with my new career. But I’ve gone away from that in the last decade or so. I still outline, but it’s more of a roadmap that takes me from A to Z with key stops along the way. And once I get started, the outline goes out the window, and I have to re-work it every few chapters.
Generally, I know the backstory of the book before I start – who does what to whom and why. But how I tell the story itself can change a lot from my outline. I now like to give myself breathing room as I get the words on paper. That spontaneity makes for lively and unexpected storytelling.
Arthur: Tell me about the writing process for TRF. Did you have an outline, or did the story just come to you? How long did TRF take you to write? How many drafts?
Brian: Some stories take weeks to come together in my mind. Others happen very quickly. THIEF RIVER FALLS was one of those where the plot structure took shape with surprising speed. I think I had the rough outline done in a couple of days. I already knew the basics of the big twist, and then it was a question of how to tell that story with the most drama and suspense.
I wrote it pretty quickly, too. Maybe because Lisa Power is a thriller writer like me, I felt very in synch with her as a hero from the outset. We thought the same, and that made her easier to write. As for drafts, I don’t really think in terms of drafts. I’m always editing. I edit as I go, I re-edit chapter by chapter, and I go through the book multiple times before I’m ready to submit. You’re never really done with a book. At some point, deadlines mean you just have to stop!
Arthur: How did you map out your character development? What is your strategy for pushing the story forward?
Brian: I used to do background sketches on all of the characters before I started, but I don’t do that anymore. The characters have to come to life on the page, and at some point, they start guiding you. It sounds weird, but it really works that way. I would find that the characters didn’t want to fit into the pigeon-holes I’d built for them, and it didn’t work to try to cram them inside. So now I let them tell me where they want to go – and it means they can often surprise me. But that’s good, because it surprises the reader, too.
As for pushing the story forward, I like to use hooks that force the reader to keep turning the pages. I’m never satisfied with the twists in the outline. I always want more, and that’s one reason I like the spontaneity of letting the narrative evolve as I get it on paper. Plus, I edit ruthlessly to get myself out of the story and let the characters speak directly to the reader. We have a lot of great prose stylists in the genre, but it’s too easy to be self-indulgent about your prose. If a passage doesn’t advance the story or the characters – even if it’s great writing – it has to go.
Arthur: How did you come up with the ending for TRF? In general, how do you find the ending of your story?
Brian: Most of the time, I know the ending first – and that was true of THIEF RIVER FALLS. It’s a very shocking shift in the narrative, and I had to balance it all carefully to leave clues about what was really going on, while still preserving the emotional shock.
There are plenty of writers who know the mystery when they begin, but they don’t know how it ends until they write it. That doesn’t work for me. I need to know where I’m going, even if I may play around a lot with how I get there. Of course, for every rule, there’s an exception. The last chapter of my Jonathan Stride novella TURN TO STONE introduces a whole new twist ending that I didn’t see coming. But apparently Stride did!
Arthur: Tell me about your writing space. Where does the magic happen and what’s special about it that helps keep you focused?
Brian: I’m not sure there’s any magic. People think of a writer’s space, and I suspect they imagine some cabin in the woods in perfect silence with deer wandering by the window. That’s not real life. In the real world, there are interruptions and distractions and cats walking across the keyboard. You just have to deal with that.
One thing I tend to do is switch my writing space a lot. Over the years, I’ve written in half a dozen rooms in the house. I like to write outside a lot, too. There’s something about fresh air that enhances creativity, at least for me.
Arthur: Do you pick specific themes to write about to help with plot and character development?
Brian: Yes, I keep a file of interesting themes to explore. You never know what will prove to be fertile ground for murder and mayhem!
Thank you so much, Brian, for sharing your writing wisdom with us. I can’t wait to dig into another book of yours. Keep them coming!