Author Interview: Brandilyn Collins
Hollywood script doctor Robert McKee, at the conclusion of his book Story, exhorts writers: “As you follow the quest for stories told with meaning and beauty, study thoughtfully but write boldly. Then, like the hero of the fable, your dance will dazzle the world.”
“Dazzle “seems an apt description of novelist Brandilyn Collins’ literary achievements over the past decade. But before this dazzle, she devoted years of thoughtful study and hard work to improve her craft of writing.
Success did not come easy.
Ten years before her first novel came out, Brandilyn decided to begin focusing on her fiction writing almost full time. Along this journey, she produced a non-fiction book that created quite a stir in the general market. A court trial caught her attention as she began research on a novel in the early nineties. The trial—dubbed the “Diary Girl” murder case—centered on the mysterious death of a four-year-old girl and the diary of her 14-year-old sister. Their mother found—inside the older sister’s diary—a passage where the girl claimed to have killed her younger sister. Fascinated by the court trial, Brandilyn later wrote a non-fiction book, A Question of Innocence, published by Avon in 1995. Publicity from that book catapulted her into the media’s eye on such nationally televised shows as Phil Donahue and Leeza.
She continued to focus on developing her fiction writing craft until Brandilyn's first women’s fiction novel, Cast a Road Before Me hit the shelves in 2001, later picked up by Zondervan while also publishing her first suspense novel, Eyes of Elisha, also in 2001. In 2002, John Wiley and Sons published Brandilyn’s book on fiction-writing techniques, titled Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors, which garnered praise from The Writer magazine as one of the best books on writing that year. Seventeen more novels have followed over the last decade, with two more scheduled for release this year.
We have just enough time to question Brandilyn about her latest novel, Exposure, before Zondervan releases two more novels this spring and summer. (Readers can learn more about Brandilyn's writing career and other challenges she's faced at www.BrandylinCollins.com or her well-visited blog Forensics and Faith).
MARK: Thanks for joining us today, Brandilyn. Let’s start by focusing on Exposure, a suspense thriller located in Wilmore, Kentucky. Would “facing your fears” be a fair summary of what protagonist Kaycee Raye struggles with in this novel or are there other underlying problems that intersect with those fears?
BRANDILYN: Yes, facing your fears is the main one. But the theme of Exposure is more than that. I wanted to leave readers with the understanding that (1) our fears can keep us from being all we’re meant to be if we don’t conquer them, and (2) God does provide us the strength and fortitude to conquer our fears. He is above and greater than fear. There is a second underlying theme, but I can’t go into that one without saying too much about the plot twists.
By the way, Mark, I appreciate this question right up front. I want readers to understand all my novels have underlying meaning. A lot of times readers overlook this in a suspense novel. Many readers just want to read for the surface suspense plot. So I give those readers the best, twisting suspense I can. For readers who want to see beneath the surface, there is much more to be taken from my novels. Every word I use, every phrase and scene, is for a purpose. Example: I’ve heard from a few readers who said they couldn’t connect with Kaycee because of her myriad fears. In other words—they don’t have such fears, so they couldn’t relate. I believe they’re missing the point or are simply not being honest with themselves. All of us have fears of some kind. If the protagonist in Exposure has multiple fears and seems a bit over the top to them—perhaps they should ask why I included all those fears? Might it just be, through showing Kaycee’s struggles, I’m trying to say something about the human condition we all share?
MARK: Fear is a debilitating emotion that most people face at some point in their lives. Kaycee’s struggle with this issue—starting with the opening line, “She’d forgotten to turn on the porch lights”—continues until the last page. How did you research this topic and what did you learn about ways people cope?
BRANDILYN: Frankly I didn’t have to go far to research this topic. All I had to do was look at my own life. I have some similar fears to Kaycee’s—I don’t like heights, closed-in spaces, bees (I’m allergic, and they really do love my red hair), and going to the dentist. In fact the whole sequence of Kaycee’s visit to the dentist comes straight from my own life. I don’t share Kaycee’s largest fear—the paranoia of being watched. But I’ve observed in myself and others how the fear of failure or looking stupid or not being worthy—you name it—can creep in when we’re not paying attention and affect our lives in very negative ways. In the Bible we’re told we’re not given the spirit of fear. Yet we Christians allow ourselves to walk in it so frequently. That’s not okay. That’s not acceptable. God wants so much more for us.
MARK: In Exposure, Kaycee is a syndicated newspaper columnist writing about coping with fear with the column heading Who’s There? How did you come up with this concept?
BRANDILYN: I wanted to give Kaycee a bit of self-deprecating humor as a way of inserting some comic relief into a tense story. Also through her column I could depict Kaycee’s everyday struggles with her fears. Third, I wanted to give Kaycee a manner of making money that allowed her to stay home, because her home is where much of the suspense plot takes place.
MARK: You did a great job of creating a picture of Wilmore, Kentucky in the reader’s mind. We can visualize this town—where you actually grew up—as the story unfolds. Is there a special meaning for you in deciding to place Kaycee in this town? Tells us a little about growing up there.
BRANDILYN: My mom still asks, “What took you so long?” She still lives in Wilmore at the age of 93, and I visit as often as I can. She was thrilled for me to set a story in her beloved town. In plotting the story I had a great time running around Wilmore with my sister Sandy, noting all the businesses and taking pictures. Much had changed in the downtown area since I grew up there. And the town is considerably bigger now. When I lived there as a child there was only about 3000 people.
MARK: Since this blog is “where mystery readers, writers and law enforcement connect,” tell us about your contacts with Wilmore Police Chief Steve Boven and Officer Mike Bandy. How did you meet them and how did they help you develop the story?
BRANDILYN: Chief Boven was wonderful. I went in with Sandy in tow, told him what I was doing, and he gave me an immediate interview. I was able to take note of the layout of the station, including the downstairs basement with the old D.A.R.E. car. There really are cameras posted around town with numerous monitors in the station watching those areas live. These monitors are behind the Chief’s desk. I had no idea those things were around town. I was able to incorporate those cameras into the story.
I posed questions to Chief Boven about a character like Kaycee. “What would you do if a woman called you and insisted someone had broken into her home, and this was someone who’d called about such an incident numerous times before? You know this gal. You know her fears never pan out.” Chief Boven leaned forward, and clasped his hands, and immediately went into character. He looked me in the eye and gave me the lines he’d speak as if I’d been the caller. I, too, went into immediate character and responded back. We segued into this so smoothly we left my sister behind. She said, “Wait a minute. She”—she pointed to me—“isn’t who we’re really talking about.” I had to laugh.
Later I went back and didn’t find the Chief in the station but did find a very helpful Officer Mike Bandy. I asked him how the department would handle the disappearance of a child when it looked like she’d just run away. I was surprised at his answer—how quickly they’d spring into full-out search mode. He said even with an apparent runaway situation, they’d respond as if her bedroom were a potential crime scene. Of course I wrote my story accordingly. Also, as I mention in the author’s note at the back of the book, it was Officer Bandy who told me how I could pull off the last scene. I knew what I wanted to do but I didn’t know how in the world to make it plausible. He very enthusiastically gave me four different ways to make it work. I chose the one to best fit my character.
MARK: In the back of Exposure you write, When I began this book I promised little to my mother, who still lives in Wilmore, as to how I’d treat her beloved home. “I may or may not blow up the town,” I said. Well, you did not blow up the town. You end this statement with the question, “Happy, Mom?” Can you divulge her answer?
BRANDILYN: As I mentioned above, she’s thrilled with Exposure. And she—and the rest of the town, from what I can gather—absolutely loves the ending.
MARK: In reading your novel, one of the questions that plagued me—almost until the end—was how you were going to bring the two different plot lines together? Without giving away the story, how were you able to pull this together as a concept? Is there a technique or method you use to produce such fabulous endings?
BRANDILYN: I can only speak to this generally, since I don’t want to give away any of the story. I do have a plot device on creating twists that I developed on my own. It involves pushing assumptions into the reader’s mind so strongly and yet subtly that the reader doesn’t realize the assumptions are there—and then turning the assumptions on their heads. I teach this method now and then at writer’s conferences. I also have a chapter on this method in A Novel Idea, published by Tyndale. It really does work.
MARK: In Exposure, a bad guy finally emerges. In your book on writing, Getting Into Characters: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors, you discuss unleashing emotional memories needed to portray one of mankind’s most heinous acts. Then you go on in a section titled A Murderous Example and use the act of killing a fly as a means by which a writer can vicariously experience the mind of a killer. Can you explain to our readers how you use this technique to climb into the mind of your villains?
BRANDILYN: The method acting concept of emotion memory is a rather deep one. And yes, I cover it much more fully in Getting Into Character. In a nutshell the concept rests on this premise: there is no emotion known to mankind that each of us has not experienced. There are merely degrees. The “fly story” is a sort of comic way of depicting this reality. Many of us haven’t killed another human being nor even wanted to. But all of us have at one time been plagued by a fly who gets in our way, and suddenly all other thought is pushed aside save “kill the fly.” He’s annoying, he’s invading my life—therefore he has to die. Novelists can take that same emotion and extrapolate to understand the mind of a killer. Remember bad guys never think they’re bad. They always have a rationality for what they’re doing. Just as we all have a rationality for stopping all else to kill the fly.
MARK: Regarding fear, your novels always carry the warning “Don’t forget to breathe…” and your stories are tagged “Seatbelt suspense.” On your blog, Forensics and Faith” you’ve created a special spot titled the “Big Honkin’ Chicken Club” for those too frightened to read your novels. Was this created to help some readers cope with your suspense?
BRANDILYN: Yes. All too often I hear, “I don’t read suspense. It would scare me.” Sometimes this really is true. Certain people would have nightmares and have to stay away from such stories. But in many other cases, it’s simply a matter of not knowing what they’re missing. I encourage these folks to try one of my books. I’ve even rated the “scare factor” from one to three chicken heads. Many BHCC self-admitted members have tried one of my books and found how much they enjoy them.
MARK: Congratulation on Exposure and Dark Pursuit landing #1 and #2 on Kindle’ best seller list for the month of January as part of a free download promotion. Can you tell us why you participated and what you learned?
BRANDILYN: It was the publisher’s idea. They asked me and my agent if we’d agree to the free promotion. I immediately said yes. My own personal marketing involves giving away lots of books. I believe giving away your product—giving people a taste of what you have to offer—is one of the best forms of marketing. When I give books away, it costs me. I pay my assistant to mail the books, pay for postage, and pay my author’s discount cost for the book itself, if I’ve run out of my own free copies from the publisher. (And I always do run out.) The Kindle promotion cost me nothing. We were able to reach thousands of people who hadn’t heard of me before. And the publicity of landing at #1 and #2 on the Kindle bestseller list begat publicity of its own through interviews with the media.
Thanks to wrote to say how much you enjoyed the
MARK: Please tells us what Brandilyn Collins fans have to look forward to in the near future?
BRANDILYN: In May Final Touch releases—the third and last book in the Rayne Tour young adult suspense series (co-written with my daughter, Amberly). In July my next adult novel, Deceit, releases. Deceit is a stand-alone suspense featuring skip tracer Joanne Weeks, who finds herself in a search that’s a little too personal and far too dangerous.
MARK: Tell us a little about your writing schedule? What does your day look like? How do you make sure words get on the page each day?
BRANDILYN: I start my work day shooting through e-mails and Facebook and any other marketing-type tasks I have to keep up with. Then I have a certain number of words I must write daily. I plan to write steadily each weekday, but it doesn’t usually turn out that way. (I wish it would!) Instead I get stuck in places and don’t write for a few days, then must catch up.
MARK: What is on your shelf to be read?
BRANDILYN: Always a novel. Always. The only time I have to read is in bed before falling asleep. But I do that every night. I read most often in the Christian market, but I read a lot of general market novels as well. Right now I’m reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Next up is a Stephen King novel.
MARK: What is one piece of advice you’d give aspiring novelists?
BRANDILYN: First, give your talent to God completely. Second, realize that it’s a long, hard road to publication in fiction (took me 10 years). There are many who’ve gone before you, and they can attest to how difficult it is. If you really understand this, you’ll be less thrown when rejection comes your way. You’ll realize it’s not just you. It’s the business. Plus— writing is art. Creating art that effectively touches other people is hard. So if you experience writer’s block or just don’t what to do next—hey, you’re in great company. All novelists experience that.
MARCH 22: Detective and novelist Mark Mynheir will re-join us in two weeks to share with us about his job as a homicide investigator for the Palm Bay (FL) Police Department and his career in law enforcement. If you missed our March 1 interview with Det. Mynheir, click on the archives to learn more about his writing career. He is the author of four published novels, the latest is The Night Watchman, the story of Ray Quinn, a tough, quick-witted homicide detective. After losing the love of his life in an ambush, Ray struggles to survive his own physical injuries and severe depression until he's thrust into the case of his life.
MARCH 29: D. P. Lyle, MD is the Macavity Award winning and Edgar® Award nominated author of the non-fiction books, Murder and Mayhem, Forensics For Dummies, Forensics and Fiction, and Howdunnit Forensics: A Guide For Writers as well as the fiction thrillers, Devil’s Playground and Double Blind. His next medical thriller, Stress Fracture, will be released in April, 2010. He has worked with many novelists and with the writers of popular television shows such as Law and Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, and