Changing Gears Writing Suspense vs. Historicals

How To Write Suspense vs. Historicals?

May McGoldrick, a historical romance writer, is a diligent and industrious professional. Jan Coffey is a bit neurotic, frankly.

But with good reason. Jan writes contemporary suspense. 

To be honest, May and Jan are really both the same people. We (Nikoo and Jim) have been collaborating as May McGoldrick on historicals for a number of years, but now we’re also writing romantic thrillers as Jan Coffey. Interestingly enough, we’re finding that there are differences in writing stories in the two genres.

First of all, we should tell you that we started setting our early stories in the 16th century period because we had some academic background in the time period. Write what you know, they told us.

But in writing historical novels as May McGoldrick, we’ve always tried, as well, to create new stories, new characters, and new problems for our heroines and heroes to overcome. To do that, we’ve pushed ourselves to stretch into areas where we have needed to learn new things. We have to admit that if we only wrote about what we knew, we never would have written about murderous lairds, or covens of Highland women, or cross-dressing artists, or children with physical handicaps, or promiscuous English queens! 

Those things are just not a part of everyday life in the McGoldrick household.

At least, not the way we understand Jan Coffey’s world of murder and mayhem and bottom-dwelling criminal types. Our years in the shipyards of New England were not spent in vain. No, the ‘suspense’ isn’t the problem. The ‘contemporary’ part is. You see, Jim has just barely joined the 1990’s, never mind the 21st century. 

The solution for us is, of course, research and imagination. The only difference between the act of writing historicals and writing contemporary romantic thrillers is mindset (okay, and language…and plotting, too…and setting…and a few other things that we will get to in this article…).

historical writer

In moving from the mindset of the historical writer to the mindset of the suspense writer, we stop reading Britain magazine. We hold off planning trips to places with castles and talking over breakfast about the portrayal of executions in Braveheart. Instead, we immerse ourselves in the contemporary world. Now, we go out for breakfast at local diners. We hang out in airports to watch people go through security checkpoints. We read newspapers and great contemporary suspense novels and watch black-and-white movies from the 1940’s. 

For us, there is a vague line between mindset and research. Perhaps the word ‘research’ connotes the finding of specific details, but for us, research is a seductively pleasurable pastime that takes us, mind and soul, out of our daily life-and away from the writing we should be accomplishing for that day. It places us smack dab in the world that we are researching. 

But there is a difference here, too. When we are May McGoldrick, writing historical romances set (for example) in 1760’s England, we read things like James Boswell’s London Journal of 1762-1763. When we are Jan Coffey, writing a romantic thriller set amid the mansions of Newport we read Town & Country.

As May, we study about the wool industry of the 1500’s and watch the History Channel (Actually, though, it doesn’t have to be the History Channel. Any show with ruins will do.) As Jan, we watch COPS and study the police reports of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Our research of the contemporary world includes finding out the meaning of the latest teenage slang, whether spoken or written during Instant Messenger chats (Yes, we now know what terms such as G2G, TTYL, U, UR, and BRB mean. ).

In planning and plotting out our stories, we find there are differences, too. As May, we find that we do about 20% of our planning up front and 80% of it as we write. 

As Jan…thought this could be because we’re still fairly new to this…we find that we do 80% of our plotting up front, and only 20% of it in the process of actually writing the book. In writing suspense, we’re still open to the changes that present themselves as we write, but we try to think ahead as much as we can.

pre-writing tips

Maybe because of the difference in the pre-writing stage, even the synopses we send to our editors are different. May McGoldrick’s synopsis for her historicals is shorter and more character-oriented, while Jan Coffey’s synopsis is longer and far more detailed, particularly in the description of the action.

But how about the actual writing? How do we change gears there? That is a tough question, because our physical process is still the same. Nikoo still writes most of the first draft, with Jim chirping in constantly and at the most inopportune moments. At the same time, he is five or ten pages behind her (or sometimes thirty or forty), madly revising and adding and deleting. Luckily, Nikoo carefully changes the text back to the way it should be later.

But there are some differences. In May’s stories, the writing tries to capture some of the texture of the historical period. As a result, her scenes are sometimes longer than those of her contemporary counterpart, who finds that short scenes keep the pace of a story rocketing along. In Jan’s stories, the writing tries to capture, as well, the contemporary attitude of her characters through their dialogue. 

In revision, we find that we need to shift our gears a little, too. As May McGoldrick, we live by the Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary and their references to the dates that words came into use. As Jan Coffey, we can use terms and put things into our suspense novels that we can’t in our historicals. For example, what a treat it is to be able to say that a character was “mesmerized” by another character. Since F.A. Mesmer, the early hypnotist, was not even alive until the 18th century, it just won’t do to use the term in the 1500’s.

There are frightening differences between historicals vs. contemporaries, too. Because of the larger number of characters, and because she likes to end her chapters at ‘cliffhanger’ points in the narrative, Jan finds that she has a lot more plot threads that she needs to keep track of. Yes, all those unanswered questions that arise in the course of the story must be answered before the last page. Jan has far more of them to worry about than May does.

Even in shipping the book, May McGoldrick and Jan Coffey work differently. May finishes her historical and ships it off with a month to spare. Jan finds Nikoo and Jim prying the suspense novel out of each other’s fingers at the last minute on the deadline date and chasing the UPS guy down the street.

And it doesn’t end there, either. May finds that she can relax in the aftermath of sending off the historical. Jan is lying awake at night, trying to remember what loose thread she left open in her suspense novel. 

Of course, then it starts all over again…happily. 

Which brings us back to mindset. But if you hear that neurotic old Jan Coffey has bumped off May McGoldrick in her sleep some night, just don’t be surprised. 

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