by Kaira Rouda
A decade into my career as a novelist I feel like I have been lucky to learn some secrets of the trade. But, the best part of being an author is there must be a new trick up your sleeve for the next book. That’s what makes this career so challenging, and rewarding. I’ll share what I think are the important secrets to creating successful domestic suspense, but know there are so many more. And, this list is always changing.
1. Pacing and a condensed timeline
I’ve come to discover, some six books into my novel-writing career, that pacing can be the key to success. For four of my books, I hadn’t considered a condensed timeline. I don’t know why. I just hadn’t. But when Paul Strom’s story and the title, BEST DAY EVER, popped into my head, I just knew the timeline would be 24 hours. And it seemed to work. BEST DAY EVER became my first big publisher book, and much to my surprise and delight was selected to lead a new imprint for Harlequin/HarperCollins called Graydon House. I’ll never forget the feeling of walking into the Book Expo at the Javits Center in New York and looking up to see a six-story-tall banner with my book cover on it. Incredible. And it all came true, I think, because of a condensed time frame. Condensing time makes your characters stay in the moment, forces the action to be deliberate. With the condensed timeline technique, whether a day, a week or a weekend, you as the author must be on your toes.
2. Family relationships
There’s nothing more intense than the love between family members, spouses, children, extended family. When that love goes wrong or was never what it seemed in the first place, that’s where the tension peaks and the trouble begins. It’s also universally understandable and completely terrifying. We know how to hurt the ones we love if we want to, right?
3. A fine-tuned cast of characters
My first suspense novel, ALL THE DIFFERENCE, was my first tiptoe into the genre of suspense. It stars a black widow – and a huge cast of secondary characters. I happen to like keeping track of multiple narratives, stories intersecting and the like. I’ve found however, I am in the minority. Readers like suspense to move quickly. It’s about the action and the characters, but not about character development alone. ALL THE DIFFERENCE features Ellen, Laura, and Angie. Likely, it should have all been in Ellen’s perspective to fit today’s tastes, at the very most, Ellen and Angie. But, I still love the story, I’m just telling you what I’ve learned since.
4. Dark humor
Dark humor has a place in domestic suspense. I’ll admit it. I love using humor in my domestic suspense novels. To me, my first-person narrators come to life via their dark worldviews. Their sense of humor heightens the story. Are they telling you a darkly comedic story to throw you off their trail, or to illustrate their particular worldview? You be the judge. I know this is a bit unique, but to me, it’s an engaging tool. Both BEST DAY EVER’s Paul and THE FAVORITE DAUGHTER’s Jane have a wicked sense of humor.
5. A claustrophobic setting
For some reason, characters in domestic suspense novels are uncomfortable where they’re planted, whether it’s at work, at home, or on vacation. The reader should have the feeling this unique world, the story’s setting, is closing in on them. In THE FAVORITE DAUGHTER, Jane’s perfect gated community is like another character in the story, and it’s like a snake, slowly constricting around her.
6. Do the twist
And then do it again. If there’s one thing that’s come about due to the white-hot popularity of domestic suspense it’s that readers are very educated and very demanding. That’s a great problem, to have voracious readers. But as an author, we’re constantly asked to up our game. We need to be sure the reader – even a domestic suspense junkie – is surprised, astonished even, and will come back for more. That said, the twist needs to fit the story because a twist for twist’s sake makes everyone grumpy. I hope the twists in my novels feel natural and shocking, and when they do, that’s the best compliment.
What do you think are the building blocks of domestic suspense? Let’s chat about that on the Career Authors Facebook page.
Kaira Sturdivant Rouda is an accomplished business leader, entrepreneur, national speaker, and internationally bestselling and award-winning author. A former magazine editor and society columnist, Kaira won the Stevie Award for Women in Business for creating the first female-focused residential real estate brand, Real Living, and growing the brand to more than 22 states before its sale to Berkshire Hathaway. Her most recent works are Best Day Ever and The Favorite Daughter. Active in the areas of homelessness, food security, and empowering women and girls, in her twenties, as a volunteer, she created the first walk-in emergency shelter for homeless families in Central Ohio. She lives in Southern California with her husband, Congressman Harley Rouda, and her four twenty-something children.