Bonnie Hearn Hill is the author of sixteen suspense novels. The most recent of them, The River Below (Severn House, 2018), was praised by both Booklist and Publishers Weekly, with PW calling it “emotionally involving.” The California author, who once worked in radio, is also a short-story writer. Her first story for EQMM, “Feliz Navidead,” appeared in our January/February 2020 issue. Like the novel she is just finishing up, it deals with the world of rock radio of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In this post we learn a little about the books that helped shape Bonnie as a writer.—Janet Hutchings
Ditch the Ballerinas:
And other lessons these early writers taught me about suspense
“Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”—William Faulkner
A good book grabs you, and an early book never really lets go. Our first stories are guided by only our ideas and what we’ve learned from reading. Those of us who begin at a young age don’t yet know enough to doubt ourselves, to second-guess, or to discuss the finer points of dialogue tags or first versus third person with our writer friends. Our teachers are those early books, and they are magic. Here’s my list.
I’m grateful to Carolyn Keene, even though she never existed. Long before I learned the term, ghostwriter, I took my dollar bills down to the local stationers and bought the latest Nancy Drew mystery. For many girls, Nancy, with her roadster, her doting wealthy father, and her freedom, epitomized the perfect life. To me, Carolyn Keene did.
Encouraged by her success, I wrote my first mystery in a notebook while I was still in elementary school. Then, I mailed those handwritten pages to Grosset & Dunlap, the publishers. Yes, I actually checked the book jacket for the company’s address. I never heard back. That disappointment led me to question my plot, which as I recall, dealt with ballerinas. Also, I realized, I’d failed to put a Nancy in my story. I didn’t have a main character. Next time, I’d do better, maybe even ditch the ballerinas. That first effort would not be my last.
So, thank you, Carolyn Keene. You might have been fictional, but your lesson was not. You taught me that girls could write mysteries.
Edgar Allan Poe
I outgrew The Secret Of The Old Clock and flew straight into the pages of Edgar Allan Poe. Thank you, Poe, for teaching me that a story can grab you and not let go. Although he is known for creating the detective genre, Poe’s stories, “The Black Cat,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” haunted me much longer than “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” or “The Purloined Letter.” For my tenth birthday, I requested a bicycle and Poe’s collected works. I don’t know which one I enjoyed more, but I still have that collection.
Although I would learn about the unreliable narrator years later, I learned it first from Poe. I also learned the power of narrative voice to keep the reader turning pages.
Hector Hugh Munro, who wrote as H.H. Munro and Saki, followed Poe in my reading life. Like many, I was introduced to his short story “The Interlopers” in a high school English class.
Thank you, Saki, for introducing me to the surprise ending. I still get chills thinking about “The Interlopers,” when the two former enemies, now united, hear what they think are their men coming for them. The blinded one asks his now-friend whose men these rescuers are, and the other answers with one word. “Wolves.”
“Sredni Vashtar,” which was later adapted for radio and television, is the story of Conradin, a sickly boy, who secretly keeps, worships, and prays to a polecat, the story’s title character. Conradin’s oppressive, nasty guardian (based on a maiden aunt who raised Munro after his mother’s death) is determined to find out what the boy is keeping in the garden shed. She does just that in a bloody yet humorous finale.
In her short life, Shirley Jackson wrote more than 200 short stories. I encountered “The Lottery” in a high school English text. Long after the story ends, the horror of it still lingers. So does the idea that people will commit terrible acts if they can justify those acts by calling them tradition.
Thank you, Shirley Jackson, for demonstrating the importance of foreshadowing. At the beginning of the story, the children are stacking stones in the town square and putting them in their pockets. Only later do we realize what the children are going to do with those stones.
Erle Stanley Gardner
Perry. Della. Paul Drake. Hamilton Burger. Lieutenant Tragg. Thank you, Erle Stanley Gardner, for showing the enduring quality of a series protagonist as well as a series cast of characters. Gardner created Perry Mason to last, which he did through something like 300 million books and a nine-year television series.
Another important lesson from Gardner is this: Take the least likely character in the story, and find a way to make that person the killer. Gardner excelled in the red herring. Just when you thought you knew who the killer was, Perry presented the evidence to expose the true killer.
Furthermore, Perry possessed two qualities that made him the perfect series protagonist.
One, he was single. Yes, Della was always by his side, but she never got more than taken out for a steak. She and Perry were more romantic in the books than on the television series, but even then, they did not marry. Perry Mason, married man, would have lacked the appeal of Perry Mason, head of the team that included Della and Paul Drake.
Two, Perry was proactive. He solved his own crimes. Later, I would learn the rule “The protagonist must protag.” All I knew then was that nothing could deter Perry from his goal.
Mary Higgins Clark
Before I found Mary Higgins Clark, I was on a noir-detective roll. These voice-driven, sometimes hardboiled books, were full of place, internal monologue, vivid prose, and (male) character angst. Some are memorable; others, not so much.
Then, I picked up Where Are the Children? and discovered the world of woman-in-jeopardy and woman-and-child-in jeopardy. Mary Higgins Clark could move from the point of view to the woman innocently preparing dinner to the head of the evil man across the street.
The protagonist of Where Are the Children? was found guilty and sentenced to the gas chamber over the murder of her two young children. After her attorney gets her conviction overturned, she changes her name and her appearance and moves away. Ultimately, she remarries, has two more children, and her life improves until one day seven years after the death of the first children, these two go missing.
A Stranger is Watching begins in a hotel room while a stranger watches a television interview with a man and woman arguing about capital punishment and the impending execution of the convicted killer of the man’s wife. As the stranger in the room continues to watch and plan, becoming more interested in the woman on the television, we already guess that the wrong person is being executed, and that the woman is in danger.
Mary Higgins Clark not only bonded with her readers, but she bonded with other writers. I remember taking heart as a hopeful beginning novelist when I read that how, as a widow with five children, she got up each morning before they did to write. She spoke at numerous events and inspired authors with her achievements and her kindness. Each time we met was in a group of people, and she treated each us as if we were the only one she was addressing.
Thank you, Mary Higgins Clark. Like Carolyn Keene, you taught me that women could write mysteries. Unlike her, you were real.