by C.J. Darlington
Brandilyn Collins Interview
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"Bottom line, it doesn’t matter how ingenious the plot—if readers don’t empathize with the characters, if they don’t care about the characters and what happens to them within that plot, they'll stop reading." -- Brandilyn Collins
Brandilyn Collins is a best-selling novelist known for her trademark Seatbelt Suspense®. Awards for her novels include the ACFW Book of the Year (three times), Inspirational Readers' Choice, and Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice. Also, The Writer magazine named her nonfiction release, Getting Into Character, one of the best books on writing published in 2002. When she's not writing, Brandilyn can be found teaching the craft of fiction at writers' conferences. She and her family divide their time between homes in the California Bay Area and northern Idaho.
Many authors start books with a “what if” question. What was the “what if” of Gone to Ground and where did the idea initially come from?
The initial idea was triggered from seeing a TV true crime show about a string of unsolved homicides (committed some years ago now) in a small southern town. The show focused more on the investigation or lack thereof, but I began to think of the people involved. How would such a horrible thing affect a small town? Then I got the idea for the premise—what if three women independently realized they’d discovered the killer—someone dear to them—and had to make the choice to bring the man down? But each of them suspected a different man? Now that premise had my attention, because it was so rife with possibility for tension and high stakes in all three women’s lives, not to mention the town as a whole.
Did you decide right away to write the novel in three first person POVs, or did that develop as the story progressed?
Yes, I knew from the beginning the novel must be written that way. Each of the characters had to tell her own story—and in her own voice. Their voices would become the backbone of the novel.
These three women are so different from each other. How challenging was it to keep their voices separate? Were there any tricks you used to help during the writing?
This is an important question and key to Gone to Ground. The characters represent two races—white and black—and three generations. Much of their individual characterizations would come from each woman’s manner of speaking and how she tells her story. So I had to get each voice right. Cherrie Mae is an African American woman in her 60s. Deena is white, age 32. Tully is also white, 19 and just out of high school, married and about ready to give birth to her first child.
One of the most important things about these three characters’ voices was learning their Mississippi dialect. Especially for Cherrie Mae. So I traveled to the county in Mississippi in which Gone to Ground is set to interview people. In Bay Springs, the county seat, I interviewed some black women, talking to them about their lives and just chatting in general. I made careful notes of how they spoke certain words. I knew I would be writing in dialect, and I had to get it right. Because, again, the dialect and general way of talking is key to each of my characters. I wanted their voices to sing. I wanted the reader to be able to hear them and instantly empathize with each of them.
As it turned out, one of the women I interviewed was named Cherrie Mae. At the time I was planning on using the name Hattie May for my black character. But I so loved the name Cherrie Mae. It was perfect! I asked the real Cherrie Mae (who is the most wonderful, gracious Christian woman you’d ever want to meet) if she’d allow me to use her first and middle name for my character. She was happy to say yes. (Brandilyn is pictured above with the real life Cherry Mae.)
After the book was written and it was time to create the book trailer, my publisher and I, plus a technician, traveled again to Bay Springs to audition voices for my three women. The book trailer would be the venue through which readers could physically hear my characters’ voices—so they had to be exactly right. I knew I couldn’t get what I wanted unless I traveled back to Mississippi. The real Cherrie Mae had already agreed to play my character with her name. Cherrie Mae’s voice was absolutely what I wanted. It has a kind of child-like, yet firm quality to it. For Deena, we ended up using a receptionist at City Hall. Tully’s young southern voice was recorded outside of Bay Springs. I love the way the book trailer turned out. These three audio voices completely capture my characters. You can view the trailer here.
After all you’ve told us about your research, it’s interesting that the Publishers Weekly review—which is favorable about the book and your writing—takes you to task for Cherrie Mae’s dialect, basically saying it’s not correct for this day and age. Particularly for a character who’s self-educated through reading classic literature. What’s your response?
Oh, LOL. I’d say the reviewer needs to get out of New York once in awhile. Her shrug-the-shoulder remarks are clearly incorrect. The dialect issue was the very thing I researched the most. I don’t mind reviewers disagreeing with one of my writing techniques, but I do mind when they make a public statement of “fact” for which they have no basis.
Interestingly, the day before the PW review came out I read a review of Gone to Ground written by a southern African American woman, who raves about the book’s “unique southern charm and highly contagious dialect.” Of Cherrie Mae she said: “With this character, Collins captures the heart and soul of southern African American women. Often I pictured her to be a few different women from my own church.” I’ll take that review over PW’s any day.
Speaking of your character Cherrie Mae’s reading classic literature—she has the habit of spouting apropos quotes from that literature, sometimes at rather odd moments. How did you decide which literature quotes to include?
Cherrie Mae keeps a notebook of quotes as she reads, and she memorizes them. I have my own notebook of classic quotes—which is where I got the idea for this character quirk of Cherrie Mae’s. So I used many of the quotes I’d collected. At other times when I felt a quote was needed I used a web site for classic quotes that are cataloged by key words. The web site was very helpful in coming up with the perfect quote for what was happening at the time in the story.
Which of the characters in this story do you most relate to and why?
Not one in particular, but bits of each. As I noted, I relate to Cherrie Mae’s love of classic literature and quotes, since this came from my own life. (Although I don’t go around spouting quotes as she does.) I relate to Deena’s fierce drive to help her sibling. I relate to Tully’s discomfort in pregnancy (!) and her fears about her future as a mother. (I was young once.) But in the biggest sense these three characters and their life circumstances are very different from me.
Amaryllis, MS is your fictional town, but as you mentioned, its neighboring town of Bay Springs is real. How much research did you conduct to write about this area?
Quite a bit, since I’ve never lived in Mississippi. I started online and by telephone, researching the history of the area. I needed to understand how a town like Amaryllis would come to be. I needed to know myriad other things—how are amaryllis flowers grown in Mississippi? Issues about law enforcement. And many more. When I traveled to Bay Springs for my first interviews I also spent a day driving around, taking pictures of the area. Gaining an understanding of what houses there are like. What are the major routes, and the tiny county roads? Etc. I found the exact spot, about five miles from Bay Springs, where I would place my town of Amaryllis. I wanted people in that area who read Gone to Ground to be able to picture it and say, “This writer knows what she’s talking about.”
I’ve heard you say that Gone to Ground is your “most character driven” suspense to date. Was that intentional?
It’s just the way the story had to be told. I have an ensemble cast—three protagonists instead of one. With each woman telling her own story, and in her own unique voice, the characterization naturally became the backbone of the book.
There’s another “character” I also wanted to emphasize—the character of Amaryllis itself. Imagine how a town of 1700 people—who generally trust and like each other—will react after a string of six murders. I couldn’t spent a lot of narrative explaining the town and its citizens without slowing down the action too much. So I chose to include short excerpts from a fictional Pulitzer Prize winning article about the murders and its affect on the town. Through these excerpts you get to see snippets of other people in Amaryllis, and how the town is grappling with its plight.
Why is it important to you to include so much characterization in your suspense novels?
Bottom line, it doesn’t matter how ingenious the plot—if readers don’t empathize with the characters, if they don’t care about the characters and what happens to them within that plot, they’ll stop reading. Characters are always key. The very hard thing I continually deal with is how to write my trademarked Seatbelt Suspense®--which promises a fast pace—yet make the story be rich in characters and basically character-driven. That’s always a challenge.
Why do you love writing about small towns?
Ah, there’s so much intrigue! Everyone knows everyone—or so they think. Not really. Just means the secrets have to be buried deeper.
How would you describe the story of Gone to Ground in one sentence?
Three women in small-town Mississippi independently discover they know the identity of the serial killer who’s murdered six women and must bring him down—but each suspects a different man.
Your four-prong promise to readers of your suspense novels involves an “interwoven thread of faith”. Is that thread something you knew ahead of time in Gone to Ground or did it develop organically around the story?
I didn’t know it ahead of time. I never do. The promise of Seatbelt
Suspense® is “fast-paced, character-driven suspense with myriad
twists and an underlying thread of faith.” The faith element is last
in that promise because it is last in my writing process. I don’t
sit down to write a “Christian” novel. I sit down to write
the best rollicking suspense I can. That’s my job—to entertain,
not to preach. If I don’t entertain, the reader won’t finish
my book. The faith element must rise naturally from the protagonist(s)
and the challenges/dangers in the story. As I write, this element becomes
clear. If I tried to force it, it would sound didactic. I want it to be
so natural to the story that nonbelievers can read my suspense and not
be put off by the faith element. They can simply see it as part of that
particular character’s growth.
What is the biggest challenge for you as a writer?
Writing! Each book is so hard. You’d think it would get easier. It doesn’t. Writing strong suspense that lives up to my brand is difficult for me. But I keep slogging away at it.
What are you working on next?
I’ve already written the book that’s coming after Gone to Ground. Titled Double Blind. It’s a high concept story about a brain chip implant gone terribly wrong. What happens when the enemy you need to run away from—is your own brain? Double Blind releases this October. I’m now working on the suspense novel following Double Blind. Not lettin’ any cats out of the bag about that one just yet.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Great talking to you.
Portions of this interview first appeared as an article in the Mar/Apr 2012 issue of FamilyFiction Digital Magazine.
Watch the trailer for Gone to Ground:
C.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.