Thursday the Boston.com Book Club reunited virtually for a live chat with bestselling author Karen M. McManus on her latest thriller “The cousins. “Hosted by Kate Mikell of Cambridge’s Carré Porter Books, our conversation delved into the inspirations and unique forces at play in the novel as well as its writing techniques, upcoming projects, and the secret to getting readers to turn the page.
Here’s a recap of the discussion below, and you can watch the full recording. here.
The characters were inspired by a famous family, and take precedence over the plot
“The best storyline in the world can fall flat if you don’t care about who is involved,” the author said.
The idea for “The Cousins” came to McManus while she was reading a magazine article describing Kennedy’s grandchildren and she was captured by the idea of having “a name that could open so many doors” . In imagining the Story family, she sought to evoke a similar long-standing lineage of a New England family stretching back several generations, perhaps able to trace their roots back to the Mayflower. She actually found the surname “Story” on a passenger list of the famous ship, so she was able to manifest this idea of an established family in a tangible way.
Writing Young Adult (JA) Novels Leaves More Room For Character Development
Identity manifests in big and small ways throughout the novel – with some characters claiming to be entirely different people and others seeking to become the ideal versions of themselves. McManus carefully chose characters who embarked on a personal journey that complimented the central mystery and she credits the YA genre for giving her the space to do so. The teenage characters are already placed in a period of transition in their lives, and when you pair that with a solid plot, it creates an emotional resonance. “It’s about this journey of characters, of them trying to find their place in the world and that’s what attracts me,” said the author.
You need to know the highlights of your story before you start writing
McManus uses a screenplay writing tool called a Rhythm Sheet before diving into the writing process to define important action moments, including the ending, before filling in his dialogue and more detailed descriptions. “This is the flagship approach to writing. You can see far enough to continue down the road but you can’t see everything.
McManus has more exciting projects to come
Along with a screen adaptation of his novel, “One of Us is Lying,” which is set to begin filming this spring for NBC’s Peacock streaming service, two new novels are on the agenda for McManus. His next outing takes place over 24 hours in a city like Boston and takes a “Ferris Bueller meets murder” conspiracy approach – a group of distant friends who cut off school find themselves caught up in a more serious crime.
She takes care to integrate minority characters in her work
One of the three cousins, Millie, is of Asian descent from her father’s side. And while it is important for McManus to incorporate diversity into her novels, she takes care to include it in a respectful and precise manner. The author uses genuine readers, who share the same backgrounds as these characters, to ensure that they are portrayed correctly. “I have this balance where I don’t want to talk about other writers who write from their own experience, but I also want to create a cast that reflects the diverse world we live in,” she said.
Her writing schedule is a relic of her previous life as a marketing professional
Back in the days when McManus hadn’t yet given up her 9-to-5 job to become a full-time author, she was setting aside the 9pm to midnight hours to perfect her craft. Even now, she still says she’s more creative at night, able to write for up to 5 or 6 hours when the story unfolds. And, if not, sometimes just an hour or so, and that’s fine with him.
McManus’ Graduate Diploma in Journalism appears uniquely throughout his novels
Almost all of the author’s works have a nod to the media in one way or another, whether it’s a fictional news network or a local newspaper like in “The Cousins ”. Some form of media, ironically enough, also inspired the ideas for each of his books. “The Cousins” by magazine, “One of Us is Lying” by radio, “Two Can Keep a Secret” by TV show. “I like to absorb a lot of stories around me and there is often a little kernel in there that I can’t help but think of,” she said.
Creating a mystery that turns the pages all comes down to the characters, the connection, and the chemistry
The author’s secret for a captivating reading? Incorporate subplots that readers can solve before the main mystery, and create characters with chemistry. “They have to contrast with each other in a satisfying way and they have to be able to connect with each other and they also have to be in conflict with each other,” the author said. “So you really have to consider them as a unit and not 3 or 4 separate characters. If you do it right, I feel like the chemistry between them is almost like another character, it’s something tangible that the reader can hold onto.
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