Vicki Hinze has published more than two dozen thrillers and suspense novels in various subgenres, including romantic suspense and military romantic intrigue. Lately she has shifted her focus to Christian thrillers. She has won numerous awards and her books have been published in nearly a dozen foreign countries. When her deadlines permit, Vicki lectures and conducts workshops on writing craft. Her latest Crossroads Crisis Center thriller, Deadly Ties, has just been published.
SP: What is the concept behind your Crossroads Crisis Center novels? Do they feature continuing characters?
VH: People endure all kinds of crises, and those crises impact them on all levels: physical, emotional and spiritual. The stories are faith-affirming thrillers with personal consequences, but also broader consequences because the over-arching villain is an international terrorist group that uses criminal activity to fund its ideological interests. Deadly Ties is the second book, and it deals with abuse, human trafficking, and a horrific family relationship that the protagonist navigates on all three levels and comes through intact, stronger and wiser. That’s the common thread in the books. We endure, we survive, we grow wiser. We aren’t the person we were, we’re the person we become.
The key characters at the center and some of the villagers are recurring characters. Lisa and Mark, the protagonists in Deadly Ties, for example, are secondary characters in Forget Me Not, the first book, and now are the lead characters in the second one. In the next book, they are secondary characters again, and Beth and Joe, who are secondary characters in Deadly Ties, become the lead characters. So readers get to know the people of Seagrove Village and then to catch up with them to see what’s happened in their lives.
SP: Some people may have trouble putting the words “thriller” and “Christian” together. What distinguishes a Christian thriller from others? What would you say to crime fiction fans who might be reluctant to try one of these books?
VH: I would say we’re all three-dimensional people, meaning we have physical, emotional and spiritual aspects. So it’s reasonable that our characters would too. Our faith, or lack of it, or struggles with it, particularly in situations that are dark and dangerous, challenges our judgment and decisions, and that’s a normal reaction for any human being. For example, we might be willing to risk our own lives to stop an abduction, to prevent someone from a fate worse than death. But are we willing to risk the life of someone we love? Where do we get the strength to do what we must do? To face our darkest, deepest fears? To attempt the impossible? Even those of faith experience doubts and make mistakes. Not only doubts about themselves or that impact them, but ones that impact others. Doubts about God and mistakes in understanding the multitude of ways He works in lives. Christians aren’t exempt from problems or trials. The way they confront them and the conflicts created as a result have the added dimension of spiritual warfare: a battle not just for your life, but for your heart, mind and soul—all of you.
SP: You’ve had a long and varied career, writing many different types of novels. What drew you to Christian fiction? What are you able to do in this type of novel that you haven’t done before?
VH: I have written many types of novels. In all of them, there was a spiritual element or conflict. The difference now is that it is less obscure and more overt. Too often we neglect our spiritual side—the home of our ethics, values and morals—and yet it is as critical to our well being as our physical and emotional health. That neglect leaves our personal three-legged stool with a short leg, and us wobbling. We can’t be wholly healthy unless we know who we are, what we believe and why we believe it. That I can take these things on openly really appeals. One of the things I’ve been able to do is tackle issues like human trafficking on a very personal level and explore it from all three human aspects. Christian novels don’t minimize the impact on the whole person—the one abducted and sold, or the family who wonders and searches for the victim. In this venue, a writer can be brutally honest and earnest about the far-reaching consequences and address the hardships constructively. That really appeals to me. Constructive solutions. And it’s my hope that those suffering messy relationships or horrific situations will come away thinking that if the characters can be flawed like me, have doubts and fears like me, and they can get through their troubles constructively, then a way to do it exists. If they can do it, I can too. That’s my greatest hope for all the Crossroads books.
SP: You’ve said that you refuse to write any story you don’t love and feel compelled to write. What compelled you to write Deadly Ties?
VH: Human trafficking has been on my mind for years. I wanted to take it on in the late 1990s, right after I’d addressed biological, nuclear, and chemical warfare, but the response from my then editor was that the subject was too disturbing. When I expanded to write faith-affirming thrillers, I had to try again to do something to get the issue on peoples’ radar, so I did. This time, my editor was not only receptive but enthusiastic about shining a light on the problem. It’s rampant, and yet we hear so little on it. I hope Deadly Ties will help change that.
SP: Thrillers depend on exciting plots filled with unexpected twists. Do you plan your stories in advance, with a firm outline, or do you let things develop as you write? Have you ever been surprised by the direction a story has taken?
VH: Actually, I do both. I know the story in advance. Work on developing characters and plot until I have, I think, a firm grip on them before I start writing. Then I write and the characters and plot further develop themselves, adding nuances and twists I didn’t expect. I’m often surprised by the story’s direction. So often that I developed what I call the Hundred Page Rule. When the story veers off the expected track, I follow it a hundred pages. If it works, I keep it. If not, I toss it and start again at the point it veered.
It’s easy to explain what happens. You work through the people, place, events and all that becomes subconscious soup. It stores everything in symbols and forgets nothing. So then when you write, the subconscious repairs or fixes inconsistencies. That’s when you, the writer, get a surprise twist or veer from the plan. If you’ll write through it, you’ll eventually discover what the problem was. So your subconscious makes corrections before you are consciously aware of them. You just have to trust the process.
SP: Which usually comes first for you, the characters or the story?
VH: For me it’s typically an issue that hurts or negatively impacts people, and it typically starts with me being angry about it. Our food not being inspected coming across our border, dirty bombs being unaccounted for, many in our military being eligible for food stamps when they already sacrifice so much to protect us—that one spawned nearly a dozen books (so far)—our collective opposition to slavery and yet human trafficking runs rampant. But anger isn’t enough to sustain a novel. Emotional investment is. I get emotionally invested, and then characters and story all populate and the next thing I know, I have a book. So I guess they develop characters and story simultaneously, but they all start with that deep emotional investment.
See, I believe that in our society we are bombarded with the dark stuff and we’ve restricted the good stuff to the point that our scales are unbalanced. That warps society and those in it because people become anesthetized to the bad and perceive it as normal. It isn’t normal, but the good—ethics, values, personal responsibility and accountability—all the tools we use to forge solid judgment aren’t there to counter that assessment. Our judgment is flawed, skewed. When you balance the scales, give the good and bad equal weight, you have stronger conflicts and a more intense story because the obstacles and characters in it can carry more weight. The outcome is less certain. The struggle is harder and broader, the risks more significant and in-your-face personal, and who will win becomes anyone’s guess. The war becomes personal, relevant and universal to us all. I love that.
SP: You wrote once that you “test” each story for strength, depth, and worth before making a commitment to it. What does the testing consist of?
VH: First test is purpose. What is my purpose in the writing this story? Is it worth the time from my life it will take to tell it? (A writer’s time is a writer’s life, and mine is precious to me; I don’t want to waste a second of it.) What is the story’s potential value to others? What do I have to say I want others to hear? Why? Can I do it in a way that entertains? (Soapboxes are not allowed.) What can I bring to this story that has meaning?
After testing an idea and feeling confident I have something of value to bring to it, then I test the idea itself. Why tell it? What difference can it make? Does it have the potential to open minds, offer a different perspective, show both sides of a challenge and offer some insight or understanding that might be beneficial? If I don’t write it, will it matter? To me, will it matter? What in the story clears the surface clutter and gets down to the marrow of the bones? What’s there? What isn’t? Why?
It’s these type questions that I ask myself. And the ideas that don’t carry purpose, can’t carry a lot of story weight because the conflicts are too weak, lacks depth and worth, I don’t write. I know me, and I’m not going to have the investment I need to have in the work to give it my all. If you’re not putting in your all, a reader can’t get it out. You’re shortchanging everyone, and that’s wasting your time and everyone else’s. You just don’t do that. It shows in the work in a million ways and it violates your purpose for writing at all. That’s not a place I’m willing to go.
SP: What writers have you learned from by reading their books? Can you name any who have influenced your own writing?
VH: I’ve learned something from every writer I’ve read. Each writer is different, has strengths and gifts that come through in their books. One might have such a strong voice that it’s recognizable out of context anywhere. In the work, in a post on a social site, in an email. Voice is the most significant gift a writer can give to the work. Another might have a fantastic gift of storytelling but is a technical nightmare. In that work, you learn what to do on storytelling and what not to do on the technical side. What I love most is reading writers who don’t get so caught up in technique that they edit out the magic in the story. You read enough and you can sense those who are writing for the sheer joy of it. Because they love it. Those, to me, are always the best books. In parts perfection, in others flawed, but beloved. And after I’ve read one like that, I’m always awed by their gift. It’s a wonderful thing to read a book written by an author who loved it. It’s got the magic that can’t be faked or edited in. It’s there from word one and stays put all the way to the end.
I realize you asked about specific writers who influenced, but I can’t name one without naming them all, and you really don’t want that list. I read all over the place and have my whole life. I’ve learned from them all, so it would be a really, really long list.
SP: Do you have time to read purely for pleasure? What’s on your TBR pile right now?
VH: Typically, yes. Right now, no. I do five websites and my domain files corrupted over the holidays. So I’ve been recreating websites rather than reading and that has me facing three stacked tight deadlines.
When not in “crunch-mode,” I do read purely for pleasure. Lots of nonfiction and fiction. I don’t read in the genre I’m writing in when I’m in create-mode. It messes with your voice. So I always have a large TBR pile of books. I love thrillers, suspense, romantic suspense and romantic comedy. But I also love true crime, biographies and good magazines. Scientific American has been my favorite for years. I typically have three or four books going at once because I write multiple books simultaneously. So it depends which one I’m focusing on as to what I can read for pleasure.
I just finished Buzz Bernard’s Eyewall, which won’t be out until May. He’s a new author but this book reads like he’s been at it for decades. Extremely talented and his work at the Weather Channel and familiarity with hurricanes shows in a thousand ways. (My husband was a Hurricane Hunter before going into Special Ops, so I’m really persnickety about hurricane stories.) Before that, I read James L. Rubart’s Rooms. Another gifted author and very creative book. Kathy Carmichael’s Hot Flash (romantic comedy) cracked me up. Now she’s done a romantic mystery Diaries of a Confessions Queen I’m eager to read. As soon as I finish the next Crossroads book, I’m going on a thriller-reading binge. My low level light is definitely on. Peter James, Doug Lyle, James Rollins have new ones coming or on the stack, and Allen Wyler has a new medical thriller coming I can’t wait to read. Also want to catch up on the political thrillers. Love, love, love those.
I’m looking at the TBR pile, Sandra. Waist high, two rows. About 40% nonfiction and 60% fiction. Makes me wish I had a clone that could just read all day. Wouldn’t that be fabulous?