New Series Features Engaging Ensemble Cast
When you’re a New York Times bestselling author of more than 30 novels and write three a year, how do you keep it fresh? If you’re Allison Brennan, you begin a new series. Brennan’s latest “debut,” THE THIRD TO DIE, features unforgettable characters and an engrossing plot that will keep readers up long past bedtime and longing for the next release.
On leave from the LAPD, Detective Kara Quinn goes jogging in her hometown of Liberty Lake, Wash., and discovers a body. The ritualistic killing shows planning and rage. Meanwhile in DC, FBI Special Agent Mathias Costa prepares for the launch of his new Mobile Response Team (MRT), a law enforcement unit designed to go to rural or remote areas to assist local police. When Mathias hears of the Liberty Lake murder and that it fits the profile of a killer who has been dormant for three years, he jumps at the chance to make this case the first for the MRT. To stop this serial killer, Mathias, local law enforcement, and Kara will have to cooperate to figure out who the killer is and where he is hiding before he strikes again. This time the stakes are even higher, because the life of one of their own is on the line.
Recently, The Big Thrill contacted Brennan to talk about her prolific career and THE THIRD TO DIE. Why a new series now?
“I’m currently writing my 17th Lucy Kincaid thriller,” she says. “I don’t want to be bored with her, and I needed something else to write to keep Lucy and her world exciting for me. Plus, when you change publishers, having a new concept, a new world, helps. Everyone gets excited—not just me as the author, but readers and publishers.”
Sometimes an original idea is ahead of its time. “I came up with the Mobile Response Team concept years ago. I don’t remember when, I just loved the idea of a team of the best of the best moving around solving complex cases. A now-retired FBI agent friend said the FBI doesn’t have anything like that. They have ERT units (which stay in their jurisdiction) and specialized teams like BSU and HRT that may be called out to assist a local jurisdiction. I let the lack of possibility kill the clear plausibility of the storyline.”
Nevertheless, the idea coalesced in THE THIRD TO DIE. “I was thinking about new stories and I wanted to go back to my basics—meaning, what do I write well? What am I known for? Most of my reviews comment on my strong female characters and my dark plots,” Brennan says. “And the idea of a random serial killer killing in threes every three years popped into my head. Why? Who is he and how does he pick his victims? Is he truly random or does he have a purpose? I merged the two ideas and decided that IF the FBI were going to have a Mobile Response Team, they’d be the ‘best of the best’ and focus in areas that are underserved—remote, rural—or with an unusual case that local authorities aren’t prepared to tackle. I ran the concept by my FBI friend and he said it was plausible—which was all I needed to commit. So I jumped on it.”
Brennan’s characters—both good guys and bad guys—develop as she writes. “I start with a snippet, some physical or psychological trait, or a conversation or situation, and run with it and see where that character takes me,” she says. “I learn about them as I write, just as if I were sitting down at Starbucks meeting someone for the first time. I’m also very visual, so I picture the scene in my head, through the eyes of my viewpoint character. I don’t always know what they’re going to say or do until I put them in a situation.”
LAPD Detective Kara Quinn is a good example. “I didn’t even know she was a cop until she started running down the trail,” Brennan admits. “But as she was running, her backstory popped into my head. I knew she didn’t have a perfect childhood, but what if she were raised by a con artist? What happened leading up to the shooting that put her on forced leave from LAPD? Why did she become a cop in the first place? I didn’t know the details until later in the book when I got deeper into Kara’s head, but it was all there in that first scene, hints of who she is and why.”
Getting the details right is important to Brennan. She has more than 60 books on criminal psychology, forensics, procedures, law enforcement memoirs, true crime—that she taps into regularly. “Plus, I have several people to call for details—local law enforcement, FBI agents, criminologists, nurses, etc. The key is to make it feel real without the story being dragged down by details. And I don’t know what I would do without the writing group Crime Scene Writers, which hosts experts in virtually every field to answer questions.”
THE THIRD TO DIE jumps into the middle of a serial killer’s crime spree. “When I came up with the idea of a serial killer killing in threes every three years, I had to consider what I know about criminal psychology against what I have learned about serial killers,” Brennan says. “When you get into the human mind, you can’t really know everything. Psychology, emotions, physiology, mental illness, chemical imbalances, abuse, any number of things can go into the creation of a serial killer. I try to create a real person and show how he (or she) went down a dark path. Why do some people with awful childhoods grow up to do good, while others grow up to do evil? Is that nature? Is that nurture? Whether it’s a serial killer, or as in the second MRT book where the motivation is more common to human nature, I want to know why. So I get into their head to figure out what they’re thinking and how they got to this point and how they get pushed over the line.”
The one thing she holds to is this: “There is always a reason. We may not understand it, we may not see it, but the killer always has a reason.”
The Mobile Response Team series is a departure from some of Brennan’s other work, in that it features an ensemble cast. “The single biggest challenge was creating an ensemble cast of original characters and trying to figure them out,” she says. “I wanted them to be unique (different from my current series), believable, and mostly real—if any of my characters walked up to a reader on the street, I’d want my reader to know them.”
Book Two is already finished. “Because I write contemporary crime thrillers, I try to mirror what I see in the real world—the good and the bad. But because I crave justice in real life, in most of my books justice will be served—even if my characters have to go through hell to achieve it.”
To write three books a year, Brennan writes eight to ten hours each weekday and six to eight hours on weekends. “Before I quit my day job (in the California state legislature), I wrote every night after the kids went to bed, from nine to midnight, no exceptions. It didn’t matter what my word count was, as long as I put in three hours every night. The story came—sometimes 500 words, sometimes 3,000. During the two years I kept the three-hour-a-night writing schedule, I wrote five full-length books.”
For aspiring writers, Brennan advises, “Make your writing time sacred. Don’t make excuses. Focus on the time actually writing, not word or page count. If you put in the time, the words will be there.”