By Karen Harper
Melinda Leigh’s books are known for their suspense, but her in-depth characters and the family dynamics of her stories also keep readers coming back for more.
Since scoring a Best First Novel nomination in the ITW Thriller Awards for her 2011 debut, She Can Run, Leigh has gone on to publish 18 novels and a string of novellas co-authored with fellow Wall Street Journal bestseller Kendra Elliot. Leigh is currently juggling several ongoing series, including one centered on prosecutor-turned-defense attorney Morgan Dane and her partner, private investigator Lance Kruger. If you love continuing character series where you can really get to know the people in the story, Leigh’s latest Morgan Dane thriller, SECRETS NEVER DIE, is for you.
The Big Thrill recently caught up with Leigh for an inside look at her latest page turner, which finds Dane once again on the trail of a killer.
Please tell us what your new book, SECRETS NEVER DIE, is about.
SECRETS NEVER DIE is the fifth book in the Morgan Dane series. A retired sheriff’s deputy is murdered in his home. When his teenage stepson, Evan, disappears from the crime scene, he becomes the prime suspect. The boy’s desperate mother begs PI Lance Kruger for help. Kruger and defense attorney Morgan Dane set out to find the teen and prove his innocence, but the evidence against the boy is damning. Their investigation uncovers a string of shocking secrets that make them fear the worst—that Evan could be the real killer’s next target.
You’ve written fiction in a variety of lengths. Do you prefer novellas or book length?
I enjoy the variety of writing in different lengths. Novels give me the opportunity to explore greater depth of story, character, and subplots. I don’t plot my whole book before I start. I often start with outlining just a few major points. Every time I’ve tried to be disciplined and outline my book, I’ve changed my mind and tossed the outline by the midpoint. I enjoy discovering the story as I write. Because of my process, I often find the novella more challenging. Writing shorter works forces me to plot and to keep the story tight and focused. It’s a great exercise that has improved my overall writing.
You have a fantastic backlist, many of which are series installments. What are the advantages or disadvantages of single title vs. series for you?
The Morgan Dane series was my first continuing character series, and I’ve enjoyed it more than I anticipated. The slower, more organic progression of the romantic relationship doesn’t intrude on the mystery plot. I’m not forced to resolve every conflict in one book. Morgan and Lance’s relationship feels natural and solid.
I like to experiment with new techniques. It helps keep my writing fresh. Most of my early books were loosely connected. Secondary characters from one book would become primary characters in another. But I found myself wanting to explore more complex characters and to take my time in developing them.
You are a rare breed: a former banker who writes suspense/romantic fiction. Was there any transfer of talents and requirements from one career to the other?
My experience in business was extremely useful in getting my work published. As a banker, I cold-called on prospective clients. Rejection was part of the job. So, when I began querying my first book, She Can Run, I didn’t take rejections personally. Publishing is a business. Rejections meant the book still needed work to be marketable.
I knew nothing about writing when I started my first book. I remember getting comments back from a contest submission about POV. I had to google POV to see what the term meant. I had to revise She Can Run five times before an agent offered representation. Apparently, writing was a skill I needed to learn the hard way.
I’ve also written romantic suspense for years. My grit-teeth section always comes in the middle (“muddle”) of the book, because I know that part of the story can sag.
Can you give writers any advice on getting and keeping the action going?
I mentioned earlier that I don’t plot my books before I start. I begin with outlining just a few plot points. However, one of these points is a middle plot twist that turns the investigation in a new direction and drives the plot toward the climax. I believe this story upheaval is the key to eliminating the sagging middle.
Or, kill someone.
Can you tell us a bit about your lead character, Morgan Dane? Does she have any traits you have borrowed from yourself or people you know, or is she purely fiction?
I’m not quite sure how to answer this. All of the above? I draw from my own life experience and from those of people I know. I love to meet new people. I also read memoirs. I’m a nerd. I love history, but I want more than the facts. I want to know how events affected people’s lives, and I want to know how those events made them feel. Memoirs are wonderful for transforming events into consequences and emotions.
My most heartwarming—and heartbreaking—reader email was from a woman who, like Morgan, had lost her husband in Iraq. She identified with Morgan’s struggle to recover from her loss and was inspired by her determination to move on with her life. The fact that my fictional character affected her so strongly meant more to me that I can express.
With “real life” always impinging, how do you discipline yourself to find time to write—and, in this media-mad age, to promote? Any advice for writers struggling with this balance?
I find it’s easier to focus if I break down the process into a weekly page/word count. Contemplating a 400-page book can seem overwhelming. Forty pages a week feels much less intimidating. I also make lists of tasks, no matter how small. Crossing things off a list makes me ridiculously happy. But there are those weeks when I’m stumped by my plot or stuck on a scene, and I find myself procrasti-shopping online. Then I’m shocked by the number of Amazon boxes on my doorstep the following week.
Melinda Leigh is a Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon bestselling author. Her books have sold over 5 million copies, and she has garnered numerous publishing awards, including nominations for an International Thriller Award and two RITAs. A martial artist and animal lover, Melinda lives in Florida with her family and a small herd of rescue pets.
To learn more about Melinda and her work, please visit her website.