Breaking Out by Changing It Up: Write Something New

Author Karen Dionne (THE MARSH KING’S DAUGHTER) discusses her process in writing her breakout novel, and why changing genres and exploring new characters and plots might just be the key to standing out.
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Sara Gruen. Melanie Benjamin. Elizabeth Letts. Renee Rosen. James R. Hannibal.

No doubt you recognize some or all of these authors’ names. At first, it might not seem as though they have much in common. They write in different genres and for different audiences. Most are New York Times bestselling authors, but not all—at least, not yet. And while they are all authors with whom I happen to be personally acquainted, this isn’t the commonality I’m talking about.

This guest post is by Karen Dionne. Dionne is the author of THE MARH KING’S DUAGHTER. She is the co-founder of the online writing community Backspace, the organizer of the Salt Cay Writers Retreat, and a member of the International Thriller Writers, where she served on the board of directors. She has been honored by the Michigan Humanities Council as a humanities scholar, and lives with her husband in Detroit’s northern suburbs.

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The element these authors have in common that turned out to be crucial to their success is this: All of these writers took their career to the next level by changing the kind of books they were writing.

Sara Gruen wrote two horse-based novels before she penned her breakout novel Water for Elephants. Renee Rosen now writes critically-acclaimed historical novels (Windy City Blues, What the Lady Wants) after beginning her career writing for young adults. New York Times bestselling author Melanie Benjamin now writes novels based on well-known historical figures (The Swans of Fifth Avenue, The Aviator’s Wife), while her first two published novels written under another name were light, humorous chick-lit. Elizabeth Letts wrote two women’s fiction novels before her narrative nonfiction, The Eighty Dollar Champion, hit the #1 spot on the New York Times list. And finally, James R. Hannibal, whose early thrillers for adults drew on his experience as a Stealth bomber pilot, now writes a highly popular middle grade series featuring a character based on Hannibal’s synesthesia.

I too, decided to change what I write. I started out writing science-based thrillers similar to those written by Michael Crichton—think Jurassic Park and Andromeda Strain—which were published as mass market paperbacks. While the novels were moderately successful, they didn’t exactly make mine a household name.

Then I woke up in the middle of the night with the first sentences of what was to become my next novel fully formed in my head. Over the following days, as this character kept talking to me and I continued to write snippets in her voice, I quickly realized that this novel was going to be very different from my previous books—darker and more intimate, a twisted psychological suspense rather than the big-canvas “save the world” environmental thrillers I’d been writing.

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The Marsh King’s Daughter is the story of the daughter of a kidnapped girl and the man who took her, and is set in Michigan’s remote Upper Peninsula wilderness. When the notorious child abductor known as The Marsh King escapes from a maximum security prison, his daughter immediately knows that she and her two young daughters are in danger.

No one, not even her husband, knows the truth about Helena’s past: they don’t know that she was born into captivity, that she had no contact with the outside world before the age of twelve—or that her father raised her to be a killer. And they don’t know that The Marsh King can survive and hunt in the wilderness better than anyone ... except, perhaps his own daughter.

While the novel definitely has thriller elements such as a hunt-or-be-hunted chase and a rising body count, Helena’s emotional journey and her evolving relationship with her father are the heart of the story, which puts the book squarely in the psychological suspense category. As a young child, Helena loves her father to the point of worship. When she leaves the marsh, she hates her father—not only for what he did to her mother, but for all the things about the outside world he didn’t teach her that she needed to know. Then at age eighteen, when she’s had all she can stand of the notoriety of being known only as “The Marsh King’s Daughter,” she changes her name and her appearance and moves away, in effect denying her father. And finally, at the end of the story, she has to come to terms with who and what she is.

I’ve always been fascinated by what makes people tick, and I discovered in my early novels that I loved delving into my characters’ relationships: what they know, and how this knowledge along with their wants and desires play against the other characters’ desires to prevent them from reaching their goals, and so on.

Still, I had no idea until I started writing it that psychological suspense was actually my strong suit. The reception to The Marsh King’s Daughter has been truly astonishing. The book sold in a 12-way auction in the US, a 7-way auction in the UK, and translation rights have sold in 19 other countries. It’s my first hardcover novel. The book has been featured in Cosmopolitan and The New York Times Book Review. Publishers Weekly and iBooks in the US and RedMagazine in the UK selected the novel as one of their best books of the summer. In addition, The Marsh King’s Daughter has been optioned for film by the people who made The Revenant.

Based on my experience as well as those of the writer friends mentioned at the outset, I urge writers who haven’t yet reached their publishing goals to explore characters and book ideas that might be radically different than what they’ve been writing—yet still draw on their strengths.

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Elizabeth Letts was a history major and a horsewoman who used those skills along with her love of great storytelling to write The Eighty Dollar Champion. I lived in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for thirty years, where I homesteaded with my husband and infant daughter, living in a tent while we built our tiny cabin, carrying water from a stream, and sampling wild foods, much as Helena and her family do in The Marsh King’s Daughter. And as already mentioned, James R. Hannibal wrote from one strength—his unique experiences as a stealth-bomber pilot—but discovered even greater success when he switched to writing middle grade fiction featuring a character who shares his synesthesia.

If you’re an aspiring writer who has spent years on her agent search without success, or a published author sitting firmly on the midlist who dreams of writing her breakout book, perhaps it’s time to change things up. Don’t keep writing the same books over and over. Experiment with something new. Dig deep. Stretch. Reach. Grow. Find the stories that only you can write, whether they draw on who you are, what you know, what you’ve done, or what you love. In the process, you just might discover the kind of books you were meant to be writing all along.

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