If art imitates life, one might think Hannah Mary McKinnon is a fidgety person. Just when you think you may have entered the slightest comfort zone in her thrillers Her Secret Son (Mira) and most recently Sister Dear (Mira), something happens to turn her plots inside out. Maybe as a writer, she just can’t sit still!
“The more books I write, the more I plot them,” she said in a recent interview. “Detailed outlines make me more productive and efficient because I know where I’m headed. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll end up at the destination I mapped out.”
She noted that in one of her earlier works, The Neighbors, “The ending changed quite dramatically as I got closer to finishing my first draft. In Her Secret Son, the final chapters were different because I wasn’t happy with whom I’d planned to kill off. Sister Dear’s ending is close to how I’d imagined but even more sinister.”
“Having said that, as I write, more twists and turns come up, and that’s another fun part of writing, discovering what your characters will do when you let them loose.”
McKinnon’s most recent work, Sister Dear, focuses on a traditional sibling rivalry theme, but as BookTrib reviewer Valerie Taylor notes, “ The difference is McKinnon throws a howitzer into the plot, turning this contemporary thriller unexpectedly inside out and upside down.”
Taylor says the book “lures us into a mystery that we, as expertly trained readers, expect we’ll solve within the first 50 pages.” But not so fast.
Protagonist Eleanor Hardwicke grew up in a dysfunctional family, with a deceitful, selfish mother and competitive, delusional sister. So when her father lays dying and she discovers he wasn’t her real dad after all, that’s when the fun starts.
Did McKinnon base the sibling rivalry on her own life experience?
“Ha — not at all, thankfully! Sister Dear is a complete figment of my imagination, and my family is anything but messed up. Maybe that’s why I write these stories. Writing about dysfunctional families lets me explore fears from the safety of my keyboard, and reminds me not to take what I have, and the privileges that come with that, for granted.”
Eleanor is a website designer, and this career plays a central role in the story. Another career, say interior designer, could’ve worked as well. So why is she a techie?
“Eleanor is a bit of a recluse, and I needed her to have a career where she could work from home and deal with her clients predominantly over the phone or online. Her sister Victoria, however, is indeed an interior designer, and that fits well with her more outgoing personality.”
Speaking of careers, McKinnon years ago made the transition from the corporate world to writing books for a living. “My husband, who’s Canadian, wanted to go home after living in Switzerland for over a decade, and we decided to make the move. At that time, I was the CEO for a European IT recruitment company and had worked for the firm for 15 years. When we got to Canada, I set up my own business, which put a new spin on HR. It failed miserably. Within the first year of inception it was dead.”
“The experience left me reeling because I’d attached my identity to my job so heavily, I didn’t know what to do next. My husband saw it as an opportunity to try a different career. I’d played with the idea of writing a book and got to work on my first novel. After too many mistakes and revisions and edits and frustrations and writing courses and critique groups to count, I finally got agent representation, and my first book, Time After Time, published in June 2016. It was a rom-com – think Sliding Doors meets Groundhog Day – and after that book I moved to the dark side of domestic suspense and psychological thrillers.”
Now that McKinnon has several books under her belt, she has some practical advice for aspiring authors that she’s picked up along the way. “Read as much and often as you can and listen to audiobooks. Write, even if you think it’s rubbish, because a blank page is impossible to edit. Another tip someone once suggested was to skip ahead if I couldn’t get a grasp on a chapter or scene, that I should focus on another part of the manuscript and trust myself enough to backfill later. Also, I was advised to read my manuscript out loud. Every. Single. Word. Doing so helps avoid repetition, improves cadence, and zaps stilted dialogue.”
And what’s next? Not surprisingly, another thriller. “It’s another psychological thriller and is about a man who wakes up on a beach, not knowing who he is, or how he got there. When he makes it back to his hometown in Maine, he discovers he’d abandoned everyone and everything two years prior. Not only do some of the locals suspect him of murder, but he’s also faced with the daunting challenge of figuring out the truth about what he did, and to whom. I’m excited to introduce you to another cast of messed up characters!”