I had the good fortune to attend a writing workshop with Erin Flanagan and was impressed with her understanding of how fiction works and what it takes to make it compelling. The author of short story collections early in her career, Flanagan has turned her attention to writing mystery novels.
Her latest, Come with Me, tells the story of Gwen Maner, a widowed single mom, drawn back to her hometown with her daughter by a former acquaintance Nicola Kimmel, who offers financial and emotional support. Gwen begins to wonder when Nicola gets her a lucrative job, rents her a house on her street, and charms Gwen’s daughter. The stakes get higher as their lives become hopelessly intertwined.
Flanagan talks about her writing life and the development of her latest novel:
AUTHORLINK: You’ve made a transition as a writer from short stories to novels that have an element of mystery/crime/thriller. Talk to me about this transition, what the forms share, what differs, and why you made the switch.
“I started to understand more instinctually what I need a plot to do…”
FLANAGAN: I love writing short stories and really wanted to try novels, but after shelfing four of them, I had to accept something wasn’t working. I was pretty sure the problem was plot and structure, so I started reading tons of mysteries and thrillers where plot is more at the forefront.
After a few years of devouring these by the boatload and loving them, I started to understand more instinctually what I need a plot to do, and that I needed an idea elemental to the plot arc and not just the character arcs. The best way I saw to do this was to start with a mystery or crime. But the other, more surprising thing I could not crack coming from short stories to novels was character depth. That’s almost embarrassing to admit because honestly, I’ve always prided myself on my character development, and would hear a lot from readers saying my characters felt like someone they knew. That was true for a short story, but what it took me forever to understand was that in a short story you really explore who a person is at a pivotable moment in their life, but in a novel, you also look so deeply at how they got to that moment. Once that was
pointed out to me by an editor in an early draft of Deer Season (god bless that woman and her gentle comment of “can you let the reader in more here?”) it really changed how I wrote novels.
I still screw this up in every first draft, but now I know to look at it.
AUTHORLINK: Where did the idea for Come with Me come from?
FLANAGAN: I’m happy to say this thriller about a toxic female friendship came from a conversation with the wonderful girlfriends I have now. I was at a retreat with my writing group, and we were going on about how happy we were to have found our group of women who is absolutely supportive and uplifting and kind and funny, and how lucky we feel not to have any of that weird competitiveness or the controlling dynamics that we had with earlier relationships.
Another factor was that I was single until my early thirties, so for most of my life, it was my relationships with girlfriends not romantic partners that were central to my identity. Some of those friendships didn’t work out, and yet there wasn’t a way to really break up and move on. It got me thinking, what if one of those relationships had been bad enough that had to happen?
What would that look like?
AUTHORLINK: You did a masterful job developing a main character Gwen, who found herself prone to manipulation by a character like Nicola, who has many sides but above all a strong survival instinct.
Tell me about your research and where you drew the characters from.
” I wanted to explore how smart women can be so easily controlled by another…”
FLANAGAN: Oh, thank you! Gwen was an easier character for me to tap into. She’s insecure, somewhat naïve and feels like others know better about things than she does. I hate to say it, but I really identify with that. When I was in graduate school and the start of my career as a professor, I had such a terrible case of imposter syndrome I always just assumed everyone had their shit together but me. When I started the book, I wanted to explore how smart women can be so easily controlled by another, because I think it’s something a lot of smart women can identify with. Nicola was a harder nut for me to crack. I really didn’t understand why someone would want to control someone else, and it took me writing her Pov three times through the book, beginning to end, until I finally figured her out. It took going back into her past and seeing what shaped her to understand her. I really didn’t want her just to be a controlling bitch, but to have an arc of her own and a chance at some, if not peace, at least redemption at the end.
AUTHORLINK: You structure the book by sections that correspond to Nicola’s rules to live by. How did you decide to do that and what did that help you do as a writer?
FLANAGAN: I love that you brought this up, because the honest answer is I didn’t come up with this structure. I had the series of rules that Nicola lives by in the book, but it was my editor at Thomas & Mercer, Jessica Tribble Wells, who came up with this great idea to structure the book around them, and to have no flashbacks after the rule “Never Look Back.” This is what I love so much about collaborating with an editor I trust and respect. They want what’s best for the book, and two minds is always better than one, so to collaborate with someone to take a story to the next level is a real gift.
AUTHORLINK: You have some really powerful plot twists in the book. What advice can you offer on developing twists that work?
FLANAGAN: First of all, thank you! I think surprising the reader is one of the hardest parts of writing because you’re balancing that desire for something unexpected to happen with the need to plant enough crumbs it makes sense. I find this incredibly difficult and decided early on that, for me, there is no twist so twisty that some reader out there won’t see it coming, which leaves me with the very helpful question: what does this book have to offer beyond the twists? This is, for me, where things get interesting. If the reader does see the twist coming, how does that twist reveal more than the surprise? What thematic elements are being reinterpreted or reinforced? What are we learning about the characters that is ultimately satisfying and is something we couldn’t have known without the twist? In many ways, these questions have taken some of the pressure off regarding twists, although added a different kind of pressure as well.
AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing Come with Me and how did
you overcome them?
” I think with every book the greatest challenge is one of confidence.”
FLANAGAN: I think with every book the greatest challenge is one of confidence. Am I smart enough to know what this story is trying to say? Am I the person to tell this story? Will it be worth reading? Given that this is my fifth book, I think I have a lot more faith now that I’m going to survive the story—that I can in fact write the book—but it’s still blind trust in myself
that I’m going to do it well.
One way to combat this challenge is to remind myself how much fun it is to build a world and populate it, to create problems and then solve them. Even if no one else reads the story, there’s such pleasure in the creating of it. It might seem ridiculous that I have to remind myself I’m having fun, but writing fiction is nothing if not ridiculous.
AUTHORLINK: You are part of a writer’s group with several other successful women writers. Talk about the importance of this group to your development as a writer.
FLANAGAN: Shout out to Christina Consolino, Meredith Doench, Katrina Kittle, and Sharon Short! To have these four women cheering me on means the world, and I cheer for them right back. One of us is always there to read a draft, to get together to write, to listen to another, to provide publishing advice, and so on. It’s been truly wonderful. We try to do twice-yearly retreats at the Hansen House Writing Retreat (another shoutout to our wonderful benefactors, Kelly and Doug Hansen!), which is at my sister’s house a mile away. We get together for 48 hours, write our asses off, eat everything that will fit in the house, and leave feeling both exhausted and inspired. I could not do this without these wonderful women, or maybe I just don’t want to.
AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.
FLANAGAN: I’m in the beginning stages of a novel where I don’t quite know yet if it’s going to hold together, but I’m also feeling that giddy rush of falling in love. I like to tell my students when they get stuck, to just open up a file and get sexy with it. Just get in there and have some fun! And that’s where I’m at right now. I’m fairly confident this one has legs, but until I’m sure, we’re not ready to go public with our relationship and are happy in our little bubble. Right now, it’s just me and the story, gettin’ sexy (laughs).
Erin Flanagan’s Come With Me was called a “nail-biting thriller” by Publishers Weekly. Her novel Deer Season (University of Nebraska Press) won the 2022 Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author and was a finalist for the Macavity Award for Best First Mystery and the Midwest Book Award in Fiction (Literary/Contemporary/Historical). Her second
novel, Blackout (Thomas & Mercer) was a June 2022 Amazon First Reads pick. She is also the author of two short story collections–The Usual Mistakes and It’s Not Going to Kill You and Other Stories–both published by UNP. She has held fellowships to Yaddo, MacDowell, The Sewanee Writers’ Conference, The Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, UCross, and The Vermont Studio Center. She contributes regular book reviews to Publishers Weekly and other venues.