Zibby Mag

The Webby Award-winning literary lifestyle destination.

The Ins and Outs of Writing Bestselling Thrillers with Stacy Willingham

Tuesday, January 09, 2024

“Understand that writing fiction is a very vulnerable thing, and it’s natural to doubt yourself—but never give up.”

Stacy Willingham is the New York Times, USA Today, and international bestselling author of A Flicker in the Dark, All the Dangerous Things, and her latest novel, Only If You’re Lucky. While Willingham originally set out to be a journalist, her long-form writing style and curiosity to understand people led her to begin writing fiction, and aren’t we lucky! In each of her novels, she keeps readers on the edge of their seats while also creating relatable, complex characters with depth. Read the Q&A below to learn about her writing journey, inspiration, and more!

Zibby Mag: After pursuing a career in copywriting, what made you turn to writing fiction, specifically thrillers? Are thrillers your favorite genre to read as well as write?

Stacy Willingham: I always wanted to be a writer; it was really just a process of determining what kind of writing I wanted to do. I originally hoped to go into journalism, but after graduating college, I had a hard time finding a job at a magazine or newspaper; instead, I took a job at a marketing agency, but was still writing freelance feature articles on the side. After about a year of doing this, I just wasn’t feeling very creatively fulfilled, and I realized my copywriting and freelance articles always had two things in common: they were very descriptive, and they were very long. My work was always having to get edited down to fit my allotted word count, and that’s when the lightbulb went off: I decided to write a book.

In terms of my chosen genre: yes, I’ve always loved a good thriller, especially thrillers that lean towards the psychological. I like trying to understand people—attempting to get a good, deep look into their heads—and I love it when they ultimately surprise me. When they turn out to be somehow different than who I originally pegged them to be. That was also one of my favorite parts of writing features—really getting to know the person I was writing about—so I decided to do the same with my books. I think that’s why I write first-person, character-driven novels, and I’m pretty sure my love of twists stems from that original love of being surprised. Nobody is ever who you think they are.

Where do you find inspiration for your thrillers? Do you typically start writing with the end surprise in mind, or do you write chronologically and let the ending unfold when you get there?

I actually find my inspiration from the news most of the time (real life is weirder and scarier than fiction!). The idea for A Flicker in the Dark came to me after watching a documentary about serial killers and seeing a picture of Dennis Rader with his daughter. The idea for All the Dangerous Things came to me after reading an article in The Washington Post about a man who travels around to true crime conferences in an attempt to solve the murder of his sister. Usually, some true story will pique my interest and I won’t be able to stop thinking about a certain perspective. That becomes my main character, and then the plot forms from there.

In terms of process, I always know the twist before I start. I’m a pantser, not a plotter, but I have to have some idea of where the story is going. Once I have my main character, the story’s “big idea,” and a solid twist in mind, I just start with chapter one and see where the characters take me. I try to be flexible and allow myself to make changes as I go; as a result, my final draft is often quite different from my first one.

Your two previous novels, A Flicker in the Dark and All the Dangerous Things, were both set around characters in midlife. What made you decide to craft Only If You’re Lucky around college students? Was the writing experience different to try to emulate a new perspective?

With A Flicker in the Dark and All the Dangerous Things, I think I subconsciously created characters who were in similar life stages as me: I was in the midst of planning my wedding when writing Flicker, which is probably why I had Chloe planning hers. While writing All the Dangerous Things, I had just turned thirty and was thinking a lot about having kids—and Dangerous, of course, is all about motherhood.

Only If You’re Lucky, on the other hand, was more of a nostalgic experience for me. The setting is inspired by the house I lived in in college, and I started writing it the year of my ten-year college reunion (in hindsight, I don’t think that was a coincidence). I’m still very close with my college friends, and we are always reminiscing about those early days together. It made me realize that, no matter where you are in life, most people still vividly remember what it was like to be young. Most people can relate to feeling like the new kid at school, to wanting to find your people and feel like you belong. Being in college is such a malleable time, and most people can also remember the very intense feelings that come with new friendships. The idea that you would do anything for your friends. Now that I’m older, I realize that sense of loyalty could actually be a very bad thing if you made friends with the wrong people, and that’s where the idea for Only If You’re Lucky came from.

So, yes, it was a different experience trying to put myself in the shoes of someone half my age—but at the same time, I remember those emotions very vividly and I had a lot of fun revisiting that time of my life. Thankfully, my college years didn’t involve all the murder and drama you’ll find in Lucky, but there is still a lot of me in that book, just like in all the others.

Where is your favorite place to write and what does your writing routine look like?

I’m a big fan of writing in coffee shops; I have a few favorites in Charleston that I visit every week. My routine tends to be a little chaotic, if I’m being honest; when I’m drafting, I try to write for several hours every day, but I’m definitely a mood writer, and I have a very hard time getting the words down if I’m not feeling particularly creative. For that reason, I try to be flexible and I rarely force it if I’m not feeling it. So much of writing a book happens away from the computer, so I give myself the space to think, plot, read and daydream during the day, too. I’ve fixed many plot holes by simply stepping away from my laptop and going on a walk, or just lying on the couch and staring at the ceiling!

What advice would you give aspiring writers, especially those looking to craft a thriller as compelling as all of yours?

Understand that writing fiction is a very vulnerable thing, and it’s natural to doubt yourself—but never give up on yourself. Do not let your fear of failure stop you from trying, because failure is just a part of this process. It’s inevitable, and it’s ultimately helpful, even when it hurts. Also: read a lot, and be curious about the world around you. Take a walk without any distractions and just notice all the stuff going on. That’s where so many of my scenes and characters come from.

After reading Only If You’re Lucky, what do you hope readers will take away about the nature of friendship, loyalty, and betrayal?

As with all my books, I love it when readers put themselves in my character’s shoes and think about what they would have done if they had found themselves in the same situation. I like creating characters who exist in the gray areas, who make questionable decisions for reasons that might actually make sense. Characters who do bad things, but may not necessarily be bad people. I would love it if readers finished Lucky and took a trip down memory lane, spending some time remembering what it was like to have so much freedom at such a vulnerable age—but mostly, though, I just hope they enjoy the ride!