Chris Mooney

Chris Mooney was born and raised in Lynn, Massachusetts. After attending St. John’s Preparatory High School in Danvers, he went to college at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. He worked for a few years after college at various jobs before starting his first novel. It a few more years of writing and editing but eventually the book emerged as Deviant Ways which was followed by World Without End and Remembering Sarah which was nominated for a Barry Award and the Mystery Writers of America’s prestigious Edgar Award for Best Novel. His latest book is The Missing: A Thriller. Currently, Chris lives outside of Boston with his wife and son where he is at work on the fourth novel in his Darby McCormick series, The Living Dead.

Q. When did you start writing?

I wrote my first story in the fifth grade. I had been sick at home with the flu, and I remembered watching a terrible black-and-white horror movie on Creature Double Feature and thinking to myself, “I can do better than this.” So a little voice in my head said, “So go ahead and do it.” I wrote it out longhand, this sci-fi story called The Galactic Super Seven about a group of kids who have to go out to space to, naturally, battle intergalactic supervillains. When I got back to school, I handed the story to my teacher to see what she thought. She told me it was good, gave me some feedback, and then allowed me to read it to both the fifth and sixth grade classes.

Q. Why thrillers?

I remember reading The Shining when I was about twelve or so and being scared to death. But I couldn’t put the book down. I fell in love with that feeling. That’s what a good thriller does – it grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go until you finish.

Q. What kind of writing schedule do you keep?

I write in the mornings, until one or so. Then at some point I write in the early afternoons too, staring around three and ending at seven. My goal is to produce at least four solid pages a day.

Q. Do you keep a notebook for ideas?

I keep several Moleskin notebooks. Ideas for novels each get their own notebook. I also use Post-It notes and stick them in the appropriate book for future reference. I must have about 12 notebooks working at the moment.

Q. How do you prepare for a book? Does the plot come first? A character? A killing method?

For me, it always begins with a gripping situation that usually starts with the words “What if . . .” The details of the situation are hazy until I start down to write. And then things become clearer. And then come the surprises, the twists and turns. I’m usually writing when a voice or image pops into my head and hands me some sort of shocking development. Plot always comes easy for me. Characters, not so much. I work very hard on creating believable, sympathetic characters.

Q. When you’re working on a plot does it develop in an orderly way from beginning to end or do you find yourself skipping around–working from back to front, front to back middle out?

When I start a book, I always, always, know how it starts out. Nine times out of ten, I know how it’s going to end. I never know what’s going to happen in the middle. That’s where most writers get stuck, myself included. I call it “No Man’s Land.” This, I think, is the place where writer’s block rears its ugly head. The only thing you can do is to keep writing.

Q. What are some of your techniques to build suspense?

The biggest thing I try to do is to go against a reader’s expectations. Anyone can go into, say, a haunted house and encounter a ghost. But what would make that sort of story interesting and suspenseful is to, say, go into the haunted house and not find a ghost. And then your character comes out of the house only to find a fleet of ghosts staring back at him. It’s about going against expectations.

Q. How do you develop your villains? Do they come first?

Their method of killing? How much do you work on developing their psychology? I never know who the villain is, what is motivating him – or her. The details sort of just come to me as I’m writing. I try to make each villain as different as possible. Think about Hannibal Lector. He’s a psychiatrist. And a cannibal. Those two things aren’t supposed to go together.

Q. You must create characters knowing from the beginning that their destiny is to be a victim? Is that hard? How important is the development of the victim’s character?

Most times, I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen to the characters – including my main characters. There are always surprises to be found. I’m not a writer who subscribes to the belief that the characters take over, and the writer’s job is to let them go. I do believe that the story is the boss. And the characters must fit the story.

Q. Do you feel comfortable writing woman characters? Do you feel that you understand how they think and speak?

I’d say I feel reasonably comfortable. I go into it with some confidence because I feel that a woman can do anything a man can. I truly believe that. But there are some things that make me pauses – not so much physical differences but the day-to-day things that I don’t know about. For example, in a scene I just wrote, I needed to know what kind of underwear my series character, Darby McCormick, wore. Now men have three types: boxer, the tighty-whitey briefs, or that weird combo of the two, the boxer brief. Women have thongs. They have French cut, they have low cut – they have all of these different variations on underwear. So when these things happen, I consult my wife.

Q. Do you consciously try to listen to people talking to help you when you’re writing dialogue? Do you have any other dialogue techniques?

Real life dialogue has nothing to do with the dialogue in fiction. To learn how to write dialogue, you have to read a lot. In my case, I read a lot of books by the writers I think do it best – guys like Stephen King, John Connolly, Elmore Leonard, and Dennis Lehane.

Q. When you write dialogue do you try to spell out accents, normal speech contractions, etc.?

Dialogue in fiction has its own rhythm. To understand it, I read a lot. When it’s done well, it takes you deeper into the story. When it’s horrible, it takes you out of the story.

Q. Do you use a thesaurus?


Q. How do you develop characters? Do you use people you know? Movie stars? Famous people?

I never base characters on people I know personally. I will, however, use qualities I find fascinating. I did base a character in a book – a recurring character named Coop – on Tom Brady’s good looks, but that’s it.

Q. Do you have any rules about people who you won’t kill?

Children? The hero or heroine? Pregnant women? Blind beggars? Or should every character in your books be very careful? Every character should be careful. No one is safe – not even the main character.

Q. Do you have any rules about dealing with the reader in terms of clues? Violence? Making characters very likable and then killing them? How much of the killing you will describe?

I write thrillers, so there’s going to be some sort of violence. What I try to do is to leave it off-screen as much as possible. Sometimes I can’t – sometimes the scene requires it – but I’ve found that it’s best to leave the grisly details to the reader’s imagination.

Q. Do you have any sympathy for characters you kill? Is it hard? Does it hurt? Do you think about them when you’re not writing? After they’ve been killed?

I don’t have any sympathy. It’s just a story!

Q. Are their any characters you wished you didn’t kill, so you could use them again or for any other reason?

It hasn’t happened yet, thank God. But I do realize now, writing a series, that once a book is published, you’re locked into your character’s past actions. So I think carefully about what to do.

Q. Do you think movies influence you’re writing in terms of structure, the length of scenes, cuts between scenes, amounts of dialogue?

Movies have influenced me in the sense that I think of what I call “visual stories.” People say when they read one of my books, it’s like a movie unfolding inside their head. Your question about the length of scenes . . . I write short chapters. Always have, it wasn’t a conscious thing, but I do realize now that almost every thriller has very, very short chapters. Why? Because short chapters capture a reader’s attention – and writers are fighting to capture people’s short attention spans these days.

Q. Does the thought of turning a book into a movie ever influence any aspect of your book?

It really doesn’t. The story is the boss. And a book and movie are two different beasts – apples and oranges, as the saying goes.

Q. Any books and movies you’d like to recommend?

You can go on my website,, to see the books I recommend. I recommend a book every month. I just finished The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which was excellent. Now I’m about to dive into Dan Brown’s newest.

Q. Any general advice for prospective thriller writers?

Read. Read as much as you can. Read the great books that will depress you into thinking you’ll never be that good. And read the crap that makes you believe you can write better. The bad books will teach you more than the good ones.

Q. Any future projects you could share?

I’m writing the next Darby McCormick book, The Living Dead. I’ve also started a book featuring one of my popular characters, Malcolm Fletcher, a former profiler now on the FBI’s Most Wanted.