Brandilyn Collins’ love affair with words began as a girl when, much to her family’s amusement, she proudly wrote a story about a stallion named Betsy. Her first job at 16 was as a typesetter at the private college she attended, so it was hardly surprising she would eventually try her hand at writing novels. It took 10 long years of learning the craft, but in 2001 her first novel, Eyes of Elisha, was published. She’s since produced 20 more, including her latest and perhaps most ambitious, Gone to Ground (B&H).
“The initial idea was triggered from seeing a TV true crime show about a string of unsolved homicides committed in a small Southern town,” Brandilyn explains. “The show focused more on the investigation or lack thereof, but I began to think of the people involved. How would such a horrible thing affect a small town?
“Then I got the idea for the premise: What if three women independently realized they’d discovered the killer—someone dear to them—and had to make the choice to bring the man down—except each suspects a different man? Now that had my attention because it was so rife with possibility for tension and high stakes in all three women’s lives, not to mention the town as a whole.”
But having a unique plot is only part of what creates a thrilling story. Brandilyn will be the first to tell you characters make or break a good suspense novel. “It doesn’t matter how ingenious the plot. If readers don’t empathize with the characters, if they don’t care what happens to them within the plot, they’ll stop reading. The very hard thing I continually deal with is how to write my trademarked Seatbelt Suspense—which promises a fast pace, yet still makes the story character-driven.”
Brandilyn considers Gone to Ground her most character-driven novel to date. Told in first person, the story unfolds through the eyes of those three very different women. “They represent two races and three generations,” Brandilyn says. “Much of their individual characterizations come from each woman’s manner of speaking and how she tells her story. I wanted their voices to sing.”
In her quest for authenticity, she even traveled from her home in Idaho all the way to Mississippi to interview the locals. “I made careful notes of how they spoke certain words. I knew I would be writing in dialect, and I had to get it right.”
She also immersed herself in the setting by spending a day driving around taking photos of where she planned to set her fictional town of Amaryllis. “I wanted people in that area to be able to picture it,” she says. When asked why she loves writing about small towns, Brandilyn is quick to point out it’s all about the intrigue. “Everyone knows everyone—or so they think.”
Overall, Brandilyn desires that people of all walks can enjoy her stories. “I don’t sit down to write a ‘Christian’ novel,” she says. “I sit down to write the best rollicking suspense I can. That’s my job—to entertain, not to preach. If I don’t entertain, the reader won’t finish my book. The faith element must rise naturally from the protagonist(s), as well as the challenges and danger in the story. As I write, this element becomes clear. If I tried to force it, it would sound didactive. I want it to be so natural to the story that nonbelievers can read my suspense and not be put off by the faith element. They can simply see it as part of a character’s growth.”