Writing was something I’ve always loved in theory, but it felt like a pipe dream. Beyond the shaky economics of the profession, writing meant putting myself out there in ways that can be really, really uncomfortable. Writing a story and sending it out into the world is a humbling, unnerving, terrifying thing. Did I really want to roll over and show the world my underbelly? Did I dare?

For Kimberly Belle losing her job, in the financial crisis of 2008, was a now or never moment when she could either look for another job or write the novel she had always dreamt of writing. She chose the novel and is now a bestselling domestic suspense author. We catch up with her to talk about her intensive outlining process, character development and pacing and her number one trick to keep readers turning pages.

Please give us a brief overview of yourself and your work.

I am the author of four novels of suspense: The Last Breath, The Ones We Trust, The Marriage Lie, and Three Days Missing. My third, The Marriage Lie, was a semifinalist in the 2017 Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Mystery & Thriller and has been translated into a dozen languages. Writing is my second career; I worked for years in marketing and nonprofit fundraising before turning to writing fiction. I’m married to a Dutchman, which means I get to diving my time between Atlanta and Amsterdam.

As for my fiction, I write domestic suspense, which means I write about relationships—parent-child, husband-wife, siblings. I love exploring the emotions that come along with these kinds of bonds, mostly because they’re so universally recognizable. Toss in the suspense angle—a lying spouse, a child gone missing—and it’s a what-if scenario everyone can imagine themselves in. That’s the appeal of the genre, actually, that people will read it and think, that could have been me.

How did you begin writing?

I’m not one of those writers who penned her first novel in crayon. Writing was something I’ve always loved in theory, but it felt like a pipe dream. Beyond the shaky economics of the profession, writing meant putting myself out there in ways that can be really, really uncomfortable. Writing a story and sending it out into the world is a humbling, unnerving, terrifying thing. Did I really want to roll over and show the world my underbelly? Did I dare?

And then, in 2008, the economy crashed, and so did my job. By that time I was pushing forty, and I still hadn’t written that novel I’d always dreamed of writing. I saw it as a now-or-never moment. I could either go find another job, or I could go for it. I went for it, and now I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Three Days Missing by Author Kimberly Belle

What inspires you to write?

Inspiration is everywhere. In the news, on radio and tv, in snippets overheard at the grocery store or coffee shop. But what really inspires my writing—and the difference between and an idea and inspiration—is when an idea gives me a visceral reaction, a fluttering in my stomach or a tightening in my chest that tells me I’m on to something. With The Last Breath, it wasn’t the father coming home from prison to die that put me in knots, but imagining how that would feel for his adult daughter, Gia. For The Marriage Lie, that moment when Iris receives the note in her dead husband’s handwriting made me giddy and sick to my stomach at the same time. Once I’ve found my story seed, the bigger challenge is then translating that feeling to the page in a way that summons a similar reaction in the reader. 

Is there any particular incident that has happened along your writing journey that you’d like to share?

I was a brand new author, at my very first signing event in NYC. My editor was there, as was her boss and my publicist and a whole bunch of people I was meeting for the very first time. At one point, a man introduced himself and told me how much he enjoyed my book. He looked vaguely familiar, but I was overwhelmed and overly excited, and his name went in one ear and out the other without registering. I stammered out a thanks and to make conversation, asked him what he wrote. He smiled and said, “My name at the bottom of your checks.” It was my publisher’s president and CEO. 

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

The biggest advice I can give to any writer, aspiring or otherwise, is to keep writing. Letter for letter, word for word. Don’t wait for an agent, a publisher, a contract, just keep writing and polishing your craft, every single day. Treat your writing like a job. Set your alarm and got to “work” behind your laptop every day, five days a week, because if you wait for inspiration to strike—or for a story idea to come upon you—you’ll never get anything written. Some days you’ll end with a lot of words, other days you’ll stare at your screen and pull out your hair. In the end, it all evens out and eventually, you have a book.

How much do you outline before you begin writing?

The whole book! It takes me months to come up with the outline, and that’s before I write the first word. Every day when I sit down at my laptop, I know what I have to write and where my story is going. My plots are complicated, with lots of moving parts, and I just don’t see how I could do it any other way.

That said, I do give myself room for things to change as I write. In The Marriage Lie, one of my main characters was nowhere in my outline. He walked into a scene and I was like, who are you and what are you doing here? But he had a clear role in my story, and he turned out to be one of my most important supporting characters. I can’t imagine the story without him.

Do you have any advice for thriller writers?

Yes, that you don’t have to sacrifice character development for a fast pace. It’s always a struggle to balance the two, but I do try to come up with scenes that both move the story forward and deepen character for the people populating the scene. In Three Days Missing, for example, each mother responds differently to the story dangers, and their reaction says something about who they are as a person. Do they ask for help or demand it? Are they brave or do they fall down in a crying heap? Character development doesn’t necessarily have to slow the story down.

Your books are often praised for their ability to keep the reader in suspense, what is the key to maintaining the reader’s interest throughout the book?

I think the biggest thing is to plant questions in the readers mind and don’t answer them until the end. Was the husband on the plane? Who took the kid and is he okay? Every chapter should add to the mystery, and every chapter ending should plant yet another unanswered question. The reader’s need to know will keep him or her turning the pages.

The Marriage Lie by Author Kimberly Belle

What do you think is the biggest challenge for new authors? 

No matter what genre you’re writing in, it’s a crowded market. It’s hard work to stand out. Voice helps, as does a good sales and marketing team, but it usually takes multiple books to make a real splash. For me, it was my third that did it. Someone once told me that the most successful authors aren’t necessarily the best, but the most persistent. Keep at it and don’t lose hope.

What methods of book marketing do you find the most effective?  

I wish I knew! Sometimes a book’s success feels as elusive as fairy wings and pixie dust. What I do know is that it takes a village. My publisher has a marketing and sales team to get it on the shelves and a publicist to get the word out, and I hire an outside publicity firm on top of that. I also buy ads on Facebook and work my social media whether I have a book coming out or not. And of course you need a good product. The right title and cover and story. When all those elements are mixed up just right, it’s a magical combination.

What struggles did you face in the writing process?

Writing a book is a six-to-eight-month slog, and there’s always that feeling, when I shut down my writing software at the end of the day, that I should eke out a few more words. Especially when the words are flowing, it’s so hard to step away from the computer, even though the house needs cleaning and the dogs need walking and the kids are screaming for dinner. Balancing work with being present for the people who need me (including myself!) is a constant struggle. 

How do you deal with isolation, as writing is an inherently private exercise?  

For me, there’s nothing greater than spending an entire day in my house alone, with only my dogs and imaginary characters for company. I’m kind of a hermit when I’m writing a story, one of those writers who forgets to do the laundry and cook dinner. It’s why I so love writing retreats, where I can pound out words without having to take care of anyone but myself.

But one of the most pleasant surprises in this business has been how supportive authors are of each other, both in person and on social media. We don’t see each other as competition but colleagues because for readers, it’s not an either-or proposition. People who read and love Chevy Stevens or David Bell will like my books, and vice versa. When my friends release new books, I scream it from the rooftops, and they return the favor when it’s time for mine. Writing can be a lonely job, but being supportive of each other makes it so much more fun. 

You can find out more about Kimberly via her website and social media channels: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Goodreads.