Thrill of starting something new

Best-selling author Nalini Singh. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Best-selling author Nalini Singh. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Inspired by her travels through the South Island of New Zealand, Auckland best-selling author Nalini Singh has added thrillers to her growing library of genres. On the eve of Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival she talks to Rebecca Fox about her need to challenge herself.

Seeing a young woman jump off a bus at the start of a West Coast hiking trail and disappear down the path is an image that has stuck with Nalini Singh.

"She just vanished into the darkness," says the author, who was on the bus.

Singh, who lives in Auckland, has written more than 40 books and is famous for her contemporary romances and paranormal romance series which have featured in the best-sellers lists of the New York Times, USA Today and Publishers Weekly .

The image of the girl disappearing into the bush "worked away" in Singh’s mind for a while.

"I thought it makes the perfect setting for a thriller."

So Singh decided to give writing a thriller a go, as she is a "big believer" in stretching herself as a writer.

"I didn’t tell anyone about it. I decided not to sell the project on spec. I wanted to see what I could do with it without any pressure of deadlines."

In between work on her paranormal romances, Singh began to explore the genre, deciding to set the story A Madness of Sunshine in New Zealand.

"I wrote the whole thing before I told my agent that I’d done it. She’s used to that.

"I’ve previously sent her whole books she had no idea I was working on before."

Her agent liked it and soon publishers in the United Kingdom and United States picked it up, liking the different setting for a thriller.

"It was exciting. It’s been called New Zealand Noir, playing off Nordic Noir."

Singh has since gone on to write another New Zealand-set thriller Quiet in her Bones which made Amazon’s February 2021 Mystery/Thriller Best of the Month list.

Turning her hand to thrillers has not been that much of a change for Singh, who builds mysteries in to her paranormal romance storylines.

"I’m a huge mystery reader, alongside romance, science fiction, fantasy."

Singh’s move to thrillers echoed her earlier expansion from contemporary romance into writing paranormal fantasy series, something she always had interest in.

"At first I didn’t realise you could blend that into one with mystery and romance. When I did I was like "wow, it’s a thing", so I started writing it.

"I became obsessive about it, writing compulsively."

Ideas came to the fore that had been simmering away for years, such as a high school science project on telepathy which provided the seed idea for her "telepath" characters.

"It’s funny how things work; that things simmering for a really long time end up in a book."

She has enjoyed getting to grips with the different writing structures the thrillers called for.

"I’ve been a writer for a long time so I understand the underlying structure of storytelling but the crescendo or turning point is different in each so it’s a chance to explore a totally different type of storytelling."

Instead of having to concentrate on making sure her continuity is 100% correct between novels in her romance series, with thrillers it is having to ensure the police and medical details are correct.

"It’s more real world research, although I did have to research neurotoxins for one of my paranormal storylines, finding it in an Australian spider, so there are skills that transfer."

It has also enabled her to have an excuse to travel New Zealand and explore the countryside to find inspiration for the setting of her books, as her thrillers are stand-alone books, not series.

"Its fun getting to go to new places and develop new characters."

Most of her romances are in series, allowing her to not only create the storyline to be resolved in the book but an over-arching story following the characters and their lives.

"It’s a bit like a season of television."

When writing her first one, she had no idea it would lead to a series. However, as she went she found there were questions she could not answer in one book. It did not even have a name to start with.

"The series’ name grew organically from what readers were calling it."

Switching between writing the thrillers and romances has not been a problem.

"They’re very different. I find it rejuvenating. I can work away on the thriller while something that is driving me crazy [about the other] is working away in the back of my head.

"I really enjoy having multiple things I can dip in and out of."

Singh is aware she is in a privileged place in her career, where she can try out new things and have a say in what she does.

But it is the result of years of hard work. Singh has been determined to get her work published since she was at school, first submitting her work to an international publisher when she was 18.

"I’ve got a few rejections under my belt."

It was not until a day before her 25th birthday in 2002 she sold her first book Desert Warrior to Silhouette Desire.

Back then self-publishing was unheard of, so being picked up by a publisher was the only way to go.

"Honestly, I think I wrote 10 books before I sold the first one. But I wouldn’t change it. I look at it as training."

Those first books is where she learned about story structure, how to put emotion into a book and how to create three-dimensional characters.

"It was my apprenticeship."

Back then, she wrote at night after finishing her studies at law school and later after work as a lawyer, librarian or English teacher.

"I learnt to be productive in really short periods of time."

Ten years ago she was able to give up her day job and begin writing full time.

Working from a home office, she enjoys working alone and the flexibility it brings to write when inspiration strikes and take breaks to see friends and family when needed, including a group of fellow writers.

"Some days I just want to write and not stop, I’m in the zone and its flowing."

But she limits those she seeks feedback from for her writing, preferring to keep it to a "tight" group of people whose feedback she trusts.

"I’m of the belief that too much feedback risks watering down the writer’s voice."

Singh averages writing three books a year and is often working on multiple works at once, as edits come back from publishers.

For each book she writes several drafts, fleshing out characters and storylines as she goes.

"I have one of those brains that is very visual, it’s like a movie running in my head — the characters come to me like that.

"It can take an entire first draft to get to know a character."

When she gets to the final draft she finds herself "obsessively" writing, wanting to exclude all else.

She is careful to allocate enough time for each book as she does not like a rush to the finish.

"I like a more steady progression, so the book has the time it needs."

It has taken a few years for Singh to realise she needed more balance in her life and she now takes weekends off.

She has also realised the benefits of taking time and space to think.

"It took a while to learn that sitting, staring at my computer is not the best use of my time, that it is more productive to walk away, pull some weeds in the garden and let the brain rest."

Whatever she is doing, Singh also makes time to read — anything and everything, no genre is excluded — having realised it is important for her mental health.

"One year I felt out of sorts and when I looked at my reading list I realised I’d read so few books so I made a commitment to myself that it was really important to make a point to read."

Last year, during the Covid-19 lockdown, she discovered listening to audio books also gave her the same sense of calm as reading. She now listens to them while on the treadmill.

But she also enjoys gardening and has recently taken up making miniature models which satisfies her crafty tendencies.

"I listen to audio books while I’m doing them, too, so its a win-win."

To see

Readers and Writers Festival

Nalini Singh

  • ‘‘Crossing genres’’, Dunedin Public Art Gallery May 7, 2-3pm;
  • Writing romance workshop, Otago Pioneer Women’s Hall, 5-7pm;
  • ‘‘The Books that made me’’,Singh in conversation with Rose Carlyle and Kyle Mewburn, DPAG, May 8, 2-3pm;
  • ‘‘Writing Romance in the 21st Century’’, Singh with Steff Green and Jayne Castel, DPAG, May 8, 4.30-5.30pm.

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