“Keeping us in suspense”

Published in the Dunkirk Observer and online at observertoday.com.

Editor’s note: Last week writer Rebecca Cuthbert reported about local writer Wendy Corsi Staub’s newest accomplishment, having a Wendy Markham chick-lit book adapted for the Hallmark Channel. This week Cuthbert focuses on Staub’s suspense thriller, “The Black Widow” and the author’s thoughts about writing in that genre.

“The Black Widow,” (HarperCollins) features protagonist Gaby Duran, and concludes Staub’s cyber predator trilogy. Gaby Duran has many qualities that Staub’s dedicated readers will recognize. However, as the author said, the star of this book is also somewhat of a departure from other recent characters.

“Gaby is, like my other protagonists, resourceful, strong, and intelligent,” she said, “(but she is) a little younger than my recent heroines, lives in the city as opposed to a small town or suburbia, and is single instead of married with children, though she once was a wife and mother. Her past is more painful than some – she married the love of her life, but their marriage didn’t survive the tragic loss of their infant child.”

Staub also explored Hispanic culture in writing this novel, and is grateful for the experience. “Gaby also happens to be my first Latina heroine: she’s Puerto Rican-American. I have many Hispanic family members and close friends, so I embraced the opportunity to explore the vibrant culture, and it was a crucial element within the context of this particular plot,” she said.

Staub explained that her recipe for success isn’t so much a recipe as it is knowing her fans, knowing her genre, and balancing expectations with creativity.

“Because I write within a specific genre – domestic psychological suspense – my readers have certain expectations about the kinds of characters who are going to populate the books and what’s going to happen to them,” she stated. “My protagonists tend to be ordinary people whose lives are turned upside down and jeopardized in some way. In real life, when you plug different people into an identical set of circumstances, the outcome is going to be unique every time because of who they are as individuals and how they react to conflict and interact with others. The same is true in fiction.”

Staub said this is not only true of convincing, well-rounded protagonists, but of exciting plots, as well.

“Look at it this way: if I tell you that I woke up this morning and got out of bed – well, that’s not very interesting, is it? You did the same thing. We all did. But the manner in which an event unfolds-and whether others might find it interesting-depends not just upon how it happens, but to whom it happens. Thus, when I conceive a basic plot, I think about how various personality types might behave within the confines of a specific scenario, and how that behavior might influence the plot,” she said.

Staub even gave an example of how drastically circumstances can differ for two characters, influencing the choices they make:

“A happily-married suburban stay-at-home mom with three children is going behave differently than, say, a painfully shy, recently bereaved pregnant widow working two jobs to pay the rent on an inner city apartment,” she said. “Thus, every protagonist I create is unique and comes with a unique background and circle of unique characters with whom she interacts.”

Some of the characters Gaby Duran interacts with – for better or worse – are people she meets online. Staub frequently uses current technologies to help fuel her plots and make her fictional worlds more realistic, but she admitted that these advances in communication can also hinder certain narratives, especially in the suspense genre.

“It’s impossible to write realistic contemporary fiction without addressing technology – or the lack thereof. If you need your characters to operate in a tech-free bubble, then there should be a good reason – like a power outage in a storm, for example – or you set your story in an earlier time or an alternate universe,” she said. “Just as electronic communication can enhance some plots, it can hinder others. For example, in this era of ubiquitous smartphones, it’s difficult to truly isolate a character or setting-always an effective device in a suspense plot – because most people carry or have access to electronics and even the most remote locations tend to have Internet and cell signals. So it’s not easy for a person to disappear without a trace – willingly or unwillingly – without leaving an electronic footprint via the Internet, surveillance footage, banking or credit transactions, or travel security measures. That makes it tricky to create a plot that depends on that particular scenario.”

So how does Staub navigate the tricky waters of writing thrillers in the year 2015, when AAA is always a phone call away and GPS can get any heroine un-lost in a jiffy? By exploring the dangers of the same technology that often makes life so convenient.

“My books tend to feature ordinary people made vulnerable by being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she revealed. “Technology can create vulnerability because otherwise savvy people can momentarily let their guard down on social media, sharing things that they wouldn’t dream of telling close friends or family in person. That creates the illusion of familiarity. If we trust strangers based on who they appear to be online -overlooking the fact that our perception can be easily manipulated – we become vulnerable. Even when we restrict electronic communication to people we know, we’re assuming that the person on the other end of a text or email is our friend, and not a predator who gained access to the device. I’ve used that very device to create frightening, realistic fiction.”

Staub’s readership is used to heroines who get into trouble and make mistakes – as she says, “perfection is dull!” But it’s those same flawed protagonists who rescue themselves, solve the mysteries, and come away from their battles as stronger, smarter, more capable individuals. Staub credits her upbringing as her inspiration for her heroines, along with the women who populated her formative years.

“I was a little girl in the era of Women’s Lib, and watched my mom, my aunts, and their friends – who were stay-at-home wives and mothers – go on to get college degrees and launch successful careers,” she said. “That left a strong impression on me, and I learned that we traditionally expect women to nurture others, but they must also be capable of taking care of themselves. My own strong sense of feminism and independence is often reflected in my heroines. As a result, my female ‘victims’ are rarely truly victims – they’re strong, resourceful women who try hard to save themselves when circumstances become dire.”

Staub also tries, in her way, to be kind to her villains. They’re not caricatures or stereotypes, but people who, in their pasts, suffered traumas they couldn’t rise above.

“I want my readers to come away with the sense that my novels are complex in part because just as in real life, no character is all good or all bad,” she began, and added, “my villains have usually been victimized somewhere in their past. I don’t believe in creating killers who were born pure evil – you need empathy in order to write scenes from a character’s viewpoint. So I do a lot of research into deviant psychology with each book, and my villains must possess some glimmer of redeeming characteristic in order for me to channel them.”

Whether it’s cyberworld stalkers, heroines’ blunders, dead Smartphone batteries or buried secrets, Staub’s plot twists consistently keep her readers on the edge of their seats, and in line for her newest releases. But even with so many titles to her credit, Staub isn’t slowing down. In fact, the more books she writes, the more ideas she gets for new books.

“I’ve been writing thrillers for over 20 years, so it’s like any other skill – constant practice makes you adept,” she said. “Sustaining the excitement has become second nature to me – if I’m bored when I’m writing something, then I know my reader is going to be bored reading it, so it isn’t hard to gauge the excitement level. Inspiration is everywhere. All novelists have an ingrained “What If” mechanism that’s triggered all day, every day, by what we read or watch, by things that happen to us, by events we witness or even snippets of strangers’ conversations we happen to overhear. I will never run out of inspiration – only time.”

Next week: How Staub’s local connections affect her writing.

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