Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Perilous Journey from Bureaucrat to Thriller Writer

by Sherry Knowlton
For as long as I can remember, I wanted to write a novel, specifically a thriller.  But, I could never quite get past those first few chapters. Work, family, inertia – life in general - got in the way.  A few years ago, I scaled back to semi-retirement and decided it’s now or never.  Without the pressures of a 50+-hour workweek, I actually had time to tackle that novel.  So, I sat down to write Dead of Autumn 

Constructing the story came easily. But, despite reading thousands of books in my lifetime, I’d never fully appreciated the painstaking work involved in: plotting; creating, naming and keeping track of characters; maintaining a coherent timeline; fact checking; and much more.  With perseverance, I worked though those aspects of novel writing, assisted by the eagle eye of a wonderful editor during pre-publication. What turned out to be my hardest task was re-learning how to write.  

I’ve cranked out a lot of written words in my lifetime.  I penned my elementary school’s first newsletter.  As a reporter for my high school and college newspapers, I wrote daily news articles. During my state government career, writing was a fundamental part of every job I held as worked my way up the ladder.  I wrote regulations, policy memos, legislation, testimony to legislative committees and more.  

After state government, I moved to the insurance industry. Even as an executive, I remained knee deep in writing proposals and other technical documents.  Today, in the “semi” part of my retirement, I do consulting work that relies largely on – you guessed it –my writing skills.

But expertise in professional writing does not guarantee an easy transition to thriller writing.  In government, a concept that takes twenty words to explain usually needs two thousand more to be memorialized in regulation.  When it comes to wordiness, insurance companies that contract with government operate in a similar environment.  I once worked on a bid for a state procurement that needed twelve three-ring binders to respond to the questions posed.  That’s right, four feet of narrative and supporting information. 

My intent is not to criticize government.  The nuances of public policy and decisions about billions in public spending often require massive amounts of explanation and detail.  But, the canyon between the conventions of a government document and the art of a suspense novel yawns deep and wide.

In trying to leap that canyon, my path toward an engrossing suspense novel introduced me to new challenges.  Choose compelling verbs.  Use action, not explanation.  Ditch the passive voice. Let dialog move the story. Rely on metaphor. Set the scene through sensory descriptors. Let readers draw their own conclusions.  Seasoned novelists use countless techniques to construct a taut thriller. 

I’m still a neophyte with so much more to learn.  But, with Dead of Autumn and its upcoming sequel, I’ve cleared the canyon and traveled well down the trail from recovering bureaucrat toward journeywoman novelist. 

Sherry Knowlton was born and raised in Southcentral Pennsylvania, where she developed a lifelong passion for books. She was that kid who would sneak a flashlight to bed at night so she could read beneath the covers. All the local librarians knew her by name. Now retired from executive positions in state government and the health insurance industry, Knowlton runs her own healthcare consulting business. Her first novel, Dead of Autumn, will be followed by sequel to be released later in 2015.  When not traveling around the world, Knowlton and her husband, Mike, live in the mountains near Carlisle, PA, only a short distance from the Babes in the Woods memorial that figures prominently in Dead of Autumn.  They have one son, Josh, a craft brewer in upstate New York. You may contact Sherry at @SKnowltonBooks,, or

Walking her English Mastiff in a Pennsylvania forest, Alexa Williams discovers the body of an ethereal blonde. The girl’s death bears an eerie resemblance to a crime from an earlier era, the infamous Babes in the Woods case. From that fateful day, the young attorney’s carefully ordered life begins to unravel. One of her mentors, an abortion clinic doctor, falls victim to a sniper’s bullet. Her relationship with a sexy weekend boyfriend flares out of control.  She’s almost raped, then ambushed by religious zealots who try to convert her. Against a backdrop of anti-abortion protests and escalating violence, Alexa and handsome forest ranger, Reese Michaels, become entangled in a web of extremism and bloodshed. Too late, Alexa discovers that danger lies closer to home than she could ever have imagined.

1 comment:

Jenny Milchman said...

Thanks for sharing your journey, Sherry. I agree--longer and twistier than we ever would've imagined at the start. And then we learn the same lesson all over again with the next book. And the next. And the...