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Writing Dark Thrillers: Debut Author S. A. Stovall

This week I get to hang out with ITW Debut Author S.A. Stovall. Her first novel, Vice City is available on Amazon, Barnes & Nobel and DSP Publications

S.A. Stovall grew up in California’s central valley with a single mother and little brother. Despite no one in her family having a degree higher than a GED, she put herself through college (earning a BA in History), and then continued on to law school where she obtained her Juris Doctorate.

As a child, Stovall’s favorite novel was Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. The adventure on a deserted island opened her mind to ideas and realities she had never given thought before—and it was the moment Stovall realized that story telling (specifically fiction) became her passion. Anything that told a story, be it a movie, book, video game or comic, she had to experience. Now, as a professor and author, Stovall wants to add her voice to the myriad of stories in the world, and she hopes you enjoy.

To learn more about S.A, follow her on Twitter @GameOverStation


In addition to being a debut author, you went to law school and teach history. How do those three things intersect?
First off, having a law degree and a history degree help me craft stories, especially for thrillers (which often have a legal aspect to them) and sci-fi-fantasy (as worldbuilding draws a lot from human history). I want to thank all my professors over the years for their insights and knowledge. It’s because of them that I can do what I love.
Secondly, teaching history at a college level helps me interact with people I otherwise would never meet. I see people from all walks of life and understanding them helps craft believable characters in my stories.
Overall, my knowledge and experience is the foundation from which I build each new tale.
Tell us about your path to publication.
My path to publication is a traditional one, I think. Well, as traditional as you can get in an industry where every path to publication is a viable one.
I wrote several novels (epic fantasy, 240k+ words) before my friends convinced me to pursue a path in publishing. Once I decided, I went to a few writing conventions and learned the ins and outs of industry. Specifically, I learned what agents are looking for, what editors are looking for, how to craft an engaging query letter, and to how to engage the audience from the first page.
After that, I wrote a few more novels (Stephen King famously said you need to get a few million terrible words out of your system before you write anything worth reading) and managed to gain the interest of several agents. The agent I signed with really liked my debut novel, VICE CITY, and I signed with him after talking about it with my family. (Shout out to Evan Marshall, who is awesome—check him out if you’re looking for an agent!)
Since then, he’s sold two novels for me, and continues to take my new novels (commenting on them when I need to change something, and offering up praise when he thinks they work) so I love working with him.        
Along the way I sold a few short stories and novellas, but novels are my passion and I focus my efforts on those more than others.
What kind of research did you do for your debut novel?
I read up on Chicago for a long period of time. I was originally going to set the novel there, but after some consideration I opted for a fictional city instead. That way if I had corrupt cops, or lots of gang activity, I wouldn’t be insulting the men-in-blue of Chicago, nor would I be making light of the actual gang violence that happens in Chicago on a daily basis. Additionally, I have more freedom with the layout, population, and industries, all of which helps me craft interesting stories.
I have the legal stuff down, and I know a fair deal about guns, so my primary area of research was the city itself (which is darker version of the real-world Chicago).
You write in first person, present tense. What made you choose that style?
I like first person, present tense because it feels more immediate—the action is happening right now, this isn’t a story that happened years ago.
Additionally, first person is great if the main character has a lot of voice and personality. Their attitude colors the whole feel of the novel. A story told by a jaded old veteran feels a lot different than a story told by a wide-eyed high school student, that’s for sure, and my protagonist is a guy with a lot of colorful things to say about the world.
And since my novel, VICE CITY, is more of a noir novel, it’s fitting that’s it’s told from the viewpoint of a single person, rather than a detached third person narrator.
Your writing is dark and violent, how do you get yourself into that mindset? (I often think I should learn to write darker!)
I love books with a solid tone. I love it so much I even wrote an article on it for The Thrill Begins! “How Do I Write Tone?” 
And dark/gritty settings are some of my favorite in terms of tone. Maybe it’s because I live a happy life with friends and family that I enjoy seeing darkness in my entertainment. It’s a world and setting I would never want to personally live in, but stakes are high and the consequences dire. That kind of excitement gets my heart rate up, even if I’m just reading a book.
I get myself into this mindset usually through other mediums—old gangster movies, comic books with hard grit, or even music with a melancholy melody. These sources of inspiration get me thinking about the darkness that dwells in all corners of life.
I almost always end on a happy note, however.
But the happy ending feels earned when the protagonist goes through so much to reach it. It’s the best way to end to a sprint through a gritty crime thriller!
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on a sci-fi adventure novel. Science-fiction is my first love—all my favorite books fall into that category—and I think I’m always going to write in that genre, even if I continue with my thriller series.
Final words of wisdom:
Don’t stop writing.
I got tons of rejections out the door, which is a common story among writers. If you continue to write, you’ll get better, which increases your chances of getting noticed, which increases your chances of succeeding. If you stop, all your chances fall to 0, so persevere!

You can do it!

Elena Hartwell

Author and developmental editor.

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