#318 – Plotting a Compelling Thriller with Ruth Ware

In this episode, we spoke to bestselling author Ruth Ware about her upcoming release, Zero Days, available on June 20th, 2023. Ruth’s novels have been translated into over 40 languages as well as optioned for film and TV, and she has garnered numerous bestsellers internationally.

In this episode, we spoke to bestselling author Ruth Ware about her upcoming release, Zero Days, available on June 20th, 2023. Ruth’s novels have been translated into over 40 languages as well as optioned for film and TV, and she has garnered numerous bestsellers internationally. Zero Days is a tech-based, fast-paced thriller wherein the protagonist finds that there is nowhere to hide, and enemies are everywhere. We are very excited for everyone to read Ruth’s latest!

We discussed Ruth’s journey to becoming a full-time writer, how she develops the plots for her thrillers, what her writing process looks like, the difference between a “twist” and a “reveal” in storytelling, and, of course, her latest, Zero Days. Ruth also offered some great advice for aspiring thriller authors, and provided us with an amazing reading list of mysteries and thrillers – from old classics to brand new hits!

In this episode:

  • Ruth tells us about her journey to becoming a full-time writer, from writing YA novels and crime fiction to best-selling thrillers, and we hear about what other genres she has dabbled in
  • We ask after the structure of Ruth’s novels, and how she plans out her plots
  • Ruth talks about the difference between twists and reveals in mystery and thriller narratives
  • We hear about the settings of Ruth’s books, and why they are so (wonderfully) varied across her books
  • Ruth discusses many other thriller and mystery authors and their novels, and how they have influenced her and her writing
  • She also discusses writing standalone books vs. writing a series, and the pros and cons of both
  • We hear a (spoiler-free) summary of Ruth’s new release, Zero Days – and get to hear some of the key points of interest about the plot of this incredible thriller
  • Ruth talks about the research she did for Zero Days – particularly regarding start-ups, tech and tech security
  • We learn about the structure of Ruth’s book – and how the very structure of the book is integral to the plot! Don’t worry – no spoilers here, either
  • Ruth talks about her writing process, getting into what she plans and what she doesn’t – and reveals how much she makes up as she goes along!
  • We ask about Ruth’s practice of writing a book a year, and how that process has worked for her – as well as get some great advice on writing thrillers
  • And much more!

Useful Links

Ruth’s website

Ruth on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

Zero Days

Ruth’s books on Kobo

Mentioned in this episode:

The Death of Mrs. Westaway

The Turn of the Key

Louise Candlish

Shari Lepena

Agatha Christie

And Then There Were None

Murder on the Orient Express

Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

Lisa Jewell

Clare Mackintosh

Lisa Unger

Riley Sager

S. A. Cosby

Abir Mukherjee

Ruth Ware is an international number one bestseller. Her thrillers In a Dark, Dark WoodThe Woman in Cabin 10, The Lying Game, The Death of Mrs Westaway, The Turn of the KeyOne by One and The It Girl have appeared on bestseller lists around the world, including the Sunday Times and New York Times. Her books have been optioned for both film and TV, and she is published in more than 40 languages. Ruth lives near Brighton with her family. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @ruthwarewriter or at ruthware.com

Photo credit: Gemma Day

Episode Transcript

Transcription by www.speechpad.com

Rachel: Hey, writers. You’re listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast,” where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts. I’m Rachel, Promotion Specialist for Kobo Writing Life.

Laura: And I’m Laura, Kobo Writing Life’s Author Engagement Manager. Today we spoke to Ruth Ware, who is an international number-one bestselling author. Her thrillers have appeared on bestseller lists around the world, including “The Sunday Times” and “The New York Times.” Her books have been optioned for both film and TV, and she is published in more than 40 languages.

Rachel: Chatting with Ruth today was an absolute delight. Ruth spoke to us about her journey to becoming a full-time writer, which was a dream come true for her. She talked to us about her writing process and how she develops the plots for her thrillers, and she dug into the difference between twists versus reveals, which is something I had never really considered before. And we really talked about her new book that’s coming out soon, called “Zero Days.” Ruth spoke to us about balancing the action and the emotion in this book, the research that went into it, and the really cool kind of countdown-like format that the book is set up in. Ruth also gave some great advice for aspiring thriller authors, as well as a very comprehensive book recommendation list. So, if you are an aspiring thriller author out there, highly recommend you listen to this episode, and I think you’ll get a lot out of it.

Okay. We are joined today by bestselling author Ruth Ware. Ruth, thank you so much for taking the time and joining us today.

Ruth: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.

Rachel: Now, could you just kinda kick us off by telling our listeners a little bit about yourself?

Ruth: Well, I always feel a bit guilty when we get to this part because as I point out on my website, my books are by far the most interesting thing about me. My life is very pedestrian. I basically operate in the sort of lockdown triangle that we all had between the grocery store, my kids’ school, and my office in a sort of…except that’s my daily life outside of lockdown. But no, you know, I always wanted to be a writer. It was always my ambition right from when I was a kid. So, I think just, you know, every day I wake up and feel extraordinarily lucky to be able to do this for a living. It’s not something that I take for granted, and I hope it’s something that I will never take for granted. And yeah, every day I wake up and feel incredibly happy that I get to do this.

Rachel: So, if writing was the, like, childhood dream, how did you achieve it? How did you make your author dreams come true?

Ruth: Mainly by writing a lot of books that went under my bed is the short answer. I always wrote right from when I was a little girl, and I sort of started off writing these little stories that just got longer and longer until, I guess, by the time I was a teenager I was writing sort of full-length things. I’m not sure I would call them books, but they were kind of long stories of several hundred pages. And I never did anything with them. I never really showed them to anybody apart from once or twice to my best friend who’s very supportive. So, she was basically the perfect audience. She was the kind of person who would say, “This was great, but there’s just a few tiny things I would say.” She was like, you know, sort of editor and best friend in one.

And then as I got older, I carried on writing, and I suppose I’d sort of kind of clocked the idea that, like, the book trade was a thing and that some people did get paid to do this. But I never really felt like it was something that was open to someone like me. I didn’t know any writers growing up. You know, being a professional writer just seemed like it was something that other people did. So, I did a variety of jobs and ended up working in the book trade, which on the one hand was an incredible privilege, you know, to be working with all these incredible books and writers. I loved, you know, reading for a living and talking to people about books all day. But on the other hand, it gave me this huge attack of stage fright because I suddenly realized, like, quite how tough the competition is to get published.

And I think just at the stage when I might have been sort of thinking about, you know, maybe I might want to do this more seriously, maybe I might start to want to sub to people, it kind of had the effect of sending me right back into my shell. So, I carried on writing, but I didn’t really do anything with the books. They just all went under my bed. And it was only when I was on maternity leave with my second baby and I just suddenly realized, like, basically my writing is a hobby and I don’t have time for hobbies anymore. You know, at that stage I barely had time to brush my teeth, let alone do anything more complex. And I thought, “If I don’t find a way to make this pay, to monetize it, I am just not going to have time to do this until the kids have gone to school,” which basically, it was a kind of use it or lose it type thing. I thought, “I have to try to find a way to justify this space in my life.” And for me, that was trying to get published and trying to earn enough money to pay for some additional childcare so that I could cut down on my full-time job and spend a bit more time doing what I loved. And thank goodness I did, and that book turned out to be my first published novel.

Rachel: And at what point did you make the transition to full-time writer? Because you are a full-time writer now, correct?

Ruth: I am a full-time writer now, yeah. It was quite a number of books in. I’d actually written for teenagers before I started writing crime. So, I’d written five books for teenagers, and then two crime novels. And “The Woman in Cabin 10,” I think it was out and it was in the bestseller lists in the UK and the U.S., and I was being invited to tour places and, you know, go abroad. And I was having to turn everything down because I basically barely had enough time to write, let alone, you know, do my job as well. And I just thought, “This is, you know, ridiculous. Like, I need to be doing this full-time. I’m doing everything badly and I need to concentrate on one thing or the other.”

So, at that point, I did resign, but I think I had waited as long as I had because I was fiercely aware of how difficult it is to make a long-term career in writing and, like, how much of a challenge it just is to sort of keep hitting the bullseye each time. And so, every book I’d sort of thought, “Well, you know, maybe the next one I’ll feel confident enough to go full time.” And, yeah, eventually it was “The Woman in Cabin 10” that sort of pushed me over the edge.

Rachel: And were you always drawn to thrillers? What is it about that genre that you love writing so much?

Ruth: Well, the funny thing is I absolutely adore writing thrillers. I hope that comes through in my books. But when I was growing up and when I sort of first started writing, it was the one genre that I don’t think I ever experimented with. I wrote romance and sort of, I guess, literary fiction you would call it. It was my attempts at literary fiction, and sci-fi, and fantasy, and kind of, I guess, sort of more straight-down-the-line thrillers, more kind of adventure novels. But I don’t think I ever wrote kind of a crime novel or a whodunit. And it wasn’t until I had coffee with a friend and she was saying that she had never read a thriller set on a hen night. And I suddenly was like, “Oh, my gosh, you know, I haven’t either, and I would love to. This is a book that I would love to read.”

And at that point, I had written five novels for teenagers. So, to switch and write crime for an adult audience was quite the sort of left turn. And I went to my agent and said, you know, “I think I really want to write this book.” And to her credit, she could have said, “No, you’ve spent a long time building up an audience, you should stick with what you’re doing well,” but she didn’t. She said, you know, “Yeah, if you wanna go for it, we’ll make it work” kind of thing. And that was “In a Dark, Dark Wood.”

Rachel: Do you have any desire to revisit those other genres and write and publish a romance novel or a sci-fi fantasy book?

Ruth: Well, I think one of the lovely things about crime is that it’s an incredibly elastic genre. You know, there’s space within crime for, you know, quite a lot of romance. Quite a lot of procedural novels have a real will they, won’t they at the heart of them, that kind of Mulder and Scully dynamic. You know, there’s a lot of speculating crime now. I think Sarah Pinborough showed people that crime could have elements of, you know, not quite direct realism in her books. I don’t want to provide any spoilers. But I think crime has become a much more capacious genre than it was sort of, you know, in the 1930s and ’40s when it was very much, you know, your straight-lace detective solving a crime and then noting it all up at the end of it. It’s much more possible to write sort of much more thrillery thrillers and much more, you know, and still consider yourself part of the crime community, which I love.

But I think, you know, if I found a story that I wanted to write, I would absolutely follow that. I hope my readers would come with me. I think, you know, there are people who are very devoted to the crime genre, but I don’t think that there’s anything… You know, if you proved you can tell a story and make it fun, I hope that people would trust you to do that in other genres.

Laura: What does your writing process look like? Because when you write thrillers, there’s lots of, like, twists and turns. Do you know what those are before you tackle the majority of your writing? Do you always know how the book will end? How does that work?

Ruth: I pretty much always know who’s done it in the case of most of my novels. I often know some of the twists. So, although I have a whole thing about this, whether something is a twist or a reveal, and I think my books mostly feature reveals rather than twists. You know, it’s a piece of the puzzle that the reader knows is missing and they’re making guesses as to what that piece might be. And then, hopefully, when you reveal it, it’s a surprise to them. But I think a twist is much more in the nature of it’s a piece of the puzzle that the reader had no idea was there, they weren’t looking for it, they weren’t expecting it. It’s something that’s kind of sprung onto the reader. And I don’t tend to write those quite so much. Some of my books do feature twists, but most of them, I would say feature reveals.

In general, I know kind of the big blocks of the plot before I start. I don’t really plot in a conventional way. I don’t sit down and kind of write out a synopsis or a chapter plan, but I do have the bones in my head. I usually have a pretty solid starting place. I normally have an idea of who did it and why, and I usually have an idea of sort of some of the big set pieces that will happen along the way, but exactly how that unfolds is all up for grabs. And sometimes the best twists are the ones that completely surprise you and you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, I never thought of doing that.” You know, a character will refuse to do something that you wanted them to do or will go completely off-tack and do something that you never expected. And that can be a really fun way of discovering a twist organically. And I think those are often the ones that work best.

Rachel: Do you ever have one of those moments where a twist or a reveal is revealed to you as the author and it just completely obliterates the plans you had for the book and how you wanted it to end?

Ruth: Very, very occasionally, yes. I’ve had a couple of examples of those in my career and it’s difficult to… Mostly you just get a brilliant idea and you think, “Oh, I’m gonna run with that. That’s fantastic.” And it’s not necessarily a surprise. It’s more kind of something that you’ve been sort of trying to feel your way around and then suddenly a solution comes to you and you’re like, “Yes.” Very, very rarely I have had things that have sort of upset what I was intending to do, and that’s much more of a kind of wrestling match between your heart going, “But this is a brilliant idea,” and your head going, “It’s gonna mean a lot of replotting.”

So, yeah, there’s always a bit, but yes, when it happens and it’s brilliant, then it is brilliant. And it’s happened to the end of two of my books. One of them, it just kind of slotted in completely neatly. And the other one, it required quite a lot of replotting and rewriting to make it work, but it was worth it.

Laura: I like the idea that your book is almost, like, coming alive and it’s, like, so twisted that it’s now giving you extra work.

Ruth: I know, yeah. I think that’s always the sign of when a book is…but not always, but often it’s a sign of when it’s working really well because it’s when your characters have become so real to you that they are taking charge, you know, they are the ones who are calling the shots because you start to realize that actually, the thing that you wanted them to do is not in their character. And I think that’s always really fun when the characters sort of take over and start bossing the writer around.

Rachel: I’d love to touch a bit on the settings of your books because they run the gambit. Like, you have a book that’ll take place in, like, across the entire city of London and surrounding towns, and then you’ll have a book that’s more claustrophobic like on a cruise ship. Do you have a setting, like, or a type of setting that you find more interesting to write or more challenging in a fun way?

Ruth: I always love doing just like pool settings that I would love to go to. That is my weakness really. I think, you know, I spend a year more or less writing these books and I always think I would rather spend my imaginary year somewhere really fun. I have huge respect for writers who can make, you know, a really ordinary suburban street extraordinary. You know, there are writers who do that so well, people like Louise Candlish and, you know, Shari Lapena, who just take a kind of very regular suburban house and show you… They sort of peel it back and show you the darkness beneath. But my weakness as a writer is going somewhere really fun in my imagination. And yeah, I’ve taken myself off on cruises in Norway, I’ve still never been on a cruise, you know, to skiing resorts, to mansions in the Scottish Highlands, to stately homes in Cornwall.

I would say my favorite type of setting to write is one that is quite self-contained, mainly just because it means that you can really explore it. And also I think because my personal nightmare is being somewhere and something happens and you can’t escape. And that comes up again and again in my books, you know, someone gets somewhere, something happens and they can’t get away and they’re trapped with the consequences. And those elements were there right from “In a Dark, Dark Wood.” You know, my character in that has gone on a hen night, it’s this very seemingly idyllic house in the sort of remote Northumberland forest. But once she is there and her lift is not available, bad things start to happen, but she can’t leave. So, yeah, I think that’s all of me working through my personal phobias about, you know, going to a hideous party and, like, the person who was supposed to give me a lift home has gone and got drunk and now I’m stuck.

Rachel: Is there, like, a dream vacation setting that we’re gonna see in an upcoming novel?

Ruth: Oh, almost certainly. Yeah, it would be a spoiler to reveal some of my upcoming ideas, but yes, I’ve definitely got fun places that I would love to tick off.

Laura: I think you need to start traveling to those places, like, as a research trip.

Ruth: I know. Well, I always think I’ve missed out on those. I always intended on taking a cruise for “Cabin 10,” and I had really quite small kids at the time, so childcare was a massive headache and I never managed to go. And now I sort of think, “How could I somehow persuade HMRC that this was a legitimate business expense that I had to go on a cruise afterwards?” But I always think that about, you know, Agatha Christie’s settings like “Murder on the Orient Express,” or “Death on the Nile.” Was that just a big excuse for her to take a Dahabiya down the Nile and, you know, write it off as writing expenses?

Laura: I saw that you were recently part of kind of, like, a retelling of Miss Marple in a short story collection. What was that experience like? Have you always been an Agatha Christie fan?

Ruth: Oh, it was huge fun. I mean, I am a big Agatha Christie fan. I’ve spoken about that in interviews before, which I suspect might be part of the reason why I was one of the writers invited to do it because I’m really open about my admiration for her plotting and, you know, her characters and setting and so on. And she’s been a huge influence on kind of how I sort of view the perfect crime plot in terms of, you know, the way the writer has to play fair with readers and the clues that you have to drop, and then, hopefully, that satisfying snap moment as everything clicks into place. I think all of that I took from reading her books as a teenager and kind of absorbing the fact that that’s how sort of crime is supposed to work. So, yes, as soon as I got the invitation, I was like, “Oh, my gosh, yes.”

And although some of my favorite books of hers are standalone books or Poirot books, the character that I love the most out of all of Christie’s characters is Miss Marple. So, that was my absolute dream was to be asked to write a Miss Marple story. And we were given some quite strict parameters. We couldn’t have crossover with Poirot. They didn’t want us to change too much about Miss Marple’s early life, so, you know, no going back and introducing a lost love interest, which always seems to be what the TV shows want to do. They always have to have sort of some reason why she’s single, some tragic past. And one of the things that I love about her most as a character is that she is single and, you know, she’s completely self-contained, and there’s no sort of justification needed for why she’s a spinster. She just is and she’s happy with that as far as, you know, anyone would know from the novels.

So, we were all given this brief, and within it, we had to come up with our own idea for a story. And I knew straight away that I wanted to do a Christmas story. Poirot has not one, but two Christmas stories, a story and a novel. And Miss Marple doesn’t really. She has a Christmas story, but it’s a sort of rather sad one, it’s about a woman who’s out Christmas shopping for her husband and ends up being murdered. So, there’s really nothing Christmasy about it apart from the fact that she’s doing her shopping when this happens. And I always thought, “I want to give Miss Marple a very traditional English Christmas,” which Christie wrote about beautifully in a novel. She loved Christmas. In an essay. She loved Christmas and was intensely nostalgic about the Christmases of her childhood. And having read this, I was like, “Right, I want to give Miss Marple this Christmas.”

But one of the things that I hadn’t anticipated when I sat down to write this story was what an absolute joy it was to have a predetermined set of tools and characters to work with. And as a standalone novel writer, you know, none of my books are connected. They’re all completely individual universes, totally different characters. It does feel a little bit like reinventing the wheel every single time. And so, to have, you know, the sort of the fear of the blank page as you sit down and you think, “I wanna do this all again from scratch.” To have kind of a set of tools and toys and sort of characters handed to you was, you know, just the biggest pleasure in the world. It may be very envious of series writers, although I’m sure they have their own challenges.

Laura: Do you have a favorite Agatha Christie novel?

Ruth: I guess I have several favorites for different reasons, but I think the most perfectly plotted one, the one where I think she’s sort of operating at absolute virtuoso status is probably, “And Then There Were None,” just because it’s so cleverly constructed, and I guess because it’s not a detective novel. You know, there is no detective. It sort of feels the purest in a way because it’s just the conversation between you and her. There’s no sort of friendly Poirot to say, “Aha, my Hastings, I have noticed something.” You know, make you be like, “Oh, there’s a clue.” So, yeah, I think that’s the one that I admire the most.

Laura: You’ve also written in a lot of different, I guess, sub-genres of crime thriller fiction. Is there one you find most fun to read or write?

Ruth: Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t think I could pick one. I just finished writing “Zero Days,” which is my book coming out this July, and that is much more of a sort of straight thriller. There is a strong whodunit element to it, but it’s more of a kind of… I guess it’s sort of leaning more towards the Jack Reacher kind of esque, sort of end of the crimey scale. My main character is a fairly badass pentester who goes on the run. So, there’s a lot of sort of quite traditional thriller elements in terms of, you know, her being sort of ducking and diving and evading the police and so on. And that was huge fun to write, mainly just because it was a bit different from all of my previous books and it enabled me to write action scenes, which, you know, normally my characters are kind of regular people who have what would probably be my reaction when faced with physical danger, which is to sort of screech and run as far as they can unless they can’t at all avoid it.

So, it was really, really fun writing a character who’s sort of faced up to that a bit more and sort of engineered the events of the plot a bit more. And yeah, I really enjoyed doing that. I would definitely… That’s something I would love to do again in the future, but I think I would struggle to pick kind of a favorite. Yeah, I don’t think I really have. I love all of my books in different ways and they’ve all given me sort of unique pleasures in terms of, you know, the look for a mystery. And, you know, “The Death of Mrs. Westaway” is much more kind of country house sort of Daphne du Maurier style gothic. “Turn of the Key” kind of plays with sort of ghostly themes and so on. So, yeah, I couldn’t choose one of them.

Rachel: Like we’re asking you to choose your favorite kid over here. I guess, that’s not really fair.

Ruth: Exactly. Exactly.

Laura: I was just thinking that. It’s kind of a hard question. But I guess the nice thing about you writing standalones is that you can kind of explore all the different genres and you don’t have to stick to one for a long series.

Ruth: Yeah. No, exactly. I think that’s the great advantage of being a standalone writer is that you don’t box yourself in in quite the same way as series writers do. And I know from, you know… Sort of I joke about being jealous of series writers, and in some ways I am, but I know from some of my friends who write series that it comes with its own unique sets of challenges in terms of, you know, the rules that you set for yourself in Book 1. And, you know, you’ll casually make your character an only child, and then, you know, 10 books later, it’ll be really, really convenient if they could have a sibling, but they can’t because you said in Book 1 that they didn’t. So, you know, you don’t have to… I can reinvent everything up to the point at which I press Send to my editor, and that’s it, and even after until it’s printed, which is, yeah, to be sure a great advantage.

Rachel: And we were talking to another mystery-thriller writer, and the only way you can introduce a sibling 10 books in is a surprise twin, which is never a fun twist.

Ruth: No, exactly. And also there’s a limit to how many times you can pull that sort of thing, you know. Obviously, you probably wouldn’t have more than one surprise twin anyway. But, you know, I think readers after a while start to get a bit irritated with too many rabbits out of the hat. You’re like, “Hang on, you didn’t mention this part of the universe,” you know. Sort of, like, getting to Book 5 and then finding out that, you know, actually space travel is possible and everyone’s like, “What?”

Rachel: Surprise quintuplet. So, you’ve touched on “Zero Day,” so I think this is a great time to kinda dive into your upcoming release. Could you give our listeners kind of a spoiler-free synopsis? I know that’s very hard because there’s a lot happening in this book, but I believe you can do it.

Ruth: Yeah, it is a difficult book to sum up without too many spoilers, but I’ll give you kind of the premise in the first couple of chapters, which is relatively spoiler-free. So, my main character, Jack, she’s a pentester, and that’s something that I’ve had to explain to people quite a few times over writing the novel. So, a pentester is like a security expert who acts as the attacker, breaks into buildings or secure systems in order to sort of see how well the defenses hold up.

So, one day she’s out on a kind of routine job, she’s doing a pentest on a finance company. It all goes a bit horribly wrong and she ends up accidentally being arrested. But anyway, she gets it all sorted out, comes home from the police station, and discovers that while she’s been away, her husband has been murdered. And at first, she’s treated as the grieving widow by the police, but gradually she becomes aware that they suspect her and that she’s probably about to be arrested. So, at that point, she has the choice between sitting tight and hoping that the police figure out their mistake or taking matters into her own hands, which obviously she does that because it makes a much better plot.

Rachel: And what drew you into this world of, like, pentesting and digital security, and how much research did you have to do in order to pull this off?

Ruth: So, it was a research-heavy book. I guess what drew me initially was I’d written a couple of books that were sort of tech adjacent. “The Turn of the Key” is about a woman who’s living in a very, very kind of “smart house” in inverted commas. You know, it’s wired up with cameras all through and voice detection and, you know, the lights are all centrally controlled, and the fridge chats to you and tells you what’s in it. And for that, I had to sort of invent this kind of home management app that she had a very adversarial relationship with.

And then I went on and wrote “One by One,” which is my novel set in a ski resort, but has a tech company at the heart of it. It’s a corporate retreat and the people who’ve hired the chalet is a tech company who have this app called Snoop. And for that, again, I had to invent this app and sort of figure out how startup companies work and so on. So, I ended up listening to a lot of startup podcasts and a lot of tech podcasts. And then as we went into lockdown, I found myself listening to many more podcasts because I couldn’t write. I was stuck at home homeschooling my kids and, you know, baking banana bread or whatever it was we did all day.

And podcasts were the perfect sort of way to keep my brain active while also having to get through all of this other stuff. And because I already had a lot of tech podcasts on my radar, I ended up kind of segueing into the sort of crimier, darker side of tech. And there were a few podcasts, but one in particular, “Darknet Diaries,” which is all about the dark side of the web in various iterations.

But one subject that kept coming up on this was pentesters. And I was really fascinated by the idea of someone who is employed to act the attacker. Like, being asked to be nefarious, essentially, struck me as a really fascinating career. But, of course, you know, the truth is that however secure a system is, you can’t anticipate every way that someone will try to break that, you know, whether that’s hacking in by sort of conventional means or whether it’s exploiting what is often the weakest part of any system, which is the people involved in it. You know, people make mistakes, they choose easy-to-guess passwords, they give out too much information on the internet. And so, you need a real person to go out there and act like a real attacker would. And until it stood up to that, you don’t know whether your system really is secure.

Yeah, so I became completely fascinated by these people. And there’s sort of two groups they often overlap, but one set deals more with the sort of digital side and one set deals more with the sort of physical side. And I quickly realized that actually writing about digital hacking is very difficult. You know, there’s a reason why in Hollywood films they tend to sort of just bash away at the keyboard for 10 minutes before going, “I’m in.” You know, that’s not how hacking really works in real life, but it’s very difficult to write accurately about someone patiently running scripts for hour after hour. And to be honest, it required a level of knowledge that I just didn’t have.

But physical pentesting where people try and break into buildings, that felt like something much more suited to a novel with lots of dramatic twists and turns. So, I sort of quickly started to think, “Wow, it’d be really interesting to write a novel with a pentester at the center,” and then it just all kind of spiraled from there.

Laura: It’s such a fun idea. And yeah, I had never heard of pentesting before, so it was really interesting to learn about. I would love to chat about the format of the book too. So, it’s broken into segments and we start off at minus eight days until we get to zero. So, how did that concept come about?

Ruth: I might have to think about this for a minute. Probably isn’t for broadcast because it’s quite a major spoiler to say that the “Zero Days” sort of concept at the heart of it. Okay. I’ll start talking and then maybe we can… Yeah. I guess partly I just love the idea of a ticking clock, you know, the idea that Jack is going to get caught. You know, the UK is a really difficult country to go on the run in, partly because it’s physically small and partly because it is one of the most surveilled countries in the world, possibly apart from China, but even China is big and sprawling and has, you know, rural areas where you can go hide out. The UK has one of the most joined-up and comprehensive CCTV camera networks in the world.

And, of course, after COVID, increasingly everywhere is moving over much more to digital payment, which makes, you know, things like getting hold of money much more difficult, not everywhere takes cash. It’s almost impossible to get money out of an ATM without alerting the police to your presence. So, I always knew that my character was going to get caught, and I loved the idea of a structure that played with that, a kind of ticking clock down to the day zero when she is caught up with. So, yes, there’s other sort of elements in the plot that feed into that countdown, which I won’t talk about because they’re sort of mild spoilers, but I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that day zero is when the police catch up with Jack.

Rachel: And you’re right, the, like, ticking countdown really adds to the suspense. And I was just in London recently and I wanna go back now because I didn’t pay attention to the CCTV of it all because I have the attention span of Dory from “Finding Nemo,” but I’m…

Laura: So, what you’re saying is you would’ve been caught immediately.

Rachel: Oh, immediately. You know, I could never get away with anything.

Ruth: Well, I think the good thing is that facial recognition is not quite at the level yet where the police can sort of…or maybe it’s the processing, I don’t know, but it is still difficult. You know, there’s a lot of manually going through footage and so on. But yeah, once you start spotting them, CCTV cameras are everywhere. And not just official ones, you know, almost all shops have them too. And if the police are following the root of a suspect, they can very often get footage from shops along the way, from shopping malls, from traffic cameras.

But yeah, the other aspect of the surveillance network in the UK is that there’s a hugely extensive network of traffic cameras. You know, if you go into London now, you have to pay a congestion charge. That’s all done by automatic number plate recognition, gets charged back to your account if you don’t pay it. All of that is done by a ring of pretty much impermeable CCTV cameras around the perimeter of the Capital, and then on all of the motorways as well. So, yeah, it’s one of those things you don’t sort of think about day to day, but once you notice you’re like, “And there’s another camera.”

Rachel: It’s just a little unsettling. One thing I really wanted to talk about was, like, Jack is on a journey in this book, both physically but also emotionally. And how did you balance the, like, heavy emotional beats of this book with the action to kind of keep it going?

Ruth: That was a really good question. The answer is I didn’t really think about it that hard. I mean, the book opens with the death of her husband and, you know, thankfully, my husband is still alive and well, but, you know, I’ve definitely suffered major bereavements in my life. And I think one of the things that crime fiction sometimes doesn’t explore for understandable reasons, you know, particularly sort of golden age crime fiction. Often the death that occurs in the book is much more there for sort of the purposes of setting up the puzzle, you know, for precipitating the whodunit. And the actual emotional impact of the death often isn’t really examined or is only sort of examined at the end when people sort of, you know, suddenly allow themselves to grieve.

And I was really interested in writing a novel and I sort of tackled it a bit with “The It Girl,” but this one is kind of a much deeper dive into the heart of that, where the grief and the shock and the huge emotional impact of the death is kind of really front and center. And you are right. Jack, you know, she wants to find out, you know, what happened to her husband and the truth about his death. That is kind of the major impetus for the plot. But her struggle to come to terms with what has happened to him and to balance her own grief with her need to find out the truth about, you know, why this ended up unfolding the way it did is, like, the emotional heart of the plot.

But to answer your question about how I balanced it, I didn’t. I mean, I just wrote it as I wanted to., and I guess just tried to be realistic about how I thought I would be reacting if I were in that situation. And, you know, I know from having suffered bereavements in the past that there is this sort of weird situation where the world carries on and you carry on doing really mundane stuff and often doing it pretty well. You know, you can do your job, you feed your kids, you go to the shops. You know, you carry on putting one foot in front of the other even while something in the back of your head is saying, “But you can’t, you know, everything has changed. How can you possibly be expected to carry on getting up in the morning? Why is the sun continuing to rise when the entire world has changed?”

And the truth is, of course, the entire world hasn’t changed, and the death of one person, while a tragedy for you, is exactly what has been happening to humans for millennia. And sort of the cruelty of that, but also in a weird way the comfortingness of that, was something that I sort of wanted to get across a little bit in fiction, I guess.

Rachel: Well, for not trying, you nailed it.

Ruth: Thank you. Well, that’s very comforting too.

Laura: It’s almost the best kind of answer. It just kind of happened naturally.

Ruth: I mean, I think that’s the thing about not plotting a huge amount. Like, I am free to sort of figure that stuff out as I go along. I had a few scenes in mind when I started writing the book that I knew I wanted to get to a few kind of set pieces, I guess. And as the structure probably indicates, kind of the final showdown was always going to be the sort of 11th-hour big bang. But outside of that, I very much just make it up as I go along, and that does give me the freedom to sort of do a little bit here, a little bit there, think, “Oh, I should have probably made her be a bit more sad again now.” So, yeah, it’s very much… It’s the same way I cook, a pinch of this, a pinch of that, see if it tastes good. If it doesn’t, we go back to the drawing board.

Laura: This book takes place in and around London, and throughout her journey that we mentioned, Jack goes all over the city. Was it fun kind of including the different landmarks, and did you do any, like, travel through her path?

Ruth: I lived in London for many years, so yeah, it was really fun returning to London in fiction and sort of, you know, putting in some of my own favorite locations. East London, which is where a lot of the book takes place is just fascinating. Sort of you can peel back the layers of history. And, you know, the Thames, it’s sort of the dirty kind of stinky, unfettered river that it must have been throughout most of history, whereas in the sort of the west of the city, further upstream, it’s been much more sanitized. All the embankments have been built up. It feels like a much more kind of urban contained river, whereas in the east end where the river’s much wider, it’s much more sprawling, the banks are still sort of really pebbly and there’s, like, stinking mud at low tides. I really enjoyed exploring that in my imagination and kind of going back to places that I love.

But in answer to your question of whether I retraced any of Jack’s steps, no, I didn’t. The brilliant thing now about Google Maps is that you don’t have to do any of this. You can just put in, you know, “I’m cycling from here to there,” or, “I’m walking from here to there,” and then you think, “Well, I’ll add on a bit because of the fact that, you know, she’s not had a good night’s sleep and she’s kind of limping a bit from the wound in her leg and maybe then subtract a bit because, you know, someone gives her a lift.” So, yeah, it’s very much played by it. And then, of course, you have to have an argument with your copy editor when you get to the end and they’re like, “Would she really have been able to get from A to B in 45 minutes?” And you’re like, “I think I worked it all out, but maybe I’ll better go over it again.”

Rachel: And here I forgot Google Maps existed and I was gonna be like, “Did you have a map of London with pins through it, trying to figure out the best route?” No, the internet exists.

Ruth: Lot of Google Maps route planning and sort of figuring out how… And, you know, that’s the other lovely thing about surveillance is that pretty much everywhere in London and, you know, all of New York, you can just drop a pin on a map and look up and see exactly what someone standing there would be seeing. But I always take liberties with all of my settings. You know, most of the roads mentioned in “Zero Days,” and, in fact, most of my books are imaginary. So, the neighborhoods are real, and the descriptions of the architecture is real, and the landmarks are real, but the individual houses and most of the roads are not real, partly because it gives me a little bit more freedom, and partly because, you know, I don’t want to accidentally kill someone at some real person’s address and have them feel sad about that. I think it would weird me out if I came across it in a book. I’d be like, “Oh, my goodness, someone’s claiming that a horrible murder happened in my road.” So, I think I wouldn’t like that, so I don’t do it to other people.

Laura: Oh, my gosh. I’ve never thought of that before as, like, something you have to think about for a thriller novel, but that makes a lot of sense. Like, how creepy would it be to read about a death happening at your own house? That’s a bit…

Ruth: Some writers feel fine about it. And, you know, I have writer friends who, like, they’ll literally go on Google Maps, they’ll pick a house on a road and be like, “That’s where it happened.” That’s not how I write.

Rachel: One thing I wanted to touch on outside of “Zero Days” is in an interview last fall, you kind of discussed how you have a goal to write a book a year. And it’s both, like, a goal to finish a book a year, but also as a way to maintain your creative well to make sure you’re not overdoing it or over-extenuating yourself. And I’m kind of curious how you came about setting this goal for yourself.

Ruth: Well, if that’s a goal exactly, it’s more just over the years what I have realized I can comfortably achieve versus what is convenient for my publishers. So, I think publishing loves regularity, it loves cycles, you know, it has pinned me as a sort of, you know, summer reads author. So, it’s very convenient to my publishers if I come out kind of, you know, May, June, July, August sort of timeframe. I think, you know, people love a thriller to pick up and read on the beach, so it’s understandable. But I can’t write more than a book a year. I’m in awe of people who can, and I have friends who can, and more power to them, but I can’t, I just don’t have the kind of capacity, I think imaginative capacity. It’s not about the words really, it’s about how fast I can come up with scenarios and ideas.

I wrote a book a year while I was working, and when I gave up work, I thought, “Oh, great, I’ll be able to write two books a year now.” It turns out I can’t. My imagination seems to refill at a set pace. But a few years ago, sort of I was getting later and later with my deadlines, and every year was becoming a bit more squeezed. And at that point, I said, “I think I need to take a year out to kind of reset, come up with some more ideas.” And then, unfortunately, well, I don’t know if unfortunately, maybe fortunately, that year turned out to be 2020. So, that was the year that I didn’t write a book. And, obviously, I didn’t know when I said this to my publishers what was going to happen. It turned out to be incredibly fortunate because there was no way I would’ve been able to deliver a book while also homeschooling my kids and, you know, having everybody around the house.

My husband is a virologist, so he was working, you know, 14-hour days and, you know, wanted to be more helpful, but just didn’t have the capacity to do it. Whereas, you know, nobody needed me to write another novel to save the world. So, fortunately, I was able to take a break and felt incredibly lucky to do so. But yes, and having done that, I came out of it kind of absolutely fizzing with ideas, which was lovely because sort of going into it, I’d felt a bit kind of like, “Oh, I don’t know where my next book’s going to come from.” But yes, I came out of it wanting just desperate to write. And “The It Girl” in spite of being one of my longest books, was one of the shortest ones to write, I think because I’d had this year of not writing and feeling absolutely desperate. Yeah, so a book a year seems to be about right for me at the moment, with the occasional breathing space.

Laura: And do you have any advice for aspiring thriller authors?

Ruth: Oh, gosh. I mean, I always think if there was a magic formula, I would either patent it and sell that and stop writing books. No, that’s not true. I would never stop writing books. Or maybe I would just keep it to myself and not tell anyone else. But the truth is I don’t think there are really any hard and fast rules. If there is a formula, I’ve certainly not discovered it. So, I’m always a bit hesitant to give advice. But I think the thing that I always try to do is give people a reason to turn the page in terms of, you know, give them something that they want to find out, some question that your readers are interested in. And obviously, with a whodunit, that’s very easy because that question is there on a plate for you. You know, the question that everybody wants to answer is, who killed the person that you…? You know, what’s the solution to the mystery that you set up?

But it’s not enough to have one single question that you withhold the answer to for, you know, 360 pages. There has to be reasons to want to get to the end of the chapter because everybody knows they’re not going to find out whodunit for, you know, pretty much the length of the book. So, I think it’s really important to set up little questions, little conundrums, little things that your reader wants to find out. And I think I sometimes get asked to teach classes, and one of the examples I often use is the beginning of “Gone Girl” where Gillian Flynn sets up this… You know, the big question is obviously what has happened to Amy Dunne, but in the first chapter there’s this brilliant throwaway line where Nick says something like, “That was the fourth lie I had told to the police that day.”

And, of course, you are immediately electrified. You’re like, “But why is he lying? Well, what’s the other three lies that he has told?” And she’s very clever, you know. She sort of spins that out over the next few chapters. You find out a bit, you don’t find out everything. And I think that’s just a really good example of just a really simple way to say to people that I’m keeping a secret from you, but you’re gonna find it out fairly soon. And, you know, obviously, when I’d got to that line in “Gone Girl,” I was like, “Well, I know I’m reading the next chapter.” And that I think is what I try to give to readers as much as possible.

But the truth is that, you know, it’s very difficult these days to write a book that hangs entirely on the solution. You know, we’re in an age of spoilers and internet reviews and, you know, Twitter. I think if you write a book that has a very cool reveal or a very cool twist at the heart of it, it can become quite vulnerable to that twist being revealed. So, I think the other thing that I always try to remember when I’m writing is that the reason to turn the page cannot only hang on the answer to those questions because someone might already know that. And ultimately, if you know the solution to the book or you know the secret of the twist, what’s going to make you keep reading is the characters. And really giving people a reason to care about your characters is three-quarters of the battle, I think.

Laura: That’s such a good point in the age of spoilers, like they could figure out what the twist ending is, but they wanna see how you get there and how the characters get there. So, that’s a really good point. And do you have any book recommendations for anyone who’s looking to hone their thriller or spooky story skills?

Ruth: Oh, wow. Gosh, I feel like I should have made a list. I mean, I think there’s lots of classics that people should read. Definitely, you know, some of the big Christie’s just to see how the kind of plotting works, “And Then There Were None,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.” In terms of atmosphere and kind of character, I love Daphne du Maurier. I think “Rebecca” is obviously her best-known book, and in terms of atmosphere and setting, that is amazing. But one that I keep coming back to again and again as a writer is “My Cousin Rachel,” because that book is so marvelously simple. It hangs on one single question, which is, did Rachel kill Ambrose? But you and the narrator sort of keep swinging backwards and forwards on that question, and she keeps you changing your mind, and she keeps the narrator changing his mind. And sometimes you are in sync with the narrator and sometimes you are not. And it’s a brilliantly done example of, you know, how much you can get out of a single question.

But I would also really encourage people to read contemporary writers. You have to keep up with the genre. I would say Lisa Jewell is amazing. She does character fantastically. Clare Mackintosh does brilliant procedurals. Lisa Unger does kind of fantastic psychological thrillers. Riley Sager. And then, you know, it just depends what kind of… You know, crime is a huge genre. You can have sort of, like, real kind of southern gothic, like S.A. Cosby, or historical crime, like Abir Mukherjee. I think you just need to figure out what you want to write and who is doing it best in your genre. And then there’s no shame in taking as much as you can from the people doing it brilliantly.

Rachel: That is such an excellent reading list. And I will be adding many of those books to my library, not as an aspiring thriller author, but just an enjoyer of the genre. And as an enjoyer of the genre, one thing I really wanted to ask you about was the murder mystery game that’s available on your website, because I love a murder mystery game. I have hosted many. And I’m just so curious what the creation process was like and how it differed from writing a crime book.

Ruth: Well, this was another thing that came out of lockdown, primarily because I wasn’t writing novels and also because we played a few murder mystery games over lockdown. And I really enjoyed them, but I came out of several of them thinking, “I could have written that better. Like, I could have… You know, I would’ve structured it differently. I would’ve made the characters different.” And after a certain point, I was like, “Well, maybe I should just write one.” And initially, I started writing it thinking that I would write it for my family for New Year’s Eve as a kind of game. And then I got really into it, and obviously, it took much longer to write than I had sort of anticipated. I’m sure this won’t be news to anyone who actually makes them for a living, but they’re very complicated to construct. And I didn’t end up completing it in time for New Year’s Eve.

So, then I was like, “Okay, what can I do with this now I’ve now written?” I thought, “Well, I’ll post it on my website.” You know, everybody’s stuck at home, murder mysteries is something that translate to Zoom really easily, although, you know, obviously now we can do them over dinner as well. And it was just, like, a fun little extra for readers to say, you know, “Here, have something free. Thank you for buying my books.” So, I hope that people download it. It’s much more lighthearted and silly than my books. But it was fun approaching the sort of the problem of a murder from a very different angle.

Rachel: Well, I for one cannot wait to download it and force my friends to come over and play.

Ruth: Please do. Send me photographs. Post them on Twitter.

Rachel: I will. Absolutely I will.

Laura: And we’ve kept you for a long time now, but we just wanted to hear about what you’re working on next.

Ruth: Oh, well, what I’m working on next is much too much of an ugly next stage to talk about. I get very superstitious. There’s a particular stage where the book’s sort of a third finished, and I always think the thing is you always compare the book that you’re writing with the one that you’ve just done, while forgetting that the one that you’ve just done has been through multiple edits and been sort of primped and, you know, groomed and honed into being its very best self. Whereas the version that’s on your laptop is emphatically not yet its very best self, it’s not even finished. So, it’s at that stage at the moment, and I’m not gonna talk about it in case I have to throw it all in the bin and decide that this was not the book that I wanted to write. But I definitely am writing another book. There definitely will be another book. Hopefully, this is the one that I’m writing and may have a very different setting, so you have to wait and see.

Rachel: Oh, you respect the superstition and we will not pry. And where can our listeners find you online?

Ruth: So, I am on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, @RuthWareWriter on all three. I am on TikTok, but only as an observer. I don’t tik or tok. Yes, I don’t feel that’s my natural… But yeah, I love to chat. Twitter’s probably the place where I’m most kind of talkative, so if people have something to say, come find me there.

Rachel: Perfect. We will link to all of your socials and your books in our show notes. And Ruth, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today. This was a delight.

Laura: Yes, thank you so much. This was so fun.

Ruth: Oh, thank you so much for having me both. It was lovely to meet you.

Rachel: Thank you for listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast.” If you are interested in picking up Ruth’s books, we will include links in our show notes. If you are enjoying this podcast, please be sure to rate, review, subscribe, tell your friends. And if you’re looking for more tips on growing your self-publishing business, you can find us at kobowritinglife.com. Be sure you are following us on socials, we are @KoboWritingLife on Facebook and Twitter and @kobo.writing.life on Instagram.

Laura: This episode was hosted by Laura Granger and Rachel Wharton, with production by Terrence Abrahams. Editing is provided by Kelly Robotham. Our theme music is composed by Tear Jerker. And thanks to Ruth Ware for being a guest. If you’re ready to start your publishing journey, sign up today at kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.

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