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This blog was featured on 07/05/2018
Jane Harper on Writing Women, Prologues and Her Overnight Success
Written by
She Writes
July 2018
Written by
She Writes
July 2018

Jane Harper is an Australian writer with a unique voice for writing murder mystery novels. Her breakout novel The Dry quickly became a favorite of readers everywhere and Harper seems to have a winning formula down for writing a successful book with a murderous plot and intriguing characters. In her recent interviews, she opened up about how she approached writing a novel and the story behind the debut that became an instant New York Times bestseller and was optioned by Reese Witherpsoon.  

On Writing Female Characters

Both of Jane Harper’s novels have a strong female presence and during a 2018 interview with The Christian Science Monitor, Harper revealed what goes through her mind when she writes a story based majorly on women:

“I was particularly keen to make them believable characters and give them the ring of authenticity since they play so much of a role in the narrative and are on the page so much. Readers need to recognize parts of themselves or other women they know.

“I also tried to think about their backstories and why [those stories] might make them react in certain ways when they're under pressure in a work environment. You don't necessarily know what's going on with people behind the scenes, at home, early in their lives. You don't see how their backstories affect them, but they shape who we are.”

How A Writing Class Sparked A New York Times Bestseller

The former journalist wrote her first novel, The Dry, in a rather unusual way, unaware that it would later become an instant New York Times bestseller. While being interviewed by BookPage, the author unveiled the process behind her debut success:

“I wrote the manuscript that would become The Dry as part of a 12-week online novel-writing course in late 2014, and at that time had no real expectation that it would ever be published. At times when it wasn’t going well, I remember telling myself that it was OK for this to be a “practice novel” and simply try to finish and treat it as a learning exercise.

“I’ve always worked best to deadlines, so for motivation, I set a goal of entering the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, which runs every year in my state... I entered the award in April 2015 and to my surprise found out the following month that I had won! That was a huge boost and the real catalyst to publication for The Dry. On the back of the award, the novel was sold in separate three-book deals to Flatiron Books in the U.S., Pan Macmillan in Australia and Little, Brown in the U.K., as well as being sold for translation in more than 20 territories.”

The Importance of Writing a Prologue

Author Jane Harper is a big believer in the power of the prologue and uses her initial idea for the story to generate the beginning of her novel. During an interview with Australia’s ABC, she revealed why she has included a prologue in both of her popular novels:

“I can see this dilemma, this issue, and then from there, I can build up what might have happened and what could have happened and how would this affect the people around it. I think it really helps. It saves you a lot of words later on.

“People who read it and think, ‘Well, it’s not for me’, are probably not going to like the rest of the book. I like to just get it all out there, really.”

On Writing A Small Town

Jane Harper’s The Dry takes place in a small town: an aspect of the novel that readers and fans continuously rave about. During an interview with BookPage, Jane talks about what inspired her to write this fictional town:

“For the physical description, I wanted to give readers enough detail to picture the scene, but not so much that it slowed down the story. I tried to really focus on specific aspects that brought that Australian setting to life and set the town apart from anywhere else in the world.

“In terms of the relationships within the community, I think they are much more universal and I was inspired by a lot of places I’ve been over the years, not just small towns and not even just in Australia. I think all communities have their own specific problems that put pressure on the residents. I hope that the feeling of neighbors knowing more about you than you’d like or the sense of being tied to a community that you have outgrown strike a chord with readers in many places in the world.”

How to Write A Successful Crime Novel

While sharing her best writing tips with Australia’s ABC, Harper opened up about what makes a good crime novel. Knowing the importance of a good reveal, the author noted what her fellow writers can do to make their surprise endings work:

“There’s a real line between a trick and a surprise, and I think you always want to come down on a surprise. You want to give readers a chance so when it gets to the end, they feel like, ‘OK, so that was why X, Y and Z happened’.”

Jane Harper says that she always knows “whodunnit” before the actual writing of her novel begins. After writing the first draft, she re-reads the story and adds in red herrings to keep her readers guessing:

“When you do have a basic plot down, it becomes a lot easier to add in those red herrings because you get more of a sense of how much you can give away, and where you can point people’s attention. A lot of those come in very late.”

Jane Harper is living proof that hard work and getting your book out into the world can bring major success. As a reporter turned fiction writer, Harper never thought she’d make it big in the world of novel writing but her perseverance and need to break out of her comfort zone brought her a new calling and career.

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  • Lisa Thomson

    I'm surprised to learn the MC is a man! Thought it was stated she writes strong women characters... :P Another male PI---sigh.

  • Lisa Thomson

    Interesting! I want to read Dry. I hadn't even heard of it so it's always great to discover new authors. Thanks for the interview excerpts. I've learned more about prologues now.