Literary Inspiration for Beneath the Marigolds
As the great Stephen King noted in On Writing, “If you want to be a writer…you must read a lot” (p. 145). As such, I read all the time—partly because I love it, and partly because it helps me be a better writer. I learn what’s popular, what’s been done, how to pace and plot properly, how to drop in backstory, the right amount of interiority vs. exteriority, and other effective stylistic choices.
I mostly read mysteries and thrillers, but I also enjoy literary novels, women’s fiction, and historical fiction. Occasionally, I’ll read fantasy, romance, or nonfiction. And, I read YA for school and teaching, so I guess my genres really run the gamut. I post about my recent reads and recommendations on my bookstagram, but I’ve never shared the literary inspirations behind Beneath the Marigolds. There are four books in particular that I used as guidance. They are dog-eared, highlighted, and margin-noted; I’ve read them so often that I can quote certain passages. And like friends and mentors, they all offered different lessons. So, without further ado…
Warning: spoilers ahead!
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie is the queen of locked-room mysteries, creating a slew of suspicious characters, and—in the words of Ruth Ware, another inspiration of mine—“stifled luxury.” These techniques are absolutely brilliant at creating intrigue and tension, and I tried to emulate these maneuvers. Just like And Then There Were None, Beneath the Marigolds is set on a lush, secluded island. It’s not a true locked-room mystery, as there is some communication/travel between people on and off the island, but the isolated nature of the location still manufactures suspense. And, from the get-go, I did my best to make every character a potential suspect.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Like everyone on planet Earth, I was floored by the twist in Flynn’s third novel. I don’t pretend my twists are anywhere near Gone Girl-level, but I still studied her foreshadowing, red herrings, and plot development like my life depended on it. I also really admired Flynn’s style of writing: the closeness created by the first-person points of view and breaking of the fourth wall; the wittiness and relatability of her two protagonists; her original, hyphenated adjectives to describe humdrum objects. (A “spooky ventriloquist-dummy click of the [eye]lids?” Genius.) I tried to incorporate these aspects into my own work, and I even modeled Reese—obviously, only to a degree—on Diary Amy. Like Diary Amy, I needed Reese to be a little bit naive, yet likeable and trustworthy. Flynn mastered that with Diary Amy. And, finally, I wanted my villain to be a female. A complex, intelligent female.
Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Like Flynn, Hawkins mastered the final twist using subtle clues and excellent character development. In addition to using first-person points of view, she also primarily used present tense. A lot of old-school writers, publishers, and readers don’t like first-person POV or present tense, but it’s a popular trend among contemporary thriller authors. First-person POV is great for creating unreliable narrators—another trend, although I think the tide is changing—and a close relationship between the character and reader. Present tense has a similar closeness effect: everything is happening RIGHT NOW, the action feels more urgent, and this helps put the readers in the characters’ shoes. Present tense also reads like a screenplay and is cinematic in nature, which resonates with our film-obsessed culture. For these reasons, I used both first-person POV and present tense.
The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
One of my favorite recent novels, mostly for that jaw-dropping twist. (A common theme among my literary inspirations, you’ll notice.) From this book, I borrowed a couple things. Like The Silent Patient, the chapters in Beneath the Marigolds are short—about five pages on average. Mostly, I’ll admit, this was because I was working full-time and often only had time for five pages a day. But, on a more strategic level, readers are becoming more distracted, and shorter chapters help keep readers’ attention.
I also mirrored Michaelides’ plot structure. I even made a Google spreadsheet of his chapters, noting the number of pages and a short description, and placed my chapters side-by-side. This was especially helpful around the middle of my book—the toughest part to write, in my opinion—when I needed guidance on how to keep the plot moving without being redundant or giving away too much. Like Christie, Michaelides makes every character a suspect, creating twists and turns that keep readers turning the page. In the middle of BTM, when I got stuck, I would focus on a different character, have him or her do something shady, and then move onto the next chapter.
On Writing by Stephen King
This isn’t a mystery or thriller novel, but it was still very influential to me, and I recommend this book for any aspiring author. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I will offer some nuggets that have really stayed with me.
First, cut out any unnecessary adjectives or adverbs. Try to use similes or metaphors when you need to describe something. (You might be thinking: But Emily! You just complimented Gillian Flynn’s use of adjectives! But, you see, her adjectives are just efficient metaphors.)
Second, big words don’t make good writers.
And, of course, read a lot, and write a lot.
Anything J.K. Rowling writes, but especially Harry Potter.
That woman can write a damn character. They are all so memorable, unique, and well-developed. For example, I know everything I need to know about the Dursleys from this paragraph:
“Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large moustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbours. The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere” (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, p. 1).