Guest Post & Giveaway: Throwaway Girls by Andrea Contos
Part of the ability to write mystery or thrillers is the skill to create the right amount of stakes. I’m always curious about how thriller authors use world building to create the feeling you get in a good thriller. Today we check in with Andrea Contos, writer of Throwaway Girls, a debut thriller that is not to be missed this fall! Check out her approach to worldbuilding below and be sure to pick up Throwaway Girls, out now!
Throwaway Girlsby Andrea Contos
Published by: Kids Can Press
on September 1, 2020
Genres: Young Adult, Mystery, Thriller, GLBTQIA+
Caroline Lawson is three months away from freedom, otherwise known as graduation day. That's when she'll finally escape her rigid prep school and the parents who thought they could convert her to being straight.
Until then, Caroline is keeping her head down, pretending to be the perfect student even though she is crushed by her family and heartbroken over the girlfriend who left for California.
But when her best friend Madison disappears, Caroline feels compelled to get involved in the investigation. She has her own reasons not to trust the police, and she owes Madison — big time.
Suddenly Caroline realizes how little she knew of what her friend was up to. Caroline has some uncomfortable secrets about the hours before Madison disappeared, but they're nothing compared to the secrets Madison has been hiding. And why does Mr. McCormack, their teacher, seem to know so much about them?
It's only when Caroline discovers other missing girls that she begins to close in on the truth. Unlike Madison, the other girls are from the wrong side of the tracks. Unlike Madison's, their disappearances haven't received much attention. Caroline is determined to find out what happened to them and why no one seems to notice. But as every new discovery leads Caroline closer to the connection between these girls and Madison, she faces an unsettling truth.
There's only one common denominator between the disappearances: Caroline herself.
Worldbuilding in Thrillers
Worldbuilding isn’t a concept you see mentioned often in discussions about mysteries or thrillers. Google “worldbuilding” and you’ll get a little over four million results, nearly all of them focused on science fiction and fantasy.
It makes sense! Even the word itself invokes images of new lands and customs, the creation of languages and species. So it’s easy to assume worldbuilding plays no role in books that take place very firmly in our world. The world is already built for us, right?
Turns out…not so much. World building is just as critical in mysteries and thrillers as it is any other genre. It is, however, a much more subtle approach. So how do we worldbuild in mysteries?
Set The Scene
Throwaway Girls takes place in two very different settings. Caroline is a student at an exclusive prep school, in a very affluent area. It’s marble halls and carved-wood doors, blazers and knee socks. But a big part of her heart belongs in a much less privileged area of town, where many of the residents face challenges her classmates never even consider. And her investigation takes her to places with pitted and cracked parking lots where empty bottles clink against broken curbs.
The book explores these difference in settings as a major theme, and there’s no better way to set up a comparison than to make them the most opposite versions. I could’ve set Caroline’s school in a middle-class suburb, but it would’ve made for a far less stark comparison.
But you don’t need a compare and contrast element for setting to matter. A gritty noir might feel most at home set in back alleys of New York City or the folklore-infused streets of New Orleans. A cozy mystery set in the mountains of Colorado gives you the chance describe trudging from snow-laden paths to cottages with crackling fireplaces. A light-hearted or humorous mystery might happen on the beaches of L.A.
None of this is to say you can’t set your cozy in New York! You can do anything if it’s done well! In fact, turning expectations of settings on their head, or showing a different side to a city than readers expect, can be incredibly effective. After all, L.A. can be gritty, or it can be palm trees and beaches. The devil is truly in the details, and choosing the right ones can create a virtual picture in your readers’ minds from the first page.
Get In The Mood
Every story has a mood. That mood should bleed through every word on the page. Obviously your story shouldn’t be monotone—even the darkest of stories can have shots of humor! But the overall mood or thematic intention of your story should drive word choice and description.
Description happens to be one of my favorite things. I’m sure there are many who’d disagree that descriptions are a vital element of mystery or thriller writing. “This isn’t litfic—get to the action already!”
But think cinematically. What happens right before the jump scare in movies? It’s the slow, quiet stretch. The moments where the main character inches through the silent house, or the hushed woods, with only their labored breathing as a soundtrack. Those moments are pure suspense. You need those pause moments to serve as balance for the faster-paced elements, and what and how you describe things is all a part of world-building.
My debut is a darker-themed book. It deals with some heavier topics and the mystery revolves around missing girls. Consequently, I chose lots of descriptions that conveyed the appropriate mood. Shadows and glints of moonlight, browned grass bent beneath the weight of frost, canopies of trees in the woods at midnight and the barely-there glow of flashlights. All of those things set the tone of the book and become important worldbuilding elements.
They also serve to create a higher contrast to the parts of the book that focus on happier moments and memories: sunlight reflecting off pool water’s ripples, the calming chirp of crickets as characters sit quietly and contentedly in each other’s company, the warmth of a sweatshirt gifted by a friend.
Letting the mood drive your description and word choice helps create a more cohesive and layered book!
Know Thy Characters
Characters are a huge part of worldbuiding, and not just because they’re the most important part of your book, but because the way they view the world is the basis for all worldbuilding.
That’s a bold claim, but think of any book, and now imagine how the story would feel if told by a main character that’s the complete opposite of the original. Your character’s thoughts drive the worldbuilding, and their reaction to their surroundings are vital to building a world readers can lose themselves in.
And hopefully, you’ve set your worldbuilding up to exploit your particular character’s flaws and weaknesses. I mentioned earlier that Throwaway Girls has two very different settings, but the contrast between those two was not the only reason I made that choice.
Those settings—the entire world—in the book, is designed to force Caroline to confront all the things she’s tried to run from. She’s tried desperately to keep those two worlds apart, but the entire conflict of the book forces them together.
And that’s exactly what I mean when I say your worldbuilding should exploit your character’s flaws and weaknesses. It should provide yet another pressure point that forces your character to grow. Crafting your world around the thing your character fears most, the thing that will force them to change, is the kind of worldbuilding that keep pages turning well past readers’ bed times!
So many thanks Christy and Kelly for letting me use this space to talk worldbuilding! If you’ve got any more suggestions for worldbuilding in mysteries and thrillers, I’d love to hear them!
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