Q&A: Kelley Armstrong on Her Modern Gothic Novel "Betrayals," and the Craft of Writing

Kelley Armstrong’s Betrayals is the fourth book in her Cainsville series. The internationally bestselling author’s 13-book Women of the Otherworld series inspired the TV show Bitten. Armstrong answered questions from The National’s John B. Valeri about the progression of story arc, satisfying both new readers and longtime fans, and her take on “the small town with a secret” trope.

Q: What inspired the premise of Betrayals – and how do you see this book as representing a progression from the previous titles?

A: Betrayals is the fourth in a five-book series, so in this one, I’m putting everything else I need in place for my end-game. It does, of course, have a clearly defined mystery that starts and ends within the book—as every installment does—but the mystery also serves to bring the characters deeper into the world. In this book, the central character, Olivia, is drawn into the murder of two apparent street kids. Of course the situation ends up being much more complicated than that!  

Q: Writing the fourth book in a series, how do you balance providing enough of the backstory for new readers with maintaining a sense of immediacy of the story for your loyalists?

A: I write two types of series. One, like the Otherworld, allows each book to stand alone. Others, like Cainsville, see each book building on the last. That means that I would not recommend picking up book four as a reader’s introduction to Cainsville. These books are more deeply layered than the Otherworld and they focus on a single narrator, so by this point, there’s just so much going on and it’s all interconnected, all building toward a series conclusion. I do still weave in background, but it’s primarily to remind those who read the previous installment a year ago.

Q: Speaking of Cainsville, tell us what creative spark resulted in its conception. Also, how does setting enhance narrative – and what are the benefits of using a fictional town as the backdrop rather than a real place?

A: Cainsville was my take on the “small town with a secret” trope. I love those stories and have always wanted to create my own. With a place like Cainsville, the town really becomes a character itself—a place with a distinct personality, look, backstory, etc. When I work with small towns—as opposed to large cities—I always use fictional versions. With Cainsville, there would be no way of using a real place! Even in more ordinary small towns, though, using a real one would shine a spotlight on too specific of an area, running the risk of insulting or upsetting people who live there and see any negativity as a direct reflection on their home.

Q: When writing an ongoing saga, there’s a story arc and a series arc. How do you create and maintain tension(s) – and what are the keys to crafting a story that both stands alone and keeps the reader hooked for future installments?

The Cainsville novels do each include a mystery that is introduced and wrapped up within each book. But by the time one reaches the fourth installment, there are many series subplots — which is why I would not advise that a reader start there. Each installment expands on the world, revealing more secrets. It’s intended to be a gradual process, the next novel building on the previous ones, heading toward the series arc conclusion in book 5. That’s what keeps readers waiting for the next installment—questions not yet answered, situations not yet resolved, twists that spins the arc in a new direction. Yet it’s also what makes it difficult for new readers to start late in the series. It’s a tradeoff, with advantages and disadvantages to writing either way—a series with a strong overarching plot versus one with clearly delineated installments.

Q: We tend to classify books to death these days. Yours combine elements of many genres, including romance and suspense. How would you categorize these particular titles – and, in your opinion, are these classifications more advantageous or disadvantageous to an author’s chances at success?

I call Cainsville modern gothic because the core concept is a contemporary take on the old gothic novels—young woman in jeopardy flees to a strange and possibly sinister place, meets a mysterious man with questionable motives . . . I don’t think that the genre label I give a novel has any impact on its success. Very few people are going to know—or care—how I categorize it. For me, the genre is just a convenient reference for when I’m discussing a series.

Q: You have a background in psychology. How does this help you with character/plot development? And what advice would you give to aspiring writers in terms of educating themselves?

A: My background is vital to my character creation. Most of my main characters have something traumatic or unique in their backstory that propels them forward and shapes their personalities and their personal story arc. As for education, I firmly believe any form of study is advantageous to writing. History, anthology, sociology and psychology are more obvious examples, but I use everything I’ve studied, from accounting to computer programming to graphic design. They’re all useful, either in writing itself or in the career of being a writer.

This interview was edited for publication.

John B. Valeri wrote for Examiner.com from 2009 to 2016, and his Hartford Books Examiner column consistently ranked in the top 10 percent of all Hartford, National Books, and National Arts & Entertainment Examiners. His reviews have been excerpted in more than 50 titles written by popular authors ranging from Wally Lamb to James Patterson and Marcia Clark. John regularly moderates author interviews and book discussions at bookstores, conferences, and libraries throughout Connecticut. He will make his fiction debut in Tricks and Treats, a Halloween-themed anthology due out from Books & Boos Press this fall. Visit him online at www.johnbvaleri.com.