30 – The Secret to Writing Believable Suspense Fiction (with DiAnn Mills)

Posted September 7, 2020 | Laura Christianson
The Professional Writer
The Professional Writer
30 - The Secret to Writing Believable Suspense Fiction (with DiAnn Mills)


What if a killer virus was unleashed on board an international flight?

What kind of virus would it be?

How would the airline employees handle a medical emergency?

How would the passengers react?

What would the CDC advise?

Three years ago, when DiAnn Mills got the idea for a suspense novel plotline she “knew absolutely nothing about,” she approached it with the mindset, “When God gives us an idea and a dream, he’s not about to let it go.”

The Secret to Writing Believable Fiction (with DiAnn Mills) | Episode 30 of The Professional Writer Podcast with Laura Christianson | BloggingBistro.com

When it comes to researching a novel, DiAnn, a best-selling author, describes herself as “determined, stubborn, and obstinate.”

In this episode (the first of a two-part conversation with DiAnn), she shares how the pieces came together for her new suspense novel, Airborne, when she connected with an immunologist, a man who trains flight attendants, an FBI agent, a CDC employee, and an airline pilot.

The secret to DiAnn’s research success (other than stubbornness and divine intervention): She is genuinely interested in meeting people who are excited about their job and love talking about it.

She also goes above and beyond the call of duty when researching. She has the media coordinator at the Houston FBI office on speed dial. She has toured the D.C. FBI office and Quantico with a group from the FBI Citizens Academy.

In addition to this inside peek into the work ethic of a best-selling author, DiAnn takes us behind the scenes of The DiAnn Mills Book Club. This is a fantastic resource for book club hosts and authors who are looking for fresh, fun ideas.

Plus, you’ll learn about a household appliance you can use to roast your own coffee beans.

What does coffee have to do with writing? Everything, when you’re an author!

Full transcript at the bottom of the page.

Resources mentioned

Sweet Marias – tips for roasting coffee beans in an air popper

FBI Citizens Academy – find one in your area

ATF Citizens Cadet Academy – Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives  (search for one in your region)

Airborne – DiAnn’s suspense novel that released September 8, 2020

DiAnn Mills Book Club

About DiAnn Mills

DiAnn Mills, featured in Episode #30 of The Professional Writer Podcast with Laura Christianson of bloggingbistro.comDiAnn is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She weaves memorable characters with unpredictable plots to create action-packed, suspense-filled novels. DiAnn believes every breath of life is someone’s story, so why not capture those moments and create a thrilling adventure?

Right after we recorded this interview, DiAnn learned that Fatal Strike won the 2020 Golden Scroll novel of the year. Her titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists; won two Christy Awards; and been finalists for the RITA, Daphne Du Maurier, Inspirational Readers’ Choice, and Carol award contests.

Airborne by DiAnn MillsHer romantic suspense novel, Airborne, released September 8, 2020.

DiAnn is a founding board member of the American Christian Fiction Writers, a member of Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers.

She is the director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference and Mountainside Retreats: Marketing, Nonfiction, Novelists, and Speakers with social media specialist Edie Melson. DiAnn continues her passion of helping other writers be successful. She speaks to various groups and teaches writing workshops around the country.

DiAnn has been termed a coffee snob and roasts her own coffee beans. She’s an avid reader, loves to cook, and believes her grandchildren are the smartest kids in the universe. She and her husband live in Houston, Texas. Visit DiAnn at DiAnnMills.com.

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Read the Transcript

The Secret to Writing Believable Fiction, With DiAnn Mills

Laura: I am delighted today to welcome a guest onto the podcast. Her name is DiAnn Mills. Welcome DiAnn!

DiAnn: Welcome to you. Thank you so much. I’m excited to be a part of your program today.

Laura: DiAnn is a best-selling author who believes that her readers should expect an adventure and we’re going to talk a lot about the adventure of writing today. DiAnn weaves memorable characters with unpredictable plots to create action-packed suspense-filled novels. DiAnn believes that Every Breath of Life Is someone’s story so why not capture those moments and create a thrilling adventure?

One of the things that I wanted to ask you about DiAnn before we dive in here is in your bio you say that you are a coffee snob. That is something that we definitely have in common; I consider myself a coffee snob too, so tell me a little bit about your coffee snobbishness.

DiAnn: Actually I prefer roasting my own coffee beans and I do this through using an air popper. I have more than one so that I can do more than one small half cup green beans at a time or I would be there all day. But I actually really, really enjoy that process. The exploring – okay this is this particular type of green coffee beans so for the flavor I want, how long do I roast it and so you know I try with those. I’m a very, very dark-roasted fan and so the medium that a lot of our restaurants have just that doesn’t work for me. I have to have the stronger type so I actually use a website called Sweet Maria’s (link in Resources section of show notes). For anyone who is interested in roasting their own coffee beans, it is amazing. It’s like a little university. Not only do they tell you what all you need and give you tutorials and different things that you can buy according to just your home use or if you have a restaurant or coffee shop, and then of course all the different flavors from all over the world. I could spend a whole 30 minutes talking about this. I just love it!

One thing I will say, Laura, is to make sure you take those air poppers outside because if not, your house will smell like coffee. And that’s great, but I mean for a long time and in your hair and in your fingers and everywhere that may not be exactly what you want. If you live in a cold area and it is very cold outside you may want to have a little bit of a heater. Why, I am a snob aren’t I? But anyway, I love it.

Laura: I’ve never heard of roasting your own coffee beans in an air popper; that is news to me. That’s so fun. Well, here’s what my husband does. We don’t roast our own coffee beans so I guess I’m not true coffee snob. We buy really nice beans and we spend a lot of money to buy Kona coffee beans. My husband then grinds the beans and we do the cold drip method… the overnight method which is so delicious because it takes all the bitterness out of the coffee.

As he’s grinding the beans he puts some in a bowl and he brings the bowl of fresh beans or freshly ground coffee to me and says, “Aromatherapy. Sniff this.” I inhale that lovely smell of fresh ground coffee.

DiAnn: Oh, yes. I have a quick question, though. I follow these blogs about coffee. Did I hear correctly that when you do the cold brew that you should soak the beans in water overnight first?

Laura: We do not soak our beans first. But you know, that’s worth looking at. I’m going to have to join these coffee aficionado groups.

So, we’re not actually here to talk about coffee! Back to DiAnn. She is an avid reader and most writers are also avid readers. She loves to cook and believes her grandchildren are the smartest in the universe. You and your husband live in Houston.

You have a romantic suspense novel called Airborne which is releasing tomorrow, September 8th. Another reason why I’m so excited to have DiAnn on the show today is because she’s got a book coming out tomorrow, and she is going to be doing a giveaway of some goodies related to Airborne exclusively inside The Professional Writer Podcast Community Facebook group. This is a special bonus for those of you who listen and who are members of that Facebook group, so be sure to jump in there this week and see what DiAnn is giving away. You can join by checking out the show notes at bloggingbistro.com and there’ll be a link to join The Professional Writer Podcast Community.

Now let’s talk about your book, Airborne, because this is such a timely topic. I was looking at the tagline for the book and it says, “A killer virus is unleashed and it’s up to her to stop it.”

DiAnn: I am more than excited about this book. Airborne came to me… the idea came to me about three years ago. It was written and edited before COVID-19 released, so I don’t want anyone to think that this came all of a sudden and it was as a result of the pandemic. No, no, no!

I had this idea and I think that your listeners are going to enjoy this. I certainly enjoy telling it. I had the idea: What if a virus was unleashed on board an international flight? What would happen? I’ve had a lot of dealings and I have some great friends with the FBI and even a gal in DC who answers my questions and helps me find the right protocol. This was a little different. Granted, I wanted an FBI heroine. What was I going to do about a virus? What kind of virus? What determines a virus? CDC? What would the airlines do? All of those things that I knew absolutely nothing about.

I always believe that when God gives us an idea and he gives us a dream, he’s not about to let it go. So I was in Albuquerque speaking at a conference and I met this delightful woman. Not only was she a writer and a speaker but she was introduced as a microbiologist and an immunologist. I thought, “That is great!”

We were talking and she said to me, “DiAnn, I’ve always wanted to see a novel in which the research was done right, like a virus unleashed in a crowd.” She said, “If you want to do this I would be glad to help you; I would be thrilled to help you.”

So it’s like, oh wow, wow! I couldn’t wait to get home and I was so super excited. So I got home and I started working on a few things and said to my husband, “I don’t know how airlines train their employees, their flight attendants and their pilots. I don’t know how they train them in the in the event of a medical emergency.

And he says, “I can help you with that.” My husband plays piano on occasion at church and there was a gentleman within the praise team who trains flight attendants for the airlines. We had this delightful conference call. He told me what the procedures would be… all that protocol. Even the right words to use. Oh, I was so excited again! By this time I’m calling my FBI friend in DC and she’s helping me and she says, “Oh, would you like to talk to someone at the CDC?”

They are amazing. Not only are they very caring people but they are as excited to talk about what they do as we writers and bloggers and podcasters and all of us are excited to talk about what we do and they gave me so much information.

So I’m writing away and I’m excited and I have a gentleman not too far from me. He’s in my writing group and he’s published — does suspense and romantic suspense and fantasy — he’s very, very talented. My husband is talking to him and says to me, “Do you know what he does for a living?”

I said, “I don’t know but we just decided to be critique partners.”

He’s a pilot for that airline. All the pieces had come together so I was very very excited to have all of that information and to go forward with Airborne and I am very pleased. I’m very pleased.

Laura: That’s incredible, and I actually have a copy of Airborne in my hot little hands right now. Thank you, DiAnn, for sending me an advance copy. I’ve been enjoying reading it and I’ve noticed those sorts of things that you’re talking about. The novel is extremely well researched. I was thinking, how does she know all this about dealing with a pandemic and taking care of people who are suddenly ill on an international change flight? All the myriad reactions and emotions that people have in the midst of a pandemic. Now that we have been living in a pandemic for the last eight months or so, we can all understand those sorts of emotions, but like you said, you started writing and researching at least 3 years before this pandemic even happened.  The explanations of how people are handling an epidemic or a sudden disease that comes upon a lot of people in the middle of a plane flight… how people are handling that and the way that you describe that so accurately was mind-boggling to me; it’s just amazing. So obviously you were consulting with several experts who just happened to come your way at the right time.

DiAnn: It was absolutely wonderful. My friend Dr. Carisa Culbreth in Albuquerque would tell me, “This movie got it right or that movie got it right or watch that documentary.”

It all flowed into what I wanted to happen with my hero and my heroine on board this flight. And you know, I want to say something. Not that I’m the type of person who over-reacts because when you’re a writer, anything can happen anyway so that’s life. But when the pandemic did hit, it was as though I was prepared. “This will happen next and then this and this is what we will end up doing.”

It was very peaceful, very reassuring. Again I could see Heather, my heroine, walking through the pages of this book, making sure things were done and she’s trying to figure out who is responsible for this.

Laura: To acquaint those of you who are looking forward to reading Airborne, Heather is an FBI agent based in Houston who happens to be a passenger on the flight where this disease suddenly is attacking various passengers on the flight. She and fellow passengers end up in quarantine – another word that a lot of us have become familiar with. I’m not going to give away anything else about the book, but her husband ends up being the prime suspect behind who is causing this disease to be spread. Lots of suspense there… a lot of relational stuff going on between the husband and the wife.

DiAnn: I’m right there with you. We’ll go to watch a movie in my husband will say if someone else was there, “Do not say a word, DiAnn. You’re going to ruin it for them.”

Laura: I want to ask you something about the book go from a marketing perspective. Your publisher, Tyndale, released the e-book version on April 28th, several months before the print version comes out. Tell me a little bit about why they decided to do that and has that been something that has worked well for you? Or has that been a weird adjustment? What’s it been like having a having the ebook come out several months before the print book?

DiAnn: I’ve never had that happen before. As it was, it was very timely. My book offers hope and that is a huge portion of goodness that our whole world needs, is more hope. So while the book and the research and the story are near and dear to my heart, there is hope. Tyndale felt and I certainly agree that that’s exactly what readers needed was a big dose of hope in the middle of a tragedy. It has really worked well because I’ve been able to keep the momentum all the way through from the end of April until now and it’s worked out very nicely. I am pleased with how it was done and it was an unusual circumstance that may never happen again, to have that pre-release like that, but I am very very thankful very blessed that they did.

Laura: You’re the second guest I’ve had on this podcast who has had that happen this year. It’s quite an unusual occurrence to have two separate book release dates for an ebook and print book. I had Kathi Lipp on the podcast (episode #15) and she has a book out called Ready for Anything, which is about preparing for any type of disaster. The same thing happened with her — she had the ebook release several weeks or months before the print book came out and she told me that it felt like the never-ending book launch. Has it felt like that for you,  DiAnn?

DiAnn: Yes, because because there are different venues who want blog posts or an interview and yes it does seem like The Never Ending Story. I listened to Kathi’s podcast and it was exciting. It, too, shows, oh my goodness, the book was so timely for right now.

Laura: That’s a really good lesson for us writers — to be prepared to make a very quick pivot and even though we may have this publication date set in stone in our mind, it’s not necessarily the case. We have to be very flexible and willing to go with it, especially if we’re working with a royalty publishing house where they maintain a lot of the reins of control. We have to try different things and run with it because you never know what may happen. Like you’re saying, DiAnn, your book is offering hope to people during the middle of a really difficult time. That’s really ultimately what’s most important

DiAnn: I so agree. That’s one of the reasons why I write and predominantly I write fiction. I I love fiction. I want to offer hope in a non-threatening environment.

Laura: What sorts of projects are you working on?

DiAnn: I just turned in as of September 1 the next romantic suspense and it is a little different project. I have to be challenged; it’s just in my DNA I guess. But I’m very goal-oriented and I have to be challenged, so that means every book I write has to exceed the previous book in something even if no one ever recognizes it but me.  But that is that is how I work — that’s how I operate. I feel excited about this totally different story. My goal was to go just a little deeper psychologically.

Laura: Is this new story an FBI story? It is a stand-alone book or part of a series?

DiAnn: I prefer stand-along books, and yes, it is FBI. I have a young woman at age 17 who confessed to shooting and killing her brother-in-law and spent 15 years in prison. However she didn’t do it. The hero is an FBI agent who doesn’t think she needs to be out of jail. That’s all I can say.

Laura: You have several books with FBI agents in them. What got you interested in writing about FBI agents in particular?

DiAnn: I’m real determined, stubborn, obstinate when it comes to research, as we’ve already talked about. Several years ago I was ready to write an FBI book but I didn’t know agents who could and would give me the information I needed.  So I just called the Houston office here and visited with the media coordinator. She and I became very very close friends; still are to this day. After I was processed got my security clearance, we discussed closed cases and what closed cases might work the best. At that time she read every word I wrote so that the protocol would be correct. Through her, I became involved in the FBI Citizens Academy (link in Resources section of show notes). That is a nationwide program and I’m still active in that and I thoroughly enjoy the speakers who have done the right thing. Those agents too, just like everybody else, are excited about their career, their job, and they love talking about it. I enjoy the FBI, becoming very familiar with them and that’s fun. I have also taken ATF, their citizens Cadet Academy (link in Resources section of show notes). I have learned a whole lot and am planning on using some of that information with the FBI in an upcoming book.

Laura: You’re not only doing the research and you’re meeting the people and interviewing people who are in the field, like FBI agents and looking at actual closed cases and basing some of your story lines on that. You are going above and beyond the call of duty in joining the Citizens Academy and going through their classes and workshops and watching the lectures so that you can soak in as much of this aura of being an FBI agent as possible. That’s admirable.

DiAnn: I enjoy it. It’s an opportunity for me to share in my little sphere — my little community — of how things are really done. Not how someone may have a television show or movie of how something might be done. I was very fortunate at one point to take a trip to DC and Quantico with a group of the Citizens Academy. We had a fabulous tour of the DC office and Quantico. It was amazing. I remember as the bus was pulling into Quantico, I saw what looked like a sixteen-year-old kid. Of course, the older I get the younger everybody else looks. He’s just be-boppin’ down the street with a backpack and the driver says, “He’s our best sniper.”

I was on alert and thrilled throughout the whole time.

Laura: Wow; that’s like going on that backlot tour of Universal Studios, only this is real! That’s incredible. I want to ask you something else related to your book marketing. You have a book club called The DiAnn Mills Book Club (link in Resources section of show notes). Tell us about this and how people can get involved in it if they’re interested.

DiAnn: I understood when I started writing the book clubs love books and all the readers love books. When they get together for a meeting to discuss the book, hopefully there are questions in the back of the book that help. But what about all the other things? What about any games? I I love doing unique book-oriented crossword puzzles or word searches or “Hey, could you be an FBI heroine? Here’s all the criteria. Fill it out and see if you apply. Even things for kids. The more I got involved with it, the more I thought, this would be a great menu to have that would go along with this book. Here’s even some recipes. Here are a few giveaways that the hostess could either get from me or find them on Amazon or someplace and I would provide the link. What I found is the more I can offer a book club, the more at they are to jump back in and say, DiAnn has a new book. What is she offering now? And that doesn’t even talk about the Zoom sessions — if they would like to have a live Zoom session, like for me to call in.  Or, if I’m anywhere near at all, I want to be there. I want to share my enthusiasm, answer their questions, just have a good time… maybe bring food and goodies for the evening and make sure I have plenty of the yellow crime-scene tape decorating everything.

I encourage your readers, whether you’re in a book club or you’re just looking for something fun to go to my website which is diannmills.com. Find the page that has to do with a particular book. Right now it’s Airborne but you can see a video, read a chapter you have all your “buy” buttons. You can find different items as to why I was so excited about writing this… what were some of my goals my aspirations. And then all the book club information. It’s fun. It’s something that I can offer readers and it is all about readers. If I can’t inspire readers; if I can’t encourage a reader to be better than who they are, then my job of entertaining them just a small little box. I want to spread that out and be more.

Laura: I think that your book club is not only a great resource for your readers who want to read your books and have book clubs to focus specifically on your books, but I think it’s also a fantastic resource for authors in general who are looking to market their books… looking for new and innovative ideas for marketing, particularly marketing online. They can learn from an experienced author like you and get some fresh ideas and run with it.

I am having so much fun talking with you, DiAnn, that I would love to continue our conversation next week. I want to ask you some questions about the coaching you do of other writers and also, the teaching you do, because those are two other important ways that you are building your writing business. Would you be up for coming back again and continuing our conversation?

DiAnn: Absolutely. Thrilled. Thanks so much.

Laura: Let’s do it! DiAnn will be back with us again next week to continue the conversation.