PhotobucketTherese here. I’m so pleased to bring you today’s returning guest and all around awesome human being, author Michelle Diener. Last year, Michelle’s debut novel, In a Treacherous Court, was published by the Gallery Books imprint of Simon & Schuster. Today the second book in her series, Keeper of the King’s Secrets–another historical thriller/suspense with romantic elements, featuring historical figures artist Susanna Horenbout and King Henry VIII’s Keeper of the Palace, John Parker–will be released. What’s the book about?

Susanna Horenbout’s chance meeting with a jeweler from Antwerp pulls her and her betrothed, courtier John Parker, into a deadly plot against the King. Ever since Henry VIII’s sister Mary gave him the spectacular Mirror of Naples, part of the French Crown Jewels, the King of France has been plotting to get it back.

After the French king is captured in battle, the secret deal struck for the jewel’s return is in jeopardy—and French agents in London are taking matters into their own hands. But the powerful Duke of Norfolk has caught wind of the secret deal and sees the planned theft as an opportunity to rid himself of a hated rival at court—even if it means plunging England into an unwinnable war with France.

As Susanna and John Parker desperately search for the jewel, trying to stay one step ahead of the French, they’re swept into a power struggle with men who will crush any obstacle to get what they want. And with the fate of a nation in the balance, they must figure out where the Mirror of Naples is hidden—before it’s too late.

Sounds action-packed, no? Michelle is both a genius researcher and a master at maintaining high suspense on the page. It’s the latter talent I asked Michelle to speak about today; how does she do it? Enjoy!

The Action / Tension / Emotion Ratio

I write historical fiction with a lot of action and tension. Therese asked me to talk today about keeping the tension high, and I have to admit, she’s made me take a step back and really think about it, because I don’t have a specific method. I’ve had to look back on my process, and what I’ve boiled it down to is an action / tension / emotion ratio.

With any scene that has any action in it, which is almost any scene ever written, unless your character is unconscious in a flotation bath, and even then she’s floating, right? – one thing you have to get right is the mechanics of it. The physical movement of the characters has to flow, make sense and stay simple so as not to confuse. The moment your reader loses the image in their head, and has to go back to see what’s happening again, you’ve lost the flow – the deep moment – as I call it, where the reader is so involved in the story, they are lost to the world around them.

But I’m going to assume that writers who are serious will work very hard to get the mechanics right. The mechanics are vital, but once they are in place, they are just actions on the page. How do we elevate opening a door, or running down stairs, or pressing up against the side of a church from merely being just that, to being something scary, something that makes the reader’s heart hitch and has them fumbling to turn the page?

By injecting tension.

You can do this in many ways. Holding out on the reader. Refusing to give them all the information, or intimating one thing to them, while actually giving them another. Having a character say one thing, but think another, or say one thing, and do another. And layer that all with the appropriate emotion.

To keep tension high, you have to keep your writing tight. There is no time for distractions. If your main character can be thinking about anything more than the problem at hand, then you’ve lost the tension, and your reader will feel cheated, too. Especially if you’ve built it up, but it isn’t as much of a problem as you made it out to be.

And I want to be clear here – I’m not talking only about high-action fight scenes. The more I thought about the issue of tension, the more I realized that this action / tension / emotion ratio is present in ALL scenes. You can give your readers a break with less of one and more of another, make it ‘light and dark’ as they seem to say in the singing trade, but without all three in each scene, you aren’t going to compel readers to turn the page.

And that brings me to emotion. For a start, emotion is the life you breath into the characters on the page. The reason why the reader has given up their time to go on this journey with you. And it is also the way to elevate a tense moment into a truly terrifying one. Or a sweet moment into a poignant one. And the one way to use this to captivate your readers is to be true. No off notes. No flat ones, either. Pitch perfect, or you’ve lost your audience. When you create your characters’ personalities, stay true to them. Don’t jerk them around like marionettes for the sake of plot convenience.

I personally think it’s the little things that make the difference where emotion is concerned. The small observations, the unconscious action, the intrinsic reaction, that are the most powerful, and the most likely to convince.

And none of this can work without an almost impossible-to-separate entwining of all three elements.

I’ve written this with way more musical references than I realized, now that I look at it, and I’m sure there will be those who see this in a different way altogether. I’d love to hear your views, how you go about gripping your readers.

GIVEAWAY: Because this is the release day of KEEPER OF THE KING’S SECRETS, the second novel in my Tudor-set series about Henry VIII’s court painter, Susanna Horenbout, I’m happy to be giving away a copy of KEEPER OF THE KING’S SECRETS to one lucky commenter. US residents only, unfortunately.

Readers, find Keeper of the King’s Secrets at brick-and-mortar bookstores near you or online sites. You can learn more about Michelle Diener and her debut novel by visiting her her website and blog, Magical Musings, and by following her on Twitter and Facebook. And don’t forget to leave a comment if you’d like to be entered into the drawing for a book (U.S. residents only, please). Write on!

Top photo courtesy Flickr’s buckyishungry