By Karen Hemmerle, Contributing Editor

Dawn Rinken writes romantic thrillers, is actively querying agents to try to get published and has been a part of writers’ groups for several years. Her novel The American recently took first place for Romance Fiction in the Pike’s Peak Zebulon contest. The American tells the story of an American girl who must rely on a shady Australian tour guide to save her life after she stumbles upon a secret mining operation in China. Rinken has lived in Minnesota, Texas, and Kentucky  and recently relocated (back to) Colorado. In addition to writing and reading, she enjoys working out, including running and yoga. Learn more about her at themousessoapbox.wordpress.com .

Boulder Writers' Workshop:  Congratulations on your novel The American taking first place for romance fiction in the Pike’s Peak Zebulon contest. Please tell us about the book.

Dawn Rinken:  The logline is:  An American girl must rely on a shady Australian tour guide to save her life after she stumbles upon a secret mining operation in China.

BWW:  Your book is set in China. How integral is the setting to the plot of your story and how do you create that in your writing?

DR:  The inception of this story came to me in a dream, so I didn’t really decide for it to be in China – that’s what the story wanted. Once there, it created a lot of great fish-out-of-water problems for my main character (since, like me, she doesn’t speak the language and she sticks out like a sore thumb). In addition to the social/cultural tensions, I also had to look at the geography of her surrounding area to figure out the best way for her to escape – which, even though it was the “best” doesn’t mean it was the easiest. (Having to trek across wild, sub-Himalayan terrain, partially by foot? Not exactly easy!)

BWW:  Since this is a romance, please tell us about your leading lady and her relationship with the men in the story. How did you go about developing these characters?

DR:  Kelly’s best friend is her Chinese pen pal, Qing (whose name she’s mispronounced since she was nine, calling him “King,” which he loves – stokes his ego). Though they explored a kiss when they met in person during his trip to the U.S. when they were teens, nothing ever came of it. Now, she’s 29 and he’s 31, and he’s getting married to the love of his life (the reason Kelly came to China in the first place – for Qing’s wedding). But even though Kelly’s happy for him, she can’t help but feel her own clock ticking. Her own adult relationships have made her wary – most notably a one-night stand with her boss, whom she’d had a huge crush on, but which turned out to be a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, from his end. So falling into the arms (literally) of hunky Aussie Durango sets off more than one alarm for her. Not only is her body hyper-responding to him in ways she’d rather not deal with, but he’s a stranger, and her instincts immediately tell her he’s dangerous.

As far as developing all of these characters, I spent a LOT of time writing their backstories. When I wrote the first rough draft, over 750 pages came out—enough that I knew I had more than one story on my hands. But in the process their characters evolved more. Then, when I was going back to do the rewrites for The American, I applied some of the character development techniques I’d learned in How to Write a Damn Good Thriller, by James N. Frey, namely to have my major characters write letters to me, telling me about themselves. It’s amazing what comes out of those kinds of exercises.

BWW:  The American is also a thriller. Can you tell us about that aspect of the story and what’s important when writing stories that thrill and engage us?

DR:  Sure, it’s a romance, but it’s one that blossoms while my main characters are racing through three Far East countries, being pursued by multiple international government agencies, ninja-monks are trying to kill my heroine, and the guy she’s falling for may or may not be trustworthy. It’s important when writing “thrillerized romances” to keep plenty of life-or-death moments popping up, but also to keep the characters’ emotional responses appropriate to the situations and to who they are, and believable. If you botch the emotional flow, you’ll lose the reader.

BWW:  What inspired you to become a writer?

DR:  I have no good answer for this. The words just come out; it’s who I am.

BWW:  Have you always taken writing seriously, or was there a moment where you knew this was more than a hobby?

DR:  I’ve always known this was in me, always known I had a story to tell (maybe more than one), and it’s always been a love affair with fiction. That’s just how the deeper truth reveals itself, at least for me. But I remember finally sitting down in 2004 and knowing I had to make this dream a reality. I was in my third trimester with my sixth child, and decided to stop waiting for my real life to “calm down.” I began outlining what became my first manuscript over the course of four months, and I joined my first writers’ group (in Parker, Colorado). That manuscript evolved, was polished, but ultimately never saw the light of day. But I kept up with joining writers’ groups, when I moved to Cincinnati, and then back to Colorado, where I joined BWW. I think, if you are a serious writer, it’s not enough to write; you have to also have access to other people who know the craft and can help you. Otherwise you’ll be stagnant.

BWW:  How did you choose the romance genre? Do you think it’s taken less seriously other genres?

DR:  Haha! I didn’t; it chose me. I always thought I was a thriller writer, and I cringed at the thought of Fabio-esque book covers. But, ultimately, I am incapable of story lines that don’t have a love story. Yes, I do think that’s a misperception about the romance genre, that if a story is classified as a romance it must be less serious or less important than books in other genres – except to its writers. And, of course, the most important ones, its readers. But as far as it being taken seriously, people can blow it off however they want, but they can’t argue that it must hit home in a very important way, when annual romance book sales continue to exceed $1.25 billion (source: http://www.rwa.org/p/cm/ld/fid=580).

BWW:  Are you a plotter or a pantster? Do you plan everything about your story in advance, or just write as it comes?

DR:  I like the way Stephen King, in On Writing, described the concept of unearthing a story the same way a paleontologist unearths a fossil. The story comes to me, and I let it tell itself.

BWW:  Do you have a writing process, a schedule you work on?

DR:  No (unfortunately).

BWW:  How do you balance real life and writing?

DR:  Right now, not very well. I started a full time job in January and then moved in March, so it’s been hard to find time to work on my fiction. Fortunately, I manage the social media at work, and the company newsletter, so I do get plenty of opportunity to work with words and to write – even if it’s only about company-related things.

BWW:  Do you put people you know in your stories? Has anyone ever said, “Hey, that character is me!”?

DR:  There have been a few characters that are based directly on people I know in real life. Since I’m not published yet, I haven’t had the issue of anyone saying, “Hey, that’s me!” But for the most part, my characters start out as amalgams of multiple people I know, and then they take on lives of their own. And, of course, parts of all of my characters are me.

BWW:  What do you do when you get stuck with a storyline?

DR:  Being stuck is the worst… and the best. It forces you to really confront your story and then to be creative. I got some advice once that was awesome: when you find you’ve written yourself into a corner, you have to have your character do or say something that they would NEVER do or say. One time I had a woman knock on a stranger’s door, and a voice inside hollered, “Come in, door’s open.” This woman was smart, uber-cautious (she’d been through a lot), and she was married to an FBI agent, for crying out loud, she could hear her husband’s voice in her head saying stranger danger! I was stuck at this part of the story for a while. Even I didn’t know what was on the other side of the door. Finally, I took that “if you’ve written yourself into a corner” advice and had my girl disregard all of her internal alarms, open the door and enter the house. Totally developed a whole, new angle and moved the story right along!

BWW:  How have you developed as a writer? What have you done to improve your mastery of the craft and storytelling?

DR:  1.      Practice, practice, practice

2.      Surround myself with other writers

3.      Work with a highly qualified writing coach (Lori DeBoer)

4.      Read, read, READ! You have to know your genre!

BWW:  How has being part of Boulder Writers’ Workshop helped you as a writer?

DR:  In addition to getting to meet and hook up with Lori (my coach), it’s so important to get to mingle with others who are going through the same weird stresses as you. Being a writer is almost like a disease sometimes. I mean, how many other people can understand the way you get excited when you thought to turn “broccoli” into a verb? Or can empathize with how it feels to realize you’ve spent the day talking to and arguing with a bunch of other people… who only exist in your head!

BWW:  What is your best advice for other writers?

DR:  Find a way to hang out with other people who are serious about the craft, and don’t ever be afraid to let the story lead you where it wants to go. It’s the only way to get to the deeper truth. Also, don’t ever get so possessive of your story that you can’t hear the constructive criticism. It’s the only way to make sure your great story gets heard.

BWW:  What’s next for you?

DR:  About a week ago I sat down and worked on The American for the first time in about 4 months. Chopped out 20,000 words (my coach doesn’t know this yet!), and I’m just getting started. I’ve heard the criticisms, I’ve read-read-read my genre, and I’m committed to getting published. Full time job or not, I need to make this happen. So hopefully what’s next is The Rewrite That Does It!