Suspense is vital to a novel, but my favorite kind of tension is the interplay of relationships and family dynamics, not ruthless criminals seeking wealth or revenge. Both kinds of stories can keep me up late, turning the pages, but the latter type sets my nerves on edge.
It’s kind of like being afraid to fall asleep and re-entering the nightmare you just had. Which is why romantic suspense is not my go-to genre.
However, when I started my first book written by Sherri Wilson Johnson, she hooked me. Despite internal protests and lack of sleep, I finished that story and read two more. Without regrets.
I read them out of order, but since they’re standalones, it doesn’t matter. Desolate Escape is book one in a four-book series: Jeopardized Reunions.
Dr. Lacey Elrod is the first-ever medical examiner for her hometown, a place that should be safe from serial killers. But when someone murders one of her high school best friends on the morning of the wedding of two other friends, Lacey must trust U.S. Fish and Wildlife Officer Matthew Flick, the man she left fourteen years ago, to keep her safe and help her find the Dunes Killer before he strikes again.
In this action-packed story, you’ll be watching over your shoulder. A variety of suspects kept me guessing.
One evening, eight old high school friends are happily reuniting for a wedding weekend. Hours later, one of them is dead, washed up on shore.
Lacey and Matthew, the heroine and hero, are complex, three-dimensional characters who have been estranged for over a decade. Their previous relationship with its falling out complicates their efforts to uncover the killer—who keeps on striking.
If you like clean romance and second chances blended with ongoing suspense and a strong faith element—along with a strong sense of setting—give Desolate Escape a try.
Start reading early enough in the evening so as not to disrupt sleep.
Join me for some Q & A with Sherri Wilson Johnson.
Questions about Desolate Escape
What was your inspiration for writing Desolate Escape? What’s your personal connection to the story or setting?
Sherri: For the last five years or so, my husband and I have vacationed in the Gulf Shores / Fort Morgan, Alabama area. We honeymooned there back in 1988 and took many summer vacations with family there throughout the years, so it’s always a favorite any time we get to go.
The beach in the Fort Morgan area is one that mostly only the locals know about. It’s desolate and you have to drive through a wildlife refuge to get to it. Before writing Desolate Escape, every time we’d come to the end of the boardwalk, I’d tell my husband, “I see a dead body on the beach.” He’d always fall for it every time and ask me, “Where?!”
It took me a few years to get around to writing the story, but I always called it my “dead body on the beach” story. I had the whole book written before I ever figured out the title, calling it the “dead body on the beach” story until there was no choice left but to title it!
How did you create your heroine Lacey and hero Matthew and their particular situations? Did your characters hijack the story or did you have full rein?
Sherri: My characters are almost always strong-willed and don’t always let me know what’s going on. I have an idea when I start out, but my characters rarely follow my outline. They always hijack the story. But with this story, I knew I wanted them to solve a murder while growing closer to each other. The rest just fell into place.
What would Lacey have to say about you?
Sherri: Lacey would probably say that I ask way too many questions when I’m doing research for a book!
How did you develop a suspenseful plot that relies on so many complicating factors that need to fit like puzzle pieces and remain believable? How do you keep everything straight?
Sherri: I have a dry erase board on one of the walls in my office. After every scene, I document what happened. I usually add notes when I’m writing if there is something I need to mention later or follow up on. I often will put that at the end of my document, highlight it in yellow, then go back and make sure any unconnected dots are connected.
This story had a lot of twists and turns and a lot more characters than most of my stories have. It was quite a juggling act to make sure that everything matched together as it should have and remained believable. I hope I was able to accomplish that.
How did you learn about medical examiners and serial killers in order to write this story?
Sherri: I like my main characters to have jobs that are sometimes common and overlooked, and I like to bring recognition to the people who serve our communities but often are forgotten. It took me a while to decide what profession both Lacey and Matthew would be in.
Once I decided that she would be a medical examiner, I interviewed my local coroner for my research about the position. I also reached out to the police and sheriff in the town of Gulf Shores for the details that I would need regarding police procedure at the beach, as well as the agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services in the area.
Questions about writing
Which books and/or authors have most inspired you in your writing journey?
Sherri: Way back, I discovered Dee Henderson’s books and read every one that was available from the local library. I remember wishing I could write like that even before I took writing seriously.
I have to say that one of my all-time favorite books is Short Straw Bride by Karen Witemeyer. Currently, some of my favorite authors are C.D. Gill, Misty Beller, Dani Pettrey, Lynette Eason, and Christy Barritt.
Where do your story ideas usually originate from—character, plot, setting, theme, or a combination?
Sherri: Most of my story ideas start with a setting based off somewhere I’ve been or a theme that’s developing in my life. The characters, other than the heroine, usually come to me after I’ve done a lot of research on the setting and the theme.
Share an example of how a story grew from an initial idea, and whether you’re an outliner or a pantser.
Sherri: As mentioned, Desolate Escape grew from imagining someone finding a dead body on a beach. But I initially did not imagine it would be the medical examiner on the scene who would be my heroine.
Endangered Refuge, my latest release, was built out of my love for tigers and the heartbreaking trafficking that happens to them and other wild animals. I started plotting that book in January 2022 and had it completely finished by the end of May 2022. The story just grabbed me and then it took over.
Initially, I plot and do a lot of research. But when I start writing, I write by the seat of my pants. I hand-write my books in a notebook with the spiral on top. That’s the only way my stories flow for me. I keep track at the top of each page what chapter I’m in and what scene it is, the character whose point of view I’m in and also the day of the week and the story day number. So the top would say something like this: Ch 1 Sc 1 APOV Tuesday, Day 3.
You’ve written historical romance (Hope of the South series) as well as contemporary romantic suspense. Do you prefer one or the other? Why?
Sherri: My first love was historical romance. Then I wrote contemporary romance. But when I found contemporary romantic suspense, I felt like I had found my home. Now, I would say whether it’s historical or contemporary is not really as much of a factor for me as whether or not there is suspense mixed with romance.
I’m currently writing two historical novellas that have some intrigue and suspense in them. And I am finding that I’m enjoying going back to historical. But I have four more books planned in my current series, which are contemporary romantic suspense, and I am excited about getting back to those. So I guess I should say I prefer both of them.
Please share something about a current project or the direction you want to go as an author.
Sherri: As mentioned, I have finally found my voice writing romantic suspense. So my future as an author will involve romantic suspense stories, whether historical or contemporary.
My hopes for my Jeopardized Reunions series, which has four published books plus a free novella, is to write four more books in that series before finishing out that geographical region of Mobile Bay in Alabama.
If you’re interested in the free novella, it’s yours! Go here for a free novella.
Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
Sherri: Yes! Not only do I encourage aspiring novelists to spend time writing every day if they can, I encourage them to carve out some time at least once a week to connect with other writers. It’s important to bounce ideas off people who have the same love as you do for your craft.
I also like to encourage aspiring novelists not to get stuck in thinking that you have to have some big contract or reach an industry milestone to be a successful writer. Far too often, we let other people define our successes. And it’s really so much more than that. If you’re writing the book God has put on your heart, then you’re the most successful writer I know.
Back to Laura . . . On a different note . . .
If you like southern historical fiction, you might enjoy my recently re-launched novel All That Is Hidden, Set near North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains in 1968 rather than contemporary Alabama, the story highlights the bond of family and the connections of a tight-knit community. Northern exploitation threatens as a father’s hidden past catches up to him and tests family ties. Learn more and watch the trailer here.
In June, I was named a semifinalist in Serious Writer’s Book of the Decade contest for All That Is Hidden. Additionally, in August, All That Is Hidden became the winner of the Artisan Book Reviews Book Excellence Award.
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Sherri Wilson Johnson Bio:
Sherri Wilson Johnson is an Inspirational Romance novelist, graphic designer and lover of all things book related. She’s always been a sucker for a good love story—whether it’s real life or fiction (both historical and contemporary). Completing her first novel at the age of eighteen, and later burning the only copy in the fireplace, she continued learning the craft of writing and now writes Contemporary Romantic Suspense and Historical Romance with a splash of suspense and/or mystery. When not writing, she’s usually assisting other publishing professionals or helping authors realize their dreams of becoming published. Sherri and her husband are empty-nesters and live in Georgia with their two dogs. She loves spending time with family, vacationing at the beach, curling up with a good book or working on her current work-in-progress. She dreams of a second home on some beach somewhere some day, where she can plot and write romantically suspenseful novels. Learn more about Sherri on her website.
Join me next time for another visit with author Sherri Wilson Johnson.
Meanwhile, have you read Desolate Escape? Do you have any favorite contemporary romantic suspense titles? Answer in the comments below.