Writerly Lifestyle

How to Write Tension into Your Story with Ausma Zehanat Khan

February 27, 2023 David Season 3 Episode 7
Writerly Lifestyle
How to Write Tension into Your Story with Ausma Zehanat Khan
Show Notes Transcript

Your Free Editing Outline
5 Minute Writer
Last week's interview with Johnny Compton
Ausma's Website
Connect with Ausma on Twitter
Connect with David on Twitter


  1. Writing tension into your story
  2. The author-agent relationship
  3.  Sharing stories that matter

There are so many ways to write a novel. But the bottom line is this: you just have to find a way to keep readers reading. And that is what my guest today is going to help us with.

Ausma’s novel, BLACKWATER FALLS was able to propel readers through the investigation while always keeping us waiting and hunting for that next clue. 

We talk about outlines, changes in later drafts, and more! 

Ausma Zehanat Khan holds a Ph.D. in international human rights law with a specialization in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. Blackwater Falls, her new crime novel on racial justice and policing, was published in November 2022 to rave reviews from the New York Times and the Washington Post. Blackwater Falls is also an Apple Books and Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2022 pick. Khan is the author of the award-winning Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty crime fiction series, which begins with The Unquiet Dead, and the author of the critically acclaimed Khorasan Archives fantasy quartet, which begins with The Bloodprint. She is also a contributor to the anthologies Private Investigations, Sword Stone Table, and The Perfect Crime. A British-born Canadian and former adjunct law professor, Khan now lives in Colorado with her husband. 

Tweet me @DavidRGwyn


Ausma Zehanat Khan: [00:00:00] I think I ultimately write, not that I want to write message books, but I want my books to matter and be impactful and meaningful. So I always begin with themes that I'm interested in it.

David Gwyn: There are so many ways to write a novel. But the bottom line is this. You have to find a way to keep readers reading. And that is what my guest today is going to help us with. I'm David Gwyn, a newly agented writer navigating the world of publishing. 

During the season of the podcast, I'm asking agents, book, coaches, and authors about the best way to write a novel. If you want the experts secrets, this is where you're going to find them. To be sure to subscribe. So you don't miss any episodes. Last time on the podcast, we talked about writing great dialogue with Johnny Compton. 

As well as how to come up with an interesting hook for your story. 

Johnny Compton: There's a lot of luck and everything involved, but if you can find something that's just a skew of what everybody else maybe is, is typically doing. That, that can go a long way. 

David Gwyn: If you want to hear more with Johnny, I linked to that interview in the description. [00:01:00] Today's guest is Ausma Zehanat Khan. 

She has a PhD in international human rights law with a specialization in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans Blackwater falls, her new crime novel on racial justice and policing was published in November of 2022 to rave reviews from the New York times and the Washington post. Blackwater falls is also an apple books and publishers weekly best books of 2022 pick. 

She's also the author of an award-winning crime fiction series and a critically acclaimed fantasy quartet. is novel. Blackwater falls was able to propel readers through the investigation while always keeping us waiting and hunting for that next clue. 

I got to ask her about how she plans her novels, how she thinks about withholding information and where to force her characters and readers. To have to wait to get information. We talk about outlines changes in later, drafts and more. You're going to love this interview. 

Ausma, welcome to the interview series. Thanks so much for being 

Ausma Zehanat Khan: here. Thank you so much for inviting me to be on.

David Gwyn: Of course. Yeah. So your newest novel Blackwater Waterfall [00:02:00] is out now. Can you tell us what it's about? 

Ausma Zehanat Khan: Blackwater Falls is a crime novel that features a trio of women investigators who are trying to solve the murder of a teenage refugee from Syria. And she's been murdered in a particularly inventive and disturbing way.

Her body nailed to the door of a mosque. and these three women have to overcome mutual suspicion and distress to try to get to the truth. But what it really is at its heart, it's a novel about the vulnerable in America, those whose rights are perhaps not as well protected as majority communities. And it's about racial justice and profiling.

I think reflecting the moment of racial reckoning, the country is currently going. 

David Gwyn: Yeah, I, I'm so glad you brought that up, the kind of like what it, what it's really about. Because that's something I want to ask you about later. So definitely something I want to dig into that I'm really, really interested in.

So, yeah, I love this book. I thought it was really interesting. I really highly recommend people check it out. This is now the first of a series, so what's next for Anaya? . 

Ausma Zehanat Khan: So I've just finished [00:03:00] writing the sequel. Nice. It's been through the edits, and she's going to be dealing with her partners with a case of two very distinct police shootings that are equally baffling to her and the small community of black waterfalls.

David Gwyn: Yeah, that sounds awesome. I can't wait to check it out. So where did this idea come from? I know you've written fantasy and Mystery police, procedurals crime. I mean, it sounds like you kind of write on like a, a wide spectrum of, of genres. 

Ausma Zehanat Khan: Well, I think I write crime fiction generally because I'm a huge fan, so I've been reading it since I was a little kid and going through the successive stages.

You know, you start with. Encyclopedia Brown and the famous five and the three investigators, and you move on to Agatha Christie. And then you discover other golden age writers like Nao Marsh and Dorothy Als Sayers. And then since then, I've just been reading steadily, you know, some everything from romantic suspense to procedurals to thrillers.

And it's a genre that I absolutely love because I love solving puzzles. And since I'd read it so much and I'd really familiarized. With the conventions of the genre, I thought, you [00:04:00] know, this is something I can probably do. And because crime novels are about the pursuit of justice, in the end, it seemed a really good fit with my own background in human rights law because I'm, I'm fundamentally interested in issues of justice, what it looks like for different communities and how it.

May play out or may not ever actually be accomplished. So that's why I got into writing crime novels and I particularly wanted to write Black Waterfalls. I called the book My Pandemic Baby because I had just finished one crime series and I was kind of off and trying to figure out what I wanted to do next.

And then, you know, the killing of George Floyd occurred back in 2020 and we saw the nationwide protest, perhaps the most significant social justice protests in the history of the United States after the civil rights move. And I could see how polarized Americans were, how differently they were viewing what, to me seemed like a very obvious case of police misconduct and police brutality.

And that got me interested in these questions of why policing is so divisive in the United States. And I wanted to write about that, not just in terms of how it impacts the black [00:05:00] community, but also how state power Im it impacts the undocumented in this country, how it targets other vulnerable minorities.

Muslims which is my own background, and I wanted to look at how these issues intersect, these communities intersect and the kind of solidarity we have been trying to build and continue to try to build. So that's kind of the overall picture of why I've been so interested in writing a, a story like Black Waterfalls.

David Gwyn: Because of your interest in social justice, is there something that propels you, is there like a checklist that, like a story that you take on, will it just naturally have that kind of social justice backdrop to it?

Or is that something that you think about as you're creating a story? 

Ausma Zehanat Khan: I, I think I ultimately write, not that I want to write message books, but I want my books to matter and be impactful and meaningful. So I always begin with themes that I'm interested in it. So, for example, in my previous crime series, there were more human rights oriented.

They tackle global human rights issues like the Syrian refugee crisis. The plight of political detainees around the world, the Bosnian [00:06:00] genocide, stories like that. And so I look at something that I'm deeply interested in, deeply passionate about, and then I start thinking about how can I write about this in a way that's new and different and intriguing, and bring along a new audience who may not have thought of these issues before or thought of them in the same way.

And that's how I approach. And then I start thinking about charact. , what characters would be a good fit to bring this story alive and who would fit well with these kinds of issues. And then I create the characters from there, and then I start thinking about the crime. 

David Gwyn: Oh, that's so interesting. That's, that process to me is just so compelling.

I, I think that's such a great way of thinking about. Writing stories that I, I, I think, matter to people beyond just escapism, which I think is, is a valid reason for people to read books as well. But just something that, that has that kind of importance to, to the time that we're, that we're living in right now.

I think that's really great. So, I'm always curious about how this happens. I imagine you, do you have more than one project happening at a time? I mean, are you trying to do one [00:07:00] series beginning to end and then start another one? Or are you kind of bouncing back and forth

Ausma Zehanat Khan: so, in my previous history where I was writing my crime series, I was writing that series and the fantasy series.

Together. Oh, wow. So six months of every year were a crime novel, six months of every year. Oh wow. Fantasy novel. And the fantasy novel was a continuous quartet. So I mean, it was absolutely exhausting. I would never do that again, . I would wanna give both sets of folks more space, more time, more reflection.

But ultimately it's been a very rewarding experience. So now I have a big project, usually one book every year, but I'll do a little side. Such as I'll write short stories for different anthologies. I'll do a lot of book promotion for other people's books. I work on writing festivals. I have a secret project, well, not that secret anymore, but I have a project that I developed called the Muslim Writers Index, where myself, my niece, who actually did most of the research on it her name is Sam MechE and a good friend of mine from Australia named, put the, together, the website listing all the books.

Muslim writers have written Muslim writers from the West in English by genre. And that was a [00:08:00] massive project. So I do things like that that take up a lot of time too. And then there's a lot of, a little bit of community work, human rights, activism. I really try hard to keep my reading in the field up to date, so I have other things that I think about and want to write about.

So it's, it's a pretty full plate. That's so cool. 

David Gwyn: Yeah. That's really cool. So when you're taking on. A project, a new project? I mean, are you thinking about series potential or does it just feel like that's what you gravitate towards? Because you, I mean, it sounds like the process that you go through, you start with character and plot is almost one of the last things you think about, you know, and so I'm wondering is, is that part of why you find yourself writing series?

Is it because you have a character that you really care about and value and, and they can exist outside 

Ausma Zehanat Khan: of. . That's exactly right. That's actually a great way of putting it. And I grew up reading a lot of crime fiction that was series writing. So I love Deborah Crombie, Louise Penny, Charles Finch. I love all of their books.

And I, what I love about series writing is that you don't have to give everything away about your character in the beginning. You can let it be a very slow and [00:09:00] gradual process of unfolding who they are. And as these writers do so well, you can have normal life events happen to your characters over the course of the series and watch them grow and evolve even as the writer is growing and evolving.

So that is really why I enjoy writing. Series character because I envisioned them in one place at the beginning, and I might not know the exact place of the ending. My other series came to rather an abrupt end and kind of ended on a cliffhanger. But I have an idea where I want the character to be by the end.

So the series gives me lots of time to play around with that, to think of new things that I don't all always have to come up in. Book, although recently I have been intrigued by the idea of writing a standalone thriller. Mm. And I've worked out a few plot ideas for that too. I just don't know when I can get to them on the schedule.

David Gwyn: Yeah. That's so interesting. That's cool. So can you talk about how you got started writing? Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? Sounds like you've, you've always been a voracious reader. Has that always been in the back of your. ? 

Ausma Zehanat Khan: Yes, I think so. My parents, you know, were deeply encouraging of me always [00:10:00] reading.

But you know, I'm from South Asian background from a pretty conservative Pakistani home, a very happy home, but one where you traditionally push your children into the sciences, you typically medicine. Mm-hmm. , engineering, accounting, technology. And then if you absolutely have to, they can go into law . So originally, originally I wanted to be a journalist and I.

Fanciful ideas of being a war correspondent. And a lot of my, you know, heroes in real life have been people who've done work like that. And my parents were like, no, absolutely not. So I did a lot of, I did a lot of fiction writing on the side from the time I was a kid. I was always working on. Poems and songs and plays.

I used to write all the community plays. I, I wrote a lot of short stories. I had a short couple of short stories published before I got into writing full-time. But basically I was really, really busy with my legal education and legal career. So despite doing all this writing on the side, I didn't come to writing full-time until I had taken a break from my legal.

David Gwyn: Oh, wow. Okay. Okay, that makes sense. So I wanna shift gears a little bit because whenever I have [00:11:00] authors on here, I, I like to ask them to give a shout out to their, to their agents. You're met by Danielle Bebe of Mad Woman Literary Agency. What made you wanna work with Danielle? 

Ausma Zehanat Khan: Danielle and I have a great history together.

She, first of all, she's an absolutely wonderful person, and I think we have a lot in common in terms of our passion for social justice, which means from the very beginning she's seen the vision for my stories and what I've been trying to do. That's. just bigger than myself. What, what motivates me to keep writing?

She's a young agent. She was a young agent when she first signed me. And I remember in the beginning I knew nothing about publishing how to do things a traditional way. I didn't have a very traditional journey. I sort of fell into my very good fortune and I didn't actually even notify Danielle properly that I was gonna choose a different agent.

And when I did, she came back to me and said, Hey, you're supposed to give me time to make my pitch, and you didn't, and I wanna make that pitch. And she did. So passionate, and she knew my work so well. She wanted to represent both my series, and I loved that about her. I loved her energy, her open-mindedness, her already being plugged into so many social, [00:12:00] social justice issues, and the fact that she, of course, liked my work was a huge plus.

So then I, I changed my mind and I assigned with her and it's been a great journey ever since. She does a lot for me. Sometimes not even properly or fully remunerated because she's been making her own journey as an agent moving from different agencies, but she never loses that drive to see her clients succeed, and she's just really fun to be around and to work with.

David Gwyn: What is your process like with working with her? Are you sending her early drafts or are you waiting until it's mostly finalized? Like when, what is your interaction with her, like as you're going through the, the process of, of finalizing a manuscript. . 

Ausma Zehanat Khan: So I begin by discussing the idea with her and asking her, will this idea fly?

If she thinks it flies, I'll put the proper pitch or synopsis down, have her look it over, and then she'll give me feedback. With the earlier books, I would always send her a draft before my editor would see it so she could tell me, you know, this isn't marketable. These, and these things need to change.

These are weaknesses in the manuscript. And she spent a lot of time and effort helping me shape my book into [00:13:00] the best. Possible book I could put before an editor's eyes, but now we've kind of gotten that rhythm down really well and we're quite familiar with each other. So she trusts my work more I think.

And so she usually sees the draft, the first draft at the same time that my editor sees it. And sometimes I will ask her very specific questions based on her own knowledge and history that can you help me fix these things in the manuscript? And she's always so responsive and has a ton of great ideas, and she's like the best cheerleader you could ever want for your.

David Gwyn: That's great. I mean, what, what a glowing recommendation for for working with her. That's awesome. 

Okay. Let's pause here for just a second. So far, we've heard about how Ausma chooses her projects, what she's working on next, and even what her relationship is like with her agent. And I always love hearing about those agent author relationships and how different they can be. But let's get to the main part of this interview

in which Ausma talks about how she organizes her stories builds tension and suspense in her novels and how she balances those plot scenes [00:14:00] with more character driven scenes. 

Let's go back to the interview. I want to now get to the, the thing I really, really wanted to talk to you about that I think was done so extremely well in Black Waterfall and, and the thing that I, I think people can really learn from by, by reading this book.

And it, it really, reading your book really, it really struck me that this story the way you were able to propel readers kind of through the investigation. Mean you did it by kinda like dangling the next clue and then putting off when characters needed to hear back or some, you know, going somewhere and, and having to get something.

And it just felt like the whole time I was being dragged right through this novel in, in, in such a great way. And so my question is,, how are you developing that in your stories? Is that happening in an outline before you write, or is that happening while you write or is it happening in edits on the back?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: Yeah, that's a great question. I write a very thorough outline before I approach each book, and that's partly because I have trouble keeping track of the clues myself. And I know the mystery reading audience is very [00:15:00] sharp, very intuitive, and I never want them to feel disappointed that they've gotten to the end before they actually get to the end

So I work hard on that and I'll, I'll do what I call a running scene outline, which is a technique I. From the mystery. Great. Elizabeth George, where she'd actually written a book called right Away, and I read that before I wrote my first book. It's so helpful. It's a good writing manual on how to craft a crime novel.

And she described this thing called She does very in depth character sketches and. , then this running scene outline and I, and a plot overview and I did all of her tips. And I, the one I have really stuck with is the running scene outline where I break my book down scene by scene. Mm-hmm. . And I have to figure out every part of where the clues are gonna add up at the end, where I'm gonna put misdirection in the red herrings, all of the little trails.

I wanna take readers down and I try to stick to it faithfully, but of course as I'm writing new ideas will come up. Or my agent or editor. Suggestions, and then I'll make those changes as I'm writing. But I always adapt the running scene outline as I go so that by the ending I can track and see if I've [00:16:00] missed anything, if there's plot holes, if there's inconsistencies.

So it's, it's a major project. I usually devote one to two weeks before writing just to the outline. And it helps me think through my ideas. And sometimes I'll get so inspired by the outline that I'll actually write passages of the manuscript and I'll put that into the outline and then I'll come back when I'm at that chapter, I'll be like, oh, great, I've already written some of it.

Here it is. So I can just stick it in. 

David Gwyn: Oh, wow. And so how close do you find your final manuscript is to the original outline? Are they pretty spot. . 

Ausma Zehanat Khan: They're close, but they're not identical cuz my editor will, my editor is so smart. Her name is Catherine Richards and she's at miniature books. And let me tell you, she's got the most logical mind that you could ever imagine

So if I'm like thinking to myself, maybe I can sh. Fudge this part a little bit. It doesn't really matter. It's not that significant. No. She'll come back with her steely eye and her red pen and say this doesn't make sense. You think we don't see it, but we see what you've done here and you're gonna have to explain that more fully.

So in that sense, from [00:17:00] outlined to final version, there's quite a bit of change. And then because my books are, have characters that come from different communities, they do go through sensitivity reads as well. And what I'm always anxious about is that, you know, I've done this thing about the Latino community wrong, or I've done this thing about the black community wrong, and it'll never be the things that I think it'll be things I've never thought of, which is so fascinating to me.

Just as a question of our willful blindness to each other, our privilege of not knowing each other. It'll be simple things like I think I wrote in my last manuscript about how well Pale Skin takes Tattoo ink, and I said, sensitivity Reader had some comments about. What we know about tattoo ink and different skin colors.

And I was like, you know, I never would've thought of that. And it, it's, that kind of stuff is really, really helpful. And so there will be, again, additional changes from the running scene outline to accommodate the things that you've never thought about and need to think about. 

David Gwyn: So, because of the nature of this story and, and, and kinda the stories that it seems like you like to tell you have to have always in the back of your mind, it sounds like the kind of [00:18:00] maintenance of the themes that you're, that you're trying to, to bring about in the story. And, and in this one, it seems like, you know, the culture, identity duty, community, all of these things are, are at play here.

how are you thinking about balancing something like your main character's personal life with the main mystery? I mean, are you cognizant of playing those things back and forth? 

Ausma Zehanat Khan: I am. I try to kind of let that unfold more organically when I think, you know, this is a scene where my character's been through something very intense.

Maybe she's seen the body, she's a practicing Muslim woman and she goes to the same mosque and she sees a body pin to the door of her mosque, so she needs some space to process. That would be a good. For her to interact with her family or another believer or just take some time to think about her faith.

But I, I've noticed that in the mystery and the crime novels that I myself love to read, there'll be a lot of character backstory, who they are, where they come from, their relationships. And I love that part of not always being go, go, go, go, that these are crime solving machines and they just go from clue to clue.

The best part of [00:19:00] a crime novel for me is the character interactions and the deepening of, you know, who the detectives may be or the, the investigator in question. So yeah, I, I find that's a i, not a process I have to think too hard about, cuz it usually just comes out very naturally on the page. 

David Gwyn: Yeah, I think that that the humanity piece is something that is really interesting that I definitely felt reading this.

And I think it was because of that, you know, it's not this character who is all. Entirely invested in just solving crimes. Like she also has a life, she has a family, you know, she's invested in the community. There's, there's just so much going on there that made her feel really rich. And so is, is that something that you're doing in an outline, like a character outline?

Or is, are your characters pretty, I mean, do they come to you kind of quickly or are you you have to work through to, to figure out who they. , 

Ausma Zehanat Khan: I think it's a little bit of everything I do. In the beginning, I used to do very detailed in Thoro character sketches, again, as per Elizabeth George's instructions.

But [00:20:00] then it became a bit more, with the practice, it came easier. But for the Blackwater Fall series, I wrote a pitch for the whole series to my editor before I signed the the book contract. And in the process of doing that pitch, I had fleshed out each one of the lead charact. who they were, who their families were, the traumas they may have experienced, what they hoped for out of life.

And that really helped me figure out, you know, how these characters are gonna approach these different situations when they're interviewing suspects, when they're in danger, when they're having conflicts with each other at work. And I think if you do a lot of that work beforehand, the writing itself is not such a slog, but everybody has their process.

So that's a process that works for me. , I'm sure you've heard this from many writers, that characters can often surprise you. You think you're, they're gonna, you want them to do one thing, but they're naturally moving to do something else as the script, as the script moves along. 

David Gwyn: It kind of works differently for different people and everyone has their own process and I think it's so important for, for writers to hear that because everyone has a different process. This is a process that works for you. And I think a lot [00:21:00] of writers, I know I feel that way.

I'm like, but maybe I'm doing it wrong. Maybe I'm doing something wrong. And it's like, no, it doesn't really matter how you get to the end as long as you do. And so I think it's so valuable for people. Yeah, 

Ausma Zehanat Khan: absolutely. And all the writers that I know, they all work very different from me, so no two of us have the same process.

And some people write every day. Some people write only twice, two days a week. Some people write mornings, some people write evenings. Some people are just complete panthers and, and they write brilliant books regardless of that , which to me is mind blowing. So yeah, I definitely know there's no one way.

And I also know that you don't have to write every single day to be a writer. I always try to take the weekends off. So my brain just has time to breathe. And so I can absorb things and think about things, and I feel that always refreshes the writing process. 

David Gwyn: Yeah. No, that's great. So we talked a little bit about the kind of the themes and the, and the stories that you like to write about.

What do you hope people take away from reading any of your novels? 

Ausma Zehanat Khan: I hope they take away more knowledge of how vitally important these social justice issues are, how much they [00:22:00] connect us as a human. and that even though they seem so overwhelming, particularly if you're talking about something, Police brutality in the United States or a genocide in another country, it feels like there's nothing you can do that will make a difference, but that's so untrue.

Even in your smallest daily interactions with other human beings, there are absolutely ways that you make a difference, that you change society just in terms of how you interact. So I want people to go away from my books with a sense that they're not powerless, that they, that we have hope, that we share a common humanity.

and that there is nothing wrong in learning about each other and bringing our identities to the forefront. There's no attack in that. There's no harm in that. There's only enrichment in beauty. Those are some of the things that I hope readers will take away from my books, and I just want them to have a good time reading these 

David Gwyn: books.

Well, I it's, it's funny that you say that because I felt that balance. It, it felt like a fun story to read, but it also felt. I was experiencing something of someone else's life, it really felt that way to me. And so [00:23:00] that's why I, like I said, I, I really highly really recommend people check this, this book out and, and check out your other novels.

And obviously when the, when the second book comes out, I'm, I'm excited about that. I can't wait to, to get my hands on it. So my last question for you is, where can people find you? Where can people 

Ausma Zehanat Khan: look? . So you can find me on my website, which is my full name, asma zhan.com. I'm on Twitter at Asma Zehanat.

I'm on Instagram at a Zhan books, sorry. The Zed is for the Canadian in Me . It's a Zhan books. And on Facebook at Ausma Zehanat Khan 

David Gwyn: well. Yeah. That's awesome. And so for, for everyone listening, if you want to get in touch, I'll, I'll link all that stuff below in the, in the description so you can check that out.

I, I had a great time. I feel like I learned so much. This was so much fun. Thanks. Thanks for taking the time to chat with 

Ausma Zehanat Khan: me. Thank you for a wonderful conversation. I appreciate it so much. 

David Gwyn: So there you have it. Ausma. I shared some of the ways she plans out her novels, thinking about theme, deep diving into character and developing an outline to keep all those twists and turns organized. If you enjoyed that as much as I did, I'd love it. If you would share this [00:24:00] episode with someone who would find value in it, 

that might just mean sharing it with one person who, you know, is a writer. Or on social media, whatever you'll feel more comfortable with. I do this podcast every week to provide value for the writing community, but I need your help in reaching them. 

Whenever I ask you to share, you always do an amazing job of bringing listeners to an episode. So I sincerely thank you. I really, really appreciate it. Next week. I'm talking to Aaron, Phillip Clark. He'll be sharing how to write those all important action scenes in your novel. 

Aaron Philip Clark: What are we gonna get out of it as the reader? What is gonna be revealed in terms of character? Because you could write a fight scene and yeah, it could be the greatest, you know, thing ever.

Right. Just in terms of like the action level. , but we should still get something out of it. As a reader, how a character engages in, in a fight or how a character uses different tactics says so much about them.

David Gwyn: He shares some really practical tips that changed the way I think about action and movement in my work. [00:25:00] I'll see you next week.