Winter Prey

John Sandford on Winter Prey

Of the nineteen Prey books I've written to this point, some were easier than others, and frankly, some were better than others. I don't want to get into titles here — that might reduce my income — but people who've read the Prey series tell me that Winter Prey is one of the better ones.
I agree with that assessment.
And, as is the case with most of the other "better" stories, it was one of the easier ones to write. A story that has good, rich characters and a plot that's solid right from the beginning, will unroll in the mind like a movie — you can almost see it, when you're sitting at the computer. Writing it is like taking dictation.
Then there are the others, where you're writing a 100,000-word novel, and 50,000 words in, you realize you'll be done at 55,000, and that instead of writing a novel, you've written a pamphlet. When that happens, you start pulling plot twists out of a place where the sun don't shine, and usually, they're not so good.
(The best books in which to see this phenomenon on a regular basis is the 250,000-word fantasy novel, the kind that you read on the bus and that has to last for two weeks. You know, where the hero gets on his dragon and rides into the Dark Woods, where he gets in a sword fight with the Sorcerer's apprentice, and after the fight, gets back on his dragon, rides deeper into the Dark Woods, where he fights a bigger Sorcerer's apprentice, etc., etc. stir until thoroughly mixed and half-baked. Fuck a bunch of Frodos.)

Winter Prey worked from the beginning.
When I started writing it, I'd been through a wicked-bad winter in the North Woods. The winter was still alive in my mind, and became a character in the book, with starving deer, hungry wolves, and brutally cold crime scenes. The wife of a friend of mine has never managed to finish the book, because it scares her too badly. She lives out on the countryside, and in the winter, with her husband often gone, you don't want to think about creatures of the night and cold, even with a rifle under the bed...
Also, in Winter Prey, I introduce Weather Karkinnen, a doctor, who not only will keep Lucas Davenport's feet warm in this book, but will become the love of his life in later books. I was not sure what would happen to Weather when I finished Winter Prey — in fact, I repeatedly referred to her as "Harkinnen" in a later novel.
Weather is more completely drawn in Winter Prey than in any other book, I believe, although she was central in one other, and is mentioned in all the others.

One of the things that really helps the book is that I was still close to the reporting life when I wrote it.
The book's opening fire scene, for example, was actually taken from two fires I covered during the Minnesota winters, one of a house trailer, and one of a skyscraper in downtown Minneapolis.
The latter fire had taken place when it was 19 degrees below zero (about minus 27C) with a thirty-mile-an-hour wind, which, when you work it out, comes out to be a wind chill factor of roughly 100,000 degrees below zero. The fire fighters literally had to be chipped out of their suits, which became weighed down with ice blown back from the fire hoses.
Good stuff. The "most real" fiction, at least for me, derives from scenes observed, rather than scenes imagined.
Anyway, the winter (in the Hayward, Wisconsin area, where I still have a summer cabin) gave me lots to work with. Throw in a madman who rides snowmobiles, and who has a deranged teen-aged lover, and a bunch of dead bodies, and what more could you possibly need?

When I finished it, and tidied up the first and last chapters, I sat back and realized that I might finally have become a professional writer of thriller fiction. Not only had the book been fairly easy to write, but for the first time (after six earlier pieces of fiction) I had the feeling that I really controlled the flow from start to finish. I hadn't written halfway through, and then had to go back, as I had with earlier ones, and rip up half of what I'd written, because I'd taken a wrong turn, because I'd made an fundamental, but unrecognized, mistake.
I could see the ending of Winter Prey when I was writing the beginning...
After Winter Prey, I thought, I could write a hundred more Preys, and they'd all be good and snappy and professional, and life would be nothing but ice cream cones and cherry Cokes. Hasn't turned out that way, but that's what I thought when I finished the book.

Hope you like it.
— John Sandford, January 10, 2009