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SunLit Interviews

Barbara Nickless juggled plot and backstory to create a tale inspired by an Army intelligence officer

She also found one of her writing habits disappeared after she was displaced by the 2012 Waldo Canyon wildfire

Barbara Nickless is the Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon Charts bestselling author of the Sydney Parnell crime novels. She is a two-time winner of the Colorado Book Award and three-time winner of the Colorado Authors’ League writing award. She also teaches creative writing to veterans at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. She loves to hike, cave, snowshoe, and travel as far as possible off the beaten path.

The following is an interview with Barbara Nickless.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.


What inspired you to write this book? 

At a meeting of retired intelligence officers, I was fortunate to speak with (recently deceased) Army Major Thomas VanWormer. In the course of our conversation, Tom asked if I knew about the brief appearance in Iraq of a weapon that was particularly deadly for American troops and was likely manufactured outside the Middle East—Russia or elsewhere. From that single spark, a story was born. 

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole and why did you select it?

With this excerpt I wanted to show Sydney’s vulnerability. Even though she’s a former Marine and incredibly tough, she also grapples with her guilt from the war. She served in Mortuary Affairs in Iraq and has been haunted ever since. I also wanted to show her determination. She’s alone in Mexico City—a metropolis of more than 15 million people—searching for an orphan whose family was killed in Iraq. 

The boy is in danger from a mysterious entity known only as the Alpha, and the question of the book becomes who will reach him first—those who want to protect him or those who want him dead? “Ambush” wraps up a plot line that was introduced in the first novel of the series.

Tell us about creating this book: any research and travel you might have done, any other influences on which you drew?

As with all of my books, this one was research-intensive and involved not only travel to Mexico but sit-downs with intelligence specialists, two FBI counterintelligence agents and a visit to Denver’s Regional Transportation District security headquarters where I spoke at length with the RTD’s chief of police. I also learned a lot about treating injuries in animals, thanks to a local veterinarian.

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?

This book is more of a thriller than the other books in the series and required a different approach to the material—pacing and suspense had to be ramped up and the plot required an international flair. All of that was a learning curve for me. 

Also, since “Ambush” wraps up plot threads introduced in the first book in the series but must serve as a standalone novel, I had to catch the reader up on what happened in “Blood on the Tracks” without slowing the pace or creating confusion for the reader. I juggled a lot of balls trying to create a fast-paced story that—of necessity—carried a lot of backstory. But I am excited to write another thriller.

Walk us through your writing process: Where and when do you write? What time of day? Do you listen to music, need quiet? 

I’m lucky to be able to write full time, outside of my teaching commitments. I’m at my best in the morning, so I create new material in the morning from around 8 to 11, then exercise and eat lunch. The afternoon is devoted to research and editing. I try to knock-off around 5:30, when I often enjoy a glass of wine and think about the next day’s work. 

Of course, if the work has gone particularly poorly, it might be whiskey I drink instead of wine. As for music—that’s an interesting question for me. Prior to losing my home in the Waldo Canyon Fire of 2012, I always wrote with music. Since then, I almost never do. I’ve spoken with other wildfire survivors who were startled to realize that they, too, have given up long-standing habits. Maybe after losing so much, you become a different person.

What’s your next project?

My publisher is launching a new series based on a character I introduce in the fourth book of the Sydney Parnell series. I’ll return to Sydney and her K9 partner at some point, but right now I’m in a new city with a new character and a new set of murderous bad guys.

Buy “Ambush” through BookBar.
Read an excerpt from the book.

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