Why Writing Mysteries is Like Grooming a Persian Cat…

In the past five years, I’ve learned that writing fiction is a lot like combing a matted Persian cat.  It takes a lot of patience and determination. And sometimes the cat bites back.

Let me explain.

Mayhem Long hairFor the last twenty years, I’ve written philosophy and nonfiction, and until lately it was very satisfying. But, a few years ago, writing philosophy started feeling a little routine—you know, thinking hard thoughts and writing them down.  Anyway, I’d always wanted to write fiction. The trouble was, for decades I’d been trained to get right to the point and hit readers over the head with my thesis. With mystery, you have to do the opposite and hide the point, meander along, and create suspense. Like sneaking up on a weary long-haired cat, to write mysteries you have to have a few tricks in your grooming kit.

I got the courage to switch from writing nonfiction to fiction after attending a Killer Nashville Mystery Writers’ Conference. The 2014 convention gave me just enough ammunition to make me dangerous. The four-hour session on writing your opening line sponsored by Sisters in Crime had me on the edge of my seat. I loved mystery writing already and I hadn’t even written my first word.

Immediately after the convention, I wrote the first draft of Wolf in two months and spent the next two years editing it. During that same time, I also wrote Coyote, and alternated between editing one and then the other. For decades, I’ve relied on nonfiction writing to keep me sane. Now, writing novels, I find even more pleasure in inventing characters and whole worlds. But, like everything fun that’s worth doing, it’s also hard work! And when you’re determined to finish that next novel, you can get saddle sores… not to mention cramps in your fingers. Giving that matty cat a good brushing can be exhausting!

For me, the best way to write is to get something down on the page. Then comes the hard part, revising and editing. After writing quick first drafts, I go back and revise and revise and revise, concentrating on several key aspects of writing, including: consistent point of view, strong action verbs that show rather than tell, and interspersing enough backstory to enrich characters without sacrificing action.

Each chapter or section needs to stay within its main character’s point of view both in terms of what she says, how she says it, and descriptions of place and action. How she describes the situation tells us a lot about her. But it has to be consistent. In a first draft, it’s easy to drop out of your character’s point of view, and that’s why you need to revise. For example, a character probably wouldn’t describe herself using these adjectives “her delicate beautiful hands” or “her exquisite lips and soft silky hair,” unless she was a narcissist. And of course, she can’t describe something she doesn’t see or can’t possibly know. On repeated careful readings, these spots start to stand out like “hot spots” (a polite euphemism for ring worm) on your beautiful Persian kitten’s coat.

IMG_1579It’s challenging and fun to go back through your manuscript to replace common verbs like looked, pulled, pushed, or walked, with more exciting stronger verbs such as glanced or stared, hauled or yanked, shoved or thrust, strode or sauntered, etc., again with an eye to consistency in point of view. So “she looked at him, pulled his hair, pushed him down, then walked away,” becomes “she glared at him, yanked his hair, shoved him down, then strode away.” Speaking of pulling and yanking, you have to keep at it, teasing out those pesky mats that mar the flow of your story.

Finally, balancing backstory and action can be tricky. You have to cut out big matted chunks of backstory to keep the action moving. Then go back and add a subtle dusting of backstory—one-liners are best—throughout the novel. Once you hook your readers on the action in the first few chapters, you can always add more backstory later, still keeping your readers on a “need to know” basis when it comes to the past.

You have to keep brushing, combing, and teasing out the mats in your novel. Like the coat of that Persian cat, with every stroke, it will get smoother and finer until it flows beautifully. But, then there are the days when you just have to say to hell with it and get out the clippers!

Hurri shaved

 

Signed,

A Crazy Cat Lady

Kelly & YukiKO & Teddy

Anyone else struggling to brush the mats out of their story??

 

PS. Okay, I admit it—this post is just an excuse to show pictures of my cute cats! Mischief, Mayhem, and Flan!

Jessica’s Favorite Foods

My main character in the Jessica James Mysteries loves banana-nut pancakes from the Blind Faith Cafe.

When I was in graduate school at Northwestern, I was a regular at the Blind Faith. It opened was opened my first year there by a philosophy school drop-out named Ivan Newell and fellow dog-lover, Fran Welch. Thirty-five years later, the vegetarian café is still going strong.

Jessica loves to eat, and so do her friends. Here are recipes for some of their favorite foods.

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Jessica loves gluten free pancakes and of course anything with wild huckleberries, a Montana delicacy. Coyote beings with her eating a big hunk of huckleberry coffee cake.

In Wolf, the Pope devours Syrniki, Russian Cheese Pancakes, and Vanya snacks on Vatrushka, Russian Cream Cheese Buns.

RUssian cheese buns

In Coyote, Madge brings Kimi Nathan’s Fry Bread Tacos to the jail.

Fry Bread Tacos

Nathan’s Burger Station is a must visit if you’re ever in Browning, Montana. Be sure to try the Fry Bread Tacos and a “crushie,” a slushie with soft serve ice cream.

As part of a BookBub deal, the Jessica James Mysteries, Ebook boxed set trilogy is on sale for only $1.99 through October 5th.

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The Jessica James Mysteries are edgy, thrilling and simply captivating in a gripping fashion that will never let go.—Chicago Tribune  

What do your characters like to eat?

What I learned at Killer Nashville

I was on three panels at Killer Nashville Mystery Writer’s Convention (August 22-25), where JACKAL: A Jessica James Mystery was a finalist for a Silver Falchion Award for best suspense.

Of course, it was great to hear the legendary Joyce Carol Oates talk about the writer’s life and some of her books. And David Morrell’s presentation on writing Rambo and writing comics was fun. Alexandra Ivy talked about how to write sex scenes—good to know. And, Lori Rader-Day was entertaining, as always. Thanks to Clay Stafford for putting on such a great convention!

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[David Morell & Clay Stafford, Joyce Carol Oates & Clay, Alexandra Ivy, Lori Rader-Day]

Being a a professional student (ie. a college professor), I did my homework. Before talking about Women’s Fiction, Subplots, and Writing Dialogue, I did research and spent time thinking about each topic. I learned a lot from my fellow panelists and from the other panels I attended throughout the weekend.

I don’t know about you, but I find these conventions pretty intense—it feels like an alternative lifetime is crammed into four days…Like when Captain Jean-Luc Picard lives out forty-years as the flute-playing scientist, Kamin, before returning to the Enterprise to realize only minutes have passed for the rest of the crew.

So what did I learn from my life at Killer Nashville? From attending past KN cons, I knew it was easy to make new friends at Killer Nashville.

Although I’d met him before, I learned Roger Johns has a wicked sense of humor and knows how to play an audience. He moderated our session on writing dialogue.

On the dialogue panel, I learned that Alexandra Ivy writes her novels first as screenplays and then goes back and fills in the rest, Mike Faricy knows a lot of Irish swear words, Dana Carpenter imagines her scenes as movies first, Lynn Willis loves y’all and all y’all, and Jim Nesbitt isn’t as intimidating as he looks with that big hat.

We agreed that dialogue should be realistic but not real because if you just record the way people talk, it would be deadly boring. I think of Alfred Hitchcock trying real blood in Psycho, but deciding it didn’t look real, so he used chocolate sauce instead. You have to make it look real, a condensed or crystallized version of reality—the chocolate sauce version.

writing dialogue panel

[Mike Faricy, Alexandra Ivy, Dana Carpenter, Roger Johns, Lynn Willis, ME, Jim Nesbitt]

For my part, I talked about using dialogue to create conflict. Not just the obvious argument kind of conflict, but internal conflict. I love to use to dialogue to show how what a character thinks or desires is in tension with what she says. I think of the funny scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall when they are having a serious conversation about art and we see subtitles telling us what they’re really thinking: “I wonder what she looks like naked?” “I hope he’s not a schumk like all the rest.”

It also fun to use dialogue to create misunderstandings. Ian McEwan is the master of misunderstandings in dialogue… think of Atonement or On Chesil Beach.

You can use dialogue to add humor and picturesque language or sayings.

We talked about making each character’s voice unique by giving them unique speech patterns or associating certain words with a particular character. I go back and do this when editing. I reserve some turns of phrase, and even some verbs, for particular characters.

The women’s writing panel was kind of weird because none of us really write women’s fiction as it is traditionally defined—although it was fun to talk about possible intersections of crime writing and women’s fiction. I think of my Jessica James Mysteries as more feminist noir than women’s fiction.

One of my recent favorites that might fit the bill as both crime and women’s fiction is the fabulous The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey. I love that novel!

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[ME, Saralyn Richard, Amy Rivers on the women’s fiction panel]

The subplot panel was a lively discussion of how to use subplots and the relation between subplots and main plots. It was fun to hear how others use subplots to advance their stories. I like to use subplots to modulate both the tone and the pace of my novels. You can use subplots to develop characters, build suspense, and add humor to an otherwise serious subject (like campus rape, or human trafficking) to lighten the mood.

But the hardest lesson I learned is one I’ve learned countless times before, but tend to forget—maybe like the so-called amnesia after childbirth that allows you to consider having another baby—What goes up, must come down.

After spending an intense weekend surrounded by people, coming home alone to my quiet house is depressing. It’s weird. While I’m at the convention, I’m full of excitement and joy. It’s scary, but fun. Then, when I get home, I’m a complete basket-case and can barely function. Thank God for my cats, Mischief and Mayhem.

wimsey and mayhem

What about you? How do you cope with the postpartum depression of conventions? Asking for a friend…

 

 

Interview with Clay Stafford, founder of Killer Nashville

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Our guest today is Clay Stafford, founder of Killer Nashville and Clay Stafford Books.

Hi Clay. Welcome to Mysteristas. You’ve done so much from acting, producing, play and screen writing, writing and producing music, writing bestselling children’s books, to being the CEO of American Blackguard Entertainment and founder of Killer Nashville and now Clay Stafford Books. I would love to ask you about your days at Universal Studios, or what it was like to work with Steven Spielberg or Woody Allen, but since we’re a mystery writer’s blog, I focus on your mystery writing and your tireless promotion of other mystery writers. 

KO: How did you make the move from Hollywood to Nashville? And what led you to found Killer Nashville International Writers’ Conference? 

CS: First of all, Kelly, thanks for talking with me. I’d like to think that my life has been brilliantly planned out, but instead it has been more of a circuitous, flowing experience. I call it “bumbling.” I was living in Beverly Hills, California writing, ghost writing, and developing, supporting, and promoting television shows and literature at the time of the Northridge Earthquake in 1994. Having lived through the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in Miami, Florida just two years before, I really had no interest in hanging around Los Angeles during the rebuilding after the Northridge earthquake damage. A production executive at Hollywood Pictures, knowing that I was originally from Tennessee, advised I might want to go back to my home state and see what kind of locations and production support might be available for future projects. I loaded my dog in the car, drove back to Tennessee, was amazed at what I found, and stayed. My agents, management, and attorneys were still back in Los Angeles and I found I could work long-distance just fine. I met a Tennessee lady I fell for in the process and after a year-and-a-half of traveling, that was that. To misquote Jed Clampett, I decided Tennessee was the place I ought to be. And workwise, I didn’t miss a beat.

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Guests of Honor accepting personalized guitars at Killer Nashville 2018. J.A. Konrath, Clay Stafford, Otto Penzler, and Ellery Adams.

As far as starting the conference itself, that was a bit circuitous, as well. I had always been interested in teaching and went back to graduate school (while working 60-80 hours per week for PBS) to get my MFA so I could teach at the college level. I taught at several universities and loved the teaching part, but didn’t care much for the administrative aspect. I also couldn’t give up what I considered my day job (writing, directing, and producing) and that interfered with my teaching schedule. So I ended up teaching adjunct at several universities for a while until even that became too much. Back to writing and developing projects full time again, I was asked by Miami Dade College to create their new film program. That gave me a taste for curriculum design. After moving to Franklin, Tennessee, I co-created a local writers’ conference, but I wanted something with a larger impact where writers could mingle with other writers on an international level rather than just local. I strongly feel we learn from getting to know people outside our own community. By this time, the Internet had grown and I really wanted to connect with writers, readers, and movie/TV viewers in other countries. I also wanted something with a stronger genre feel. I had grown up reading genre literature, worked in Los Angeles on such productions as “Murder, She Wrote,” “Magnum, P.I.,” “Simon & Simon,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents…”, “Amazing Stories,” “Legal Eagles,” “Psycho III,” “Jurassic Park,” “Back to the Future,” “Weird Science”, and other projects so the feel I really wanted was something that had to do with mystery, thriller, and suspense. So in 2006, I produced the first Killer Nashville. Within two years we had an attendee from Canada. Within three years, we had attendees begin to visit us from other continents (Spain, Australia, and Japan, I think). The Internet worked. Frankly, it has grown beyond what I imagined it would become. And much more than just a writers’ conference, we’ve actually been able to turn it into a philanthropic effort, as well. We’ve helped build a library in Africa and in the past have given away nearly $85,000 worth of books every year to local needy American libraries. So we’re not just focused on worldwide writers, we’re supportive of worldwide readers, as well. It’s a major charity for me.

unnamed-32018 Killer Nashville Awards Banquet.

KO: Why did you decide to make Killer Nashville a writer’s conference instead of a reader’s convention—not that writers aren’t also readers? 

CS: I’ve always loved teaching. Elementary school, high school, college. I love every age. I continue to visit schools and universities every year, all at my own expense. Schools are so strapped for funds and students are so hungry for knowledge and inspiration that it has become my charity. If you knew my personal history, my roots, you would know it is a miracle that I’ve gotten to do the things that I’ve loved to do and work with the people I have long admired. I got those opportunities, though, because others believed in me and helped me. It became my turn to do the same thing. My heart is with the developing storyteller. It’s so important for new voices and perspectives to be heard, and to be given an opportunity to be acknowledged. When you set out as a writer, you don’t know what to do, what path to follow. I wanted an organization where we could take writers by the hand and help them along. I haven’t forgotten readers, though. Readers are always welcome at Killer Nashville. Readers are why writers write and every year we have readers with no ambitions to write sign up for Killer Nashville just to hear the writers talk. Barnes & Noble runs the bookstore at Killer Nashville. And the book signing events at Killer Nashville are open and free to the public. But it is the author (published or unpublished) who really has my attention because they are so vital, their voice is so important, to the diverse world in which we are living today.

KO: In my experience of writer’s conventions, Killer Nashville is unique in that you foster a genuinely supportive environment and it’s clear you want to help writers succeed. For you, what makes Killer Nashville unique?

CS: For me, it is the mentorship, the education, and the honesty. I’ve spent my entire life working behind-the-scenes to support creative individuals and develop and package projects. We/I actually do care about each person who comes to Killer Nashville. After the conference, and sometimes a year or two after, when we know that someone has something going on, we will follow up to see how they are doing. We really do care. When I first began Killer Nashville, I made it clear from the start that Killer Nashville was a way for more experienced authors to give back to the “next generation” (that’s not referencing the age of the writer, but instead the moment that the writer puts her foot into the pool). That sense of mentorship still continues and permeates all we do. And writers need honesty. We all do. I’ve been to conferences, gone to seminars, seen ads on Facebook, where we are told how to become the next New York Times bestseller. If it was as easy as going to a seminar, then everyone would be the next New York Times bestseller. Those are snake-oil conventions designed to profit off authors’ dreams. Not all writers can become bestsellers and it has nothing to do with the quality of their book. There are so many factors involved, so many of them uncontrollable to the author. Have we had those kinds of success stories with Killer Nashville? Yes. We’ve had numerous and many writers go on to a publishing career as a result of contacts they have made at (or because of) Killer Nashville or its influence. Writers have found agents and publishers. One even landed an incredible movie deal. I love it and feel a sense of satisfaction when writers get to experience those peaks. But you’ve got to be honest and realistic. That’s the only way to succeed: with real information. And we give real supportive information, which is why organizations such as Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, the Authors Guild, and the National Writers’ Union, among others, have supported us over the years. So if it appears that we are unique in that we foster a genuinely supportive environment and we really want writers to succeed, I think that comes from the collective and mutual intent of all the attendees and sponsors who share in that mission. It’s a family business. It makes me feel good because I feel we may have accomplished what I originally dreamed that we could do. Giving back. Encouraging others. Fostering that next generation. That’s the basis for Killer Nashville.

unnamed-1Ellery Adams leading a workshop at Killer Nashville 2018, “How to Make a Career of Writing.”

KO: It’s so exciting that you’re in the publishing business. Tell us about your move to publishing and Clay Stafford books? 

CS: Founding a publishing company has been a wonderful learning experience, which has shaped even more relevantly how this year’s conference schedule was put together. It’s a traditional small press. I started it to again help authors find an audience. I began working as a publisher, editor, and acquisitions exec back in the 1980s when I acquired and published companion books for PBS projects. We used the TV shows to basically sell books. As a writer myself, I got spoiled in my early career having my books sold through Big Box outlets such as Sam’s, Walmart, Target, Costco, etc. I thought it was normal to sell-through thousands of hardcover books in a month. But the industry has drastically changed. Even though there are more readers (and there are), there are also more writers. Way more. We’ve edited and published some really good books through Clay Stafford Books, books I’m intensely proud of, books that can be purchased worldwide, but each book published is literally one in a million books available that can be purchased by a single reader. That staggering reality, that change in the industry, has given me incredible insight, an MFA unto itself, into the realities of the publishing business today from a publisher’s perspective, including how some of these obstacles might be overcome. I hope to use those experiences to help other writers who are coming to Killer Nashville.

KO: What’s next on your plate?

CS: Let’s look at today: I am currently doing a polish for my agent on an original standalone novel that I’ll be publishing under my own name. I just finished the first draft of a novel I hope will be a series with a writing partner (who has a long and high-profile career in law enforcement). I’m working on getting distribution rights for a TV project I developed years ago. I’m putting the polish on this year’s Killer Nashville. We’ve got a wonderful lineup including David Morrell (of “Rambo” fame), Joyce Carol Oates (major bestseller and award-winner), and Alexandra Ivy (one of my favorite romantic suspense authors), as well as agents and editors, literary and “commercial” writers. It’s going to be a wonderful year. And like everybody in this nontraditional business, I get up in the morning and see what unexpected opportunities present themselves and then align my day based upon what I discover and what inspires me. There’s the “bumbling” again.

KO: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

CS: Write because you love it. Nothing more. Persevere. That is the endgame. Money, fame, publishing deals, movie deals…these are all icing on the cake and none of the pieces are given out fairly. But if you love what you are doing, then that sustains and nourishes you no matter your career highs or lows. I’ve worked with some people who were huge “names” in the past. I’ve watched them rise and disappear. I mention their names to my kids; my kids have no clue. These “celebrities” (even “legends”) had their moment and now they’re gone. When the focus is on the “success” of the project, then it is a guarantee of pain. Instead, focus on the love: writing, telling a good story, being the best you can be, working conscientiously and humbly at your craft, truthfully cheering your co-writers when success comes to them, though this time misses you. This is what endures. I can remember as a young man in my twenties living in Hollywood in an “efficiency” apartment with only dreams and a typewriter (a real typewriter, one that didn’t even require electricity). At the end of many of those months when I would be terrified I would find myself homeless in my car, I consoled myself because I knew as long as I had enough money to buy paper (and carbon paper – that’s really dating me), then I could be happy. I stayed with it and a world I never expected opened itself to me. I wasn’t after the fame. I was buzzed by the creativity, the energy. It has given me a wonderful life. Persevere. Align with others through events like Killer Nashville where you develop a network of like-minds who can be there for you and help you find your way. But keep your eyes on the real prize: the story you are working on right now, the expression of something that only you can create. If you can find bliss and contentment in the act of creation itself, then nothing life gives you can either enhance or diminish it. You have found your center and your joy.

KO: Thanks, Clay.  See you at Killer Nashville!

CS: Thank you, Kelly!

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CLAY STAFFORD is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and filmmaker. He has sold over 1.5 million hardcover copies of his children’s adaptations and has seen his film work distributed internationally in over 14 languages. Four of his five staged murder mysteries have had Los Angeles premieres. Publishers Weekly has named Stafford one of the top 10 Nashville literary leaders playing “an essential role in defining which books become bestsellers” not only in middle-Tennessee, but also extending “beyond the city limits and into the nation’s book culture.” (PW 6/10/13). He is the founder of Clay Stafford Books and Killer Nashville, and founder/CEO of American Blackguard Entertainment. More can be learned about Clay, here. 

Learn more about Killer Nashville.

 

What I learned writing historical mystery…

How many of you write historical mysteries? I love reading them—Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, Rhys Bowen’s Georgiana Rannoch. Recently, I decided to try writing one. I’m pleased to say, I’ve just finished the second (of what I’m sure will be many!) draft. What have I learned by writing historical fiction?

 

Historical Details Shape Plot and Setting

First, I love the fact that the details of history can help shape not only my plot but also the everyday lives of my protagonists. It’s like having a cheat-sheet. The challenge, of course, is getting it right. And, not just being accurate, but finding the right balance between historical details and story. History can play so many roles in the novel, from those spicy tidbits sprinkled throughout the text, to the rich tapestry of everyday life that forms the background or setting for your story.

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Historical Research is Fun

Second, as a nerdy academic, I love doing the research! It’s so fun to look through old newspaper advertisements, or to use William Brohaugh’s English Through the Ages, Etymonline, or an old Baudeker’s guidebook. Of course, the Internet is a vast source of information about everything from the food and clothes of an era to the political events that shaped it. It’s amazing where you can find helpful information, especially stuff to help you paint a vivid picture of the details. First hand accounts in documentaries, autobiographies, and nonfiction, are great resources too.

Anachronisms are Tricky

Third, even the dreaded anachronism can be fascinating. What words and gadgets existed and when? Anachronisms are things or words used in the wrong time period, either because they didn’t exist yet, or because they were already out of use. There’s also the issue of region or place. Words used here might not be used there, even in the same time period. For example, in the US we say “cafeteria” and in England they say “canteen.” And on top of that, some words or things might feel out of place, even if they aren’t. Even though it would be fair game to use a phrase like “hang out” in a 19thCentury novel, it might make your reader stop and question its accuracy. So, you need to use words that not only are right, but also sound like they’re right. And, worse, sometimes words sound right, but aren’t. Here’s where a good editor comes in.

Facts versus Truth

It might sound like writing historical fiction is full of landmines and pitfalls, but those same challenges and obstacles can become a great help in fashioning a believable and engaging story. And, while emotions and reactions are also period and place dependent, a good historical novel adds the fleshy truth of experience to the bare bones of historical fact. A great historical novel makes people, places, and the past come alive.

How about you? What are you favorite historical novels? What do you look for in an historical mystery? Do you have any tips for writing one?

 

 

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Cate Holahan’s One Little Secret…

Today on Mysteristas, it is a pleasure to interview USA Today Bestselling author, Catherine HolahanIn a former life, she was an award-winning journalist that wrote for The Record, The Boston Globe, and BusinessWeek. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, two daughters, and food-obsessed dog, and, by her own admission, spends a disturbing amount of time highly-caffeinated, mining her own anxieties for material. 

KO: Welcome Catherine. I’m excited to talk to you about your new novel, One Little SecretBut first, the opening of The Widower’s Wife is one of my very favorite crime fiction beginnings. What’s your secret to writing those first sentences?
CH: Rewriting! I wish I could say that those lines come to me as a fully formed melody, but I get an idea and a few notes only. I have to tune it for awhile before I get it the way I want.
    Often, it’s not until I finish the first draft and have the characters voices clearly in my head that I write a first line that makes it through to publication.
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KO: With your last two novels, Lies She Told and One Little Secret, you start with a prologue. Your latest pulled me in like a “riptide,” as one of your characters might say. Your use of prologues has a very noir feel and reminds me of some of my favorite classic films. How did you decide to use prologues to set the stage and then work backwards from there? 

 

CH:  I think of psychological thrillers and domestic thrillers as slower burn kind of stories. You have to get to know the characters, see past the veneer, before you start to realize the bad stuff that they are capable off. I do want to tip the reader off to the drama coming so that they have that sense of anticipation as the layers of the characters fall away.

KO: Reading your new novel One Little Secret, I was struck by some of your metaphors. A writing teacher once told me to use metaphors like weapons 😉 How do you decide where and when to use metaphors? And is there a trick to creating such memorable ones?
CH: Thanks! I think metaphor is a main way to show without telling the reader. I spend a lot of time thinking about the way people do things and the associations that I have with those actions, and then try to create a metaphor that doesn’t sound trite and fits with the tone of the novel.
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KO: I love the cover! In the acknowledgments of One Little Secret, you say characters either come to you full blown or elude you. You describe it as your controlling them or them controlling you. Which was it with your stunning cast of characters in One Little Secret? I especially love the detective, Gabby Watkins. How did she come to you?

CH: Gabby Watkins was inspired, in part, by a female detective whom I interviewed for the book. The detective I dedicate the book to was kind enough to show me around a police station and speak with me for a couple hours about her job and the way she has reacted to some facts that may have differed from her male colleagues. I wanted a female detective to unravel some of the issues of sexual consent and domestic violence in the book because I wanted my law enforcement character to see things through the eyes of a mother, wife, and woman, as well as those of a police officer. I thought that would create a nice contrast with the other female POV characters in the book.

KO: Describe your writing process. Do you outline or wing it? After writing four novels, including USA Today bestseller The Widower’s Wife, and One Little Secret, which is bound to be a big hit, what have you learned that you might share with other writers?

CH: About the big hit part—from your lips to God’s ears, as my mom would say. 🙂 I am an obsessive plotter. I create elaborate Excel spread sheets with my plot points and character arcs and graphs of how plot points intersect. But then one of my characters evolves in a way that doesn’t jive with my carefully laid plan, and I tear it up, re-plot and rewrite.

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KO: One Little Secret is an interesting cross between a closed-door mystery ala Agatha Christie and a psychological thriller ala Paula Hawkins. Have you ever considered writing something other than domestic thrillers?
CH: I am most drawn to domestic thrillers because I think the biggest secrets many people keep are secrets from those closest to them. However, I am working on a women’s fiction novel where the mystery is secondary to the emotional development of my female character. I am really proud of the writing in it.

 

KO: There’s a lot of water in your novels. One Little Secret is set on a beach in the Hamptons. How do you decide on your settings? How do your settings affect your plots and characters?
CH: I think water is such a key part of human existence and, as a result, imbued with a lot of symbolism. It’s clear but it covers. It gives life but it’s deadly. Also, I just love looking at the water and swimming and the sea. My mom is Jamaican and some of my earliest memories are being at the beach with my mom on the island. So, perhaps there is some psychological tie there.

 

KO: What are you working on now? Is there another novel in the qeue? 
CH: Yes! My agent is selling two more novels. One involves technology, privacy,  and paranoia. The other is a story about a young woman coming to terms with an old family betrayal and involves surfing. Got to work in water, I guess.
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KO: Again, I loved your new novel. THANKS, Cate!
CH: Thanks so much for the interview and for taking the time to include One Little Secret. I am happy that you enjoyed it and hopeful that readers will like it too!

 

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If you like Agatha Christie, check out Tracee de Hahn.

I’d like to welcome mystery writer Tracee de Hahn to Mysteristas. Tracee is the author of the Agnes Lüthi mysteries, Swiss Vendetta and A Well-Timed Murder. Trained as an architect, Tracee has an eye for detail. She lives with her husband and Jack Russell Terriers in southwest Virginia, but travels frequently to Switzerland where her novels are set.

KO: Your protagonist, Agnes Lüthi, is a relatable character, and you do such a great job showing her dealing with the loss of her husband while investigating the murders in Swiss Vendetta and A Well-Timed Murder. You’re an expert at balancing the emotional backstory while advancing the plot. Can you tell us how you developed this character? Do you have any advice or tricks you can share for hitting just the right emotional note while keeping the suspense?

TdH: When I read for pleasure, I am drawn to characters who are “regular plus,” meaning they rise to the occasion, as we all hope to if confronted by the dreadful things we put our characters through. This might be considered the baseline for Agnes’s organic development. She would have a family, and a situation in keeping with her life in Switzerland. At that point, plot considerations entered into decisions – if she’s married then what role does her husband play in her life? I didn’t want the complication of a husband because, honestly, I wanted the possibility of a romantic attachment with Julian Vallotton, so….. the husband died.

After I finished the first draft I realized how and why he had died. It was in an even later draft that this information was revealed to Agnes in the story. It was already her story, but including the revelation in Swiss Vendetta certainly elevated her crisis in a spiraling parallel with revelations about the murder investigation in progress. I think the link between personal and plotline/professional crisis can work in many ways, but they need to enhance each other, not detract.SwissVendettacoverfinalcopy

KO: Reading your Agnes Lüthi mysteries reminds me of the best of Agatha Christie. Swiss Vendetta is a locked room mystery, and A Well-Timed Murder has a cast of characters, each with their own secrets and motives, much like a Christie story. Who are some the main influences on your writing?

TdH: Agatha Christie, of course! I am also a devoted fan of Martha Grimes with her Richard Jury mysteries and the great cast of characters she has created. Outside the mystery genre three of my favorite books are James Clavell’s Shogun, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. All books with intricate story lines connecting a great number of characters.

KO: The Agnes Lüthi Mysteries are international mysteries. How important is setting to your mysteries? Any advice for using setting to enhance the mystery or move the plot forward?

TdH: Setting is key to my writing. I’m not sure I know how to separate idea from place. Perhaps because my early training and professional life was that of an architect. Agnes’s story – the location, the characters, her family life – are directly related to life in Switzerland.

Swiss Vendetta grew out of the idea of an isolated château and an ice storm.Place was first, then who would live there, and from that what kind of crime would occur.

A Well-Timed Murder was greatly influenced by two Swiss industries: watchmaking and elite international boarding schools. Again, what kind of crime would happen there, and why.

?Bern?, SBB poster, c 1930s.Plot is a way of saying what happens to people, and in some cases, things only happen to people because of where they are or who they are around. Switzerland is a place of deep roots and, simultaneously, international connections. You find people from all over the world living together (boarding school) or coming together (international watch fairs), but there is not a ‘melting pot’ like in the US. People retain their customs and language of origin. I like the conflict this can create.

When writing about any place no matter how familiar or exotic it may seem, it is critical to be true to the character of that place. While murder may be committed the world over out of rage, or jealousy, or greed, the how likely changes. Gun crimes are practically non-existent in Switzerland, so don’t use a gun unless you have a terribly convincing reason. Place always matters!

KO: I think of your novels as what Lisa Preston called “Cozy Plus.” Do you have a cozy audience in mind when writing?

TdH: I like the idea of cozy plus! Perhaps that is precisely what I have in mind. I’m personally not an edge of my seat, unable to go to sleep reader. I like to sink into a story and get to know a cast of characters without double checking the locks on my doors. On the other hand, my books aren’t necessarily PG. I think it is a shame that cozy can sometimes be deemed off-putting. If you characterize cozy as excluding gratuitous violence or gratuitous bad language then I’m in. This means you may find some sex, or the possibility of sex, and some language. But that isn’t at the heart of the book. When I think about Martha Grimes’s Richard Jury series I see the evolution over two decades from a hint of romance to suggestion of sex, well, maybe more than a suggestion, but nothing explicit. In today’s world, I don’t think people are offended if someone screams Damn! when their hand is trapped in the burning embers of a fire.

KO: What are you working on now? Will we see Agnes again in another outting? 

TdH: I’d like to do another Agnes Lüthi sometime but right now I’m at work on a mystery set in Kentucky, where I spent most of my life. In it, a young woman inherits a distillery only to find a dead body among the bourbon barrels the day she takes possession. Earlier you asked about setting, and after years living in Lexington, Kentucky I was thrilled to set my fictional distillery there. Of course, there has been a great deal of ‘required’ research at distilleries throughout the state.

Keep an eye on my web page and on social media for news about this one!

KO: Thanks, Tracee! We will!