Kate, you write both a mystery series and standalone psychological thrillers, like your latest one, Such a Perfect Wife. Do you prefer one genre over the other?
I can honestly say I love writing both standalones and my Bailey Weggins mysteries. And alternating between the two has been very valuable. It’s similar to other areas of life–when you give yourself a break from a project or activity and try something different, it allows you to return to it feeling rejuvenated and re-energized, with lots of fresh ideas.
When I ran Cosmopolitan, we interviewed Helen Fisher, a famous anthropologist who studied love and believed that regularly adding novelty to a relationship—like a surprise evening out—helps you stay infatuated because it floods the brain with dopamine, the organic chemical that’s associated with bliss, motivation, and concentration. I think it works with writing, too. Having a solid routine is smart but so is occasional novelty.
Where do you get your ideas?
I keep a big fat folder of dog-eared articles about certain crimes as well as a digital file with links to articles, and reading through the clips or links will often spark an idea. But then again, I might come across a random word or phrase – something as simple as “broken engagement” or “twins”—when I’m not even researching and that gets the wheels turning. I then use a technique many authors employ, asking myself: “What if…?”
Actually, the weirdest thing happened to me when I was working on my new book, Such a Perfect Wife, which is about Shannon Blaine, a wife and mother in her 30’s who suddenly disappears. In the middle of writing I read that horrible story about Shannan Watts, the thirtysomething wife and mother who disappeared, and it turned out she and her kids were brutally murdered by her husband, Chris. It was eerie. I hadn’t been inspired by a headline. The headline happened after I was half way finished.
Why are mystery authors so fascinated with murder and evil? What does it say about them?
Ha, I hope the genre I write in doesn’t suggests I’m evil, because I think I’m a pretty good person. But I’m intrigued by the criminal mind and I’ve loved reading about crime since I was young. It really just comes down to a curiosity. When I was kid, there was a weekly section in the New York Daily News (which was carried in my small town of Glens Fall, NY) called The Justice Story, and I was held spellbound by that section. Each week it recapped a famous crime, and they were so sensational that for a while I actually thought the crimes were all made up. That the newspaper carried fiction.
I also think writing about death and murder gives you a sense of control. When I was a teenager, eight nursing students were brutally murdered in their Chicago dorm. I was staying at the time with my aunt and uncle in Connecticut, far away from Chicago, but I was terrified. The killer, Richard Speck, was soon apprehended, but that case stayed with me, and shortly afterwards I began studying karate. I never got to be very skilled at it, but I felt safer. I think writing about crimes and having murderers brought to justice is a form of self-protection in some ways.
What’s a typical writing day like for you?
I try to be at my desk by 8:30 and write most of the morning. My brain doesn’t function the same way in the afternoon or evening, so I’ll use that time for research, social media, marketing. I work on weekends and vacation, and believe me, it’s not because I’m a workaholic but rather that in the long run it’s easier for me to start up again on Mondays or the day after a vacation.
Do you plot your books?
Yes, I find that helpful. When I start a new book I always know who the killer is and his or her motivation, and then I loosely plot five or six chapters at a time. One of the really awesome parts of writing is the way plot points sometimes simply pop out of your brain as you’re writing. It’s always so weird when that happens but at the same time exhilarating. It’s like seeing a magician pull a rabbit out of his/her hat.
I should point out that some mystery authors don’t plot. My pal Lee Child swears he doesn’t and neither does Harlan Coben. In the business, that type of writer is called a “pantser” because he/she goes by the seat of their pants. Besides the fact that I like to plot, I don’t think I could bear having the word pantser applied to me. It sounds like someone who pulls wedgies on people. But you have to use the approach that works best for you.
Any tricks you would recommend to aspiring writers for making the writing process easier?
Gosh, I’ve had to use a lot of them because early on, I had an almost terminal case of procrastination. To set yourself up for success, I think it’s key to figure out when you’re in the zone to handle any type of creative project. Since I’m a night owl by nature, it took me a while to realize I write best in the morning, but that made a big difference. To make the experience more inviting, I light a scented candle and play meditation music or go with the silence. Lots of writers say they need total silence. I always aim for a certain number of words a day, which I think is also common among published authors. Because I get easily distracted, I turn off email and give myself little rewards every 30 or 40minutes—like a fresh cup of tea (I’m starting to sound like a puppy that needs training!).
My favorite trick? When I first started writing mysteries, I used a time management technique called “slice the salami,” which basically means you don’t bite off more than you can chew. In the very beginning I gave myself permission to work for only fifteen minutes a day, which made it doable. After about six months I was able to increase the time exponentially.
Do you ever miss running Cosmopolitan?
Oh boy, I loved that job, but I was ready to leave, and I had given the company a few years notice so I had time to grow accustomed to the idea. I miss being with so many great, creative people during the day—writing is pretty solitary—but I do a lot of public speaking, which puts me in touch with other humans, and I’ve also become friends with some fantastic mystery authors.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
I have to admit I love many of what you could call the Usual Suspects—the big names like the late Ruth Rendell, Linda Fairstein, Karin Slaughter, Michael Connelly, Lisa Unger, Lisa Gardner, Alafair Burke, Gillian Flynn, Lee Child, Joe Finder, and Chris Pavone. But 2018 was the year I discovered some terrific new or newish authors: Liv Constantine, A.J. Finn, Janelle Brown, Mary Kubica, and the British authors Susie Steiner, Caz Frear, and Catherine Steadman, who is also a well-known actress (not fair, right?), and I’m obsessed with the Australian author Jane Harper. . . I highly recommend all of them.