Kate, you’ve referred to your upcoming suspense novel, THE FIANCÉE (June 29), as a “locked room” mystery. What do you mean by that?
A locked room mystery is a story in which all the action takes place in one setting, like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, or Lucy Foley’s The Guest List by, or the hit movie from a couple of years ago, Knives Out. In THE FIANCÉE, everything, including murder, happens during a family vacation at a sprawling estate in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
To me, a locked room story makes for such a great read because you can practically taste the trepidation and fear the characters are experiencing. It becomes pretty clear that the killer is probably right there on the property and might even be sitting at the same dinner table. That would terrify me.
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 online articles. Reading through those clips or posts 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…?”
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 found that section spellbinding. 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 section was actually fiction.
I also think writing about death and murder can provide an author with a sense of control. When I was a teenager, eight nursing students were brutally murdered in their Chicago apartment. 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. I’ve heard readers say they get that same feeling of control from reading thrillers.
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. The writing part of my brain doesn’t function the same way in the afternoon or evening, so I’ll use that time for editing, research, social media, and 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 if I haven’t gone cold turkey.
Do you plot your books?
Yes, I could never just wing it. When I start a new book, I always know who the killer is as well as his or her motive, and then I loosely plot four or five chapters at a time. One of the really awesome parts of writing is the way plot points sometimes simply pop out of your head 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 or her hat.
I should point out that some mystery authors don’t plot. My pal Harlan Coben swears he doesn’t. In the business, that type of writer is called a “pantser” because he or 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 actually write best in the morning. 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 40 minutes—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 begin increasing the time.
Do you ever miss running Cosmopolitan?
I loved that job, but after fourteen years 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 bold face names like the late Ruth Rendell, Karin Slaughter, Michael Connelly, Gillian Flynn, Harlan Coben, Joe Finder, Lisa Unger and Alafair Burke. But I’ve also loved some of the authors who’ve emerged in recent years, either fresh on the scene or with a recent book that helped them finally break out. Some of my favorites are Megan Miranda, Lisa Jewell, Deb Caletti, Janelle Brown, Peter Swanson, Mary Kubica, and the British authors Susie Steiner, Caz Frear, Alex Marwood, 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.