Alma Katsu. Photo by Evan Michio
Alma Katsu is the award-winning author of seven novels. Her latest is The Fervor, a reimagining of the Japanese internment that Booklist called “a stunning triumph” (starred) and Library Journal called “a must-read for all, not just genre fans” (starred). Red Widow, her first espionage novel, is a nominee for the Thriller Writers Award for best novel, was a NYT Editors Choice, and is in development for a TV series.
Something strange is taking place in the waning days of WWII. Meiko, the Japanese wife of a U.S. fighter pilot, follows a mysterious and deadly disease spreading through the Japanese internment camps. Archie Mitchell, a preacher whose wife is killed during the explosion of a fu-go, or fire balloon, is seized with confusing thoughts of revenge. Fran Gurstwold, a reporter intent on escaping from her newspaper’s “pink collar ghetto,” is determined to write up the fire balloon incidents despite the Army’s embargo. And Aiko, Meiko’s daughter, escapes from camp and makes a dangerous solo journey back to Seattle when she’s told her mother has died. It’s all tied together by a forgotten episode in Meiko’s past: a trip taken with her researcher father to a remote island reportedly linked to the Japanese underworld.
Do you write in more than one genre? I’ve been writing historical combined with supernatural or horror or fantasy for six books, but in 2021 my first spy novel, Red Widow, was published. I got the opportunity to write Red Widow because I’d had a long career in intelligence and wanted to try to write a spy thriller that was a little unlike the usual fare—and had a publisher who was willing to take the chance! Overall I’d say writing in more than one genre is a big challenge: readers who like, say, mysteries aren’t necessarily going to pick up your romance novel. Then you have the challenge of trying to market to two separate audiences—it’s tougher than it sounds.
Tell us about your writing process: Generally, I write all morning, from about 7 am until noon, when I make lunch for the family, then write again in the afternoon until I sneak in a little exercise before making dinner. I take care of business during those hours, too: promotion, talking to agents and editors. Evenings are interviews or taping panels and reading ARCs for blurbs. I’m very lucky to do this full-time, but it is a lot of work.
For the historical horror novels, it starts with a quick sprint of research that helps me find the quirky characters and odd little-known facts that will give the book its magic. Then there’s a fairly detailed outline, and I start drafting. I generally draft from beginning to end these days, no jumping around to do favorite scenes first. First drafts are terse. I’ll do a couple more drafts, smoothing prose, filling in plot gaps, finding new twists, understanding the characters better, deepening and enriching. Then it goes to the agent for a first read, and that’s when the real work begins.
How long did it take you to write your first book? My first book, The Taker, took 10 years to get to a publishable state. I’d come back to writing fiction after a long break, and it took a long time to get my sea legs back. It was like I’d been lying on the couch eating potato chips for a decade, and I decided I wanted to run a marathon.
How long to get it published? Once it got to the point where I felt fairly confident it was publishable, it went fast. But those 10 years were filled with querying, and it wasn’t ready, so a lot of rejection and trying to fix the problems without having the chops to do it, which is why it took so long.
Do your protagonists ever disappoint you? I find protagonists much harder to write than antagonists. Villains are interesting, and my villains often end up taking over the book. Anti-heroes aren’t quite the thing these days and often come off as cliché.
Do you have subplots? If so, how do you weave them into the novel’s arc? My books are ALL sub-plots. Except for Red Widow, my books are usually multiple POV, and all those sub-plots have to come together in a satisfying way by the end. It is a ton of work. I use spreadsheets to keep track of everything.
What obstacles do you face when writing about historical figures? Three of my books are historical fiction based on real-life events. The first, The Hunger, is a reimagining of the story of the Donner Party. Most of the characters are based on real people, and I learned after that, people you have to be circumspect about doing that. It can be ghoulish to some readers. If you need to drastically change a real person’s life to make it fit your story, you’re better off creating a completely fictional character. My most recent book, The Fervor, is mostly fictional characters but it’s based on two real-life incidents: the explosion that caused the only deaths on the US mainland during WWII, and the internment of people of Japanese descent.
How do our readers contact you?
Alma’s website https://www.almakatsubooks.com/
Penguin Random House page https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/667268/the-fervor-by-alma-katsu/
Daisy Bateman is also a world-renowned expert in Why You Should Buy That.
In what passes for a normal life, she works in biotech. She lives in Alameda, California, with her husband and a cat, only one of whom wears a tuxedo on a regular basis, and a puppy on a mission to chew the world into tiny pieces.
Murder Goes to Market is my debut, published last year by Seventh Street Books, and was nominated for the Lefty for Best First Novel. Briefly, it’s the story of Claudia Simcoe, an ex-techie who opens an artisan marketplace in a town on the Sonoma coast and subsequently has to deal with the murder of her least-favorite tenant.
What brought you to writing? I was brought to writing by a lifetime of reading and making up my own stories to go with the books I loved. Mystery has always been my favorite genre, and when it came to what I wanted to write, there was no question that there would be a body or two.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? These days, I mostly write at home, at my dining room table. In the Before Times, I did some of that too. Still, most of Murder Goes to Market was written on the ferry between Alameda and South San Francisco, crossing the Bay on my way to work. Sadly, that route has been temporarily discontinued during the pandemic, so I’m left to do my writing without the possibility of seeing a dolphin. (In the absence of potential sea mammals, I’m mostly distracted by the Scylla and Charybdis of Candy Crush and Twitter.)
What are you currently working on? I just sent off the revisions for the second Marketplace book, A Dismal Harvest, which is due to come out next March. (When I hope to finally have an in-person book launch!) At this point, most of the heavy lifting should be done (she said optimistically), and it’s all over but the copy-edits. So I’m taking advantage of the free time to try something new in a standalone mystery. Stay tuned for more!
Has an association membership helped you or your writing? Absolutely—I’ve been a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime for many years. The knowledge I’ve gained and the friends I have made in both organizations have been very important to my writing career. From meeting members of my writing group through the Sisters in Crime mailing list to the current weekly write-ins with the NorCal MWA chapter, the organizations can be vital for bringing a sense of community to what is a very solitary endeavor.
How long did it take you to write your first book? Aside from juvenilia, I wrote my first book as a college undergrad, scribbling longhand in a repurposed binder, sitting on the lawn in front of the faculty club. From that point, until I finished it, I think was three or four years. Then a much shorter time for it to be rejected by every agent I could find who might in a borrowed copy of Jeff Herman’s Guide be appropriate (this was, shall we say, a while ago).
How long to get it published? That first book was never published, and if there is any justice in the world, it never will be. Between that time and Murder Goes to Market, there were three more books, one closed publisher, and a number of years that I would rather not specify. As an author, I would say that my primary characteristic is grim determination.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? I work in a style I call “chaotic neutral.” Basically, I should outline, but I’m too lazy to do it well. So I start with an approximate plot, add notes to the end of the manuscript as I write, and then go back and try to make sense of it later. I would not recommend this approach to others.
What kind of research do you do? Cheese research! I’m joking, but not totally. Since artisan foods are at the heart of my books, it’s essential for me to get to know what’s out there and how it’s all made. (And, incidentally, if there’s any part of the process that could provide a good murder weapon!)
Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? San Elmo Bay, the town where the Marketplace Mysteries is set, is fictional, but its location on the Sonoma coast is real enough, and I hope that people who are familiar with the area find things about it they recognize.
Do you have any advice for new writers? Always have the next thing in the hopper. Publishing is a rough business, and no matter how confident you are in your current project, there’s always the chance that it’s one you’re going to have to end up shelving. And when that happens, the only thing that makes it easier is to know you have something else up your sleeve.
Where can our readers find you?
Miley began her fiction career with The Impersonator, winning the Mystery Writers of America Best First Crime Novel award, and currently optioned for a television movie.
A graduate of William and Mary, she worked at Colonial Williamsburg and taught history at Virginia Commonwealth University for many years. She retreats to her Virginia winery for getaways, where everything she does would have been illegal during the Prohibition era.
You think it’s easy, naming characters? Ha! It’s harder than naming your own baby. In fact, it’s one of the hardest things about writing—for me, anyway. I was talking with an acquaintance the other day who said, “How about using my name in your next book? I don’t care if I’m a villain or a hero—or even just a walk-on part.” It put me on the spot. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but choosing names for characters doesn’t work like that. It can be a daunting prospect—especially for authors who, like me, write historical novels.
First and most important, the name has to fit the era. My mysteries are set in the Roaring Twenties, so names popular in the 1950s or 1970s or today may not work well at all. Authors who set their books in the medieval era or Revolutionary Russia have an even tougher time.
One place I consult for ideas is the Social Security website, where the most popular names of any given decade are listed. If I have a character who is 35 years old in 1925, I look at the records for 1890 to learn which names prevailed. I don’t necessarily use the most popular names on the list, but I definitely want a name from that list. For example, the top 5 names for boys in 1890 were John, William, James, George, and Charles; the top 5 for girls were Mary, Anna, Margaret, Helen, and Elizabeth. There is zero overlap with today’s popular names (Liam, Noah, Oliver, Elijah, and William; Olivia, Emma, Ava, Charlotte, and Sophia). I also take into consideration naming styles of the era. In the 1920s, it was common to use –ie or –y endings on nicknames for men, not just boys. Thus, lots of grown men were called Freddy, Tommy, Jimmie, Johnny, Timmy, Frankie, Eddy, Wally, and so forth. You don’t hear those much today, do you? Also common was the use of nicknames that bore no resemblance to the given name, like Slats, Studs, Lucky, Stretch, Fats, Porky, Babe, and Lumpy. This is particularly true in the criminal underworld; think of Bugs, Scarface, Hymie, Killer, and Snorky—all real gangsters.
But first names are a breeze compared to last names. For those, I need to consider not only the era but the likely ethnicity of the character. The Roaring Twenties was a time of heavy immigration from eastern Europe, so many people in urban centers had last names that were Italian, Jewish, and Polish. If I’d been writing about an earlier time, the names might have skewed to German, English, Irish, and Scots. I have to also consider professions: police forces in 1920s Chicago skewed toward Irish, so I named the cop in my latest book Kevin O’Rourke. In the early part of the twentieth century, servants were often Irish immigrant girls or African American women, which is why the young Irish housemaid in my current book is called Ellen, and the Black cook is Bessie Jackson. Their employer’s name is Weidemann, a German name representing the German immigrants of the previous generation. Unlike today, when African Americans often use names that have African, Muslim, or biblical origins, in the early 20th century, they chose names that closely resembled those used by European-Americans.
In writing my current book, I muddled my way through several names before settling on Maddie for my main character. She was born in the 1890s in Chicago to immigrant parents from French Canada, so I gave her a French name, Madeleine, which I Americanized with a nickname to Maddie. She married an Italian immigrant I named Tomasso Pastore, so she now has a multicultural name—how very American!
Another fun tool I use to help me with ideas is the online random name generator. This site lets me choose the gender, the ethnicity, the country, and the age of a person; then, it spits out an appropriate name. So if I needed a name for a minor character who is an Australian male living in America today and in his fifties, I get . . . (drum roll please) Eddie J. Adcock. Sounds good to me! Check it out at www.fakenamegenerator.com.
Some authors, like my friend David Baldacci, auction the naming rights of their characters for charity, promising to use the winner’s name in their next book. It’s a nice fund-raiser, but it’s risky for the author. I guarantee you, the author worries about the winning name! What if he or she ends up having to use a name that doesn’t fit any of her characters? I’d love to auction a name for charity, but I can’t risk getting stuck with something that didn’t exist in the 1920s. It’s really more appropriate for authors who write contemporary fiction.
I explained a little of this to my friend and promised him I’d keep his name in mind for future books. But, off the record, it won’t happen. His name is far too modern for a Roaring Twenties mystery, and that’s the era I love.
“I wasn’t proud of what I did, but I was proud of how well I did it.” It’s 1924, and Maddie Pastore has it made. A nice house, a loving husband with a steady job—even if it is connected to Chicago’s violent Torrio-Capone gang—and a baby on the way. But then Tommy is shot dead and she learns her husband had a secret that turns her life upside down. Penniless and grieving, Maddie is sure of only two things: that she will survive for the sake of her baby and that she’ll never turn to the mob for help. So when she’s invited to assist a well-meaning but fraudulent medium, she seizes the chance. She’s not proud of her work investigating Madam Carlotta’s clients, but she’s proud of how well she does it. When Maddie unearths potential evidence of a dark crime, however, she faces a terrible dilemma: keep quiet and let a murderer go unpunished or follow the trail and put herself and her baby in mortal danger. . .(Cover Flap)
And before I go, one more thing . . . who doesn’t love illustrations in a book? I sure do, but unfortunately, adult novels seldom contain illustrations—a map, perhaps, or a genealogy chart are the most readers can hope for, considering the cost. So in order to overcome this visual wasteland, I set up a Pinterest page for The Mystic’s Accomplice, where I post illustrations of Maddie’s Chicago in the 1920s, although many buildings no longer exist.
Because I weave real people through my stories (people like Al Capone and Johnny Torrio), I include photos of them, plus photos of the objects mentioned in the story. Please take a peek at the page and let me know what you think! https://www.pinterest.com/mmtheobald/the-mystics-accomplice/
Mary Miley www.marymileytheobald.com
The Impersonator (St. Martin’s: 2013)
Silent Murders (St. Martin’s: 2014)
Renting Silence (Severn: 2016)
Murder in Disguise (Severn: 2017)
The Mystic’s Accomplice (Severn: 2021)
Spirits and Smoke (Severn: 2022)
My latest thriller, The Unseen, was published in June 2019 by 9mm Press and was a Distinguished Favorite for the 2018 IPPY Awards in the Thriller category and was the winner of the Crime Fiction category of the 2019 NYC Big Book Award.
“Lisa Towles weaves an exquisite tale of deception, ancient scrolls, and kidnapping that spans continents and lifetimes. Beautifully rendered, The Unseen is a must-read for thriller lovers!” (Cat Connor, Author of The Byte Series)
My standalone thriller Choke was published in 2017 by Rebel, and it’s about a bioengineer who develops a cigarette that cures lung cancer. That book was a Distinguished Favorite in the 2017 IPPY Awards and the 2018 NYC Big Book Award in the category of Thriller.
My four previous books were published under my previous name, Lisa Polisar, including Escape: Dark Mystery Tales (2010, Nukeworks Publishing), The Ghost of Mary Prairie (2007, University of New Mexico Press), Blackwater Tango (2002, Hilliard & Harris), and Knee Deep (2001, Port Town Publishing).
What is the most challenging part of your writing process? Trusting my writing voice enough to allow it to lead the way. Learning to let go of the reins and not try to control everything is a hard lesson. But I’ve discovered that my best writing comes out when I get out of the way, listen, and let my characters take over.
Plotter or Pantser? My outlining style is like driving with my low beams on. I don’t really plan chapter-by-chapter, but I keep a list of upcoming scenes, so I typically know what to do for the next 3-4 chapters. I often get glimpses of how a book is supposed to end and have no idea how I’m going to get there. And that’s the whole fun! -?
What are you currently working on? I’m writing my first series right now – a California-based thriller series, and I’m about 80% done with Book 3. I’m also writing a new standalone thriller.
Has an association membership helped you or your writing? Oh my goodness, yes. The Mystery Writers of America NorCal community means so much to me and was an important anchor to help me get through 2020. More recently, I re-joined Sisters in Crime NorCal and have been enjoying their frequent write-ins, including a small group that writes from 10-11 pm weeknights. Both organizations have some really wonderful programming that keeps me connected to the how and why of crime writing.
Favorite books/authors: I have so many favorites it’s hard to narrow it down, but I’ll list four:
• Montana, 1948 by Larry Watson is one of my early favorites. I love that book because it’s about what I care about the most in my books – secrets.
• The Resurrectionists by Michael Collins
• The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez Reverte
• The Quantum Spy by David Ignatius.
How long did it take you to write your first book? I think about six months. I wrote my first book when I was 20 after I finished reading the book Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. I wrote that book, called Real Horizons, longhand on legal pads. I wouldn’t allow myself to buy a new legal pad until I’d filled in every inch of the current one because I didn’t want to jinx it, so to speak. That book was never published, but it was one of my most important accomplishments because when I finished it, I could finally say that I’d started a creative project that I actually finished.
What’s the most challenging thing about writing characters from the opposite sex? I think characterization, in general, can be very challenging. My book The Ghost of Mary Prairie is a heartland suspense that takes place in Grady, Oklahoma, in 1960. The main character is Jake Leeds, a 15-year-old boy. I don’t have any brothers, so I’m still a bit bewildered by that book, and I don’t really know why Jake Leeds’ voice and presence was so strong in my head.
What kind of research do you do? Exhaustive research. Internet research, but that’s top down, so I also try to link up with someone in the field I’m writing about to consult with an actual expert who has more foundational (professional training) knowledge in the field I’m writing about. And before the internet was so widely used, I used to connect with someone from the Chamber of Commerce in whatever area I was researching to ask for maps, feedback, local resources, and people in a community who could answer questions. To me, the most important thing about research is to get a hands-on experience of what I’m writing about.
Do you have any advice for new writers? I feel like I wasted a lot of time, in my early 20’s, trying to be good instead of trying to be me. I read constantly, I still do, focusing on the classics and the masters. In my desire to be taken seriously as a writer, I think I was trying too hard to emulate those masters. In so doing, I think I hindered my authentic writing voice from coming out. So my advice to novice writers is to read a lot, write, and just keep writing to cultivate your unique voice. That’s the voice of your creative passion, the voice that will sustain you.
How do our readers contact you?
My writing website: http://lisatowles.com/
Amazon Author Central: https://www.amazon.com/Lisa-Towles/e/B001JS7KWI?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1618725756&sr=8-1
My writing blog: https://digitalraconteur.wordpress.com/
Facebook Author Page: Lisa Towles | Facebook
Linkedin Profile: www.linkedin.com/in/lisatowles/
Sheldon Siegel is the New York Times, USA Today, and Amazon best-selling author of the critically acclaimed legal thriller series featuring San Francisco criminal defense attorneys Mike Daley and Rosie Fernandez.
Sheldon is the author of the thriller novel The Terrorist Next Door featuring Chicago homicide detectives David Gold and A.C. Battle. Sheldon’s books have been translated into a dozen languages and sold millions of copies worldwide. A native of Chicago, Sheldon earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois in Champaign in 1980 and his law degree from the University of California-Berkeley in 1983. He specializes in corporate and securities law with the San Francisco office of the international law firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP. Sheldon began writing his first book, SPECIAL CIRCUMSTANCES, on a laptop computer during his daily commute on the ferry from Marin County to San Francisco. A frequent speaker and sought-after teacher, Sheldon is a San Francisco Library Literary Laureate. He is a former member of the National Board of Directors and the Past President of the Northern California chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, and an active member of the International Thriller Writers and Sisters in Crime. His work has been displayed at the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley. He has been recognized as a Distinguished Alumnus of the University of Illinois and a Northern California Super Lawyer. Sheldon lives in Marin County with his wife, Linda, and a 17-year-old tabby cat named Betty. They also have twin sons named Alan and Stephen. He is a lifelong fan of the Chicago Bears, White Sox, Bulls, and Blackhawks. His twelfth Mike Daley/Rosie Fernandez story, FINAL OUT, was released on January 26, 2021. He is currently working on his next novel.
What brought you to writing? I always wanted to be a writer, but I don’t know why. I’ve discussed this with other writers, most of whom have said that it seems that there is something hot-wired into our system to try to tell stories. It’s a bit presumptuous for us to think that we have something interesting to say. I have no formal training. I studied accounting in college at the University of Illinois, and I’ve been a corporate lawyer with a big law firm in San Francisco for more than 35 years. I have never handled a criminal case (not even a parking ticket), but I’ve written twelve best-selling novels about murder trials. I like to tell people that I’m a fraud on multiple levels.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? When I was practicing law full time, I used to write on a laptop computer on the ferry between Marin County and my firm’s office in San Francisco. I no longer work full-time, so I do most of my writing at home in the spare bedroom in our house. It’s a great luxury to be able to write almost full-time.
Tell us about your writing process: I start with a light outline. It helps me to know the beginning and the ending. I write a series, so I know that the books will feature Mike Daley and Rosie Fernandez and will be set in San Francisco. I outline in greater detail about 50 pages ahead of wherever I am in the story. I try to write to the end of the outline, and then I outline another 50 pages. I generally try to write straight through from beginning to end, but I sometimes skip ahead and write the ending. I spend about 50 percent of my time on the first 100 pages because if I make a mistake in the early part of the book, I’ll pay for it later. Once I get to the midway point in the book, I don’t stop until I get to the end. I tend to write long and cut. I usually do at least six full drafts. The first draft takes about eight months, the second about two months. The remaining drafts take a couple of weeks.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process? I’m self-taught, so I find plotting to be challenging. First drafts are more difficult than second and third drafts. There’s nothing scarier than looking at a blank sheet of paper. Once I have something in the computer, I know that I can go back and fix it.
Has an association membership helped you or your writing? I have been a member of MWA, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers for years. I served on the national board of MWA and as the president of the Northern California Chapter years. These organizations provide a supportive environment for writers since we spend so much of our time in front of our computers.
How long did it take you to write your first book? It took three years. I had the idea for my first book, Special Circumstances, for about ten years before I started writing it. I took one creative writing class at Book Passage in Corte Madera, which was very helpful. Then I worked on the book in short increments on my commute to work and late at night.
How long to get it published? I got very lucky. When I finished the manuscript for my first book, I was introduced to an agent who was friends with one of the attorneys at our law firm. She agreed to read the manuscript as a favor to my colleague. The agent liked the manuscript and agreed to represent me. She submitted it to multiple houses in New York, and they liked it. Two weeks later, I had a two-book deal with Bantam for a six-figure advance. The chances that this would happen again are one in a million, so I am very grateful.
We hear of strong-willed characters. Do yours behave, or do they run the show? My characters have minds of their own. At times, I feel like I’m just a stenographer. That’s why my outlines are so light—my characters tend to misbehave, and they rarely follow the plotline that I’ve started.
Do you try to make the antagonist into a more human character? Yes. Good guys are interesting when they have flaws, and bad guys are interesting if they have some positive elements. Characters who are all good or all bad are one-dimensional.
Do you have any advice for new writers? Read a lot and write a lot. Work on your craft so that you can make your story as good as it can be. It’s fine to read a few books about writing, but it’s better to spend your time writing than reading books about writing. I would recommend Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and On Writing by Stephen King.
How do our readers contact you?