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/
Helen Starbuck is a Colorado native, former OR nurse, and award-winning author of the standalone romantic suspense novels Legacy of Secrets, Finding Alex, The Woman He Used to Know, and the Annie Collins Mystery Series. She loves mysteries, suspense, romance, and any book that is well written. She’s a huge fan of books with independent, strong, women characters and, as Neil Gaiman says, “…stories where women save themselves.”
People often ask, what made you decide to write a book? It’s a valid question based on my career. I began as an art major and lasted two years until I discovered that my talent wouldn’t support me. I transferred to nursing school thinking I’d always have a job, and I did. I quickly learned I wasn’t a ‘bedside nurse,’ and I much preferred working in the OR where you care for patients, but for a limited time. I was fascinated by how the body worked and the procedures we performed. I still am, and that adds a note to my books that others may not have. I then became a nurse editor for a specialty nursing journal. I learned to edit articles for publication and help nurses, who generally aren’t writers, develop their articles and publish them.
I have written for my own pleasure since I was a teen, and that continued until I went part-time as an editor. Years ago, working in the OR, I helped care for a patient who had a very puzzling neurological symptom. Those puzzling symptoms were behind the plot of my first novel, The Mad Hatter’s Son, which took about two years from start to finished published book. I indie published the book because my dad passed at 71 and my mom at 94. It brought home to me that we have no idea how much time we have, and I didn’t want to wait for years to see my book published.
I’m a pantser. I can outline a professional article, but I cannot outline my novels. Because of that, probably the hardest part of writing for me is getting through the middle of a book to the end. I know how the book starts and have a pretty good idea how it will end, but that darn middle can be very elusive. Pantsing also requires a lot of revising because the story often deviates from what you thought it would be. You then have to go back, fill plot holes, and make sure timelines are accurate.
People often have questions about creating characters. The most common are How do I come up with names? How do I know who they are? Do they change? Characters come to me in a basic form as if they were real people I’m just meeting. They have names, I’m not sure where they come from, and I have a general idea about how they look, who they are, what their roles are. That can change–sometimes with input from the character. I remember thinking that Alex Frost, the detective in my first book, would be a one-off character, but he became a major player in the series.
In my new book, The Woman He Used to Know, Elizabeth Harper was much less formidable than she ended up being. The plot behind what happened to her and her husband changed a lot. The villain changed as well.
Writing characters of the opposite sex can be a challenge. I don’t want them to be caricatures like you see in some books, both those written by men and those by women. My best defense against that is to run things by several male friends of mine, who graciously put up with my questions and help me make my guys real. One thing I don’t like in romance or romantic suspense books is the ‘alpha male’ character who is rude, obnoxious, condescending, and borderline abusive. The most unbelievable character arc is when he meets the female character, suddenly falls in love, and does a 180-degree turnaround to become thoughtful, kind, romantic. That’s a huge turnoff to me. I don’t think anyone changes that much based solely on meeting someone. My guys may have issues, but they aren’t jerks, just a little wounded or wary of involvement. It takes a while for them to process their feelings and become involved with the woman in the story.
My books are all set in Denver, with the exception of Legacy of Secrets, which takes place on the eastern plains of Colorado. That was a fun book, and I based the town, which is fictional, on a couple of small towns I am familiar with in Montana and Colorado. Colorado is familiar territory, having grown up here. I don’t feel comfortable setting my stories in places I’m not familiar with. Unless you spend a lot of time in a place, you really don’t know the nuances well enough, and you don’t get that by visiting periodically. At least I don’t. The setting is one thing I hear about from readers all the time—how much they enjoy reading about Denver and Colorado and the memories it brings back if they no longer live here.
The places where my characters live and the Denver police department setting are fictional. They are in real areas, but the houses and buildings are not. For example, the characters in my series—Annie Collins and Angel Cisneros—live in a duplex in Washington park and later in a triplex in the area near Speer Boulevard, but the houses are made up. Elizabeth, in my new book, lives in Cherry Creek. It’s hard to get a tour of the Denver police department, so I let my imagination take over and ask for forgiveness from any real Denver police officers or detectives. I talked with Jennifer Kincheloe, a local author. She works in the prison system in Colorado, about what the Denver Detention Center was like and how prisoners are handled. Still, I don’t describe the physical location.
I sometimes use the names of people I know with their permission, and I will often have a contest when a new book comes out for the winner to be a character in my next book. He or she can choose to be a bad guy or a good guy. That’s fun, and people like the opportunity. Otherwise, names just come to me and either fit or not.
People also ask who’s my favorite author. I can’t choose just one, but I love Tana French, Jane Harper, Stephanie Gayle, Michael Connelly, and Craig Johnson, to name a few. I liked Patricia Cornwell at first, but after a few books, her novels became way too graphic for me. Same with Stephen King when Mercy debuted. I have come back to King’s books, and he writes wonderfully, so I plan to read more of his newer books.
If I have any advice for new authors, it is: no matter how good you think your book is, you NEED an editor and a proofer and not just a friend who knows grammar or reads a lot. You need someone who can evaluate your book with an objective eye and help you correct problems, and you need a proofer because, no matter what, you will not see all the errors.
o Readers can contact me at email@example.com
o My website Helenstarbuck.com
o Facebook at Helen Starbuck—Author
o Instagram @helenstarbuck
o Twitter @HelenSStarbuck (yes, two S’s)
o My books on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Helen-Starbuck/e/B076KPPQ52/
Highly Acclaimed Author, Robert Dugoni, Shares His Thoughts
Robert Dugoni is the critically acclaimed New York Times, #1 Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon Internationally Best-Selling Author of 20 novels in The Tracy Crosswhite police detective series set in Seattle, the David Sloane legal thriller series, and the Charles Jenkins espionage series as well as several standalone novels including The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, a #1 Amazon kindle download and The Cyanide Canary, a Washington Post best book of the year. Several novels have been optioned for television series. Robert is the recipient of the Nancy Pearl Award for fiction and many other awards.
I’m known mostly for my mysteries and thrillers, specifically the Tracy Crosswhite series, which is now eight novels. But I’ve always enjoyed other genres. I grew up mostly reading literary novels like The Great Gatsby, A Prayer for Owen Meaney, and The Old Man and the Sea. I got the opportunity to write a literary novel with The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, and it did very well. I have a second literary novel coming out next September, The World Played Chess. I’ve also written a successful espionage series with Charles Jenkins, a spinoff character from my legal series with David Sloane.
My 8th Tracy Crosswhite Novel, In Her Tracks, will be out in April 2021. The World Played Chess will be out in September 2021.
What brought you to writing? I’ve always loved to write. My mother would hand me classic literary novels when I was young, and by the seventh grade, I knew I wanted to write stories. In high school, I edited the school newspaper, and in college, I majored in journalism, and creative writing, then went to work for The Los Angeles Times. I ended up in law school and practiced law for a while before getting back to writing. It took me several years to get established, and since 2013 I’ve written full time.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? I now write at home. My wife and I added on a beautiful office with a lot of windows and ambient light. I treat it as a job, though I love what I do. I write full days, five days a week. The one distraction I allow now is golf. It gets me outdoors in the fresh air with good friends, and it’s a great distraction.
Tell us about your writing process: Monday through Friday and some weekdays when the muse is flowing, I write from seven in the morning until around four or five. When I am writing the story, as opposed to doing research, I read Stephen King’s novel, The Green Mile, every morning until I hear the muse. Then I begin. When writing the first draft, I don’t edit myself. I treat it almost like an outline. I write as fast as I can, learning about the characters and what they want and need. Then on the second draft, I go back and begin to add and cut as needed.
What are you currently working on? I have a Tracy Crosswhite mystery novel, In Her Tracks, coming out in April. A literary novel, The World Played Chess, is coming out in September, and I’m completing the third novel in the Charles Jenkins series, The Silent Sisters.
How long did it take you to write your first book? It was an ordeal. I must have thrown out 1000 pages and wrote 19 drafts over several years. I did it backwards. I wrote before I studied story structure and really understood how novels were told. Now I can write three novels in a year. I understand story structure after studying The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler and other craft novels.
How do you come up with character names? I often use the obituaries because you know the names were real. There are also websites, like fakenamegenerator.com, but I don’t stay on the site for long. It just seems like the kind of sight where someone is sucking you in.
What’s the most challenging thing about writing characters from the opposite sex? Honestly, the hardest part is not trying to write from the opposite sex. I get asked questions all the time about how I write from the perspective of Seattle Homicide Detective Tracy Crosswhite. My answer is I don’t try. I write from the perspective of a person who has been grievously injured in her life and is struggling to find a life for herself and later, for her family. Tracy wants what we all want in her personal and her professional life. I always try to keep that in mind.
Do your protagonists ever disappoint you? Actually, it’s usually the opposite. They usually please me. When I’m really into a story and into a character, and I let that character tell the story rather than try to force the story, the character will often do things I never thought of or considered. That’s one of the best parts of being a writer, having characters surprise us.
Do you ever kill a popular character? If so, what happens to your story? I did in the David Sloane series upon very bad advice. I won’t do it again. Readers don’t like it. They feel you’re trying to manipulate them. I did it because I was told that married protagonists aren’t interesting. I’ve come to realize that simply isn’t true. Marriage comes with its own trials and tribulations, and it is those that make the characters real.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? I’m a pantser. I’ve tried outlining, but I’m usually off the outline very quickly. Instead, I do a lot of research, and from the research, I usually find my characters and often scenes that become the story.
What kind of research do you do? I try to travel to all the locations I write about. Beyond that, I do a lot of research, reading books, papers, watching documentaries and television shows.
What is the best book you ever read? Probably Lonesome Dove.
How do our readers contact you? Your website, blog links, any links you want to be posted?
Our guest today is Alec Peche author of Mystery and Thriller.
Who knows the most about how to get away with murder?
Jill, Nathan, and Angela head to New Zealand and Australia on a trip that is part work and part vacation. Jill is speaking at a forensic conference, while her friends are meeting with wineries to conduct business.
Dr. Jill Quint is a forensic pathologist by training. She left her crime lab to pursue her own winery but was called back by old colleagues to comment on cases. Those referrals expanded into a business where Jill offers second opinions on the cause of death. She also has her PI license and can be hired to investigate a suspicious death. Her friends assist her with cases by bringing their own skills like accounting, interviewing, and social media research. Nathan is her partner and is a world-renown wine label designer.
New Zealand has a reputation as a very safe country, so why are people dying in the cities she visited so far on her trip? They aren’t dying by gunshot or stabbing, rather these are unusual ‘accidents.’ In time, it becomes clear that these deaths are staged as ‘how to get away with murder’ events by a professional.
As Jill and friends transition to Australia, will the killer follow them? Is Jill the final target?
Read Forensic Murder for a crime story set down under.
When did you realize you wanted to write novels? Probably sometime in my 40s after reading a bad book. Throughout my high school and college classes, I was at best an average student, and I hated creative writing. I could rarely think of something to write about when I had to do it for a class.
How long did it take you to realize your dream of publication? In July 2012, I made my first attempt at writing a mystery. I fumbled around looking for a format on what to do. I hit a wall early in that I didn’t know who my characters were or much beyond the story’s premise. I tried software and a few books, but my page was still empty. Then I decided I would just sit down and write a page, then the page became several pages and flowed into chapters and a story. I had no contacts in the writing world, and I felt like my style of writing was cheating as I had no list of characters or an outline. I was a pantser but didn’t know there was such a thing. I finished the book in the spring of 2013, and I had a friend who was my first reader, and she said she enjoyed it. She didn’t tell me it was the best book she’d ever read or that it would be a bestseller. She told me where the holes in my story were. I came out of the business world and had never written more than a three-page memo, so I hired an editor who taught me a little about grammar and style. I published that book in September of 2013. I’ve gone back and re-written it a few times. You don’t use contractions when writing in business, and so I didn’t do that in my first two books. That makes any dialogue stiff, so creating contractions and more casual dialogue was part of the book’s improvements since being first released. I read Stephen King’s memoir ON WRITING and heaved a sense of relief when I learned that many authors don’t outline.
Are you traditionally published, indie published, or a hybrid author? Indie for all 14 books.
Where do you write? Ninety-five percent of my writing is done in my office on a desktop computer in Word. I’ll occasionally write on my iPad, but I like the big screen and mechanical keyboard in my office.
Is silence golden, or do you need music to write by? Silence! My characters are talking to me in my head as I type, and that’s all the ‘noise’ I need to write.
How much of your plots and characters are drawn from real life? From your life in particular? A fair amount of my real life is in my books. My three best friends are the series recurring characters. I worked for over thirty years in hospitals. Not as a physician, but with a lot of physicians over the years. Generally, every book setting is a vacation I’ve taken. I visited Australia and New Zealand two years ago. In FORENSIC MURDER, there are cities in the two countries that I didn’t visit (Wellington, Christchurch, the island of Tasmania), so I used Google Earth to fill in the blanks.
Describe your process for naming your characters? I used to keep a telephone book’s white pages around and randomly pick names. Now, that I have many countries that I set my stories in, I’ll google ‘popular first names or surnames in Israel or Quebec’, and pick a name.
Real settings or fictional towns? A little of both. My protagonist in one series lives in a made-up city in the central valley of California, and my protagonist in my second series lives on Red Rock Island, an actual island in San Francisco Bay.
If you could have written any book (one that someone else has already written,) which one would it be? Why? Harry Potter, the popularity of that book series is quite the empire. Also, it’s a mystery and an adventure. Of course, if I had written it, probably the last two books in the series would have been less dark.
Everyone, at some point, wishes for a do-over. What’s yours? I wished I had picked a different pen name.
What’s your biggest pet peeve? There’s so much strife in the world at the moment, who has the mental energy for pet peeves?
You’re stranded on a deserted island. What are your three must-haves? Another person, a big dog, and shelter.
What was the worst job you’ve ever held? Hand cutting onions at Jack in the Box. I would have to go into the walk-in refrigerator to slow down the tears. To this day, I hate onions.
What’s the best book you’ve ever read? Hard to say. I’ve listened to On Writing 2-3 times, Harry Potter – first in series, Ron Chernov’s Bios of Washington and Grant, JD Robb’s In Death Series. They are all very immersive stories.
What’s on the horizon for you? I’m playing with proposals in my head of starting a new series in Urban Fantasy or Paranormal Mysteries. But first, I need to finish FORENSIC MURDER for its release date of November 2.
Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself and/or your books? My writing process is evolving. I haven’t hit on the perfect path that works for every book.
Private Investigations was not what I expected and found it to be a pleasant surprise. Besides, the pleasure readers will find, PI is a primer for writers and aspiring authors. The stories are essays about the struggles writers often experience.
Rachel Howzell Hall’s “I Don’t Know This Word” uses words to build a compelling story about an exceptionally strong and resilient woman. Her battles with cancer struck home with me. I lost two children, ages three and forty, to cancer. Shortly after the loss of my daughter, I began my battles with cancer. A two-time survivor, I empathized with Hall’s struggles, although mine were nowhere near as horrifying. She is an inspiration who brought tears to my eyes.
Jacqueline Winspear’s “Writing About War,” pulled at my heart in many ways. My taciturn Grandfather fought in France in World War I. Not once did he ever mention a word about the experience. The only one to remark was my Grandmother, who once said, “He was gassed, you know, mustard gas.” She would say no more.
My father was in France during World War II. He only twice mentioned his time in combat. “The only time I fired my gun was when I pointed it in the direction of the Germans and pulled the trigger. I don’t know if I ever hit anything.” The other was riding in the back of a 2 ½ ton truck when a German fighter began strafing them. The driver pulled into some trees. My Dad said he didn’t remember anything from then until the end of the war. He wasn’t wounded.
Both men suffered what we now know to be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Robert Dugoni’s “Nuns, Magic, and Stephen King,” was as good as King’s On Writing.
Twenty engrossing essays leading me to appreciate not only the ones familiar with but others I’ve never read but will.
In Private Investigations, Zackheim has once again succeeded in assembling an outstanding array of stories.