true crime

True Lies

One of my writer communities recently had a discussion on how much police procedure an author needs to know to write a convincing book. I think the answer depends on whom you wish to convince. If you want to sell your authenticity to real cops, then you’d better get every last detail right. If you want to sell your story to the average reader, then accurate legal procedure may actually get in the way.

I’m an avid consumer of true crime, and I marvel at the strange coincidences or jaw-dropping twists that you would have a hard time putting in work of fiction. For example, in one old case, Massachusetts cops visited a suspect’s apartment to ask him about a murder, only they find he wasn’t at home. They left their card in the door with instructions to get in touch, but surprisingly, the murderer instead skipped town. The cops never followed up because this guy was just one of many possible leads at the time. He was eventually apprehended in Pennsylvania after committing a few more homicides.

“We just didn’t get around to it” is not a plausible excuse for most readers, despite it being a very real problem for actual law enforcement officers who must balance competing cases.

Real-life cops must often wade through red tape and deal with budget restrictions that would bog down a novel. A sprinkle of bureaucracy can add realism, but readers don’t want to sit around with your hero or heroine while he/she waits months for a DNA result. Or maybe the result never comes at all. In Massachusetts at the moment, there is a terrible shortage of qualified medical examiners. This means that many bodies are only receiving a cursory external examination, and follow-up tests may take months or never occur at all.

Sheila Davalloo murdered a woman she considered a romantic rival, then tried to kill her husband too.

Or consider the bizarre tale of Sheila Davalloo, who somehow convinced her husband Paul to move to a hotel on the weekends so that she could carry on with her lover. Later she blindfolded Paul and stabbed him several times, all the while insisting she wasn’t actually trying to kill him. And he believed her! Prosecutors had to lay a lot of groundwork for the incredulous jury to accept Paul’s version of events, especially because he was a medical researcher earning a doctorate at Columbia University at the time. If he were a fictional character, we’d expect him to be smart enough to see through his wife’s outrageous lies.

Then there was the part where Sheila acted as her own attorney at trial, leading to a strange moment where she questioned Paul on the witness stand about who really committed her attack. “You…you stabbed me,” he said. Did she really think he was still in the dark after his open-heart surgery?

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it also moves a lot more slowly. It can take years to arrest and convict a murderer, even if the cops know who the guilty party is right away. Most mystery novels, in contrast, feature a case that is solved within days or weeks. If you’re going to tell a complete story in 300 pages, you have to pick up the pace. It’s important to get right what details you can. Beyond that, kindly readers will probably forgive you for fudging some of the finer points in favor of a compelling narrative.

Storytelling, Writing Advice

How to Write a Book

Preparing to write a book can be a daunting progress. It gives me the sweats each time. How do you even know where the beginning is? What if you can’t find the end? And, curse it all, what the heck do you put in that big empty middle? Some writers are plotters, meaning they construct detailed outlines for each chapter before they start the story. Others are pantsers, meaning they make it up as they go along—flying by the seat of their pants. I am somewhere in the middle. I’ve found if I write a detailed outline ahead of time, I won’t write the actual book because there is no surprise left in it for me. However, I do like to have a loose roadmap so that I can see where I am going.

There is no one path that a writer must follow. The best techniques are the ones that work for you.

When I am starting a new book, I picture myself standing in front of a long wall filled with doors. I could choose any door! Eventually, I pick a beginning, and that means choosing one of the doors. Once I go through it, I have a new wall in front of me with fewer doors, because the possible directions of the story have been constrained by the place I began it. So I pick one of these new doors and go through it to advance the narrative, and in doing so, reduce my choices for the next chapter even more. By the time I get to the end, if I’ve done my job right, there should be only one door. It’s marked THE END, and it’s the logical conclusion to everything that’s come before it.

I also subscribe to the Alton Brown theory of scene construction. Alton Brown has a rule that every tool in the kitchen must serve multiple purposes. No point in having a juicer that only does lemons, for example. Likewise, a scene in your book should ideally have multiple reasons for its existence. Here’s a short scene from something I wrote ages ago:

James Dean Trumbull had, at age thirty-nine, outlasted his namesake by a good fifteen years.  His mother had fallen in love with the fifties film idol’s tragic, romantic saga, and since Jimmy’s father was not around to dispute her name choice, James Dean had been reborn in a Hoboken hospital in 1960.  His mother was a great believer in karma, and she had felt the previous James Dean was cut down before he could achieve the successes due him.  By christening her son in the dead man’s name, she truly believed that fate would pick off where it had left off, and Jimmy would enjoy a magic carpet ride into history.

Forty years later, she was still waiting.

Jimmy sat at his cramped kitchen table, surrounded by avocado-colored appliances, and leaned closer to the scanner.  He had a cigarette in one hand and a pen in the other, just in case he heard something worth writing down on his brand-new tablet of paper.

Amy entered the room just as he was blowing out a smoke ring.  “If you must do that, at least go out to the stoop,” she said, waving her hand in front of her face.  She had

her night watchman’s uniform on, with its sensible black shoes, blue polyester pants, and a shiny metal gun hooked to her hip.

“Can’t,” he told her.  “Got to be in here to listen.”

“You listen to that damn box more than you do me.  Sitting here all the time with that radio playing constantly.  What if one of the kids had a nightmare or something?”

“I’d hear ’em.”  He blew out another long train of smoke and aimed it upstairs to where their children lay sleeping.  The police scanner crackled as the dispatcher radioed an armed robbery in progress.

Screw that, he thought.  Get to the good stuff.

Amy’s keys clattered onto the counter as she fished around in her purse for something.  “Well at least do the dishes if you’re going to be sitting here in the kitchen all night.”

“Something big is going down,” he said.  “You can tell.  No one’s saying anything yet, but you can hear it anyway.  They’re all on edge.”

She picked her heavy winter coat up from the back of a chair.  “You think you’re the only one with this toy?  You think there aren’t a hundred reporters out there listening to the exact same thing you are?  And they’ve got jobs, Jimmy.  The papers are going to take their stories over anything you might come up with.”

“That’s why I’ve got to stay on top of this.  I have to find an angle no one else has.”

Amy shook her head as if she had heard this story before.

“You wait,” he said.  “You’ll see.  I’ll get my headline and then everyone will want a piece of me.  I’m going to be an overnight sensation.”  He grinned and reached for her ass.  “You can say you knew me when.”

“I know you, all right,” she replied, ducking him.  She shrugged into her coat and picked up her old leather purse.  “I’ve got to run or McCracken will have my ass.”

“He can’t have it.  Your ass is mine.”

She made a face, but he could see the smile in her eyes.  “There’s leftover cupcakes in the fridge,” she said, leaning down to kiss him.

He’d seen them in there, right next to the beer: chocolate frosted cupcakes with little hearts on them for Valentine’s Day.  Amy talked tough, but she was such a sap.

“I’ll see you at six,” she said.

“Drive safe.”

She left out the back way, into the alley, and cold air stormed in through the kitchen, stirring the curtains and lifting the pages of his writing tablet. A voice crackled through on the scanner. “Five-six, be advised, the suspect has a previous warrant for attempted homicide.”

Jimmy leaned back with his smoke and listened.

This scene introduces Jimmy Trumbull as a would-be reporter searching for a big crime-related scoop. He’s a family man, watching the kids while his wife Amy works, but we can see there are limits to how much of himself he’s willing to give up for them: he won’t go outside to smoke.

The crimes he is waiting to hear on the radio form the backbone of the mystery, but the twist here is that Jimmy is the killer. He’s waiting for the cops to discover his handiwork. Finally, the other player introduced in this brief exchange is Amy’s gun. It’s crucial because the story ends with her using that gun to shoot Jimmy.

All this information is packed into 700 scant words. So that’s my other piece of book advice: make each line work hard for you. With all the effort you’re putting in, the least those words can do is hold up their end!

book recs

Foundational Reading: 10 Books That Stayed with You Over Time

I take something away from almost every book I read, but some have become part of my DNA. Here, in no particular order, are ten books that have changed how I think about life in some way.

The Gift of Fear, Gavin DeBecker

DeBecker does threat evaluation and security for celebrities and rich people, but his advice is valuable for everyone, especially women. If you think you’re in danger, you probably are, and you should listen to that voice telling you to get the hell out of there.

A Girl Named Zippy, by Haven Kimmel

This delightful memoir made me laugh so hard I cried, when it wasn’t alternating with breaking my heart. It’s a beautiful lesson in voice and storytelling.

Christie’s classic caper has been retold many times.

And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie

 

A masterwork in misdirection from one of the finest in the biz. I couldn’t believe it when this was assigned reading for one of my high-school classes. It was an acknowledgment that entertaining books could be worthy of serious study too!

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

A transporting tale that’s not about small things at all; it’s about family and identity and the death of dreams, all in such evocative language that I could smell each scene.

Ladykiller, Ed McBain

This fast-moving story takes place in one day, in which the detectives of the 87th Precinct receive a message that says, “I will kill The Lady tonight at eight. What can you do about it?” McBain’s mysteries always have really satisfying answers, and this one is one of the best.

The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule

You could not make this story up and be believed. A true-crime writer gets assigned to do a book on an ongoing series of murders, only to discover the culprit is her friend Ted. Ted Bundy is an archetypal serial killer at this point, and Rule provides one of the most intimate portraits of the man. I get something new from this book each time I read it.


 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl

This book was one of my first loves. I think I read it twenty times in fourth grade alone, and not just because it has chocolate in the title. I loved the imagination of the Chocolate Factory and crazy Mr. Wonka, but I think I loved the part where the nasty, self-absorbed kids got what was coming to them even more. Fiction—the only place where one can truly get what one deserves.

The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner

I needed to buy a Cliff Notes explainer to help me understand this novel the first time I read it, but after I caught on, I was blown away by the way the story of the family is interwoven through the various voices of its members.

Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett

What an audacious title! Here is one of the greatest mysteries of the universe—where did consciousness come from? Dennett gives it his best educated guess in this highly readable philosophical tour-de-force.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

This was another revelation assigned school reading did not have to be about torturous subjects that a fourteen-year-old girl could not relate to on any level. I grew up in an entirely white environment, and this book was one of my first exposures to the idea that America’s racial history is painful and ugly. Scout’s narration made that accessible to me at the time. These days, I try to get my stories about USA race relations from authors of color, but To Kill a Mockingbird was an initial shove in the right direction.

I always need recommendations for new books to read! What’s a book that has stayed with you over time?

How You Met My Mother

Dialogue is crucially important for any story. In a written tale, it’s possible to go inside someone’s head to learn what he or she is thinking, but in real life, our thoughts are mostly communicated by the words we speak to one another. Dialogue can advance a plot or reveal information—sometimes clumsily, as when the forensic technicians on CSI would explain the tools to one another for the benefit of their audience. Dialogue can also illuminate character through word choice and style. If you pick your phrases right, your reader will get a vivid picture of the speaker from just a few key sentences.

Take, for example, my mother. I could tell you lots of factoids about my mother. Instead, I’ll relay the following story and let you form your own conclusions:

The summer of my seventeenth year, I drove a car into my house. I had completed the Driver’s Ed classroom course with a hundred percent score. With my freshly printed permit in hand, I was eager to try my luck behind an actual wheel. My mother said I could have the keys and we set out with my little brother in tow to visit the local library.

We lived on the corner of a fairly quiet side street and a much busier main road. I backed the car out of the driveway okay and maneuvered it to the corner. I had never even turned a car on before, so the idea that I should take it onto the open road seemed ludicrous to me. My mother, however, was game on. “Turn the wheel and give it some gas,” she instructed.

For the record, I said, “Shouldn’t I be in a parking lot?”

My mother said, “Just make a right turn. It’s easy enough.”

She did not say how far to turn the wheel or how much gas to give it, so I turned the wheel very far and gave it a heck of a lot of gas. We made a hairpin turn at high speed, wrecking the rear axel of the car as we jumped the high curb.

Now we were hurtling across my front lawn, heading for the cement steps. “Brake! Brake!” my mother hollered.

“I’m trying!” I hollered back, sure that we were going to die. Problem was, I had no idea which pedal was which. I gave it even more gas.

Just picture a red Taurus instead of witch’s feet.

My mother jerked the wheel at the last minute, and instead of hitting the cement steps head-on, we demolished a group of bushes and careened into the front porch. I knocked a support beam out from under the front of the house, and it collapsed on top of the car, which is what finally stopped it.

We all got out, miraculously unharmed. A Ford Taurus lay dead in front of us, sticking out from under the house like the Wicked Witch of the East when Dorothy lands on her after the tornado. Hand to God, the first thing my mother said was, “I never liked those bushes anyway.”

So there you go. Now you know my mother. This is a line only she would say, and so it encapsulates her in a way that a long list of adjectives never could. It’s the same economy of description that I aim for when I’m inventing fictional people.

Amazingly, the car lived to ride again, but there is a sad epilogue to this story. Are you ready?

Those bushes grew back.

Storytelling

All I Need to Know about Pacing I Learned from 80s Television

This is truly the Golden Era of television, with inventive hits like Stranger Things, My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Orange Is the New Black lighting up screens across the country. Today’s TV has more diverse casts, complex storytelling, and often…a way to skip the commercials. In our household, we DVR most of the TV we watch so that we only encounter ads during live sports events. I don’t miss the advertising, exactly, but I have to say that the commercial breaks during the 1980s TV dramas taught me a lot about how to pace a story. Maybe today’s generation is missing out?

I watched a bunch of those action-adventure/mystery shows back in the day. MacGyver. Scarecrow and Mrs. King. Moonlighting. They all followed a predictable time clock. Top of the hour, we’d get the introduction to the story, usually with a quick hook. Someone turned up dead or in trouble. Maybe there was a robbery or a kidnapping. This is what we call the inciting event. It’s the change in circumstances that sets your story in motion, and it should happen right near the beginning.

We had to get up to change the channel.

After the credits, we’d have that first fifteen minutes of show until the quarter-hour break. During this time, Our Heroes would react to the inciting event in whatever way was appropriate. They’d develop some initial suspects. Look for clues. Right around the first commercial break, there would be some big development to shove the story forward—the kidnap victim is alive! We must find her! Dropping this oomph right before the break is not accidental; the show wants to make sure you stay tuned. Similarly, you want to keep people reading, so you need to make sure that your story has these ‘must keep going’ twists included in the tale.

The half-hour break is longer, so you need to pull out the bigger guns to keep everyone’s butts in their seats during those Energizer Bunny and Avis Rent-a-Car commercials. This means you probably want some bigger twist here, something like the introduction of a new suspect. Maybe the wife did it, not the husband!

Your third quarter is all about subverting expectations and making life even more difficult for Our Heroes. This is the ‘it’s always darkest before the dawn’ sequence, and the part of the story where it looks like the bad guy might get away with it, or that the kidnap victim may die before they rescue her. Things look grim heading into that break at the 45-minute mark!

During the final quarter of the story, things turn around for Our Heroes. They catch a break or find some new evidence and the path to victory becomes clear. In today’s stories, the end isn’t always as clean or simple as it was back on 1980s TV. Our Heroes may get their bad guy but they are altered for the experience. Not every wrong can be put right. Still, most stories close out near where they began: whatever the inciting incident was, it has been resolved, for better or for worse.

That it, the show’s over! Now it’s time for your nightly news…which these days is a bigger horror story than anything Stephen King could ever write.

Did you watch 80s TV dramas? What lessons did you take away?

Family Life, Writing Advice

Family Secrets

Family secrets form the backbone of many delicious mysteries, and for good reason. It’s shocking to find out your neighbor or your coworker is not the person you thought they were, but it can up-end your whole world if you discover your loved ones have been hiding a deep, dark secret. They are your intimates, the people you live with or see often, and you’re supposed to know them better than anyone else. So learning a scandalous tidbit about a family member can sometimes change not just how you feel about that person, but also how you feel about yourself. Occasionally in real life, and often in fiction, these revelations can have deadly consequences.

When Kristine Fitzhugh was found dead at the foot of the stairs in her Palo Alto home, her doctor husband Ken Fitzhugh claimed it was an accident, blaming her slippery shoes for Kristine’s demise. The subsequent investigation found that Kristine had been beaten and strangled, and that someone made considerable effort to clean up after the crime. Cops eventually arrested Ken, and his motive turned out to be a long-held family secret: the couple’s oldest son was not fathered by Ken, but by a man Kristine had an affair with early in the marriage. Kristine had threatened to tell the young man about his true paternity, and Ken killed her to conceal the truth.

Author Liane Moriarty has spun many intriguing tales that hinge on secrets kept within families. These can be large and ominous, like murder or kidnapping, or smaller but no less devastating, like an affair or other indiscretion. The Husband’s Secret in particular explores how one man’s misdeed ripples out across everyone else around him, those whose choices become shaped either by knowledge of his secret or by the lack of it.

I love mining family secrets for book ideas. Secrets that aren’t harmful can even be fun and a way of deepening someone’s character. My grandmother and grandfather were married for sixty years, but I discovered after his death that this had actually been a second marriage for her. My straight-laced old granny had run off with a beau at age fourteen to get married! I’m just as glad this didn’t work out, because if it had I wouldn’t be here, but I enjoy thinking about her as someone who took a reckless chance in the name of passion. Maybe I’ll put her in a book one day…

Writing Advice

What I Hate About You

Here is my one top tip to building fictional characters: their greatest strength should also be their biggest weakness. There are some quizzes that circulate on the internet, like this one, that purport to tell you what people secretly hate about you. There are always a bunch of silly questions thrown in about picking your favorite animal or your signature dance move, but the meaty questions, the ones that determine the answer, are the ones that ask you what people love about you. Because whatever trait it is that people love about you, that’s also the one that drives them nuts.

If you are charming, gregarious, and the life of the party, chances are that other people read you as shallow or self-involved. If you are quiet and reserved, like me, you probably come off as cold or snobby sometimes. Also apparently scary, from what I’ve been told! A person who’s a smarty pants may save the day in times of crisis, but on a regular day, some folks find him to be a giant know-it-all.

This push-pull of your best and worst traits holds true for fictional people as well. Characterization is most satisfying when it is rich and consistent. So if your character has a tendency to act first and think later, she might shine in an action sequence but create friction with her boss. Similarly, if your character believes passionately in the bonds of family, he’s probably willing to make huge sacrifices for those he loves—but may be blind to their faults.

Strength and weakness are interwoven, interdependent.

Characterization is also situational and relational. You don’t act the same way with your mom that you do with your friends, or with your boss. There are always shadings and exceptions and times when your actions may surprise even you. I have a petite, mild-mannered friend who chased a male intruder out of her home when she caught sight of him. She never would have imagined she’d do such a thing until she found herself shouting and running after him!

Broadly, though, who we are in terms of our core personalities don’t change much over time, and the things we do well, whether that’s socialization or analytical thinking or caretaking, have a cost to them. Considering this inherent yin-yang when building your characters can help you mold them into believable, complex people.

Family Life, Writing Advice

Grammar Counts…or How I Met My Husband

I met my husband via online dating about a decade ago, when the odds tilted even more firmly in favor of women seeking men. Does online dating really work? One of my family members wanted to know. I said sure, you could definitely find a guy on the internet. Of course, the catch was…you would find a guy—who was on the internet. I was inundated with replies from engineers, gamer geeks, coders and anyone else who was most comfortable behind a screen. I wasn’t judging these guys in the least—after all, I was a geek behind a screen, too—but they did have a certain sameness to them.

In this sea of anonymous men, my husband immediately stood out to me. On our fourth date, he wanted to know why. “How many replies did you get to your profile?” he asked.

I squinted, estimating. “Around 4,400.”

He made a choking noise. “4,400? Then why did you pick me?”

“You wrote in complete sentences,” I told him sweetly, because it was the truth.

He gaped at me, disappointed. “That’s it? That’s all? Wow, talk about a low bar!”

Except it wasn’t a low bar at all because so few of the guys actually took the time to construct actual English sentences.* They wrote in text speak or emojis or lacked any kind of punctuation whatsoever. Meanwhile, Garrett’s initial note to me used correct grammar, a wide-ranging vocabulary, and also demonstrated both humor and curiosity. 

See, he’s cute too!

You know who else has hundreds of would-be suitors in their inbox all the time? Literary agents. They may see hundreds of query requests per day, many of them from authors who do not follow the rules for submission. Their queries are too short or too long, or they leave off important information like genre and word count. Authors will send pages when pages are not asked for, or leave them off when they are required. I heard one agent say that almost 90% of queries fail to follow her preferred procedure, and of course, this is an easy way for the agent to reduce her reading list by 90%.

Writing a tight query that follows all the directions won’t necessarily land you a deal, in the same way that I didn’t marry my husband just because he writes coherent emails. Content still matters. But in each case, it’s a small step that shows you take the relationship seriously. Your novel can be experimental. Your query shouldn’t be. Take the time to look up the agent’s submission guidelines and follow them. Think of it this way: you’ll already be standing out from the crowd!

*Please note, however, that writing complete sentences did not guarantee you any sort of date with me. I had one respondent to my profile who wrote, “I like white feet.” This is a complete (and very creepy) sentence! I did not write back to him.

So What’s Your Novel About, Anyway?

I’m a bad writer in that I still don’t have a succinct elevator pitch for The Vanishing Season. On its face, it’s about a female police officer in Massachusetts trying to solve a set of disappearances from her small town. More broadly, though, it’s about issues surrounding identity. What makes us who we are?

Ellery Hathaway was kidnapped late at night on her fourteenth birthday by a famous serial killer. He became famous the only way serial killers can achieve real fame—by being caught—so Ellery theoretically gets to resume her normal life. However, public appetite for the sensational story lingers on more than a decade after her rescue. The killer is in jail but he still manages to follow Ellery around—on film, in books, in pop culture references ala John Wayne Gacy or Ted Bundy. Ellery’s abductor didn’t succeed in snuffing her out but he did take her life, the one she would have had if he’d never kidnapped her. So Ellery’s journey is largely about whether she can reclaim her own narrative from under the weight of this infamous case.

Meanwhile, Ellery’s savior, Agent Reed Markham, is facing his own identity crisis. He’d played a hunch as a junior FBI agent and saved Ellery from certain death. In doing so, he’d also solved one of the FBI’s most infamous cases and his career rocketed to stardom as a result. He wrote a bestselling book about the case and Ellery’s rescue, telling himself through the years that he is the hero of this story. (Here we already see some conflict in their viewpoints, as Reed has helped further the fame of the case and feed public fervor, which hurts the very woman he waxes on about rescuing.) But Reed’s blown a recent investigation and his marriage is falling apart—maybe he’s not the rock star he’s always imagined himself to be. He’s on stress leave from the FBI when his greatest triumph emerges from the past, asking him for help in her missing persons cases.

What’s interesting to me about putting Reed and Ellery together is that they are bonded by the events of the night he rescued her, but they experienced that time in starkly different ways. The best time in his life is the worst time of hers. They’ve each told themselves stories about how the rescue went down and built up myths about the other one in their own minds. This book is about what happens when those myths meet reality. If Ellery remains damaged by what happened to her in the killer’s closet, does that lessen Reed’s heroics? Who is he without that label? Who is she apart from a famous victim? If public perception locks them into these roles, does it even matter what the truth is?

So, yeah. That’s what it’s about. Murder. Identity. Betrayal. The past coming back to bite you in the butt. All that, plus an extremely friendly basset hound.

Writing

How to Get Published in 1,372 Easy Steps

Last year, I read with interest The Usual Path to Publication: 27 stories about 27 ways into the publishing world. No two writers had the exact same route to success, and the road was not always linear. The book includes familiar tales of stacks of rejection notices and years of waiting to get an agent or editor’s attention. Success depends on an alchemy of hard work, talent, patience and persistence—and a little luck doesn’t hurt either.

I discovered I loved writing at eight years old. My old school notebooks are filled with tiny stories written in the margins around my more official homework. I had no concept back then of what it took to publish a book—I only knew that I loved to tell stories. In high school, I wrote my first novel, a romantic suspense yarn about a pair of lawyers on opposite sides of a murder case. I did a little research at my local library and discovered one needed an agent to get published, so I started researching agents through my various writer magazines. I found one who seemed to be a good fit and wrote him a query. Lo and behold, he called with an offer of representation! Pfft, I thought—look how easy this whole writer gig is!

Are you laughing yet? You should be. This agent was very nice and gave some thoughtful feedback on both my first book and the second. Before we could reach the part about selling the novel, though, he decided he wanted to be a lawyer, not an agent. (Maybe he was inspired by all the steamy action my lawyer hero was getting in the book!) He dropped all his clients. I was in college by then, and busy with a heavy course load. I figured I’d get back to writing one day. There was lots of time!

Fast forward ten years. I’m now in graduate school, writing fiction for free and giving it away on the internet. A writer friend who had recently completed her first novel wanted to go to a major writing conference to network and learn about publishing opportunities. Shopping one’s work was a primary goal of the conference, and if I wanted to attend, I’d need something to show. I quickly wrote a mystery novel about a woman whose husband was killed in a car wreck in the wrong part of town. Feedback from an editor at the conference: This has potential—you should keep going! Spoiler alert: I did not keep going. I finished my degree and got a real job.

Suddenly it was fourteen years after that first agent call and I still wasn’t published! I decided it was time to Get Serious. I signed up for a novel writing course through Grub Street and drafted about six chapters of a story about female police deputy trying to solve a string of disappearances in small-town Massachusetts. My instructor was enthusiastic. “This reads like a real book,” she said, and recommended I take the advanced class. Instead, I got married and had a kid.

I didn’t write anything at all for about five years. Then one day I woke up and found the words tingling at the ends of my fingers, as if they’d never left. I wrote a bunch of novels in quick succession. The one about the female officer in Massachusetts still nagged at me, and I dug out my notes from the Grub Street class. I started over at the beginning and rewrote the entire book in the space of about two months. Then I submitted it to the Mystery Writer’s of America/St. Martin’s Minotaur first crime novel contest, and four months later I got the amazing call from St. Martin’s saying The Vanishing Season had won.

So there you go. It only took two decades and around twenty-two intervening novels to find the one that clicked.