Recently I met Kate Michaelson, a new author with a fresh voice and a talent for telling riveting tales of suspense. She’s here today on Miss Demeanors to tell us a little about herself and her debut novel, HIDDEN ROOMS. Take it away, Kate!
All Kinds of Tough
When I set out to write my first mystery, Hidden Rooms, I knew I would have one challenge right off the bat: I’d given my protagonist, Riley, a debilitating chronic illness. (Sorry about that, Riley.) Yet, I needed her to solve a crime. (Sorry again!)
But how could Riley sprint after the bad guy when, some days, she could barely walk from one room to another? How could she keep up with the heroes who routinely take a bullet, plummet off a cliff, get clocked with a shovel, and yet still manage to dig their way out of a shallow grave? (Really, how can any of us?)
Yet, depicting a chronically ill character was important to me—maybe because it’s something I know a bit about. After years of working to find a diagnosis and treatment for my own conditions—which include dysautonomia and the aftereffects of Lyme disease—it occurred to me that, in the current healthcare system, the onus fell on me to solve my own medical mystery. This is particularly true when it comes to poorly understood diseases, like chronic infections and autoimmune conditions. This search for answers and my love of writing inspired me to write a kind of double mystery in which my protagonist investigates a murder while navigating her own bewildering symptoms.
With that in mind, I set out to write a page-turner that would validate the real-life experiences of people struggling with chronic conditions. Now, I just had to figure out how to do it.
Looking to Others
As a new writer, I looked to crime-fiction authors whose depictions of characters with chronic conditions struck a chord with me. Among the most helpful examples were Michael Robotham’s Joseph O’Loughlin series in which a brilliant psychologist is diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s disease, and Lori Rader-Day’s The Black Hour, which follows Amelia, a young professor who deals with chronic pain and has to use a cane after she is shot by a student. These authors illustrated how to capture both the outer and inner manifestations of illness and pain.
From the outside looking in, chronic conditions can appear uneventful since they often shrink the boundaries of our lives, but people with long-term pain and illness get used to pushing past their limits. From going to work to cooking a meal, ordinary activities can take on the tenor of an epic journey. What Robotham and Rader-Day do so well is to provide vivid descriptions of illness and pain affecting their characters as they go about their everyday lives and then show how a personal crisis heightens these challenges.
Despite all they overcome, Robotham and Rader-Day’s characters are not idealized inspirations, and neither writer shies away from depicting the internal toll of physical ailments. The psychic fallout from disease and injury is every bit as dramatic as the external symptoms. In Amelia’s case, her image of herself as a capable, rising academic star is shattered when she can barely climb the steps to her office or make it through a lecture. In Joe’s case, his Parkinson’s diagnosis drives him toward self-destructive behavior as he tries to come to terms with the altered course of his life. In Hidden Rooms, after Riley has her symptoms dismissed by doctor after doctor, she begins to distrust her own instincts in other areas of her life.
All of these narratives put us in the shoes of protagonists who are already struggling with their own vulnerability. The physical danger and psychological stress of a killer on the loose only heightens the innate tension of their worlds.
Appreciating All Kinds of Strength
As I wrote Hidden Rooms, I also had to reconsider my own way of thinking about strength. Don’t get me wrong—I love an outwardly tough protagonist. Give me Kinsey Milhone punching out a bad guy and Anna Pigeon sneaking out of the ER to pursue a villain any day. But I also needed to realize that strength isn’t limited to physical endurance.
Tana French gives Frank Rich a classic line in her novel Faithful Place when he says, “I’ve always loved strong women, which is lucky for me because once you’re over about twenty-five there is no other kind.” As with most of what Tana French writes, I second that sentiment. I would also extend it to include anyone who lives with a chronic condition.
My protagonist, Riley, is strong not just because she solves a mystery, but because she carries on in the midst of debilitating fatigue, brain fog, physical limitations, and self-doubt. “Tough” is the perfect word for people who have the grit to live with their own fragility, and for those who keep moving forward despite chronic illness, disability, mental health conditions, and murky prognoses. We may not be getting clocked with a shovel or digging our way out of a shallow grave, but some days it sure feels like it. Yet we get up, and we keep going.
This is the kind of strength many of us can relate to, so why not celebrate it too?
HIDDEN ROOMS by Kate Michaelson
Long-distance runner Riley has been fighting various bewildering symptoms for months, from vertigo to fainting spells. Worse, her doctors can’t tell her what’s wrong, leaving her to wonder if it’s stress or something more threatening. But when her brother’s fiancée is killed—and he becomes the prime suspect—Riley must prove his innocence, despite the toll on her health.
As she reacquaints herself with the familiar houses and wild woods of her childhood, the secrets she uncovers take her on a trail to the real killer that leads right back to the very people she knows best and loves most.
Kate Michaelson’s first novel, Hidden Rooms, won the 2022 Hugh Holton Award for best unpublished mystery by a Midwest writer and will be released by CamCat Books in April 2024. She holds an MFA in poetry and a PhD in Educational Psychology and her articles, short stories, and poems have appeared in academic and literary journals.
As a curriculum developer and technical writer, she has created educational content on everything from media literacy to cybersecurity awareness. In her free time, she loves doing anything that takes her outdoors and away from her laptop. She is active in Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, the International Thriller Writers Debut Authors Program, and organizations that support those with disabilities and chronic illness. She lives in Toledo, Ohio with her husband, a dog, and a cat that runs the show.
You can connect with Kate at www.katemichaelson.com. HIDDEN ROOMS will be published April 30 and is available for pre-order here: https://www.amazon.com/Hidden-Rooms-Kate-Michaelson/dp/0744310156