Pay No Attention To My Browsing History…

I’m a mystery writer, not a murderer. Though, anyone looking through a record of my Web searches during the past year could be forgiven for assuming that I’m a human trafficker, drug dealer or worse. Here are a smattering of my searches for The Widower’s Wife: “How many people can squeeze onto a go-fast boat?” “What quantity of drugs have been seized from cigarette boats?” “What is the distance between the Bahamas and Miami?” (follow up)  “How does immigration check passports on day cruises?” “How to sneak into the Miami without documents?” “Average life insurance premiums for a thirty-one year old woman?” I am always surprised by the answers I find to these questions. Thanks to Google’s endless archiving of news articles, there always seems to be a story exploring the very topic in which I am interested, regardless of how lurid. For example, in response to one of these searches, I found a 1994 New York Times Special Report on undocumented immigration that detailed how would-be Americans would sneak aboard day cruise ships and walk into the U.S. without ever showing anyone a passport, Visa or any other kind of documentation. Having spent most of my adult life in a Post-9/11 America where border security has been a chief public safety concern, I could never have imagined that it had once been so easy to come into the country undetected.  For my book, The Widower’s Wife, I took some liberties with the timeline and used many of the methods outlined in the 1994 story. I assume that the “Loophole at the Pier” closed during the past two decades. Though, the cruise industry does have a considerable stake in fighting more stringent border controls given that long lines could sink the business for Caribbean day trips. So, it’s possible that a character could slip through the cracks and enter the country this way. At least, plausible enough for me to add it to my narrative.  The premiums for life insurance policies were also readily available online. MetLife has charts of the average premiums paid by healthy people in various age groups.  As a journalist for more than a decade, I believe in research and writing what I learn rather than just what I already know. The research component is a big part of my process. And, thanks to the endless reams of data online, immersing myself in a subject–even one that might put me on an FBI watch list–has never been easier.    

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The Readers in My Head

I write for me. But editing that way would be too selfish.  At night, when I pour over whatever I penned earlier in the day, I try to wrest myself from my characters’ heads and my own mind and place myself in the heads of three people: my dad, my closest friend from elementary school, and my agent. Each person is very different. And, if I can please these imagined readers, I feel good about continuing my story.  My father is the critic. A sixty-six-year-old, soon-to-be retired accountant, my father scrutinizes stories like a balance sheet, searching for mistakes and plot failings. He wants to point out that something didn’t make sense or that a character’s actions were “unbelievable.” He refuses to allow well-crafted sentences to seduce him into an easy suspension of disbelief. Reading with my father in mind forces me to constantly ask myself whether or not I’ve done enough work to make my characters’ actions natural. If my fiction doesn’t feel truthful, my dad’s voice will accuse me of lying with all the venom of a parent thinking of a punishment for breaking curfew. I’ll need to go back to the drawing board.  My closest friend from elementary school is probably the person in this world most similar to me. She reads often. She likes stories. She enjoys being entertained. However, she’s a super busy working mother with a ton of responsibility. She doesn’t have time for tales that don’t keep the pages turning. If my story is not exciting and the characters are not compelling, she’s going to put it down–even though it was written by her best friend. There are just too many other pressing things demanding her attention. When I’m editing, I imagine her reading my book after putting the children to sleep. Does she place it on the nightstand because she’s tired or can she not help herself even though she knows her kids will wake up early the next morning and she’ll have to get them all ready for camp before heading to the office? If I can still have her imagined attention, then I’m telling an exciting story.  My agent is the seasoned professional. She’s read so many thrillers that few plots seem original and few stories aren’t predictable. She is my barometer for genre aficionados. If I can surprise her with a twist–or at least delay the inevitable guessing until the third act–then I may have something that will please serious mystery readers.  If, in my head, I’ve kept these three people interested in my story, then I’ve done a good job writing something that I can take pride in. If not, I need to write something better the next day when I’m back to being me.   

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Does Radio Sell Books?

In twenty minutes, I will call into another live radio show to promote my book The Widower’s Wife. I enjoy these interviews. For the most part, the radio hosts sound happy to discuss themes in my novel and my writing process. They give me a chance to tell my story. If the hosts genuinely liked the book, they’ll say so, which is a nice ego boost, particularly for someone who spent six hours-a-day for the past eight months in relative silence crafting and, then, rewriting a ninety-thousand word book. What writer isn’t thrilled hearing that someone read her work, let alone liked it?  But, aside from the aid to my fragile scribe psyche, are radio interviews worth the PR investment? Do they sell books?  My experience is YES. Here’s why:  Amazon’s author central provides a map showing where my sales have been geographically. (SEE MAP)  I live in the New York area and have concentrated most of my marketing efforts and book tours there. Not surprisingly, most of my sales have come from the dark blue area in the North East. I also have a family contingent on the West Coast that has been very supportive and helped get the word out there to book clubs, so that partially explains the concentration of sales in the Los Angeles and the Bay area.  Radio, I believe, is largely responsible for several of the light blue areas on the map. Last year, I was fortunate to be on culture shows in Des Moines, Iowa; Ocala, Florida; Orange County, New York; and Philadelphia, PA. As you can see from the map, those areas where I did radio have larger concentrations of sales (shown as a mid-blue) than other areas.  For The Widower’s Wife, I plan to do more radio and podcasts. I hope that those mid-blue areas will get to a nice, rich navy this time around.   

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Writing What Scares You

Whenever I am promoting a book, I get asked: How did you come up with the idea for the story? Invariably, the answer is that something scared the crap out of me. I had to explore and, hopefully, overcome my new fear by spending the next six months immersed in it. With my first book, Dark Turns, it was my daughter that spurred the fear-related obsession. She was three and enrolled in a serious ballet class–at least relative to all the cutesy baby ballet classes in the area. My child seemed to enjoy the discipline and the private attention that came with the group’s small enrollment. However, I worried about the physical demands of the class and all that rigor destroying her burgeoning love of movement and expression. One day, the teacher excitedly showed me my daughter performing a saddle split. She had her press against a cement wall and then pushed her pelvis against the concrete until both legs stuck out on either side. My kid smiled at me proudly and then her eyes started to water because achieving that extra inch of flexibility HURT. (This pic was a precursor to it.) I had a well controlled panic attack. Questions ran through my brain as I smiled and clapped. What does it do to a person taught to push herself beyond the limits of her physical comfort from age three? Should my child be this serious about anything at this point? If she continues on this path, what will all the rigor and pushing do to her psychologically?  The book that resulted is an exploration of the worst answers I could think of to those questions. The next year, I enrolled my kid in a more fun dance class that focuses on flexibility, though less intensely. If she still has a passion for ballet at eight, she can return to a more intense version. (Meanwhile, I hope I didn’t destroy the next Sara Mearns.) For my new book, The Widower’s Wife, it was fear of our new mortgage that spurred my writing.My husband and I had purchased a house in the suburbs and paying for it was (and is) dependent upon his salary. I began worrying about what would happen if he lost his job in another financial crisis/housing crisis/Great Recession. It would be difficult for him to secure employment immediately and, if the house declined in value at the same time, we would find ourselves extremely overburdened in a year or so. My salary would never make the payments. How would we recover? How easy would it be to downsize? How would my husband stomach downsizing?  I like to think that we both would be fine. We’d move away from the city. We’d use our skills differently. But… The characters in The Widower’s Wife–particularly the husband figure–are nothing like me or my spouse. As a result, the answers to my concerns are much more dramatic than they ever would be should the worst strike my family. Still, the initial fear lead me down the rabbit hole in which I found my story.           

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Plotting A Murder

Like most American high school students, my introduction to plot structure started on an island, at a dinner party. The island was Ithaca. I was stuck in my parents’ house where hundreds of suitors drank my mother into the poorhouse as my family anxiously waited for the return of my father, Odysseus.  After reading The Odyssey, my teacher drew something like this graph on the chalkboard. This pyramid type structure, developed by German novelist Gustav Freytag, was the secret to all good stories. First the author, Homer, set the scene and outlined the central problem. Then, he set the character–Odysseus’ son–to solve the problem. Meanwhile, we see Odysseus’ trapped on Crete recounting the adventures that took him away from his family in the first place. Odysseus sets off for home and meets his son who is searching for him (The Climax) and they kill the suitors (resolution).  I keep a modified version of this graph in my office. Thrillers can’t have Freytag’s long line of introductory exposition. The best ones start with the inciting incident and then the action takes off. Or, with a suspense story, there is the inciting incident and the uncomfortable movements beneath the guillotine. Thrillers must also have a twist that comes after the initial climax. The reader, in my opinion, should think he or she knows where the story is going and how the action will culminate and then, just as that happens or starts to happen, and the audience is anticipating the falling action, the reader should realize that there is something else going on and another unanticipated climax is in the offing. My graph looks like the one above with the orange words.  My stories don’t always follow this exact pattern. Ideally, there are several twists and turns so a plot graph would appear more like my work on a stair climber machine than a pyramid. But, looking at this image reminds me of what I am trying to do and gives me a structure within which to be creative. It makes me feel more free to go nuts because I know that there is a format in the back of my mind keeping my story moving.  In addition to Freytag’s pyramid, I learned another important thing from my high school English teachers and The Odyssey: how NOT to end a story. At the end of the epic poem, Athena shows up out of nowhere and stops the now dead suitors’ parents from flaying Odysseus’ whole family. Dea Ex Machina is a disappointing exit in a thriller. The advancing hordes cannot be stopped by a sudden flood or the appearance of a bomb. The main characters have to resolve the action. Odysseus should have ended when he gave Penelope the olive branch. Readers would have taken it as peace restored to his house and Ithaca–and conveniently forgot about the hordes of angry parents with dead sons. It was a better ending.       

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Turning Myself In, Getting The Word Out

I flip back the calendar page. I’m late with these things. For me, the month does not officially change until the Monday following the first. Already, August is marked. A circle surrounds the box for the ninth. Scrawled inside in my ever-evolving shorthand are two words: “Launch day.”  My second book, The Widower’s Wife, comes out Tuesday.  For me, a book launch is a painful metamorphosis. I am someone who hides out for hours in the sparsely decorated office above the garage, hunched over a laptop, listening to the wind beyond the window and the voices in my head whispering of mysteries and murders. Now, I must transform into an author who talks about her book, blogs about her book. Sells her book.  Certainly, I’m proud of my new thriller. But I was raised, like most people, not to brag or grandstand. If you do something you’re happy with, be humble, don’t say, “look at me and what I did. Have you seen the reviews!!!??? Check it out.  Buy it now!”  Yet, if you’re an author, that’s part of the job description. You can be, perhaps, a bit more subtle. But you have to get the word out about your work. There are radio interviews, blog tours, visits to book clubs, conferences and, if you’re lucky (read: famous), a publisher-paid-for bookstore tour. If you don’t do these things, you run the risk of being labeled a “writer”–not an author. Someone who fells trees in the forest and is happy to have no one hear the sounds.  So, how do you get the word out? Well, blogs are one way. There are different opinions on how often to blog. Daily seems to be the minimum. Search Engines check for fresh content. And, while hacking Google’s search algorithm is akin to cracking MIT’s time-lock puzzle, everyone knows that stale web sites tend to drop in the results.  But how do you write and still have time to get the word out? One way is to team up with other writers and divide up the work. Missdemeanors is a group of great women writers all seeking to share personal anecdotes and tips on the writing process, publishing and the writing life. We switch off weeks so that no single person has the burden of finishing her latest novel and keeping a daily blog up-to-date.  I am happy to be included in this bunch. And, so, I’m turning myself in and getting the word out:  My name is Cate Holahan. I write mysteries, invent murders and imagine all sorts of twisted scenarios. And if those are misdemeanors, well, guilty as charged.   

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WANTED: MISS DEMEANORS

     Okay folks, here’s the line-up of the Miss Demeanors (www.missdemeanors.com) who are “wanted.” I must warn you they are thought to be armed, with either pen or keyboard, and dangerous. These ladies on the lam have been known to commit murder on the page and have been paid for it. The Miss Demeanors Wrap SheetCate Holahan:    Extremely dangerous. Planning a How to Commit a Murder Party tonight! Guilty of writing “The Widower’s Wife,” allegedly out Tuesday, August 9, 2016 (Crooked Lane Books).  Prior offenses include “Dark Turns.” (November, 2015) Tracee de Hahn:  Pleaded guilty to writing  “The Swiss Vendetta” (St Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books). May have fled to Switzerland. Allegedly created the Agnes Lüthi Mysteries. Susan Breen:   Master mind of the Maggie Dove series. Guilty of writing “Maggie Dove” (digital imprint, Penguin Random, June 14, 2016). Her wrap sheet includes the upcoming “Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency,” out October 18, 2016. Alexia Gordon:   Charged with authoring “Murder in G Major,” which debuts September 13, 2016 (Henery Press). Conspiring to commit “Death in D Minor.” May be on the lam in southwestern Ireland. C. Michele Dorsey:   Convicted of writing “No Virgin Island” (Crooked Lane Books, August 11, 2016) and for conspiring the plot in “Permanent Sunset,” allegedly out on October 11, 2016. Rumored to be plotting future offenses on the Caribbean island of St. John. Warning:Should you see one of the Miss Demeanors, do not approach her. Instead, comment on the Miss Demeanor blog or on Facebook. For more information about this line-up, go to www.missdemeanors.com. The rumor is that there is a big reward coming for a group apprehension.   

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Where Do They Come From?

Where do they come from?           No, this is not the dreaded question posed by a child about babies. This is about characters that pop into the minds of writers almost as miraculously as those babies. How does that happen? One minute I am standing in my kitchen shifting from one foot to the other as I tend to the laborious task of stirring risotto. The next minute a woman named Elise is talking to me inside my head.           You might wonder, do I have mental health issues? If I do, they have nothing to do with the chatter from Elise, who is clamoring for me to tell her story. A lawyer by trade, she loves to cook as a creative outlet and becomes quite accomplished as with everything she does. Elise is an overachiever, who tells me her entrepreneurial husband capitalized on her culinary talents by inviting clients to lavish dinner parties resulting in huge success for him.             Maybe it’s the tedium from stirring the risotto, but I’m intrigued. So what’s the big deal about that, I ask Elise. Now I am talking in my own head to a woman who doesn’t exist. And no, I am not sipping wine as I cook. Elise is only too happy to fill me in with the details. Jeff became so successful she could stay home and raise babies while she continued to throw dinner parties for his clients that Ina Garten would envy. As the years slipped away, Elise began to regard what once was her own joy of cooking as a job. When the kids were done with college, she quit. She told her husband he could start taking his clients to restaurants. He told her he understood. He wanted to quit too. The marriage. “And that’s only the beginning of my story,” Elise whispered, while I added more liquid to the pot. By now I am thinking, screw the risotto.  Where’s my laptop? I need to get this down before I forget. Before Elise goes away and I don’t get to know the rest of her story. But don’t worry. There’s no chance Elise is going to leave my head before I know the whole bloody mess. She reveals juicy details when I least expect it. While driving on the highway when I don’t have a pen and am terrified to text. In the middle of the night when I have insomnia and have to decide whether to simply scribble down a few notes and try to go back to sleep or to accept the challenge and hit the keyboard at 4:00 a.m. The woman will not stop talking to me, so I must write her story if I am ever to have quiet in my brain again. When my fingers hit the keyboard, I feel I am channeling Elise. Yes, I know this is weird and may explain some of the things people say about writers.Where did Elise come from? Was it the aroma of the risotto that released her from another world? How did she reveal her story to me, a story that it may seem I made up, but did I? I have always written mysteries, which I also adore reading. But Elise wasn’t having a murder in her story. At the end of 263 pages, I discovered what she already knew. Her story was a romantic comedy. You won’t find Elise’s story on a bookshelf. Yet. I haven’t known quite what to do with it or the revelation to me as a writer that I am no more in control of the stories I write than I am in the garden I plant. Maybe the process is more deliberate for other writers. For me, I am just going for a ride with my characters wherever they take me. But I am still scratching my head, asking where do they come from?  

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Why I Write

 Asking why I write is like asking why I breathe. Because I have to; it’s not voluntary. Tell the ocean to stop making those damn waves; leaves not to bud, bloom and then fall; clouds not to gather and clear. Try telling me not to write.Sometimes writing feels more like an affliction than a passion or interest. But the why is simple. There are stories in me I must tell.A lot of what I write is make-believe. I like playing it safe. Telling the truth is fraught with high voltage wires which once touched can electrify and ignite. Plus writing fiction can be delicious. From acts of betrayal in “real-life,” I can capture villains and victims, placing them as hostages in my fantasies. Go ahead and jilt me, I will murder you with ink. Drop me from your inner sanctum of friends, you may find yourself a fat, pathetic, whining murderer. Fire my child and see how you like being the foil for someone’s cruel indifference. And you can never complain, because, you see, I don’t write about real people. Of course, I don’t.If you drink Guinness, you know somewhere beneath the frothy head on your stout, below that first sip so delicious none other can be as good, you hit the thick body of liquid, heavily laden as if all of Ireland’s burden had been poured into your chilled mug. Though not necessarily as pleasant as the head, or first sip, it is in this sludge where you will find genuine flavor and satisfaction.That is why I write. So I can dredge from the sludge the inescapable reality of the flavor of life. Ignoring what needs to be written never makes it go away, it only makes it thicker, heavier. The stuff churns, not regularly or predictably, but rather when you don’t expect it. A word or an image flashes by, sending you a message reminding you you will not be free to move about the cabin until you flee the binding strangulation of your seat belt, the one you buckled yourself into.Writing drains the wound, opens the sore to the fresh air to heal. Writing releases the pressure and eases the pain. A writer is like a sponge, soaking in the human experience, occasionally jubilance or triumph, but mostly the exquisite sad stories of ordinary souls.Like Larry, for instance. There I am on a tropical island so pristine and perfect, I have trouble ignoring God. As I amble onto a beach where I plan to spend my day reading, swimming and purging myself of the toxins in my life, I see two women and a man crouched down around an immature sea gull. Of course, I can’t shut up. I have to ask. They tell me the gull can’t fly. I make sympathetic noises, happy for once to let someone else be in charge.I settle in and watch the man tend to the immobile gull. He gently scoops the bird into his hands and walks with it down the beach to the cottage where he is apparently staying. The gull barely resists. Larry, I now know his name even though I don’t want to because I am committed to not being involved in this mission while I strive to be without one, wades into the water about knee deep and sits the duck on the still Caribbean blue water. The gull can at least float. I turn back to Harlan Coben.But even while Harlan rivets me, I cannot stop watching Larry and the gull, who has now been named Louie. I am drawn to this story. I watch Larry as much as Louie.Larry is a handsome man in his late fifties, early sixties. He is tall and appears fit. His skin is smooth and tanned. But something is wrong, I sense. Larry’s gait is tentative, hesitant. His eyes are vacant. His words are slow and few. He tends to Louie with loving simplicity, sitting with him in the sand, taking him out in the water for dunks, feeding him tiny fish he has spent hours catching, worrying when Louie will not eat.Larry’s wife, vivacious and vibrant, the perfect study in contrast to her mate has called the vet. Thank God. I can move onto my next book. Monitoring the story of Larry and Louie is beginning to exhaust me. I am writing in my journal about them, worrying that Larry is becoming too attached to Louie. I am becoming too invested in their story. I am on vacation, for God’s sake.The vet comes to the beach and bustles around Louie, smiling and laughing all the while. I stay glued to my beach chair fifty feet away, book opened on my lap, thrilled that my Jackie O sunglasses allow me to observe what is going on with the vet without being observed. I am now stalking a sea gull. This is my vacation.The vet explains that a number of birds in Florida and the Caribbean have developed a syndrome where they simply are unable to fly, that it is somehow connected to balance; some recover and others simply die. There is no treatment. She offers to take the bird. Larry’s wife looks at Larry and turns to the vet. She asks the vet if she could come back later in the afternoon after her last house call so that Louie could spend the rest of the day with them. I am beginning to like Larry’s wife.Larry sits on the sand next to Louie. He and his wife take Louie in the water where he eats something the wife has ground up that makes her wriggle her nose in disgust. Larry hangs out with Louie for the afternoon, much as I am hanging out with my husband. They sit on the beach, go in for a swim, come out, dry off, sit some more on the beach. I am worried how Larry will cope with his separation from Louie.Toward the end of the afternoon after Larry had taken Louie for a walk down the beach and back, he steps into the water right in front of where I am sitting. He places Louie once again on the silky turquoise water. Louie flaps his wings a little, then a little more. I lean forward, my book falling face open into the sand. I don’t care. Louie is going to fly, I just know it.I sense my husband next to me also at attention. We are about to witness a miracle. The flapping stops for just long enough for me to hold my breath and hope Larry’s heart is not about to break, when Louie spreads those wings once more and flies up about three feet and skims over the water for a hundred yards, landing out by a few yachts where the other gulls hang, waiting for a treat.We clap without thinking. Larry turns around and looks at us and smiles. My eyes tear. I know something is happening to Larry that I can’t understand. What I do understand is that I have been privileged to witness it.Larry and his wife head home a few days before our vacation ends. Twice after their departure, while my husband and I sat in the same spot we territorialized our entire vacation, a gull landed about three feet away from us. On each occasion, the gull walked around a little, cocked his head a few times, and let out some very plaintive cries. “Where’s Larry?” we knew he was saying. Louie, I wish I knew.Why do I write? I write because Larry’s story seeps into my cells, weighs my heart and brings a lump in my throat that won’t go away until I do. 

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Saving and Savoring Books

 Am I the only one who intentionally waits to read a book until it calls to me?
Don’t get me wrong. I fully plan to read the latest Sue Grafton waiting on my shelf since August as soon as I finish the book I am currently reading. You see, Kinsey Millhone called to me last night. Maybe I was thinking about peanut butter and pickle sandwiches, which I don’t eat. Or was it seeing some hearty seniors running the Eight Tuff Miles race in St. John in the Virgin Islands that made me remember fondly Kinsey’s dear friend and landlord, Henry? Never mind, I just know something tugged and me and told me it was time to take “X” off the bookshelf where it has been patiently waiting for my beckon.
I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Elizabeth George at the New England Crime Bake this past November. She has been one of my favorite authors since I bought her first book in hardcover in blind faith almost thirty years ago. Surely, I would want to immediately devour A Banquet of Consequences, especially since the author signed my copy. But I knew better. There would come a moment when the book would practically leap into my arms, so hungry was I for tales of lofty Lynley and lovable, but naughty Havers. That moment arrived a few days ago when the 573 page novel fell into my arms, just a day after Robert Galbreith (JK Rowling’s pseudonym) had left me breathless after A Career of Evil, also read when I longed for Strike and Robin to share their new adventures.
Sometimes the draw seems to be place. Authors who write location as passionately as character can affect me so in the future, I find myself thinking, it’s time to be in Dublin and Tana French must be read. Other times, I find myself missing characters, which is one reason I love series.
I wonder do others have these literary cravings. Insatiable, as if for a memorable Bolognese, do you find yourself absolutely must having to read a particular author or about a place or character?

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