On Writing

Interested in the creative process, how an idea becomes a book? For a behind-the-scenes look at how a story develops and comes to life, check out this interview with my alter-ego Rory Tate, author of PLAN X. It appeared on OmniMystery News, a great website for mystery and thriller readers.

Q: If you write both series and stand-alone mysteries or crime novels: What criteria do you use to decide whether a book will feature a series character or not? Do you come up with a plot outline first, then decide whether or not it is more suitable for a series character?

A: The genesis of a book idea is always a dreamy time for me, as character and plot are generally inseparable. I will fill an entire spiral notebook with ideas that morph and get abandoned. Plot depends on action and setting and there are only so many characters that I write about who are equal to that particular action. My historical mysteries, for instance, are very specific to a time and place, Kansas City in the late ‘30s/early ‘40s leading up to WW2. So if I want to write about Dorie Lennox, those are the parameters. I have two mystery series — one with Dorie — but I’m focusing more on stand-alones. But my newest thriller, written as Rory Tate, features a Montana cop and I am hoping to make her stories into a series. Police procedurals are the most, shall we say, convenient sort of mystery series to develop and keep up. Private detective novels are second, but in reality very few PIs solve homicides. So if you want to keep with the big issues, death & murder, then using a cop of some kind is the best way to go. I found that out by writing about an amateur sleuth (Alix Thorssen), a private eye (Dorie Lennox), a lawyer (Merle Bennett in ‘Blackbird Fly’ which I also hope to continue as a series), and finally a policewoman in PLAN X this year.

Q: How would you categorize your books? (Or, into what genre would you place your books?) Examples might be … Suspense novel, Thriller, Cozy, Hard-boiled, Police Procedural, Paranormal. Cross-over. Do you find there are advantages/disadvantages to labeling it as such?

A: Most of my novels could be categorized as mystery and thriller. I’m not that interested in splitting hairs within the general category of crime. I like to write suspense like in ‘Blackbird Fly’ which is about a woman who finds herself in a bit of trouble when she goes to France to fix up her dead husband’s family home. Yes, there is a murder but it’s not really what the story is about. I also published a mainstream novel last year, ‘All Your Pretty Dreams,’ which could be categorized as a comic family drama (or something). No crime at all, but it has the three things every novel should have: a birth, a death, and a sacrifice. If you can work those into every novel, you’ve got something going on. The advantages to labeling are for the bookstore or the website, to help the reader find your novel. As the writer I don’t think you should worry about that, just write the best damn book you can.

 Q: Tell us something about your book that isn’t mentioned in the publisher synopsis.

PLAN-X-ebook-finalA: I can only tell you so much, because there is a secret that is revealed during PLAN X that is central to the mystery. The victim of a bomb blast that kills his girlfriend, Augie Phillips is badly burned and hospitalized, in a coma. Cody Byrne, the protagonist, a cop, is charged with finding his next-of-kin. He is British but beyond that no relatives or details about his past are helpful. But: there is a connection to the British royal family. That’s all I can say; my lips are sealed.

Q: How much of you or your experience is in your book/series? (Or more generally … Are any characters in your book/series based on people you know? Are any of the situations in which your characters find themselves based on real events?)

A: The ‘inciting incident’ in PLAN X is a huge blast in a university lab. It kills one, burns the other person. This scene is loosely based on real life. Several years ago in Bozeman, Montana, where the book is set, a gas leak blew up a good portion of a downtown block and killed the unfortunate woman who was the first to arrive at the building. Gas leaks are not uncommon, and often deadly like this one. I wanted my story to start out with a bang, so to speak, and an explosion fit the bill. But not an accidental gas leak, I needed something more intriguing. I ended up concocting two rather elaborate bombs with easy-to-obtain materials for PLAN X. I didn’t try these to see if they work; I just took the advice of others. (Mythbusters, I love you guys.) So if you read PLAN X, please: do not try this at home!

Q: What is the best advice you’ve received as an author? What is the harshest criticism? What have you learned, or can others learn, from either? What advice might you give to aspiring authors?

A: I’ve had a lot of criticism and advice over the years but I think the harshest criticism I ever got was from myself. I want to be better than good as a writer. I don’t want to be mediocre. I want to be inventive and smart and emotional when I write and I often fall short. I know I do. But there is always another draft, another novel, another idea. Being a writer for me isn’t a one-time thing: “oh I think I’ll write a book, wouldn’t that cool?” It’s about taking my talent, such as it is, to its limits, to being the best damn writer I can. That often means not comparing myself to other writers, if possible. That’s a downward spiral. I just try to make the next book better than the last, in every way I can.

Q: Complete this sentence: “I am a mystery author/crime novelist/thriller writer and thus I am also …”

A: … a devious son of a bitch! Crime writing makes you see conspiracy everywhere, but hopefully you concoct it only on paper.

Q: If you use a pen name and are comfortable talking about it: What prompted you to use a pen name for this book/series? What advantages/disadvantages are there to using a pen name?

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When I was readying ‘Plan X,’ I knew I should keep going with Rory Tate despite the fact that I had published a Lise McClendon novel the year before. The audiences are a bit different. I hoped to attract more male readers to my thrillers with an androgynous name and more guns! J Women will read books by men or women but male readers like books written by men. I have male point-of-view characters in both books too. There is a downside of course from using a pen name. Your loyal readers don’t know it’s you! It’s somewhat easier now with Amazon because you can list both names as authors. If a reader searches for either name the book comes up. But I have two websites, one (here) at lisemcclendon.com where I talk about books by both names, and one at rorytate.com with just the thrillers. Similar to the Facebook relationship status: ‘It’s complicated.’

Q: Tell us about the book cover design and/or how the book came to be titled.

A: My books are published by Thalia Press, which I own with mystery writer, Katy Munger. Which means that I edit, format, and design my own books. Lots of hats. Some work I farm out to the pros, of course. But I enjoy doing book covers. I’ve done a bunch of them now, and am getting slightly beyond beginner status on Photoshop. Big learning curve there. I often will post or ask for advice about early cover designs, tweak them, and finally settle on the 15th version. It’s fun but takes time.

The title for PLAN X is from a challenge coin, the kind given to soldiers to commemorate a deployment or mission. My protagonist, Cody Byrne, is mourning the death of her brother in Afghanistan the year before. One of his challenge coins, returned with his effects, reads: ‘PLAN X, Always With You, Wherever You Go.’ It doesn’t look like the other coins with the unit info on one side and the mission or place and date on the other. This coin is blank on the back. It’s a puzzle to Cody, what it means, what it might have meant to her brother. It’s another theme that runs through the novel, what is Plan X? The plan when there is no plan maybe?

Q: How do you fact-check your books? Internet research? Consulting with experts? First-hand experience? What was your most challenging topic to research? What was your most exciting topic to research?

DSCN1244A: Most challenging and most fun are the same place: Windsor Castle. Although I’d been to London and other places in England many times I’d never been to Windsor Castle, located about 25 miles or so outside the City. I did all the Wikipedia stuff about this wing and that wing, what’s located where, etc. There is only so much information out there on the internet because of the privacy issues for the royals. We don’t know exactly what offices are in that building, or what the security aspects of certain places are. The Castle is huge and more than half of it is not open to public, ever. (This also meant, luckily, that most readers would have no idea if I was right or wrong about the Castle.)

Because a big scene takes place there in PLAN X I needed some on-the-ground research. (Plus, London! Okay!) I wrote the scene the way I thought it would go then took my trip. I was traveling alone so I decided to do a bike tour that included entrance to the Castle. (Travel tip: tours are worth it for not standing in line!) I took the train from Paddington Station with three other tourists and our guide, got on bikes, tooled along the canal built to keep the Thames from flooding Windsor, then along the Thames with the Queen’s swans. Then inside the Castle I took a million photos and double-checked that what I’d written might work. That sort of research is the best sort. Write the scene in your imagination then check it in real life or books or whatever. Otherwise you spend your entire writing time doing research you may never use. Because let’s face it, research is lot of fun and writing is hard work.

Which leads me to my Top Five Writerly Moments:

1. Selling my first book. Such an affirmation.

2. Moving to Jackson Hole, WY, like my character Alix Thorssen. Life imitates art.

3. Making great friends at mystery cons. At the hotel bar usually.

4. Checking out the back alleys and general deliciousness of southwest France for ‘Blackbird Fly’

5. Riding a bike along the Thames to Windsor Castle, strictly for research purposes


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