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The State of the Crime Novel, Part 1: Writing Life

The State of the Crime Novel, Part 1: Writing Life

Once again, the Edgar Awards are upon us, and once again, I’ve had the privilege of asking dozens of great writers to contribute to our annual roundtable discussion on the state of the genre. This year’s roundtable, like in previous years, is divided into two parts: the first, running today, is focused on craft advice and the writing life, while the second, running tomorrow, will address issues in the genre and the future of crime writing. Thanks so much to the more than 30 nominees who sent in thoughtful, fascinating, and often hilarious responses. The award ceremony is this Wednesday night, and you’ll be able to follow along on social media as winners are announced or take a look at CrimeReads first thing on Thursday morning.


What is your advice for writers who are just starting out?
And what’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten?


William Kent Krueger (nominated for Best Novel – The River We Remember): First piece of advice: Write every day, and write because you love it, not because you hope you’ll get rich and famous from the effort. Second piece of advice: Marry someone with a good job.

The best piece of advice given to me when I was about to become a published author was to get to know the booksellers. If the booksellers like you and appreciate your work, they’ll sell you like crazy and spread the word. I found this to be true.

Susan Isaacs (nominated for the Sue Grafton Memorial Award – Bad, Bad Seymour Brown): Writing may be an art. It is certainly a craft. But also it’s a job. You have to put in regular hours and go to work whether you feel like it or not. You already may be working one job and even have another as parent or caregiver, so how can you possibly do it? By figuring out a schedule that’s doable, albeit hard. Three nights a week for three hours, or even two. Every Saturday or Sunday. Whatever. Yes, it will take longer, but it will get done if you stick to your schedule. You have to work and not get sidetracked reading How to Write Fiction That’s Fabulous and Will Make You Megabucks during your writing hours. That time is for writing your own book.

The best piece of writing advice I’ve ever gotten, I gave to myself. One day I was musing on how interesting it was that speaking aloud converted swarming thoughts into coherent ideas: like with talk therapy, or the Catholic sacrament of confession. So I turned to some dialogue that didn’t feel natural the way I’d written it. I spoke it out loud, which actually was beyond hard. I was embarrassed, even though there was no one in the house but me and the dog, and the latter was not at all judgmental. The technique worked for me. I have also used talking to interrogate a character: “Why are you doing that?” I ask aloud. Not rude, not amiable. Just a matter-of-fact question. Answered that way too. Okay, your character may hesitate or mutter I don’t know. Be patient, then ask again. Listen, this is as awkward for them as it is for you. But trust me, they’ll talk.

April Henry (nominated for Best Young Adult – Girl Forgotten): When you start out, there is almost always a lot of rejection. But the only person who can say you can’t do something is you, when you give up. When I was a teenager who loved to write, I decided that there was no way someone like me, a poor girl from a logging town, could be a writer. But that decision meant I never would be a writer, because I stopped writing. I finally came to my senses in my early 30s.

The best piece of writing advice I’ve ever gotten is: “You can always edit crap. You can’t edit nothing.”

Tracy Clark (nominated for Best Paperback Original – Hide): Learn the craft. You have to know the rules to break the rules. Take your writing seriously. Commit to it. Once you have the foundation set, then you can really let yourself fly. Go for it!

Yvonne Woon (nominated for Best Young Adult – My Flawless Life): Be fueled by rejection. It isn’t enough to grow a thick skin, you have to convert rejection into motivation. So much of my writing when I first started out was not good, and plenty of people told me so (via workshop critiques, magazine rejections, fellowship rejections, acquisition rejections, negative reviews). Though they were painful to receive, they were also helpful, and in most cases, right. At the time, I’d read somewhere about writers taping their rejections to the wall, so that’s what I did, too, and every day I looked at those rejections and said, “I’ll show you what I can do,” and tried to get better.

In terms of craft, I’ve received a lot of incredible advice, but the ones I use the most are:

-Your character has to want something in every scene.

-End each scene with the start of a new action.

-So much of writing is endurance and practice. No work can get done until you put your butt in the chair.

Robert Morgan (nominated for Best Critical/Biographical – Fallen Angel: The Life of Edgar Allan Poe): My advice to young writers is one word: persistence. I’ve taught writing for fifty years, and many of those who seemed more talented have not gone on to become writers, while some who appeared less gifted at first have succeeded. Everyone has some writing ability, but it’s those with fire in the belly, relentless, who reach the goal. This is true of all the arts, whether country music, acting, or film directing. The best advice ever given to me about novel writing came from my friend Alison Lurie: if you have living characters, find a passive gear and let them take over.

Rob Osler (nominated for Best Short Story – “Miss Direction,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine): Imagine a clock that measures time in months, not minutes or hours, and reset your expectations accordingly.

Jennifer J. Chow (nominated for the Lillian Jackson Braun Memorial Award – Hot Pot Murder): I’d find community even while pre-published. The writing journey can be bumpy, and it’s essential to have support along the way. The best piece of advice I’ve ever received? Compare yourself with yourself. Think about your personal goals from several years ago to better perceive your current achievements.

Samantha Jayne Allen (nominated for the Sue Grafton Memorial Award – Hard Rain): Life is long and you never know what might change. And also, life is short, so be present knowing that the writing and the joy you experience in the act of creation are kind of the whole point. The best advice I’ve ever gotten was from my former professor, Tom Grimes, whose feedback on a workshop submission once was just two words: “keep going.” Finishing my novel’s first draft and worrying about the rest later was the message, but I think “keep going” applies to the writing life generally, to the importance of having faith in yourself.

Lina Chern (nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award – Play the Fool): This advice is not just for new writers, but for any writers, and especially for myself, because I forget: Have fun. Writing, while often difficult and frustrating, should be fun. Very few of us will get rich and famous doing it, so if you’re not having fun, why do it at all? We all go through periods where, for whatever reason, the writing doesn’t come easily. Work out a set of tools for those times, that make you reconnect with the fun. The tools will vary writer to writer. For me, it often works to step back from whatever stage of the process I’m mired in and doodle some longhand notes about the story —almost like a journal. Often, that’s enough to make me excited again about what I’m trying to do, or show me a new way to do it. Other tools could be taking a walk, or changing your work location, or leaving a particularly difficult passage alone and working on a different one. Find whatever works for you, and do it until the fun comes back. It always does!

Sarah Stewart Taylor (nominated for the Sue Grafton Memorial Award – A Stolen Child): The longer I write, the less I feel equipped to give advice! There is no one right way to accomplish the nearly impossible task of writing and revising a novel—90,000 words or more containing a whole universe of people and places and things! Just think of it!—and finding the process that works for you takes time and a lot of trial and error. I’m skeptical of anyone who claims to have a surefire “Ten Steps to Finishing your Novel” formula, but I do love talking to other writers about their approaches. Hearing that a friend uses index cards to keep track of scenes or that a writer I admire doesn’t allow herself to edit anything until her first draft is done helps me see my own process in a different way. So here’s a piece of advice: be in community with other writers in order to learn. And, also, writer friends will save your soul and your sanity. No one else truly understands what it’s like. Make some writer friends!

I also feel passionately that writers must be readers. Really study the novels you love, figure out why they work and why they work for you.

The best piece of advice I ever got was from my amazing editor, Kelley Ragland. Years ago she told me that the only parts of this whole thing the writer really has control over are whether they write another book and the quality of that book. It’s such good advice. If you want to write for a long time, you always have to put the work in progress first and use it as the lodestar as all the other parts of the business swirl around you.

“Imagine a clock that measures time in months, not minutes or hours, and reset your expectations accordingly.” –Rob Osler

Mary Winters (nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award – Murder in Postscript): It isn’t a piece of writing advice, per se, but guidance a history professor gave me long ago. He said don’t be afraid of something because it’s hard. I’ve found it to be true with writing. Whether it’s a short story that touches a memory or a novel that includes a complicated plot or daunting research, I’ve gained the most satisfaction from projects that require the most from me.

I.S. Berry (nominated for Best First Novel – The Peacock and the Sparrow): Pick a story you love, that you can live with through the ups and downs (of which there’ll be many). A story’s like a relationship: some days, you can’t stand it, you’ll fight with it, so pick a partner you’ll still love in the morning.

Find your readers. Don’t set a goal of selling as many books as humanly possible (though, of course, that’s always nice); try to get your book into the hands of readers who will love it, with whom it will resonate. It’s a rare book that appeals to everyone, and when you find the readership that clicks, you’ve hit the jackpot.

Jennifer Cody Epstein (nominated for Best Novel – The Madwomen of Paris): I know a lot of writers swear by routine—”write every day!” “Hit that daily word count!” Those are certainly great habits to form. But in practice they aren’t always attainable, and for me they can actually increase the psychic burden of producing (which is already pretty damn heavy) by making me feel “behind” in a project before I’ve even started working on it. My advice is instead to take a longer view. Allow yourself to try and fail to write sometimes, and to recognize that chopping out 500 words can be more valuable than writing 1000. Recognize that sometimes mulling and stewing and brainstorming and scrawling notes and spewing seemingly nonsensical voice-memos is also a valuable, even essential, part of the long-term process of The Work. And in terms of writing advice, one of my MFA mentors told me that nothing you cut from a piece should ever be seen as wasted words. Your work will always be stronger for having written that bit, reconsidered it, and taken it out. Also, don’t feel compelled to delete anything forever—you can murder your darlings, sure. But you can also keep them in a file for inspiration and repurposing later on. That’s always felt strangely comforting to me as a writer.

Claire Swinarski (nominated for Best Juvenile – What Happened to Rachel Riley?): Quantity, quantity, quantity. New writers need to write a lot in order to really find their voice and break out of just trying to copy what other writers before them have done. The only way to improve your writing is to practice consistently and learn what works for you and what doesn’t. The best piece of writing advice I’ve ever gotten is to focus on really small assignments. Sitting down and thinking “today, I’m going to write a book” is ridiculously intimidating. Reframing it as “today, I’m going to describe this character’s kitchen” or “today, I’m going to tackle this specific conversation between these two characters” is so much more doable, and totally transformed my writing process.

Ritu Mukerji (nominated for Best First Novel – Murder by Degrees): My advice to new writers: read the depth and breadth of this wonderful genre. There is such creativity and diversity in narrative, plot, character. It is the best education. And the best writing advice I received was to write at the same time every day, so that your mind would become conditioned to working at a specific time, no matter what. The consistency created creative momentum.

Linda Castillo (nominated for Best Short Story – “Hallowed Ground”): It’s almost a cliché to tell a writer who is starting out to not give up, but that is always my best advice. Writing is hard. While writing a novel is a long and arduous journey, the writing business is even more difficult. When times are tough, when the writing isn’t going well and everyone and their dog is rejecting you, it is our love for our story that gets us to our laptop every day. Writing is our escape. It is our refuge. Sometimes it is our revenge—and that’s okay as long as you get it done. The best piece of advice I ever received is this: When the writing is going poorly or you are stuck, allow yourself to write badly. Get the words on paper even if they suck. You can always edit later.

Anastasia Hastings (nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award – Of Manners and Murder): It’s a tough business, and you have to be tough, too. Getting published can take a very long time and usually, the road to publication is lined with rejection. Keep trying, keep plugging away. Don’t give up.

Sean McCluskey (nominated for the Robert L. Fish Memorial Award – “The Soiled Dove of Shallow Hollow,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine): Obviously, write. It’s easy to wander down the rabbit hole of taking courses, reading how-to books, and watching author interviews, and that all feels like you’re doing something productive. In reasonable doses, it is productive. But none of it’s a substitute for writing and rewriting.

Speaking of rewriting, I think that’s where the important work gets done. I compare writing a first draft to cutting down a tree–just get the damn thing on the ground! But then you have to saw it into planks, carve them into pieces, and assemble the wood into the furniture you want. Then sanding, varnishing, polishing, and more woodworking metaphors than I have the knowledge to deliver.

As for the mechanics of storytelling, I was once told to keep asking or implying questions with your writing, and promising your reader that they’ll get the answers if they just keep reading. That teacher told me every word, every line, every paragraph, and every page has only one job: make the reader want to read the next one. Because if they stop caring about what happens next, they put the book down and it never, ever does.

Ken Jaworowski (nominated for Best First Novel – Small Town Sins): When I wrote for the theater, I’d sometimes sit among the audience to make sure my script was engaging them. Yet when I’d write an (ultimately unpublished) novel, I’d sometimes turn self-indulgent and forget all about my audience. Then one day I read a quote from Scott Smith, the author of “A Simple Plan.” He said: “I was fearful of boring the reader, so whenever it became a question of exploring some moral dimension or driving the plot on, I went with the latter.” That made everything click. Whether I was writing for the theater, or for a novel reader, or for anyone, the end result should always be the same: Never forget that you and your audience are a team.

Patricia Johns (nominated for the Lillian Jackson Braun Memorial Award – Murder of an Amish Bridegroom): Don’t give up! That is my best advice I can give to anyone. If you keep writing, keep submitting and keep trying, you will eventually find a way. Too many writers give up because it’s hard, and rejection hurts. But if you keep trying, you’ll become a stronger writer, too. So keep at it, and never look at the odds.


What is your favorite method for writing?


Jennifer Cody Epstein: OMG—computer. Hands down! I’m a relentless re-editor (and also can’t even read my own handwriting), so it just makes the most sense.

Scott Von Doviak (nominated for Best Paperback Original – Lowdown Road): I’m a pen and pad guy all the way. It seems like most of my friends in the field have a routine of getting up at five in the morning, pouring a cup of coffee, and putting on some ambient music or just opting for dead silence as they sit at the laptop and get to work. And that’s great if it works for them! But I’m a Happy Hour writer. Give me a dive bar, a great jukebox, a cold beer, and life happening around me. That’s where my first drafts come together. I can fix the mistakes at the laptop later, but I thrive on that initial burst of energy.

Tracy Clark: Laptop. Laptop. Laptop. I’ve got to feel the keys under my fingers. Pens and pencils are way too quiet.

April Henry: I write in Scrivener on a Mac, but the key part of my writing is that I write on a LifeSpan treadmill desk. I bought it 10 years ago and it is one of my favorite purchases ever. My posture is better, I feel I think more clearly, and after I got it, I lost weight without even trying.

Claire Swinarski: I’m a classic Microsoft Word girl, but I am fairly consistent with writing in order. I don’t like to skip around throughout the timeline while writing. I’ve found it helps me understand where things are slow-moving or lacking—if I’m dreading writing a scene because it feels boring, it’s almost certainly going to read boring, so how can I eliminate it? I typically know the main events throughout a book before starting, but I don’t really dive into a book until I have the perfect first chapter crafted.

“The story began in my head, traveled through my heart, down my arm and hand, and flowed from the pen onto the page.”–William Kent Krueger

William Kent Krueger: I wrote my first nine novels longhand. It was part of the magic. The story began in my head, traveled through my heart, down my arm and hand, and flowed from the pen onto the page. But writing longhand requires that, at some point, you must transcribe the work into a word processing system of some kind, which takes time. I was behind deadline on my tenth novel, and I thought if I could write directly to my computer and skip the transcribing step, maybe I could turn the manuscript in on time. Giving up the magic of longhand was a scary proposition. But it worked. Now I write on a laptop.

Yvonne Woon: I start every project by plotting and brain dumping ideas into a notebook. I only plot in long hand and am particular about my notebooks. They can’t be fancy or expensive or I’ll feel I have to “save them” for better thoughts. Can’t be too big or I can’t carry them around with me. I like medium-sized, clearance-section notebooks at Target that are meant for teenagers. In those notebooks I map out my characters and form a “blob plot” of a book, which usually has 5-6 events that I want to book to cover and gives me a loose understanding of what the book will look like. Then I figure out what has to happen in chapters 1-3. Once I have a general idea, I move to my laptop and start writing. My computer situation is very basic. Microsoft word. Kitchen table, sometimes the bed. I can write basically anywhere as long as I have earplugs.

Samantha Jayne Allen: Ideally, on my laptop, at my desk, with a journal beside me for handwritten notes and stray thoughts. Since having my daughter, who’s now two, I’ve had to be more flexible—I’ve written whole chapters in the notes app on my phone while holding her during her nap. I think not being so tied to a certain way of getting the words down has been good for me. It’s refreshing to change up your method sometimes, like the equivalent of going for a walk or cleaning the kitchen when you’re stuck with a plot problem.

Ritu Mukerji: I am a perennial fan of Google docs for writing the manuscript, certainly for anything longer than a page or two. But given that I spend a lot of time thinking about the 19th century, I often resort to pen and notebook, especially when I feel stuck. Writing longhand is a great way to work through knotty problems.

Robert Morgan: I usually write first drafts in a spiral notebook, in my odd combination of printing and long-hand. There is a kind of intimacy with the page and the physical world while putting down words with a pen, slow and deliberate. Writing is a kind of acting, and that physicality is useful to me. For the second draft I go to the laptop, revising as I proceed. For additions I follow the same process.

Katherine Hall Page (2024 Grand Master): I wrote the first book, The Body in the Belfry (1989) on an Underwood typewriter and graduated to an IBM Selectric for the next two before acquiring a Mac. I still use Apples, but throughout I’ve also stuck to pad-and-pencil—more specifically, Clairefontaine graph paper (to keep my writing legible) notebooks. I start by listing the cast of characters, new and old, with reminders of age, distinguishing features, then as I write I make a timeline, list each chapter’s first and last lines, brief notes on what happens in each chapter as I write, and notes on the research, the fun part. So distracting a rabbit hole, it’s hard to get back to actual writing my own book. Since there are original recipes at the end of each book, drafts of these go in the notebooks as well. At the start of each day, I rewrite what I have written the day before. At the end of a chapter, I print it out and rewrite using a pencil, transfer the changes to the computer and keep going until eventually the book is finished. I write a synopsis at the start to go over with my editor, but this skeleton of the book often changes. I always know who gets it and who did it.

Ken Jaworowski: You can write anywhere, anytime, and I do. Sometimes I’ll sit at my laptop and write for an hour. Then I’ll go to the post office and think of a fresh idea, so I’ll use the recording app on my cell phone to speak into. Later, at the library, I’ll recall something I wanted to add to a chapter, and I’ll email myself. Even if you think of a single good line of dialogue while eating at a fast-food restaurant, that’s writing, and that’s a little victory.

Lina Chern: I have specific methods of writing for specific parts of my writing process. When I’m brainstorming or trying to tell myself the story or just generally trying to make something out of nothing, I have to write longhand. Something about the sensation of pen-to-paper, and the overall slower speed allows me to disappear into the story and tap into that subconscious space where the good stuff lives. This part of the process is where the biggest and most satisfying surprises come, and the part I often return to when I’m stuck or need a jolt of fun to keep myself motivated. Revisions I do digitally, because during that part of the process my brain wants to work more quickly and consciously.

I.S. Berry: I type everything on the computer. Haven’t done longhand since before the internet. But I print everything when I edit. Maybe because I grew up without computers, words just read differently to me on a physical page than a screen. Sentences have a different cadence, and I catch errors and syntax problems in hard copy that I wouldn’t catch digitally.

Carol Goodman (nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award – The Bones of the Story): I write my first drafts long-hand in composition notebooks and then type up, chapter by chapter, on my laptop, editing as I go along. Writing by hand lets me feel freer and more experimental in the first draft because I know I’ll be cleaning things up later. It also keeps me away from the internet while I’m writing.

Sean McCluskey: I can’t imagine writing longhand. When it came to teaching penmanship, the nuns certainly failed me (though I don’t doubt they did their damnedest). For me it’s all laptop, all day. Although, oddly, it’s rarely on my lap.


What is the key to crafting compelling characters?


I.S. Berry: Complexity. For characters to be full-bodied, I think they need to be morally murky, or at least variegated; to make decisions and take actions that aren’t obvious, that make readers think. When I write, I create a backstory for each character—even if it never shows up on the page—to make them more three-dimensional and inform the character’s decisions.

Sean McCluskey: I try to stop worrying about whether the character is likable, or even relatable, and focus on whether or not they’re interesting. Is this someone I want to watch doing things, good or bad? Do I want to spend time in this character’s head, even if it’s an ugly and scary place?

” The key, I think, is to go small, not big. Go inner, not outer. You want to build your book people from the inside out.” –Tracy Clark

Tracy Clark: The key, I think, is to go small, not big. Go inner, not outer. You want to build your book people from the inside out. You’re tapping into emotions and inner thoughts. You’re grabbing onto a character’s flaws and struggles, their hurdles and challenges. You give them weight and a pebble in their shoe and then put them into a situation and see how they’ll handle it. Series give you more room to explore a character’s arc. You follow your characters’ drama from book to book to see how they change and adapt … or don’t.

Samantha Jayne Allen: One way to do this is to make your characters feel real: give them a rich inner life, a lived-in voice. But most of all, a compelling character is a character that wants or needs something. To solve the case, get paid, avenge their best friend’s murder, etc. The reader should understand the character’s desires or even share them—the reader is then rooting for them to get what they want (or that they don’t!) and is thus invested in the story’s outcome. I think with a series you simply have more room to play, and for loose ends, whereas in a standalone the arc is somewhat completed at the end of the novel. A lot of series novels have multiple arcs for their main characters: one for each book, another that is overarching and that is possibly not resolved for many books, and at which point the series might end.

William Kent Krueger: A good story isn’t so much about what happens, but more about who it happens to. I believe compelling characters are those that feel most real to us, those who are deeply flawed, as we all are. It seems to me that characters who, despite their flaws, struggle to follow some moral compass tend to have a greater hold on our hearts, to stay with us longer. Of course, in a series, there’s so much more space to explore all the niches of a protagonist’s psyche, so much more time for a character to grow. On the other hand, a dynamic character in a standalone can, like a branding iron, leave a deep and abiding impression on a reader. One and done can be a tremendously effective approach.

AF Carter (nominated for Best Paperback Original – Boomtown): I really don’t `craft’ my characters. I begin with a rather vague impression of their various attributes, including gender, job, marital status, children, education etc. Then, ever the optimist, I start clicking away at my keyboard and hope for the best. I can be more specific with regard to the second question, about series vs. standalones. Once past the first volume of a series, there’s no winging it. Recurring characters are already defined and editors have long memories. You have to go with the ones who brung ya. This commonly leads to a complication as the volumes add up. You can’t assume the reader of any particular book, has read the others. Thus, you’re more or less required to deliver some backstory for each recurring character and that can slow the pace, sometimes drastically. I deal with this in the Delia Mariola series I’m currently writing, by creating a pair of “vice-protagonists”. These are characters who get a lot of space, though not so much as Delia. At the end of the novel, they move on. Perhaps they leave town to begin again somewhere else, or are arrested, or even killed. Fresh characters offer fresh perspectives, and keep the author (and, hopefully, the reader) involved. You don’t know what they’re going to do next, because you’ve never encountered them before. Again, this is as important to this author as it might be to readers.

Ritu Mukerji: I think a series is the perfect vehicle for character development–I always thought of Murder by Degrees as the start of a series. For my main character, Dr. Lydia Weston, I created an extensive backstory. I included little details: what did she like to wear, eat, read. And then the larger theme of how her past experiences and childhood shaped her. As I wrote the book, it helped me anticipate how she would behave in certain situations. Equally important is the villains–thinking through their character and motivation is so vital to understand what would drive them to commit a horrific crime.

Anastasia Hastings: Lots more latitude in a series, lots more time to have a character grow and change. Stand alone? You’ve got maybe 100,000 to make a character come alive for readers. In a series that might go on for 10 or 12 or more books, there are many more words to work with. What is the key? So many answers to that one! If I had to choose one, I’d say voice, that special something in the writing that reveals character. It’s all about word choice, the cadence of their dialogue, the way their internal monologue is written. When it’s done well, characters fly off the page!

Rob Osler: With a short story nominated and as a writer of a novel series, I’ll come at this from a short story versus long perspective. In a short story, there’s practically no time for a protagonist’s personal growth. It’s all a writer can do to create a compelling character, set up the crime, introduce the suspects and resolve the mystery within a short word count. However, at the other end of the spectrum, with a series, the author has a long runway for character evolution. Whatever personal improvement and enlightenment the hero achieves in a particular book can’t be 100 percent. Instead, the character is on a long journey toward self-betterment and understanding throughout many installments.

Sarah Stewart Taylor: When I taught creative writing, I would have my students do an exercise where they had to pick one of their close friends and write about the first time they met them. What were the writer’s first impressions of the friend? What was their initial dynamic with the friend? Then I would have them write a couple of scenes set in subsequent years showing how their impressions changed as they got to know the person better. Were their initial impressions correct? What did they learn that deepened their understanding of their friend? Showing that kind of evolution in perception and in the dynamic between two people is one of my favorite things about characterization. There is such pleasure in developing that evolution over the course of multiple series installments. A character can be one thing in one book and something else entirely in another. Standalones can show significant character development and satisfying arcs as well, of course, but I love the way a series can represent all the eras and stages in a human life. It’s so satisfying to me.

Linda Castillo: A writer must possess intimate knowledge of his character. He must know his character’s deepest, darkest fears, his opinions—flawed or imperfect or not—and he must understand what drives his character forward. The human psyche is infinite, which gives a writer much fodder. Use it. When writing a long running series, character growth is a key element. It’s vital to maintain that growth to keep the series fresh. Each book in a series contains a character arc and for a long running series that arc is expansive. One last personal note: I love writing imperfect characters. They are interesting and unpredictable and can be such fun. That said, there are certain lines that should not be crossed. Know what those lines are because they could edge a highly-flawed sympathetic character into irredeemable territory.


How do you balance between educating and entertaining when it comes to nonfiction?


Robert Morgan: This is one of the most difficult questions to answer about writing literary biography. A good biography requires a lot of research, but if the biography relies mostly on facts and interpretations others have already made familiar, the work will be neither educational nor entertaining. The narrative must have fresh facts and new interpretations. Lyton Strachey once observed that ignorance could be an important asset to a historian. An author who knows everything already will not understand what a reader needs to know to appreciate the unfolding story. A good biography will communicate the excitement of discovery and new understanding, and readers will be entertained. If the biographer feels no thrill of insight and interpretation, the reader will not either.

Steven Powell (nominated for Best Critical/Biographical – Love Me Fierce in Danger: The Life of James Ellroy): Entertaining is rather easy in James Ellroy’s case: his life is so dramatic! Applying the facts to the narrative of Ellroy’s life in a clear and concise manner does the work for you. There’s no need to sensationalize. In fact, a few of Ellroy’s claims seemed questionable, and scrutinizing them with all the available evidence makes for fascinating reading. Additionally, when you have a charismatic, larger-than-life subject such as James Ellroy it’s gripping to hear the testimony of the people who have known him. I spoke to over eighty friends, colleagues and partners of Ellroy and it was important to me to include their voices, as they gave a portrait of Ellroy very different to the Demon Dog persona he has worked so hard to cultivate.


What is a moment that sticks out in your research journey? Was there a particularly odd factoid or archive you’d like to highlight?


Steven Powell: I discovered the identity of Jean Ellroy’s first husband, which even James Ellroy didn’t know. James only knew of him as ‘the Spalding Man’ and thought he was the heir to the Spalding Sporting Goods fortune. He was, in fact, Easton Ewing Spaulding, a real estate heir. Ellroy had misspelled his name by a single letter and, consequently, was never able to track him down. Solving this mystery helped me to earn Ellroy’s trust and persuaded him to cooperate on the biography. I also think, in the long-term, that the more mysteries we can solve about Jean Ellroy’s life the closer we will get to solving her murder.

Robert Morgan: When I was examining the Poe material at the Enoch Pratt Memorial Library in Baltimore I got to hold letters written by Elmira Royster Shelton, Poe’s first and last fiancee, to his aunt and mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, just before and after Poe’s death in 1849. Looking at the fine handwriting, the sophisticated phrasing, the kindness, I understood, as I had not before, the depth of the bond between Edgar and Elmira, her importance as muse and inspiration for “The Raven.”

Another discovery, as I re-read “The Gold-Bug,” was that Poe had placed the landscape and flora around Charlottesville, Virginia, on the swampy coast of South Carolina, combining two places in the South he knew well.

More significant was my discovery that Poe was a poet of the natural world as well as of horror and crime. In “The Domain of Arnheim” and several other stories he celebrates the splendor and mystery of forests and streams, adding to the astonishing range of his achievement.

Even more important, I found that Dr. Snodgrass’s account of finding Poe near death in a tavern in Baltimore was part of his temperance lectures. Snodgrass used Poe’s death as a warning against the evils of alcohol. Poe had taken a pledge to never drink again, and others who saw Poe in those last days made no mentions of alcohol. Poe more likely died of tuberculosis of the brain. One clue to Snodgrass’s bias was his statement that Poe was wearing cheap clothes when found. Though dirty, Poe’s coat and pants were made of alpaca and cashmere.