Crimes and Criminals and the Writers Who Love Them

Crimes and Criminals and the Writers Who Love Them

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Our March Meeting -- Saturday, March 14th from 10:00 -- 12:00 noon

When: Saturday, March 14th, from 10:00 AM to 12:00 Noon

Where: Southwest Chatham Public Library Activity Room

Please join Low Country Sisters in Crime for our March meeting, where we'll be discussing one of the most important items in a writer's toolkit -- your bookshelf.

Instructional manuals are everywhere, promising to teach you everything you need to know about the craft of writing. Which ones are worth your time and money? Join Donna Kortes, our Vice-President of Program, as she shares her picks and leads the round-table discussion.

Bring in your favorite books to share!

For more information, contact Tina Whittle at lowcountrysinc at

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Seeing RED: An Interview with John Katzenbach

By Donna Kortes, SBF volunteer and Low Country Sisters in Crime member

If the Big Bad Wolf knocked at your door, what would you do? This is the question behind John Katzenbach’s latest thriller Red 1-2-3, a suspense filled page-turner that pits three redheaded females against a very skillful villain.

Donna Kortes: Your thrillers are known for tight timelines with escalating suspense. Red 1-2-3 is a masterful match of both. How difficult is it to juggle those two elements?

John Katzenbach: This is a really good question, as it goes to the heart of thriller writing. The balance between timelines and suspense is what makes or breaks a thriller – because a reader has to feel that the action matches the psychological state of each character. In other words, there has to be an emotional logic to each step – which is, in my opinion, the most crucial aspect of a thriller. If a character behaves in an inconsistent manner – well, readers have a way of punishing those sloppy authors, no? They close the book with a thud, and a snort, toss it to the side and decide to tune in to Downton Abbey and we’re lost, or, as my kids say DTM. As in dead to me.

DK: The reader’s emotional connection leads to my next question. Red 1-2-3 allows your audience to experience the story through the killer and victim’s point of view. Was one POV a particular challenge to write? And did you have a favorite POV character?

JK: Shifting POV – from bad guy with undeserved confidence to good guys with ricocheting doubts – was really the most fun part of writing Red 1-2-3. Each point of view from each character presented unique writing challenges, because there are changes in tone for each. How each perceives either the threat they face, or in the case of the bad guy, his desire for fame, required shifts in my thinking and writing. Obviously, a 17-year-old girl won’t see a deadly threat in the same way that a 50-year-old physician will – although the threat may be the same. Now – was any POV harder than the others – well, not exactly. There are moments in the book where putting my head in their predicament was more difficult – but that only serves to increase the tension – I hope. Now, as to the second part of your question – well, the only moment that the POV of a character exceeded the others in overall deliciousness was in the final couple of pages of the book. But giving those away would be a mistake.

DK: Cellphones, the Internet, and crime scene investigation has changed dramatically since your first novel, In the Heat of Summer, was published in 1982. Has that made plotting a mystery/thriller easier or harder?

JK: Actually, the thing that has made mystery/thriller writing harder is what I call The CSI Exaggeration. Readers get these outlandish notions of what modern technology can accomplish in the world of crime detection. On a television show – where a single hour has to present a crime, a suspect, a clever bunch of cops and Voila! Solutions! Well, this is not really reasonable, nor does it lend itself to a novel. But folks have these TV-generated expectations that all we have to do is a nifty little DNA test and there you have it. Case solved. All is right with the world. It’s not that easy in real life, nor is it on the pages of a novel. So the problem for novelists is about expectations. Of course, you need to be cautious about details. Cell phone towers can ruin a good story. One has to keep in mind current technology lest one get zapped by complaints from alert readers. Here is an example that also serves as a cautionary tale: When I got a transponder for my car so I could eagerly zip through the fast lanes at toll booths a friend of mine said, “Great. Now the government knows where you are…” He was a little on the paranoid side. I think. Regardless, no characters of mine have transponders in their cars. They pay their tolls with cash.

DK: Red 1-2-3 is your 13th novel. How has your writing process evolved over the years? Do you approach each novel differently?

JK: Leaving aside all superstition about a 13th novel, I think everyone’s writing has to evolve over time. I like to try slightly different styles, evoke characters in different ways. I hope I approach each book by asking myself the question: What is the best way to tell this story? This (I hope once again) brings some freshness to each novel. I really want to avoid writing the same thing over and over. With Red 1-2-3, I really wanted to examine failure and fear – and that absolutely required some explorations of style. As an aside, I have a dear friend – Philip Caputo, wonderful novelist, memoirist and journalist – who once said that your first book is probably your best idea – but that there ought to be a law that allows the author to go back and re-write that book after they’ve written at least 4-5 other novels – because at that point you actually know what you’re doing.

DK: As an aspiring writer, I’m not sure if that makes me feel better… or worse. What about your first novel? What inspired you to write that first book and what sparked Red 1-2-3?

JK: Inspiration for #1 – In the Heat of the Summer: a conversation with my journalist wife when we were both working in Miami back in the days when newspapers actually mattered in a major way. I was railing about calls I would get from people post-arrest. You know, the tiresome “I’m innocent. I’m being railroaded. The cops have it all wrong…” sort of calls. I turned to her and said, “You know what would be interesting… to get a call from someone who hasn’t been arrested, in the midst of a series of crimes…” She looked at me. I looked at her. Seems romantic, but was actually one of those Aha! moments for a writer. I started work on the book within a few weeks, when the paper gave me a leave. Now Red 1-2-3 came about in a different way. A friend was complaining (whining, really) about the lack of recognition for his work… and I started to think about that – and what could someone who writes and kills do about it. That became the genesis of the book.

DK: When developing a character, some authors say they end up knowing more about the character than ever ends up in the finished novel. Is there a piece of backstory or a personality quirk about a Red 1-2-3 character that your readers might find interesting?

JK: You know, this is an interesting question. I’m not sure that I fully agree with the notion that writers actually know more about their characters. This is categorically true for actors either on stage or in film. They truly do know more because it informs their performance. But I think that an author pretty much puts is all out there. And if he doesn’t, then those eagle-eyed and savvy readers, bloggers and critics tend to note the psychological holes in the character. This is a scenario one tries to avoid. Desperately. So, for me, those people you meet on my pages are who they are – if that makes sense.

DK: Have you been to Savannah before and what are you most interested in seeing and doing while you are here?

JK: Nope. Never been to Savannah before. All I want is for the temperature to be above freezing – as where I live in New England has experienced a pretty nasty series of what the forecasters like to call weather events. As if that captures the snow, ice, more snow and more ice we’ve been dealing with.

DK: I promise – no snow, no ice. What’s next for you?

JK:Next? I have a book coming out in the fall from Grove/Atlantic/The Mysterious Press called The Dead Student. It’s about deep-seated revenge and very unforeseen consequences. I’m also optimistic (probably foolishly) that two of my other books will go in front of the cameras in 2015. These would be The Analyst which is being developed by this truly cutting edge Spanish company in Barcelona, and The Madman’s Tale which is my own adaptation, with a particularly dedicated and quite brilliant Australian director and crew. Interesting how the movie world has become international.

DK: Thank you John. To read more about Red 1-2-3 and John’s other heart pounding thrillers go to and be sure to catch his presentation at the Savannah Book Festival February 14th . (Chippawa Square – First Baptist Church Fellowship Hall 11:40--12:40).
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John Katzenbach began his writing career with the Times of Trenton (N.J.) before moving on to the Miami News and subsequently the Miami Herald. He won prizes for his coverage of the criminal courts in Miami during the height of the drug trade. He then transferred to the Herald’s TROPIC Magazine, where he wrote about PTSD-suffering Viet Nam vets, grandmothers unjustly accused of first degree murder and disk jockeys on quixotic journeys. He left journalism following the publication of his third book.

Love and Survival: An Interview with Diane Thomas

By Donna Kortes, SBF volunteer and Low Country Sisters in Crime member

Early reviews use the words powerful, beautiful, and raw. Haunting, hypnotic and empowering. In Wilderness, by Diane Thomas is described as “… a suspenseful and literary love story—a daring and original novel about our fierce need for companionship and our enduring will to survive.” Diane joins us today from her home in New Mexico.

Donna Kortes: You have a diverse background in your field. You began as a science reporter with the Atlanta Constitution, then wrote features for Atlanta Magazine and finally worked as a freelance writer. What motivated you to write your first novel and what was the spark for In Wilderness?

Diane Thomas: In Wilderness was my first book. I wrote it the first time 35 years ago because I was extremely ill from an antibiotic reaction and thought I was dying. I wrote it to distract myself and as a way of putting myself into the north Georgia mountains, which I love, without actually having to get myself there (I was bedridden). The second time I wrote it, we had moved from north Georgia to Santa Fe and I was very homesick. I went to work rewriting the old manuscript, once again as a way of getting to the Georgia mountains when I couldn't be there. The Year the Music Changed was my first published novel. It was inspired by my fascination with the 1950s, and the fact that I used to be an Elvis fan back then.

DK: In Wilderness has two very unique characters, Katherine and Danny. Where does your writing process begin? Does your inspiration come first from character, theme or plot?

DT: None of the above, or all of them maybe. Every one of my novels, including the one in progress, has started with a weird mental image I couldn't get out of my head. For Music it was the inside of a radio station control booth at night with someone on air and someone watching. For In Wilderness it was a woman in a red coat disappearing into a thickly wooded forest. Both these visuals made it into scenes in the finished novels.

As for process, I like to approach each book differently. That’s part of the joy and challenge in writing fiction. For Music I had a basic plot and timeline because part of the story played out against real life events – Elvis Presley’s actual tour schedule. For In Wilderness, the original manuscript served as an outline but edits, changes and additions grew organically during the rewrite.

DK: Were there any special challenges in bringing In Wilderness to the page?

DT: Plotting in general is a challenge for me. It's more left-brained than I am. In Wilderness was special in that I was doing a complete rewrite of a 35-year-old draft. In the first draft my male and female characters were too similar and I needed to create someone new for Katherine. I started by listing her traits and worked at finding the opposite of each. By the time I finished Danny began to appear. In the end only five pages from the first draft made it to the final book.

DK: We will have many aspiring authors visiting the Savannah Book Festival. Do you have any advice for them?

DT: A writing group has been vital to me. It kept me writing and gave me a deadline because my work was going to be critiqued. They were my first readers and offered valuable feedback and lasting friendships with other artists. Every time my husband and I moved the first thing we did was find a group. If we couldn’t find one, we started our own. Other advice? Its like the Nike ads, "Just do it." Even if you can only make 15 minutes for it a day. And try to do it every day if you can. Don't worry if you think your writing's bad when you start out. We all did. But we kept at it anyway.

DK: What do you plan on doing while in Savannah and what will we hear from you at SBF on Saturday?

DT: We’re planning to visit friends and generally enjoy the area.  Saturday, in addition to my lecture and Q&A, my reading will give everyone a taste of Danny and Katherine.

DK: In Wilderness doesn’t officially launch until March 3rd. Will SBF have advance copies available?

DT: Yes. I’m excited to say my publisher has sent books to Savannah and I’ll be signing as well.

DK: What’s next for you?

DT: My husband and I plan to travel back to the north Georgia mountains while we’re here and I am working on my next novel. It’s set in a gated community in Florida. I’ve found, from personal experience, those communities to be a social study in themselves. The new book, like my others, was inspired by a mental image. Now comes the fun part. Asking myself, who are these people I see? What is their story?

DK: Thank you Diane. To read more about In Wilderness be sure to go to 
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Diane Thomas is a southern writer and the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Year the Music Changed. She is a graduate of Georgia State University and received her MFA in Theatre and Film History and Criticism from Columbia University. A lifelong resident of Atlanta and the Georgia mountains, she now lives in New Mexico. In Wilderness is her second novel. It will be released from Penguin Random House’s Bantam Imprint in March 2015, seven weeks before her 73rd birthday.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Sneaks and Subversives and Society Belles: An Interview with Karen Abbott

by Tina Whittle

Karen Abbott’s latest book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, weaves together the stories of four very different women—a socialite, a farm girl, an abolitionist, and a widow—who became spies during the Civil War, two working as operatives for the Confederacy and two for the Union. A meticulous research, she is a featured contributor to Smithsonian magazine’s history blog, Past Imperfect, and also writes for “Disunion,” the New York Times series about the Civil War.

She graciously agreed to share how she came to write what USA Today calls “sizzle history” and gives us a sneak preview of topics to come in her Savannah Book Festival presentation (Saturday, February 14th, at 2:50—3:50 at Trinity United Methodist Church in Telfair Square).

Tina Whittle: Your writings—including your latest book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy—focus on real women whose stories don’t show up in history texts. What drew you to their stories?

Karen Abbot: Obviously, history is mainly written about men, by men, and for men. And every time I’d read a historical account—of reform efforts, of the evolution of entertainment, of war, of anything—I’d immediately ask: what were the women doing? And not just any women—what were the “bad” women doing? The defiant, revolutionary women? In the case of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, I wanted to find four women who lied, seduced, wheedled, plundered, spied, drank, avenged, stole, and murdered their way through the American Civil War. Of course these women had no vote, no straightforward access to political discourse, no say in how the battles were waged, so I wanted to spotlight the ways they were able to change the course of the war—and, in the process, their own lives.

TW: And such fascinating lives they led! Two of them Union, two Confederate, all of them defying cultural expectations through their activities both on the battlefield and behind enemy lines. In a culture where the word “feminist” often provokes controversy, what can contemporary women learn from their nineteenth-century counterparts?

KA: I am loath to tell women—of any era—how they should be conducting themselves or how they should label themselves. But were it not for those incredibly brave and (for the time) radical 19th century feminists, women today would not have the luxury of debating the semantics of that word. One of my favorite anecdotes about Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew: every year, when she paid her property taxes, she included a note objecting to not having a vote. All four women in the book were well ahead of their time, in many respects.

TW: Yes, that was one of the first things that struck me as I read your book. Despite differences in the four women’s political beliefs and socioeconomic statuses, there was a skill each wielded as finely as any weapon—the ability to manipulate societal expectation.

KA: Absolutely! These women masterfully exploited society’s ideas and expectations of “womanhood.” War, like politics, was men’s work, and women were supposed to be among its victims, not its perpetrators. Women’s loyalty was assumed, regarded as a prime attribute of femininity itself. But after Confederate operative Rose Greenhow was captured, there arose a question—one that would persist throughout the war—of what to do with what one Lincoln official called “fashionable women spies.” Their gender provided them with both a psychological and physical disguise; while hiding behind social mores about women’s proper roles, they could hide evidence of their treason on their very person, tucked beneath hoop skirts or tied up in their hair. Women, it seemed, were capable not only of significant acts of treason, but of executing them more deftly than men.

TW: Your biography states that you are a native of Philadelphia who now lives in New York City. How did the Civil War South find its way onto your writerly radar?

KA: I spent six years in Atlanta, and was immediately struck by the way the Civil War seeps into daily life and conversation down there in a way it never does up North. It was quite a culture shock to see the occasional Confederate flag on a lawn, and to hear the jokes about the “War of Northern Aggression.” The point was really driven home one day when I was stuck in traffic on Route 400. For two hours I idled behind a pickup truck emblazoned with a bumper sticker: DON’T BLAME ME: I VOTED FOR JEFFERSON DAVIS. As soon as I got home, I began looking for Civil War heroines.

TW: It’s obvious to any reader that you do a lot of research—the endnotes to Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy are a novella-length work all their own (approximately sixty pages). How do you manage to find—and keep—the storyline amidst so many facts and statistics and competing narratives?

KA: My goal was to tell the story of the Civil War through the perspectives of these four women, and to tell it in a way it hadn’t been told before. It was important to me that the women’s stories all connect in some way, that there was a cause and effect, that one woman’s actions influenced another’s circumstances. So it was a challenge to map out all of these connections, especially since I’m sort of a technological Luddite; I’m sure there are programs to help writers keep track of such things, but I don’t own or operate any of them. Plus, I’m very tactile; I like to physically move the puzzle pieces around and see where they might fit. At one point, I printed out the entire book and spread it all over my apartment floor—a bit difficult when your apartment is only 600 square feet. I also am addicted to post-it notes and outlines; by the time my research is finished, I’ll have a 100-page outline of the book’s major events and the sources I’ll need to write them.

TW: Are you planning on doing research while you’re in Savannah, famously gifted to Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present from General Sherman?

KA: I love Savannah—I used to visit fairly often when I lived in Atlanta—and I’m excited to get back there. I think I’ll have to do the “March to the Sea” walking tour. And also eat as much shrimp and grits as possible.

TW: Savannah is a great place for both eating and exploring the dark corners of history. The attraction of shrimp and grits needs no explanation. What is it about the notorious and nefarious that catches your scholarly interest?

KA: I’ve always been interested in “dark” subjects, all things hidden and mysterious. When I was a kid, maybe 13 or 14, I used to write stories about murderous, cross-dressing matrons and submit them (fruitlessly, of course) to Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock magazines. I’d blame at least part of this interest on my Catholic school education, which—at least in my experience—elevated subversive and taboo topics by refusing to discuss them. Of course I wanted to prod and poke and examine the things that were kept just out of reach.

TW: So now that you have three best-selling books on the historical nonfiction shelves, what’s next?

KA: My next project is a novel, based on a real-life Gilded Age con artist. The historical record is too insufficient for a work of nonfiction, so I’m trying my hand at fiction. It’s challenging me in different ways; now I actually have to call upon my imagination to invent, to put flesh on the historical bones. The one frustration about history is that dead people don’t always say or do what you want them to, and I’m looking forward to having more control over that.

TA: And we’re looking forward to that next book!

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Karen Abbott is the New York Times bestselling author of Sin in the Second City, American Rose, and, most recently, Liar Temptress Soldier Spy, which was named one of the best books of 2014 by Library Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, Amazon, and Flavorwire, and optioned by Sony for a miniseries. She has written for the New York Times, the New York Times Book Review, the Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian magazine, Salon, and other publications. A native of Philadelphia, she now lives in New York City with her husband and two African Grey parrots, Poe and Dexter.

Tina Whittle is a crime fiction writer living and working in Southeast Georgia. Her Tai Randolph/Trey Seaver mysteries have garnered starred reviews in Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal. The fourth book in this Atlanta-based series—Deeper Than the Grave—was released in November from Poisoned Pen Press. You can read more about her and her work at