The Word Nerds are happy to welcome author and fellow Midwesterner Lori Rader-Day to the blog today. We met her at Murder and Mayhem in Milwaukee where she talked about her debut novel, “The Black Hour.”
WN: You’re a life-long Midwesterner. How has that influenced your writing?
LORI: Being from the Midwest has definitely influenced which stories I want to tell, even which stories I want to read. I suppose because so much of publishing is in New York, that’s why we’re fed so many New York stories. But New York, even though I love the city, is not my experience. I wouldn’t get it right. Most simply, you can only write the books you want to write. And, as Toni Morrison famously said, you should write the book you want to read. What I want to spend my time on are the stories that could happen to people I know, who live in the places I best understand.
Besides, New York doesn’t have a monopoly on crime. The Midwest has stories to tell.
WN: You called “The Black Hour” a whydunit instead of a whodunit. Why is that distinction important to you?
LORI: It’s impossible to please every reader, but I would hate for someone to pick up The Black Hour hoping for an Agatha Christie locked-room puzzle. That’s just not the book I wrote. Readers will learn about the “who” portion of the mystery within the first two chapters—that’s no mystery. I think the distinction of the “why” helps find the readers who are most likely to enjoy the book. That’s perfection for a writer: connecting with the ideal reader. I’ve had a lot of wonderful emails and Facebook messages and reviews where I can tell my book found its way into the exact right hands.
WN: What’s next for you as an author?
LORI: My second mystery, Little Pretty Things, will be out from Seventh Street Books July 7. It’s the story of Juliet Townsend, a small town woman working below her ambitions at a roadside motel in Indiana whose former best friend slash rival checks in one night and is murdered. Juliet has to pull herself together to avoid being the prime suspect. It’s a story about the forced competition between girls and women, about how sometimes we are our own worst enemy.
WN: You teach writing workshops as well. What’s the biggest, non-technical side of writing lesson that you try to impart to your students?
LORI: I don’t think this is too technical: Write the book first.
A lot of people get hung up in the agent questions and the self-publishing versus “traditional” publishing questions but they only have about twenty pages written.
It’s just not time for that yet. I understand being impatient with long, drawn-out processes, but the first hurdle is to write the book. If you can get through THAT long drawn-out process, maybe you have it in you to look for an agent, and then survive the submission process. It all takes time, but the only thing you can do to shortcut any of it is to write the best book you can.
Another quick not-too-technical piece of advice: make sure stuff is happening on the page. Beginning writers often get stuck in the internal monologue of their protagonist and forget to get her moving and talking to people. Get your characters stuff to do. Maybe some of it is cutting-room floor material, but at least you’ll have something to work with as you figure out who your characters are.
WN: The Black Hour is set on a university campus and you work for a university. How did you decide what real things or people to use from your experience in your fiction?
LORI: I tried to leave as much real stuff out as possible in the hopes that I might continue to work for the university I work for, but I must have left some things in. People recognize it. I did borrow the idyllic Lake Michigan campus, I guess. Moving it miles up the shore fooled pretty much no one. People at work are well aware of the book and very supportive, which has been great, but I didn’t want them to find any character they recognized in the book. One of the professors I work with said I’d succeeded, because things felt real to her, but she didn’t meet anyone she knew. But the lake was far too attractive to leave on the table, so I took it.
WN: What books have captured your attention as a reader lately?
LORI: I love Catriona McPherson, Tana French, Clare O’Donohue, Denise Mina, Lynne Raimondo, and Terry Shames. The one problem with writing books, however, is that I’m very much behind on reading them. Two specific books to suggest that I read this year, though: The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson and The Fever by Megan Abbott.
WN: What’s one question the Word Nerds should have asked and didn’t (and what’s the answer?)
LORI: If I were a tree, what tree would I be?
Most people I meet are interested in how I work. I don’t write every day, though I would encourage anyone who could work that out to do so. I write during lunch hours, on weekends, over vacations (I wrote 10,000 words of The Black Hour on a cruise ship, but strangely not any of the water scenes.) It’s slower than I’d like, but it works. You have to write the way it works for you, or you’ll never stick with it long enough to get past those twenty pages.