Thursday, March 28, 2019

The joy of crime with Emily Ross: an interview

Readers and writers, I am so happy to present to you today an interview with Emily Ross. She is the author of Half In Love With Death (Simon Pulse 2015), a young adult thriller inspired by the Pied Piper of Tucson, a real serial killer who murdered three girls and buried them in the desert. The book was also an International Thriller Writer Thriller Awards finalist.

In this heart-pounding novel set in the 1960s, 15-year old Caroline is still mourning the loss of her older sister, Jess, who disappeared without a trace. The police have no answers and Caroline can't move on without knowing what happened to her sister. Jess's boyfriend, Tony, suggests that Jess ran off to California, and he asks Caroline to come with him to find her. But is she following a lead or being led into a trap?

This is a heart-in-your throat thriller--fast-paced and poetic in its creepiness. I highly recommend you pick this up asap.

I'm so glad that Emily is able to drop by our blog to give us her tips for writing criminally good fiction, and which authors you might to check out if you're a fan of suspense.

Your YA novel, Half In Love With Death, is inspired by the true crime of the Pied Piper of Tucson. Is there another true crime story that you are fascinated with? Or an unsolved mystery that haunts you?

I recently got sucked into the Black Dahlia rabbit hole by the book, Black Dahlia Avenger, by Steve Hodel. Hodel is a retired LAPD detective who believes he’s solved this decades-long unsolved crime and knows who killed Elizabeth Short (a.k.a. the Black Dahlia). He hasn’t entirely convinced me yet, but his book paints a chilling portrait of his disturbed, brilliant father, George Hodel, and of Los Angeles at a time when it was rife with corruption. 

Who Elizabeth Short—the beautiful woman with black curls, paper-white skin and green eyes—really was is also a mystery. Was she a sweet, innocent small-town girl who came to LA to pursue her dreams, or a liar who invented the life she didn’t have to impress people? Was she in the wrong place at the wrong time, or did she know her killer? We may never know. I suppose, like many people obsessed with true crime, I have just enough foolish hope to believe I could be the one who finally figures it out.

You're a contributor to Dead Darlings, a website dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. What advice would you give a novice crime fiction writer?

Read the crime fiction genres you like (thriller, suspense, cozy mystery, police procedural etc.) and write what you like to read.

Figure out as much as you can about the crime in your fiction ahead of time—who did it, how, where, when, and why. But it’s okay if you don’t know everything in the first draft. For example, if you’re not sure who the killer is you’re less likely to point a big red arrow at him or her and you will naturally create suspects who are red herrings. I’m often more imaginative outside my outline so in my first draft I work with a high-level roadmap and fill in the holes as I go along. I nail down the details and clues in later drafts. Whether it’s better to know everything up front or discover things along the way depends on what kind of writer you are. Either approach can work.

The various crime fiction genres follow certain conventions. The crime fiction audience is very aware of them and you should be too. For example, if you’re writing a mystery, the crime usually takes place early in the book and you’re expected to solve it eventually. If you’re going to break a rule you should have a good reason. Much as I resist being told what to do, I find the constraints of crime fiction can make your story stronger and help you to be more creative.

Above all, tell a good story. There are lots of great books out there on story structure. Acquaint yourself with them. Sentences can be polished and made beautiful, but if the story doesn’t work none of the rest will matter.

Setting is key in mystery and crime fiction. A book set in Los Angeles is going to have a very different vibe from a story set in Maine. If you could set a book anywhere, where would it be, and why?

I’ve always wanted to set a novel in my hometown of Quincy, MA. Quincy is an ethnically and economically diverse city with big city problems and a small-town feel. There are gritty neighborhoods and beautiful neighborhoods by the sea. There are dive bars where fights break out and trendy restaurants. There’s tension between the people who have lived here for generations and the folks who are just discovering it. Tension is good for fiction. Whitey Bulger buried some bodies here and it feels like everyone knows someone who knew Whitey and will tell you stories about it. I like the idea of setting a crime novel in this city where everyone knows everybody as they would in a small town, but also where dark secrets and danger lurk beneath the surface.

Recommend a few page-turning reads in the genre of your choosing.

I just finished The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides, a page-turning psychological thriller that rewards with an ending you don’t see coming, but which makes perfect sense when you look back at it. I’d also recommend Final Girls by Riley Sager, Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, and You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott.

As for detective fiction I recently read Louise Penny’s How the Light Gets In and now I want to read everything she’s written and move to her fictional town of Three Pines.

What shows are you bingeing right now?

The Good Place which I absolutely adore. I NEED a Janet.

Also recently devoured the sharp, creative new comedy series Corporate. If, like me, you’ve ever worked in a corporate job that made your head explode on a daily basis, this one’s for you.

Just started watching I Am the Night which interestingly is from a memoir by Fauna Hodel, the niece of Steve Hodel who wrote Black Dahlia Avenger. I’m really curious to see how their two stories intersect.

What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a psychological thriller about a detective who must unravel a dark secret from her past to catch the serial killer who is targeting members of her daughter’s dance team. I think of it as sort of Mystic River meets Seven.

Thanks, Emily, for stopping by. To check out the history behind the Pied Piper of Tucson, to read more about Emily's work, or to follow Emily on Twitter, click on her social media links below.

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