In 2006 my co-author and partner in crime, Susan Smily, and I had just had our first cozy mystery, The Chef Who Died Sautéing, published, and we’d already completed and had a contract for our second, The Lawyer Who Died Trying. Later that year, we were busily plotting the third in the series, The Reporter Who Died Probing. So as fledging authors, we were promoting our books and making new fans by speaking at service clubs, libraries, and writers’ conferences around the country.
Both of us had a metaphysical bent, so our cozies featured a sleuth who talked to ghosts, had precognitive dreams, and read Tarot cards to help her understand other people’s motivations. And we’d agreed each new cozy would have its own special metaphysical twist—the lawyer story had a dark magic undercurrent involving Kali worship, and we’d decided the reporter plot would include Wiccan exotic dancers.
Even before I started writing with Susan, I’d had a plot in my head suggested by my sister, Pat Carr, herself a multi-published author, who’d once said to me, “Why don’t you write a female Faust story? Nobody has ever done that.”
So I’d dreamed up a scenario about a middle-aged female professor who’s out jogging one morning, thinking about an attractive male student she’s mentoring and warning herself how she needs to be guarded around him. Then all of a sudden on her run she’s attacked, raped, and murdered by a masked serial killer. Now in spirit and not wanting to go to the light until she knows who her killer is and can bring him to justice, the disembodied prof follows him until he unmasks himself—at which point she’s pulled into a time-space vortex. Meanwhile, a 20-year-old girl suffers an accidental death but is miraculously brought back to life after the EMTs have given up on her—except that it’s the prof who wakes up in the 20-year-old’s body the next morning. And voila! We have the trappings of a female Faust story, without the messy contract with the Devil. But I could never quite make the story work, so I’d finally filed it away.
After the Romance Writers of America conference in Atlanta that summer of 2006, where our publisher had sent us to learn about self-marketing, I dredged up this plot, ran it past Susan, and suggested we try it as a romance. Susan rolled her eyes and said, “Write a romance?” So the lady Faust idea went back in the mental file.
Later that fall, we went to a workshop on thriller writing at a mystery writers conference. When the class was over, Susan said, “Hey, writing a thriller would be easy!”
“How do you mean easy?” asked another lady author, who was a thriller writer herself.
“Well,” Sue grinned, “you have a protagonist who needs to escape from an untenable position. And the good guys and the bad guys are circling. Now, each of these characters gets presented in short, 3-to-4 page chapters. That’s easy—like writing a short story—it’s a snap! So the protagonist is trying to escape the untenable situation, and these good guys and bad guys are circling, and the thrill is…will the good guys get there in time, or will the protagonist hear, ‘Hello, Clarice’?” Sue intoned this phrase in a suitable Hannibal Lecter voice.
Now, Susan doesn’t like reading either romances or thrillers, but she seemed so excited about writing a thriller I decided to try out the lady Faust idea again. As soon as the other author left, I said, “Do you remember that romance scenario I ran past you where the professor gets murdered by a serial killer, but her spirit wakes up in the body of a 20-year-old girl? How about if the 20-year-old was in witness protection—maybe she saw a murder or something—and she’s been knifed by a mob hit man? So the prof, when she wakes up in the hospital in the new, younger body, is out of the frying pan but into a totally different fire—and she’s got to deal with no knowledge of who she is, a serious wound that needs to heal, an FBI protector she needs to get away from, and the threat of being killed in this new life. And the only person who believes she really is the professor in a younger body is the grad student she was intent on avoiding.”
Susan loved the idea, and as we plotted it out, she came up with all the details of previous murders the psychopathic serial killer and the sociopathic hit man would have committed. In fact, some of it was so gruesome I had to ask, “Where did that come from?”
And she would smile and say, “I guess my inner serial killer came out to play.”
The result is our newest novel, Walk-In, a metaphysical, lady Faust thriller, just out this year from Oak Tree Press. Sue shudders when she reviews the scary parts, and when I read the romantic parts, I get misty.
Honora Finkelstein has been a U. S. Navy intelligence officer, college professor, professional technical writer, small-press publisher, prize-winning newspaper editor, television producer, workshop leader across the U.S., in Canada, and in Europe, and talk show host (otherwise known as an “agent provocateur”). With her mystery-writing co-author, Susan Smily, she was a winner of the “Love Is Murder” Readers’ Choice Award (the Lovey) for Best First Novel, is co-founder of El Amarna Publishing, and has co-written three novels in their Ariel Quigley cozy mystery series, as well as the new thriller Walk-In from Oak Tree Press. Please visit her at http://www.ElAmarnaPublishing.com or http://www.honorafinkelstein.com.
(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/). To be a part of this series, contact Beth at firstname.lastname@example.org.)