My ‘date’ this week is a Manchester United supporting woman from Colorado who writes gritty, emotionally charged mysteries. I began by asking her about her home state and why she prefers soccer and Manchester United to her local NFL team, Denver Broncos.
“Colorado is such a varied state. I know many people who hear Colorado and envision Aspen, of course that is one central sliver of the state, but not the majority. I was born on the western edge of the state in a desert surrounded by mountains. It’s an isolating place full of people who’ve lived here for generations. Colorado means home to me. It’s where I’ve grown up and where my memories of my grandparents are.
As to the Broncos, I’ve always loathed the slow pace of American Football, and as I played soccer throughout my formative years that was what drew my interest. David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Renaldo, were much more exciting to watch then men lining up and pushing each other.”
Her books feature settings a long way from Colorado and include France, Scotland and Greece. She feels it is important to have her protagonists undertake a journey in order to discover their inner strengths.
“I think the US serves as a good starting point for the novels. I have been fascinated, from an early age, with the idea of adventure (i.e. Bilbo Baggins). The protagonist enjoys his/her home but longs for more; they leave, and grow and are strengthened in ways they could not have imagined. Scotland is near and dear to my heart and it is in fact my family’s favorite holiday destination.
I do not choose the destinations lightly. In The Clouds Aren’t White Emmeline MacArthur goes where her education and training are able to get her employment. My great-uncle did live in Paris, he was a cosmopolitan, and so that city was almost fated for him.
Now Greece is another beast altogether for me.
I wanted to push myself beyond my comfort zone and to immerse myself in another culture.
It hasn’t been an easy feat but Google Earth helps a lot with describing the setting (I already live in an arid place and so know what it’s like to hike up a mountain in the middle of the day in the summer).”
Her latest novel, the one set in Greece and due for release on April 2nd, is available to pre-order now. It is her third release in a little over two years although it turns out that the first was finished more than a year before publication. Even so, three books in three years is impressive, especially as politics features in her Amazon biography as one of her interests. It turns out that she is highly organised, working to a strict schedule around caring for her daughter.
“I spent a much longer time writing my first novel than I have with the successive novels. I have a beautiful pen on my desk that my husband got me to commemorate when I finished the first book—in 2014. My level of political activism is limited these days, alas, but I’m fortunate to have writing be my sole occupation right now since my daughter is in school. I manage the work rate by planning out my entire year:
each month has a specific goal (or three) and then I break that down further so that I know what I need to do every day to stay on track.
I’m also horribly competitive, if you ask my husband, but when I’m writing a first draft I keep a spreadsheet of my progress – how long I wrote for, how many words, and words per minute. I’m always trying to write more in a shorter amount of time.
Juggling writing and responsibilities has gotten easier with time. Writing is essential for me. I take the weekends off and by Sunday night I’m twitching like an addict.”
I’m writing up the first draft of our interview as it is snowing outside, something I think would please Rachael.
“I’ve always been very jealous of those writers that say, “oh I write at night when everyone’s asleep” or “I write before everyone gets up.” I’m not a morning person. I’m not a night owl. I’m an 8am-10pm person. I drop my daughter off at school, workout, eat, shower, then I sit down at my desk which faces the bay window in my bedroom. It used to belong to my grandmother and I re-painted it navy and gold. Then from 9am-2pm I work. Some days are better than others but my favorites are when it’s snowing and I can sit at my desk with my feet on the heater and watch the world turn white.”
Her books revolve around the solving of mysteries. The protagonist in her soon to be released novel is a police detective. She describes herself, among other things, as ‘a police wife’. That is something she finds extremely helpful in her writing.
“There is no greater assistance to my writing than having a bona fide cop in the house. We have discussions on police tactics, how one enters a building, how one holds a gun, how one avoids bullet spray – while we are on DATES. His office is down the hall from my desk so often I’ll trot over there and ask him an out of the blue question about some detail or other. He never laughs, just gives over the answer and I go back to my desk.
As a former police wife I have a set of memories that are very specific to that group. Long nights, waking up to an empty bed when your husband should have been home four hours ago, never spending an entire Christmas/Thanksgiving/New Years/4th of July etc. with them because of shift work. I also went on a host of ride-a-longs with him while he was serving which opened my eyes to how hard his job was. I actually helped catch a wanted felon on my birthday one year — from the safety of a squad car — it was thrilling nonetheless.”
Another influence is her early life living with a narcissistic mother, an experience she shares with one of my previous ‘dates’, Lucinda Clarke. Both welcome my introduction; as Rachael puts it, “one always feels connected to those people.”
“Yes, my mother, from whom I am estranged, has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). It’s a terrible disorder and I am only now processing the years of abuse and trauma.
Just as being the wife of a cop gave me insight into a different kind of life so did my childhood with an abusive mother. It does not take much imagination to place myself in my character’s mind when they are living with a narcissist—it was such a central part of my formative years. It has also made me desperate to tell stories about people I can relate to. I want a reader who has a loving caring mother be able to see what a blessing she has in her life when she reads about a character that is tormented by his/her parents. I also want a reader who is currently living with that pain to recognize that others have trod the path before her and there is a way out.
At the end of the day, what I really create is a collection of pages that is stuffed with my heart and my pain and experience and dreams. I hope to heaven that my readers see themselves in it.”
She is highly appreciative of her editor and a trusted team of beta readers.
“Where would I be without my editor? Nowhere. I do have a trusted team of beta readers. I have a good friend in Australia who is my Alpha Reader. I send her the (truly horrible) first drafts and she tells me if what I’m doing is good or not. These amazing wonderful people are indispensable.”
She has strong feelings about the often conflicting advice given to authors.
“Recently I picked up a book on writing advice. But the horrible thing gave authors a list of rules and then authors who followed said rules and then authors who didn’t follow said rules. I wanted to scream.
But the one I hate the most is: write what you know.
Excuse me but Tolkien had never been to Middle Earth. C.S. Lewis had never been to Narnia. Tolkien was a master linguist and C.S. Lewis was a master theologian. They took what they knew whether that was languages, or stories, or the Bible, and they turned it into something new and different and unique.
I’m not a male police captain living on the island of Lesvos. But I know people. I know pain. I know how a police officer feels at the end of the day, how on some days he hates his job because it feels like he’s not making a difference at all. I know that. I think that’s the true meaning of ‘write what you know’– find your strengths and then create something new and exciting.
The advice I love? It’s what my husband said to me when I was struggling writing my first novel and feeling like it was ‘too me.’ He said every single author pours themselves in their books. Every page is full of them. That and write for yourself. Write what makes you happy. Happy writers are happy readers.”
Given her penchant for organisation it comes as no surprise when she asks if she can list her favorite writers by categories.
- “Fantasy: Tolkien and Rowling. Absolute pillars.
- Literature: I’m a diehard Austen fan. The way she chastised her whole society without anyone even realizing is pure magic. Gustave Flaubert-Madame Bovary
- Mystery: Donna Leon, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Rowling again — Cormoran Strike is perfect.”
As usual I end by asking her to tell us something abut herself that might surprise her readers. She comes up with a Shakespearian connection:
“I’m descended from King Malcolm III of Scotland and the Clan Chiefs of Clan MacKay through my paternal grandmother.”