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Karen Robards and Laura Griffin on the Writing Life

Griffin and Robards - Amazon Book ReviewRomantic suspense superstars Karen Robards and Laura Griffin chatted with each other recently about how they got started, plotting novels, and the joys of the writing life. Both of their most recent titles—Darkness by Robards and Deep Dark by Griffin—won spots on our best of the month lists, and I highly encourage you to check out both novels, which combine sizzling attraction with terrifying suspense. —Adrian Liang


Karen Robards: Are you a pantser or a plotter?

Laura Griffin: I think I'm a pantser disguised as a plotter. I always start out with a detailed road map. But the story starts taking twists and turns that I didn't plan on until the final plot sometimes doesn't even resemble my original idea. I'm not sure why this happens every time, but I think it has to do with the characters. Once I really get to know them, their personalities take over the story.

With At the Edge, for example, I knew that I wanted the story to begin with a SEAL rescue mission. After a U.S. government plane goes down in the Philippines, Ryan Owen and his team fast-rope into the jungle to look for survivors, and they discover that Emma Wright, an embassy staffer, is the only one left. I had a very clear idea of the trials Ryan and Emma would face trying to get out of there alive, but then they come home to California, and that's where the original plot got turned on its head. I think it's fun when that happens.

What about you? Do you tend to be a pantser or a plotter?

Karen: I am definitely a pantser. Before I start a book, I do a brief (usually one page) synopsis for my editor. The core plot kernel in that synopsis generally stays the same, but everything else is subject to change as the story unfolds for me as I write it. Characters take on new occupations, background, and motivation as they come to life. Their appearance and even their names change. When I wrote Maggy's Child, for instance, the main character was originally named Anna. She was blonde and calm. I struggled through the first few chapters, but the story just wouldn't breathe. When I got to about page eighty, I got zapped by a writerly lightning bolt: my main character's name was Magdalena, and she was dark and fiery. After that, the story took off. It was always Maggy's story, and it just took me a while to figure it out. Over the years, I've learned not to worry too much when characters don't gel or plots don't pan out. The story is there somewhere in my mind. My job is to keep writing until I uncover it.

Is it true that you used to be a journalist?

Deep DarkLaura: I got my start as a newspaper reporter, which is wonderful training for fiction writing. I overcame my fear of interviewing people and I learned to meet aggressive deadlines. Everyone in the newsroom would take turns covering holidays and weekends, and I always looked forward to that because I would get to cover any breaking news that happened during my shift. I was drawn to the police beat and I loved talking to cops, so when I decided to start writing fiction, I naturally gravitated toward crime stories.

How did you get your writing start? Did you always know you wanted to be an author?

Karen: How did I get started? I was in my first year of law school when I decided to take a night-time graduate level course in creative writing. The assignment for the class was to write fifty pages of something publishable. I thought, o-kay, what's publishable, exactly? I didn't know, so after class I went to my local bookstore to check out what was currently being published. What I saw were racks and racks of historical romances. I had never read a historical romance, because at the time many of them had titles like Evangeline's Ecstasy with lots of heaving bosoms on the covers and there was no way I was going to be seen in public carrying around something like that. But I bought some and read them, and was absolutely blown away by how good they were, covers notwithstanding. 

Then I thought, I can do this. So I tried. Over the course of that fall semester I wrote fifty pages of a historical romance I called The Pirate's Woman. I wanted a good grade in the course, so I crammed those fifty pages full of everything that, in my opinion, had made the historical romances I had read so entertaining: there was action, adventure, and sex. Actually, lots of sex. (Hey, I was twenty-one years old!) 

I finished the assignment up right after Thanksgiving, and was sitting in class feeling pretty smug when the professor said something like, "Oh, by the way, we're going to be reading these aloud in class." I nearly died! Believe me, if I'd known we'd be reading what we'd written aloud in class, I would have written something entirely different. But there was no help for it. It was too late to write anything else. As I listened to my classmates reading their magnum opuses, I realized that everyone else had been trying for the Great American Novel. They had subtext, images, meaning. 

And I—I had Sex and the Pirate Ship. Finally it was my turn. I got up in front of the class and, with my best dramatic inflection, read my work aloud while my face turned tomato red and my eyes stayed glued to the pages. At last I was finished. I dared to look up—and found my classmates staring at me. Google-eyed. Open-mouthed. Absolutely silent. For one wondrous moment I thought, I've wowed them. Then they started to laugh. They laughed so hard they practically fell out of their seats while I stood up there in front of them taking the color red to a whole new level. Finally my professor—oh, yes, he laughed too—stopped laughing long enough to say, 'Karen, you're a really good writer, but we're going to have to do something about your choice of reading material."

Do I have to tell you that I slunk out of that class? I did, absolutely mortified. But two years later, those fifty pages were the beginning chapters of the first book I ever had published. The Pirate's Woman became Island Flame and was published by Leisure Books in 1981. Island Flame is still in print (and e-book) and those first fifty pages are the same ones I wrote in that never-to-be-forgotten writing class.

Laura: This story is priceless! I am blushing for you just thinking about it! But I guess you found your calling, so the story has a happy ending. I hope everyone who laughed at you that day knows you went on to become a professional author.

If you could meet any author, alive or dead, who would it be?

Karen: I'd love to meet the Brontes. Wuthering Heights has always been one of my favorite books, and I love Jane Eyre, too. The idea of Emily and Charlotte, along with their sister Anne and brother Branwell (also writers) holed up together in a parsonage in Yorkshire while they wrote their wonderful, timeless stories has always fascinated me.

Laura: Same here! I love all the Brontes. And I named my daughter Emily because I've always loved the name. For my last birthday I treated myself to this beautifully illustrated and annotated edition of Wuthering Heights. It is on the coffee table in my office, and I am re-reading it right now. It was so fun to show the book to my daughter and tell her the inspiration behind her name.

What does your workspace look like?

DarknessKaren: My workspace is, um, a haven for the creative mind. It is crammed with books and art with eloquent, inspiring quotes hanging everywhere you look and—okay, my office is crammed with books. And art, if you count drawings and clay sculptures my children made when they were little and my favorite pair of Cheshire Cat figurines. The inspiring quotes are along the lines of "Writers Write" and they are designed to get my writerly bottom in the chair and keep it there, which is the key to the whole thing. I have an old desk and a big window and lots of pictures of my children. The family pets, two cats and two dogs, are usually in there with me. With every book, my office starts out clean and organized. (Because I have just shoveled out after the last book.) By the time I type "The End," there is a more or less clear path from the door to my chair and that's it. When I was finishing Darkness, one of my sons taped a sign to the outside of my door: "Abandon hope all ye who enter here." That pretty much sums it up.

Is writing fiction full time everything you thought it would be? How is the reality different from what you imagined?

Laura: I think writing is the greatest job in the world. The best part, for me, is that it never gets boring. With every new book I get to go out and interview people and learn about new fields. Whether I'm writing about a cold case detective, or a barista, or a forensic anthropologist, I want to get a behind-the-scenes look at the job so that I can add colorful details to the story.

I think a lot of people visualize authors as these reclusive people who toil away at their computers, drinking coffee and shutting themselves off from the world. The job definitely entails some of that, but in reality, there are a lot of people involved in creating a book. So much work goes into choosing a title, creating a cover concept, and then making readers aware of a book. I never realized how much effort goes into a book after the author types "The End." That moment is really only the beginning.

One very pleasant surprise for me... I never imagined how gratifying it would be to hear from readers! When a story you write connects with someone that is the very best reward.


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