Interviewed by Sandra Parshall
Kate Collins had no burning ambition to write novels. (“Are you kidding? I didn’t even like writing checks.”) After earning a master’s degree in education, she taught for six years before taking time off to raise her children. While casting about for a creative hobby, she discovered she had a flair for storytelling, and before long writing became a second career. She started with children’s stories, moved on to romance, but eventually decided that what she enjoyed most was the plotting and writing of mysteries. Shoots to Kill, her seventh Flower Shop mystery featuring Abby Knight, is out this week. Kate and her attorney husband divide their time between Indiana and Florida.
Everyone who leaves a comment today will be entered in a drawing for a free copy of Shoots to Kill.
Q. Tell us about your new book.
A: Shoots to Kill is about identity theft in the extreme. My sleuth/heroine, Abby Knight, is a law-school flunk out-turned novice florist who always trusts her gut feelings and isn’t afraid to take a stand against injustice. In this book, however, when no one will believe her claims that a young woman for whom she once babysat is stealing not only her identity, but also her life, she begins to doubt herself, even as she’s being drawn into a bizarre murder plot.
I’m really excited about Shoots to Kill. It’s an enjoyable, thrilling, roller-coaster ride of a story that takes my sleuth into new territory, and has enough twists and turns to keep readers guessing. Abby’s “double” was a character I really enjoyed creating. I think the readers will enjoy her, too.
Q. Did you do a lot of research on identity theft for the book? Did you learn anything that made you change your own habits?
A: Identity theft problems are growing exponentially, and information is everywhere on how to avoid them, but this story is about a unique kind of identity theft. My son suggested the idea, and not long after, I saw a news article about a man who suffered for years because another man stole his identity -- basically his life. That really got my imagination fired up.
As far as changing my habits, I learned a lot when both my daughter and stepson had their wallets stolen and then went through a nightmare period of trying to get new ID, canceling credit cards, and worrying that people were out there ruining their credit ratings. I’ve started separating my credit cards and ID from my money whenever I travel, even if it’s for a shopping day in Chicago. If my wallet were to be stolen, the thieves would get some cash, but no cards. For overseas travel, I pack copies of my driver’s license, passport, and the 800 numbers to call the credit card companies, just in case. And I never, ever take my social security card with me. As far as preventing Abby’s type of identity theft, well, good luck with that.
Q. Where did you get the idea of giving Abby’s mother a llama? How well-acquainted are you with the real Catastrophe – and do you think she would object to the way you’ve portrayed her in the book? Incidentally, is it true that llamas often spit at people?
A: I’m always scouting for novel ideas for Abby’s mom’s art projects and find a lot of inspiration in Key West art shops and fairs. But the idea for the llama came from a newspaper article about a llama show being held at the county fairgrounds here in Indiana. (A llama show? Who knew?) Being extremely, no, detrimentally, curious, I decided to do hands-on research. To my delight, I discovered llamas are sweet-tempered, unlike camels, and are extremely shy, with big doe eyes and long necks, and have the softest, prettiest fur imaginable. Catastrophe’s (Taz’s) fur reminded me of my calico cat’s coloring. I’ll have a photo of Taz on my website this month. She’s pregnant, by the way, for the first time. Her owners are very excited. Actually, so am I. I feel like an aunt.
Catastrophe’s owners love their llamas (they had eleven when I met them last year) and treat them as pets. But it was when they told me they sheared their llamas’ belly fur and had it carded to make balls of yarn that I realized this was something Abby’s mom would do. I don’t think llamas spit, but then, maybe the few I met didn’t find me objectionable. They do get overheated easily, which is why it’s important to keep their bellies cool.
Q. Your family seems to support your writing career enthusiastically, with your son offering ideas, your husband advising you on legal matters, and your sister critiquing your manuscripts. Do you talk over plots with any of them before you start writing? Do you ever have to say no to their suggestions?
A: My family, even my extended family, is very involved in my career. They’re my support staff, and are quite a creative bunch in their own right, including a theater set designer, a classical violinist, a jujitsu gold belt champion, and an opera singer. I always run plot ideas past my husband. He’s a criminal defense lawyer, but more importantly, a voracious reader, so he has a sense of what works and what doesn’t. Usually I’ll talk his ear off during our afternoon walk. (We walk every day, rain, heat, snow, tornadoes, whatever – just ask my neighbors. They refer to us as “those crazy walkers.”) I like to bounce ideas off my sister and my son before I start a story and often during the writing because each offers a different perspective, and they’re not offended at all when I don’t use a suggestion. Well, okay, maybe they are offended and just don’t want to tell me. In any case, it works for me.
Q. Why do you think it took you so long to discover that you’re good at writing? Hadn’t you ever read a novel and thought, “I could write a better book than that”?
A: My thoughts were more along the line of, “How is it possible to fill 400 pages?” I’d always hated writing assignments in school, so I couldn’t imagine a career in writing. But when I quit teaching to have a family, I needed a creative outlet, so I went through every possible type of art – macrame, tole painting, rug hooking, cross stitch, sewing, crochet – I’m sure there’s more. Finally, I saw an ad for a course in writing for children, so on a whim, I took it. (Most of my big life changes happened because of some whim of mine. Like getting on a train and going to Chicago to an RWA convention. I had no idea what RWA was, other than some kind of writer collective. I was shocked and delighted to learn there were a whole bunch of women out there who had characters in their heads, too. ) It wasn’t until I’d started selling children’s short stories and got a handle on what constituted good writing (and more importantly, good story-telling) that I took a closer look at the novels I was reading and thought, “Hey, I can do that.” And after an incredibly naive attempt (think really smarmy Pirates of the Caribbean-style-romance) I did it.
Q. Do you still write romance novels, or have you decided to stick with killing people full-time? What attracted you to those two genres?
A: I absolutely love solving puzzles, almost as much as creating them, which is what a mystery writer does. Besides, it’s way more fun to kill people than to marry them off. Also, if you’re mad at someone, write them into the plot, then do away with them. It’s very cathartic.
In the early stages of my career I really enjoyed writing historical romances (and doing the research, which was fascinating). I was in a lonely period in my life and needed romance. The problem was, all of my plots had mysteries in them, to the point that my editor kept saying, “You’re writing romances, remember?” Once I settled into a very loving second marriage, I made the decision to pursue my real love, mysteries, full time. With that said, I also discovered I can’t write mysteries without romance in the plot. That’s not how life is. Hence the Abby/Marco relationship.
Q. Do you have a strict writing schedule? What do you do if you feel cranky and just can’t get the words to come?
A. I treat writing as a job. I’m in my home office and at the computer by nine in the morning, take a lunch break, then am back at it until 4 p.m. When I’m nearing a deadline, it’ll be a seven days-a-week schedule that might run until 8 p.m. at night. But cranky? Pffft. Never happens. (Don’t tell my husband I said that.) On days when I don’t feel in the mood to write, I’ll watch an hour of HGTV or a cooking show, and after suffering through the endless commercials, my bored-silly mind screams, “Are you a glutton for punishment? Go write something entertaining!” Once I’m actually staring at the page I wrote the day before, I get enthused and can write for hours. I’ve never had writer’s block. I have too many ideas simmering in my brain. It’s almost embarrassing at times, especially when someone is telling me a tragic story, and that little voice in my head is saying, “Hmm. That could work as a plot in my next book.”
Q. How long does it take you to write a book? Does your editor require that you submit an outline or synopsis for approval before you start writing?
A. I like to have nine months to write a book, including research time, although I did a book in five months (and had neck and stress problems as a result). I’m a plodder. I like to craft my story and sentences carefully, adding humor whenever I can, and that makes for a slow, deliberate process.
I always submit a synopsis for approval, usually a 4-5 page proposal. Often, my editor will catch a plot glitch that I didn’t see, so, although I’d rather have the proverbial tooth pulled than write a synopsis, it’s a useful tool. You can’t get on a train and not know where you’re getting off. But trying to anticipate plot twists and turns ahead of time is, well, murder. Most of those twists appear as I get deeper into the story – things that a character will say that I hadn’t anticipated, or a natural reaction to something that I hadn’t foreseen -- and therefore can’t be included in an outline. As a result, my proposals can be mind-numbingly dull. Luckily, my editor knows the story will be anything but.
Q. How much of your time do you spend on promotion? Has that changed at all since you began publishing? Have you found a good balance between writing time and time spent on selling your books to the public?
A. My 9 a.m.-- 4 p.m. daily shift used to be pure writing time, but now well over an hour a day is eaten up by promotional, mainly on-line, work: Myspace and Facebook updates and requests, fan mail, ad and newsletter designs, blogs, website updates, etc. I’m not complaining. I love contact with readers. That’s what makes this often grueling career rewarding. (Nothing beats opening up an email that starts, “I just read your book and I can’t wait for the next one!”) Well, that and the money. I mean, you know, I like to eat, too.
Q. What aspect of writing – creating characters, devising plots, coming up with murder methods, etc. – is most fun for you? What gives you the most trouble?
A. Titles give me the most trouble. I search for months before I find a turn of the phrase that makes me laugh. I love character development and I love creating snappy dialog. They’re so much fun, and what I do best. When a reader tells me she identifies with a certain character, or really wants to smack a certain cousin of Abby’s for being so dense, or can’t wait to find out what Abby’s mom’s next art project will be, I know I’ve struck a chord. Making characters come to life and involving readers in their lives is what story-telling is all about. Devising plots takes a lot of intense thinking, but I see it as a challenge. I don’t like graphic murder scenes and rarely read thrillers for that reason. So the murders in my books tend to take place off the page. Coming up with murder methods isn’t easy or particularly enjoyable. Coming up with an unlikeable character to do away with is.
Q. Shoots to Kill is your seventh Flower Shop Mystery. Do you plan to continue with it indefinitely, or do you have other series ideas you want to explore?
A: I’ve already finished the eighth book in the series, Evil in Carnations, (February 2009) and am working on a plot idea for the ninth book, with a contract running through number ten, so right now, I’ll continue the series as long as readers enjoy them. I like my characters, and actually miss them when I take time off in between books. They’ve become a part of my family. In fact, my real family will often comment, “That’s something Abby would like” -- or Jillian would wear, or Marco would say.
And then there’s the problem of getting too close to my characters. Once, I was listening to a group of women talking about flower arrangements, and I actually forgot it was my character Abby who was the florist. I was ready to give my professional advice on how to arrange the flowers. With that said, I have hung out a lot with local florists to get an understanding of their daily chores and pour over floral magazines for inspiration for the arrangements I put in my books, so I almost feel like a florist.
A new series? Definitely. I’m working on a kernel of an idea right now. But that’s for the future. Abby has a lot more trouble to come.
Q. Will you be at any upcoming conferences where fans can meet you?
A: I attend Malice Domestic, a big mystery readers’ convention in Arlington, VA, each spring. I also do speaking engagements and personal appearances in the Chicagoland, Northwest Indiana, and Southwestern Michigan area, and occasionally in Key West, but otherwise, I’m in the bat cave writing.
Q. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
A: You may be sorry you asked. Being a former teacher, I have a list . . .
My foremost tip is to join a writers’ group, a serious writers’ group that offers critique sessions, which are absolutely crucial to helping a novice produce a saleable manuscript. Aspiring writers don’t always have someone who can give them solid feedback on their skills. Family members tend to think every word is a gem, and although that does stroke one’s ego, trust me, it’s not helpful. It took my sister a long time before she felt comfortable editing my pages, understanding that I wanted brutal honesty, and that she wouldn’t be damaging my psyche if she corrected something. Now I have a sneaking suspicion she uses it to get even with me for childhood grievances. (I’m the older sister.) I credit joining RWA and subsequently attending their national conference with getting my first book sold, but I credit my critique group for sharpening the skills that enabled me to keep selling those romances.
My number two tip is to know the rules of grammar and punctuation backwards and forwards. If you don’t, find someone to ruthlessly edit your writing. I’ve read pages of manuscripts that were so poorly written, I didn’t know where to begin to help. You know the television commercial where the man is on an interview, and the stain on his shirt is talking gibberish that drowns out his words? That’s what errors do to a story. I’ve seen those tall slush piles and know busy editors have to read them after work, on weekends, in any spare time they have. If they pick up a manuscript and see run-on sentences, bad punctuation, and poor grammar on the first page, that puppy is going into the discard pile. The competition out there is fierce. Your manuscript must be professional. I can’t stress that enough.
Number three is to be a really good story-teller. (I mean, if you can’t even tell a joke . . . ) Writing a great sentence is a craft; story-telling is an art. Some people just don’t have it. You have to recognize where your talent lies. And you have to be prepared to do it over and over again. Which brings me to . . .
Number four: Finish the damn manuscript! A writer can’t expect to be a best-selling author if he or she can’t even complete one story. Writing groups are filled with people with good intentions. They work on a chapter for a year and never seem to move forward. I like Stephen King’s advice: Do a page a day. In a year’s time, you’ll have a book. Naturally, this assumes you have a plot. Once you’re on a deadline, you’ll have to produce more than a page a day, of course. More like five to ten.
Number five: Be prepared to promote your books in as many ways as you can. I foolishly thought that once my first novel was sold to a publisher, I was home free. So I sat back and waited for sales figures to pour in. Ignorance may be bliss but it’s also a death knell to anyone who wants to keep selling. This is something that’s not emphasized enough. Promote, promote, promote. For me, that’s the hardest part of my profession.
Now, if numbers one through five haven’t scared you off, but only made you more determined, then bravo. You’re ready for . . .
Number six: Believe in your talent! Don’t let statistics scare you off. Don’t let rejection letters dissuade you. Not everyone will love your writing or your characters or your story, but if you’ve written a damn good story, the probability is high that someone will. And if not that one, then maybe the next. Finish the book, send off your query letters, and then start another story while you’re waiting for responses. The more you write, the better you get. When I submitted my very first manuscript -- you know, that Pirates of the Caribbean wannabe? -- I didn’t know what the competition was like. I didn’t know much of anything, except that I had great stories to tell. That’s what this career is all about. Telling great stories.
Visit the author’s web site at www.katecollinsbooks.com