Katherine Howell – Author Interview

Cold JusticeThe Darkest HourFranticThe Darkest HourGone, Baby, GoneThe Killing PlaceBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and LifeWriting Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft

Your novels have been described as paramedic crime thrillers. Just as an author like Robin Cook, for example, has specialised in medical thrillers, do you intend to keep writing in this area or do you think you will mix it up a bit?

I really enjoy being able to make use of my paramedic experience in the books, and I’m currently contracted for at least two more books in the series. I’m also working on a standalone about a doctor. There may come a day when I start a new series focused just on police rather than with that medical angle, but I have no concrete plans for that right now.  

You have written, “Suspense is the anxious uncertainty felt by a reader who wants to know what will happen to characters she cares about. While suspense is sometimes thought to be important only in thriller and mystery novels, it’s actually a necessary part of all narratives as it’s this quality that keeps the reader reading.” Other than creating suspense, what do you think are some of the most important considerations for writing a compelling novel?

Characters are key. People often remember characters long after the plot has faded from their minds, and this is one reason why series continue to do so well – readers like a character and want to see what happens to them next. A plausible plot with stakes that matter is also important, however, as is good clear writing. 

You have mentioned that your favourite books on writing include Stephen King’s On Writing (reviewed here), Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, for it’s focus on the nuts and bolts of writing rather than on inspiration, and Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird. What makes these books stand out for you, or what are some of the most important ideas they have helped you develop?

I like their simple approach, and the mix of their discussion of the inspiration and the nuts-and-bolts. Burroway’s books has some great exercises, and Lamott and King tell interesting stories about their own experiences of writing. When I’m struggling or feeling a bit down with my work, it can help to read back over these books and see that other authors have felt the same way.

Your latest novel, Cold Justice, has been summarised as, “A teenage girl stumbles across the body of her classmate, Tim Pieters, hidden amongst the bushes. His family is devastated, the killer is never found. […] The more Ella digs into the past, the more the buried secrets and lies are brought to light. Can she track down the killer before more people are hurt?” How do you typically determine what kinds of events, plot progression or character development to to put in the middle section that makes up the bulk of a novel?

I start with a basic idea, so for that book I knew I wanted to use a cold case then I worked out how the paramedic would be involved. From there I think about the direction of the book, but not in any great detail – I come up with a few major plot points and I generally know the kind of ending (whether the culprit will die, how the showdown may happen) – then I start writing. So I don’t actually determine what happens in the middle: I wirte a scene, then see what will happen in the next one, and so on. It can be scary to know so little before I set out but I’ve come to accept that this is how it works for me; I just need to forge ahead and try to ignore the fear.

 How do you usually develop the initial idea for a story?

I read about current crimes in the news, and sometimes read true crime books about past cases, and noodle around with ideas and concepts, and daydream a lot …. then something starts to crystallise and I start to see how it might work. Sometimes I can tell that an idea won’t have the legs for a 100,000 word novel, even with subplots, so I scrap that and keep noodling. Eventually an idea-with-legs does come together and I can tell from the feeling in my stomach that this is the one. 

What makes a great first chapter of a novel for you, and is this significantly different from what makes a great short story?

A great first chapter does a few different things: it introduces the character and story in a way that draws the reader in, it sets up everything that will happen later, and it somehow holds an element of the ending so that when the reader reaches that ending she feels that the story has come full-circle, that it all fits together perfectly. A short story on the other hand is a self-contained nugget, something strong and perfect in itself, that doesn’t need to set up anything or be part of something else. It can stand alone, while a first chapter is part of a greater whole.

You have provided the following as advice for fiction writers, “Find good books in your genre and pull them apart. I analysed crime novels, asking what made me want to keep reading? How did the author do that? How did she draw all the plot threads together? How did she keep the identity of the bad guy hidden while also laying all the clues out before me? By studying how other books work, you can learn a great deal about techniques and devices to use in your own.” Can you give an example of a technique or device you discovered by pulling a novel apart and describe how you discovered or developed it from examining the novel?

American author Dennis Lehane has written some standalone novels and also a series about private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro. One of those series books is called Gone, Baby, Gone, and my copy of that is chockers with red pen marks because I analysed that thing to bits, looking at the plot structure, how he released information to the reader, and also his dialogue. I saw how little dialogue you could put on the page and still have the reader understand what’s going on, and realised the satisfaction I felt as that reader in being able to follow it. Even before that I hated being spoonfed as a reader – those times when the author tells you every little detail and word – but since then I feel it even more strongly. Less truly is more. Leaving little gaps like that involves the reader more deeply in what’s going on and draws them further into the story.

If you could go on your ideal 2-day fiction writing workshop next weekend, what would that involve?

It would involve the great crime authors Val Mcdermid, Michael Robotham, Tess Gerritsen and James Lee Burke, and I would spend the entire time asking them questions about developing story ideas, improving narrative techniques, building plot structure, things like that.

What is next for your fiction writing?

Right now I’m working on the fifth book in the Ella Marconi series which will be published next year. I’m looking forward to the release of the fourth book, Violent Exposure, in December here in Australia, and of my third, Cold Justice, in the UK next July, when I’ll be going over to promote it. I’m trying to make each book better than the last, to deepen and strengthen my characters and my story, most of all to give my readers a great read, because I’m so thankful for their support.

Cold JusticeThe Darkest HourFranticThe Darkest HourGone, Baby, GoneThe Killing PlaceBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and LifeWriting Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft


The Australian Literature Review

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5 Responses to Katherine Howell – Author Interview

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