4 Mystery Writers on How Their Art Imitates Life

They say you should write what you know. Well if that’s the case, then these four powerhouse female mystery writers have a lot of material! From a neurologist to a former NYC federal prosecutor to a psychologist in Providence and an appellate attorney from L.A., each woman has a unique (and interesting) background. Check out how all of their careers have inspired their writing! 

Without Medicine, There Would Be No Zoe Goldman

By Sandra Block, author of the Zoe Goldman series

Zoe Goldman is the main character of my series, a psychiatrist with plenty of her own baggage, including mother issues, relationship issues, and ADHD. At over six feet tall, she often feels uncomfortable in her own skin. And though she always tries to do the right thing, she doesn’t always succeed.

When people ask where she came from, I tell them the truth: I don’t know. Freud would say from my subconscious, and Zoe would probably agree. People have pointed out the similarities between us. She is a Jewish doctor, and so am I. She went to Yale. I went to Harvard. She’s a psychiatrist, I’m a neurologist (so both on the nerdy side). But that’s where it ends. I’m five foot two, from a stable family – where people don’t murder each other – and I’ve never been diagnosed with ADHD.

But as I’ve thought about it more, I realize that Zoe Goldman is a version of me, just a younger, more interesting (and more flawed) version. She was forged out of the furnace of my neurology residency. Furnace may seem an odd metaphor for medical training, but sometimes it felt that way. Simply put: residency is tough. Suicide is sadly and frighteningly all too common among medical students and physicians. In fact, it’s now recognized as an epidemic in the profession.

Why is that? There’s no easy answer. But mix together self-doubt, sleep deprivation, the stress of life-and-death decisions, guilt over losing patients, a hazing hierarchical training system and obsessive physician personalities, and you can see where things might go horribly wrong.

In The Secret Room, there is a rather painful scene where Zoe sits in her car in the parking lot thinking about suicide. She is not planning or even having “ideation” in the medical lingo. She is just fully empathizing with her patients who choose to linger in the car like her, but with the engine running in a closed garage, letting themselves and all their problems go to sleep. But in the end, Zoe does not do this. She drives away from the parking lot and gets on with the business of helping her patients and living her life.

Zoe is a typical resident in many ways. She is Type A, barraged with self-doubt though smarter than she realizes. But she has the additional challenge of her ADHD. She can be impetuous, sometimes making self-sabotaging decisions. In The Girl Without a Name, she says her epitaph will read: “Did stupid things. Got in trouble.” And she’s not far off. A friend/blogger once wrote in a review that “sometimes, you just want to shake her.” I completely understand. Sometimes I wanted to shake her too. But at the same time, her ADHD gives her unique strengths as well. She is hyper-observant, making connections that others miss. And she’s also relentless. She just won’t quit in her search for answers, especially when it comes to her patients. Her tenacity, though annoying at times, pushes people to reveal uncomfortable truths. Not coincidentally, both of these traits come in quite handy for solving mysteries.

So, yes, Zoe came from my subconscious somewhere. Did she pop up to address unfinished psychological damage from residency? Maybe. But, the truth is probably much simpler. When I finally decided to “write the damn book” at the age of forty, I went with the old saw: write what you know. For me, that was medicine.

Medicine has been the steady rock and foundation for my writing. But in a way, it was also becoming my crutch. Like Zoe, I am learning to trust myself – which means writing “what I don’t know,” of the world outside of the hospital and the exam room. Maybe we’ll hear from Zoe again someday. But for now, I am letting her take a well-deserved break.

Sandra Block graduated from college at Harvard, then returned to her native land of Buffalo, New York, for medical training and never left. She is a practicing neurologist and proud Sabres fan and lives at home with her family and Delilah, her impetuous yellow lab. She has been published in both medical and poetry journals.

From Prosecutor to Crime Novelist

By Michele Campbell, author of It’s Always the Husband

Anybody who’s been a prosecutor or a cop in a big city for any period of time has unbelievable war stories. Stuff the average person doesn’t know, would never see, and might not even believe if they heard about it. Some of it sickening, some of it totally hilarious, but all falling into the category of “you can’t make this stuff up.”

I had the privilege of serving as a federal prosecutor in New York City for eight years before I started writing crime novels. I was an Assistant United States Attorney in the Eastern District of New York, which covers some of the most drug- and gang-infested areas of Brooklyn and Queens. I specialized in narcotics, and we’re not talking about busting high school kids selling pot, either. The Eastern District includes the airports and the ports serving New York City, so my jurisdiction prosecuted the biggest narcotics organizations in the world. We’re talking Mexican cocaine cartels loading forty or fifty million dollars of cash at a time into tractor-trailers to send back across the border, Burmese warlords controlling hundreds of kilos of heroin secreted in seemingly innocent shipments of goods from Southeast Asia, and local kingpins operating massive crack and heroin supermarkets 24/7 on the streets of our cities, pitching drugs to young children as they walked to school. I prosecuted all these cases, and more, many of them involving serious violence, weapons charges, even murder.

But all good things must come to an end, especially when those things require working seventy hours a week, and you have little kids at home.  Hard as I tried, I couldn’t manage being a mom on a trial lawyer’s schedule. I moved on, with a head full of knowledge about crime and law enforcement that I wanted to put to good use. I got a job teaching criminal law, and my husband and I moved to an idyllic New England college town to raise our kids. It was there, surrounded by the ivy-covered hallowed halls, that I wrote It’s Always the Husband – the story of three very different young women who meet as college roommates and become fast friends, then enemies. 

We’ve all had friendships like that, right? Maybe you’re not perfect for each other. Maybe you’re even bad for each other. But the intensity of the experience you’re sharing (like, being a college freshman in an intimidating Ivy-League school) bonds you. In It’s Always the Husband, the frenemy relationship turns toxic, then deadly. Wealthy, privileged, blonde and gorgeous, Kate Eastman seems like she has it all. But her wild side is powerful enough to drag down everyone around her. Aubrey Miller comes from a poor family and can’t believe her luck when she winds up at prestigious Carlisle College rooming with Kate and Jenny. Aubrey would follow Kate anywhere — to parties, to nightclubs, even to her death. Jenny Vega — bright, pretty, ambitious — is the practical one, the striver, who’d rather study and get ahead than party. She adores her roommates, and she knows they’re bad for her. Will she save them, or will she become another victim of the chaos that follows in their wake? 

It’s Always the Husband has been described as Peyton Place meets the Ivy League, and on the one hand, it is. On the other hand, it has a hard edge of realism that comes from my law enforcement background. The roommates are involved in a tragic death at the end of freshman year that leaves them with a terrible secret. They stay in touch because they have to, to keep an eye on one another and make sure nobody squeals. Twenty years later, one of them turns up dead. When the police descend, they do what real-life cops do, and look to the obvious suspects. The hard-boiled police chief is convinced the husband did it. He has good reason to be, since friends or family members of the victim commit the vast majority of murders. Usually the cops identify the killer right away, and the investigation is just the slow, laborious process of gathering evidence to prove it in court.  Search warrants, witness interviews, subpoenas for bank and telephone records, crime scene investigation, forensic testing. All those techniques, and more, show up in my book, and add a dose of realism to balance out the drama. Was it the husband, or the best friend? Only one way to find out!

A graduate of Harvard University and Stanford Law School, Michele Campbell worked at a prestigious Manhattan law firm before spending eight years fighting crime as a federal prosecutor in New York City.

INFJ

By J. L. Doucette, author of Last Seen

My two careers developed side by side, twins with slight, but obvious differences, vying for dominance at times, but mostly living together in harmony, each one unable to imagine life without the other. I’ve been a practicing psychologist for thirty years and with the publication of Last Seen: A Dr. Pepper Hunt Mystery I became a novelist.

On the Myers-Briggs test of personality types, I am an INFJ, which stands for Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling and Judging. While this pattern of personality characteristics makes up only 1 percent of the population, I am in good company with Agatha Christie and J. K. Rowling, both INFJs, and at home with other authors. According to an online survey, most writers score either INFJ (Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Judging) or INTJ (Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging).

As it happens INFJ is also the personality type most compatible with being a clinical psychologist. People with this pattern are strong communicators and listeners, who naturally search for meaning and feel a need to understand people and their individual motivations. Creativity, insight, empathy, goal-oriented, perfectionistic, and private are all characteristics.

I was always a writer. Putting words on paper stilled the chaos in my mind.  My internal process often overwhelmed me, and I wondered if other people were really as untroubled as they seemed. In fiction I encountered the inner lives of characters and began to believe that everyone inhabited a world of secrets far more interesting than what showed on the surface.

But I was the daughter of working class parents, and I couldn’t imagine life as a writer with no reliable source of income. It seemed a dilettante choice and a privilege out of my league and my life experience.

Instead I went to graduate school to become a psychologist, a profession that would allow me to learn more about the mind and human behavior, which could only improve my writing.

People consult psychotherapists when the life they created produces disturbing symptoms – anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, indulgence in dangerous distractions, impulsive acts that bring regret. Psychological suffering is evidence of living in an outgrown story that hurts like walking in a too-small shoe. As I listen to each narrative unfold, I wait for clarity to arise from specific details. I use the same process when I’m trying to understand a patient as I do when I’m trying to create a credible, fictional character. Creativity, insight, sensitivity, empathy are required for both endeavors.

The therapy room is full of rich and complicated stories, some of them so involved that if a reader encountered them on the page, they might think the writer’s imagination had gone too far. Every therapist has known hours filled with grief and despair, the paralysis of fear and panic, obsessions and jealousies, uncovered memories of unspeakable abuse, suicidal longings, hours lost to dissociation when the pain is too great for the mind to remain in the body, trauma relived, and the everyday, enduring heartache of love and parenting. Churning human drama—the stuff of great fiction!

But nothing I hear in the consulting room will ever appear on the page. Privacy is required for treatment. No one would disclose private thoughts and feelings if they thought they would later find them published in a work of fiction. But a thing that is true about human experience is that there are no new stories. Writers know this. Wikipedia and other sources list only seven basic plots for novels.

What makes therapy so compelling for the therapist and challenging for the patient is unraveling each individual’s unique narrative within the universal experience. I use the same skills when creating a fictional world. The plot is enhanced as characters readers can relate to come alive to speak and act and move the stories across the narrative arc of the novel.

People often say to me, when I tell them I’m a psychologist, “you must have heard it all.” Maybe not all, but I have certainly heard a lot. And what I’ve been privileged to hear has definitely contributed to what I know of people and the world. And although the details will always remain private, I believe, the stories I’ve heard in therapy have made me a better writer.

J.L. Doucette returned to Rhode Island after living many years in Wyoming. She earned a doctorate in counseling psychology from Boston University and has a private practice in Providence. She is at work on her second novel, On a Quiet Street, also featuring Dr. Pepper Hunt.

Real Life as a Fodder for Creating Fiction

By C.E. Tobisman, author of the Caroline Auden series

The rattle of the bullpen gate. The mildew odor of book pulp. The tired sigh of the overworked judge. These are all things I know intimately.

After practicing law for 20 years, I’ve sat in many courtrooms. I’ve seen many proceedings. I’ve watched many lawyers, litigants and judges. These experiences give life to my legal thrillers.

Writers are voyeurs. We have to be. Our building materials are our lives — the things we’ve seen, heard and felt. As a result, our jobs and relationships always inform what we write. This doesn’t mean we’re constrained by the limits of what we’ve experienced. It just means our experiences become our jumping-off points for creating characters, conflicts and plot.

My protagonist, Caroline Auden, is a hacker-turned-lawyer who struggles to balance her quest for justice with her need to follow the law. She has a skill that lets her pry, but a profession that demands that she never use that skill. This tension, which has been my fodder for creating a complex, compelling character, draws directly from what I know as a lawyer.

I’ll explain what I mean.

Many people think of lawyers as ambulance chasers with few scruples, but the truth is that lawyers must adhere to a strict code of professional conduct. They can’t lie to the court. They can’t reveal their clients’ secrets. They sometimes must act as their clients’ conscience. These ethical obligations are the foundation of my protagonist’s struggles. Caroline understands she’s supposed to behave in a certain way, even as the exigencies of the plot push her to behave differently. She’s tempted to bend her professional ethics to seek justice. (Hence, the tag line for Doubt:  “The closer she gets to justice, the further she gets from the law.”) While I’m not a hacker, my background as a lawyer – and my knowledge of a lawyer’s ethical duties – have been instrumental to generating a character with internal tension.

My experience as a woman in the legal field has also informed my writing. While the law is often a meritocracy, it is also still a predominantly male world. Women may find they’re underestimated by opponents, judges and sometimes even allies. On more than one occasion, I’ve walked into a courtroom where a judge has made the assumption that my male colleague is handling the argument – and has directed questions to him rather than me. Once I’ve established that I’m the one arguing, the judge adjusts and things go swimmingly. But the assumption is there. All female lawyers have similar stories.

In writing fiction, I’ve explored how these subtle biases work both for and against women. On one hand, it can be irksome for a woman to have to overcome assumptions about whether she’s the lawyer (rather than the paralegal), whether she’s the first chair (rather than the junior associate), or whether she’s got the experience to handle a big argument. On the other hand, the tacit assumptions held by the denizens of the legal world can let a woman fly under the radar.

Though he’s not a woman, the television character Columbo provides a good example of how a clever sleuth can turn being underestimated into an advantage. Disheveled and unassuming, police detective Columbo uses people’s dismissiveness as a tool for unearthing information and setting traps to ensnare criminals. My protagonist plays with this dynamic, too. She grapples with – and makes use of — how she’s perceived.

Any writer tries to find that sleight of hand that makes a character feel like someone the reader knows or believes they might meet someday. Every writer wants to conjure scenes that move effortlessly off the page, words dissolving into pictures and emotions. For a lawyer, writing about the legal world is easy(ish) because we’ve met many of the characters and seen many of the scenes in real life. We must change the context, characters, names and all the rest, but our experiences give us a deep well from which to generate fiction: To create a lie that tells the truth (as Albert Camus so perfectly put it).

C.E. Tobisman lives in Los Angeles with her wife, three children, and adorable dog, Huxley. She’s an appellate attorney and proud dork. For more about the author and her work, visit www.cetobisman.com or follow her on Twitter @cetobisman_.

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