Writers are always watching. It’s an occupational hazard. We absorb, recall and use what we see. I stand in line at Starbucks and focus on a lanky young man in shorts and flip-flops with dark hair curling around his T-shirt’s neckline, a backpack slung casually over one shoulder. He catches my attention because he shuffles in still groggy from sleep, then stands, eyes glazed over, vacantly memorizing the menu.
“What’ll you have?” the cashier asks, growing impatient.
Backpack man yawns, and then shrugs. “Not sure.”
“Rough night?” the clerk inquires, raising one eyebrow.
Writers see things and commit them to memory, and at some point backpack man becomes a character in a book, perhaps carrying something lethal in his satchel, perhaps a terrorist walking into a crowded movie theater.
The sound of rain on a tin roof? The yellowed green of grass in a summer drought? The emotional evisceration of losing a true love. All fodder, all life lessons, all catalogued for future reference.
Many of my life lessons have involved courtrooms, prosecutors, cops and killers. I started reporting on sensational murders in the mid-eighties, as a magazine journalist. The first case was the trial of a middle-school principal for the killing of the school’s football coach, in a tiny Big Thicket town east of Houston. Seven weeks in a courtroom hearing evidence about blood splatter and decomposition.
Since then, I’ve covered many cases, from serial killers to an ex-wife willing to murder to regain her kids. I once sat across from a killer who explained in vivid detail what if felt like to plunge a samurai sword into the chest of a woman begging for her life. These are moments I’ll never forget. They stay with me, like the chill of hearing prison doors clang shut behind me.
From magazine work, I went on to write true crime books, six of them so far. And then, about five years ago, I wrote my first novel, Singularity, a mystery centered on a Texas Ranger/profiler. I’m not sure where Sarah Armstrong came from, but I think of her as a composite of all the women cops I’ve known over the past twenty-five years. She speaks her mind, and she’s smart. She has good intentions, if they sometimes lead to trouble, as in this first book, when she’s drawn into the hunt for a serial killer.
The second book in the series, Blood Lines, came out in 2009. This time the germ of the idea formed close to home. In the early nineties, I took the dog for a walk and saw crime scene tape encircling a neighbor’s house. The woman had been found in bed with a bullet through her head and a typed suicide note at her side. In Blood Lines, Sarah asks if a rich, beautiful young oil company exec really pulled the trigger? Could it be murder?
It’s perhaps not surprising then that months after living through Hurricane Ike, I’d write a crime novel where the ticking clock is an approaching hurricane. In The Killing Storm, a child is missing and slaughtered longhorns turn up outside Houston, ones with cryptic African symbols drawn on their sides, symbols that tie back to a long-forgotten era of sugar cane plantations and slavery.
Where will the next idea come from? Who knows? I don’t. But it will come, and when it does, I’ll file it away. Someday, when I need it, it’ll be there, waiting.
Kathryn Casey bio:
Kathryn Casey is an award-winning, Houston-based novelist and journalist, the creator of the Sarah Armstrong mystery series and the author of five highly acclaimed true crime books. SINGULARITY, the first in the Armstrong series, debuted in June to rave reviews. It’s a Deadly Pleasures magazine Best First Novel of 2008 selection, was included in Vanity Fair’s Hot Type page, won stars from Publishers Weekly and Booklist, and the Tampa Tribune said: “Not since Patricia Cornwell's POSTMORTEM has a crime author crafted such a stellar series debut. Kathryn Casey hits the right notes.”
The second in the series, BLOOD LINES (2009) was called a “strong sequel” by Publisher’s Weekly, and was included in a Reader’s Digest condensed books edition for fall 2010.
The Killing Storm isn’t out until November 2010, but is already garnering rave reviews. It’s been chosen as a Mystery Guild and Doubleday Book Club selection, and Publisher’s Weekly called it “the best in the series so far.” Library Journal gave the book a star, and Kirkus has called it “pulse-pounding.”
In addition, Ann Rule has called Casey, “one of the best in the true crime genre.” Her non-fiction books all published by HarperCollins include: A WARRANT TO KILL, (2000); SHE WANTED IT ALL (2005); DIE, MY LOVE (2007); A DESCENT INTO HELL (2008), EVIL BESIDE HER (2008), and SHATTERED (2010) . Three were both Literary Guild, Mystery Guild, and Doubleday Book Club selections.