New York Times-bestselling author Robert Dugoni writes legal thrillers with heart. “These aren’t what some might expect in a traditional thriller novel, all action and dialogue. I work hard to develop my characters. I try to write honest characters, people who have self-regard for their own well-being. If I can get my characters to care about themselves, readers will care also, and be more invested. Then I can put my characters in peril.”
Dugoni practiced law for thirteen years in San Francisco before becoming a full-time writer. His novels in the critically-acclaimed David Sloane series are THE JURY MASTER, WRONGFUL DEATH, BODILY HARM, THE CONVICTION and MURDER ONE, which was a finalist for the Harper Lee Award for literary excellence. He has also written the bestselling standalone novel DAMAGE CONTROL, and THE CYANIDE CANARY, a non-fiction book. His latest novel, MY SISTER’S GRAVE, landed the number one spot on Amazon’s Kindle Bestseller List, knocking out GONE GIRL, and was named as Library Journal’s top 5 thrillers of 2014.
In MY SISTER’S GRAVE, Dugoni introduces Tracy Crosswhite, a former high school chemistry teacher turned Seattle police detective. Tracy has spent twenty years questioning the facts surrounding her sister Sarah’s disappearance and the murder trial that followed. She doesn’t believe that Edmund House—a convicted rapist and the man condemned for Sarah’s murder—is guilty. Motivated by the opportunity to obtain real justice, Tracy has dedicated her life to tracking down killers.
When Sarah’s remains are finally discovered near their hometown in the northern Cascade Mountains of Washington State, Tracy is determined to get the answers she’s been seeking. As she searches for the real killer, she unearths dark, long-kept secrets that will forever change her relationship to her past—and open the door to deadly danger.
MY SISTER’S GRAVE is your first book with a female protagonist, yet you show remarkable insight into the female mind, especially your portrayal of the two sisters. As one of ten siblings, did your relationship with your sisters help you develop the characters? Was there anyone else who influenced the character of Tracy?
You hit the nail on the head. Three older sisters. One baby sister. Totally different relationships. I watched my older sisters have to take a lot of responsibility at a young age, just like Tracy. They were the oldest so they looked out for the rest of us, made the school lunches, did the laundry, helped with dinners. We didn’t buck them. We did what we were told because we knew they were an extension of my mother and my mother is a tough Irish lady who in addition to raising ten children has had her own business for thirty years. My youngest sister was not the baby, but she was the baby girl, and we were very protective of her. Like Sarah she had a special relationship with our Dad. I hesitate to say she was his favorite, but I can remember the two of them eating popcorn and watching movies snuggled on the couch. We also had all the sister to sister drama, particularly during the teenage years. I can remember my sisters arguing about an article of clothing one of them had worn before the rightful owner had worn it at least once. Getting in the bathroom in the morning was so impossible my brothers and I showered at night. I can remember dropping off my oldest sister at high school that first day and worrying if she was going to be okay. I remember her first boyfriend. My sisters were also fiercely loyal to one another and shared a lot of secrets. It you crossed one of them, you crossed the other three.
The legal profession also has a lot of competent females and I’ve experienced a lot of different personalities over the years from which I could draw my characters of Tracy and Sarah. I’ve seen the different types of pressures on women as they rise up the law firm ranks. I witnessed the conflict when they want to have children yet remain on partnership track, as well as the emotional trauma and time constraints being a working mother creates. I’ve had conversations with them when they have felt unfairly treated and when they talk about how they never get invited to lunch and when they do the conversation revolves around sports. I’ve heard inappropriate comments.
Finally, I’ve been fortunate to have one of Seattle’s first female homicide detectives to consult with and she has been very open about the challenges she has faced in her career. I also had the chance to speak with Former King County Sheriff Sue Rohr and her experiences as a female officer. Tracy Crosswhite is an amalgamation of all of these women. I didn’t try to write from the perspective of a woman. I tried to write from the perspective of a hardened homicide detective who has a gaping hole in her life from the loss of someone she loved and she feels guilty for it. Those emotions are universal for men and women.
This is also your first police procedure. How was it different from writing legal thrillers?
It is and it isn’t my first. Murder One had two story lines and one of those story lines involved Tracy Crosswhite and her partner, Kinsington Rowe, investigating the murder of a Russian drug dealer. So I had to do a tremendous amount of research for that novel to understand police procedure when there is a violent crime. I think the biggest difference is, while I know legal work and what goes into preparing for and actually trying a case, I have no training in police procedure or criminal law. So I sort of became like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, “I’ve depended on the kindness of strangers!” A lot of people have stepped up to help me with details like the responding officer’s duties, the role of the medical examiner, autopsies, forensic anthropology, investigative techniques, weapons, etcetera. I don’t always get it right and that is always my fault. When I’m wrong it’s usually because I thought I knew the answer and didn’t do the research.
MY SISTER’S GRAVE continuously revisits the past and the events leading up to Sarah’s murder, making her an integral part of the story. It’s an effective way of getting to know Sarah, sympathizing with her ordeal. What made you decide to use these flashbacks, and did you know they would work so well?
I knew I had to humanize Sarah for the reader. I knew I had to make them care so that Sarah was not just another “victim.” When I met with the homicide detectives during the research for the book they emphasized to me that when a violent crime occurs it is not just the victim who suffers. The crime is really a crime against the entire family and the entire community. In a small town, such as the fictionalized Cedar Grove, Washington, people never really recover. They suddenly lock their doors. Parents walk their children to the bus. They don’t let them ride their bikes too far from home. So I needed to show what a special little kid Sarah was, how the entire town knew and loved her. I had to show that her family was prominent in that town and therefore everyone becomes involved when Sarah goes missing. I also set the book during the winter because I wanted the setting to be bleak and difficult and isolated. What I wanted was for the reader to feel the loss that Tracy and her family suffered, that the whole community suffered, really. I wanted them to close the book and understand there were no winners when a life is taken unnecessarily and too soon. Justice may be served, but it doesn’t fill the tremendous holes that are left behind.
You have quite a few twists in the story. I’m wondering if you outline your stories or if you think that makes it harder to surprise your readers.
I don’t outline the way some people traditionally outline. I’ve studied story structure a lot, however, and I generally know what is supposed to happen when. For me, however, the thrill is often in exploring the characters and the plot during the first draft. I write the first draft without stopping to do much editing. I try to let the first draft be my outline and allow my characters to develop and help guide me. As I write the novel I begin to see things I hadn’t thought of and I keep notes on a separate screen about those thoughts and ideas. I never rush to just take a detour because you suddenly can realize it changes too much of the book that you hadn’t contemplated. When I go back over the book and create additional drafts I begin to explore the notes I’ve made. Someone once told me the end of a book has to be inevitable but completely unexpected for the reader. That’s a tall order for any writer, but if I’ve done my work correctly in the beginning of the book and developed it in the middle of the book, then the ending should be inevitable—just not what the reader thought it would be. Readers like twists, they don’t like tricks. You have to play fair with them.
Will we be seeing more of Tracy Crosswhite, perhaps in a series?
I’m hoping. So far the trade magazines and reader reviews have been immensely positive and have asked for more of Tracy Crosswhite. I can tell you that in the beginning of MY SISTER’S GRAVE Tracy is investigating a bizarre murder of an exotic dancer. The case is not fully resolved. Book two opens with another murder of another exotic dancer and Tracy realizes Seattle may have another serial killer on its hands, at a time when a beleaguered police department can’t afford any more bad publicity. I see Tracy, because of her unique background, becoming interested in solving cold cases. Those are really rich with possibilities.
You’ve done some terrific workshops and lectures on writing. What is your best advice to new writers?
Learn the craft before you get started, not during the process of writing your novel. There are a lot of talented writers out there, but writing a novel is different. Writing a good novel requires understanding story structure, how stories unfold, character development, voice, effective dialogue, pacing, and how to raise and maintain tension. I failed miserably when I started out. I’d been a journalist and, frankly, naïve. I thought writing was writing, and I’d always been a big reader. So how hard could it be, right? Writing a novel is very hard. It requires a great deal of discipline and dedication. So I say to people learn the craft, then put your butt in the chair and go to work.
I think my favorite advice you gave in an interview was that it’s important to realize there are some things out of our hands and that it’s more productive to focus on the things that are within our control. Could you explain in more detail how this helped you in your writing career?
Most writers really have control over only one thing, the writing. Until you reach the mega-star level, writers don’t have a lot of leverage when it comes to things like book covers and titles or marketing and promotion. We have a say in those things but this is a business and publishers make business decisions they feel are in the best interests of the company. As writers we’re not privy to many of those decisions or why they’re made. I’ve had some interesting conversations over the years with writers who found out their book was rejected because, although the publisher really liked it, they had another similar author to launch that year. So the only thing most of us can really control is the writing, and too often I see writers give that up by turning in books that are not ready to be published. They figure, “well, that’s close enough.” So I always ask, “How would you feel if your doctor or dentist or lawyer had the same attitude?” We have to strive for perfection. When a writer turns in a book she has to feel like she has poured everything she could into it, made it the best she could, something she is proud to put her name on. If we do that, then whether the book is bought or rejected no longer dictates its worth.
Robert Dugoni is the critically acclaimed and New York Times-bestselling author of the David Sloane series: THE JURY MASTER, WRONGFUL DEATH, BODILY HARM, MURDER ONE, and THE CONVICTION. MURDER ONE was a finalist for the Harper Lee Award for literary excellence. He is also the author of the bestselling standalone novel DAMAGE CONTROL, and the nonfiction work THE CYANIDE CANARY.
To learn more about Robert, please visit his website.