June 24 – 30: “At what age did you realize writing suited you, and how did it happen?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5It’s the first full week of summer and ThrillerFest is just around the corner! This week we’re joined by ITW Members D. P. Lyle, DiAnn Mills, Jen Conley, Hannah Mary McKinnon, Frank Zafiro, Timothy Jay Smith, Gerald Dean Rice, Tracy Clark and Lee Murray as they reminisce about the beginning of their writing journey. At what age did you realize writing suited you, and how did it happen? Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along!


Tracy Clark is the author of the Cass Raines Chicago mystery series. Her debut “Broken Places” earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly, was named Best New PI of 2018 by CrimeReads, and was listed as one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2018. She was also nominated for the 2018 Lefty Award for Best Debut Novel and the 2019 Shamus Award for Best First PI Novel.


D. P. Lyle is the Amazon #1 Bestselling; Macavity and Benjamin Franklin Award winning; and Edgar(2), Agatha, Anthony, Shamus, Scribe, Silver Falchion, and USA Today Best Book(2) Award nominated author of both non-fiction and fiction (the Samantha Cody, Dub Walker, and Jake Longly thriller series and the Royal Pains media tie-in series). Along with Jan Burke, he was the co-host of Crime and Science Radio and hosts the podcast series Criminal Mischief. He has served as story consultant to many novelists and the screenwriters of shows such as Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, 1-800-Missing, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars.


Jen Conley has published many short stories in various crime fiction anthologies, magazines and ezines. Her short story collection, Cannibals: Stories from the Edge of the Pine Barrens, was nominated for an Anthony Award in 2017. She lives in Brick, NJ.



Hannah Mary McKinnon was born in the UK, grew up in Switzerland, and moved to Canada in 2010. After a successful career in recruitment, she quit the corporate world in favor of writing. She now lives in Oakville, Ontario, with her husband and three sons, and is delighted by her 20-second commute.



Raised crisscrossing America pulling a small green trailer behind the family car, Timothy Jay Smith developed a ceaseless wanderlust that has taken him around the world many times. He’s won top honors for his screenplays, stage plays and novels in numerous prestigious competitions; among them, contests sponsored by the American Screenwriters Association, WriteMovies, Houston WorldFest, Rhode Island International Film Festival, StoryPros International, and the Hollywood Screenwriting Institute. He won the 2008 Paris Prize for Fiction, and his first stageplay, which went on to a successful NYC production, won the prestigious Stanley Drama Award.


Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning writer and editor of science fiction, fantasy, and horror (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows), and a two-time Bram Stoker nominee. Her works include the Taine McKenna military thriller series (Severed), and supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra co-authored with Dan Rabarts (RDSP). Lee lives with her family in New Zealand where she conjures up stories from her office overlooking a cow paddock.


Gerald Dean Rice is hard at work on something right now. Whether it’s vampires, zombies, or something you’ve never seen before, he’s always dedicated to writing something unique. He’s the author of numerous short stories, including the Halloween eBook “The Best Night of the Year”, the YA book “Vamp-Hire,” the anthology Anything but Zombies, and the upcoming fantasy thriller The Bureau of Retired Spells and Broken Magic.


DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She weaves memorable characters with unpredictable plots to create action-packed, suspense-filled novels. DiAnn is a founding board member of the American Christian Fiction Writers, a member of Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. She is co-director of the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference, Mountainside Marketing Conference, and the Mountainside Novelist Retreat with social media specialist Edie Melson, where she continues her passion of helping other writers be successful. She speaks to various groups and teaches writing workshops around the country.


Frank Zafiro is a retired police captain who writes procedurals, hard-boiled crime, PI mysteries, and more. He has teamed up with other writers such as Eric Beetner, Colin Conway, Lawrence Kelter, B. R. Paulson, and Jim Wilsky. He hosts the podcast Wrong Place, Write Crime, which features mystery authors. He is a big fan of Bruce Springsteen, hockey, and The Wire. He currently lives in Oregon, where he is also a tortured guitarist.


  1. I was around ten when I can remember first thinking, “I’m going to be a writer.” But I think I was telling stories long before that. My parents confused them with lies.

    This question is a common one from readers and interviewers alike, right up there with ‘where do you get your ideas?.’ I get that there is a population of writers who never thought about being a writer until their fortieth birthday, but I wonder what percentage that is. I would guess that the majority have always known, or at least wished, that they are a writer at heart, no matter when they actually started to follow that passion.

    Do musicians get this questions? Painters? Actors? I’m genuinely curious. My view is probably egocentric, since, for almost my entire life, the idea of being a writer has been so central to how I see myself. So I’ll be watching this conversation with great interest, to hear about other writers’ journeys.

  2. I guess I was in grade school when I discovered writing came easy for me. I had no problem writing essays, book reports or class assignments. My friends, I saw, agonized over them, dreaded them, but I was able to somehow knock them out in record time. And I liked doing it, the longer the essay required, the better. Words never scared me. The positive feedback from my teachers was also a real kick.
    I think I’d liken the satisfaction of knowing I could do a thing well to maybe a budding stand-up comedian getting his or her first real laugh as the class clown, or a future actor getting his or her first standing ovation in a school play. I could write my own little stories. I could ace the essay. I was a writer, though it would be decades before I could say those words out loud without feeling like a fraud or like there could ever be any comparison between what I did way down here and what Harper Lee or Dashiell Hammett or Chester Himes did way up there.
    I was the kid who was always reading and who was never far from pencil and paper, the shy kid off in a corner watching how people moved and talked and interacted with one another, while the rest of my friends were outside jumping rope or tossing a ball around. Maybe other writers share the same experience? Eventually, what came easily, writing, got more difficult, as I slowly learned that writing was a craft and there was a lot more to it, none of it easy.
    But writers are stubborn so-and-sos, defiant little buggers. We’ll work those words till they cry uncle or our fingers bleed. Maybe that’s when you know you’re a writer? After you’ve been rejected a million times and told to go fish, but you just will not give up or give in? When you roll up your sleeves and dive back into a blank page with a little mad on, determined to show ‘em? What do you think?

  3. Posted on behalf of author Timothy Jay Smith:

    As a kid, I was a big reader. By that, I mean I always had a book going. It’s reading that taught me to write, and my mother taught me to read. She always had a book going, too, and boasted that she’d read every book in her hometown’s small library. (That would be Greenfield, Iowa, also where I was born but not raised.) She was also the first women in her family to graduate from college, and she equated reading with education.

    I was probably nine-years-old when someone—a babysitter?—decided I should learn to write haiku. So I did, and actually had a couple of poems published in the “Kids’ Korner” of my hometown’s newspaper. (The would be The Desert Sunin Palm Springs, CA.)

    In the fourth grade, I wrote my first stage play. It was set during the Civil War, and one-by-one, a group of slaves, sitting around a bonfire, snuck off into the night while they sang Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. It may have lacked a three-act structure but it sure had meaning!

    Two years later, I started my first novel and showed what I’d written to my mother. She told me it was dirty. A young couple was having a picnic on a blanket in a park when WWII bomber jets flew overhead. What could be dirty about that? Later, I realized my mother, being very modest, thought I should not, at the age of 12, write about a young couple sprawled on a picnic blanket. But at the time, all I knew is that dirty wasn’t good, and that rather crimped my writing for some forty years.

    Actually, not really. I was never a frustrated writer with a regrettable day job. I had a great career. The first half of my adult life I spent working on projects to help low income people all over the world. I always enjoyed the writing aspects of my work—reports, proposals, even two credit manuals—but I reached a point where I’d accomplished my career goals, I was only forty-six years old and I had a story I wanted to tell. A story I had to tell. I was foolish enough to think it might even contribute to Middle East peace.

    It didn’t, but it led me down the writing path and I’ve never looked back.

    1. Your career sounds very interesting and far more noble than mine. Like you, I loved my former job, and wrote a lot for work. My years of business experience, and communication, networking and public speaking abilities have helped immensely, too. It’s quite astounding how much time authors don’t actually spend writing 🙂

      1. Posted on behalf of author Timothy Jay Smith who seems to be having more trouble than usual to post his response.

        Writers need to do a lot more than write and send manuscripts to agents. It’s astounding how much we have to be involved in marketing. Even though I hired great publicists, there was still a lot I could and/or had to do. Even big publishers spend little money or time promoting books by anyone other than the big names. Social media makes it possible for marketing to be endless. I let my publicists line up radio spots and anything high profile, and I reached out to book bloggers all over the world. I easily put in 400 hours in the weeks leading up to and right after publication.

  4. I wanted to write since I was eight years old. But I didn’t have the guts to pursue it seriously. Over twenty years ago my husband said to me, “Stop telling me someday you’re going to write a book. Do it now. Quit your job. I give you one year to get anything published.”
    So I did. With a great deal of attitude, and I never went back to my old job. Two years later, my first novel released. Oh, the excitement of tearing into the box of author copies. The cover … the book’s name … my name. A dream come true. The thrill never ends. And it shouldn’t.
    That was 78 books and novellas ago. But it’s not been easy. Every book is a little tougher to write. The characterization must be deeper. The plot’s twists and turns unexpected. The setting more intense. The dialogue and emotion like a sword fight. But if writing were easy, everyone would have a bestseller. We writers are in a constant state of learning the craft.
    When I think back to the time when writing began as a dream, the urge and passion to communicate through the written word became so powerful that I didn’t know what to do with it.
    It was power.
    It was passion.
    It was alive.
    It was undeniable.
    I can also safely say the techniques and tools of the craft weren’t drop-shipped into my brain. Writing is about hard work and sacrifices.
    A writer’s commitment to the craft may mean getting up at 4:00 a.m. to write, or giving up coffee breaks, or bringing lunch from home and writing during the lunch hour, or staying up after everyone else is in bed, or giving up a Saturday afternoon nap. When we sacrifice money for conferences or purchase how-to books, it’s all worth it.
    Coretta Scott Kings said, “I learned that when you are willing to make sacrifices for a great cause, you will never be alone.”

    1. Your husband sounds like mine – he kept telling me to go for it and “just write that damn novel.” I’m very glad he did.
      78 books and novellas? Incredible. Congratulations!

  5. I probably realized I wanted to write when I was in 4th grade, so about 9 years old. I was writing mobster plays and dumb poems, and then I quickly graduated to horror stories so I could scare my sister and her friends. But mostly I was reading Judy Blume and horror books and I knew then I wanted to write either Judy Blume-esq books or I wanted to write stories that frightened people. I think I’ve landed in the middle–crime fiction with a shred of horror and a Judy Blume-esq voice.

    How it happened? I continued to write as a teen, put it aside in 20s to get my life together (find a teaching job and get that going), and then went back to it in my 30s. Slowly, very slowly, I got a few things published. Then I found the crime fiction world and I started really getting published. I think I’ve always known writing suited me, even when I wasn’t writing. I’m a loner by nature and not that I think all writers need to be loners, I think many of us tend to be to some extent, if only to give ourselves time to think. When I was younger I spent a lot time trying to find something that I wanted to do for a living–but it was always a writer. Teaching middle school was also on my list but mostly because I could teach what I love–stories and books–and then have the time in the summer to write.

  6. I think my love of stories and reading came before the writing. Non-verbal now, it was my dad who instilled that love of reading in me. My earliest memories are of him reading to me, made-up bedtime stories full of quirky characters, outlandish adventures, and crazy voices. Every night there’d be a new adventure to send my brother and I to sleep. Ha! There was a series of tales about two frogs: mates named Horace and Aristotle (one smart and the other goofy), who lived in the creek at the bottom of road. Other favourites were tales of the famous inventor, Professor Morgan (Dad’s name is Morgan, naturally) and his amazing Zzz-Burb machine that could travel anywhere, even in space. Professor Morgan was often called upon by the Queen to travel the universe, rescuing people, solving problems, and generally cleaning up the environment. I’m not sure Dad’s stories were great at getting us to sleep, but we loved those tales so much. As we got older, he read us Grimm’s Tales and Dr Seuss, all with those silly voices of his. By the time it was my little sister and brother’s turn for Horace and Aristotle, I’d discovered reading and was devouring everything at the local library—Taupō Municipal Library—where we went every Friday after school to choose the week’s library books. We were allowed to take home twenty books. For free. I’d usually read all mine before the weekend was up. [A segue here: We lost a library book once. Nearly fifty years on I remember the family shame. Mum made us search the house for it. We couldn’t find it anywhere. Gus and Gilly. We eventually found it slipped down the back of a big lift-the-lid mirror dresser when we moved out of the house a year later.] Because I loved stories so much, I made my own versions from folded paper that I stapled together. The tales inside weren’t great: long-winded and big on exposition as I recall. My illustrating skills remain much as they were then: that is to say, not good! When I suggested becoming a writer at eleven, having just read Gone with the Wind. Dad joked that I would have to start straight away if I wanted to be a younger novelist than Mitchell: I had just fifteen years left, and 500 pages is a lot of words. Instead, I got busy with netball and piano lessons and other things. When it was time select my classes for college, I raised the idea of writing again, but Dad dissuaded me, saying writers struggled to make a living. Better to be an engineer or a doctor. Something useful. So I took Dad’s advice and studied sciences, wrote reports, and edited my colleagues’ PhD theses. It wasn’t until years later, when my children were small, that I took up writing fiction, mostly in their nap times. I still didn’t think of myself as a writer. A scribbler, but not a writer. In 2007, my husband encouraged me to actually write the book I was always going on about, so I took some university courses in novel writing, joined the local writers’ group—New Zealand’s longest standing writers’ group Tauranga Writers, of which I’m still an active member—and dived in. I should say here that being a full-time stay-at-home writer is wonderful. I love it. I make coffee when I want, work in my pyjamas, and my dog, Bella, sits behind me on my chair while I write]. So I set about learning how to write while writing The Novel, and on the way, I got some stories published, a poem, a few articles. In 2010, I was offered a publishing contract for my first book: a children’s middle grade title which went on to be listed among New Zealand’s Best Books for Children, and later still won the Sir Julius Vogel Award Best Youth Novel. Even then I didn’t feel confident about calling myself a writer. And it wasn’t just me who didn’t consider writing to be a ‘real job’.
    “It’s nice that you can call yourself a writer,” one of my running buddies said once.
    I asked her what she meant. Turns out she thought saying you were a writer was a euphemism for being a stay-at-home mum. It was what you said when you didn’t want to admit you did nothing.
    “But I am a writer,” I said.
    “Oh yes, I know,” she said. “But not really.”
    I don’t see her much anymore. Years on, I’m 53, and still writing, because I really AM a writer and it suits me perfectly.

    1. My love of stories came from my parents, too, who always read to my sister and me, and my grandmother, who’d make up fairy tales for us, record them on cassette tapes and send them in the mail. I still have them, and popped them on a CD in case the tapes break. They’re one of my favourite things.

  7. Like so many others, I thoroughly enjoyed writing when I was a kid. I was good at it, too, usually filling two pages before my classmates had finished a half, and often having my essays read out loud by the teacher. Did I want to be writer back then? Apparently not. According to my dad, when asked what I wanted to do when I grew up I replied, “Own a company and be the boss.” Maybe not the most elaborate of plans, but it’s exactly what I did. After graduating high-school I studied business, and worked in different industries before joining an IT recruitment company in the mid-90s. I ended up running (and partially owning) that firm for a number of years before moving to Canada in 2010 with my husband and three sons. During those few decades I often thought about writing a book or “something,” but penning a few short stories was about as far as I got.

    Upon my arrival in Canada I started my own HR company, certain it would be the next best thing. It wasn’t. It failed so spectacularly I shut it down after 12 months—an utter disaster—and couldn’t figure out what to do next. The world of recruitment had changed significantly, wasn’t bright and shiny anymore—or nearly as much fun. I wanted to do something I felt passionate about again, something I’d leap out of bed for in the morning. But what? I moped around for what felt like forever until my husband reminded me this was a gift, the opportunity to reevaluate what I really, really wanted to do. I think deep down I’d know for a while I wanted to write. The idea of being creative and writing a novel had been whispering to me for ages, but I didn’t know where to start, and, quite frankly, lacked the courage. Finally, when an idea for a story came to me practically fully formed (i.e. my subconscious had been doing all the work), I went with it, determined I’d see my book published one day.

    Did I know writing suited me? Right from the start, although the belief I could actually do it wavered strongly at times, especially during the rounds of agent and publisher rejections that are such a big part of an author’s life. It wasn’t until my second novel had published and my third was written that I answered “author” when people asked me what I do. I’m no longer “the CEO of an IT recruitment company.” I am an author—it’s faster to say, too 🙂

  8. Though I was always a reader, I came to fiction writing rather late in life. I grew up in the South where everyone can tell a story. It’s just part of the culture. In fact, if you can’t roll out a tale or two they won’t feed you, and no one will trust you. I mean, they’ll nod at you on the street and mutter “howdy,” but they won’t invite you to dinner. Everyone in my family and, indeed, everyone I knew could spin a yarn. Including me. For years, I had stories I wanted to write rattling around in my head. The problem was I wasn’t sure I could. My cardiology practice obviously took a great deal of time and was punctuated with long hours, erratic work schedules, even more erratic sleep, and borderline exhaustion on a daily basis. I always told myself that once I retired I would take a shot at writing. Then maybe 25 years ago, I knew that I wasn’t going to retire anytime soon —still haven’t— so I told myself, “If not now, when?” I took a couple of night classes at the University of California Irvine, joined a pair of writing groups, and began writing. I found it more difficult than simply telling a story but in the end just as rewarding. And now? I couldn’t imagine not doing it. I guess the take-home message is that if you think you want to write, then sit down and do it. Don’t wait until tomorrow (I wish I had started much earlier). Write anything, just put the words on the page. You’ll be amazed where it will go.

    1. I totally agree. Writing takes a lot of time, both to learn the craft and produce. If it’s in you to write, don’t put it off. Once you start, it’s pretty easy to keep going.

  9. I was a teenager when I first decided I wanted to be a writer. But still being impressionable I listened to people telling me I needed to do something more practical. So five or so years later I was finally able to get a computer with Word on it (it was oddly difficult to find in the early 2000s) and I began writing again.
    I wasn’t very good at first. I didn’t know how to plot and I wanted to write scary stories but they were only weird. So I continued but I also began reading other authors with an eye toward developing my own style.
    After getting a positive rejection from an ezine, I retooled my story, resubmitted to that ezine and they published it. The thrill of finally seeing something of mine in print that other people I didn’t know could see too had me hooked.

  10. When I was a kid my best friend and I used to make up crazy stories inspired by The Goons, and type them on an ancient Remington typewriter, which was part of the fun. English was always my best subject at school. I had no trouble with spelling and am of the generation that received a very thorough grounding in grammar before we left primary school. In Kindy I hated nap time and Mum asked the teacher could I read instead. I LOVE reading and I was the kid who always enjoyed the books we were assigned in class but everyone else loathed. I loved The Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare, Keats, Thomas Hardy, Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye etc etc. I wrote short stories and embarked on a novel as a teenager but failed to get past about two chapters.

    I toyed with becoming a journalist but instead did a performing degree on clarinet, music being my other great passion. At age about fifty I decided to write a romance after reading an article in the paper about a woman who collected Mills and Boon books. It was at the start of a long hot summer and I said to my husband, ‘I can do that.’ I wrote nonstop and that was it. I was hooked. It took 6 years to sell my first book (not the original summer one) although I did quite well with short stories in the interim, and now I’m up to 23. From romance I branched out into romantic suspense which is where I’m sitting for the moment.

      1. Haha Thanks Hannah. The thing is, and I think it’s a point for beginner writers to take note of, while I was hawking my first sale book around I didn’t stop writing so when I finally clicked with a publisher I had a pile of manuscripts ready to go. They put out one per year and sometimes two. I always finish a manuscript before I start another — unless it’s the germ of an idea I have to capture. Writing this way helped me find and strengthen my voice and my technique.

  11. I thought I’d also comment on how/why I started to write screenplays, and how they actually contribute to my novels.

    I was close to finishing my first novel (A Vision of Angels) when I took a writing workshop given by Sebastian Junger, who had just sold the film rights to The Perfect Storm. He said he would have nothing to do with writing the screenplay adaptation. He basically said, “Hollywood doesn’t work that way.”

    After spending two or three years pouring my heart and soul into my novel, I thought at least I’d like to know enough about screenwriting to have some artistic input into that process, should I ever be fortunate enough to sell film rights. So I decided to take a couple of week-long workshops.

    That training reinforced my natural inclination to visualize my stories in scenes, which is also why my readers say they can see my stories as they read them. I’ve written a couple of stand-alone screenplays, and I’ve also adapted all of my novels. That’s actually my last major edit to a novel: to write its screenplay adaptation. A screenplay is much shorter than novels and much less forgiving of tangents and long back stories. The adaptation process forces me to focus on the true dramatic through story and helps brighten the dialogue.

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