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Kara Thomas Uncovers a Burning Secret

By Jaden Terrell

Kara Thomas wrote her first novel in college, juggling pre-law classes on weekdays and working on her writing at night and on weekends. The book was an escape from her dissatisfaction with her chosen major. Despite being a self-avowed true crime junkie, Thomas was “deeply unhappy” studying law. Her passion lay elsewhere—with spinning stories on the page.

“I’ve been writing fiction for as long as I can remember,” Thomas says. “My first ‘mystery novel’ was a Nancy Drew knock-off that was confiscated by my fourth-grade teacher, who caught me writing during a math lesson.”

Writing was her true calling, and she followed it with unflagging persistence. From the age of nineteen, she spent the school year finishing her degree and her summers sending her work out to agents—again…and again…and again. Four years later, her YA novel Prep School Confidential was published to critical acclaim. Since then, her young adult books have been sold in multiple languages and have been nominated for the International Thriller Writers Award.

Kara Thomas
c. Charles Santangelo

With her latest book, OUT OF THE ASHES, Thomas goes in a different direction. It’s an adult crime novel about a woman, Samantha Newsom, who lost her family and their home in a murder-arson when she was thirteen. Twenty-two years later, still haunted by the event and resentful of police mishandling of the case, she learns that her baby sister, presumed dead in the fire, may have survived. The book has been aptly called “a heart-wrenching novel of suspense” and is the sort of morally complex book Thomas admires in her favorite authors.

Asked about the challenges of switching from a YA audience to an adult audience, Thomas says, “Moving from writing for teens to writing for adults wasn’t challenging for me at all, to be honest. I am a thirty-three-year-old mother, so I have more in common with my adult characters than the teen characters I’ve written about in the past.

I think in many ways, writing young adult fiction, especially mysteries, is a lot more challenging—there are so many logistical issues standing in the way of crafting a realistic mystery when you’re dealing with teenagers. Most have school and curfews, or they can’t drive yet, and there are always pesky parents hovering. In those respects, it felt freeing to write OUT OF THE ASHES, where the main character was an independent, fully autonomous adult.”

Kara making a new friend after dog sledding in Tromso, Norway

The idea for the book grew from her fascination with the 1945 Sodder case. Thomas explains, “I heard about the Sodder family tragedy while I was researching another case—the disappearance of Lauria Bible and Ashley Freeman in Welch, Oklahoma, in 1999. The tragedies occurred decades apart, but the similarities led me down a rabbit hole of cases where people had been reported missing after suspicious house fires or arsons. I was disturbed by the idea that investigators couldn’t say, definitively, in the case of the Sodder family, whether or not the five missing children were in the house when it burned to the ground. Recently, the last surviving Sodder sibling died without any sort of answer as to what really happened the night of the fire—were the five children kidnapped, or did they perish with their parents?”

But Thomas is uncomfortable with the idea that her book was “inspired” by the case. “I never like to say my work is ‘inspired’ by another person’s tragedy,” she says. “I think any crime writer struggles with the ethics of being influenced by real-life cases. I didn’t set out to write a story inspired by what happened to the Sodder family, but the character of Samantha was born out of the question that stuck with me about the case: How do you grieve a loved one who is trapped in the liminal space between missing and dead?

Kara attending a pastry class at the Babylon Mercantile

“For Samantha, she has always believed her baby sister died in the fire along with her parents. But when a new witness comes forward and says he saw a man carrying a child out of the house the night of the murders, Samantha’s memory of the tragedy is upended.”

OUT OF THE ASHES opens with a tender, yet painful scene between Sam and her uncle Gil, who is dying of cancer. Thomas says, “The opening chapter came to me very early on, as soon as I knew that Sam was a nurse. I knew that Gil needed to die to set the events of the story in motion and resurrect long-buried questions for Sam, but it wasn’t until I started thinking about who Sam was as a person that I had the idea to open the story the way I did. It’s a huge moment she can’t come back from. I always like to put my characters in those situations where the reader will ask themselves if they would have made the same choice in her situation.”

The forensic and medical details are believable and well-researched. “I have a cousin who is a nurse at a hospital,” Thomas explains. “She fielded more than her fair share of text messages with my medical questions, ranging from ‘how hard is it to steal narcotics from the pharmacy?’ to ‘what is the nurse who is in charge of an entire unit called?’ (A charge nurse, actually. Thank you, Susan!)”

Kara’s first in-N-Out visit on book tour in SF

When it came to forensics, though, Thomas says she was on her own to research murder-arson cases and fire science. “There isn’t a lot of literature freely available online that could answer my specific questions, so I consulted a friend of mine, who is a firefighter and medic, for the smaller details.

“Believe it or not, a huge plot breakthrough came in the form of an old Forensic Files episode I happened to catch while revising—I was struggling to answer the question of how investigators pinpointed the time the fire in Sam’s house was set. The episode I was watching involved an arson, and investigators determined what time the fire was set from a pair of melted clock hands.”

Asked what she likes to do when she isn’t writing or researching her novels, Thomas says, “I love to play video games, particularly relaxing ones like Stardew Valley. I am also big into having creative outlets outside of writing, like baking and decorating, and I’m intense about my vegetable garden every summer. Most people who have read my books are usually surprised to find out my hobbies are so lighthearted!”

Of course, Thomas also has another writing project in the works. “My sophomore book for adults will be out next year,” she says. “The story follows Natalee, a journalist whose personal and professional life is thrown into chaos when she receives a phone call from a man who claims to have killed the woman at the center of a missing persons case Natalee has been covering. It’s my first book completely set on my home turf of Long Island, and it delves into the world of the Hamptons uber-rich.”

You can learn more about Kara and her novels at


Jaden Terrell
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