When a thriller author and her protagonist share an exciting profession, one of the inevitable questions is this: is she writing about things she really did, or about things she would like to do? For Julie Kramer and her series protagonist, television reporter Riley Spartz, the answer is a little of both.
Kramer’s first novel, STALKING SUSAN, grew out of a pair of cold cases she worked on as a television journalist a decade ago in Minnesota. Two St. Paul women, both named Susan, were murdered on the same day, exactly two years apart, but the killings never were solved. Kramer hoped her investigation would turn up new information that might lead to a resolution, and in a novel that probably would have happened. In real life, though, things didn’t work out that way. The killer remains unidentified.
Cops tend to remember unsolved crimes, and so do journalists. Although Kramer’s investigation couldn’t solve those cold cases in St. Paul, she didn’t forget them, either. With a few cosmetic changes, the murders showed up later when reporter Riley Spartz needed an assignment in STALKING SUSAN. That novel blends on-going network battles for television ratings with the search for a serial killer who murders a woman named Susan on the same day each year. It was a successful mix of fact and fiction, something that Kramer also has employed in subsequent Riley Spartz novels MISSING MARK, SILENCING SAM, KILLING KATE.
(In case you’re wondering, the pattern in the titles of Kramer’s books is intentional. “For my series, the verb is the most important part of the title,” she explained of the recurring “-ing” endings, “then I pick a name.”)
The newest book in the Riley Spartz series, SHUNNING SARAH, is due for release this month from Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. “Sarah” is Sarah Yoder, a young Amish woman whose murder is being investigated officially by the police and unofficially by Spartz. After Sarah is identified with the help of a forensic artist, the victim’s family objects to the publication of Sarah’s photograph because they feel it would violate a biblical ban on graven images. Spartz presses on, finally uncovering a vital clue the police missed. The investigation finally reveals a tangled web of fraud, deception, sex, and money in the close-knit Amish community.
Many readers probably don’t know much about the Amish, and may take Kramer’s portrayal of the ultra-conservative group as gospel. With that in mind, I asked the author how important an accurate portrayal of the Amish—or anything else—was in a work of fiction.
“Certainly accuracy ruled when I wrote news,” she said, “but it is also important in fiction. If you mess up a fact, that can distract a reader from your story and make them doubt your plot. My thrillers are set in real places, so I like to visit them to ensure all is as it seems. I grew up on a family farm along the Minnesota-Iowa border near some Amish, so I already had the basics. And Minnesota now has one of the fastest growing Old Order Amish communities, but I quickly learned that Amish rules on the use of modern devices can vary from state to state, even sect to sect.
“As for my newsroom scenes, I’ve lived that research.”
Shunning a member of the community is an important facet of Amish culture, and the practice is an essential part of the book’s title. Was setting the murder of Sarah in an Amish community necessary to the plot of SHUNNING SARAH, or was the choice of locale merely a convenient plot device, and a clever title twist?
“A plot twist isn’t good unless it’s plausible,” Kramer said. “That’s where research comes in. I’m also highly influenced by happenings around me as I write. That’s why SHUNNING SARAH contains references to a topical Amish hair-cutting controversy now unfolding in Ohio. The subplot of the story involves black bears moving in on populated areas and whether bears wearing radio research collars should be spared from hunting. This is an issue being debated in Minnesota currently.”
Given the common vocation shared by Kramer and Riley Spartz, I wondered how much of the former’s personality shows up in the latter’s.
“We both are newsies and truly believe the world is best served by a free press,” Kramer said. “We’re also similar in that we will buck the system if we feel the need. We’re different in that she’s had more brushes with death on the job. I’ve had better luck with love.
“A recent Gallup poll showed America’s confidence in TV news to be at an all-time low. Made me think perhaps I should have made my TV character the villain instead of the heroine. Luckily, she’s cynical enough about the media to pull it off.”
A sixth book, so far untitled, is in the works. One of the biggest challenges in writing a series, Kramer said, is balancing the development of the recurring characters from book to book without requiring a new reader to start the series at the beginning.
“Some authors want their protagonist to stay the same,book by book,” she said. “Others prefer the star to change and grow over time. Riley Spartz has a character arc in my books, but because all the stories have self-contained plots, a reader can start with any title, and not feel lost.”
Journalist turned novelist Julie Kramer writes a series of thrillers: STALKING SUSAN, MISSING MARK, SILENCING SAM, KILLING KATE and SHUNNING SARAH—set in the desperate world of TV news. Julie won the RT Reviewer’s Choice Award for Best First Mystery as well as the Minnesota Book Award. Her work has also been nominated for the Anthony, Barry, Shamus, Mary Higgins Clark, Daphne du Maurier, and RT Best Amateur Sleuth Awards. She formerly ran the I TEAM for WCCO-TV before becoming a freelance network news producer for NBC and CBS. She lives with her family in Minnesota.
To learn more about Julie, please visit her website.