Through her books and articles on the craft of writing, Phyllis A. Whitney inspired countless writers over the years. The following speech given by author Julie Kramer during the Library Journal breakfast at the Public Library Association Conference in Minneapolis on March 27, 2008 is an example of the influence that established writers such as Phyllis A. Whitney can have on new writers as they make their own journeys toward publication. You can read more about Julie Kramer and her "Riley Spartz" series at juliekramerbooks.com.
-- Philip Tyo, Founder and Webmaster of The Official PHYLLIS A. WHITNEY Web site
Libraries Create Authors
Libraries have always been there for me.
I grew up on a corn and cattle farm along a gravel road on the Minnesota Iowa state line. One of my best childhood memories was waiting for the bookmobile to bring me a new Phyllis A. Whitney book. My favorite was MYSTERY OF THE HAUNTED POOL.
Libraries saw me through grade school when the other kids called me a book worm. Libraries kept me company in high school because I didn't have any dates. Libraries gave me a place to study in college when my roommate had her boyfriend over. Eventually I grew up and libraries gave me a story hour for my own kids and they still give me a place to hang out when I'm out of town working. Bottom line: libraries are a club anyone can join.
And libraries were there for me when I decided to write my own novel a few years ago. An author friend of mine insists before you can write a publishable book, you probably have to write a million words. I'd also wager you have to read ten million. So before I started writing, one of the first things I did was go to the library. I wanted to write what I read. Thrillers with strong female protagonists in interesting jobs. Kathy Reichs. Linda Fairstein. Sue Grafton. Lisa Scottoline.
My plan was to reread the first book each of my favorite authors had written and try to analyze what made it so good. So I spent about a year doing that. That was best part of writing a book. Then came the sitting in front of the computer typing part. My day job is a journalist so I write a lot. In fact, I often complained how much easier my work would be if I didn't have to always stick to the facts. What a surprise to hear me complain how much easier my work would be if only I had some facts.
For those of us geared in reality, making things up can feel like cheating. So to get past that, I started checking out books about writing fiction. Some I'd check some out three or four or five times as I got to different stages of my project. Before long I had my own home library of books about writing books.
One of the books I checked out numerous times is called WRITING MYSTERIES, which includes chapters by famous authors. And when I saw that the chapter on pacing and suspense was written by Phyllis A. Whitney, I sensed I was on the right track. And it worked. I took her advice about curiosity, emotion, viewpoint and giving every character a secret. Eventually I had a big pile of pages.
Then I started checking out books about researching agents. And it worked. Soon I had an agent. Anybody ever heard of THE KITE RUNNER? I got his agent.
Then I started checking out books about the publishing industry. All the while I was revising and improving my manuscript. Soon I had a two book deal with Doubleday. And my editor, anybody ever hear of THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA? I got her editor. Anyway, my editor decided to market my book STALKING SUSAN under suspense. Just like Phyllis A. Whitney.
Besides writing what I read. I also decided to write what I know. People who have read the manuscript think its strength comes from the behind the scenes TV news elements I weave in the story. I'm a freelance television news producer for NBC. I think Doubleday went with the yellow cover as a play on yellow journalism.
I love reading, but I tired of fictional TV reporters always being portrayed as obnoxious secondary characters who could be killed off whenever the plot started dragging. So I decided why should prosecutors and medical examiners and forensics anthropologists get literary heroines and not us journalists? So I invented one.
STALKING SUSAN takes readers into the desperate world of TV ratings where an investigative reporter discovers that a serial killer is targeting women named Susan and killing one on the same day each year.
People ask me if I have some special enemy named Susan? No. This isn't a work of revenge. Some stories stay with journalists long after the newscast wraps. A decade ago, I covered two cold case homicides that inspired me to write STALKING SUSAN. The cases involved two woman, both named Susan, murdered exactly two years apart. Their cases remain unsolved. But in the world of fiction, I was free to ask, what if?
Ends up, my journalism background proved to be an excellent foundation for fiction.
First, deadlines didn't scare me.
Second, Interviewing hundreds of people, often on the best or worst day of their lives, helped me develop an ear for dialogue.
Third, research was second nature.
Fourth, I learned to type fast.
Fifth, news encourages tight, focused writing.
Sixth, I'd covered such a variety of events and people, that no plot or character form my imagination seemed over the top.
That's why I think people named Susan will really dig my mystery because, besides telling an interesting story, it captures what's so special about the name Susan. The plot looks at name origination, the Bible, black eyed Susans, and songs like Oh Susanna.
I discovered Phyllis A. Whitney was still alive three days before her death. During that time I fantasized sending her my manuscript to read. I considered it might be a selfish request to make of a 104 year old woman, but then I thought maybe she'd enjoy it. Maybe she'd even give me a blurb. But when I checked back on her website for an address - something had changed.
It read "Phyllis A. Whitney September 9, 1903 -- February 8, 2008." Then I found her obit in the New York Times. I only wish she could have known how much she inspired me as a reader and a writer.