Lisa Black knows a thing or two about death.
She’s worked in a coroner’s office as a forensic scientist, has testified in dozens of homicide trials, and has examined her share of fingerprints. It’s no wonder that, as an author, she gravitates toward suspense novels and dark subjects. Though she’s written books under another name, Elizabeth Becka, her latest novels have been under the moniker Lisa Black. Her debut as Black, called Takeover, was a well-hailed book that earned her starred reviews; and her follow-up to that novel, Evidence of Murder, has also been highly praised:
In this sequel to Takeover, Black paints a believable portrait of a professional woman struggling to move on with her life….This fast-paced thriller features a lot of detailed forensics with a rip-roaring ending.
Black (Takeover, 2008), a former forensic scientist, knows her stuff and briskly leads readers along the trail of clues right behind her likeable, no-nonsense heroine. Smart science propels this intelligent, well-thought-out crime thriller. – Kirkus
So what does it take to write a scorching thriller? We’re thrilled that Lisa is here with us today to tell us all about it.
Interview with Lisa Black, Part 1
Q: Evidence of Murder is a sequel to your debut novel (writing as Lisa Black), Takeover. Can people read EoM without having read Takeover, or do they need to know something ahead of time?
LB: No, it stands alone, but as always for a series it’s better to read them in order.
Q: How do you manage that—writing for a possibly new audience while also keeping those who’ve read the first book satisfied and interested?
LB: It’s a difficult balance. I have to describe the characters and give enough background for readers who haven’t read the earlier books, but I can’t get too repetitious for those who have. I try to have the recurring characters have some kind of new problem in each book. I have a new plot for each book, I haven’t yet done something that’s strictly a continuation of a plot or a character from a previous book. And I always emphasize the forensics because that attracts the CSI fans.
Q: Tell us a little about Evidence of Murder. What do you say when people ask what it’s about? Who is the main character, what does she want, what stands in her way?
LB: Still dealing with the fallout from the bank robbery gone bad in Takeover, Theresa MacLean is unable to summon much interest when beautiful escort Jillian goes missing—but when the woman turns up dead, Theresa is moved not only by guilt but empathy for Jillian’s infant daughter, Cara. She suspects Jillian’s new husband, wunderkind video game designer Evan Kovacic, but with no trace of foul play on Jillian’s body Theresa cannot prove that Jillian has even been murdered, much less by whom. No one can help her. Homicide detective Frank Patrick thinks Theresa is letting her grief deflect her from a more likely suspect, Jillian’s obsessive ex-boyfriend Drew. And with other bodies turning up, Theresa’s boss believes a serial killer is at work. Theresa is forced to face the master gamer on her own, but can she find her way through this maze in time to save Cara?
Q: Why is it so important for Theresa to solve this particular murder? How does it tie in with her personal experience—recovering from the death of her fiancé?
LB: She’s in a funk over her fiancé, so she’s really not working up to par. Then she feels guilty that a case might get screwed up because of her inattention so she’s doubly determined to solve it. Let’s face it—we don’t always dot every I or cross every T at work. Most of the time that doesn’t make a difference, but when there’s a chance it could cause a problem for somebody, you feel guilty that you might have been lazy.
Q: Let’s talk about Theresa’s attention to forensics and how it relates to—you! You’re a former forensic scientist yourself. How much of you is in Theresa? Does she process evidence as you might?
LB: Not former—I still have the day job. It’s just not exactly the same job as Theresa anymore. Instead of a coroner’s office I work for a police department, so most of my job is working with fingerprints.
From the beginning I wanted to present forensic work as it really is, being practical and realistic. In real life you don’t have every piece of equipment known to man and you can’t really find more evidence merely by looking harder. So yes, she processes things and handles scenes the way I would.
Q: How much research goes into each of your books? Do you find yourself learning new things as your write and research your way through your manuscript?
LB: Yes, definitely. I don’t have to do much research on the everyday forensic facts, but I consult with others on what is out of my area of expertise. Then I’ll research the rest of the background of the book—in this book it was video games, venture capital and icebreaking in the Cuyahoga River.
Q: Suspense novels have to keep the reader on the edge of his seat, and are generally quick reads because the books are often un-put-down-able. What tricks do you use—at the scene level, even at the sentence level—to keep the suspense present on the page and satisfy those readers? (e.g. short sentences? ending each scene with a question?)
LB: I don’t really do short sentences (my sister says I’m addicted to commas) or short scenes, so I have to push myself to be brief sometimes. I should end every chapter with a cliffhanger and I really don’t…beginning and ending chapters is one of the few things I tend to do by instinct. I think the most important thing for suspense is to never slow down. Keep going, no matter what happens. Your character can’t take a nap or chat over coffee or digress in any way. Don’t put things into the story (characters, settings or issues) just because you like them or because your best friend will get a kick out of it. It takes some discipline but its well worth it.
Q: Your books also combine psychological suspense with good old-fashioned action that is by nature suspenseful. Are you always thinking about how action affects the mindset of your main character? Is it important to find ways to tap into the fears of your main character to really round out the suspense in a story?
LB: Theresa isn’t really an international woman of mystery. She’d stay in the background, given her druthers, so the story has to force her into stepping forward. Tapping into your characters fears is a very good idea and something I have a hard time with. I haven’t been able to do anything too horrible to her yet.
Q: I don’t want to give away any of your book’s secrets, but suffice it to say that the antagonist in your book—the killer—is a complex character. How do you go about creating characters, especially villains, so that they don’t read as one-dimensional?
LB: I see them as complex from the beginning. They always have a whole world of thoughts and desires; I may not know exactly what they are but I know they’re there. I’ve always been fascinated with why people do bad things because it seems so incomprehensible—yet to them it’s not only logical, it’s necessary. My villains always have their reasons, even if they might be a little warped.
Q: Have you ever had to redirect a character, or do they always seem to lead you down the right road?
LB: I don’t have too much trouble with characters going their own way, but I have ones that don’t turn out as well as I’d hoped. I wanted them to be scarier or more attractive, but I can’t find a way to express that. They hit their cues but there’s no real spark. Then I’ll have the opposite happen, some minor character will play their part so well that they seem like flesh and blood.
Click here for part two of my interview with suspense author Lisa Black!