Saturday, September 30, 2023

The One Song That Changed Her Life

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: A THEME! We love themes! Especially when we don't plan them--which can be the very best ones.

Yesterday the fab Lori Rader-Day talked about the soundtracks and playlists for her books.

And today, the equally fab Wendy Walker reveals how music changed her life, too–somehow, magically, as sometimes happens when writers are wise and lucky, how ONE SONG offered her the idea for her incredibly successful audio original AN AMERICAN GIRL–a story so compelling and propulsive that it’s now in print, too!

But I bet you’ll be singing as you read this. And question for you at the end!

A Writer Walks Into a Bar

By Wendy Walker

In the summer of 2019, I was in a bar somewhere in the heart of Pennsylvania. It was a small town which, from what I could tell, had fallen on some difficult financial times. I was there with a friend whose family owned a summer cottage nearby. A group of young men were in a corner of the bar playing darts. Some teenage girls were in the opposite corner, eyeing them, ignoring them, giggling at them – as teenage girls do. A cover band of middle aged dudes with long gray ponytails and ripped jeans played on a small stage in an adjacent room. Seated at the tables in front of the band were about a dozen women of the same age having a mom’s night out.

The bartender was a beautiful, very pregnant, brunette with big brown eyes and bright red lipstick and an attitude that was somehow both intimidating and endearing. She also made a killer Cosmo that had me on the dance floor the moment I heard the first few notes of American Girl by the late Tom Petty.

So there I was, drinking and dancing, images of women at all stages of life surrounding me and a song from my high school days filling my head with memories. And not just memories, but a visceral feeling of what it was like to be a girl on the edge of adult life, nothing but dreams in front of me. 

Those were some rough years. I suppose that’s true for a lot of people, because, let’s face it, coming of age isn’t easy. But I had just given up my dream of being a competitive figure skater after spending three years at a facility in Colorado. That dream had been in my bones since before I could even remember, and I was lost without it. Still, life felt possible, and in so many ways. Independence, love, adventure – it was all right there, but still out of reach.

I closed my eyes and let the feeling sweep through me. It was powerful. I thought about the pain of letting go of dreams; the hunger for new ones; the girls in the corner not thinking about the pregnant bartender or the women at the tables who had once been where they were; the bartender too busy to think about anything but getting through the shift and off her feet; and how it was nothing more than time that separated all of these women.

As a writer, I’m always on the lookout for inspiration. I’ve learned to grab hold of everything that catches my eye or makes me feel something extraordinary. Because if it makes me notice or feel, then it’s very likely it will have the same impact on others. It just has to be captured and spun into fiction.

What moved me that night dancing to American Girl was the reconnection with a feeling I had many years ago, and the perspective that my life had given me to understand it. I went home with a character in my head, and from there her story, and that of women of all ages in a small town.

American Girl
(the novel) follows Charlie Hudson and her coworkers at a local sandwich shop after the murder of their ruthless boss. It is a murder mystery about who killed Clay Cooper, and a thriller as Charlie finds herself in the eye of the investigation and in grave danger, but at its heart and soul are the lives of the women living through love and loss, bonded forever by the extraordinary and heartbreaking trajectory of life that they all share.

I had no idea when I walked into that bar that I would leave with a plot for a novel that would become one of my favorite pieces of work. This experience is now in the fabric of my own extraordinary journey.

HANK: So how about you, reds and readers? Has a song ever changed your life?

(And here's a link to the song!)


A pulse-pounding novel about a small-town business owner found dead and the teenage girl caught in the crosshairs, American Girl is the latest thriller from international bestselling author Wendy Walker. 

Charlie Hudson, an autistic seventeen-year-old, is determined to leave Sawyer, PA as soon as she graduates high school—in the meantime, she works as many hours as she can at a sandwich shop called The Triple S to save money for college. But when shop owner Clay Cooper—a man who is both respected and feared by many in this economically depressed community—is found dead, each member of his staff becomes a suspect in the perplexing case. Charlie must work to protect herself and her friends, and uncover the danger that may still be at large in their tightknit town.

Bestselling author Wendy Walker returns with another riveting thriller, told through the eyes of an unforgettable protagonist.

Wendy Walker is the international bestselling author of psychological suspense. Her books have been published in over 23 foreign languages and have been optioned for film and television. Her latest novels include Don’t Look for Me, What Remains and American Girl. Wendy is a magna cum laude graduate of Brown University and Georgetown Law School. Prior to writing, she worked as a lawyer, investment banker, and trained for competitive figure skating. She lives in Fairfield County, Connecticut, where she raised three sons.

Friday, September 29, 2023

Words and Music, Music and Words

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: It’s a question that gets asked at almost every author event: “Do you listen to music while you’re writing?” It’s also a very binary answer–every author can instantly tell you yes or no.

My answer below, and we cannot wait to hear yours. But first:  confetti, champagne, and the strewing of rose petals!  Here is the incredibly fabulous and astonishingly talented Lori Rader-Day to give us her musical secrets.

The Soundtrack of A Story

By Lori Rader-Day

I’m going to tell you a tragic story in a minute, but first some back story and, right up front: controversy.


I write to music. I write to songs, with lyrics.


Many writers will argue against this. They will say that silence is better, or if they allow music anywhere near their writing practice at all, it can only be instrumental. The complaint? Many will say that the songs will somehow crawl into the work.


Whereas I welcome songs into my stories. Hear me out.


I have written all of my novels—seven books and counting—to music, and not just any music. I make playlists full of songs you’ve heard on the radio or never will, of songs that fall into genres as diametrically opposed as rap and country, big band and metal. Yes, in the same playlist.


Here’s how it works, for me. I start with a few songs I already know, songs I think I can write to. Maybe they have something to do with the story I have in mind, but maybe they just sound right for this particular book. Tone is the most important factor in song choice, and I can’t explain it well without, perhaps, a musician’s vocabulary for how music affects the listener. (There are full books on this, and I’m not writing one.) I’m not a musical expert, only a connoisseur of the song I can write to.


The moment I hear a song I can write to, I know it.


This is not the story I meant to tell you, but here goes: When I was writing my first novel, The Black Hour, I was struggling to find my way. (I’ve adopted this, the struggle, as part of my process, but I didn’t know it was necessary, then.) I was driving somewhere here in Chicago, always an adventure, when a song came on the radio I had never heard before. It was a fairly metal song I would later identify (and purchase, and listen to on repeat) as “Sail” by AWOLnation. (You may not like it, but… you might still like the book?) Sail! What could be more perfect? My book had a lake in it, and a boat, and a regatta—


Or maybe that regatta popped into my mind when I heard the song? It’s hard to remember how things went, now. I only know that this one song became the soundtrack of the second half of my draft. A single song led me out of the morass, that boggy middle ground of a novel’s first draft.


When I hear that song now, it’s such a thrill. It sends me right back to that time. Music is a time machine. I’ve been transported back to singular moments in my life, to the origins of friendships, to the best and worst days of my life, by a song playing over the speakers at a coffee shop or, god, the grocery store. Like the country song favored by the exchange student from my freshman dorm, circa 1991. (Garth Brooks, but with an English accent.) Or “It’s a Shame About Ray” by the Lemonheads, having the AUDACITY to play when I’m busy living my now middle-aged life.


Even as I’m telling you all this, I’m listening to music. A song starts that reminds me of the day I first heard it, and how it made me miss my dad, and now I’m missing my dad. A song is a feeling as well as the packmule that carries that feeling on its back, trailing behind you wherever you go.


Each book has a playlist, and each playlist has one song that goes straight to my memories of writing that book. “Sail” and then “Team” by Lorde for Little Pretty Things, “Blood in the Cut” by K.Flay for The Day I Died. “The Yawning Grave” by Lord Huron helped me finish Under a Dark Sky, and “This Is It” by Lo Moon helped me find the core of The Lucky One. There are both modern songs and contemporaneous ones in the playlist for the historical Death at Greenway; you’d almost be able to hum along with Vera Lynn singing “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover” if you were reading chapter eleven.


A book’s playlist helps me work, and then lives on as a soundtrack for anyone interested and a monument, possibly for me alone, of that book’s creation.


All this to tell you the story I promised earlier, about how my playlist for The Death of Us blew up.


Let’s skip the technology part. I don’t know what happened. The book was done, so I could have just moved on. Very few people demand these musical lists. My friend Debby, basically.


But I didn’t. Instead, I painstakingly re-created the playlist from my memories of the process of writing The Death of Us and from its themes and characters. Which song made me think of Lissette’s love for her son? (“Oh My Heart” by REM.) Which song’s spoken portion always took me out of the writing but earned its spot by helping me center the story in its earliest, most fragile days? (“Family and Genus” by Shakey Graves.) Late in the process of rebuilding the playlist, I suddenly recalled “I Don’t Mind,” the perfect Sturgill Simpson song that helped me capture my town marshal character’s heart, and happily added it back. I built the book again in reverse, an exercise that helped me sort out what my book was really about: family, sacrifices and betrayals, secrets, and the choices that make a family.


Writers don’t often revisit our work after edits are closed, but there was something satisfying about the rediscovery of the music that had helped me write The Death of Us, a book whose creation had run along parallel tracks to the most challenging months of my life, through cancer treatment.

No project of mine so far has been totally joyous—the struggle, as I said, is part of my process—but writing this book was medicine, towing me along through the tough spots even as I started to pull apart at the seams. Its soundtrack, now, is the packmule, loaded down not just with the book but with my survival.


I couldn’t have left these songs behind if I’d tried. They would have waited for me in the speakers of some coffee shop in the future or, god, the grocery store. But because I rebuilt the list, I offer them to you now: The Death of Us playlist.


In fact the very best thing about writing to music is that it gives me an excuse to discover new artists and a chance to share the treasures I’ve found—supporting other creative people along the path of my own creative life.


Oh, my heart. It has always belonged to music, even if I can’t sing a note. I’ve already started building the next list for the next book. I hope you all like Patsy Cline.


HANK: Oh, I adore Patsy Cline! And now I am singing. To myself. Because –as you well know, I am the world’s worst singer, truly, and the good news/bad news is that when I try to sing, I can completely hear how awful it is. Luckily for the rest of the world.

Oh, I forgot to say. Ah....usually I prefer quiet. I have had my musical inspirations, though...but usually away from the computer. I do have to admit, a climactic scene of TRUST ME was written to Prokofiev. Played live by the Boston Symphony. Long and wonderful story.

How about you, Reds and Readers?



Lori Rader-Day (here with Clementine) is the Edgar Award-nominated and Agatha, Anthony, and Mary Higgins Clark award-winning author of Death at Greenway, The Lucky One, Under a Dark Sky, and others. Her latest book is The Death of Us (Harper Collins.) Lori lives in Chicago, where she co-chairs the Midwest Mystery Conference and teaches creative writing at Northwestern University. Visit her at






From the award-winning author of Death at Greenway and The Lucky One comes a chilling suspense novel in which the discovery of a submerged car in a murky pond reveals betrayals and family secrets that will tear a small town apart.


One rainy night fifteen years ago, a knock at the door changed Liss Kehoe’s life forever.


On that night, Ashley Hay stood on Liss’s front porch and handed over her brand-new baby Callan.


She was never seen or heard from again.


Since then, Liss has raised Callan as her own, and loves him as fiercely as any mother would. But in the back of her mind, she’s always wondered whether Ashley is still out there somewhere—and feared what might happen if she comes back.


When Ashley does reappear, it’s not in the way Liss expected. After all these years, Ashley’s car has been found… in the quarry pond on Kehoe property. But the discovery of the car dredges up more questions than answers. What really happened on the night of Ashley’s disappearance? Was it a tragic accident, or something far more sinister? Someone in town knows the truth, and they’ll go to great lengths to keep it quiet.


As tensions rise in the small community, Liss must fight to protect her family and keep her own secrets hidden—or risk losing everything she loves.

PS form Hank. This is SUCH a terrific book! Friday NIght Lights goes psychologically sinister–with the heartbreaking knowing voice of LRD. Do not miss it!

Thursday, September 28, 2023

When Research Makes You Cry

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: There are always a few different ways to introduce a post. And more about these horses in the photo in a minute.

Here’s one  possible introduction for today:

How much passion do you put into your writing? And how would you feel if the very thing that you were passionate about–had to be deleted?
What would you do then?

Here’s another one for today:

Have you ever cried when you talk about your novels? I mean, like, in public? On camera?

Or how about this one:

Do you know what’s going on with the hearts of wild horses in the United States? It’s a powerful and controversial and heart-breaking situation.

Here’s the good news. Today, you get all three introductions.

On Separating Fiction from Reality: For Real

By Linda L. Richards

I’m a little apprehensive right now. My non-fiction book, Wild Horses: Running Free, is coming out in a few weeks and I’m scared I’m going to have to do interviews. And why does that scare me? Because every time I talk about the subject of this book, I cry.

I cry.

I mean, not ugly cry, but still. (For an example of this, see this interview I did a few months ago for the Sisters in Crime podcast. Note tears. Argh.)

When I started writing the book, I did not realize that the wild horse space in North America is violent and political. The more I knew, the less I knew and the more research I did, the more upset I became.

I went into that book thinking it was going to be as joyful as a similar book I did on Northern Elephant Seals in 2020. A feel-good informational non-fiction book for 9-13 year-olds.

But as I started researching the wild horse book, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — the agency responsible for managing the millions of public acres owned by the United States — was in the process of culling wild horse herds all across the American west. The round ups go on. They say they are doing it because the land can’t support the numbers. BLM detractors say they’re doing it to service the ranchers who own the livestock that graze there almost for free.

It's estimated that there are currently 1.5 million cattle and sheep entitled to graze the 155 million acres the BLM manages. There might be 85,000 head of wild horses left on BLM-managed land in the US, but the number is being cut down fast and, at present, the BLM estimates there are 60,000 American mustangs in holding pens, waiting for an undetermined future. Some of those horses have been in holding pens for years.

The BLM claims they’re doing it for the good of the horses and to keep the herds to manageable numbers. Meanwhile, from the outside, anyway, I’m not alone in thinking it looks like government-sanctioned extermination. It’s heartbreaking stuff and I would set to work each day wondering if, by the time my book came out, there would be any wild mustangs left for kids to learn about.

While I was researching the wild horse book, I was working on the second book in my Endings series, featuring a nameless hitwoman. That book, Exit Strategy, takes place against the backdrop of a Silicon Valley high tech start up, but suddenly I discovered I was writing a subplot that involved wild horses. And, pretty soon that subplot got to be pretty beefy (sorry) and it started taking over the whole book.

After a while, I saw what I was doing and pulled everything related to the horsey subplot. I dropped it into a file and, the next year, with wild horses off my desk, I took the material that had been the subplot and turned it into book three in the series.

That novel, Dead West, came out September 5. Dead West is not about wild horses, but some of the heartbreak and injustices in that space are in there, and I think (hope!) I did a good job of weeding out what would have made you cross your eyes in boredom. That is, it’s not a book about wild horses. It’s about a hit assignment gone wrong and a do-gooder rancher and I honestly think it’s the best book of the series so far.

But what makes it best? Is it because of the passion that got stuffed in there? Or is it because I had to work hard to keep the elements that touched me most deeply out? That, in not wanting to become one of those authors who falls in love with her research, I worked super extra hard to find the story beyond what can be seen on the page?

I’m still working all of this out for myself. Has any of this ever happened to you? Writing something where you had to work doubly hard to make sure you weren’t just repurposing life, but were using what you had been given purely to inspire a story that maybe didn’t even have a lot to do with the thing you’d researched in the first place? And, if you’re not a writer, have you ever read something that made you feel sure that too much non-essential material ended up in the final book?

Hank: So, Reds and readers--shall we talk about research? Or wild horses? Or both?

Linda L. Richards is the award-winning author of over a dozen books. The founder and publisher of January Magazine, a contributing editor to the crime fiction blog The Rap Sheet, and a member of the National board of Sisters in Crime, she is from Vancouver, Canada and currently makes her home in Phoenix, Arizona. Her latest book, DEAD WEST, was published by Oceanview Publishing September 5, 2023. Linda’s 2021 novel, ENDINGS, was recently optioned by a major studio for series production. Richards is an accomplished horsewoman and an avid tennis player.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

In which Hank has A Very Unusual Week

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: In the Putting It Mildly department, it’s been a Very Unusual Week for me.

First, you may not have known this, but many years ago, literally, 50–and let that sink in– I worked for Rolling Stone magazine.

And in that capacity I worked on a story investigating some actions of the CIA. It’s really too long to tell here, but the brief version is that in the process, I sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the CIA, the response to which was, apparently, the very first time they had used the reply: “We can neither confirm nor deny…” .

Long, long story about that, but fast forwarding in time, a British documentary company decided to do a big feature-length documentary about the whole story…essentially, the CIA’s attempt to secretly retrieve a sunken Russian submarine in the Pacific. The doc was to be called “Neither Confirm Nor Deny.”

They interviewed me for the documentary, maybe, six years ago? And that was that. And then! And very recently, they told me it had been sold to Amazon and Apple TV, and was now available for viewing. WHAT?

I got to see it well in advance, and it is spectacular. Absolutely riveting , and total immersion history. I’ve done several interviews about it so far, on NPR in New York, and here is a newspaper article about it.

Isn’t that headline amazing? I burst out laughing. My role in the whole thing was definitely a supporting player, not a star, but it is incredible to see this.

Here is a link to the trailer, it’s absolutely riveting, as compelling and full of intriguing action as any fictional spy story – – seriously, you will say: you could not make this up! 

And speaking of amazing. Listen to this. 

The other day, I went to the UPS store to send back a too-big fall blazer, and there was a woman standing with what obviously was the Make Way for Ducklings statue—a tiny version, which, I figured, was a cute reproduction that this woman was sending to maybe her grandchildren.

So I told her: “I love this, I love the ducklings, that is absolutely adorable.”

And Tom, the UPS guy, says “Oh, Hank! Meet Nancy. She’s the sculptor!”

I said “What what what? You’re the actual sculptor of the Make Way for Ducklings statues?”

And she was! Can you believe it? So we chatted about the statues, and the ducklings books, and all kinds of upcoming events, and her devotion to public art, and cool things that she has in the works. And wasn’t that just the best day in the UPS store ever?

And yes. I told her about Flo and Eddie, and she has ducks that come to her backyard too. Turns out, she lives just several streets away from us. Wow.

Have you ever seen the ducklings statue in the public garden?

Here's the scene in the UPS!

AND she invited me to lunch at her house, and I went, and well, whoa. I got to see her studio and an upcoming AMAZING PROJECT.

AND we were invited to her 95th (!!) birthday party, a Mozart Concert, and here she is in all her birthday glory.

AND speaking of which--later this week on JRW, you'll hear from Nancy Schön herself, and the author who's written a fantastic children's book about her, and about her ducklings, and her life. It's called BE STRONG. So stay tuned!

Pretty interesting week, huh? SO, reds and readers, what do you think about any of that? 

Ducklings, CIA, submarines, documentaries, public art, surprises?

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Not All Ghosts Are Bad

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Know what I absolutely love? The days when we have to think–wow, there’s so much we simply don’t know. 

And more about the absolutely wonderfully talented Meredith Lyons below. And about her brand new book GHOST TAMER.

But first…yeah, what can I say. There's so much we simply don’t know.  This is such a heartbreakingly haunting story.

Not All Ghosts Are Bad

   By Meredith R. Lyons

I can’t point to an exact age, but I know I was young. I remember how my bedroom was arranged—and I remember exactly how old I was when I decided to take charge of my own feng shui and shove the furniture into a new position—so I’m going to guess between ten and twelve. 

Often enough that it was unremarkable, I woke up during the night to find a girl pacing near the foot of my bed. Talking. She was always talking. As if I was waking up halfway through her monologue. In full flow, as if she was trying to work out a problem or vent about something irritating. If I ever tried to comment on anything she said, if I tried to enter the conversation at all, she stopped. She stopped walking, stopped talking, looked directly at me, and vanished.

I didn’t ever think much of it. I was tired, I went back to sleep, and forgot about it in the morning. I never remembered these visits, and to this day I can remember nothing that she said.

Except the last thing.

One night I opened my eyes to find she wasn’t talking. She wasn’t walking. And what’s more, she wasn’t by the foot of my bed. She was standing right beside my pillow, gazing down at me with a huge smile on her face. As if something marvelous had happened to her and she was bursting to share the news.

I didn’t feel afraid. 

As soon as I met her eyes she said, “Goodbye!” And slowly faded away.

“Where ya going?” I asked. But she was gone.

The next morning, for the first time, I remembered her. I remembered all the other times, too. But I never saw her again.

At first, I tried to tell people about her, but no one believed me. Adults said I was dreaming. Kids were either skeptical or tried to fabricate their own ghost stories to top mine. Eventually, I just kept it to myself.

One night in my twenties, drunk after a night out in Chicago, I found myself beside my friend Gillian while the rest of our group walked on ahead. I’m not sure why, but I told her the story. 

“Did she look like you?” she asked in her Dublin accent.

“Yeah, I guess she kind of did.” I was ready for her to tell me I was dreaming.

“Did your mum have a miscarriage before you?” 

I was surprised. How would she have guessed that? “She did.” 

“It was your sister checking up on you.”

I can’t describe the feeling that went through me then, but it was a rightness. A joy. Not only had my story not been dismissed as the diaphanous dreams of a sleepy child, but a new possibility had been introduced. 

I still kept this story mostly to myself. It was rare that anyone connected to it in that way and it was a special memory to me. A nice thought that I didn’t care to tarnish with too much outside scoffing.

Years later, I decided to write about a nightmare that I’d had where I was riding the el train and it flew off the rails. “This will be a nice, normal story with normal people,” I thought to myself, having done a lot of writing about aliens and unicorns. But as I was writing it, I thought, “What about a ghost or two?”

And not too far into the writing of it, I remembered my childhood ghost and decided that not all of the ghosts had to be bad.

Maybe some are indifferent. Maybe others actually care about us and want to make sure we’re doing well. Maybe some even protect us from the bad ones.

This story I didn’t hide away. I didn’t keep it quiet or private and it’s turned into a decent book. As I’ve rolled through the different stages of bringing it to life, I’ve thought more about my little ghost visitor than ever before. I hope she’s doing well wherever she ended up. I hope it was as fantastic as she seemed to think it would be. And I thank her for the inspiration.

HANK: I’m so touched that this gives you peace, Meredith. And may it do the same for all of us.

You all, Meredith is an absolute powerhouse, lookit that bio! And her book is terrific–I loved it.

In answer to the question posed by the title, though–I’m not sure I ever thought all ghosts were bad. How about you, Reds and Readers?

Death is one thing, it's what you do afterward that matters. 

Aspiring comedian Raely is the sole survivor of a disastrous train wreck. While faced with the intense grief of losing her best friend, she realizes that someone is following her—and has been following her all her life. Trouble is, no one else can see him. For a ghostly tag-along, Casper’s not so bad. He might even be the partner Raely needs to fight the evil spirit hell-bent on destroying her.

Raely and her friend must learn why this demonic spirit is haunting Raely and how she can stop him before he destroys her life—and her soul. Which, much to her chagrin, means she needs the help of a psychic (although she’s sure they are all charlatans) and must rid herself of the pesky ghost hunter who’s interested in exploiting her new abilities.

Meredith Lyons
grew up in New Orleans, collecting two degrees from Louisiana State University before running away to Chicago to be an actor. In between plays, she got her black belt and made martial arts and yoga her full-time day job. She fought in the Chicago Golden Gloves, ran the Chicago Marathon, and competed for team U.S.A. in the savate world championships in Paris. In spite of doing each of these things twice, she couldn’t stay warm and relocated to Nashville. She owns several swords, but lives a non-violent life, saving all swashbuckling for the page, knitting scarves, gardening, visiting coffee shops, and cuddling with her husband and two panther-sized cats. She’s a member of International Thriller Writers and Sisters in Crime. 
Ghost Tamer is her first novel.