#320 – Writing Twists and Turns in Thrillers with Catherine McKenzie

In this episode, we spoke with Catherine McKenzie, USA Today best-selling author of “riveting domestic suspense,” I’ll Never Tell,  ”one of 2022’s best and most-anticipated thrillers,” Please Join Us, and more! After publishing more than a dozen titles since 2010, Catherine’s latest, Have You Seen Her, is out today!

In this episode, we spoke with Catherine McKenzie, USA Today best-selling author of “riveting domestic suspense,” I’ll Never Tell,  “one of 2022’s best and most-anticipated thrillers,” Please Join Us, and more! After publishing more than a dozen titles since 2010, Catherine’s latest, Have You Seen Her, is out today (June 27th 2023). We are so excited to be chatting about this amazing title and to learn more about Catherine’s writing career.

We asked Catherine about her journey to becoming a writer, her previous career in law, why she believes so many lawyers are also published authors, how she plots out her psychological thrillers, what drew her to the genre in the first place, and more! Catherine also gave some great advice for those interested in wrapping their heads around the twists and turns of thrillers.

Content note: this episode features brief discussions about real-world missing persons cases, murder, and suicide, and may be upsetting to some listeners. Please listen with awareness of this subject matter.

In this episode:

  • We hear more about Catherine’s journey to becoming a writer, and how she went from being a “recovering lawyer” to a full-time author
  • Catherine tells us why she thinks so many lawyers (and doctors!) are also published authors
  • She talks about what does (and doesn’t) inspire her writing, and we hear about how human psychology and memory and her interest in both subjects help her when it comes to her writing
  • We learn more about her writing process, how she plots her stories, and how her structure developed over her years of writing
  • We ask Catherine for advice for new writers of psychological thrillers, and how best to approach the twisty nature of these plots (and the twists themselves)
  • Catherine tells all about Have You Seen Her (spoiler-free!), and she tells us about the inspiration behind this new release
  • We ask Catherine about the structure of Have You Seen Her, and how the structure of her books have varied from book to book
  • Catherine talks about true crime stories and how social media has changed and contributed to criminal investigations, and how this is relevant to her novel
  • We also chat about the intriguing main character of Have You Seen Her, Cassie, and how the secrets she keeps impact the plot of the book
  • Catherine gets into how she uses her newsletter and social media as part of her marketing efforts, and offers from advice on utilizing these tools
  • We ask Catherine about the rom-coms she writes under pen name, Katie Wicks, and why she writes romantic comedies as well as thrillers
  • And much more!

Useful Links

Catherine’s website

Catherine on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook

Have You Seen Her

Catherine’s books on Kobo

Mentioned in this episode:

Dick Francis

Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout

Agatha Christie

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone by Benjamin Stevenson

Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston

Hazel Fine Sings Along by Katie Wicks

Chloe Baker’s Lost Date by Katie Wicks

Catherine McKenzie was born and raised in Montreal, Canada. A graduate of McGill in History and Law, Catherine practiced law for twenty years before leaving the practice to write full time. An avid runner, skier and tennis player, she’s the author of numerous bestsellers including HIDDEN, FRACTURED, THE GOOD LIAR and I’LL NEVER TELL. Her works have been translated into multiple languages and PLEASE JOIN US and I’LL NEVER TELL have all been optioned for development into television series.

Her next novel, HAVE YOU SEEN HER, is releasing on June 27, 2023!

Episode Transcript

Transcription by www.speechpad.com

Rachel: Hey, writers, you’re listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast,” where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. For your hosts, I’m Rachel, promotion specialist for Kobo Writing Life.

Laura: And I’m Laura, Kobo Writing Life’s author engagement manager. Today we spoke to thriller author, Catherine McKenzie. Catherine was born and raised in Montreal, Canada, a graduate of McGill in history and law. Catherine practiced law for 20 years before leaving the practice to write full-time. An avid runner, skier, and tennis player, she’s the author of numerous bestsellers and the upcoming novel, “Have You Seen Her.”

Rachel: Our conversation with Catherine was a lot of fun and very insightful. Catherine told us about her journey from being a full-time lawyer transitioning to a full-time writer. She gave us some insight into her writing process and gave some advice on writing and plotting psychological thrillers. And then we really dug into the nitty-gritty details of “Have You Seen Her,” which Laura and I both really enjoyed reading. Catherine told us about how she came up with the idea. She told us about the setting. This book takes place in Yosemite National Park. And she talked to us about the structure and the different POVs throughout the novel.

Laura: It was a really insightful conversation, and we really hope you enjoy.

Rachel: We are joined today by author Catherine McKenzie. Catherine, thank you so much for joining us today.

Catherine: Thank you for having me.

Rachel: To kick things off, would you mind telling our listeners a little bit about yourself?

Catherine: Sure. I was born and raised in Montreal, and I did many things in my life, I guess, but I practiced law for 20 years. I was a litigator and then I’m also an author, which is why I’m on this podcast. And I started publishing in 2010. My first book came out in Canada. It was called “Spin.” And now 14 and 15 books later, I have two books coming out in the next couple of months.

Rachel: Before we dig into the author side, I really wanna talk to you a little bit about your journey from a practicing lawyer to a full-time author. On your Instagram, you call yourself a recovering lawyer. And I’m just so curious how you made the choice to go full-time into writing.

Catherine: I mean, that was a long process. And I say recovering because I think law is a cult. I was actually just saying this to a book club yesterday in a lot of ways. So, it sounds insane, but I fell backwards into writing. It wasn’t the plan. I wasn’t one of those people who’s like, “I’m gonna write a book.” And I started writing a novel just because I had an idea that wouldn’t leave me alone. And I wrote it and then I wrote another book. And when I had written the second book, I sort of started the process of finding an agent, like, obviously, to get published, but I didn’t really think about it as a business or as a career. I don’t know why, but I just didn’t go there in my mind. And it really only hit me when I was having a conversation with the marketing director at Harper Collins after I got my book deal. And I still remember that conversation.

And it’s funny because she’s now my editor for my Katie Wicks books, which we’ll talk about later. So, like, a full circle moment, but, you know, I spoke to her and she was like, “Well, you need to be on Goodreads and this and that.” And I was like, “Goodreads? What the hell is Goodreads? I have no idea.” And she made me go on Twitter and I’m still there, you know, 13 years later or whatever. So, my first book came out in 2010, as I said, and I was a partner in a law firm. And I, for 10 years, published a book a year and practiced law, which sounds nuts. I understand. I don’t have kids. I used to say the answer to how I did all that was robots, but with all this like ChatGP and AI, you know, I don’t know if that’s the right answer anymore, but, you know, when you’re a litigator, you’re living in other people’s problems all the time. And there’s a certain level of stress that comes with that.

And after kind of doing everything that I wanted to do in law, I had been thinking about leaving before the pandemic happened, but one of the things that I was hesitating about was, “Am I gonna be okay at home without colleagues? Am I gonna drive myself insane?” And then we were all forced to be at home and I was okay. I was like, “Oh, look, I can go running every day and, you know, I can cook for myself. And wow, my stress level is way down.” So, I took the leap and, you know, I did that knowing that the book business is… There’s a great word in French, aléatoir, like, very precarious and up and down and, you know, you’re only as successful as your last book sometimes. And so I had to be okay with, like, even if I never publish again, though, I had a book deal at the time, but even if I never publish again after this book deal, I have to be okay with, like, stepping away from this other career. And I found that I was. And it was the right decision for me putting aside, like, whether I could or will, and, you know, so far writing full-time is working out, but it was the right time for me to go. So, that’s my long answer to your short question.

Rachel: No, it’s a great answer to a medium question. But one thing that I bring up on this podcast time and time again is the crossover between lawyers and writers because we interview so many authors who are either still practicing lawyers or who were lawyers. And I always like to ask, “Do you have a theory as to why there is that crossover?”

Catherine: I have a theory. I do have a theory. I also know three doctors and writers, so, a smaller population, but two of them are Canadian. Vincent Lam is a practicing doctor, and Dan Kala, who lives in Vancouver, also a still practicing doctor and publishes. So, it’s possible. My theory is this. I mean, I think there’s like three parts to my theory. So, one, I think, like, lawyers, in general, are sort of type A personalities, motivated people who can get things done. So, they wanna write a book. They do write a book. They don’t just talk about writing a book, which a lot of people do. As an author, people are always coming up to you, like, “Oh, I’m gonna write a book one day.” I’m like, “Great, go ahead. Why are you telling me about it?” So, I think that that’s part of it.

I think also, particularly on the litigation side, like, writing or being a lawyer, being a litigator is storytelling. The facts are constrained and you’re not supposed to make them up, but you are still telling a story and any litigation, any legal proceeding begins with a recitation of the facts, which you have to shape in a compelling narrative. And then there’s that writing component that comes in as well. And then the third thing that I think is less talked about, but, you know, again, lawyers, particularly in litigation, meet people under stress all the time. And so that’s not how most of us meet. Like, we’re not stressed today. We’re just having a nice conversation. Right? And maybe your dog is stressing you out or whatever, but, you know, it’s not…

When people used to come to see me in my professional job, you know, as a lawyer, like, those were, like, the second worst day of their life. The worst day of their life was whatever happened that led them to have to come to see me, right? Getting served with legal proceedings or getting fired or, you know, whatever. And I never saw them in good circumstances, right? Like, nobody comes to their lawyer’s office like, “Hey, so happy to see you today, Catherine.” And so you see what people are like under stress and it really gives you an access to people’s psyche and psychology and personalities in a way that normal life, I think, doesn’t. And, you know, I used to say that, like, my clients, 50%, they’re therapists and 50%, they’re lawyer. And so I think that those three things are my theory about why there’s so many. And I’m sure lots of people just say, like, lots of people just hate being lawyers, and so they’re looking for an escape to do something else, but I actually liked being a lawyer for most of the time that I was a lawyer. So, that’s what I think.

Rachel: Did you ever, I don’t wanna say, like, draw inspiration from your clients, but do you think that having that window into people’s psyche during some of the worst days of their life helped create characters in your psychological thrillers?

Catherine: Sure. So, I definitely am not basing my characters on any clients that I had and they’re not me, despite, you know, people always assume it’s me, but I’m like, “My life was not that interesting.” I’ve written 15 books and, like, I have not done any of these things. So, you know, be that as it may. Speaking about this book or my previous book, I never joined a cult. It’s like I was not on search and rescue in Yosemite. My sister was. So, I think it does give you. And, you know, I have spoken a lot in the past about this idea of write what you know, and I don’t think it means what people usually think it means. So, people usually think it means write about yourself or write about your own experiences, but I don’t think that’s what that means. To me, it means take things that you’ve been through in your life and take the emotions and reactions that you experienced in analogous situations and imbue your characters with that to make them realistic and to make their reactions realistic.

So, for sure, seeing what people are willing to do when their backs are up against the wall and how they behave and how their personalities change and even other less obvious things, but, like, how people’s memories are not… Like, people think that they have perfect recall of conversations. Most people do not. And if somebody has a different memory of a conversation that they were a party to, it’s like, “Oh, that person’s a liar.” And it’s like, “Well, you could both not be liars and you’re just remembering different things because that’s how the brain works.” And we remember we all have different heuristics and things that are important to us, and so we latch on to separate facts.

And a story that I tell that is not a legal story, but my sister and I have both told the same story about our childhood over and over again, but only happened to one of us. There’s a story about a first day in a French school and a kid in our class having to go to the bathroom and not being able to say it in French and then peeing in their pants. It’s a terrible story from the ’70s. This would never happen now. And I’m, like, convinced it happened to me and my sister’s convinced it happened to her. My mom says it happened to me, but we both have the memory. So, what’s that about? Right? Memory is malleable. And, you know, trials happen years after events and they are, in part, a memory they shouldn’t be, but they are a bit of memory-seeking exercise, you know? So, I think all of that definitely helps me in my writing, for sure, or makes its way into my writing anyway.

Laura: Very interesting. Yeah, I definitely could see how memories could change over the years, especially when you’re having to go to trial years afterwards, like you said, and then you’re kind of just looking at your statement to kind of remember what happened and, like…

Catherine: Yeah. Or there might not even be a statement, you know, but you’re looking at letters you wrote or emails or… I mean, another example, my sister and I were on a trip in Costa Rica many years ago and we had this very scary experience on an airplane. In my memory, I was in the front seat. She actually unearthed the picture the other day and sent it to me and I was sitting next to her in the backseat. And it’s like I’ve literally… We all agree about what happened in this airplane, but I have moved where I was sitting from next to my sister to up next to the pilot. Why did my brain do that? How has that become my version of the story? And even with the photographic evidence, I’m like, “Well, maybe I changed places afterwards.” And she’s like, “You’re insane. No, you did not.” So, you know, it’s just weird, right? Memory is not a recording.

Laura: That’s so interesting. And since you’ve been writing full-time, has it changed your writing speed or, I guess, like, your release schedule at all? Do you find yourself writing more than you were before?

Catherine: I mean, I am writing more. It hasn’t changed my release schedule because, like, you know, one book a year is sort of anything any publisher…

Laura: The publishing standard. Yeah.

Catherine: …wants from anybody. It has allowed me to write a book in another genre and have two books coming out this year. But in terms of, like, how long it actually takes me to write a thriller, it’s not really that much faster for a couple of reasons. I used to write only on the weekends, basically, and so I’d have the week to sort of think about what I was gonna write, and then I’d sit down on the weekend and I’d do my words or my pages or whatever goal that I had. And when I started writing full time and I was writing every day, you can’t write… Well, maybe somebody can, but I cannot write from 9 in the morning to 5:00 p.m. or 8 in the morning to 6:00 p.m., which used to be my law hours. At the writing desk, it just doesn’t work. Creativity, I don’t think, works like that. But also I ran out of story. Like, I used to have those spaces to think, and so I had to build those spaces back into my process. So, it’s maybe a bit faster, but not in any really significant way. It’s just given me time to work on other projects as opposed to “just”… And I put just in quotation marks, but “just” a book a year.

Rachel: And how do you build in that space to kind of let stories percolate and ruminate?

Catherine: Yeah. I mean, for years now, I’ve been writing my books, what I call in thirds. So, I spend the most time on the first third because that’s really where I’m developing the characters and the world and the tone and the voice. I know the big picture going in, but I don’t know any of the details before I start. And so I’ll write that third and then go back to the beginning and polish, and then I’ll write the next third and then go back to the beginning and then write all the way to the end and then revise again. So, in between those thirds, I’ll leave breaks. And then I don’t always… Right now, I’m on a tighter deadline, so I’ve been violating this rule, but I’ve been trying to, like, not write on my thriller on the weekends at all to also give me that space. And I would say probably one day a week, I’m doing marketing, paperwork, you know, the business end of things. So, it ends up being, you know, more time at my desk on the book, but not significantly more time in a weird way. Work expands to fill the time, I find.

Laura: You mentioned that you kind of start from, like, the first third of the book. So, when you’re writing such a psychological thriller, do you kind of know where the plot twists are coming in ahead of time or do you kind of do that as you go?

Catherine: I mean, the big ones, yes. So, I know what I call the, like, reporter questions, who, what, where, when, why, how, before I start. I think it’s important in mysteries of any kind to know that because, otherwise, there’s so much rewriting that needs to be done if you haven’t set that up from the beginning. And then, usually, I saw out of it, you know, some of the major twists. And twists are usually just secrets, right? They’re secrets the characters are keeping. And so sort of, like, “Okay. Well, when am I gonna drop this? When am I gonna drop that?” Some of it is mechanical. So, the other thing about thirds is that books tend to follow a three-act structure, and so there should be something that happens at the end of act one, which is the first third, and then act two, which is the second third, and then the wrap-up.

And so I’m looking to drop those secrets in or twists or reveals or major events at certain signposts. But the finer details of, like, what’s gonna happen in each chapter and what is gonna be revealed in any given chapter, that, I really work out as I go along. And I would say I plot like a couple chapters in advance. So, when I’m writing whatever chapter I’m writing, I’m also thinking about, “Okay. And then what happens?” And then I’ll take notes and work like that. So, it’s really how I’ve written, trying to think probably all of my thrillers, definitely all of my thrillers, starting with… I mean, I’ve always known every book, what the end result was and what the twist was, but I think I got sort of more systematic about it when I moved from writing commercial fiction, women’s fiction into writing mysteries and thrillers because I had learned from writing my first couple of novels that, like, literally just going by the seat of your pants is a problem.

And, you know, I remember when I was writing my two first novels that were published, “Spin” and “Arranged,” “Arranged,” originally I meant to switch, so, it’s told from a woman’s perspective in the whole book, but my original plan for that book was halfway mark was to switch into the male point of view. And I know how to do it now, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it then. And so I didn’t do it. And then in my book, “Spin,” which is set in rehab, I had meant for them to leave rehab way sooner than they do in the book. And there was this whole other side adventure that they were gonna go on. And I literally couldn’t get them out of rehab. And then it sounds insane, right? Like, I’m in charge, but how do I get them out of here? They just need to go. And I still remember saying that, like, to myself, like, “They just need to leave. Leave. Get out of there.” And again, these are things I don’t think I would struggle with in the same way now because I think I’ve just spent so much more time thinking about structure and developing my process. And it doesn’t mean that writing a novel isn’t a struggle every time. It totally is, every time. The blank page, but, like, “Oh, my God, what have I done to myself? Why am I doing this again?” Every time.

Laura: Have you always been drawn to reading thrillers as well? Were there any authors that kind of inspired you to start the genre?

Catherine: I grew up reading detective fiction more. So, I was a very big reader growing up and my parents are both big readers, and so there were lots of books in my house. And so I was reading Dick Francis, and Nero Wolfe, and Agatha Christie growing up. And that was probably the majority of what I read growing up. And I wrote a book that eventually got published as “The Murder Game” in between the two women’s fiction books. So, in between “Arranged” and “Spin,” I wrote this thing called “The Murder Game,” which was a book about four law students who plan a perfect murder, and then it’s 10 years later and the murder has been committed. And I got the idea for that book when I was in law school.

So, before I was ever thinking about writing novels, I had an idea for a novel. And that book has an unreliable narrator. And I wrote it in 2007. And I had hired an outside editor to read it and she was like, “Unreliable narrator. No one is ever gonna publish this book. I wanted to throw it across the room when I was finished with it.” And I listened to her. I was like, “Well, wait a minute. “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” Agatha Christie?” And she was basically like, “You’re no Agatha Christie.” I mean, she didn’t use those words exactly, but that was certainly the implication. And so I put that book in a drawer. And then “Gone Girl” came out.

Laura: I was just thinking about that. Like, then there was a bunch of huge books in a row that all had unreliable narrators like “Gone Girl,” “Girl on a Train.” That was huge.

Catherine: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But I wrote the… I think that was in the air that it was coming. And so I wrote that book before “Gone Girl” came out. And when “Gone Girl” came out, what, in 2012, I think, right? So, when that came out, I was like, “I’m going to kill somebody.” So, I was still writing women’s fiction at the time, but when I transitioned and I wrote my first mystery with my book, “Smoke,” and really I wrote a psychological mystery sort of before that was hidden, you know, it was in the air already. So, I wouldn’t say that anybody necessarily inspired me, though, of course, I read and I love “Gone Girl” and I read “Girl on a Train” and several of those other girl books at the beginning of the girl trend. But I think it just sort of gave me permission to do what I had tried to already do 10 years earlier. And my publisher at the time was very open to me switching genres. But I did always have a twist. Like, every one of my books has a twist in them from the beginning and even the rom-com that I have coming out. It’s just the way my brain works, I think.

Rachel: Do you have any advice for authors who have an idea for, like, a psychological thriller or a mystery, but are intimidated by the twisty-turny nature and having to plot that out?

Catherine: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s important to read in the genre and to know the genre and the mechanics of it however that is. Like, you don’t have to necessarily take a class, but I used to sort of give myself classes. So, when I read “Gone Girl” for the first time, for instance, I read it the first time as a reader, just enjoying the story, and then at the end, I went back to the first page and I was like, “Okay. How did she do this?” And I started reading it as a writer. “Okay. What is she doing here?” And like, “Oh, yeah. Okay. Okay. Okay.” And so I think you need to know what the conventions of any genre that you’re writing in are, and then you need to find your own path and your own voice into that story.

And I’m not saying, like, go read 50 thrillers or, you know, 50 suspense books. That can be overwhelming. But I think it’s helpful to read the best of any genre, you know, like, whatever’s been the most successful or the best reviewed or, you know, whatever appeals to you in that. And I think also, like, why are you writing in any genre? Is it because it’s a genre that appeals to you and the story is something that, like, won’t leave you alone, or is it just you’re trying to find and follow market trends? I am really against doing the second. I think it’s different recognizing that, oh, you know, I stopped writing rom-coms because, like, there just wasn’t a market for them anymore, but also because I wanted to move into more complex stories. But recognizing that, like, oh, the market is back for these things. And I’ve had a bunch of ideas for them over the years and just didn’t have time to write them.

That’s one thing. But I think sort of looking at the market and being like, “Oh, I’m gonna identify this whole…” I don’t think that works. But I think you wanna know what the conventions are and what are you bringing to the table that’s original, different, whatever, you know? And I think right now, what’s important, there’s so many books in that category that I think sometimes the twists are getting, like, completely outrageous and ridiculous. And my promise to myself and promise to my readers always has been that the solution is in the book. You might be surprised by the end and I hope you are, but you’re not gonna be like, “That’s impossible.” It’s not some, like, outside thing that you were never told anything about. It’s not twins. Then you never met the other twin. You’ve got to be, I think, fair to the reader and have planted those seeds throughout the book. So, is that advice? I don’t even know.

Rachel: No, I really like that. The solution is in the book is, like, such a great way to look at it because I have had experience with a story where it was a twin that you didn’t meet until the series finale of a seven-season show, and I was so mad.

Catherine: That sounds like cheating to me.

Rachel: It really does.

Laura: Yeah. It’s almost unfair to the reader because part of the fun of it is trying to figure out the mystery and if there’s something where there’s zero clue, it’s like, “Well, I didn’t even have a chance.”

Catherine: I agree. And, you know, I think there’s a really good episode of Sherlock. I think maybe it’s the second episode. So, he’s working with Watson and Watson keeps saying, “Well, maybe it’s twins.” And he’s like, “It’s not twins. It’s never twins.” And I think that that’s right. And at the beginning of “Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone,” a book that just came out, he’s got sort of, like, the 10 rules for mysteries. And one of them also, I think, in there is it can’t be twins. And I wrote a book with triplets, but you knew there were triplets from the beginning, you know? So, that’s okay, but you can’t have, like, the surprise twin or the surprise triplet come out of nowhere. Like, that’s my rules for writing these things.

Yeah. You have to have to figure it out. I think you have to be able to go back in the book and say, like, “Oh, look, everything was here. Maybe I didn’t understand it. Maybe I misread it, but everything is here.” And if you have an unreliable narrator, like, they’re withholding information, but everything they say has to be true. Like, they can’t say in their mind, “I didn’t do this,” when they did it, you know? That’s not fair. Then you’re just tricking people. And then you didn’t actually write a mystery, you just wrote a trick, which is different, I think, you know? That’s what I think.

Laura: I totally agree. And can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming book, which Rachel and I both just finished and really enjoyed? It’s called “Have You Seen Her.” So, we’re dying to talk to you about it. So, can you tell us a bit about it, but spoiler free?

Catherine: Yeah, of course. Yeah. So, “Have You Seen Her” is about a woman named Cassie who is escaping something in New York. She’s leaving her life behind in New York and going back to her home turf in Yosemite, California to work on search and rescue team there. She had worked on search and rescue 10 years ago, and then she’d left after something terrible happened 10 years ago and went to start this new life. And now her old life is calling to her as she escapes her new life. That makes sense. And it was loosely inspired by the Gabby Petito disappearance. Was that two years ago, I guess now? Which happened in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in a different national park.

And my sister, as I mentioned briefly before, worked search and rescue as did her husband for five years in Yosemite. And I’ve long wanted to set a book in that setting, but I didn’t have the story that I wanted to tell. And it was really interesting, you know, when Gabby went missing, there was another couple who also went missing, two women, and were turned up dead. And they had all been at the same campground in Moab. And it was just like, “This is so strange. Life is strange.” And so this idea and setting that had been percolating for a while was there. So, a couple goes missing and she gets involved in the search and rescue operation to find them, but, of course, there’s other things going on, which I will not spoil.

Rachel: Like Laura said, we both had a blast reading this. And like I mentioned before we started recording, I was all caps texting her about the book this morning as I finished the final chapters. But I kind of wanna talk to you about the setting. You mentioned that your sister worked search and rescue there. Did you have to interview her a lot to kind of get the ins and outs of the park? Did you do a lot of additional research?

Catherine: I definitely asked her and my brother-in-law questions. They now live just outside of Yosemite in Mammoth, California. And so I’ve spent time there and we went twice. I think I’ve been twice now to Yosemite, maybe three times. So, I was able to do some of that. And, yeah. “Google is your friend,” as one of my other author friends told me, you know, there’s so much information out there. But, ultimately, like, I think that there’s a disclaimer in the acknowledgments, which is, like, everything I got right, it’s due to them, and anything I got wrong, like, whatever, it’s for the story, you know? So, I think anytime you’re in any setting where people know a lot, it’s going in and taking out enough details so that it feels real without getting bogged down in that stuff.

But, you know, it’s interesting. I was there last summer and I had written, because books, you know, we’ve written them, like, a year before they come out. And I had turned the book in and I was like, “Oh, there’s some stuff I got wrong.” Like, again, my memory had shifted about just certain layouts. And I had a map on my… I’m in my office right now. I’ve taken it down. But I had a map on my wall for a long time of the various parts of the park and, like… I’m holding them up, but, you know, I still have my day hike maps and this national graphic book, which I never actually read. But my research is still here, whether I read it or not.

Rachel: And do you have any climbing experience because Cassie and one of the other characters do quite a bit of climbing in the book?

Catherine: Yeah. I have climbed a little bit, but I’m terrible and I’m afraid of heights. So, my sister is a climber. And for that, actually, I watched a lot of climbing movies. So, that was more, I watched, like, every climbing documentary available on streaming. And there’s quite a few of them. So, the “Free Solo,” which I think is mentioned in the book, and lots of people have seen because it, you know, won the Oscar. But “The Dawn Wall,” which is a great one. “The Alpinist,” which is a story about a Canadian who, you know, died tragically after doing all these incredible things and probably four or five others. So, yeah, I definitely sort of immersed myself in that climber culture and, like, anything. It’s also a cult, right? People go off and leave ordinary life behind and pursue these really, really dangerous things. And it creates a subculture, you know, around it. And so, yeah, I immersed myself. It was nice to have all those documentaries because of the way of, like, visually immersing yourself in that subculture.

Rachel: And now that you mentioned that climbing is a bit of a cult, I feel bad admitting that after reading the book, I now have a window open on my laptop right now to get my top rope belaying certification.

Catherine: Fantastic.

Rachel: I’m about to join a cult and I’m ready for it.

Catherine: No, no, it’s not a real cult. I’m kidding. And I mean, I did. I climbed the Grand Teton in 2013, 2014. And I did all the ropes training and everything to do that. And so I have done an insanely scary climb myself. And I grew up hiking. My family was big backpacking, hiking, outdoor people. So, I did have that sort of outdoors experience, for sure. But, yeah, good. You know what? My feet cramp in those shoes, and I’m afraid of heights. So, it’s a very bad combo for me.

Rachel: The shoes are not comfortable. If anybody out there…

Catherine: They’re really not comfortable.

Rachel: …is thinking about climbing, they are really uncomfortable.

Catherine: Yeah. They’re like two sizes too small. And my feet just cramp in normal shoes sometimes. So, yeah. Plus the fear of heights. Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Laura: As someone who also kind of has a fear of heights, I’m gonna let Rachel be the climber in this podcast.

Rachel: Yeah, no worries. Good. Good decision.

Laura: Rachel, you can take that on for both of us. I also wanted to talk to you a little bit about the structure of the novel. So, the story is told primarily through Cassie’s POV, but you also have Jada’s Instagram post, Petal’s journal. So, how did you come up with the structure and was it kind of challenging to figure out the proper balance between all of that?

Catherine: Yeah. I mean, I wanted to… It’s funny how, like, things go in cycles. So, I’d written a bunch of books from multiple points of view, which I think really culminated in my book, “I’ll Never Tell,” that has seven narrators. And then I was like, “I need to, like, go back to just trying to write a book from one person’s point of view.” So, I did that in my book, “You Can’t Catch Me,” and then, “Six Weeks to Live” was four narrators again, and then “Please Join Us,” I went back to one. So, I’ve sort of been going back and forth with that. And I wanted to get the other women’s voices in the book. And I wanted to do that in a sort of more original way. And I think so much of people’s lives is online. And that whole idea, which is not an original thought on my part, but I think is still an important subject is the way we project and then what’s really going on behind the scenes because that’s a lot of what this book is about.

And so I had, I think, the idea for the Instagram posts pretty early and decided, like, “Yeah. Okay. Jada, that’s the whole way we’re gonna see her.” And then Petal with the diary, it was just so fun to get into Petal’s voice because she’s very voicey, to use a writer’s term, and to just be able to, like, write these things that are so completely different than Cassie was fun. And the way I intersperse things like that is I guess there’s also a time thing, right? There’s chapters in the present and chapters in the past. So, I work in Scrivener and it allows you to color-code things. And so it’s kind of like music. It’s literally like, “Oh, okay. I’m gonna write approximately this many pages before I come back to the present, you know, or this many chapters.” And then there’s a music to, like, when are Petal and Jada are gonna come in? And then those posts, you know, fade out later in the book as we actually meet them as people.

So, it’s really, like, a visual thing and it’s an instinct thing that I’ve kind of learned again over just years of writing books of what that balance should be between the main narrative arc and these sort of side roads that you can go on. And I apply those same rules to backstory as well. This book doesn’t have a lot of time in the past, but sometimes I have written books with lots of time in the past. And that’s a balancing too. More of your story needs to be happening in the present to keep people interested and engaged and moving ahead. But I think probably the funnest part of writing this book were the Petal’s diary entries. I was actually just rereading some of them yesterday because I got my final proofread, which is, like, pointing out, “Oh, you used the word most seven times on this page,” or whatever. And so a lot of those happen to happen in Petal’s diary entries, I think. So, I was looking at them again. And yeah, I’m proud of them. I think they’re fun.

Laura: Yeah. It’s kind of true what you said about how it really stays in the present, but I think it was a good choice for this novel, especially because as a reader, we kind of find out more about Cassie as everyone else in the novel finds out more about Cassie. So, it was definitely interesting to learn more about her as the book went on. Something else you use in the narrative is blog posts. And we see this a lot in real life too, like, with the Gabby Petito case, for example, where true crime stories are picked up to become, like, a new podcast or they become really big on social media. So, how do you think that kind of the advent of social media has changed true crime and investigation because there’s definitely mixed opinions about it?

Catherine: I mean, you know, are those things actually solving the crime or are they just, like, theorizing? I mean, it happened recently, I think, with… What was it? There was something recently where someone was accusing… It was totally nuts. Like, they were accusing somebody was not responsible. Oh, the killing of those girls in the college. And, you know, some true crime podcaster was, like, accusing one of the teachers of doing… It was completely bananas. So, I think sometimes people are just going off half-cocked without thinking about libel or slander. And me as a lawyer, I’m like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, like, slow your roll there.” But I did wanna explore that a little bit because, again, that is something that really part of why…beyond the fact that she was white and blonde, you know, part of what happened with Gabby was that this online community really took up that case, and because she was part of the online community.

And, you know, I’m trying to write, like, fun books that you can enjoy, but I do always wanna have a little bit of a message in there. And one of the messages that came out of her case was, like, so much attention focused on this one girl when lots of women go missing, particularly women of color and their cases don’t get national media attention and aren’t solved. And so I wanted that voice raising those questions to be there. And I thought that doing it in the form of a blogger who was making those very points was a good way of doing it because the first couple that goes missing in my book is an interracial couple. And so, you know, I wanted to sort of spotlight that issue a little bit through them, but I also want my stories to be anchored in the now and that is part of what happens. If somebody goes missing, the media could pick it up and it can become this sort of national maelstrom that you get sucked into or it could be crickets. You just don’t know.

I mean, do I think it’s a good thing? I mean, like, did you watch that documentary, “Don’t Fuck with Cats?” I mean, they help solve a terrible thing that happened in Montreal, but I think there’s lots of people, there’s probably a whole…books about people caught up in people theorizing who didn’t do anything. So, people probably need to be a bit more careful before they start swinging around accusations of murder. But if more crimes get solved, then that’s good, obviously. And I think, in general, we’re kind of bad at solving murders, you know, not gang-related murders, but sort of stone-cold murders.

I mean, even if you look at the Murdoch case, I don’t know if you guys watched that documentary on Netflix, but I think that guy… I mean, would it have been solved? I think he solved the case for them, ultimately, because he was like, “Oh, here’s my alibi.” It was, like, the third thing out of his mouth when he’s talking to the cops. And, you know, then with the whole, like, attempted murder and all this stuff is, like, “We weren’t looking at you, but we are now.” And there was a case like that in Quebec too, a former judge of the court of appeal in Quebec was convicted of murdering his wife, and originally, it seemed like a suicide. And I remember reading the judgment about it and was like, the cops were not suspicious of him until he said, “Oh, you’re obviously looking at me.” And so I think, like, sometimes you can bring attention to yourself in ways that you shouldn’t. So, do better, murderers. No, I’m kidding.

Rachel: This is a great lesson in how to get away with murder.

Catherine: How to get away with murder. Exactly.

Rachel: I kind of wanna stick with talking about the structure of the book for a second because, like you mentioned, the book kind of has two timelines, like, now and then. Did you tackle the story in a linear fashion when you were writing it or did you jump around during the writing process?

Catherine: I always write chronologically to the book. So, even if the book is not in chronological order, I still write the book chronologically as a reader experiences it. So, hence, my need for chronologies and writing programs to keep on top of that. But, yeah. That’s how I wrote those. And even I wrote one book that was, like, totally out of order and that’s what I did. That’s how my brain works.

Rachel: So, when you’re tackling the book, jumping around, do you always know the twists and turns? Did you know how this book was gonna end? Did you have that final scene?

Catherine: Oh, well, the final scene. You know what? The book ended in a slightly different place than the final scene, which I will not give away. And one of my editors was like, “You can do better than that.” And I was like, “I know. I just got tired at the end. You’re right, I can do better.” And so the solution was always the same, but the final, final chapter in the book came out during the editorial process. But I can’t tell you what it is because…

Rachel: No spoilers.

Catherine: No spoilers.

Rachel: People need to experience this wild ride that Laura and I went on.

Laura: I was texting Rachel last night, like, “You need to get to the ending so we could talk about it.” And then I got those messages this morning. Cassie is an extremely mysterious protagonist, like we mentioned. So, the reader is kind of learning about who she is and her past as the novel progresses. How did you, when you were writing, ensure that you weren’t giving away too much too soon or holding back too much?

Catherine: Yeah. I mean, it’s just a balance that you learn over time, I think. Again, I like to think about it as my characters have, like, a list of secrets, like, everybody has secrets. So, I give my characters a list of secrets and it’s like, “Okay. Well, when are we gonna learn about this secret and what impact would it have on this story here if we learn about that secret? And then when’s the next secret gonna come out?” And so, you know, that’s how I always thought about it. And I think Cassie, to me, is a changeling, right? Like, her way of dealing with things is just kind of running away and starting over. And I think she adopts sort of whatever personality/lifestyle goes along with whatever new location that she’s in.

And so it’s interesting to write somebody like that. It gives you a lot of freedom because she kind of doesn’t have a personality. I mean, she does, but her personality is shifting. And I don’t think Cassie actually is an unreliable narrator. I don’t think that’s a spoiler. But she’s just not necessarily interested in telling you what you might be interested in knowing, if that makes sense, because she’s very forward-focused, like, she doesn’t stop and ask herself a lot of questions, which, you know, if she did, there wouldn’t have been a book. She’s just kind of all instinct, like, need to go. Go somewhere else. Okay. Do this. Show up here.

Rachel: She was a lot of fun to read. And there were a couple of moments where she did reveal a secret and you’re just like, “Wait, what? Hold on.”

Catherine: Hold on.

Rachel: That was a lot of fun.

Catherine: Pardon? Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And that’s always the fun stuff to write too, right? Like, oh-shit moments, as I call them.

Rachel: Very fun to read too.

Catherine: Thank you.

Rachel: And I’m gonna take, like, a hard left turn here because we also wanna talk to you a little bit about marketing because you mentioned you set some time aside during your schedule to do some of the marketing. And we noticed you have a newsletter, you have socials, you have a TikTok. And we’re just curious how you use these tools to kind of reach your readers and how they play into your marketing plan.

Catherine: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s just the lot of writers these days that your life is kind of online in certain ways. And I am actually a fairly private person, so there’s lots of my life that I don’t put online. I’m not private about my political opinions. If you want them, you can read my Twitter. But, I mean, you know, I’ve learned over the years that the things that people respond to the most on my social is stuff about my books. And so I don’t wanna only just be talking about that, but if I post other stuff, people kind of don’t care. So, everyone has their own online personality, right? And so, yeah, I just try and do different things. I think, you know, the nice thing about Instagram is people kind of create content for you. They take really nice pictures of your books and it’s like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, I can just re-gram this or whatever it’s called now, you know, and share this.” And so that’s nice.

I’m in TikTok, I don’t even know what I’m doing on there, but whatever. Old lady TikTok, that’s what I’m on. I mean, I think the thing I’m probably most active on, honestly, is Twitter, though I’ve been less active recently. I’m on there. It’s kind of a news source for me. But I think it’s just a way of being accessible and also living in the now, you know? That’s just how people are now, right? People text, people email, people… I mean, I remember years ago, one of my early books, somebody was reading it and Facebook was in it and they were like, “Are you sure you wanna put Facebook in your book? That could date it.” I was like, “I think Facebook is here to stay in some iteration or other, you know?” So, it’s not like people are gonna read this 10 years from now and be like, “Facebook? What the heck was that?” Maybe MySpace.

But, yeah, I think these things have become ubiquitous. So, like I said, I think it’s part of being an author these days. But I wouldn’t stress about it too much if somebody’s thinking about breaking in. You don’t have to have some huge Twitter following or Instagram following or… I had none of that and I got a book deal anyway, you know? So, just write a good book. If you enjoy social, do it. Don’t do it if you don’t enjoy it because people can tell when you’re faking and they don’t respond to it. So, I think there’s enough different platforms that most people can probably find something that they’re comfortable doing, whatever it is. And if you don’t feel comfortable doing any of it, like, it’s fine.

Rachel: And just to keep jumping topics here, because I know we have had a lot of your time already today, but we have so much we wanna talk to you about. You also write rom-coms under the pen name Katie Wicks. And I’m just curious how this process has been and do you kind of enjoy the process of writing rom-coms as a break from the deep dark world of psychological thrillers?

Catherine: Yeah. And, I mean, that was part of the reason why I wanted to do it is, you know, these books can be dark, you’re living in a dark place, writing about dark things. Even though I think I write thrillers with a light touch, like, there’s not a lot of blood and gore and fistfights and, you know, or whatever, right, but they are still darker stories and it is nice to write something that’s just fun and funny and light. And so I had this idea for a book about a singing competition because they’ve been around forever and I feel like I had never read a book set in a singing competition. And so it’s called “Hazel Fine Sings Along” and it’s coming out May 2nd under Katie Wicks, my pen name for that book. And I have a second book coming out next year called “Chloe Baker’s Lost Date” next April.

And then, I mean, you mentioned at the beginning, or maybe it was before we even started this, but I think I’m sort of fusing both things in my next project, which I just announced, which I can say what it is, but, yeah, yeah. Sorry. So, yeah. So, I just sold a funny mystery series in a three-book deal and the first book is called “Every Time I Go on Vacation, Someone Dies.” And it’s about an author who has a long-running mystery series where the detective is based on a real person and she’s very sick of that person and she wants to kill him in her book, of course, a literary murder, not an actual murder. And they’re on tour together in Italy with a bunch of other mystery writers and he thinks somebody is trying to kill him. And it goes from there. And it’s a lot of fun. And it’s fun. It’s fun. There’s romance. There’s adventure. There’s laughs. It’s very voicey. Yeah. So, that’s what I’m gonna be writing for the foreseeable future. And the first book comes out… I was just writing the second to last chapter this morning. It’s coming out next summer. The first book is coming out next summer.

Laura: That sounds so fun, so I’m excited to read it. It sounds like it could be like a Netflix series or something. So, someone pick it up.

Catherine: Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

Laura: We’re putting it out there.

Catherine: Maybe. Maybe. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s in the vein of, like, “Only Murders in the Building” and “Knives Out” and “See How They Run,” “Poker Face.” And then in the book side, there’s the Finley Donovan books. There’s a book that I mentioned earlier that I read after I sold my book, but “Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone,” where that guy and I share like a brain. I need to meet him because it’s fun. I have to meet him to be like, “Hey, you need to read my book, but I swear to you I wrote that before I read your book because we have some very similar things going on in our books in terms of tone and, you know, breaking that sort of fourth wall and talking to the reader.” So, something was in the water, obviously. That happens. So, yeah, I’m looking forward. And it’s been fun. It’s just like fun to write those books, which is nice. Writing should be fun, right?

Rachel: I think so. Which is why I don’t do it a lot because I struggle with it, but that’s what I’ve heard. So, you are releasing this thriller. You have some rom-coms coming out. You were working on this fun mystery series.

Catherine: Yeah.

Rachel: Any other ideas you have percolating? I know you have so much on the go.

Catherine: Yeah, I’ve written some films that are in development. So, we’ll see. Some original movies.

Rachel: Interesting. I know we can’t ask you more because you probably can’t say and you also don’t wanna put anything out there.

Catherine: It’s so weird on the film side, it’s like you really can’t talk about it until it’s set up. But I’ve written three original film scripts, and we’ll see if any of them ever get made.

Rachel: Can I ask how it was process-wise switching from writing prose to writing screenplays?

Catherine: I mean, I started writing screenplays a while ago and sort of put myself through screenwriting school to learn that there’s definitely mechanics of it that are different. I’d say I write dialogue-heavy in my first drafts of my books and scripts are obviously dialogue-heavy. And so that was not such a hard transition for me. I think it’s, again, just more learning the structure and the mechanics of scripts. There’s a whole different program that you need to write a script in. And so you need to learn how to work that thing. And how do you move people through space on a page? And there’s just way less prose. And yeah, it’s a different medium with a lot of the same skills. So, it was a learning process and I put myself through bootcamp and I’m still learning, just like I’m still learning on the book side too. If you think you know everything, like, you should just stop because you probably know nothing.

Rachel: I feel like a lot of people could use that advice. But, yes, I imagine learning Final Draft after working in Scrivener, it’s a very different program.

Catherine: Oh, completely different. Yeah. I mean, there are good parts and bad parts of both programs. Final Draft has lots of shortcuts in it, which is nice, but the spellcheck is terrible. And there’s no perfect writing program. I do honestly just write everything in Word because it’s probably the closest to being a perfect writing program, but it doesn’t give you the same kind of visibility as some of these other things do. And I think I probably use 10% of the capabilities of any of these programs. So, I will say in my new book, I have footnotes. And it was fun getting to, like, use the footnote function again. It’s like back in my law world, but I’m using them for fun.

Rachel: Well, hopefully, fingers crossed, we will see your name on the screenwriter by-line on a movie poster soon. And before we let you go and carry on with your Friday, where can listeners find you online?

Catherine: My website is catherinemckenzie.com. That’s Catherine with a C, M-C-K, no A. It’s amazing how many different ways there are to spell my name. On Twitter, I am CEMckenzie1. And on Instagram and Facebook, I’m Catherine McKenzie Author. And on TikTok, I’m catherinemckenzie4 because there’s four other Catherine Mckenzies apparently, or three others. I haven’t found them yet. I need to go looking for them. Who are they?

Rachel: Well, we will make sure we link to all of those in our show notes so everyone can find you. And Catherine, thank you so much for taking the time to sit with us today. This was great.

Catherine: Thanks for having me.

Laura: Thank you. This was so fun. Thank you for listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast.” If you’re interested in picking up Catherine’s books, we will include links in our show notes. If you’re enjoying this podcast, please be sure to rate, review, and subscribe. And if you’re looking for more tips on growing your self-publishing business, you can find us at kobowritinglife.com. Be sure to follow us on social media. We are at @KoboWritingLife on Facebook and Twitter and @kobo.writing.life on Instagram.

Rachel: This episode was hosted by Laura Granger and Rachel Wharton with production by Terrence Abrahams. Editing is provided by Kelly Robotham. Our theme music is composed by Tear Jerker. And huge thanks to Catherine McKenzie for being our guest today. If you’re ready to start your publishing journey, sign up today at kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.

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