In 2014, little did readers of Christina Dodd's novel Virtue Falls realize that a fictional tsunami—and its victim, Coast Guard commander Kateri Kwinault—would have such a powerful influence on the coastal tourist town that anchors Dodd's suspense series.
Now, with the series's fourth and final book on shelves this month, Dodd spoke with us about finally giving Kateri her moment in the spotlight in The Woman Who Couldn't Scream, the unexpected joys of the short story, and the advice she gives to early writers.
Amazon Book Review: You now have four novels set in Virtue Falls, and four short stories. Did you always plan to write so much about Virtue Falls?
Christina Dodd: No. Virtue Falls, the first book, was my fiftieth novel. St. Martin’s originally asked me to write a short story to introduce [the series], and after that I just kept rolling on the short stories. I had never written a short story before, and I discovered I liked it. Novellas are not my thing, but, boy, those short stories, they’re just fun if you get a great idea.
Is The Woman Who Couldn’t Scream the last of the Virtue Falls books?
I don’t know. I’ve changed publishers, and my new publisher wanted a new series, but at the same time I was able to set the new series down the coast from Virtue Falls. And I have crossover characters. As we roll along, we’ll see. I enjoy Virtue Falls. You’ve got a little tourist town with a lot of eccentric people and pleasant people and really enjoyable characters, and they have a murder every once in a while. It’s a lot of fun to work with.
Sheriff Kateri Kwinault has been in every Virtue Falls book, but in this book she seems to be very much the heart of the story. Can you tell me more about her?
I wanted to write about a Native American character—a female Native American character—who’s very successful. In the first book she’s the commander of the Coast Guard station there in Virtue Falls. There’s a major earthquake and a tidal wave, and she ends up drowning. Then she’s brought back to life and suffers incredible hardship just becoming mobile again. My editor called me and said, “You know, you have to kill your darlings. If you have to pull her story out of this book, it won’t make any difference at all to the plot.” Kateri was just one of many characters in Virtue Falls. I said, “You’re right; I know you’re right. But I can use Kateri to pull the reader through all the books.” And I have a very smart editor. She never said a word about taking Kateri out again. So I was able to continue her story and her growth and her transformation up through the fourth book. And yes, the readers were clamoring to get her story. And so book four was definitely her story. But also Merida’s story.
What I really enjoyed about The Woman Who Couldn’t Scream is that in so many romantic suspense novels, it’s the male protagonists who struggle with opening their hearts up after being betrayed in some way. But you have female protagonists who struggle with that fear, as Merida does. She’s emotionally closed down pretty tightly, and this is her second chance to open up again.
I think there’s a very powerful motivation on her part [to stay shut off]. If she opens up, she’s going to die. She’s afraid for her life. I enjoyed writing her. I enjoyed writing a character who couldn’t speak due to trauma. She was a fascinating character to me.
When you’re writing your novels, do you know what the ending is and who the villain is?
I have a synopsis that I turn in and is approved by the editor, because I never want to get to the end of the book and have the editor say, “I didn’t like any of this.” However, the villain for me tends to change. Occasionally I actually know who it is right from the beginning. But as I write the book, I’m thinking it’s one person, and eventually I think, “No it’s somebody else.” And sometimes I change it again. The thing that I think is successful with that kind of writing is that I give mixed messages on who it is, which is exactly what you’re trying to do when you write suspense.
What’s your favorite part about writing?
I love the creation. I love those moments when I’m writing and I know I’ve nailed it. That doesn’t happen all that often. And I love when I realize that I’ve set something up early in the book, and I didn’t know why. I was just writing along, and then toward the end of the book I realize there’s a reason for it and I’ve actually managed to set something up that was needed at the end of the book. That’s your subconscious playing games with you. That’s just marvelous stuff.
You’ve written quite a few books. Do you think that your subconscious now is...well, I’m not going to say “trained,” because that’s not the right way to put it—
If I could train it, I would! [Laughs]
Let’s say, Is your subconscious your partner in crime with you now?
Yes. Writing is a lot about fear, because you never know whether you’re going to get to the end and be stuck, which is why I do synopses. I know Jayne Ann Krentz and Susan Elizabeth Phillips just plop right in there and start writing a book without any idea where they’re going, and that terrifies me. But at the same time, I get surprises every day in what I’m writing.
Do you have any advice for new writers?
My basic advice is to put your butt in the chair and write. That’s been my standard advice for years. Recently I was at a conference and I went into a workshop for early writers, because frequently you can actually get some great pointers: things that you have forgotten or things that you just never heard before that improves your own writing. And this person who was giving the workshop was simply telling people that “You can never do this,” “You can never do that,” “You’re not a writer if you do this,” and “You should always do this.” And I was actually moaning until someone turned around and glared at me. [Laughs] But it makes me insane when writers, published or otherwise, give advice to young writers and say, “My way is the only way.” When you’re a young writer, when you’re learning the ropes, whatever works for you is what you should do. And if you’re getting the words out and you’re getting the pages done and you’re writing the books, then you’re doing great. Don’t listen to people tell you how to write. Just write.
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