At some point, you moved to writing crime novels. How did you make that transition?
I’m a classic example of how you have to be flexible in your career. I started out as an academic focused on bioarchaeology, then moved into forensics, then to writing commercial fiction and eventually to writing television.
How did I transition to writing? I just decided to write a book like the ones I like to read, which are dark, gritty thrillers. It also made sense because I was working in a combined medicolegal and crime lab, so I had experts around me that could help. I saw all of these forensic cases on my own, and then there were other cases going on around me, so I had a lot to work from.
You have authored 20 books in the Temperance Brennan series. How do you continue to come up with new ideas?
I do what every author does – I draw on what I see going on around me. I will take a nugget from a case I am working on, one that I see at the lab or hear about from a colleague or that I read about in a professional publication and ask myself, “What if this or that happened?” Then, I spin it off into fiction.
How do you communicate the science so that it is understandable?
There are three rules to this. First, keep it brief. Second, keep it jargon-free – you can’t use the special terminology that experts use. Third, keep it entertaining. You can’t just do a narrative dump of science. You have to work it into a conversation or into observations – and you have to keep doing that in new and different ways.
It’s a little bit like talking to a jury when you have a complicated piece of information to convey. You don’t want to dumb it down, but you also don’t want to lose their interest. You have to keep it interesting, jargon-free, understandable and as brief as possible.
You’ve also branched out into a series of young adult novels. How did you make the decision to write for the younger audience?
My son is the one who proposed the idea, and I agreed to do the series with him. I had readers of my adult series asking if their children could read my books, because kids are interested in forensic science, and they were really not appropriate for the young audience. We especially wanted to encourage interest among girls, so our main character is Temperance Brennan’s 14-year-old great-niece.
What was the experience like writing with your son?
We were a great team. He was better at some parts, and I was better at others. We would mark up each other’s work with a red pen, and then we would have editorial meetings to discuss any differences in opinion. We were able to take off our mother-son hats and put on our co-author hats. We did six books together in total.
Becoming a writer is about more than writing. It’s also about being able to sell a book. Tell us about how you got into the business of books.
I didn’t follow the path I would tell other people to follow. I wrote “Deja Dead,” and I didn’t really tell anyone I was writing it. If you’re in an English department and you write fiction, you’re a hero. If you’re in a science department and you write fiction, you’re a bit suspect. The only people who knew I was writing was my family. It took me two years, so when I finished, I wasn’t sure what to do, because I had no experience with commercial fiction, only with writing textbooks.
My daughter had a friend of a friend who was a junior editor at a publishing house. I wrote a cover letter and mailed off my manuscript to her. I later learned that she took two or three chapters home with her, drove back to the office, got the rest of the manuscript, read it and sent it up to a senior editor. They bought it within two weeks.
I didn’t have an agent. The publishing house told me I should, but I didn’t know how to get one. They had someone call me, and within a day, this woman read the manuscript, flew down and visited me in Charlotte and ended up being my agent for almost all of my books.
So, I never went through the process of getting an agent, and I never really went through the process of finding a publisher. I would not recommend this approach to anyone trying to break into publishing today!
What’s your advice to other aspiring authors? What’s the right order of events?
I strongly recommend having an agent. I’ve had publishers tell me they don’t even look at material not submitted by an agent. In addition, when my publishing house made an offer to me, it was way more than the minimum amount I had set in my head, and my agent quadrupled that. She also put in place all of these different rights that I probably would have signed away.