Kathy Reichs has had quite the journey. After starting off her career in bioarchaeology, Reichs fell in love with forensic science – a field that would eventually lead to the inspiration behind her hugely popular Temperance Brennan crime fiction series and the TV series “Bones.” We recently spoke with Reichs about her journey to crime fiction writing, how she continues to find inspiration 20 books later and the difference between writing for TV and writing a novel.
You started your career as a forensic anthropologist. That is a niche field. How did you end up in that space?
It was not my original plan. My doctorate is in bioarchaeology, and I was focused on ancient ruins – archaeologically recovered skeletal remains. I was doing that very happily, when the Charlotte Police Department asked me to help them with a child homicide case they were working on. While I hadn’t envisioned my career going down that path, once I started working on forensic cases, I really liked it. Archaeology is fascinating, and I love it when I end up getting a case that turns out to be historic or prehistoric, but what I liked about the forensic cases was their relevance. When you identify a missing family member or testify in court, you are going to impact someone’s life – you have to be right. Eventually, I retrained, took my boards and shifted to forensics.
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.
It sounds like you’ve had a pretty smooth journey. What has been the biggest challenge for you?
My biggest challenge has been finding time. When I wrote the first book, I was teaching full time at UNC Charlotte, so trying to fit that in on weekends, while on vacation and during the summer was difficult. After the second book, I went on leave, and have been on leave ever since, so that freed up part of the time pressure. There came a point several years ago, where I wrote a young adult book, a screenplay for “Bones,” an adult book and some short stories every year. It was just too much – something had to give. I’m now focused on full-time novel writing.
I’ve read that you need perfect quiet to be able to write. How has your routine or your cadence of writing changed while we’ve been in this COVID-19 experience? Have you found it easier or more difficult?
Until recently, I was at my beach house in isolation with my two daughters and four of my grandchildren. I had to finish my upcoming book, and I would go up into my office and close the door, and they would respect that. What was hard is that my office overlooked the beach, so I would look out the window and see them having a good time. Having the discipline to stay at the keyboard was a challenge for me.
What are the challenges of writing for television vs. writing books?
My role as a producer on “Bones” was primarily to work with the writers, and then I wrote episodes later on. In some ways, it’s similar to writing a book. The structure is similar in that you have your main story, your secondary story and your third story.
It’s also different in so many ways. You do what is called “breaking the story,” where you go into the writers’ room with the bare minimum of an idea for an episode, and you brainstorm. You have a big white board and shout out ideas, and by the end of it, about two weeks later, you have your outline for all of that episode’s stories. I’m used to sitting at my keyboard all alone writing, so the change in process was exhilarating.
In TV writing, you have to answer to a lot of bosses, so after you have your initial outline, you pitch it to the showrunner. After that outline is approved, you write a very detailed outline. Only after that is approved do you actually write the script – and it usually changes a lot once you submit it. It’s very condensed – when you write a screenplay, you don’t have to put any descriptions in there, because the viewer sees those. It boils down largely to dialogue.
What do you tell young people who are thinking about a career in science?
Do it, but be serious about it. Study hard; get into a good university. In many fields, you need an advanced degree or doctorate to sit for your board certification exam. In addition, don’t just take a degree in forensic science – I see a lot of these programs, and students learn about forensic science, but they don’t acquire a skill that they can use in a lab. It’s an exciting field to be in, though, and I encourage anyone who is interested to pursue it.
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