By Mark McNease
I recently happened upon Kate McLachlan’s new book, Ten Little Lesbians, on the “hot new releases” list for LGBT mysteries on Kindle. I loved the cover and soon found myself thoroughly enjoying the story of ten women stranded at the lesbian-owned Adelheid Inn in the Cascade Mountains after a mudslide closes the only road out. Murder and mystery ensue in a delicious Agatha Christie homage with a distinctly lesbian twist.
I couldn’t think of anyone I’d rather pose ‘6 Questions’ to than Kate. A double Goldie Award winner from the Golden Crown Literary Society and a Lambda Literary Award finalist, Kate shares her experiences, work and insights into the writing life. – Mark
MM: You’ve written a good number of books, including the RIP (“Rip Van Dyke”) time-travel series, mysteries, and the romance “Christmas Crush” that was a Lambda Literary Finalist in 2014. Have you always been a writer? What trajectory has your writing taken over the years? (That’s a twofer.)
KM: I’ve always been a writer in the sense that I’ve always written something, whether it was diary entries, journal entries, poetry that NOBODY ever saw, or the beginnings of stories without end. I wrote my first novel when I was in my mid-30’s, a historical adventure book for middle-school kids. I was teaching at the time, and I wrote the book to try to make ancient Rome come alive for my 6th graders. They seemed to like it, and I sent it off to some agents. This was in the mid-90’s. Publishing companies wouldn’t even read your query letters if you were unrepresented, and expensive vanity presses were the only choice for self-publishing. I had no luck finding an agent, so I stuck the book in a drawer, and there it still sits. I had proved to myself that I could finish a book, though, so I continued on that path. I decided to write what I enjoyed reading, so I wrote a few mysteries. Three of them still sit in that same drawer with my children’s novel, but two of them–after many intervening years filled with law school, career change, and coming out–have since been extensively rewritten and published as Hearts, Dead and Alive and Murder and the Hurdy Gurdy Girl.
MM: Two of your books won Goldie Awards from the Golden Crown Literary Society. Can you say a little about the state of lesbian literature and why you’ve chosen to focus on this audience?
KM: Actually only one of my books won a Goldie, but it won two of them! That was my first book, Rip Van Dyke, and it won awards for Debut Author and for Paranormal Romance. I was a little surprised it was even in the paranormal category, since I thought I was just writing a story about a group of friends and their relationships. True, some time-travel happened, as also happens in the other books in that series, Rescue at Inspiration Point and Return of an Impetuous Pilot. In fact, Return of an Impetuous Pilot is currently a Goldie finalist in the Science Fiction/Fantasy category. (Awards announced July 25. Cross your fingers!) But they’re more about relationships than science fiction or paranormal stuff.
But that wasn’t your question! You asked about the state of lesbian fiction and my choice to focus on this audience. It really wasn’t a choice, to tell the truth. I mentioned my earlier attempts at writing novels. I wrote for a straight audience, since I thought I was straight myself. Single and celibate for just about forever, but straight. Hey, I know I’m not the only one! For someone who had navel gazed my entire adult life, I was superbly out of touch with myself. I was trying to write mysteries with romantic elements, but I didn’t have a clue about how romantic relationships really worked, and the writing reflects that. I was in my late 30’s before I figured out I was a lesbian, and in my early 40’s before I fell in love. I was in law school by then and didn’t have time for the next few years to write anything but legal briefs. By the time I started writing fiction again in my late 40’s, I had things figured out a little better and was able to write emotions with feeling and understanding.
Your question about the state of lesbian fiction is interesting. I think the state of lesbian fiction is similar to the state of all fiction, which is, quite frankly, pretty grim. Self-publishing has been great in that it allows more people entry into the world of publishing, but that might not be a good thing for fiction overall. Here’s a secret: if self-publishing had been an option for me in the 90’s when I wrote those first few books, I would have published them. They were my babies and I loved them, and I wanted everyone else to love them too. It would have been too tempting not to publish them, and that would have been a mistake. They weren’t ready.
It used to be that if you picked up a published book, you at least had some assurance that somebody besides the author thought it was pretty great. We don’t have that assurance anymore. Too many people are out there doing exactly what I would have done with my first attempts. They’re publishing their beloved babies before they’re ready, and the result is that there are far too many books being published that are simply not good, or at least they aren’t good yet. Wait, wait, I know there are plenty of excellent and polished books out there. The problem is it’s nearly impossible to figure out which books they are. They’re hidden behind all the chaff that’s clogging the market, and much of that chaff has 5-star ratings on Amazon.
We need a system to help us find the good books, a system that can’t be manipulated by the author and the author’s family and friends. I know people are working on it. There are websites out there trying to help, places where you type in a book you liked and similar books will be recommended, or places where you pick the attributes you like in a book and recommendations for others pop up. They’re a step in the right direction.
MM: A friend of mine moderates a lesbian mystery group on Goodreads. Are you familiar with other writers of the genre and what do you think makes it a distinct niche?
KM: I think I know the mystery group you’re talking about, and I just joined it! I’ve already found some exciting new reading material, so thanks. I am familiar with a lot of the writers in lesbian mysteries, but by no means all. Lesbian fiction has grown so quickly. In the 70’s there were hardly any mysteries, in the 80’s quite a few really good ones, and in the 90’s it exploded. There are still a lot of mysteries being published, but it’s a small genre compared to some, like romance. I do think lesbian mystery novels are a distinct niche. There are a lot of lesbian fiction or romance novels that have elements of mystery in them, but what makes lesbian mystery distinct is that the plot comes first, much like in traditional (aka “straight”) mysteries. For that reason LGBT mysteries have the potential for good cross-over appeal with other groups. Mystery readers enjoy sleuths that are different than them. After all, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot books weren’t limited to an audience of Belgian detectives with little mustaches! There’s also a lot more freedom with writing mysteries than with other genres, like romance. I had a lot of fun writing Ten Little Lesbians, because I knew I didn’t have to wrap it up with a happy ever after ending. I’m not saying it doesn’t end happily! And I’m not saying it doesn’t. I’m just saying how it ends is not a foregone conclusion.
MM: Can you share some about your personal life? I know you’re married to Tonie Chacon and live in Eastern Washington. (What qualifies as Eastern Washington, by the way?)
KM: Sure. I live in Spokane, Washington, on the dry side of the state. There’s a mountain range and a desert between us and Seattle, so I say Eastern Washington to distinguish us from the rainy reputation of the western half of the state. I’ve lived in Spokane all my life, except I lived two years in Northport, Washington, up near the Canadian border, and two years in our state capitol, Olympia. I moved to Northport for my first teaching job back in the 80’s (3rd graders — so cute!) and I moved to Olympia for my first lawyer job in 2003. I switched from teaching to the law for a lot of reasons, but a big one is that I’d finally discovered I was a lesbian. I was teaching middle school by then, in a very conservative school district (read my Hearts, Dead and Alive for a slightly fictionalized version of the school). I didn’t want to live in the closet, but I knew that if I came out while teaching there, my life would have been hell. A braver person than I might have stuck it out and tried to change the school, but I just fled. I decided I wanted a career where I could be myself, so I picked law. I was completely out from the first day of law school–in fact, I started the first LGBT-straight alliance at the law school–and I’ve been out ever since.
I met Tonie when I was in my 3rd year of law school. It was one of those things that started as friendship and then love sneaked in under the radar. We’ve been together for over 12 years now, and legally married for 7. Tonie was always a musician first, and a great reader. She’s been my biggest fan from the start, but about three years ago, she decided to try her hand at writing too. She wrote Struck! A Titanic Love Story, and it was published by Regal Crest Enterprises earlier this year. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to marry and live with the woman you love, but it’s even more splendiferous when you get to be writing wives!
MM: I always ask writers a “writer’s question.” What kind of writing routine do you have or maintain? Same time every day? And do you outline?
KM: I wish I had a writing routine! I do write every day, but unfortunately most of that’s for my day job. I don’t have any mental steam left on work days to write for fun. I write my books on weekends and holidays in the little bits of spare time I can find, which are way too few and far between. It’s really aggravating to finally have a moment to write and then have to spend all that time rereading what you already wrote because you can’t remember where you were! Because of that, I do have to have a plan to help me orient myself in my own story. I don’t outline exactly, but I do plan out the basics of a story. I have a large white board in my office, and I try to put something up there to keep me on track, a chart or a diagram or something else, depending on the book. For the book I’m working on now, I have two story arcs showing the basic plot and subplot. For Ten Little Lesbians I had stick figure drawings (I’m no artist!) of the ten women with lists of their attributes and secrets underneath to help me keep track. And then there’s the bubble bath method. Big outlines, diagrams, etc, can give structure to a story, but they don’t help you craft individual scenes. For that I take a notebook and pen into the bath with me. I let my mind drift and the ideas flow until I just have to grab the pen and write it down. Yes, the notebook gets fat with damp pages, and I have to use ink that won’t run, but it works for me.
MM: Publishing today is somewhat of a great big free for all. What advice would you give to an aspiring writer (of any age) and how would you suggest getting heard in such a vast chorus of voices?
KM: Well, that is a problem, and I spoke about it a little up above. If there’s a secret to getting heard above the crowds of authors out there, I don’t know what it is. That doesn’t stop me from making suggestions, though, and lists are good, so here is my list of ten things an aspiring author can do to get some notice.
- Write the best book you can.
- Write another book that’s better than the first. Keep writing and keep getting better.
- Find a niche. Those of us who write in the LGBT or any variation thereof have an advantage, up to a point. It’s easier for us to target our audience than it is for the much larger straight audience. For example, if someone looks up “Lesbian Time Travel” on Amazon, she’ll find dozens of books, not thousands. Of course, she’ll have to cull through all the porn that pops up anytime “Lesbian” is a search term, but it’s still a narrower field than “Time Travel” alone. The flip side of that, though, is that it’s difficult to reach a larger audience. We all dream of writing a cross-over novel, something to reach the masses and become a best seller and a blockbuster movie. Hey, Brokeback Mountain did it. Why not Ten Little Lesbians? Really, why not? But I digress.
- Find a way to be accessible to readers. Have a website, be on Facebook or some other social media, have a blog, generate a monthly newsletter. You don’t have to do all these things (I don’t), but you need to do something so your readers can find your books if they Google your name.
- Enter literary contests. Most contests allow authors to submit their own books, so do it. Readers, no matter how much they love you, probably aren’t going to cough up the fees it costs to nominate a book. For the author, it’s a tax deductible business expense. Don’t worry about winning. This is about getting publicity for your book. People really do look at the lists of nominations to find new books. If you make the short list, that’s even better, and who knows? You might even win!
- Offer freebies. This is different than offering excerpts of your books, though you should do that too. Offer an entire book or short story on-line for free. Get people hooked on your writing so they’ll come back for more. It works for drugs, right?
- Read. Not only does it make you a better writer, but you’ll have more to talk about in literary conversations than yourself.
- Share yourself. Offer to do a reading &/or signing at a local bookstore, and don’t worry if the crowd is small. You can advertise the event ahead of time and talk about it afterward, so you’ll be getting a lot more exposure than just to those who show up to hear you read. The same is true for every event you participate in, whether it’s a reading, attending a writing conference, sitting on a panel, being interviewed, or whatever. You can get three bangs for every buck–tell about the event beforehand, attend the event, and tell about it afterward (with pictures!) And if you’re isolated, or public speaking is off the table for you, you can participate in online events the same way.
- Make a long-term commitment. It’s unrealistic to expect fame and fortune from just one book. There’s a book, Outliers, The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (a great book except that he forgot women exist too), that explains that people need to do an activity an average of 10,000 hours before they get really good at it. 10,000 hours! Even if you manage to write 20 hours a week (I wish!), that’s still only 1,040 hours per year. It will take you 10 years to get really good at it! Which leads to my last tip.
- Write another book.
Kate McLachlan is the author of several lesbian novels, including the award-winning Rip Van Dyke time-travel series, several mysteries, and a bit of romance. Her novella, Christmas Crush, was a Lambda Finalist in 2015 in the Lesbian Romance category.
Kate lives in the Pacific Northwest with her wife, Tonie, and their various cats and dogs. Kate works in a respectable legal job all week long, but on the weekends she dons her rainbow striped SuperWriter cape and creates adventures, failures, triumphs, and love for her very real imaginary friends. Learn more about Kate by visiting her website: http://www.katemclachlan.com.