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Writing Crime

Sister to Sister: Barbara Ross
By Hank Phillippi Ryan
Posted: 2020-05-26T03:36:00Z

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oh, how well I remember it! The very first time I met Barb Ross. Couple of things: I had NO idea about Sisters in Crime. NO idea about how to write a book. No idea about anything about anything in the book world, except I loved to read mysteries and wanted to write one.


I signed up for a how to write a mystery class at the Boston Center for Adult Education, taught by a terrific author named J. Dayne Lamb.  It had to be in the mid-1990s? I think? Our class was about—seven people. And we were told to bring a first couple of pages of the book we were working on.


And we had to read them out loud. Silly me, I thought mine was fine.(It wasn’t. It had about fifteen points of view on the first page, but I didn’t know what point of view was, anyway.)


So I was all proud of myself UNTIL this other woman read hers. I thought—whoa. Whoa whoa whoa. It was as good as anything I have ever read. I was so intimidated, and so impressed. And the teacher was, too.


Because the world is amazing, years later I realized that was Barbara Ross, and that book turned out to be her first published novel The Death of an Ambitious Woman  (see, I knew it!) (and I still love it).


And look at her now.


Do you remember the very first time you thought: I’m going to write a book, and I can do it. What was that moment?


You know, I don’t. But I do remember a lot of times I thought, “I want to write a book but I can’t do it.” Getting from here to there took time and maturity.


Did that first book sell?


It did, but it was a long and winding road that involved highs (getting a big agent), lows (when the agent couldn’t sell the book to a publisher), putting it in a drawer, pulling it out years later and eventually selling it unagented. The book was The Death of an Ambitious Woman, which was published in 2010.


How many of your books have been published since then? What do you think about that?


Ten books total to date. The Death of an Ambitious Woman, plus eight Maine Clambake mysteries, and one Jane Darrowfield, Professional Busybody mystery. Also three published novellas in holiday collections from my publisher Kensington. Two more books are turned in and awaiting publication. I honestly don’t know what to think of it. I know looking at all the covers in a row makes me feel great.


Gotta know, got to ask. Do you outline? Has your method changed over the years?


I was a dedicated pantser. Now my editor requires a synopsis before I begin, both for him to approve and so it can be shared with the art and marketing departments. Given deadlines, I’ve gotten more disciplined about having scene cards to the end of the book before I begin, but there are always several crises during the writing where the way forward isn’t clear and the scene cards get changed.


What is the hardest part of the book for you?


I think the hardest part of any amateur sleuth book is finding a reason the protagonist has to investigate. It’s a challenge every time.


Is your first draft always terrible? Has it always been?


Horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible. I keep thinking, “This is the time it will be better.” Never is.


Was there ever a time when you thought you would give up writing?


Novel writing is very much my second act, so there are times when there are other things that I want to do and I think about “really retiring.” But my writing career has given me so much. Not just a purpose to every day, but a wonderful community. So it’s hard to think about giving it up.


How often in your process do you have doubts about what you’re doing?


Here’s my process.


First draft

--First 10%. Boy I love this idea! This is really sailing along. This could be my best book.

--Next 40% I didn’t think of this detail. Or that detail. Or this character. How is that twist going to work?

--Next 40% Why did I think I could do this? How am I going to tell my editor this is the time I couldn’t pull it off? This is too long for a novella and too short for a novel. It’s nothing. Waa-waa-waa.

--Last 10% I landed the plane! This book isn’t bad. I love the last chapter.



--First read-through. This book isn’t bad. I only have to solve 10 major problems and fix the awful prose.

--First round of revisions. Why did I think I could fix this? Who wrote this? Was she drunk?

--Second round of revisions. This scene will never fit anywhere. I have moved it three times and changed the lead-in, the setting, the time of day, and the ending every time.

--Third round of revisions. Why is the whole town shrugging and nodding? Does everyone have some form of Tourette’s that only affects fictional characters? Why am I fixated on the word, “marginalia?” That is a once per book word, not a twenty times in a book word.

--Final round of revisions: This book isn’t terrible. There’s a weird little pacing thing in chapter 14 but maybe I can sneak in a fix when it comes back from my editor.


End scene.


What do you tell yourself during those moments of writing fear?


The only way to it is through it.


Do you have a writing quirk you have to watch out for?


Yes, but unfortunately it’s different in every book.


How do you know when your book is finished?


The deadline arrives.


What is the biggest mistake you see in people’s manuscripts?


I critique a lot of amateur sleuth manuscripts and I call the biggest problem, “The main character is a sociopath.” To wit, a death occurs. The sleuth immediately a) assumes it’s a murder and b) starts quizzing all her friends about where they were, what they were doing at the time of the death and why they hated the deceased. Take a breath. Someone has died. The suspects are your friends and neighbors. Would you immediately assume your real friends and neighbors were murderers? I didn’t think so.


Do you think anyone can be taught to be a better writer?  


Absolutely, as long as they’re willing to listen and work hard.


How do you feel about…stuff? Writing swag, handouts, giveaways, that kind of thing. Do you think it matters? Do you have it?


I personally hate free stuff. My late mother-in-law had hoarding tendencies and I spent way too much of my adult life sorting through her crap. Free isn’t free, let me tell you. However, I recognize that not everyone hates free stuff like I do. Therefore, I have bookmarks for each series that I quite like and Snowden Family Clambake tote bags for special giveaways. Along with my blogmates, the Wicked Authors, we also have bookmarks and special bags we offer at the book giveaways our publisher Kensington holds at major conferences.


You’ve seen so much change in the publishing industry, what do you think new writers need to know about that?


The publishing industry is a conundrum wrapped in a puzzle floating in a quagmire. No one understands it, not even the people who work in it. So don’t waste time stressing about it, except as a mild form of entertainment.


Been so successful, why do you think that is? What secret of yours can we bottle up and rely on?


If you’re a member of Sisters in Crime New England, you’ve already done it. I truly believe I would not be published or still be writing without my long association with his chapter.


Give us one piece of writing advice!


“Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” Neil Gaiman


HANK: So, sisters, how are you these days? I am trying to write, sometimes semi-successfully, and sometimes it’s a miserable failure. But as Barb says, the deadline unchangeably looms.


And I laughed and laughed at her “marginalia.” I always use the word flicker or flickered or flickering. WHY? Monitors flicker, eyes flicker, TV screens flicker, lights flicker, candles flicker.  What are your pet words?


Stay safe, darling ones.

BARBARA ROSS is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries and the Jane Darrowfield Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. Barbara’s Maine Clambake novellas are included along with stories by Leslie Meier and Lee Hollis in holiday anthologies from Kensington Publishing. Barbara and her husband live in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at


USA Today bestselling author HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN is the on-air investigative reporter for Boston's WHDH-TV. She's won 36 EMMYs and dozens more journalism honors. The nationally bestselling author of 12 crime fiction novels, Ryan's also an award-winner in her second profession—with five Agathas, three Anthonys, two Macavitys, the Daphne, and for THE OTHER WOMAN, the coveted Mary Higgins Clark Award.  She is the only author to have won the Agatha in four different categories: Best First, Best Novel, Best Short Story and Best Non-Fiction. Hank’s newest book is THE MURDER LIST: a USA Today Bestseller and an Agatha and Mary Higgins Clark Award nominee.  Watch for THE FIRST TO LIE coming in August. A  starred review from Publishers Weekly calls it “Stellar.”  Hank is a past president of National Sisters in Crime. Visit Hank online at






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