Cara Black was at home in San Francisco late in 2003, attending to some household chores, well into writing the fifth installment of her bestselling Aimée Leduc murder mystery series, when an odd thing happened while she was doing the wash.
“I have a top loader,” she explains, “so I was putting the clothes up in the dryer, and the killer spoke to me, saying, ‘I did it!’”
As any writer knows, sometimes you write your books—and sometimes your books write you. Cara Black’s “I did it!” moment as she was working on Murder in Clichy, ultimately published in 2005, was a hair-raising example of the latter.
“The voice was an intuitive flash,” she says. “Just then, I knew that, of course, it was her. It had to be all along. I’d been subconsciously setting it up. In mystery writing, we have to plant clues among the red herrings and work on the art of misdirection. Plus, we need enough suspects to keep readers guessing, and when the villain is revealed, going back, the reader can say, ‘Ah, of course! This plays fair, and it’s plausible.’”
Some authors meticulously map out and outline the plot and every other aspect of a project upfront; others, like Cara Black, take a seat-of-the-pants approach. They let it fly and hope that inspiration or some subtle sense of curiosity can pull them forward through the pages. Then they step back to see if what they’ve produced adds up to anything. Black is a beloved figure in mystery-writing circles for her Paris-set Aimée Leduc series— soon to reach volume No. 21—featuring a half-French, half-American detective, and 2020’s Three Hours in Paris and its sequel, Night Flight to Paris, featuring American sharpshooter Kate Rees. For Black, a sense of discovery and mystery is essential to the creative process.
“I really wish I could outline; it would save me so many drafts, but I can’t,” she says. “I start with the place, whether it’s Kate or Aimée. Why is she here? What is she doing? The place starts me off, whatever world event or mission they’re on. When I get to page 100 of a really messy draft, I’ll timeline it. I’ll go back and look and say, ‘Does it make sense?’ Then I really see: Is there enough meat on the bones of this carcass? What more can happen? Am I interested in keeping going? I may not have answers to all my questions, but I want to keep going. I know I’m going to do a lot of rewrites.”
Black’s novels have a wide following because of the delicious research she packs into them, turning each Aimée Leduc book, for example, into an extended dip into Parisian life. Each book is set in one of the city’s famous arrondissements, and Black steeps herself in history to bring it alive. It’s not a bad gig. To do what she does, she takes regular research trips to Paris, often taking sources—retired detectives, for example—out to three-hour lunches, starting with oysters and a good bottle. “The flics,” she says, meaning cops, “like to eat traditional bistro fare with good red wine.”
It’s not just about the food or the conversation; it’s also about getting outside, far away from screens. It’s about taking in the experience of being somewhere. “For me, it’s walking the ground,” Black explains. “It’s being in Paris. It’s turning a corner and seeing bullet marks in a building from World War II, and then reading a plaque on the wall: ‘Here was shot …’ The past is not that far away. Something happened here during the final days of the liberation. You feel all these layers of history, and you can draw so much. That can be a sentence in a book. It’s real, and you feel the history. That inspires me.”
Black is more than a writer. She’s an ambassador of the writing life, and a good one. I’ve seen her at numerous book events, from Bookshop Santa Cruz to Oakland and San Francisco to two Author Talk events we’ve hosted with her at our small writers’ retreat center in Soquel, and Black is unfailingly generous. She didn’t get the memo about authors being divas; she’s lucky to live her dream of authoring books, and if Black can help others find their way forward as writers, she’s thrilled to do it.
“Cara is a pro,” Bronwen Hruska, Publisher of Soho Press, which has published all of Black’s novels, says. “She’s not only a wonderful storyteller and writer; she’s an absolutely lovely human. Whether at packed book events or one-on-one with fans, she’s incredibly generous with her time and advice.”
I asked Black about that. Look, every author wants to be gracious, but as one who has been there, peering out at the eager faces plying you with questions about your book, it’s hard to bat 1.000 on giving every question all it deserves.
Any time Black appears, she’s asked why she writes about France. Every single time. Inside, she thinks, “What difference does it make?” But watching her, you’d never know. She smiles, pauses, then gives a thoughtful answer that does not seem canned.
“I remind myself: They don’t know me,” she says. “Here’s a chance to get them interested. And I also know there are people here who have heard this story many times before, so you try to freshen it up.”
If the Pants Fit
It all fits: Black answers questions the way she writes, seat-of-the-pants. She won’t come across as dull because she always puts enough of herself into her writing to have something important to talk about. She conveys it with charm, a captivating undercurrent of self-aware humor and a hungry, expansive curiosity.
Often, the people who come to see her at readings or other events have one overarching question on their minds, which amounts to: “How can I become a writer like you?” That’s a tough one. Not everyone follows an idea on a lark, learning to write to tell one story, and then ends up repeatedly on the New York Times bestseller list. And not every writer has the good luck to end up with a publisher like Soho, which under the leadership of Bronwen’s mother, Laura Hruska, launched Black’s career—Black’s husband asked Laura if she’d read the first manuscript as a favor, and she loved it.
Curiosity is Black’s superpower. If her personal story offers lessons to the aspiring writer, they start and end with curiosity. If you don’t feel a burning curiosity, a thirst you can’t quench, that compels you to riddle out dozens of questions about your characters, then maybe this kind of writing is not for you. A cottage industry of advice has sprung up for would-be writers, often offering terrible suggestions on crafting a query letter or finding the right agent; far better to lock yourself in a room with your curiosity and see where it takes you. As the British writer Martin Amis once commented at a San Francisco book event, when you’re writing, you have no problems; it’s just you and the story.
For years, Black had considered venturing out from the familiar confines of her Leduc series to start another series. Others in the field were well ahead of her in branching out. At a conference, author Lee Childs scolded her: “Come on, Cara, get on the bandwagon!”
It was curiosity that led her to launch her new series with Three Hours in Paris, which landed on the New York Times bestseller list and has earned rapturous reviews; one in the Washington Post gushed: “Chances that you’ll be able to put Black’s thriller down once you’ve picked it up? Slim to none.”
Not all Black’s research in Paris finds its way into the Aimée Leduc books—book 21 in the series is coming in 2024. (For fans of Aimée’s highly adept partner, long-suffering René, forever in love with Aimée and miserable about it, surprises are on the way). Black kept notebooks and compiled information on World War II that felt rich.
“Why not save those things for some time when you can use them?” her editor, Juliet Grames, suggested.
Black’s research pulled her into a historic riddle: Why was Hitler’s one (known) visit to Paris during World War II so brief? It made no sense. “I found a history book that talked about Hitler’s one visit to Paris during the war, for three hours,” Black says. “He left and never returned. That seemed weird. It was his, Paris, and he was a Francophile. He could have had a parade or something!”
Diving deeper into the research, she found that Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, was on the Paris visit with Hitler—and wrote about it in a memoir. Same for Arno Breker, Hitler’s sculptor. But there were odd discrepancies. Speer and Breker gave different dates for the Paris visit, both around June 21, 1940, when Hitler was present in a railcar near Compiègne, France, when French generals surrendered. Why wouldn’t the dates line up? Were they having trouble keeping their stories straight for a reason?
So, Cara Black, being Cara Black, asked, “What if?” Specifically, she asked: “What if there was an attempt on Hitler’s life? What if someone took a shot at him and they did a cover-up?”
Good start, right? Then she took the idea further.
“And what if the sniper was a woman?” she wondered. “Because I’m so tired of reading about male snipers during World War II. I wanted a woman to get in there. There was a basis. There was a whole unit of Russian female snipers, and I thought: ‘We need to get a woman in there.’”
Then came the questions about the sniper. Who was she? Why did she have this unusual set of skills? Black was world-building again after years with one main character and her fictional universe.
“It was very scary at first,” Black says. “I was very nervous because I’ve written so many Aimées. Once I found Kate, I sort of danced around who she would be, what would drive a woman to go on a suicide mission to kill Hitler. I thought the only reason I would ever do that would be if my family were killed, and I wanted revenge. It’s wartime, and all these people are serving, and I would want to do something to get back. That gives her a reason. She would be an American, stranded there due to circumstances.”
Now, to the back story.
“Why would she have these skills?” Black muses. “At first, I thought she would be from Montana and have backwoods skills. But that wasn’t working. Then I was on tour, in Ashland, Oregon, and Maureen Flanagan Battistella of Books and Old Lace asked me, ‘Have you ever been to Montana?’”
Black said no, she hadn’t. Point taken: Hard to write what you don’t know.
“Well, you’ve been here plenty of times,” Maureen told her. “And we have plenty of people who are descendants of a frontier woman, people who came over in covered wagons.”
It clicked. It worked.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that would be the kind of woman she would be, descended from hardy frontier women,’” Black remembers. “That really helped. She would grow up during the Depression, when nobody had anything, and life was tough, and she had five brothers and would have lost her mother. And as a kid, her father would take her out shooting with him because she had to learn the ropes and be able to defend the ranch from predators or go out and shoot a deer. She earned rifle skills.”
Feed the curiosity, and at some point, if a writer is lucky, the characters start developing almost on their own. As Black puts it, “I gave her what she needed, and she really developed for me.” There were many contrasts with the character who made Black’s name; they were fun.
“Aimée Leduc is more fashionable and very French,” Black says. “Kate is all American; she’s big-boned and stands out on the street; she makes big mistakes. It was different because I’m sure she had to lie and deceive, but she was not a trained spy; she was just thrown out there with very limited training.”
Hruska said that as much as Soho always welcomes more in the Aimée Leduc series, a departure felt right.
“We were thrilled that after so many adventures with Aimée Leduc, Cara wanted to spread her wings,” Hruska says. “Ever since her first novel, Murder in the Marais, Cara has been fascinated by World War II. Over the years, she’s tucked away little bits and pieces from her Aimée research about that period, and I think it was finally time to put it together into something new and very different. I love the sensory overload of Cara’s World War II-era Paris (and Cairo in the new book!). As always, she gives you the sights, smells, tastes and fashion of a time and place.”
Author Talk with Cara Black and Bronwen Hruska. Moderated by Steve Kettmann. Saturday, April 8, at 2pm. Free (RSVP required). Wellstone Center in the Redwoods, 858 Amigo Road, Soquel. [email protected]
Santa Cruz Setting
For her first novel, Accelerated, Soho Press Publisher Bronwen Hruska focused on private schools prescribing Ritalin to students to boost test scores, illustrating the timely issue with a funny, brisk fictional story set in New York.
For her current novel, the former San Francisco Chronicle reporter focuses on Santa Cruz, where she spent a summer working at the Boardwalk during college.
“I finished a second novel that I’ve put aside for a moment,” Hruska said. “A new novel kind of took hold of me, and instead of worrying about selling the second one, I am having a blast writing the new book, partially set in 1986 Santa Cruz!”
Hruska’s experience as both an author and publisher come in handy.
“At Soho, many of our editors are also authors,” she says. “We know how hard it is to be on the other end of rejection—and how wonderful it is to receive an offer. I try to always treat authors and their books the way I would hope to be treated by a publisher.”
Can she offer any tips?
“Find a group of readers—great if they’re also writers, but you really just need good readers. Don’t take advice about how to fix your book, but listen to what trips people up, where the manuscript is too slow, too fast, not quite believable. Those are useful insights that can help you make your book better. And if you do hire a professional developmental editor, please vet them carefully. There are some great editors out there. There are also some that are—not as good.”
Above all, like Cara Black, follow your story where it takes you.
“The main advice I give is to write the book only you can write,” Hruska says. “Following trends and fads don’t usually lead to a great manuscript. If you can make me see the world through your eyes, you’ve got me.”