Ep 391 Meet Cate Quinn, author of ‘Black Widows’.

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In Episode 391 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Meet Cate Quinn, author of Black Widows. Want to join our brand new Copy Club? Big congrats to our alumni who will be at the Sydney Writers' Festival! You can now preorder A.L. Tait's latest book The Wolf's Howl: A Maven & Reeve Mystery. Don't miss your chance to win an awesome 5-book pack – perfect for some relaxing reading time this Easter long weekend.

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Show Notes

The Wolf's Howl: A Maven & Reeve Mystery

AWC alumni on the Sydney Writers' Festival program

Copy Club

Writer in Residence

Cate Quinn

Catherine Quinn is a bestselling fiction author whose books are published in over fifteen countries. She writes contemporary thrillers as Cate Quinn, and her historical thrillers are published under the pen name CS Quinn.

Catherine’s was a travel and lifestyle journalist for The Times, The Guardian and The Mirror, alongside many magazines. Prior to journalism and fiction, her background in historic research won prestigious postgraduate funding from the British Art Council.

Combining research skills with far-flung travel experiences helped her delve into different communities and worlds to create page-turning thrillers in interesting locations.

Her latest thriller is Black Widows, published in 2021 by Hachette.

Follow Cate Quinn on Twitter

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Interview Transcript

Valerie Khoo

Thanks for joining us today, Cate.

Cate Quinn

Thanks for having me.

Valerie Khoo

Your book! Oh my goodness. Okay, where to start? Where to start? For those readers who haven't got a copy of your book yet, Black Widows, tell us what it's about.

Cate Quinn

The book is about a polygamist marriage, a plural marriage, so three wives and one husband made for religious reasons. The family choose to live out in the wilds of Utah in a self-sustainable kind of ranch setup. And one day the husband is found brutally murdered, and only one of the wives could have done it. And that's where we start with the book, unpicking the wives’ relationships with one another and how they felt about the husband and his death.

Valerie Khoo

What made you think of this? Because you live in London, and three wives in the wilds of Utah is so far removed from your current life. How in the world did you think of this? And why did you want to write it?

Cate Quinn

Well, I had fundamental Christianity in the family growing up, not as a very central part of my family, but definitely something I was aware of. And that was something, it was always kind of bubbling along in the background. It would seem to have been where the rifts and the drama was coming from actually. And also, with some Mormons, I mean, I think most people, Latter Day Saints is, I think, is the preferred term in America, but in the UK, we say Mormons. So it was always something very much of interest.

I had never really associated it with polygamy or plural marriages, because that's not a standard practice nowadays. But there was a certain, I think everybody is interested in polygamy, generally. It's just one of, if you're not polygamous or plurally married, it's something you're like, How the heck does that work?

And I saw a documentary, there was a little spate of documentaries in the UK, and one of the documentaries, it was really focused on the Sister Wives and their relationship to one another. And I found it so interesting how they, none of them had a bad word say about the husband, but all of them were very open about how difficult they found living with another wife. And one of them just had this flash in her eye at one point, this micro-expression almost, and I thought, “Oh my, she could kill someone, she really could.” It felt like this repressed rage. And all that drama and those emotions, and I just thought, “I would love to write about this.”

And I did put it off for some time, because I was worried I wouldn't do it justice. And it took a lot of research and coming back and forth. But that was my inspiration.

Valerie Khoo

So tell us about the research. Because I mean, the reality is that Sister Wives in Utah is a far cry from fundamentalist Christianity in the UK. So what kind of research did you have to do? Because it just jumps off the page. It's so real. You feel like you're there, you feel like these characters are really real. I want to know all the kinds of research you had to do to not only describe the place, get the sense of place, but to get the people and they seem so of that place, if you know what I mean.

Cate Quinn

Yeah, thanks so much. I mean, I suppose with the characters, they're certainly archetypes, aren't they? But in terms of the research, so it was a lot of fun, because it's a fascinating subject. So what did I do? Let me see. So first of all, obviously, I read everything I could on the subject, saw a lot of documentaries on the subject. I spoke to people at the temple in Salt Lake City, you know, the big church. They have this enormous like a cathedral, almost the centre of their faith building. I spoke to a sister wife and I also email contact with another lady, two people who were kind enough to talk to me. And then I also watched… I didn't manage to get out to Utah for the book. I'm a travel journalist so I've been to a lot of places and this absolutely killed me. I had, my kids were really small at the time, and I did all the maths, and I'm like, I just can't leave them for two weeks because they were so small. So and in a way, I think maybe that helped because I was so determined to get it right that I then had to sort of like really double down on, I would like watch hours and hours and hours of drive throughs on YouTube and that kind of thing.

Valerie Khoo

Wow.

Cate Quinn

Yeah. I mean, it's amazing the videos people make.

Valerie Khoo

Yes.

Cate Quinn

Actually, it's a funny thing with COVID as well is I think it's pushed us to really understand that you can do a lot of stuff without leaving your home, you know. But I essentially approached it as I would – I'm a historical novelist prior to this book – and I approached it the same way that I would a historical novel. So the same attention that I would bring to researching 18th century London, I brought that to, you know, I used all the resources at my disposal, I read everything. But with this, I could watch things on TV, it was incredible.

Valerie Khoo

Wow, that is so true. I went downstairs the other day, and I said to my partner, “What are you watching?” And he said, “Oh dashcam videos?” Oh my god, really?

So you wrote this without having been to Utah? And you did all of this incredibly comprehensive research. So you, when you say you spoke to and interviewed some Sister Wives, how did you find them?

Cate Quinn

It wasn't too difficult, actually. There's a number of internet forums. I mean, so I should make the point actually, I should at the beginning, that it is not standard or usual for Latter Day Saints or Mormons to be plurally or polygamously married. It's unusual, and it's actually illegal in Utah, although I think the law is changing.

So there are kind of forums and places where people would go anonymously, so I am anonymous about the people that I spoke to, but they would go to talk about their issues, often their legal issues, not so much their relationship issues actually, tends to be more about, you know, there's protest movements, and people will go en masse to protest against the fact that they can't legally marry who they want to marry essentially.

Valerie Khoo

Oh. And so this research period, you kind of knew, alright, I'm going to, I have a premise. And then I'm going to do all this research. How long did you research for? And at what point did you know what was going to be in the plot? Or did you discover that as you started to write?

Cate Quinn

So I started to write, I probably wrote the first quarter of the book, let's say, excuse me, in a mad frenzy, because it was just so much fun to write. And then yeah, and then went away, because the characters came quite, quite naturally, really, because I think they are kind of quite archetypal of women, and how they related to one another really informed their characters, you know, because they're women who individually, I think, you could like any or either one of them. But you could also see how, whilst you might like them, together they might really annoy one another.

So I wrote a lot of it in a mad sort of whirl. And then I stopped and did a ton of research. I mean, probably the time I would spend researching is probably 60 to 70% of the time I would spend on a book. I write pretty fast. So it's normally a lot of the sort of brain work I do is the researching part.

And then I came back and wrote the end, I think, sort of. It was definitely a kind of… I used to be very plot driven, I used to be very… I mean, I still am plot driven, but I used to plan everything out, you know, have everything completely planned. And then what I found was, you kind of write yourself into knots, almost, you know, you kind of get yourself to the end and realize, “Actually, this isn't that feasible when you're in the room as it were.” So now I try and stay a bit more loose with it.

So I didn't know when I started writing who the killer was.

Valerie Khoo

And so you mentioned they are archetypes, but in case there's some really brand new newbies, can you explain what you mean by that?

Cate Quinn

Oh, sure. Yeah, so what I mean by that, I guess, is the characters of the women represent something inside human psyche which we can sort of all relate to. So in the case of the main wife, Wife 1, the head wife, Rachel, she is the classic obedient, she is devout, she is religious, she is honest. And I think that's something that everyone can quite readily understand, that combination of characteristics in a person. The second wife, Emily, is possibly a bit more complex. She's more on the kind of slightly fantasist type. She's young, she's a young wife, and she's maybe not quite got out of that teenage strange fantasy in her head kind of land. And the third wife, Tina, is she's an ex-drug addict, ex prostitute from Vegas, which again, I think most people will – obviously she's more nuanced than that when you get to know her – but as an immediate picture, most people will have an image in their head of what that might represent.

Valerie Khoo

Now, they've got different personalities, they've got different backgrounds, and you write from their different points of view. What did you do from a character-building exercise or a character-building approach? How did you develop them? Were they fully formed in your brain when you started writing? Or did you keep like dossiers on them so you knew? Because they needed to have different backgrounds, different parents, different, you know, needs, different demands on them, that sort of thing, different family. So what did you do to really get to know your characters?

Cate Quinn

Well, once again, I think I used to start out with great big dossiers, you know, with… So in my previous books, I would fill out whole character things, and I would get their whole past down, everything like that, you know, and write all that before I even started writing. And then, but actually, now, what I found works for me better is I just write from the perspective of that character, and then that won't make it into the book. So I'll just write scenes and scenes and scenes and scenes. So with these wives, there were a lot of arguments between them before you start reading the book that never made it into the book, you know, a lot of friction, a lot of things. And actually, in so doing, in that writing, of X amount of, you know, 1000 words, whatever, things pop up, you know, that seem real, that feel natural. And actually, I found that for me, that works better. I know everyone obviously has their own technique, and definitely the planning it out is a very successful one for a lot of people, but that seems to work for me.

Valerie Khoo

So when you're writing about a murder, the way that the plot unfolds is so important, because so many things have to make sense, especially when there are, you know, multiple suspects.

Cate Quinn

Yeah.

Valerie Khoo

What did you have to do? How did you plan it all out? Do you use…Again, is it in your head? Or do you use index cards? Or do you use like one of those pin boards? Or is there a particular method to make sure things are being revealed at the right spot so that the reader is keeping a good sense of pace, and the reader is kept guessing effectively?

Cate Quinn

Yeah, I am quite formulaic about that, actually. I do two things. So I did used to have record cards. But now I use Scrivener, which is a piece of writing software.

Valerie Khoo

So good.

Cate Quinn

Which is essentially… Yeah. Essentially the same thing, right? I mean, it's like record cards, but they're just not all over your house. And you can move them around easily. So I use Scrivener. But then I also, I've read a book which a lot of writers would be aware of called Save the Cat, which I'm sure you've come across, like a screenwriting type book, and it has more or less a formula of when things should come within a book or film or a story, rather, in terms of where big reveals should be, where you should start ramping up the tension. So what I do is I have sort of put that formula, that approach as a template onto Scrivener. So I roughly know…

Valerie Khoo

Oh!

Cate Quinn

Yeah, so as I'm writing on Scrivener, so I roughly know, I'm like, Okay, so I'm approaching what would be the midpoint, you know, so now I need something to spin on its axis. And now I need to ramp up the tension. So I find that really helpful.

Valerie Khoo

And do use that in your historical novels as well?

Cate Quinn

I think I did. I think the last one, I think I did. The last two historical novels, I would have used it. I did some French Revolution ones. And I found, I think it's very helpful for as a writer, most people, well everybody will have an Achilles heel, and it will be different for everybody, I guess. So for me, I tend to make the beginning a little bit too flabby. So it's been helpful for me to really cut that, really keep my discipline on not putting too much in the beginning. And that tension going, you know, revealing it later on.

Valerie Khoo

Now, did you always want to be a writer? Can you just give us a little bit of an idea of your journey from the start till about now? Like some brief milestones, you know what I mean?

Cate Quinn

Sure, yeah. I always wanted to be a writer like since I can remember, the first thing I remember writing at school was they said, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and I drew a picture of myself as a writer at a desk and it's what I've always, always, always wanted to be. I've always written stories. And I went I think I got a little bit under confident when I was… I always did English and then it became clear in the kind of exam system that if you do a creative piece you don't necessarily pass whereas if you do an essay style piece, you know, it's like knocking the points off for an essay whereas creative is to do with how that person perceives it. So I think I got a little bit waylaid by just that system, interestingly, which is not so kind to creative people.

But even so, it's something I always wanted to do. And I kept on writing, I became a journalist as a kind of an in way, you know, to kind of carry on writing whilst thinking about this publishing thing. But I was very under confident with the publishing process. I'm not of the establishment, as it were, in the UK and there is a class system here and I did definitely feel as though that was going to be a hard thing to crack.

So it took me until my mid-20s to write my first book and I deliberately made it historical because I thought that would give me a better chance of getting published, because I figured less people would write historical books and I'd come from this slightly historical, English type background. So I published my first book called The Thief Taker. And that did very well actually. And then published, did a few more books whilst I was having my children, and then finally came to doing the thriller book, which I probably might have maybe done in the first place if I'd had more confidence, but it took me six books.

Valerie Khoo

Now technically, the historical fiction is CS Quinn.

Cate Quinn

Yeah.

Valerie Khoo

Technically you're Catherine Quinn.

Cate Quinn

Yeah.

Valerie Khoo

But Black Widows is Cate Quinn.

Cate Quinn

Yeah.

Valerie Khoo

Now, there's something else in the mix, isn't there?

Cate Quinn

You know, that's the silliest of stories. But basically, it's because my name was long for the cover. And they said, “Oh, can we cut it to Cath?” And I said, “sure, that's fine. That's normally what people call me anyway.” But then in America apparently Cath is not really recognized as a name.

Valerie Khoo

Oh, no, really?

Cate Quinn

In Australia, Cath is a name, right? But in America, apparently not. So they said, “can we make it Cate?”

But actually, we probably shouldn't have done that because there is another author called Kate Quinn with a K that, you know, I hadn't heard of her but I have now and she's amazing. And so we've accidentally sort of… We probably should have stuck with Cath. But there, it's Cate.

Valerie Khoo

Oh my goodness. So when you sign your books, it must get confusing as to which one you should be signing.

Cate Quinn

Oh, and when people call me Cate as well, I find it confusing. Because people will do that, when they did, a year ago before COVID hit, they will call me Cate and I find that confusing.

Valerie Khoo

So you must have, with the historical fiction, you must have to do a ridiculous amount of research. Is it way more than something like this? Or was this actually quite considerable because it was in a whole other country and stuff?

Cate Quinn

Oh, I think I would always do probably about the same amount of research. The historical ones, I think are slightly different in that they were layered, because there were so many… Well, also I'd already come to the historicals with about three years’ worth of knowledge, at least, because I did English at degree but actually, I did a historical, I always did historical modules. So that's like doing history to an extent.

So yeah, probably about the same. And I really enjoy it. That's one of the most enjoyable parts of my job, like kind of getting under the hood of… With historical it's fun in a different way because I love all those details of finding out, you know, well what did the average person eat for breakfast or that kind of thing.

So this was this was fun in a different way. And I loved actually finding out about the food that the family… I think because the classic LDS Mormon thing is to have a large family, that's part of your responsibility, really. And so if you're having a huge family, lots of kids, the food, the choices that you're making are different to how you might if you had two children, you know. You're trying to feed masses.

Valerie Khoo

Are you still doing work as a travel and lifestyle journalist?

Cate Quinn

No, I've got two small kids now so I couldn't anyway, I don't think. I couldn't leave them for so long. But I started, the writing full time happened after the The Thief Taker, the first book. So I'm pretty much, that's all that I do nowadays. I did enjoy it, though, it was a great job.

Valerie Khoo

So when you are in the depths of writing your first draft, when you're writing your manuscript, let's take Black Widows as an example, can you just give us a bit of an idea of your writing routine for the day? Like what time you wake up? And if there are a certain number of words you try to aim for? And you know, if you have any rituals, that kind of thing?

Cate Quinn

Sure. I basically, I used to have a 2000 word a day aim for, loosely.

Valerie Khoo

Oh, that's pretty good.

Cate Quinn

Yeah, I mean, I still… But you know, actually, what I found was I would some days, I would just, I would end up with material that I then just had to go back and cut, so it was almost inefficient, more inefficient to kind of set myself that target, which is quite ambitious as well.

So I have, I do a full day. I get up early. At the moment, I'm getting up at 5:30 for various, for small adorable children reasons. But I would, normally I would work a kind of eight till, I don't know, eight til one or two, I normally start getting a bit tired, and then read in the afternoon.

I definitely approach it as a, you know, like a day job. So I would go in and do the hours, get an amount of writing done. But there is always a horrible period in the middle, I think, of any book where you feel like you're not doing anything and you're kicking around and it feels like nothing's moving.

Valerie Khoo

And so when you say you read in the afternoon, are you reading your own work and editing it? Or are you reading other work other people's books?

Cate Quinn

At the moment, other people's books. So and unfortunately because I get like free… People send me books in advance to read for other writers. So that's always fun to see what's about to be published?

Valerie Khoo

And do you… Some other writers, particularly writers in certain genres, won't read in the genre while they're writing. Are you like that at all?

Cate Quinn

Yes, yes. I totally get that because I think you, you tend to absorb someone else's writing style, don't you? Particularly if someone's got a particular style, you might find you accidentally start… And if you've started with one style, and then you suddenly start reading heavily in another thing, it can definitely impact in it.

I do and I don't. It goes the other way, too. I will sometimes deliberately read, and I'll often go back to certain books that do things particularly well. Or maybe like, I think, I had a book that I was writing in a slightly strange structure. It was like first person, but then also sort of reflecting. And I went back to certain books that I knew were done that and I would reread those.

Valerie Khoo

What was the hardest thing about writing Black Widows?

Cate Quinn

The hardest thing was probably stopping writing it.

Valerie Khoo

Stopping writing it?

Cate Quinn

Yeah, I loved writing that book so much. It was so much fun. And there's so much material that didn't make it into the book, and it's still quite long. So yeah, I mean, it just, spending time, hanging out with those women, for want of a better metaphor, you know, was just so much fun. And the way they related to one another, and that whole sort of setup, I really enjoyed it.

Valerie Khoo

So was it kind of like a bit of grieving at the end when you knew it was over?

Cate Quinn

Pretty much because, you know, I wanted to write a bit more about the ending, and not to give away the ending, but I would have liked to write more about, you know, the continued journey, let's say, of some of those people.

Valerie Khoo

So what's next for you? What are you working on?

Cate Quinn

Well, it's something quite close to home, actually, Valerie. I'm doing a book set in Australia.

Valerie Khoo

Really?

Cate Quinn

I am. Yeah. And I spent a bit of time in Australia in my youth. And it's called The Lock In. It's about two Californian barmaids who take a job in an outback miners pub bar. And one of the regulars, there's a lock in, and one of the regulars is found brutally murdered. And the girls are in the frame as kind of they couldn't take a joke, the banter got too much for them kind of thing. Yeah. So it's kind of a little bit #metoo. It's so much, that's another one I'm really enjoying writing it. It's so much fun.

So there's that whole debate as well which I'm finding really interesting as a woman, actually, someone mentioned to me, and this has made it into the book, that we never ask ourselves, because a lot of the book is about asking, Well, did they do it and if they did do it, why did they do it? Why did they explode?

And someone pointed out to me, actually, we never ask, do we, why do men give women so much grief in those environments? And I thought, yeah, that's true. We don't.

Valerie Khoo

So in your research for that, are you looking at long YouTube videos of drives in the outback?

Cate Quinn

I am. But you know, I have actually, this time I have actually been to, I've actually been to the outback. But yeah, sure. I mean, like all of those things. And there's a couple of towns that I'm kind of converging for the plot. So it's kind of, I've not set it on a real town, I've kind of taken 1, 2, 3 places and kind of made it, it's a little bit undefined in that respect.

Valerie Khoo

Did you have the idea for this book that you're working on in the Australian outback while you were still writing Black Widows? Or do you have to finish one completely before you can get your brain onto another one?

Cate Quinn

I'll often have little ideas pop up. I think this was an idea that I came up with, I think I had to, because Black Widows was being sold and they normally, publishers normally asked for like a second idea. So I would have come up with that idea. I had a number of ideas, actually. And I really enjoy that process, too. As a former journalist, that's something that I really, I kind of miss, actually, the pitching process, because it's like gambling, really, you sort of send out these ideas, and they're like your chips, you know, and you get some back.

So yeah, that would have been come up with then. I came up with a ton of ideas. And this was the winner. And I came up with ideas based in mountains and deserts. A lot of it's to do with the location. But this seemed to be the winner. People seem to like deserts at the moment.

Valerie Khoo

Yes. Now, when you start off as a journalist, you're writing about fact, and it's very, very, it's black and white, literally. Sure, you can be creative about it, but ultimately you're restricted by truth. Was it a challenge when you started writing fiction that you could, you just, I mean, there's so much liberation that when you're so used to having parameters?

Cate Quinn

Yeah. You know, that's a really good question. That is true. I definitely… Particularly, interestingly, with historical that's less of a thing because it is very fact, to an extent. Obviously, well, the story is the story, and particularly readers of historical fiction are very, very keen that facts are stuck to and often feel that they know exactly how 17th century London was at that time.

Yeah, it's true. And it is a bit mind melting to kind of be like, wait, I can literally make this anything. It takes some getting used to for sure.

Valerie Khoo

Okay, so finally, what are your top three tips for aspiring writers who'd love to be in a position where you are one day?

Cate Quinn

I would certainly do the tip of reading Save the Cat, or a similar screenwriting type book format and putting that in Scrivener. I found that immensely helpful for kind of getting rid of my glitches and my problems. And everybody will do too much in one area, I think. You know, too long endings, too long beginnings. So that would be my first tip. That took me a long time to discover.

The second tip, I would say, if you're a plot driven person, and I am a plot person, that actually all books start with character. And even books that seem to be about plot will still have a lot of work that goes into making that character likeable. It took me a long time to learn that. It took me a lot of criticism to be like, “oh, okay, you really don't get that this person is supposed to be likeable.” So that would be my second tip.

And then the third, the third tip, on that similar note, would be you have to do something very early on – and this is a Save the Cat premise – to make your character likeable. But don't just throw that in and make that a kind of, “Oh, anyone would like someone who would do this.” It has to be integral to your character. It has to be believable that somebody, this particular individual and only this individual would do this likeable thing, and you will uniquely like them for doing it.

Valerie Khoo

Brilliant. Okay, everyone, get your copy of Black Widows when you go into the bookshop, ask for Cate Quinn. Even though it's Catherine Quinn.

Cate Quinn

It's with a ‘C' as well, to make it even more confusing.

Valerie Khoo

Yes. C-A-T-E. Because I have no doubt that you're going to enjoy it. Thank you so much for your time today, Cath and Cate.

Cate Quinn

Thank you.

 

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