I am a mother of four who writes full-time from a suburb outside St. Louis, Missouri. I began my writing career as a newspaper reporter in Boston, but after the birth of my first child, I took a desk job as a sports copy editor at the Boston Herald where I was the only female “rimmie” on the night desk. The men I worked with were incredible and, unbeknownst to most of them, have served as the real-life examples for several of the heroes in my romance novels.
Primarily, I write romance novels and picture books, but I’ve written educational text and young adult novels as well.
I’m often asked which I prefer writing, romance novels for adults or picture books for children. The question is rather like being asked which of your children you prefer.
The proceeds from IQ High go to the Boston Children’s Hospital and Emergency and Trauma Fund.
Thank you for joining us at Scribbler’s today, Crystal.
What’s IQ High about?
IQ High is about a girl named Charysse DiGregorio, who transfers to a school for highly gifted students. She’s a senior, so this is her last year of high school, and she’s spending it in an environment completely different from the public high school she attended with her best friend. Always called “the smart kid,” Charysse finds herself in a setting where every kid is a smart kid.
What would you most like your readers to know about you?
I think the one thing I most want readers to know about me is that I draw on my own real-life experiences and real people to develop the plots and characters of my books.
How long have you been writing?
I began writing in sixth grade, but I didn’t submit my first manuscripts to publishers until 2003. I submitted a romance novel and a children’s picture book, and they were both contracted within two days of each other. Both were released in 2005.
Is your main character Charysse DiGregorio inspired by a real person or is she drawn from your imagination?
I attended the St. Louis Public School System’s gifted program. Charysse DiGregorio is a composite of a couple of girls I knew in eighth grade, and a young woman I worked with at the first newspaper I worked for.
Is the writing process different for you when you are writing a story targeted to the Young Adult audience vs Adult romance?
The writing process, for me, is the same, whether I’m writing for adults or younger readers. My characters come to me, and I find a story to place them in. Adult fiction allows more freedom regarding certain aspects of the characters’ interactions, but young adult fiction offers the opportunity to explore intimacy in a more restricted fashion. It presents a challenge I enjoy.
Do you figure out a deep backstory for each of your characters before beginning or do you prefer to invent on the fly as you write?
My characters always have a very detailed backstory, but not every detail makes it into the finished book. There are occasions when I backtrack and create an incident or situation I need to advance or enrich the plot of a book.
Is it difficult to incorporate romance when you may have to censor because the book is targeted to a specific age group?
Absolutely not! That’s the nice thing about romance—it’s multilayered. A glance, a gesture, even a certain phrase can convey more intimacy than a graphic description of body parts in a tangle. Romance novels and thrillers can come off as instruction manuals when the author is heavy handed with description. I strive to avoid that level of play-by-play. A reader’s imagination is often the most important ingredient in crafting romance.
When brainstorming a story idea, do you begin with plot or character?
It depends on the work. Sometimes, an idea comes to me before characters do. My novel Mr. Fix-It began with an idea—what if a successful romance novelist actually hated romance? The characters came later. With my novel Blame It on Paradise, the heroine came to me first, after I saw an incredibly unusual, beautiful woman in an airport. I built a story around this woman.
How about an excerpt from IQ High?
In this scene, Charysse is having lunch on her first day with a group of fellow students:
“Corcoran is the gifted elementary school that feeds Busch, the gifted junior high that feeds Eichorn,” Lotus said. “Most of the kids here at Eichorn have gone to school together since kindergarten.”
“The Natives,” Marty said ominously, his face still on his work.
“Chrys and I came here as sophomores. Candice came last year.”
“Hi,” said the remaining girl at the table. She sat hunched over, pressing the pad of her forefinger to her plate to catch the last crumbs of her lemon meringue pie. Her brown hair hung lankly, almost touching the sticky remains. Her brown eyes were small and set deep in her face, giving her a haunted appearance that made Charysse instinctively want to put an arm around her thin shoulders. Her T-shirt was the same flat brown as her hair and eyes, and with her beige skin, she seemed to vanish in the presence of her more colorful tablemates.
“The Natives are lifers,” Lotus said. “They’ve been in the gifted system since they were fetuses.” She pointed to various faces around the room. “Arija Benjamin is a Native. Remember her? She’s in Homeroom with us. So’s Mackenzie Cole.”
Charysse followed Lotus’s gaze and saw Mackenzie, the tall girl in the pleated plaid skirt, sitting at a table. The wide, round tables accommodated eight, but there were only two other girls sitting with Mackenzie. They leaned over her elbows as she flipped through the pages of a bridal magazine.
“Interesting lunch reading,” Charysse remarked before turning back to her sandwich, which Marty eyed hungrily.
“She’s probably picking out the dress she wants to wear when she marries Shane,” Lotus said with scornful snicker.
“Who’s Shane?” Charysse passed Marty half of her sandwich before starting on the remaining half. He shoved aside his untouched tray of cafeteria meatloaf and took a huge bite of the sandwich.
“Shane McKenna.” The name left Lotus’s lips like the notes of a song. She dreamily stared at nothing as she used her straw to slowly stir the ice melting in her cola. “He spends lunch hour at Wellington University. He takes math there.”
“Are they one of those couples that met in the kindergarten sandbox and have been together ever since?” Charysse smacked Marty’s hand when he reached for one of her homemade butterscotch brownies.
“Shane and Mackenzie?” Lotus asked.
Charysse nodded. She split each of her brownies in half, offering a portion to each of her tablemates.
“Only in Mackenzie’s mind,” Chrysanthemum laughed as she took a piece of brownie.
“Big Mac isn’t Shane’s type,” Marty said, his cheek bulging with brownie. “She’s like a pedigreed French poodle – pampered, spoiled, and one of the most vicious animals in nature.”
“If the Wicked Witch of the West and Lord Voldemort had a baby, it would be Mackenzie Cole,” Chrysanthemum said from the pages of her book. “She called dibs on Shane their first day of nursery school.”
Lotus leaned closer to Charysse. “Personality aside, she can have any guy in this school,” she whispered.
Marty kept his gaze on Charysse. “Not me.”
“ ‘Venus, thy eternal sway, all the race of men obey,’” Chrysanthemum muttered, her attention to her book never wavering.
“Whose is that?” Lotus asked.
“Euripides,” Charysse said in concert with Chrysanthemum, who smiled, but still didn’t look up.
“What does it mean?” Marty asked.
“Boys are stupid,” Chrysanthemum answered.
“You have to admit that Mackenzie is pretty,” Charysse said.
Lotus wrinkled her nose. “I guess…”
“Not on the inside,” Marty said.
“I don’t want to waste my lunch hour talking about Big Mac.” Lotus crossed her arms on the table. “Let’s talk about you, Charysse. What do you like to do for fun?”
“The usual stuff, I guess. I like to play trivia games.”
“Oh.” Lotus’s smile faded a bit. “That’s … nice.”
“At bars. For money.”
Everyone at the table perked up, even Candice.
“My friend Bonnie and I make the circuit with her brother. He’s twenty-two, so we get in with him. He’s our cover.”
“I really like the sound of this,” Lotus said. “Tell me more.”
“There’s this bar in the Back Bay, near the State House. There’s mostly lawyers and government workers in there when we go. Wednesday night is Trivia Night, and the winnings can get up into the hundreds. They play ten games. You have to get a perfect score to win, and if no one wins, that game’s pot rolls over to the next game.”
“How much can you win?” Lotus asked.
“I won enough this summer to pay for my books, my lab fees and a new wardrobe.”
“Your mom lets you hang out at bars?” Candice’s voice, like a quiet wind rustling between trees, barely reached them from across the table.
“She works nights, from four to midnight.” A wan smile came to Charysse’s face. “I haven’t seen her in five years, when she started taking the second shift.”
“What do you think?” Lotus said, exchanging a look with Marty.
“I think we’ve found our tenth,” he said, his eyes fixed on his drawing on the table.
“Tenth…?” Charysse wondered aloud.
“You’re the tenth Transfer,” Chrysanthemum explained. “Lotus and I came in tenth grade with Donovan Rainey. Marty came in freshman year with Crandall Fried, Lynn Michaels and Zachary Levine. Candice transferred in last year with Luke Miller, and this year, you came in solo. We Transfers didn’t play in the Corcoran or Busch Leagues. We’re the strangers in a strange land.”
Marty lifted his orange juice carton in a toast. “Here’s to the tenth Transfer.”
How do you choose your characters’ names?
I named the heroine of Mr. Fix-It “Khela” because I met a woman at a book signing, and she had a necklace with the name Khela on it. I’d never seen that name before, so I decided to use it in one of my books. I had a student in one of my writing workshops named Charysse, but people pronounced it a different way every time they saw it. I gave the heroine of IQ High that name because I thought it was very distinct. I also liked that all these smart people couldn’t figure out how to say her name. There’s lots of meaning in names, so if people can’t say your name, it’s harder for them to assign meaning to it. It’s harder for people to make generalizations about you if they can’t properly pronounce your name. It also sets you apart and garners attention, both negative and positive. I wanted all those things for Charysse.
Do you have conversations with your characters to figure out why they are doing what they are doing?
I can’t think of a single time when I’ve conversed with a character. I’m typically the fly on the wall, spying on my characters, recording and describing what they’re saying and doing.
Is there a secondary character in IQ High you see taking center stage in a future story?
Donovan Rainey is the hero in the companion novel to IQ High. My first high school series for young adults began with Million Dollar Girl, which I wrote under the pen name of Anne Wilde. Million Dollar Girl is set at the fictional Prescott High School, which is located in the St. Louis suburb of Adler, Missouri. Prescott is based, somewhat, on the high school I myself attended. There are five books in total in the Prescott series, but each book stands alone. Alive and Unharmed, the second Prescott novel, was released on 13 May 2013. Characters briefly mentioned in Million Dollar Girl are the heroes and heroines of the companion novels. I’m hoping to write more books set at Eichorn, with each book standing alone although characters from IQ High will make appearances or garner mention.
Where do you get the ideas for what you write?
The ideas for my books come from everywhere. I watch way too much television, so I get a lot of ideas from TV. Usually, I’ll see something, hate it, and decide to take that plot or theme and write it the way I wish it had been. One of my Facebook friends sent me a photo of a spider whose body had been consumed by a parasitic fungus. That gave me an idea for horror story featuring human beings. If I see an interesting person out in my day to day life, I’ll imagine the details of his or her life, and that often leads to a book outline. All I have to do is wake up in the morning to find an idea for a story.
Do you have a particular daily writing schedule or process you stick to?
When I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing. Writing, and telling stories, is always on my mind. Always. I keep a notepad and multiple pens in my bag so I can write down an idea or a sentence when something hits me. (I’m old school, so all my notes and first drafts are longhand in notebooks.) I keep a notepad at my bedside, to scrawl thoughts in the middle of the night. I once had an idea I thought was sheer brilliance. I woke up, wrote it down, and went back to sleep totally pleased with myself. The next morning, I looked at my notepad and almost started to cry because my handwriting was so sleep choked, I couldn’t read a dang thing I’d written! I’d like to stick to a writing schedule, but I have four children and a full-time job. I write when I can. Which is never as much as I’d like.
Do you always write in the same place?
I have a favorite spot at home where I like to write, but I can write anywhere as long as my mojo is running. I finished one of my novels while I was in the car pool line at my children’s school, waiting for them to get released for the day. I wrote a major chunk of Mr. Fix-It while I was getting chemotherapy at Missouri Baptist Hospital. My first four novels were written between deadlines when I was a sports copy editor at the Boston Herald.
Is there a genre you haven’t attempted you would like to write?
I’ve been working on a sports-themed cookbook for about ten years now. I hope to finish it before the sun crashes into the Earth.
If you could become one fictional character for a week, who would it be?
There are too many answers for this question! I think I’d like to be Minerva McGonagall for a week. She was one of my favorite characters in the Harry Potter series. I think I could stand being Scarlett O’Hara for a week. I wonder what it’s like to be so outstandingly, unapologetically self centered. (And I really dig Rhett Butler!) Was Atticus Finch dating anyone? I’d want to be that dame for a week too. I’ve never really thought about being a fictional character. I’ve always wondered what it was like to be certain authors, my short list being Mark Twain, Harper Lee, David Sedaris, Allen Kurzweil, Norton Juster, J.K. Rowling, William Shakespeare, Stephen King and David (who wrote the Psalms. I love the psalms!)
All time favorite book?
To Kill a Mockingbird, closely followed by A Case of Curiosities, The Dot & The Line, Eggplant Alley, and A Wrinkle in Time.
All time favorite author?
It’s a dead even tie between Mark Twain, Harper Lee and William Shakespeare.
Cat or dog person?
Both. I have a black Miniature Poodle/Bijon Frise mix named Maggie and a black Egyptian Mau named Dante. They’re the same size and have the same temperament. They even walk through the house side by side in a peculiar, black, hairy, knee-high synchronization. I can’t choose between them because I adore everything about both of them.
Go to snack when writing?
It varies. When I was writing my first novel, Suddenly You, I could only eat Jolly Joes—the grape-flavored Mike & Ike candies—when I was writing. I went through tons of Razzles when I was writing Crush; Blame It on Paradise was homemade blueberry muffins; Catching the Moon was watermelon Richie’s Slush, although I could work with lime, if I had to; I was sick as a hound from chemotherapy when I wrote Mr. Fix-It, so I ate only ice pops; Burn was candy corn, but only the Jelly Belly brand. Brach’s tastes too much like candle wax; Everything in Between was written on a diet of kettle corn and Auntie Anne’s pretzels. Odenkirk’s Girl, my first historical romance novel, threw my whole house off guard. In finding recipes for dishes that were served in 1868 Missouri, I decided to prepare the ones I found, so I could more accurately describe how they tasted. My poor husband and children had to eat all sorts of things, like jellied pig snouts and deer stew. I plunged the whole family into pioneer cuisine. So far, my diet varies most when I’m researching a historical, although I also subjected our palates and bellies to the food of ancient Greece when I was working on the section in IQ High when Charysse and Shane have to prepare a Greek feast for a class project. I’m working on a biography now, and my go to snack is cranberry Red Bull and sugarless gum. I don’t even like Red Bull, so I’m somewhat baffled.
When you do an interview like this what is the one writing process question you hope not to be asked?
I can’t think of any question about my writing process that I wouldn’t want asked. There’s no secret or special formula to how I do what I do.
Thank you for joining us at Scribbler’s today, Crystal.
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