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Winchester residents learn 7 lessons on writing from best-selling author Tess Gerritsen

Winchester residents turned out to see best-selling author Tess Gerritsen at the Winchester Public Library, as part of the Friends Speaker Series. WINCHESTER NEWS STAFF PHOTO/LAURA SPENCER

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The bad news, according to best-selling novelist Tess Gerritsen, is that the writing process never gets easier and after 32 novels, she should know.

The good news is Gerritsen shared her insights gleaned from 37 years in the business to a packed crowd at the Winchester Public Library as part of the Friends Speaker Series.

“My first book came out in ‘87 and I feel as I’m getting older, I’m really paying attention to how it all happens,” said Gerritsen. “Every time I sit down to write a new book, I still get hit with this, ‘How did I do it the last time and how to this time.’ I mean, I’m now working on my 33rd book and that is still a mystery to me.”

But Gerritsen still managed to make it sound easy.

Known largely for her thrillers and the television series “Rizzoli and Isles,” which is loosely based the crime fighting duo she created on paper, Gerritsen actually started off writing romantic suspense novels.

Tess Gerritsen answers questions from attendees of the Friends of the Winchester Public Library Speaker Series. WINCHESTER NEWS STAFF PHOTO/LAURA SPENCER

Lesson 1: No genre is easy.

Gerritsen said what she learned from writing for Harlequin is that “taking a story that is essentially a man falling in love with a woman or nowadays it could be anybody falling in love with anybody, and using that same story again and again and making it new and fresh and creative — it’s really difficult.”

Gerritsen said making sex interesting over and over again is hard, but describing murder — now that’s easy.

Lesson 2: Everyone has their own writing process and there is no wrong way to write a book.

Gerritsen said she was told early on she needed to write an outline and have a roadmap to know where her story was going.

“But that never worked for me,” she said. “And most of the successful novelists I know, who are women, especially women, are very much seat of the pants writers.”

The most important thing, according to Gerritsen, is to start with an idea that grabs you and be excited about what you’re writing.

But how do you know if it’s a good idea?

Lesson 3: Listen to your gut.

“Harvest,” Gerritsen’s first thriller came out of a conversation she’d had with a retired homicide detective who had just come back from a vacation in Russia. He told her he learned from cops in Moscow that they had a problem with kids disappearing off the streets and they were convinced the kids were being kidnapped and sent to the Middle East as organ donors.

Tess Gerritsen signs copies of her new book, ‘The Spy Coast,’ at the Winchester Public Library. WINCHESTER NEWS STAFF PHOTO/LAURA SPENCER

Gerritsen said she felt sick when she heard the story because her children were old enough at that point to be organ donors for adults.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about it … this is another clue. If you can’t stop thinking about it, you know, that may be your next book,” she said.

For Gerritsen, not only was that idea her next book, it was the first time she could recall having an idea hit her so hard emotionally that she knew it was a story. And the result was also her first time on the New York Times bestseller list.

Lesson 4: Ideas come from conversations – and everywhere else.

Gerritsen said she reads newspapers, a lot of them and “I read a lot of sometimes shady stuff like the National Enquirer. You never know what you’re going to come across.” 

Case in point: a Boston Globe story about a young girl found dead in her bathroom in what appeared to be a suicide and woke up a couple of days later on the corner’s table turned into her book “Vanish.”

She also keeps a clip file of interesting articles that she might use — some day.

“Sometimes they sit in that folder for 10 years before I pull it out and go, ‘Oh, now we know what the story is about,’” she said.

Gerritsen said that’s exactly what happened with an article headlined, “Dugway Sheep Incident declassified by the U.S. Military.” It is the very real story of how the U.S. military accidentally killed all the sheep, and some birds, in Skull Valley, Utah, a sheep farming community, in the 1960s.

Turns out they were testing nerve gas when the wind shifted unexpectedly. It was kept a mystery for about three decades.

Author Tess Gerritsen signs a book for a Winchester resident at the library. WINCHESTER NEWS STAFF PHOTO/LAURA SPENCER

Gerritsen said no people died because it was cold that night so residents slept with their windows closed. She said she couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if they had killed a whole community. That became “Ice Cold,” featuring Rizzoli and Isles.

Lesson 5: 2+2=5; take two seemingly unrelated events, put them together “and you have a chemical reaction.”

Gerritsen said after an incident where her GPS almost sent her into a cornfield, she had another idea. What if the GPS led Maura Isle and her companions into oblivion in the middle of a blizzard, where they found an empty town buried under the snow, which is the basis of “Ice Cold.”

“I also find writers are by nature really curious people, we’re interested in a lot of different things,” Gerritsen said, adding that along with a little eavesdropping, taking things from her own life can also contribute to some good ideas.

Gerritsen said her latest book, “The Spy Coast,” came when she discovered there were a number of retired CIA agents living in her small town.

“So I was thinking about retired spies,” she said. “What do they do? What's their retirement like? Do they have book clubs, do they have cocktail parties? Do they get bored?”

Lesson learned

Taking a page from one’s life for a story is a lesson aspiring writer Elizabeth Ghoniem has already learned. Ghoniem, also a thrill writer, came to hear Gerritsen talk, even though she’s already written her first novel. Unlike Gerritsen, who said she knew she wanted to be a writer since age 7, Ghoniem had no idea she’d one day be a writer.

“My background is in the Middle East,” she said.

Her story, however, is loosely based on her husband’s uncle who was a famed Egyptologist and was found drowned in the Nile in the 1950s. For her novel, she asks the question, “What if it wasn’t an accident?”

Ghoniem said she hopes to be shopping for an agent by late summer.

Best-selling author Tess Gerritsen spoke to Winchester residents at the library during the Friends Speaker Series. WINCHESTER NEWS STAFF PHOTO/LAURA SPENCER

Lesson 6: Do you need to create an entire biographical background for your characters?

The short answer is no, according to Gerritsen. She said whenever she’s tried to write her character’s life stories, she’s become bored by them. Instead, she likes to get to know them as she goes, much like you do when you meet someone for the first time, she said.

“I don’t feel the need to write a character sketch because that’s going to happen very organically as you see what these people are doing,” she said. “The other thing that’s a trick for me, if you’re having trouble getting started, listen to the voice of your character.”

She said she knows it sounds a bit psychotic, but she tries to really hear what they sound like because their tone could tell you a lot about the person you’re creating.

For example, Maggie Bird in “Spy Coast” sounded weary, which made Gerritsen ask, “Who did you used to be Maggie Bird?” and the story opened up from there.

Along with advice, Gerritsen also fielded questions and shared stories with the animated crowd covering everything from the TNT Rizzoli & Isles series based on her characters to if she ever freaked herself out with her own writing.

She also touched on asking for help (be brave), which for her included calling NASA to ask how best to crash a space shuttle and a fire chief to ask how best to burn a body beyond recognition. Pro tip: if you want a body to disappear, leave it at a pig farm — pigs eat everything.

Tess Gerritsen’s books are available at the Winchester Public Library. WINCHESTER NEWS STAFF PHOTO/LAURA SPENCER

Gerritsen said she doesn’t get weirded out by her own inquiries, but she is relatively sure she, like many writers, is on a watch list somewhere.

Lesson 7: If you’re a writer you might be a considered a bit troubled.

“You should look at our bookshelves,” she said. “You have books on building bombs and bioterrorism and yeah, we’re probably all a little disturbed.”

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