D.M. Pulley is the author of five books. In 2014, Pulley won the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award for her mystery novel, The Dead Key. Since then she has sold over a half-million books in the historical mystery genre around the world, translated into eight languages. I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Pulley at Boucheron this past fall.
Kathryn Schleich: You gave a fabulous interview this past fall the Dark and Twisty WOW-Women On Writing newsletter with Dorit Sasson discussing the genres of crime, mystery, suspense, thrillers, and paranormal. You also offered up noteworthy tips for authors that can apply to any genre. You possess a wealth of information on the many aspects of writing. Have you ever considered teaching a seminar for fellow authors?
D. M. Pulley: First off, thank you! It’s always nice to hear that your thoughts are well received. As for teaching, I have taught several seminars and workshops on the craft of writing, mostly for the non-profit organization Literary Cleveland. I will be teaching a workshop on story setting at the end of the month here in northeast Ohio.
KS: You currently reside in Cleveland. Did you grow up there as well?
DMP: I’ve been a Cleveland area resident for over 25 years, but I actually grew up in a tiny town in Michigan that would have made a great setting for a Stephen King or John Saul novel.
KS: Did you always have the desire to be a writer?
DMP: I have always loved writing and was even accepted into the journalism school at Northwestern University. However, finances and fate stepped in, and I ended up studying engineering. Becoming a novelist was more of a pipe dream than a goal.
KS: What’s the first piece you had published?
DMP: My first “published” piece was a tribute to a beloved teacher I wrote in sixth-grade for the student paper. My debut novel, The Dead Key, was my first professionally published work of fiction.
KS: Prior to deciding to write full-time, you worked as a professional engineer rehabbing historic structures and conducting forensic investigations of building failures. It’s always great to hear about women in the engineering field, there simply aren’t enough. What attracted you to engineering? Where did you attend school?
DMP: I was lucky. I loved math, science, art, reading and writing, and I did well in school. Having so many seemingly disparate interests did make choosing a college major a challenge. I ended up studying civil engineering at Case Western Reserve University because they gave me a scholarship and engineering seemed like a safe and secure place to start a career, not knowing where I might end up. My love of old buildings led me to study structures and later pursue historic preservation. This love also led me to write my first novel and continues to inspire my writing today.
KS: Becoming a mom pushed you to re-evaluate returning to a high stress career. But you also noted you quickly became bored being at home. How did writing come about as your new career?
DMP: Quitting my engineering job was by far the scariest thing I’d ever done. I’ve had a job since I was sixteen years old, and not working was simply not a real option for me. About a month after I left my day job, I started a small business inspecting and renovating old homes, and I also started writing. The writing began as more of a hobby, spurred on by this crazy idea for a mystery novel I’d had after inspecting an old bank building about a decade earlier. If my husband hadn’t fallen in love with the story, I doubt I would have kept at it.
KS: You have said of your writing process that “I write best in my pajamas when I’m still half-asleep.” When I’m half-asleep, all I can think of is coffee, coffee, coffee! Explain how that works for you.
DMP: Ha! I do drink coffee first thing in the morning but sitting there with my laptop in my pajamas eventually lulls me back into a dream-like state where I can lose myself in whatever scene I’m writing. I forget that I’m typing and just daydream myself into the story. It requires a certain quiet and calm and total relaxation. I don’t think I could get there sitting at a desk, so I curl up in my comfy chair or even lay on my couch as I type.
KS: I wish I could do that! You also noted in discussing your process that writing 1,500 words a day is your goal. That’s pretty impressive. Are there any particular steps you take to reach that goal?
DMP: My biggest strategy in writing a first draft is to avoid editing at all costs. It’s easy to write 1,500 words if I’m not agonizing over each word choice and debating sentence structure with myself. Instead, I write as fast as I can to keep up with the scene playing out in my head. If I stop to edit, I lose the forward momentum of the story. I also lose the rhythm and the voice. I worry about editing and revising in the second draft.
KS: Great advice. Your novels go beyond the historical mystery genre, mixing in crime, horror, suspense, and thriller. Was that a deliberate choice, or does the cross-over of genres just happen as your writing process evolves?
DMP: Every writer is different, but my stories don’t come to me neatly packaged in a defined genre. The story is the story, and I worry about where it fits in the bookstore later. That said, I do have a certain aesthetic. I write crime novels with a darker twist and a Gothic sensibility. You will find some semblance of a haunted house in each of my novels because my stories are largely inspired by old buildings with a disturbing past.
KS: You have two sons. Has either one caught the writing bug?
DMP: That remains to be seen, but they have both caught the reading bug, which is always the first step.
KS: What is best advice writing advice you’ve ever received?
DMP: “Don’t edit while writing the first draft.” That advice came from Chris Baty in his book No Plot, No Problem, and without it, I would still be filling up notebooks with wild ideas and never getting past chapter three.
KS: On the other side, what advice would you give aspiring authors?
DMP: Read! Read everything you can. Become an expert in the sort of book you want to write. It will give you invaluable insights into your would-be readers, into agents, into publishing houses, and into writing itself.
KS: What would you like your legacy as a writer to be?
DMP: Great question! I think I will spend the balance of my writing career trying to figure that one out, and I may never know. For now, I will just keep writing books that I want to read.
KS: What projects are you currently working on?
DMP: I have just submitted my fifth novel to my agent and have begun work on my sixth mystery/thriller. I also have a screenplay that I’m toying with to keep my brain from getting stuck in a rut.
KS: Your latest novel, No One’s Home, has been mentioned in the same breath as the Shirley Jackson’s horror classic, The Haunting of Hill House. You acknowledged Jackson’s work as an inspiration in writing your book. No One’s Home has garnered much praise, being selected as a semifinalist in the Goodreads Choice Awards for horror and chosen as a Best Book of 2019 by Suspense Magazine. How did you react to the accolades?
DMP: It’s been a thrill to see No One’s Home connect with readers at that level. I loved writing the story. It let me bring together my engineering work renovating old houses and my passion for Gothic tales of family secrets, lies, and murder.
KS: We had to watch Jackson’s The Lottery in grade school, and it terrified me. Is that part of your intent—to give readers a good fright? Reading the first chapter of No One’s Home scared the wits out of me. The floor plan of the house made it even scarier.
DMP: I had no idea how frightened some of my readers might become while reading No One’s Home, but I’m intrigued and kind of thrilled. I love a scary story. I grew up reading Stephen King, John Saul, Dean Koontz, and V.C. Andrews. In writing my crime novels, I don’t like to separate the horror of a murder from the puzzle of solving it—murder should be scary. My characters are ordinary people trapped in terrible circumstances, and they don’t know what waits for them around each corner. That’s the thrill and suspense of the story. I wrote No One’s Home with the intention of building a haunted house with many layers of history, crime, and intrigue. What I tapped into was the primal fear that when we are in our homes late at night, we may not be alone.
KS: Having just finished No One’s Home, I can say you accomplished all of those things, though I have to confess it led to some nightmares.
To learn more about Pulley’s writing, which my scare you and also make you think about serious issues, visit dmpulley.com.