By Daniel Ford
Author Ingrid Thoft’s Fina Ludlow series has everything a Writer’s Bone reader loves: a strong, fearless female private investigator, a story with emphasis on characters and relationships, and a Boston setting. Her newest novel Brutality, which comes out June 23, features Boston P.I. Ludlow tracking down an assailant accused of assaulting a soccer mom in her kitchen.
Thoft recently answered some of my questions about her early influences, writing about Boston, her new novel, and what’s in store for Fina Ludlow.
Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
Ingrid Thoft: My mother thinks my path was clear when I decided at a young age that despite getting our small town newspaper, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times delivered every day, there was a hole that could only be filled by my own newspaper. I distinctly remember creating copies on a typewriter and illustrating them myself. Articles covered things like world hunger and Jimmy Carter’s peanut farm—real hard-hitting stuff.
As I got older, I knew that I wanted writing to be the mainstay of my work, but you don’t generally become a novelist the day you graduate from college. Instead, I wrote in various settings including a non-profit, an interactive company, and in the human resources office at Harvard University. Most of the work I did was geared toward employees, and although the content of my current writing is very different, I developed skills like meeting deadlines and adopting the style of writing to suit the audience, both of which have served me well.
I can’t talk about writing without talking about reading. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and reading is to me like breathing, eating and sleeping—essential to survival. Being able to spend my time on both sides of that equation—reading and writing—is a tremendous privilege and a source of much satisfaction.
DF: Who were some of your early influences and current favorites?
IT: I sound like a broken record, but I can’t overstate the importance of the Nancy Drew books by Caroline Keene. The series has it all: intrigue, danger, suspense, and strong, smart female characters. Reading those books taught me that women can not only be detectives, but also write detectives. I also love the fact that Nancy is shared by multiple generations; my mom loved the books, my sisters and I loved the books and my nieces love them, too. Other favorites from childhood are the Encyclopedia Brown series and the Choose Your Own Adventure books.
My current favorites are many of the names you might expect; Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Ace Atkins, Reed Farrel Coleman, Ann Cleeves, Chevy Stevens, and Elizabeth George. I recently enjoyed Suitcase City by Sterling Watson and Now You See Me by S.J. Bolton. On my TBR list is Vanished by Joseph Finder.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline? Did your process change at all between your first novel, Loyalty, and Brutality?
IT: I never listen to music when I work. I find it too distracting. I like quiet with the exception of the soundtrack of downtown Seattle, which is just outside my window. Sirens, car horns, and the occasional street musician serve as good background noise.
My writing process can best be described as “herding cats” in that I always wish it were more straightforward, but I don’t think that’s the nature of the beast. I start with a general concept that raises lots of interesting questions. For example, in the case of Brutality, I was fascinated by the relationship between sports, health, money, and our sense of identity. As the body of compelling data grows, why do we continue to participate in activities that compromise our health? How do we define entertainment? What are we willing to sacrifice in the name of toughness, and what happens to our identities when certain activities are no longer a part them? Once my brain is working on the questions, I come up with a general plot and then write extensive character studies to populate the universe I’m creating. I can tell you all sorts of things about the characters that will never explicitly show up on the page, but I believe their backstories make them more three-dimensional. When I start writing, I know where I want the story to end up, and I usually outline the first chunk of pages—30 or so—and continue to do that as I progress. Lots of things change during the actual writing phase, and I may alter the course while I write, but I couldn’t sit down and start without some kind of plan. I liken it to captaining a sailboat; you should have a map and compass with you, but if conditions change, you need to respond accordingly. I like to think of it as a loose framework that fosters creativity.
The most significant change from one book to the next is that I’ve gotten more confident about the process itself. At those moments when I feel like I’ll never finish or a plot point will never be resolved, I can remind myself that I’ve felt that way before, and it’s always worked out in the end.
DF: How did the idea for Brutality originate?
IT: I’m always keeping my eyes open for a good story or usually just the kernel for a good story. This entails reading the newspaper, reading news online and watching true crime television shows. The entire book writing process takes a year so I have to find a subject matter that holds my attention. I can’t expect readers to be interested if I’m not!
I don’t remember the exact moment that I got the idea for Brutality, but I had a general sense that there was an interesting turning of the tide that was happening in terms of sports and concussions. This is to me an extremely juicy topic, and my goal is always for my books to pose complicated questions for readers with no easy answers. I especially like situations where one’s theoretical and practical responses might actually be different. Maybe you’ve read the research and decided your child shouldn’t play football due to the risks, but what if you were raised in a football-loving family? What if the family rituals certain around football? What if you identify strongly as a fan? It’s between that rock and a hard place where the most interesting stories live.
DF: How much of yourself ends up in your main character Fina Ludlow?
IT: This is a tough question for me to answer since she wouldn’t exist without me, but we are different in many ways. I have only sisters, no brothers, and I had a great relationship with my father when he was alive and have a wonderful relationship with my mother. I think that the qualities we share are being independent, determined and hard workers with a strong belief in standing up for what we think is right. We differ in that Fina says things I’d like to say, but I’m way too polite to actually utter them! That’s the great thing about fiction; you can make people say and do exactly what you want them to without any real-life consequences!
DF: Since you’re a Boston native and that’s where your books take place, what details of the city did you want to capture and what clichés about Beantown did you hope to avoid?
IT: One of the things I love about Boston that I wanted to convey in the books is the breadth and depth of the city in terms of its people and their passions. There are so many world-class things about the city: its medical facilities, higher education, the arts, professional sports teams, as well as a strong sense of pride and history that shows up in things like the multiple generations of families who serve in the police and fire departments. People from all over the world come to Boston, and on any given day a visitor could be seen by a specialist in a top-notch hospital or watching a baseball game sitting above the Green Monster. I wanted Fina’s adventures to reflect that diversity. She may spend time interviewing a potential client in the ICU at Mass General or visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, but you’ll also find her at Kelly’s Roast Beef eating fried clams and a lobster roll. It’s fun for me and readers to ride along with her.
I wanted to avoid the misconception that everyone from Boston or its environs has the typical Boston accent. Lots of people do, but lots of people don’t. This was an interesting issue when we were casting for the audiobook. Some of the contenders had badly done Boston accents—trust me, there’s nothing worse—and it was really distracting. The voice actress who has recorded all three audio books, Rebecca Soler, does a terrific job without the accent. She’s also from Boston, which proves my point that the accent isn’t a given!
DF: We did a podcast interview with Boston P.I. John Nardizzi who also used his professional skills to develop a writing career. What did you learn through your program at the University of Washington that helped you create your series?
IT: I learned a lot of practical information in terms of detection that Fina employs, like how to mine information from public records and how to conduct effective interviews, but the thing I was most surprised by was my shifting attitudes toward personal injury attorneys. One of my instructors did a lot of work for the kinds of attorneys who advertise on television, like Carl Ludlow, and I learned that in certain circumstances, those attorneys are the only thing saving victims from financial ruin. Perhaps a single mother is injured in a car accident that wasn’t her fault, but if she doesn’t have health insurance or other safety nets, the dominos in her life can quickly fall. Maybe she misses work to go to physical therapy, but then she can’t pay for day care, and then she loses her job, but has no one to watch her kids when she looks for a new job, and what about all those doctors’ bills? Many of us are lucky enough to have layers of support that keep us from the brink—both financially and emotionally. For people who don’t have that, personal injury lawyers can be lifesavers.
One of my primary motivations for earning the certificate in the UW program was so that I could create a character who knew her stuff. Fina breaks the rules and some laws, but that’s always a conscious choice on her part. She’s not incompetent; she just marches to the beat of her own drummer!
DF: Now that you have three novels under your belt, what’s next?
IT: I’m putting the finishing touches on book number four in the series, which will be published in June 2016 with the plan to continue the series. The first two books are in development at ABC to be a television series, and although I don’t have any involvement in the creation of the show, I’m really anxious to see the producers’ interpretation of the universe I’ve created. I always enjoy the opportunity to meet readers and look forward to doing even more of that this year. I’ll be attending the Bouchercon Convention in Raleigh in October and speaking at the Book Group Roundup in Colorado Springs in November. It’s particularly energizing to interact with readers when I’m starting the next book in the series; their excitement is contagious!
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
IT: I like to quote Winston Churchill when giving advice to aspiring writers, but with a caveat. He said, “Never, never, never give up” and I believe that may be the only difference between a frustrated unpublished writer and a published writer. The caveat is that you have to learn to accept criticism and to incorporate feedback so as to improve your work. You need to be thick-skinned to be a writer, and if you can’t bear to hear negative feedback or are convinced that your work can’t be improved, you might be in the wrong line of work. The critical question to keep in mind when fielding criticism and suggestions is: “Does this make the work better or just different?” Better is better, but different is just someone else’s book.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
IT: As a sixteen-year-old, I worked the 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. shift at a small local AM radio station. I did everything—wrote copy, called police and fire stations for news, and delivered on-air segments, including sports. I pity the Red Sox fans who had to suffer through my game reports. I read copy from the wire, but I had absolutely no idea what I was talking about, and I have to imagine that was obvious!