Monday, October 6, 2014

Wordcraft -- New genre for ‘ferocious’ women

What does a writer with three award winning historical novels do for her next project? If she’s Dallas writer Kathleen Kent the answer is: something completely different. She spoke this weekend to the Southwest Chapter of Mystery Writers of America to say she’s one of us, a crime writer.

Not that she doesn’t still love the historical fiction of her first two novels, The Heretic’s Daughter and The Traitor’s Wife. Telling a fictionalized version of several times great-grandmother, Martha Carrier, one of the women hanged as witches during the seventeenth century Salem witch trials, The Heretic’s Daughter became a New York Times bestseller. The Traitor’s Wife (first published in the U.S. as The Wolves of Andover) told the story of Martha Carrier’s husband, Thomas, rumored by family legend to be one of the executioners of King Charles I.

For her third book, Kent fast forwarded a couple of centuries, basing her most recent novel, The Outcasts, in post-Civil War Texas. “My dad used to say, out of earshot of my mother, of course, that all the witches were on my mother’s side of the family, but all the horse thieves were on his side,” Kent told her MWA audience.

Then, last fall, she got an assignment from a local editor she never expected. Would she like to write a crime story for an anthology set in the Dallas area? Why not? The result was her short story, “Coincidences Can Kill You,” starring Dallasite by way of Brooklyn detective Elizabeth Ryczek, aka, Detective Betty. Betty made her debut in the Akashic Books anthology Dallas Noir last October, alongside stories from such other Dallas writers as Matt Bondurant, Ben Fountain, David Haynes and Suzanne Frank.

“What do a Civil War general, an antique sword, and an AK-47 have in common?” Betty asks. “Nothing. Unless they all converge during one of my cases.”

At first glance, Betty couldn’t seem further removed from either the accused witch of The Heretic’s Daughter, or the unrepentant epileptic prostitute of The Outcasts. But Kent brought up another nugget of family history that links all the women. “When I asked if Martha Carrier was really a witch,” she was told, “‘there are no such things as witches, just ferocious women.’”

Then came another call. “My publisher, Little Brown, who published all three novels, said, we love Detective Betty. How about writing a full length novel about her?”

Following Betty’s appearance, Kent had returned to work on a sequel for The Outcasts. But given the research she’d already done on previous centuries’ crimes and legal processes, Kent felt able to tackle a case of merely modern detection.

Her biggest challenge had been finding the authentic tonality for each period. “I had to get my tonality, voice and pacing different. What remained the same in writing about all her ferocious women, Kent said, is the method of character development.

“To get me thinking out of the box right away, I set up a character with challenges, who are contrary to expectations, who have difficulties. It makes (the writer) draw on resources you didn‘t know you had. (And) the characters are developed not by what you say about them, but by what other characters say about them.”

Detective Betty’s novel is still untitled. For more about her progress, stay tuned to Kent’s website, Or hear her this Thursday, October 8, when she’ll discuss The Outcasts for Read Across McKinney. For tickets and additional information, see

Last fall, Kent inaugurated Dallas Heritage Village/Dallas Historical Society’s Farina Lecture Series. The speaker for this year’s lecture is Victoria Wilcox, author of Southern Son: The Saga of Doc Holliday (Book Two). Doors open at the DHV, 1515 Harwood, at 6 p.m. October 21. Register for the free event through the events calendar at

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