Leanne Kale Sparks is returning to her first love — writing about murder and mayhem — after a brief career in criminal law. The backdrop for her books is the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the playground of her youth, and the place that will always be home. When not writing, she and her husband spend time reading and enjoying their two dogs.
SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
Leanne Sparks: “The Wrong Woman” started out as a short story just to see if I could write a crime thriller. At the time, the idea of writing something coherent and interesting was daunting. I was unsure if I could actually pull it off.
Not much has changed, I still feel that way whenever I sit down to write. There were two things, however, I knew about this book going in: It had to center on an FBI agent working in the Crimes Against Children Unit; and it had to be set in Colorado.
The first reason stemmed from in-depth research into the world of child trafficking. The second is obvious — why wouldn’t I want to highlight my home state, and the awe-inspiring beauty of Colorado? I was blessed to grow up here, and I want to give readers a taste of the most stunning state in the country.
SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
Sparks: This is the first chapter of the book, where we are introduced to FBI Special Agent Kendall Beck as she questions a man who may have been involved with the kidnapping of a 5-year-old girl from her home. As with all cases involving children, time is of the essence, and Kendall is not shy about getting her questions answered so she can find the young girl before it’s too late.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
There is little question about Kendall’s personality and how serious she takes her job in this excerpt. But she also displays her humorous side, which can sometimes be a bit dark and potentially inappropriate. Overall, I hope the reader gets to know Kendall in the first few pages, engages with her, considers her a friend, and feels the desperation of the case.
SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you sat down to write? And once you did begin to write, did the work take you in any unexpected directions?
Sparks: The predominant influence was to create a character who believed deeply in her work. I was able to meet with several agents working in the Crimes Against Children unit, and because of that experience, I really wanted to shine a light on the issue of child trafficking, and the people fighting daily bring down the organizations making a living off stealing children and forcing them into the sex trade.
I wanted to mirror the agents I had met and talked with during my research into Kendall. Once I had written the first draft short story, I passed it off to trusted author friends to make sure I wasn’t getting in over my head.
When they came back with thumbs up, I decided to expand the story. From there it was all about the creation of subplots and new characters and red herrings. I love to write dual investigations in my stories, so the development of the storyline represented in the excerpt grew from that desire once I decided to write a full- length novel. It’s fun once the story takes on a life of its own — it can take the author, and hopefully the reader, to unexpected places.
SunLit: Are there lessons you take away from each experience of writing a book? And if so, what did the process of writing this book add to your knowledge and understanding of your craft and/or the subject matter?
Sparks: If I wasn’t learning after each book I wrote, I would stop writing. There is no author alive that knows everything about writing — we are all constantly learning. I think a large part of that, especially in crime writing, is the knowledge of the reader. So many of them watch true crime shows and have an understanding of what a real investigation looks like. This is a drastic change from the time I started reading mysteries in my youth.
“The Wrong Woman”
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I think readers demand more authenticity in books. Even the “rules for writing” have adapted over the years. Yes, we all still stick to most grammatical rules. But there are more gray areas now which can enhance the experience for the reader. The trick is knowing when to break the rules and when you’ve gone too far. The only way to understand that, and grow in the crafting of a great story, is to read. Anything and everything because even negatives teach us something.
SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you faced in writing this book?
Sparks: I try to be as realistic as possible when writing about law enforcement. However, in attempting to be true to the procedures, I am also cognizant this is a work of fiction, not a textbook on the investigative process. With so many people having a basic understanding of investigations and forensics, there is a fine line between being true to reality and letting the truth slide a bit for the sake of the story.
The trick is to stay on that very fine line without losing the reader. It will never be a perfect representation — the challenge is accepting that, even when readers who are very savvy when it comes to investigations and forensics point out the flaws in the story.
SunLit: If you could pick just one thing – a theme, lesson, emotion or realization — that readers would take from this book, what would that be?
Sparks: Kendall goes on a bit of a journey in this book, realizing she may not have known her best friend as well as she thought she did. And it really causes her to take a look at what kind of friend she was to Gwen, and how she missed the signs that her friend was having issues.
She wrestles with the questions of whether Gwen didn’t trust her enough to talk to her about things going on in her life, or if Kendall didn’t pay close enough attention to her friend because she was too self-absorbed in her own life to take notice. This can be tricky to overcome because there are no real answers. Kendall can no longer ask her friend what the truth is, which leads down a dark road.
Humans are wired to think the worst, especially about themselves. Through that self-flagellation, Kendall determines it was her fault Gwen died. Along the way, she has to learn to forgive herself, because that is what Gwen would do, and she would want Kendall to do the same. Regrets can become bedfellows, however, and forgiving oneself is a hard lesson to learn.
SunLit: In a highly politicized atmosphere where books, and people’s access to them, has become increasingly contentious, what would you add to the conversation about books, libraries and generally the availability of literature in the public sphere?
Sparks: I’m a champion of making books available to anyone who wants to read them. I do not believe in banning books. Period. And I am excited that, with the rising popularity of indie books, there is something for everyone to read. That is an awesome thing.
But with the popularity of burgeoning sub-genres, people need to realize that just because they may not like a certain genre (or sub-genre), it doesn’t diminish the writing or the readers who enjoy it. If we can get people to put down their electronic devices and get lost in a book, I think we grow as a society. Reading the written word is so important to being able to communicate effectively with others.
So, I don’t care how people get books (except for pirating them — please don’t do that, we writers need to pay our bills, too), I’m excited about the many platforms and genres available to readers offering opportunities to escape the real world for a little while. I think it benefits all of us.
SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
Sparks: My writing process…chaotic. It is always fun to read how other authors go about the process of writing. It’s a bit like snowflakes — no two processes are alike. I am jealous of writers who stick to rigid writing schedules. Very jealous. I’ve tried to maintain a schedule, but as soon as I commit to it (ie. write it down) my brain laughs and I’m off doing anything but writing.
The process for me, however, is mostly plotting. I sit staring into space for a great deal of time, mulling over how the storyline evolves. My outlines are usually so precise that the actual writing of the story is not the main event. It all centers on the time I sit ruminating about the story and how it unfolds that takes precedence over the other parts of the process.
As for where…wherever feels right. Seriously. I rarely write consecutive books in the same place. Sometimes that’s in my office, other times at the kitchen table, and every once in a while, at a busy coffee shop. I’m not very consistent — which tends to drive my husband a bit batty. Especially when our kitchen table can’t be used because it is covered with sticky notes that shall not be moved until the first draft is complete. Sometimes not until the book is sent off to the editor.
It all boils down to mood and comfort for me. Which is why I’m jealous of those who have consistency. Finding “the spot” can be time consuming.
SunLit: Kendall Beck is a strong female character. What was your motivation to write her?
Sparks: Being a woman, and since I meet strong women in all walks of life, Kendall seemed like the perfect protagonist. I never thought of the character as anyone other than Kendall. And although she is a force to be reckoned with, she does let her guard down, every once in a while, and the reader sees her soft side.
I think that is important when writing any strong character — they can’t be fierce 100% of the time. The trick is to balance the strengths and weaknesses (if they can be called weaknesses) so she is no longer a character on the page, but a person who may exist out in the physical world. Someone the reader can connect with, and who becomes “real”.
A few more quick questions
SunLit: Do you look forward to the actual work of writing or is it a chore that you dread but must do to achieve good things?
Sparks: I do love writing — when it is flowing. The only time I dread it is when I get stuck. It’s not so much writer’s block, it is usually a matter of stumbling around the story falling down a rabbit plot hole. I tend to focus on minutiae which stops me in my tracks. I can’t move forward unless I figure out this one little thing that usually has very little to do with the overall storyline. And absolutely something to move past and come back to at a later date.
It is a common problem that I relearn how to get around with every book I write. But once I do, and I refocus on the outline, the story takes over and it is a joy. There is nothing better than when the characters come alive and take over the story. It’s really just a matter of documenting what they say and do.
SunLit: What’s the first piece of writing – at any age – that you remember being proud of?
Sparks: I didn’t start “writing” stories until I was in college. Growing up I told stories through drawings. Not very good drawings, but my stick figures were able to convey what I was feeling.
Once in college, I wrote a book with my two daughters (my third-grade daughter did the illustrations, and they were fantastic! Not one stick figure) about two girls who find a trunk filled with costumes in their grandparent’s attic. When they put on a costume, they were transported to other worlds and times in history. They battled aliens in space and stopped bank robbers in the old West. Being able to share that with both of my girls, and encourage their creativity, was a blessing.
SunLit: When you look back at your early professional writing, how do you feel about it? Impressed? Embarrassed? Satisfied? Wish you could have a do-over?
Sparks: There are definitely things I wish I could’ve done better. And who doesn’t want a do-over in life sometimes? But it is what it is. There is no going back, only moving forward. All the experiences I’ve had, have taught me a lesson. Sometimes those lessons were under the category of “what not to do”, but those were typically the ones that stuck with me and have, hopefully, made me a better writer.
SunLit: What three writers, from any era, can you imagine having over for a great discussion about literature and writing? And why?
Sparks: Jane Austin; Nathaniel Hawthorne; Harlan Coben.
I would love to talk to Jane Austin about writing in an era where women were not thought to be smart enough to write anything worth reading. To fight against that type of discrimination would have been disheartening — and exhausting. Additionally, it would be fun to show her how far women have come in literature, and how she paved the way.
As a young man, Nathaniel Hawthorne grew up in Salem during the witch trials. Many of his stories center on the thoughts, beliefs, and often brutal actions of the time. How interesting would it be to discuss how it felt to be telling stories about the abuses of Puritan rules while having a brother judging the infamous witch trials in Salem?
And Harlan Coben because he’s a fiction-writing god. I’ve read all his books (some several times) and would love to have just a little of the talent he has. Plus, he has a wicked sense of humor, and I would love to see who would win the “Most Sarcastic” award between the two of us. I like my chances…
SunLit: Do you have a favorite quote about writing?
Sparks: “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” ― E.L. Doctorow
SunLit: What does the current collection of books on your home shelves tell visitors about you?
Sparks: Depends on the bookshelf. The bookshelves in the family room have a variety of genres from historical fiction, YA, nonfiction, science fiction (my husband’s contribution) and, of course, thrillers. The books in my office would probably make people run from my home and proclaim I am a sicko or a serial killer in the making. Thriller writers have interesting research material. That’s all I’ll say about that.
SunLit: Soundtrack or silence? What’s the audio background that helps you write?
Sparks: Silence or green noise. Nothing with words. Lately I’ve been getting into YouTube writing ambience videos. It is a visual and auditory experience, and I find myself staring at the scene when I am deep in contemplation over a chapter or plot thread.
SunLit: What event, and at what age, convinced you that you wanted to be a writer?
Sparks: I never believed I could be a writer growing up. That was for special people with true talent. So, instead, I went to law school. And that was good for a while, until I moved to another state without attorney practice reciprocity (and therefore I would have to take the bar exam. Again.)
That opened up all sorts of different possibilities. I wanted to find something different to do. Once I allowed myself to explore options, my first love came roaring back with a vengeance. Stories took over my every waking moment (and a great deal of sleeping ones, too) and I knew it was my time to write. There is no lack of writing material in my head and filling a few journals.
SunLit: What do you most fear as an author?
Sparks: One-star reviews. Disappointing a reader is not fun. And while I do learn from constructive criticism, it is still a bit of a blow to the ego that every reader doesn’t fall in love with my stories.
SunLit: What brings you the greatest satisfaction as an author?
Sparks: I love to hear from readers. I especially love the readers who tell me how much they’ve enjoyed my stories. But my greatest satisfaction comes from readers who have connected with my characters and feel as if they are friends they could go out to lunch with and look forward to spending more time with them. That’s when I know I’ve done my job.