A protagonist “shaped by her childhood trauma” returns in Melinda Leigh’s Right Behind Her (Montlake), the fourth title of the Bree Taggert series. An author of several crime series, Leigh focuses on crafting character-driven stories that often draw from real-life events—but with a lot of imagination in the mix. Leigh chatted with PW about writing believable narratives with enticing, gut-punching mysteries that keep readers up at night.
Tell me about the research you do for each of your books. How important is it to maintain authenticity, especially when it comes to forensics and aspects of conducting a police investigation?
Research is never-ending for books that focus on crime. Laws and forensic science are constantly changing. It’s important to stay up-to-date to keep the stories fresh, interesting, and relevant. To do that, I attend conferences that focus on law enforcement for writers. Through these events, I’ve made fabulous contacts who are usually willing to answer my questions.
Do your ideas ever arise from real-life events you might encounter in the news?
Definitely! Using actual real-life events ensures books feel current. One of my favorite ways to brainstorm new storylines is to read headlines. Media outlets are masters at creating interesting hooks. However, I rarely click through to the actual story. The truth is rarely as interesting as the story my imagination generates.
How much do the circumstances of your heroine Bree’s childhood inform her character, and how do you tap into her experience of these events?
Everything about Bree was shaped by her childhood trauma. It drives her desire to be in law enforcement but also contributes to her loner personality. Her past creates a vulnerability she continually fights to conceal, and it contributes to the distance between Bree and her family members in the beginning of the series that she works hard to overcome.
It’s no secret that a great many women (myself included!) love reading about crime, whether it’s true crime or fiction. Any ideas why this is the case?
I find the psychological aspects of mystery novels fascinating. Most people would never commit a terrible crime, but we are morbidly curious about the people who do terrible things.
Where do you think your own interest in crime stems from?
My grandmother was a huge influence in my childhood. Her love of reading, mostly mysteries, is her legacy to me. She had bookshelves filled with mystery novels. Rex Stout, Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton, and Lillian Jackson Braun were some of her favorites. I would spend weekends at her house, ripping through book after book. By the time I finished high school, I’d read hundreds of mystery novels. Granny was also my biggest fan. After I became published, she read every book I wrote. At the age of 89, she went into hospice. I was writing She Can Hide at her bedside while she slept and reading her sections of the working draft when she was awake.
Of all your protagonists, do you have a favorite? Is it ever a challenge to maintain their very distinctive voices?
Each of my protagonists is a reflection of what I’m feeling and thinking about at that time. My favorite is usually the one I’m currently writing, because she’s the character I feel most connected to in the moment. That said, Bree Taggert is a special heroine for me. I shaped her character from listening to 911 calls. I needed to know what happened to the victims. Did help arrive in time? How did the event influence the rest of their lives? With no answers available, I decided to write the story of a survivor. I had other books in the pipeline at the time and had to wait over a year to write her first book.
Your books feature strong and complex female protagonists. Where do you look to for inspiration as you’re creating them?
I look to women in my own life as well as inspirational women in history and the news. I try to write women of varying strengths. Characters can display strength in so many ways. Intellectual and emotional strengths are just as important as physical power.
You note in your biography that you are “a fully recovered banker” and that writing served as a respite for you as you were raising your kids. Does writing still provide that for you? If so, how do you maintain that sense of freedom and joy, even when working on a deadline?
As much as I still enjoy writing, it is my job. Book sales support my family. I can’t wait for inspiration. Some days, the words come easily. On others, not so much. Writing for a living requires discipline. When I’m in the middle of a project, I write every day to maintain momentum.
What can you share with readers about Right Behind Her?
In this pivotal installment to the series, Bree Taggert’s past catches up with her in the worst way. At the request of her brother, she agrees to visit the farm where she grew up, the house where her father killed her mother and them himself. Bree’s brother doesn’t remember the incident and is looking for answers to questions he’s harbored his whole life. Instead of answers, they find human remains. The subsequent investigation forces Bree to face the worst moments of her life. She must consider her own father as a possible suspect for the murders.