The detective first took me to her Captain’s office. A long-time veteran of the force, the man was older than my escort, his once dark hair bleached silver by some combination of years and stress. He considered the detective the way a grandfather might look at a particularly studious kid, his eyes betraying admiration with a touch of amusement. She was a hard-working investigator and she was being interviewed by an author. He’d known her as a beat cop.
Detective Shonah Maldonado, for her part, regarded her boss with a mix of respect and gratitude. He’d believed in her when few on the force had thought the junior female officers would rise much further than patrol. Her appreciation, however, was about more than his giving her a shot. The man was smart. He’d correctly identified a need for more female detectives to handle the kinds of crimes that were all too frequently crossing his desk: domestic abuse, sexual assaults, and child endangerment. Some female victims—and perpetrators—only opened up to women. And Maldonado, with her empathetic smile and patient demeanor, was just the kind of cop who could get folks talking.
That day, though, I was at the station to get her talking. My fourth thriller, One Little Secret, needed a female investigator to help solve the murder of one woman and the sexual assault of another. And I needed to better understand the character that I would try to create. How might a female detective respond to the investigation of an au pair’s possible drugged date rape? Were there questions she’d feel comfortable asking that would seem too aggressive coming from a male detective? What conversations might she engage in? What subjects would even she feel was taboo?
In short, how might a female detective do her job? How might she do it differently?
I found Detective Maldonado on the Internet. The issues I’d wanted my story to delve into—domestic abuse among the affluent and the way money can enable exploitation—required a character who the audience would trust to navigate such troubled waters. I wanted a woman because I was writing a story with at least two female victims and it was important to me to also have a strong female character as a counterpoint to the other women. I also wanted to create a protagonist able to empathize with the victims as a fellow woman and, at the same time, see through some of the less obvious deceit perpetrated by female characters.
An online search for local police departments with female detectives led me to an article about Maldonado’s promotion into the detective department. I emailed her captain and was granted permission to speak with her—if she felt up for it.
Fortunately, she did. For over an hour, she took me through how she’d handled a variety of cases (without names or dates). She generously explained how she might react in hypothetical scenarios. And she told me her history, including why a once psychology major and social worker had decided to switch careers and join the police force.
I didn’t use any of her stories or the particulars of her background for the book. But I took with me a sense of who she was and how she saw the world that informed my character, Detective Sergeant Gabby Watkins.
Gabby is one of my favorite characters to date. I think she comes across as intelligent, diligent, and deep. She seems real—perhaps, because, in some way she is.
Real people often help shape my characters. As a former journalist, I believe in researching individuals, places, and scenarios. For One Little Secret, I read books about domestic violence, first-person articles about intimate partner violence, and drew upon my prior experiences volunteering at an abused woman’s shelter. I would never co-opt any particular individual’s story in my book, but I identified themes that emerged among women with similar experiences and incorporated those into my work. I also spent a good amount of time reading studies from the American Psychiatric Association about how long-term abuse impacts rational thinking.
Often, for my stories, I research for months before sitting down to seriously write. By the time I do, I’ve done extensive character profiles and plot outlines. Sometimes, I even have a chapter-by-chapter breakdown in Microsoft Excel.
These plots often morph as I write, necessitating revisions and new outlines. But I go into stories with a clear idea, derived from research, about the people, places, and troubles I’m contending with in my tale.
In my opinion, it’s this research that has led to early readers praising the imaginary people that populate One Little Secret. “The characters are vivid and well developed and the various marital tensions become uncovered,” wrote A. Koren, in an Amazon Vine Voice review, which was not and cannot be influenced in any way by the publisher or author. Another Vine Voice reviewer, Annie, wrote: “The characters quickly became more than words on paper; they became real, people I knew and cared about.”
Statements like those make all the interviews and research worth it. And it’s the generosity of real people, like Detective Maldonado, who help me create characters that seem to exist.
One Little Secret
Crooked Lane Books
On Sale: July 9, 2019
Hardcover / e-Book
Everyone has a secret. For some, it’s worth dying to protect. For others, it’s worth killing.
The glass beach house was supposed to be the getaway that Susan needed. Eager to help her transplanted family set down roots in their new town – and desperate for some kid-free conversation – she invites her new neighbors to join in on a week-long sublet with her and her workaholic husband.
Over the course of the first evening, liquor loosens inhibitions and lips. The three couples begin picking up on the others’ marital tensions and work frustrations, as well as revealing their own. But someone says too much. And the next morning one of the women is discovered dead on the private beach.
Town detective Gabby Watkins must figure out who permanently silenced the deceased. As she investigates, she learns that everyone in the glass house was hiding something that could tie them to the murder, and that the biggest secrets of all are often in plain sight for anyone willing to look.
A taut, locked room mystery with an unforgettable cast of characters, One Little Secret promises to keep readers eyes glued to the pages and debating the blinders that we all put on in the service of politeness.
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Cate Holahan is the USA Today Bestselling author of The Widower’s Wife, Lies She Told, Dark Turns, and One Little Secret, all published by Crooked Lane Books. In a former life, she was an award-winning journalist that wrote for The Record, The Boston Globe, and BusinessWeek.
She lives in NJ with her husband, two daughters, and food-obsessed dog, and spends a disturbing amount of time highly-caffeinated, mining her own anxieties for material.
She graduated from Princeton University in 2002.