Author interview: Melissa Olson

I met Melissa Olson when she graciously co-appeared at Mystery to Me bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin in February. Somehow, in the midst of what reads like an exhausting writing schedule—not to mention pretty deep life obligations involving raising young children, herding dogs, and a social media presence that rivals most teenagers'—Melissa found time to answer a few questions and give me a peek into her creative space. She even sent a T-shirt.

Rob: How would you characterize the differences between Urban Fantasy and Crime in your own writing? Or do you approach every story independent of genre?

Melissa: Well, I write both supernatural and non-supernatural books, but I’ve found that it’s easiest to simply think of all my novels as mysteries. My urban fantasies all have a central mystery that forms the spine; this makes it possible for me to keep the story from spiraling off into mythological insanity. Of course, playing in a fantastical world does mean I have a lot more options about whodunit: motives and methods increase exponentially when you build your own world. In a way, then, plotting my Lena books (The Big Keep, future sequels) is actually harder, but if I didn’t like those kinds of challenges I wouldn’t be writing genre at all.

To what extent do your film studies affect the way you write?

Great question. As far as I can tell, a lot of the influence is subconscious: I once had a reader gush that he could tell I went to film school because I start every chapter the way a new movie scene starts: establishing shot, closer shot, then jumping into the story. I tried to nod and look smart as though yes, of course that was my plan all along, but really I’m pretty sure I just gaped at him.

I do believe my studies help me think about a lot of the building blocks of storytelling, and when I talk about writing I’ll often use those terms to help me understand and explain what I’m doing. For example, when I’m talking about a murder that isn’t actually depicted on the page, I’ll say it happens “offscreen.” The other overlap I’m aware of is dialogue: I’d like to think I write dialogue pretty well, because I’ve spent so much time around screenplays.

You put a lot of effort into researching setting for your newest series. Why does Urban Fantasy rely so heavily on location? Do you think it matters as much for crime fiction?

Urban fantasy is known for a connection to setting, and I think it’s because these books are almost always set in cities (“urban fantasy” is not just a clever name). There’s a very logical reason for that: if you’re going to write about a world hidden beneath the world we know, a bigger city only makes sense. It’s pretty difficult to hide a pack of werewolves in, say, a town of 1,500, which is why most of the urban fantasies set in small towns involve a mythology where the supernatural is “out.” On the other hand, it’s much easier to write about a single murder or a bank robbery in that small town, which is why crime fiction can be set anywhere.

But ultimately, any book can rely on its location as much as the author wants. For my Scarlett Bernard books, I don’t lean too heavily on Los Angeles, and honestly, it’s because I had so much story to tell and worldbuilding to do that I wanted LA to be more of a backdrop than a character. It was a conscious choice, and I think it works, but I also really admire how someone like Stephen Blackmoore, who can write LA into his books in a way that makes me drool with envy. I tried to do that more with Boundary Crossed, and especially its upcoming sequel Boundary Lines, because a) I was writing a smaller city than LA, so it required more explanation of how things work, and b) it’s a very fun, quirky city to write about. I can honestly say I now know more about Boulder and the state of Colorado than I do about Madison or Wisconsin overall.

Do your characters and worlds inhabit your mind?

They inhabit my mind the same way that friends and family do: I’m constantly thinking about them in an offhanded way. For example, if I’m listening to a new song on the radio I might think, “Oh, Scarlett would love this,” or when I see a certain kind of sporty, organic cotton shirt in a store I might think, “that would look awful on me, but Lex could pull it off.” That probably sounds kind of nutty, but what ends up happening is I apply these little thoughts to ideas for the books.

For example, a year and a half ago I was developing Lex’s character, and I knew she would be a soldier, and she’d have a sister who’d died, and she lived in Boulder, but that was about it. One day I was in a hardware store, walking to the cash register, and I saw this couple holding the hands of a little blonde child I only saw from behind. The thing is, from the back, that girl looked exactly like one of my nieces, who was a toddler at the time, down to the coat she was wearing and the way she moved.

I stopped and stared, trying to figure out if my sister maybe had one of her friends taking my niece somewhere and they’d stopped in Madison, but then why hadn’t anyone told me? I was ready to call 911 and report a kidnapping. I actually followed this poor family through the store so I could circle around and see the kid’s face, and of course, the girl wasn’t my niece. But I started thinking about how Lex would respond in that situation, and the opening chapter of Boundary Crossed was born. And today I think it’s probably my favorite first chapter of any book I’ve written.

What turns your crank more—writing heroes or villains?

LOL well first, thanks for using the term “turns your crank,” because that’s the kind of thing people rarely say to female authors, and I love that you did. I’d have to say heroes, because you can spend more time with them and really explore complexities—like I said, my protagonists are like my friends and family that way. I haven’t written a Scarlett scene in ages and I really miss her.

But  I’ve also developed a serious appreciation for villains, because 99% of the time, they don’t know they’re villains: to them, their actions are perfectly reasonable. Once in awhile you get a nutcase who knows he’s on a killing spree and doesn’t care (the bad guy in Dead Spots would probably fall into this category), but for the most part bad guys believe themselves to be the good guys.

I first started really paying attention to villains when I was writing Trail of Dead, because –speaking of how movies influence my writing—the whole time I was working on it I kept thinking about the movie Batman Returns. In the film, Batman faces two separate enemies, who have their own individual motives, one of which is more sympathetic than the other. I loved writing the idea of two villains who sometimes work together, sometimes work against each other, and digging into that was incredibly fun.

Where do you sit in terms of discipline? Do you binge write or work to daily targets? Has that changed over time?

Melissa Olson -- Full Swank T-shirt

A little of both, and yes, it’s definitely changed as I write more books, and as the deadlines between them get shorter. I call myself a “reformed pantser,” because instead of flying by the seat of my pants I make rough outlines that I write to, which makes daily word goals possible. Fifteen hundred words a day is really comfortable for me, and I can almost always push that to 2,500 or 3,000 if I know exactly what the scene needs.  When I’m working on a project, especially one with a deadline, I tend to work toward those daily targets, because it helps me plan my life.

On almost all my projects, however, there is inevitably a time when I fall behind and have to do some serious binge-writing. My personal record is about 8,600 words in one day, which is almost 35 pages. My friends and I call 8,000 words “going Full Swank,” after my friend Denise Grover Swank, who writes incredibly fast: 8k words is her baseline. I’ve gone Full Swank twice: the first time I was so proud I called my parents, and the second time I made myself this tee shirt.

You’re enjoying a ton of success right now. How does that affect your writing plans for the next while? Are you chock-a-block with deadlines or planning something different?

Um…yes. Since January I have been working my ass off on the sequel to Boundary Crossed, Boundary Lines. The publisher wanted it fast, which made perfect sense, but I was absolutely determined that the quality wouldn’t suffer just because I had to write it faster. So it’s been a really intense few months. Right now I’m in editing, which is just as intense as the writing phase was, but when I’m waiting to get edits back I’m working on a top-secret new project that’s really different from what I’ve done before. It’s still Urban Fantasy, but in third person, which I haven’t written since grad school, and more of a political bend than I’m used to.

After that, well, you’d think I’d have the freedom to write whatever I want, but one of the ways that success tends to affect writers is altering what we get to write next. I keep getting asked to do these urban fantasy sequels, and I’m not complaining: I love writing these novels, and having spent so much time creating these worlds, its fun to keep playing in them. Also: money. But at the same time, I’m dying to write the sequel to The Big Keep, my non-supernatural mystery, and there are half a dozen Old World short stories I’d love to get into…basically I just need to go Full Swank every day and I’d be fine.

Melissa Olson was born and raised in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, and studied film and literature at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. After graduation, and a brief stint bouncing around the Hollywood studio system, Melissa landed in Madison, WI, where she eventually acquired a master's degree from UW-Milwaukee, a husband, a mortgage, a teaching gig, two kids, and two comically oversized dogs, not at all in that order. She loves Madison, but still dreams of the food in LA. Literally. There are dreams. Learn more about Melissa, her work, and her dog at