5 Questions With Local Author Catherine Soete
St. Louis writer Catherine Soete spent most of her career operating her own creative writing firm, with an impressive client list including the likes of Anheuser-Busch, Monsanto, Washington University and more.
Recently, she reinvented herself as a mystery novelist with the release of her first novel, “Grave Secrets.”
On the heels of the book’s release, we caught up with Soete to chat about her transition from business writing to mystery novels, her experience at Mizzou’s J-School and her future plans.
ALIVE: Tell us a little more about your career as a business writer in St. Louis. How did you build relationships with these powerhouse clients?
Catherine Soete: After an 8-month stint as a communications director on a political campaign, I needed a steady job. I would have gone back to reporting, but The Post-Dispatch and Globe-Democrat weren’t hiring. Dick Howe, of Overlock Howe & Company, hired me as a writer to promote his corporate communications (logos, letterhead, signage) and package design work. At the time, his clients were Ralston Purina’s Chow Division, Dean Foods, Dairy Queen, Rexall Drug, and some smaller firms. At one point, people at RP saw something I’d written and asked Dick if I could write for them as well. From then on, I primarily wrote for OHC’s clients—brochures, A-V scripts, ads, booklets.
About a year later, I told Dick Howe that I was going to leave and start my own writing service. I suggested that he could just send any copy writing projects to me, and he agreed! In essence, I was able to begin a business knowing that I already had some clients lined up. Over the next 24-plus years, I developed clients through referrals, and through agencies that had more writing projects than their in-house writers could handle. My work for A-B came during a 10-month stint when another agency lured me from my freelancing to work for them. Membership in IABC was a big help in getting my name out there and gained me entry to SW Bell among others. I’ve written for SSM Health Care, St. John’s Mercy, Christian Hospital NE, Consolidated Aluminum, AACSB, and several other smaller companies and institutions.
ALIVE: What prompted you to make the transition to writing mystery novels?
CS: When people learned I was a writer, they would always ask, “Do you write novels?” And I would always say, “I don’t do that kind of writing.” When I reached the point where I was no longer interested in copy writing for clients, I decided to stop saying that I didn’t write novels. I knew I was a good writer and the fact was, I simply had never tried to write a novel. I noticed how many mysteries were on bookstore shelves so there obviously was a big market for them. I started writing one day and had no idea where it was going, but it was fun and I kept at it.
ALIVE: What is the inspiration for “Grave Secrets?” Are you a big fan of mystery novels yourself?
CS: I believe most first novels have autobiographical material in them. When I started writing, I turned to the time when I was a new reporter in a small town. The Watergate cover-up was the big national story, and I imagined the plot of a cover-up on a smaller scale, in a place where everything looks innocent on the surface. When I started writing my book, I read mysteries only occasionally. As I wrote, I started reading more because I wanted to learn how mysteries were constructed. Now, I really love them. Mysteries offer readers a puzzle. There is a clear conflict between good and evil, yet there is still room for moral ambivalence. And good mysteries also have smart, interesting characters, sharp dialogue, action and danger.
ALIVE: You attended the Journalism School at Mizzou and reported for a handful of daily newspapers. How did your experience in hard news reporting play into a career in creative writing?
CS: I am so grateful for my education at Mizzou’s J-school. I went there for my master’s degree, and all of my teachers were good, but my news-editorial professor (whom I allude to fictitiously in Grave Secrets) was a gem. He had been a reporter, but he was also a teacher. He taught us the discipline of straight, clear, accurate writing. He told us, “If you’ve seen something in print, don’t write it again.” A hard rule to follow, but it stays with you. It has helped me to fight against trite, lazy expressions. And, writing for daily newspapers is a discipline all in itself. You only get to write a story for what it’s worth—nothing extra. If you’re writing a feature story, it can be fun and creative, but the writing still has to be crisp and on purpose. My clients appreciated my ability to ask questions, listen and write their message clearly and readably. Even though I wrote copy that was intended to promote a product or a service, I don’t think I ever had a client come back to me and say they wanted a harder sell or more sizzle, or any of that. They were happy with good writing.
ALIVE: What’s next for you? Are you planning any future novels?
CS: My second novel, “Lethal Game,” is written. It is set in the mid-‘70s, in Columbia, Missouri. Reporter Carol Hagan is the main character again, and there are other characters from the first book who return. I am not sure when it will be published, but I hope it is out before the end of 2015. I do plan on writing another mystery or two after that, as well.