by Timothy Pike
“I could not have imagined this,” New York Times bestselling author Tosca Lee types on her computer screen. She’s responding to one of her Facebook fans who had asked if she ever thought her writing would take her to the places it has.
Indeed, she’d just come back to her Nebraska farm from half a world away. “I’ve just returned from the Sharjah International Book Fair in the UAE,” she tells me, “where I got to speak to high school kids at several schools in Sharjah and Dubai about writing.”
Few are as qualified as Tosca to teach about writing. Her books have won dozens of awards, earned critical acclaim, and landed her on the New York Times Best Seller List. Her stories span history, take us all over the world, and run the gamut of subject matter. She writes, in one breath, about biblical figures like Judas or the Queen of Sheba, and in the next, a modern-day cult and global pandemic. And in the works is another thriller, this time about the witch hunts of medieval Europe.
Tosca wrote her very first novel—which she describes only as “bad”—in 1989, when her father made her an offer she couldn’t refuse: he’d pay her what she would have made at a summer job if she’d write a novel instead.
Tosca didn’t think twice. “I took him up on that offer without hesitation,” she says, “and while that novel was never published, it taught me tons.”
When Tosca looks back on those early days, she recalls using plenty of trial and error—a method that has since evolved into the iron-clad writing process she uses today. And it’s simpler than you might think: “I always have a premise,” she explains. “From there, I have to have some kind of outline. Maybe not a super detailed one, but at least a basic road map of where I’m headed.”
Still, Tosca was surprised to find out that sometimes the best way to write a story is to start with two, when in 2016, she approached her publisher with two separate ideas. “One of them was a pandemic story inspired by a news article I’d read, about a reindeer carcass infected with anthrax that thawed in the melting Siberian permafrost and made an entire village sick,” she says. “Another was about a young woman starting over after leaving a doomsday cult. My publisher suggested I combine the two, which created a far more compelling story than if I’d used just one or the other.”
That year, Tosca’s father made her an offer she couldn’t refuse: he’d pay her what she would have made at a summer job if she’d write a novel instead.
For all of Tosca’s natural writing and storytelling ability, she still seeks input from others and knows how important it is to keep learning. “Most of my fiction education came by attending workshops, by hiring great editors to edit my manuscripts before I turn them in, and—most of all—by reading great writing by authors I admire,” she says.
But for the biggest helping hand, she doesn’t even need to leave home. “Hands down, my husband, Bryan, is my greatest influence,” Tosca says. “He brainstorms with me, encourages me, and has been known to bake homemade cookies while I’m on deadline.”
If Tosca’s career had gone according to her original plan, we’d still be enjoying her talent these days, but in a much different way. “I originally wanted to be a professional ballerina,” she says, “and pursued this career as a young person until I was sidelined at fourteen with an injury.”
“I still continued—and continue to this day—to dance,” she says, “but I exchanged my professional aspirations for the stage to the page.”
As she worked to make writing a full-time career, Tosca held a day job that took her all over the globe. Fortunately, she always found time to write. “I was traveling the world,” she says, “editing my books on planes and in hotel rooms while working as a consultant for the Gallup Organization.”
Fast forward to now, and Tosca’s been writing full time for about the last decade. Even though it’s the life many writers dream of, it’s still a big lifestyle change—and one that comes with tradeoffs.
“Write like you’re hiding out,” Tosca says, “writing in your secret notebook with a flashlight. It banishes fear and that’s how you get the good stuff.”
In addition to adjusting to life in the country (“I lived in the city before this,” she says, “so I’m still new to farm life!”), one of Tosca’s greatest ongoing challenges is dealing with the publishing world constantly shifting beneath her feet. “It’s easy to get discouraged when changes at your publisher may affect your book launch or marketing or promotion,” she tells me.
But she takes it all in stride. “At the end of the day,” Tosca says, “the only thing to do is know what you can and can’t control, make sure you have great advocates in your corner, and continue to write great stories.”
And for anyone just starting out, Tosca has some advice. “Keep reading,” she says. “Keep learning from the books you love. Keep writing.”
“When it comes to the actual writing,” she goes on, “my number one rule is to write like no one will ever read it. Write like you’re hiding out, writing in your secret notebook with a flashlight. It banishes fear and that’s how you get the good stuff.”
As for her next release about the witch hunts in medieval Europe, Tosca can’t give out too many details just yet. “I’m loving these characters,” was about all she would say, “and can’t wait to share this story with readers.”
It’s another thrill ride we’re all looking forward to.
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