Originally published 12 Sep 2016
Some writers like to work at a desk, in a coffee bar, or at the library. Alabama author T.K. Thorne used to dream up stories in her squad car. In the late 1970s, the Birmingham police officer made up plots and dialogue while looking for broken windows and burglars at night. Nearly forty years later, she still brainstorms on road trips. “That’s when I’m in my creative mode,” says Thorne, who retired from the force in 1999.
Southerners make good storytellers (think Faulkner, Capote and Flannery O’Connor) and Thorne got an early start. “I was telling stories as soon as I could talk,” she says, adding, “I wrote my first story when I was ten.” Her early influences were anything but Deep South. Her father, a civil engineer, grew up in Brooklyn; her mother, a member of the Alabama League of Women Voters, fought for campaign finance reform. And Thorne, who studied social work at the University of Alabama, read Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert. No one expected her to wear a badge. But Birmingham Police Chief James C. Parsons read one of Thorne’s college papers and asked her to write grants for the department. In 1997 she became the first Jewish female cop on the force. At 5 feet 3 inches tall, her hands were too small to grip her gun.
“I had to cock my wrist around the side of the gun” to reach the trigger, she says. “My left hand wasn’t strong enough to even do that, so I used my middle finger to shoot on that hand. I had never shot a gun before and was really awful in the beginning, but by the time I graduated the academy, I could put 98 out of 100 bullets in the target ring. That was good enough, combined with my academic scores, to put me first in my academy class.”
Thorne eventually earned a black belt in Aikido, advanced to detective, worked on the narcotics squad and became captain. After she retired, she became executive director of Birmingham’s City Action Partnership, a nonprofit dedicated to making the city better and safer.
Her first book, a novel about police work, never saw print. Neither did the next five. “Practice books,” Thorne calls them. But her next novel, Noah’s Wife, won the 2009 Historical Fiction Book of the Year from ForeWord Review Magazine. Thorne based her story on archeology, the Bible (where Noah’s wife is barely mentioned), scientific theories about ancient cultures, a trip to Turkey and the Black Sea, and the discovery of a Biblical-era flood site by ocean explorer Robert Ballard. The book won over reviewers. “Thorne is a terrific storyteller, with the ability to transport readers from one time and place to another,” said Sena Jeter Naslund, the author of Ahab’s Wife.
After the publication of Noah’s Wife, an office worker quipped, What’s next? Lot’s wife? “I said, no way, that story is too dark. Of course, the minute I rejected it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.” In 2015, Cappuccino Books published Angels at the Gate, based on the Biblical story of a woman who is turned into a pillar of salt. Angels won the 2016 Benjamin Franklin Book Award for historical fiction. “T.K. Thorne is a magical writer,” said columnist Elsa D. Rutherford.
In 2013, Lawrence Hill Books published Thorne’s first nonfiction work, Last Chance for Justice: How Relentless Investigators Uncovered New Evidence Convicting the Birmingham Church Bombers. Thorne interviewed FBI and Birmingham officers who investigated several Ku Klux Klan members responsible for the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, an African American church in Birmingham. “We met in secret for a year and half.” Four young girls were killed in the blast. The book appeared on the New York Post’s “Books You Should Be Reading” list.
“Thorne's story,” said Publisher’s Weekly, “is a stunning reminder of just how tough the fight for freedom—and justice—really is.”
Her police work made her a better writer. “It was a crash course in life and what motivated and mattered to people,” Thorne says on her website, http://www.tkthorne.com. Her favorite writer is Sue Monk Kidd, the best-selling author of The Secret Life of Bees and The Invention of Wings.
At the Historical Writers of America conference in Williamsburg, Thorne talked about writing page-turning books. Her advice? Give your book an emotional pull, include a strong conflict, and end each chapter with a hook: a mysterious line of dialogue, a key decision, a shattering revelation, or “a question left hanging in the air.”
Read more about T.K. Thorne and her books here at Amazon.com
HWA Board Member Paul Davis features profiles of the presenters from HWA Conferences. Paul, a 30+ year veteran journalist, attended the HWA Conference and is in the midst of planning for the next one.