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Mystery Maven

In writing her new book, Cathy Pickens finds real-life
crime stories are more interesting than fiction.

 

By Allison Futterman

Cathy Pickens is well-known as the author of the Southern Fried mystery series set in a fictional town in South Carolina, her home state. She’s also written a nonfiction book exploring haunted spots and unsolved mysteries in Charleston. In her intriguing new book, Charlotte True Crime Stories, Pickens explores crimes that have rocked and riveted the Queen City. In addition to being a writer, she’s a former lawyer and had a lengthy career as a business professor at Queens University. Today, Pickens uses her experience and skills to help others in the community.

What can you tell us about your new book?

Just as each place has its unique history, each place has crime stories that help define it. Charlotte has had colorful characters — like the fraudster who beguiled the owner of the Hope Diamond and got away with murder — and cases that made international headlines or touched our hearts or changed the way we cared for each other. These stories intrigue me and, together, they add interesting threads to the picture of Charlotte.

Did true crime ever play a part in your novels?

In pieces, yes. When I started writing mystery novels, I wanted the details to be as authentic as possible, so I began seeking out forensics experts, lawyers and law-enforcement [officers]; studying court cases; and keeping up with the science. Eventually, I found real-life stories more compelling and [more] unexpected as anything I could make up.

True crime is an immensely popular genre, including podcasts, TV shows and documentaries on the subject. Why do you think it attracts us?

I’m not attracted to gruesomeness or gore. I’m interested in stories that explore what we share. I’ve thought about this fascination a lot. First, with both true crime and mystery fiction, we love to solve puzzles — and real-life puzzles can be more interesting than made-up ones. We’re also fascinated by inside glimpses into worlds we don’t know, and we’re curious about how other people experience extremes in their lives.

You spent much of your career as a professor at McColl School of Business at Queens University. Do you teach now?

Yes, I’m lucky enough to be both a faculty member and a student at Charlotte Lit, a terrific resource in Charlotte for both beginning and seasoned writers. In addition to a full catalogue of courses, Charlotte Lit’s Authors Lab is a yearlong series of classes and coaching support for those working on a book.

How have you used your talent and experience to help others?

In an unexpected collision of my life as a business professor and my life as a writer, with a group of MBA students we created an entrepreneurship curriculum for the Mecklenburg County Jail under former Sheriff Chipp Bailey. Later, we began working with re-entry clients through the Center for Community Transitions and Goodwill. I also offered a creative writing class in the jail and still work with a couple of guys who’ve gone on to prison and now offer a creativity class at Dove’s Nest in Charlotte. In all this, the theme is story — and helping others tell their stories.

What other projects are you working on?

I’m working now on another book for History Press on eastern North Carolina true crime stories, with plans to explore the rest of the state. Also, CREATE!, a book on developing your own creative process, is due out next year.

Pickens’ latest book, Charlotte True Crime Stories: Notorious Cases from Fraud to Serial Killing, is available at Amazon.com and through select booksellers.   SP

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