Prompt to Page

On this episode, we talk to Tracee de Hahn, author of the Agnes Luthi mystery series and coordinator of the Carnegie Center's Author Academy

Tracee prefers "to think of a prompt as a possibility, but not necessarily a necessity." She's partial to the origin story as a writing prompt because it helps her understand the characters and places she's writing about. Listen to find out how to enrich your own writing with this prompt!

About Tracee de Hahn

Tracee de Hahn is the author of mysteries published by Minotaur books as well as non-fiction books for young adults which delve into historical events.  

She is national vice president of Sisters in Crime, an organization founded over 35 years ago to promote the ongoing advancement, recognition, and professional development of women crime writers. In addition, she speaks about Layered Career Paths to groups across the country. 

She is currently Coordinator of the Carnegie Center Author Academy, where she has served for several years as a mentor.

What is Prompt to Page?

A JCPL librarian interviews published writers about their favorite writing prompts—exercises that can help inspire, focus, and improve your creative writing. Whether you’re a beginner or a pro, a novelist, essayist, or poet, you’ll find ideas and advice to motivate you to keep writing. A partnership with the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.

PtoP Ep 29 de Hahn edit 1

Carrie: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Prompt to Page podcast, a partnership between the Jessamine County Public Library and the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. I'm your host, librarian and poet, Carrie Green. Each episode, we interview a published writer who shares their favorite writing prompt. Our guest today is Tracee de Hahn.

Tracee de Hahn is the author of mysteries published by Minotaur Books, as well as nonfiction books for young adults, which delve into historical events. She is National Vice President of Sisters in Crime, an organization founded over 35 years ago to promote the ongoing advancement, recognition, and professional development of women crime writers.

In addition, she speaks about layered career paths to groups across the country. She is currently coordinator of the Carnegie Center Author Academy, where she has served for several years as a mentor. And [00:01:00] welcome, Tracee. Thanks for joining us.

Tracee: Well, thank you for inviting me. It's a pleasure to be here.

Carrie: So congratulations on being named the new author , coordinator for the Author Academy.

And can you tell us a little bit about that program and your role in it?

Tracee: Yes, well, it's a delight to join the program. We celebrated our 10th year, so that's quite an accomplishment. And really, the goal is to provide a place where anyone can say, this is the year I want to become a little bit more serious about becoming a professional author, and by that we mean someone who wants to be published.

We're open to really all ages. It's geared toward, let's say adults, those maybe 18 and older. We have students who join us who are actually in the English program at the University of Kentucky. So are pursuing an English major concurrently. We have , people who are retired. We have people who have published, but want to get back into it.

And , I think we provide a nice opportunity to give people a boost toward the next step in their career. [00:02:00]

Carrie: And, and that is open to writers of all genres.

Tracee: It is. We pride ourselves on being what we call self directed, meaning that you can enter at really any point in your career. You can choose the project of your choice.

You could be writing a children's picture book. You could be writing for young adults. It could be writing mysteries or memoir. Nonfiction. We have we have people representing really the broadest swath of writing projects.

Carrie: So just to talk a little bit about your writing and your writing process before we get to your prompt.

I read, I think in an interview that you and your father actually exchanged work for a long time, or maybe you still do. So I'm just curious what that has been like.

Tracee: Well, I think that most writers , come to writing as a reader. We, we love reading. Most of all, we got started early, probably as a reader.

There's maybe a type of reading we enjoyed. So I was a huge reader. My dad was a physician and then he was at a [00:03:00] point in his career, he was an emergency room physician. I think he felt for the first time that he had actual hours off because before that, there was like no free time. And he had an idea for a book.

And I was still in college and he's like, you know, I have this idea. Do you want to work on it together? And I joke that of course I said yes. I mean, he was supporting, you know, supporting my college education. I'm like, but it was funny because I was pursuing a degree in architecture and I think in the back of my mind, I thought, oh, gosh, I'd love to write, but I,

that didn't seem like the professional path. And so, you know, architecture is like a professional thing. And so I said, yes, I'd love to do this. But we didn't know how to start. Of course, this is pre internet. And so we're like, okay, you know, what, this is the idea for a book. It was a thriller. What are other thrillers like?

And of course we had to do the research at the library. So we really educated ourselves about writing. And it was a great process. And, and it really got me [00:04:00] inspired to become an actual writer.

Carrie: And you mentioned your architecture degree, has that informed your work as well?

Tracee: Yes, absolutely. And I should add that my father as kind of a partner in, in that early writing, he then also understood what, as I continued professionally as a writer, what what you need in a critique partner. So I would send things to him when I began working on other books and he would always start off with something nice.

You know, I can tell you've worked hard on this. And then he would dive right into, you know, the red pen because he knew that that's what I needed, that you want to hear encouragement. You want to hear that you've been working hard, but then you need to hear the real criticism. Because the book eventually will be open to the broader public.

And so you need to hear that from those you trust, those that you know really only have your best interests at heart. So that was an important part of that early relationship.

Carrie: Sure.

Tracee: Architecture has played a role for me in two major ways. [00:05:00] When you're in architecture school, you present all of your work in public.

You, you have to pin this project on a wall. Anybody can walk by and see it. Anybody can comment on it. So you get used to understanding that criticism is about making you better, about making the project better. I think you, you learn how to absorb any negativity and say, what do they really mean? Why didn't they respond to this?

How can I, you know, address that. It's not a we're stopping you forever. It's an opportunity to do what you want to do better. So that was important for me as a writer when you get feedback from critique groups or from your editor at the publishing house, or of course from reviewers. The second part of architecture is that all of my books are deeply rooted in a place, in a sense of place, and maybe that comes from my degree in architecture, my interest in a sense of place.

And it's certainly, and I've been told this by other people, I may not be conscious of it myself, it um, makes me [00:06:00] very interested in bringing that to the actual writing of the book, sense of description.

Carrie: Yeah, and probably the fact that you have that background in a previous career it probably is really important for those who are joining the Author Academy and are coming from a similar background.

I mean, not necessarily the same career, but, you know, doing something else before writing.

Tracee: Yeah, and I think, I think you're right that , as I coach students both in the Author Academy and outside, you always want to say, where is the person coming to this new profession of writing from? What is their experience?

Sometimes it may literally translate, you know, I want to write a memoir, so obviously about yourself. I want to write children's books, and I'm a kindergarten teacher. But often people are really inspired by what they have done and even if they're walking away from it. I loved architecture. I wasn't literally walking away from it in a bad sense.

I was changing, but you might have a career that, that was, you know, incredibly disappointing to you. You're still [00:07:00] going to be informed by that and it's about translating it into this new medium, the written page. It's interesting that you bring up the inspiration of a career and of course, we're going to talk about writing prompts.

And I think those are two very interesting parallel, but sometimes different ideas. So I'm very inspired by, let's say, architecture and a sense of place and both the physical place and then also how physical place forms us as people, our emotional interior. But then again, my prompts as a, as a specific prompt are never part of that.

So the story inspiration is very different from the writing device that we use, the prompt that we use to help us do that day's writing.

Carrie: Mm hmm. So do you want to talk a little bit more about how you use prompts then?

Tracee: Love to love to, you know, we, and so to kind of relate this to the Author Academy, when you're, when you're paired with a mentor at the author academy, all of [00:08:00] the students move through the seminars together and they get to see the kind of broad expanse of whether we're talking about character or story or query letters, they get to participate in all of that.

And then they work individually with a mentor. Who then sets up a program kind of independently. What are we going to work on? What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? What do you want to dive deeply into? So one of the things that happens there is that you're working on a project. You may be someone who works from prompts.

You may be someone who needs a specific starting point to continue your writing because that's part of your early process. You may be someone who says, look, I just need to work on character development or whatever. So I like to think of a prompt as a possibility, but not necessarily a necessity. I'm not someone who in my own writing

uses prompts continually. I know, I know there are people who say, you know, I always, you know, I have a list of prompts that I use and I really [00:09:00] rely on those. Mm hmm. In my own writing, I love the origin story as a prompt. That is my go to prompt and I think that it works because it can become part of an actual manuscript, but it also for me is essential to understanding What happened before the story?

What informed a character? So when I'm thinking about the origin story as a prompt, I bring this up with writers all of the time. They're putting too much backstory in, for example. I'm like, that's origin story. Maybe it needs to go somewhere else. We don't need to know everything all at once. And I think also for me, writing is about specificity and I'll give, um, you know, kind of a bad impromptu example.

You might say you're afraid of the dark. The character is afraid of the dark. And I might think, Oh, that resonates with me. I'm, I'm, you know, I'm afraid when you read, you want to resonate with a character. So you as an author, you know, Nancy is afraid of the dark and I think, Oh yeah, me [00:10:00] too. And then at some point as a reader, I think, well, wait a minute.

Okay. Nancy is afraid of the dark and that she has little lights you know everywhere in her house that come on automatically at night, and I think no Nancy is afraid she'll fall down the stairs Maybe she had a great aunt who fell down the stairs and broke her leg and didn't really get to walk as well anymore And you think yeah, I'm afraid of the dark.

I want to keep some illumination around. Okay, that's Nancy's fear of the dark someone else might say No I'm afraid of the dark because I was locked in a basement as a child for two weeks by a madman and barely escaped with my life and now I sleep with the lights on I'm like, okay That is different. So when we're writing, especially a character, and we're saying things about the character, they are afraid of the dark, or, you know, they're consumed with thoughts about their appearance.

Really what do you mean? What is the specificity about that? Because I might think that they're concerned with [00:11:00] thoughts about their appearance, meaning they want to present well. They want to seem professional. They want to make sure their hair is brushed. The character may have a much deeper, much more important visceral feeling about that.

So for me, the prompt is write the origin story. Write the story that tells us why are they afraid of the dark? Let us see them. It may be a paragraph. It may be two pages. It's raw. It doesn't have to be polished, but it's the story that as a writer, you say, now, I understand when I say that what they what I really mean and what the character really means.

So I think it just forms better writing overall.

Carrie: And so then your details are going to refer back in some way, often to that origin story, whether or not that piece of writing makes it into what you're working on.

Tracee: Exactly. I think it just gives us the best clarity for what we're writing. So if I, if I have [00:12:00] a component of a character, what's the origin story that makes it part of their, the sheet that you say, what is my character about?

And, and like you say, it could come in later. It could come in as a memory, and it might just be two lines in the book, but it's a very specific memory, because I know what that memory is now, that, that fixed memory. It might come in as a flashback. It might be something you say, no, the, the reader needs to experience this.

And, and now I can put it in, and then you can really work on it and polish it and do all that. But I think the specificity, um, I, I, I think that all things are possible for writers. No one, I, I don't want anyone to ever say, no, you can't write like that. You can't do that kind of method of writing. A lot of people are advised to, to create a sheet.

What is your character list? You know, who are they? What's their birthday? What's their favorite ice cream? What's their favorite whatever? I don't really do that because I feel, you know, what do I care what their favorite ice cream is, unless ice cream matters in this book. And that gets also into, you know, how much do you [00:13:00] put in?

You only put in what the reader needs to know at that moment. So I find the origin story important because if I think, no, they are afraid of the dark in this book and it's going to matter in this book, I want to be really specific about that. I'd rather dive into specificity. So if I write on there, their favorite color is blue.

Why is their favorite color blue? There's going to be an origin story about that so that when it is meaningful in the book, even if, even if the reader never knows the full origin story, I know why that matters. So I would rather spend my time on that prompt of what's the origin story of this than on just kind of a laundry list of things.

And again, the origin story prompt either informs you as the writer gives you that specificity and then maybe comes in as a memory. Or a flashback, which is a little bonus.

Carrie: Yeah. And I would just say that I have actually written origin story poems as well. So I think that, for you poets out there, I [00:14:00] think that is a prompt that could translate to you as well.


Tracee: glad to hear you say that, because I do feel that as writers, if we can. Dabble our toe in the waters of poetry some to, to really think about language in a different way. It benefits. So I'm happy to hear that as a poet, you can dabble the other way and think about maybe the origin story during a crossover.

Carrie: Right. So is that, that's the prompt that, that you,

Tracee: that is the prompt.

Carrie: Okay. We just went so smoothly into it, but I just wanted to make sure

Tracee: Yeah. I think the prompt for me, an excellent prompt is what is the origin story of a character or of an event? Or of a scene that you're working on and perhaps struggling with, or you just want to have more insight into before you continue.

Origin stories are a great way to take a moment to take a pause from your writing perhaps. You could take a pause from the planning of a novel. You could take a pause from just your day to day writing and say, what is the [00:15:00] origin of that love or fear? or desire or interest. It can be anything that is important to your character.

Write that origin story and then it can be to leap back into your writing. Sometimes we need a little, kind of a springboard into the day's writing and you can say, I'm just going to write an origin story about that. I don't have to worry about how it fits into the overall book other than it is a specific detail of my character.

You could write an origin story about a place. If you have selected the site of your story, maybe it's a farmhouse. And you say, you know, what's the origin story of the farmhouse might not even have to specifically relate to the story. Maybe it's the farmhouse that the family lives in because they're farmers and that's all you have.

You say, but what's the origin story of the farmhouse? And you might say, Oh, well, it was built by the family, but it was three generations ago and that the farmhouse burned and was rebuilt. You may never use that, but there's specificity. And even [00:16:00] that paragraph that you wrote that might come in, who knows?

Maybe it's a conversation between the characters and one of them says something. And, and it's a memory that yes, the farmhouse burned and was rebuilt and, and that can add a layer to your story. But it's, it's that origin story that gives you that layering, I think.

Carrie: And I love how you brought us back to architecture there with your, with your example.

Tracee: It's funny. That is like writing theme in a book. It's the thing that's always there, even if you don't plan for it to be there. And a lot of people, I find students especially get very consumed with the idea of a theme, especially if they are thinking, I want to write an elevated level of fiction. I do want to call it literary fiction, but what are my themes?

In any genre, there are themes. I've heard I have to have themes. I want to put themes in. Say no, write the book. Write the plot. And even, quote, literary fiction has a plot. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. We are going somewhere on the journey as a reader. [00:17:00] So write that arc. Write that story. And then in the end, you're going to say, you read it and you say, wow, I didn't notice that, you know, the jewelry that the family wore was in every scene.

There's a theme there. Are they holding on to relics of the past? What is that theme that I didn't realize I was putting in? How do I get rid of it if it's, if it's not working? You know, it's like, whoops, that's my own interest. I got to get rid of the jewelry or how do I tie it together and strengthen it?

And maybe it's, it's one necklace that all the women are wearing and it's multi generational and it's tied them together. And for me, it will always be architecture. And so I do, I, you know, but I don't necessarily plan it. And so you go back and you make those decisions and you see your own interests come through in the writing.

Carrie: Right. Right. Well, do you have any final tips that you'd like to give our listeners?

Tracee: Um, yes, make a commitment, make a commitment to yourself. And it doesn't have to [00:18:00] be a prescribed commitment to writing that you hear out there in the world. We always joke about the thousand words a day, or you have to write every day.

Don't listen to that. Only listen if that sounds like something that you say, yes, that's the commitment I want to do. Making a commitment to writing is very personal. The journey of writing is very personal. You will need exterior help. You have to have help. You need writing friends. You'll need a writing group.

This is essential for any writer at any level of work. You need external critics, external support. The Carnegie Center, for example, is a great place. They have, you know, writing critique groups that, that meet. You could find your own writing critique group. They need to be people, it could be people of different levels.

You have to have some aspirational people, right? You want to have some people to learn from, and they're, of course, going to, in turn, learn from you. The Author Academy might be something that you look into. We do provide a level of support for that year that you want to make that commitment. And so the bottom line is make the commitment to yourself, [00:19:00] really take yourself seriously and say, I want to do this and try to get that support that helps you along that journey.

Carrie: Well, great. Thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it.

Tracee: I'm going to add a final tip. Keep reading. The biggest tip you got to keep reading any writer. And, and read widely because you're going to learn by hearing external voices. For example, you say, I want to write mysteries. Well, read, read romance, read, you know, fantasy fiction, read poetry, because we're going to learn from all of that.

And then of course, read deeply and widely in the genre that you want to write in, because you do want to know what the voices are saying now. And you want to tune yourself into what that language sounds like, not to imitate, but to be part of the conversation.

Carrie: Right.

Tracee: And it's been a pleasure to join you.

so much for having me. It's been great to talk to you and to talk about writing.

Carrie: Excellent. Well, we really appreciate it. Thank you.[00:20:00]

Thank you for listening to Prompt to Page. To learn more about the Jessamine County Public Library, visit Find the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning at carnegiecenterlex. org. Our music is by Archipelago, an all instrumental musical collaboration between three Lexington based university professors.

Find out more about Archipelago Songs from Quarantine Volumes 1 and 2 at the links on our podcast website.