When Kat Falls first imagined her best-selling middle-grade novel, "Dark Life," she was a busy stay-at-home mom of three, dashing from activity to activity and setting a 15-minute timer to ensure she got some writing in each day.
After taking about a decade off from writing full time, Falls dipped her toes back in the literary waters in 2007 by assigning herself journal exercises. On the day the idea for "Dark Life" surfaced, her drill was to combine two of her oldest son's interests — pioneers and the ocean — into one science fiction story.
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"I wrote with Declan in mind," Falls said of her son, who's now 17. "Every move, I was thinking, 'Would Declan think that is cool? Would he keep reading?'"
The manuscript for "Dark Life," about a boy who protects his underwater homestead, was purchased by Scholastic in just days. Since then, Falls' writing has grown with her children, who also include Vivienne, 14; and Connor, 12.
Her latest book, "Inhuman," also published by Scholastic, is a scarier, more verbose young adult novel, and it features a bit more sexual tension than "Dark Life" and its sequel, "Rip Tide."
"Inhuman," the first in a planned trilogy, takes place in the near future after a virus turns a portion of the population into "manimals," half-human, half-animal hybrids who eventually lose their minds and turn feral. To protect the uninfected, a giant wall was erected down the center of the country; humans live in the West, while the East — aka the Savage Zone — is populated with "manimals." Crossing the wall is forbidden, but when 16-year-old Lane discovers her father's life depends on retrieving artifacts from the East, she has no choice but to navigate her way through the Savage Zone.
As with most of Falls' work, "Inhuman" is action-packed. Falls, an Evanston resident who holds a master's degree in screenwriting from Northwestern University, writes in a visual fashion, propelling the story forward through vivid descriptions of Lane's risky encounters.
"I like action-driven stories," said Falls, whose husband, Robert Falls, is artistic director of the Goodman Theatre. "I want dangerous new worlds that are testing the characters' ability right to the edge."
Fellow writer M. Molly Backes said she admires Falls' cinematic way of writing. Backes, author of "The Princesses of Iowa," is in a writing group with Falls.
"Her stories have these really great, strong visuals and strong plots and great action scenes and snappy dialogue, basically everything you would expect from a really great action movie," Backes said.
While action is a mark of Falls' work, it's never at the expense of deep and relatable characters, said Nicholas Eliopulos, Falls' editor at Scholastic. "She never loses sight of the characters at the heart of those plots and the characters who are experiencing that action," he said.
A humanities-focused graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a technical college, Falls credits the classes she took there as well as growing up with a scientist dad for turning her into a science geek. She prides herself on grounding her stories in scientific reality. While the idea of humans mutating into animals is far-fetched, the process of transferring DNA between bacterium is widely studied, and diseases have long been known to cause physical mutations.
"When I come up with a science fiction premise, I have to have it based somewhat on what is possible as opposed to fantasy, which is impossible," Falls said.
Falls is about halfway through writing the sequel to "Inhuman." She still regularly uses her kids to gauge her writing.
"When I finish reading the chapter, if they hop right up and are on to the next thing, I don't even think that is good," she said. "I need it to be that they need more. I want them to whine when I stop reading and say, 'Ohhhh, just read another couple pages.'"
It may be the only time whining is acceptable in the Falls household.
Courtney Crowder covers the Chicago literary scene for Printers Row Journal.
By Kat Falls, Scholastic, 384 pages, 12 and older, $17.99