Cindy Callaghan is both a writer and business professional.
Her writing niche is ‘tween girls. Few other writers today match Cindy’s prowess in this genre. “I just ‘get’ them,” she says. “Somewhere inside me, I think maybe I still am one.”
Her books: Just Add Magic (2010), Lost in London (2013), Lucky Me (2014)/Lost in Ireland (2016), Lost in Paris (2015), Lost in Rome (2015), Lost In Hollywood (2016), Sydney MacKenzie Knocks ‘Em Dead (2017), Just Add Magic: Potion Problems (2018) and Saltwater Summers (2019) magically capture the tween voice and experience.
Cindy’s first book, the much-loved Just Add Magic, is now a breakout Amazon Original live-action series.
When asked what it is about her books that tweens love, she chuckles and says, “The funny! Without a doubt, it’s the funny situations, characters and dialogue. A few milkshakes and farts don’t hurt either.”
Her writing peers constantly note that Cindy is incredibly prolific. In addition to her publications, Cindy’s writing pipeline is robust, and her idea notebook overflowing with “more ideas than I could ever write in a lifetime.”
In addition to writing, Cindy’s passions include animal advocacy, running, movie-going, reading, podcasts, wine and girlfriends, all of which take a backseat to her three children, husband and menagerie of rescued-pets.
Cindy holds an MA and MBA, and has over twenty years of business experience. The Delawarian (by way of Los Angeles (USC)) is a Jersey girl at heart. She lives in Wilmington, and escapes to her PA mountain retreat whenever time will allow.
Q&A with Cindy
When and how did you become a writer?
I’ve been writing forever. In third grade I wrote my first play. I was always into short stories, scenes and characters, and of course, lots of melodramatic poetry. Then, I put creative writing aside for college, grad school, early career days of clawing my way to the glass ceiling, and starting a family. About twelve years ago I saw an ad for a writing class. It was always something that I wanted to get back into, so I took it, and the rest is history. That catapulted me into my first novel, a fabulous suspense thriller for adults, which I continue to work on to this day. The class became a critique group and one novel became another and another, and finally to KELLY QUINN’S SECRET COOKING CLUB, which is the original title for JUST ADD MAGIC.
How did you come up with the idea for Just Add Magic?
My daughter and two of her kooky friends cooking in my kitchen one day was the inspiration for a “cooking club.” Then, my wheels got spinning, and I thought about a “secret cooking club.” Why is it secret? And then I became obsessed with the notion of “Kelly Quinn’s Secret Cooking Club”. I surrounded her with different friends, the mean girl next door, put her on a soccer team, and introduced the Rusamano boys. I developed her home town of Wilmington, giving it an ice cream place, a coffee shop and a creepy Mexican cooking store with a story all it’s own.
Throughout the course of the story, the girls need to discover the origins of the mysterious book and learn about its authors.
I wrote furiously for weeks until a very rough draft was done. Then, I edited for years.
How did Just Add Magic become an Amazon original TV series?
My book JUST ADD MAGIC landed me a literary agent and my first publishing contract. Shortly after the book’s release, due to a strange turn of events, JUST ADD MAGIC was unrepresented, meaning that all the rights reverted to me. Now, you have to understand that I don’t know what to do with a book’s rights, but I had a clear vision of what Kelly Quinn and her friends’ secret cooking club could be. I could see the scenes clearly in my head. I was pretty sure I’d be the first author to host SNL (and Mark Wahlberg would make a surprise appearance, but that’s a story for another day). My point is that I continued to believe that JUST ADD MAGIC had more in its future – the screen.
Enter: College Roommate. Like everyone, I Friended my freshman college roommate on Facebook. We’d gone to the University of Southern California to be film writers, but…yadda yadda…I got an MBA and have worked for twenty years in pharmaceuticals, but she stayed in LA and wrote for animation for years. With an eye toward a career change she’d moved back East, not far from me. So, we lunched. I shared my sitch and she said, “Talk to my agent and see if she has some advice for Just Add Magic.” I sent her agent a copy of the book.
One day I got a call from California: “I’d love to represent it.” I could tell immediately that this agent, Donna Felten at Natural Talent, believed in the project. The more we spoke, I felt that she believed in ME.
She submitted JUST ADD MAGIC to studios.
I was at the International Thriller Writers meeting in New York City. (Michael Connelly was a speaker, which is kind of ironic because I love Connelly books, and soon after he announced that he was developing the Bosch series with Amazon). In the evening, I attended a session called “Book to TV,” (hello, Irony, again) when my cellphone rang again from California. (FYI, ALWAYS take a call from California.) My film agent said, “Amazon wants to option it!”
So, I totally freaked out. Totally. My agent and I had agreed that given the future of streaming and my target audience age, that Amazon was an ideal studio.
Drafts were written and sent up the Amazon ladder waiting for the green light. One night I was at the local coffee joint debating semi-colons with my writing group when a call came in from you-know-where. They said, “Can you come to L.A.? We’re moving ahead.”
Everyone at the coffee joint got to see my happy dance. (Poor folks).
Fast-forward more months.
The pilot was tested and got the green light to move ahead to a series.
Now that you have been exposed to the screen first hand, has your approach to writing changed?
I’ve always thought of my work visually, but this underscores the importance of getting to the action quickly. Movies don’t have fluff and usually no interior thought. We see so much in terms of action. It’s also helped sharpen my dialogue.
Do you think you will write more about the characters in Just Add Magic?
JUST ADD MAGIC was written to be the first of a trilogy. You’ll note there are loose ends that aren’t tied up at the end of book. For example, you don’t know the full history of the cookbook, its authors, and there is a lot more to Kelly Quinn’s backstory that readers have yet to learn. I hope that the launch of the TV series may ignite interest in Books 2 and 3, in which case, I’d be excited to write them.
Tell me about your Lost In books, especially the settings?
My “lost in” books all have different characters, but they all have a city/country mouse theme. The countryside is in Wilmington, Delaware, where I live, or locales nearby. For the city side, I select locations that I think will make middle-grade girls “spark.” They’re interested in big, glam, European cities! When I begin my research into specific sites within each city, I investigate many more than I actually use. I map them out geographically and see how they might play a role into the story. It’s a very fun selection process, which unfortunately leaves a lot of material on the cutting room floor.
Do you write with the specific mission in mind?
I try to write books that girls will want to read. In a nutshell, that’s my purpose. I’m not on a mission to win writing awards or to be in a literary hall of fame. That’s not my gig.
I think girls like to read page-turners with mystery and intrigue and relatable characters. The setting is super important, as you can see from the amazing popularity of the Lost In books. And, I add humor. It’s worth restating: I want girls to want to read.
Were you the type of kid to stay up all night reading?
Here’s a confession for you: I was not a reader as a kid, as a teen, or young adult. I consider myself a “reluctant reader.”
At about 26 years old I was roommate-less for the first time. And I was finishing my MBA, and I’d done extensive textbook reading, as well as trade magazines, newspapers, and stuff like The Economist…not for enjoyment.
One day, I can’t remember the circumstances, I found myself in Borders flipping book jackets. There was a new release called THE POET. The cover looked good. I’d never heard of the author, but I’d never heard of any mainstream authors.
I bought it, and read it…the WHOLE book…cover to cover. I loved it so much that I went back and spent my precious waitressing dollars on everything else written by that author, and I built a relationship with his main character, Detective Harry Bosch, and followed him from case to case. I quickly branched into The Firm (Grisham), Disclosure (Crichton), The Body Farm (Cornwell), Orchid Beach (Woods). I loved them too.
So the mountain on my nightstand grew with every book those authors wrote. I became a real mystery lover…still am, but I’ve diversified. I read and/or listen to twenty-thirty books per year. And the more I read, the more my left-brain re-awakened and wanted to write again.
It all comes back to Connelly’s THE POET. It convinced me that I could enjoy reading a book. And, interestingly, Connelly and I are now Amazon Studio siblings, making us kind of related, only he doesn’t know it.
Do you have a set writing schedule or a self-imposed daily word count?
Not really, except that I almost always write very early on Saturday and Sunday mornings when the world is very quiet. My mind is sharp and there is no place else that I need to or should be. Stores aren’t even open! And my kids are asleep. There are no emails or texts coming in and very little distraction.
Do you belong to any critique or writing groups?
I belong to two writing groups, both of which are fab. One I have been meeting with for eleven years! As you can imagine, it’s become more than a writing critique group. I share everything from initial ideas to chapters to entire manuscripts with them. Their feedback is invaluable and an important part of my writing process. I can’t imagine writing without constant feedback.
What would you call your greatest skill as a writer? And what advice would you give to new writers?
My biggest skill is my “drive,’ if you can call that a skill. It’s the will to persevere. I want this and I’m willing to work very very hard to make it happen. I wasn’t a great writer when I started, and I’m still not, but like muscles, the skill gets stronger with practice. I think I’m a better writer than I was ten years ago, and I get better with every project. So, that’s the skill I would tell beginning writers they need –fire in your belly. Everything else will follow.
Do you write in other genres besides middle-grade?
I also write YA and adult thriller. I dream to write the next really big thriller that creates a swell of hype, like The Firm when it came out. Remember that? And then I dream that it would be made into a big screen movie, which I’m asked not only to produce, but be in. I don’t necessarily need to be the star, but I would likely play opposite Christopher Meloni. I imagine I would be a cop, detective, secret agent or something of that ilk. And scenes would be filmed in my hometown and all my friends could be extras. We would have a huge party with the whole town and the movie stars. Then, I’d be asked to host SNL when Justin Timberlake is the musical guest and Mark Wahlberg does one of those surprise pop-in visits. What? It could happen.
What’s on the horizon for you?
I’m always working on stuff. I work on several projects simultaneously. I have a few TV/Film irons in the fire, Lost In Ireland comes out in March, and Lost in Hollywood comes out this fall. In 2017, readers will be wow-ed by Sydney MacKenzie when her first story Sydney MacKenzie Knocks ‘Em Dead debuts.
I probably have eight drafts or partial novels in my trunk right now, and every week something gets added to my idea Notebook. I hope to release more publication news later this year.