Just a few years ago, C.J. Lyons was an aspiring author on Hilton Head Island. She'd attend the University of South Carolina Beaufort's Lunch With Author Series to collect wisdom from the nationally known writers who'd come to speak.
Now, she'll be on the other side of the podium.
Lyons will be the featured guest at the Lunch With Author Series Wednesday at Sea Pines Country Club.
Success has come quickly in recent years for the writer of "thrillers with heart." Just this year she's published two novels with environmental crusader Erin Brockovich and had a book hit No. 2 on a New York Times best-sellers chart. All this is coming about four years after she published her first novel.
Her journey into the publishing world seems sudden, but it was only after decades of experience that it was able to happen.
Lyons incorporates experiences from her pre-novelist life in pediatric emergency medicine into many of her books. She grew up with her nose in a book, she said, eventually turning to write stories of her own as a hobby. A native of Rust Belt Pennsylvania, Lyons trained to go into medicine, returning to Pittsburgh for her pediatric residency at a children's hospital.
There, one of her fellow interns was murdered. Like usual, she turned to writing to sort through her emotions. But this time, she delved into crime fiction. She avoided stories that dwelled too much on the procedure of solving crime. She wanted to tell how crime affects people, hence, "thrillers with heart."
She continued to write while working and training in the ER. She worked with police on child abuse and homicide cases and served as a victim's advocate and crisis counselor. Eventually, she worked up the courage to enter her writing into national contests. She won several prizes, and professional authors started to encourage her to publish.
Her debut novel, "Lifelines," came out in 2008, the start of the four-installment Angels of Mercy series focusing on four women in a hospital and trauma center. Culling from past writing, she's published at a fanatic pace: the two-part Hart and Drake series, the two-part Shadow Ops series, three stand-alone thrillers and two co-written with Brockovich.
The environmental crusader had read her Angels of Mercy series when she contacted her about a potential collaboration. Lyons "squealed with delight" when she heard Brockovich was interested in working with her. She called to chat and by the end of the conversation they were finishing each other's sentences.
Their first novel, "Rock Bottom," put the heroine in the middle of a debate over mountaintop mining, a hot issue in coal country. The next book, "Hot Water," focused on nuclear power in a fictional town just south of Beaufort.
She never met Brockovich in person. Her co-author was too busy traveling the world. Instead, they'd exchange emails and calls to hash out plot points and characters. In the meantime, Lyons, knowing little about coal mining or nuclear power, was studying up, reading books and scouring government documents, even consulting with professionals in the field to get the most realistic drama they could.
"We needed some perspective so we could avoid the cliche of the evil, faceless corporation," she said. "We wanted it to be real."
All the while, she was busy promoting her other work. Her thriller, "Blind Faith," jumped to No. 2 on New York Times combined print and ebook fiction list once she reduced the price to 99 cents online. She'd experimented with discounting her books before on Amazon as a means to build an audience.
"I sent out an email (to her fan base) and said, 'Help me make a dream come true and get this into the top 20 of the New York Times best-seller list,'" she said. "All I can say is that my readers rock."
Minotaur Books, an imprint of mega-publisher St. Martin's Press, picked up "Blind Faith" and spun it into a series. Look for installments in January and June 2013.
Lyons spends most of her days writing now. She spits out 2,000 word chunks before going out for a morning workout. It's nothing new; she's always written obsessively. This time, she's making a living at it.
"As my mother would say, it keeps me out of trouble," she said.