Tami Hoag has murdered more people than most serial killers.
The Wellington resident has killed at least two dozen in gruesome and violent ways since the 1990s, when she switched from writing romance novels to penning dark crime mysteries that often explore a killer’s twisted mind.
Is it any wonder some people are scared of her?
“They usually are at first,” said Hoag, “but later they’re surprised and say, ‘But you seem so nice.’ They don’t know what to think when they find out I could knock them out with a single punch and can talk about serial killers all day long.”
Hoag can certainly throw a punch, both literally (she’s a devotee of mixed martial arts) and on the page as the writer of female-centric crime dramas full of creepy killers, psychopaths and baddies of all stripes.
“I can’t read her books at night any more,” says Hoag’s friend Susan Rubin, a Wellington interior decorator and Hoag’s concert-going buddy.
“My brain is a frightening place to be,” Hoag acknowledges with a smile, “but it’s even scarier for my friends who say, ‘My God, she had that in her head?’”
Hoag, 55, spoke while sitting on a shady bench at White Fences, the Loxahatchee equestrian center devoted to dressage, the balletic equestrian sport, in which she is an accomplished rider. She keeps her two horses there in a bougainvillea-draped barn that would be at home in Tuscany.
She wears a black shirt and low motorcycle boots, her dark hair in a short, choppy cut. She’d be intimidating if not for her easy grin and straightforward Midwestern manner.
Under her right forearm is a large tattoo, that reads, in romantic, old-fashioned script: “Words are my life.”
Hoag, who’s been visiting Wellington since the 1990s and has been a full-time resident for five years, is doing publicity for her latest book, “Cold Cold Heart.” It’s her 34th novel. Fifteen of them have made it to the New York Times’ Bestsellers List. Her publicist says more than 40 million copies of her books are in print in more than 30 languages.
Not bad for a small-town Minnesota girl who never had the chance to go to college.
Her new book is a follow-up to 2014’s “The 9th Girl” in which a Midwest television reporter is abducted and nearly killed while investigating a serial murderer. In the newest book, the heroine is trying to recover from her attack despite a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath of the crime.
“I’m always fascinated by people who survive extraordinary circumstances,” said Hoag. “Every book I write is about the psychology of the characters. What is it about that person that allowed her to survive? It means I have to live inside peoples’ heads while I’m writing.”
In books full of forensic procedures and police crime-solving techniques, Hoag works obsessively to get the details right. For “Cold Cold Heart,” she spent months researching the “invisible injuries” of TBIs and PTSD, particularly the erratic manner brains and emotions heal after trauma. Her insistence on writing from inside the mind of someone with a brain injury meant she delivered this book six months late.
“It was the hardest book I’ve ever written,” she said.
“Her research is impeccable,” says Eileen Dreyer, a St. Louis writer and former trauma nurse who started out in the romance genre with Hoag in the 1980s. Hoag, Dreyer and two other women are members of the Divas, a posse of mutually-supportive female writers who switched from writing romance to suspense at about the same time.
“Tami will leave a message on my answer machine saying, ‘I want to kill somebody with a shotgun. Can I still get a blood alcohol reading after death?’” said Dreyer. “I hope the NSA has a sense of humor.”
Writers tend to be loners by definition and Hoag is no exception. Even her pastimes, dressage and MMA, are solitary sports, which test the individual against herself.
“I’m very unto myself. I spent a lot of time by myself as a child and I still need that,” she said.
Divorced, she laughs about her stock in the dating world.
“I’m a hard sell. The average guy is intimidated by me. I disappear in my office for five or six months writing about grisly murders, or I’m spending hours riding by myself or I’m learning how to fight.”
A rider since her childhood, Hoag loves the precise technicalities of dressage riding, in which tiny, articulated movements of a horse and rider build to a bravura move, such as a pirouette.
A few years ago, she was hoping to make a run at a spot on the U.S. Equestrian team when a horrible accident claimed her primary horse. The mare was walking on a treadmill at a New Jersey rehabilitation center when the machine malfunctioned, breaking her horse’s back.
Last year, Hoag’s own back and knee injuries — as well as her frustration in finishing “Cold Cold Heart” — kept her from competing. This season, she hopes to carve out enough time from working on her next novel to train for next year’s competitions. She says she’s itching to start working again with Bacchus, her affectionate 20-year-old Swedish Warmblood and Lone Star, her big 16-year-old Hanoverian.
“I love the minutiae of it,” she said. “The partnership with the horse is like the partnership I have with my characters.”
Except that she has a strategy when riding. When she begins a book, Hoag says she has no idea how it’s going to end.
“The characters have their own ideas of who they are and what they’re going to do,” she explained. “Once, I had a character I thought had a brain tumor, but it turns out he’d been shot in the head. I know that sounds crazy but I really do rely on my characters to figure out what they’re going to do.”
She got into MMA fighting as a way to relieve stress but discovered the same solitary intensity she loved in dressage. She sponsors a fighter in her home state of Minnesota and travels around the country to see major fights. She plans to be in the Staples Center in Los Angeles in February when Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight champ Chris Weidman defends his title.
“In MMA, you find out who you really are, how hard you can push yourself,” said Hoag. “Plus, I like hitting things really hard. A friend says I must have been a gladiator in a previous life.”
When she can, Hoag watches true crime stories on the Investigation Discovery (ID) channel, whose schedule is populated with shows such as “Wives with Knives,” “Most Evil” and “Deadly Women.” NBC’s Dateline program is another favorite.
She watches to answer the writerly question that sets her characters on their path to death or redemption: what if?
Hoag has rarely used Florida as the stage for her books, despite the state’s reputation as a repository for wacky news stories.
“I can’t ever make up what happens for real in Florida,” she said with a laugh.
Her adopted state has seeped into only two books: “Dark Horse,” a thriller set among the equestrian world of Palm Beach and Wellington and “The Alibi Man,” which imagines a murder among Palm Beach’s wealthy elite.
She’s owned three Wellington homes. After living in a townhouse, she bought a larger house, then after becoming a full-time Wellington resident five years ago, bought “a ginormous house.”
Her friend, Rubin, a fellow equestrian whose design business is called Beyond the Barn, has decorated all three. She says there’s a far softer personality behind Hoag’s public face.
“She’s very much a girly girl. Yes, she can knock somebody out and she writes the creepiest books, but she watches wedding shows,” said Rubin. “She loves wedding shows.”
And the researcher of dozens of ways to kill her victims frequently provides self-defense advice for her girlfriends.
“Once, I got on an airport van with a creepy driver late at night, so I texted Tami to find out what I should do if anything went wrong,” Rubin recalled. “She said, ‘OK, first you need a nail file …’ ”
Meet Tami Hoag
Author Tami Hoag will be discussing “Cold Cold Heart” at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at ShowChic, an equestrian boutique, at 3220 Fairlane Farms Road in Wellington.
OUR PERSONAL JOURNEYS TEAM
Barbara Marshall is an award-winning writer who has been at The Palm Beach Post since 2002, covering everything from lifestyle trends to travel stories. She is a former TV reporter and anchor, magazine writer and travel TV show producer. She spends her free time patching up a nearly 90-year-old house and negotiating a truce with the jungle that surrounds it.
Allen Eyestone joined the photo staff at The Palm Beach Post in 1985 after graduating from Kansas State University. He has specialized in covering sports in South Florida for more than 25 years. He has covered Super Bowls, NBA playoffs, the Olympics, World Cup soccer, national college championships and the World Series. When he wasn’t following the local golf or tennis greats or going from car races to horse races, he took fashion photos in Paris and documented national political conventions, local politics and life here in Palm Beach County.