Making Crime Pay

updated 02/24/1997 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/24/1997 01:00AM

OUT OF SHEER BOREDOM, TAMI Hoag has wound up in a life of murder, rape and kidnapping. And she couldn't be more delighted. Hoag's world changed dramatically 11 years ago when, while driving with her husband along a road near her home outside Rochester, Minn., their pickup truck broke down and they had to wait a couple of hours for it to be towed in and repaired. Because she had nothing else to do, Hoag picked up a copy of a romance novel that a relative had given her ("I didn't want to hurt her feelings"). Previously, she says, she had never felt drawn to tales of lusty heroes and busty heroines. But by the time the truck was running again, Hoag, then 27, was hooked. "I read 10 pages," she recalls, "then I stopped and thought, 'Man, have I been a snob.' "

Her next thought was, "I could do this." She quit her job selling fancy toilet seats at a bath boutique and started writing. Over the next several years, she churned out 20 romances but found herself creating scarier and scarier plots. In 1995 she wrote a full-fledged suspense novel, Night Sins, the story of a child's kidnapping in a small town. That book, its sequel Guilty as Sin and Cry Wolf (a revamped, more suspenseful version of an earlier romance) all became bestsellers. And now, on Feb 23 and 25, Night Sins will air as a CBS miniseries starring Harry Hamlin and Valerie Bertinelli. "Suddenly it feels like I'm doing my job naked in front of millions of people," says Hoag of her sudden fame.

She stands apart for writing about her sensational subjects in a levelheaded way. "Even though her books deal with gruesome crimes, her sense of morality really comes through," says reviewer Joyce Slater, who prides herself on having been one of the first to recognize Hoag's talents. "You actually care about the characters."

Hoag works hard to make sure her books ring true. Her research for the upcoming A Thin Dark Line, in which a policewoman tracks a serial killer, sent her to the parish of St. Martin, La., where she tuned her ear to the local dialect and spent time following the parish sheriff. The study at her 65-acre Rochester farm—which she shares with her husband Dan, 40, and two horses—is stocked with legal reference books, police procedure guides and a sexual assault evidence-collection kit. A recent invitation to speak at the Minnesota Sex Crimes Investigators Association conference netted her business cards from 100 cops. "If I need to know something, I can call them up," she says. Now, with promotional appearances cutting into her schedule, she increasingly has to do research on the road. "You should see the looks I get on the airplane," she says, "when people see me reading a textbook on sexual homicide."

Her reading material leaned more toward offbeat fiction when Hoag was growing up in Harmony, Minn. (pop. 1,081), the youngest of four children of Mel Mikkelson, now 71, a retired insurance salesman, and Joyce, 69, a home-maker. She graduated from high school in 1977 and married her high school sweetheart, Dan Hoag, who was then attending the University of Wisconsin. When he graduated, they moved to Rochester, where he took a job as a programmer for IBM.

Hoag, who quit that job in 1995 to handle his wife's affairs, says he is not surprised at her talent for writing (she had dabbled in fiction since she was 9), but at "how far it's gone." Tami recently sold the TV rights for Guilty and her next book to the producers of Night Sins, and received a seven-figure advance for two more novels.

With these deals come perks a Minnesota small-town girl would never have dreamed of. Hoag went to Park City, Utah, last December to sit in during the taping of Night Sins. "It was really fun to see real-life people doing my characters," says Hoag. Better still was meeting the stars face-to-face. "Oh, God," she says of her introduction to Harry Hamlin. "He's gorgeous."

ALLISON LYNN
JOANNE FOWLER in Rochester

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