10 Facts About Author Lois Duncan
Whether you were a fan of her thrillers, like I Know What You Did Last Summer, or preferred more lighthearted fare like Hotel For Dogs, Lois Duncan’s name probably appeared somewhere on your bookshelves when you were younger. Here are a few things you might not have known about the prolific author, who died on June 15, 2016 at the age of 82.
1. DUNCAN SOLD HER FIRST PIECE OF WRITING WHEN SHE WAS JUST 13.
Duncan loved writing from a young age; she submitted her first piece to a magazine at the age of 10. Three years later, her very first acceptance letter arrived. Seeing her piece in Calling All Girls magazine motivated Duncan to keep going. “I could hardly wait to rush home from school each day to fling myself at the typewriter,” she later said.
2. SHE WAS OFFERED HER FIRST YOUNG ADULT BOOK CONTRACT AFTER WINNING A WRITING CONTEST.
All of that after-school practice paid off: As a senior in high school, Duncan was named the winner of a short story contest in Seventeen magazine. Winning the contest required her to make an editorial change, however: A 19-year-old boy in her story was drinking a beer, and Seventeen required her to change it to a Coke to win the prize. She did, and took home $1000. Duncan also nabbed her first young adult writing contract; her debut book, Debutante Hill, was released in 1958.
3. "LOIS DUNCAN” WAS NOT HER REAL NAME.
As she gained acclaim as a writer, Duncan decided she needed a pen name. She was named after her mother, a magazine photographer, and to avoid confusion with the elder Lois Steinmetz, the author decided to write under her first and middle names instead. For several of her early novels, Duncan also went by the name Lois Kerry.
4. HER FATHER, JOSEPH JANNEY STEINMETZ, WAS A FAMOUS PHOTOGRAPHER.
Both of her parents were well-known within the industry, but Joseph Janney Steinmetz was published in Life, The Saturday Evening Post, Time, and Town & Country. One of Steinmetz’s most famous pieces is the photo of clown Emmett Kelly (above), who intended to use it for his Christmas card.
5. DUNCAN WAS A COVER GIRL.
Growing up, Duncan was her father’s subject on a regular basis—including when he shot the cover of Collier’s magazine in 1949 (above). You can view more of his photos of her at the State Archives of Florida.
6. SHE ONCE WON A TRAINED PORPOISE.
Duncan later became a single mother after she and her first husband divorced in the early 1960s, so she was always looking to earn a little extra income on top of her ad agency job. She often spent her lunch hour scouring magazines for writing and photography contests or working on her submissions. One of her first big wins was an entry in a contest that requested fun snapshots taken on a Florida vacation. The prize? A live porpoise, direct from Marineland. (PETA didn’t exist at the time.) Luckily, Lois was able to decline the “pet” and take a cash prize of $1000 instead.
7. "CONFESSION STORIES” WERE HER BREAD AND BUTTER FOR A FEW YEARS.
After winning a couple of those magazine contests, Duncan decided to focus on writing for magazines full-time. She found success in what she called “confession stories”—tales of woe, published anonymously, that magazines ran as fact, even though Duncan submitted them as fiction—with titles like “I Carry a Dreadful Disease” and “Two Men Claim Me as Their Wife.” Her most popular story was “I Wanted to Have an Affair with a Teen-Age Boy.” Duncan wrote one a week, earning $200 per story.
8. HER DAUGHTER WAS MURDERED IN 1989.
On July 16, 1989, 18-year-old Kaitlyn Arquette was driving in her car in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when she was shot twice in the head—the victim of a drive-by shooting. She died the next day without waking up. After an investigation, police concluded that the incident was essentially a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Though three men were charged in the case, those charges were eventually dropped due to lack of evidence.
Duncan, however, was not ready to give up. She had been investigating on her own and discovered that her daughter’s boyfriend had been involved in an insurance scam. She believed that Kait had uncovered it and that the shooting was perpetrated by someone—not her boyfriend, but one of his associates—who didn’t want her to blow the whistle. Police stopped investigating, however, and the crime has never been solved. In 1992, Duncan wrote a book about it called Who Killed My Daughter?
Bizarrely, Duncan had recently written a novel called Don’t Look Behind You, in which the protagonist was based on Kait; many of the elements of the plot also showed up in Kait’s murder case. Later, when Lois and her husband hired a medium and a sketch artist to create a picture of Kait’s killer, the resulting drawing looked like the hit man on the cover of the British edition of Don’t Look Behind You.
9. SHE WASN’T TOO HAPPY ABOUT THE MOVIE I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER.
Eight years after the death of her daughter, Duncan’s book I Know What You Did Last Summer was made into a horror movie starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and Freddie Prinze Jr.—and it was dramatically different than the words Duncan had put on paper. Her suspense novel had been transformed into a blood-and-gore-filled flick. "They made it into a slasher film. And I don't think murder is funny," she told People magazine. In fact, after Kait’s death, Duncan quit writing stories that put young women in peril. “I went weak after Kait’s murder,” Lois told Buzzfeed. “How could I even think about creating a novel with a young woman in a life-threatening situation?”
10. CELL PHONES WERE HER NEMESIS.
In 2010, Duncan worked with publisher Little, Brown to update 10 of her books. Though the plots held up surprisingly well for being at least four decades old, she had at least one hang-up: cell phones. “A strong element of many of my plots is having the protagonist be in a dangerous situation and not being able to reach the outside world. But cell phones let teens be in touch, so I had to keep finding ways of disposing of those awful instruments," she told Publisher's Weekly. "I had one fall into a river and another fall into a toilet, and another with batteries that needed recharging. It was tricky coming up with 10 different ways to get rid of a cell phone.”
Other updates included adding modern-day lingo, having characters use Google for research, and “changing their clothes so they were no longer wearing polyester pantsuits.”