50 Ways to Murder Your Fictional Characters

Sue+Colletta

I find it endlessly fascinating to “meet” other writers and discover more about them, their work, and what makes them tick. Today I’m introducing you to an exciting new crime fiction writer, Sue Coletta, who writes great murder mystery stories. I couldn’t resist poking around inside the mind of a crime writer (Castle, anyone?), and Sue generously shares her thoughts and insights freely. Join me in welcoming Sue to the spotlight!

Interviewer: Debbie A. McClure

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Q         As a crime writer, you must think about how to commit the perfect crime or murder all the time. How do you plot the crimes for your books?

A         I’m a big proponent of Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering and Story Physics. For those who haven’t read these craft books, basically I plan the important milestones– Hook, Inciting Incident, 1st Plot Point, 1st Pinch Point, Midpoint, 2nd Plot Point, 2nd Pinch Point, All-is-lost Moment, Resolution– on index cards. I include theme, concept and characterization and think: What’s the worst crime that could happen to that character, one that strikes at her inner demons? I pose this question as a “What if?” And then work from there. Usually the “What if?” question will lead to more “What if?” questions, thus writing the entire book. Did I answer your question or did I get totally off track? LOL

Q         What is it about crime and mystery writing that draws you in and holds you?

A         I’ve always been fascinated by how a killer’s mind works. What makes someone want to kill? Is it money, passion, or a fantasy they’ve had since childhood? And by people’s inner demons. What drives them? What happened in their life to make them into the person they are today? And the big question; why would one person turn to murder where another wouldn’t? I guess the short answer is psychology.

Q         Who is or was your greatest mentor, either personally or professionally, and why?

A         Again, I’d have to say Larry Brooks. He’s an amazing person and a talented storyteller/teacher and writing coach. His writing is crisp, clean, with a voice that deeply resonates with me. I’m glued to the pages of his books, both craft and crime thrillers. I dissect them like a surgical intern curious about how the body works, and then take what I’ve learned and use it in my work. I’m very fortunate to call him a friend.

Q         You wrote a piece on Molly Greene’s blog about going after the traditional publishing package, which is where you and I “met”. What do you think the future of publishing will look like for writers? (I’ll include a link to that article)

A         Contrary to what some believe, I don’t think traditional publishing will ever die. Or that e-books will be the norm above paperbacks or hardcovers. There’s something uniquely special about the smell and feel of a physical book, and I think too many people feel like I do for the industry to shy away from printing. I do, however, think there will be more hybrid authors that have an agent, continue with traditional publishing, and then self-publish books that don’t fit neatly on a shelf. That’s the best of both worlds, if you ask me, and my ultimate goal.

Q         What is the most difficult part of writing for you, the beginning, middle, or end, and why?

A         That first line is always a bugger to figure out. Really, the first paragraph, trying to encapsulate the protagonist, genre, voice, and characterization, all in one fell swoop. However, since I’ve planned my book in advance I don’t really have much trouble after that. Although, during the planning stage it’s always the big twist ending that I think on the longest.

Q         What is your advice to new writers regarding marketing and building a platform?

A         Start a blog now! Don’t wait. Don’t worry that you think you’ll have nothing to say. Just do it. While you’re at it, implement an email list with a giveaway to lure people into signing up. Everyone loves to get something for free. It can be a short story, a writing tool like my “50 Ways To Murder Your Fictional Characters” (see how I got that in there?), something that peaks interest. I also think it’s important to gear your blog toward your brand. Brand; meaning you, the author, not your book. That’s your product. For instance, when you click on my site it screams crime because that’s what I’m passionate about and write about. When you gear your blog this way your passion shines through, it becomes infectious, and leads others to want to hear what you have to say. It’s magical, really, when you think about it. Give people a slice of yourself, be genuine, help other writers, and you’ll do fine.

Q         People have been fascinated by true crime and mysteries for centuries. Why do you think that is?

A       How much time do we have? I think it boils down to “the forbidden”, “the taboo”. What makes killers tick? What’s the worst thing you can do to another human being? Kill them. Of course the crime writer in me can think of worse things. 🙂 But let’s say “to kill”. Then it becomes what kind of person does this? What pushed them over the edge? And when we hear about killers that had a great childhood, a good marriage, successful children and a high-paying job, we are totally baffled. Again, it’s the psychology of it, I believe, that drives people to want to know more. Sure, some are probably motivated by the gore, but I don’t think that’s the norm. It’s like when you drive by a car accident and can’t look away. You want to know, what happened? Why? Who’s to blame? Because human beings are curious creatures, we try to put logic ahead of madness, and sometimes the two aren’t separate issues. Sometimes the reason, or lack thereof, is simple– because he wanted to see if he could kill and what it felt like. And that’s frightening to think about, because it means we could end up the next victim.

Q         What kind of research do you do for your novels?

A         It depends. I have a few police consultants/coroner/firearm experts I turn to when I need a quick answer. Otherwise, let’s say I’m writing more of a police procedural and I better get my facts right in case a detective reads my story. On my site I have a menu option entitled “Crime Writer’s Resource“, where I’ve listed links to forensic sites, homicide crime scene checklist, writing sites, craft books, writing tools, etc. Each link leads to more links. There are pages and pages of information I’ve gathered over the years, including former detectives who answer questions for writers. All are welcome to use it, by the way.

Q         What is your greatest strength and your greatest weakness, and why?

A         My greatest weakness is also my greatest strength, and I’ll tell you why. I love supporting other writers. I love the writing community as a whole. But when helping someone means I can’t get my own work done, it’s a problem. I have a terrible habit of putting others’ needs above my own. That’s not to say I ever want to stop supporting other writers. I just need to find balance. Does that make sense? I don’t want to give the wrong impression here. Put another way; if I can’t achieve my own goals, how can I help someone else achieve theirs?

Q         If you could interview any writer, living or dead, who would it be and why?

A         This is easy. Edgar Allen Poe. I wish I could crawl inside his mind for just an hour. What a fascinating yet disturbing place that would be.

Q         Crime and mystery writing can take both the writer and reader into some pretty dark places. Have you ever had to wrestle with a character or scene that challenged you to examine your own sense of right and wrong? If so, how?

A         Ooh, good question. I’ve definitely given myself nightmares on more than one occasion, where I was stuck in my fictional world and couldn’t get out. I’ve cried when I’ve had to kill a character I loved. I’ve laughed at other characters. Writing is magical that way. As far as wrestling with my inner demons, no. I’ve never had fantasies about taking a life. When someone pushes me to the breaking point, I just go home, turn them into a character, and then kill them in unspeakable ways. Sure makes me feel better.

Q         What’s next for you, Sue?

A         Good question. Who knows? That’s up to the literary gods, I guess. I’ll keep writing and keep journeying toward my dream. I’m working on two projects now. One is based on a question that’s haunted me for years; what lengths would you go to spend one more day with a lost loved one? And the other is based on a true story; how an undercover operative befriended a serial killer to take him down. Since I’m working with a confidential informant, I can’t say more than that, except that it’s exciting, clandestine stuff.

Find Sue here:

My website/blog: http://www.crimewriterblog.com

Twitter: www.twitter.com/@suecoletta1

Facebook page: www.facebook.com/suecoletta1

Author’s blog: http://www.auniqueandportablemagic.blogspot.com

Contribute to: www.venturegalleries.com and www.marciamearawrites.com

50 Ways To Murder Your Fictional Characters giveaway: http://bit.ly/1HlrCrC

Playing Mrs. Kingston

TonyLeeMoralPic

I’m very pleased to introduce writer, television producer, film maker, and world traveller, Tony Lee Moral. Tony brings his extensive knowledge and love of Alfred Hitchcock’s work into play with his exciting new thriller novel, Playing Mrs. Kingston. Read along to discover more about this fascinating, versatile writer!

Interviewer: Debbie McClure

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Q: Tony, so many of today’s youth have no idea who Alfred Hitchcock was, or what he contributed to film. What would you like them to know about this iconic filmmaker and how his style is still being used today?

A: Alfred Hitchcock’s career spanned the history of cinema, beginning with silent films, to the invention of talkies with his film Blackmail (1929), through to the start of the modern horror slasher film with Psycho (1960). I would go as far as to say Hitchcock invented many aspects of film grammar. He was a great teacher, and inspired many other directors, producers and screenwriters. Today, filmmakers who are inspired by Hitchcock include Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, Guillermo del Torro, and many more. I write about Hitchcock’s huge influence in my book Alfred Hitchcock’s Movie Making Masterclass published by Michael Wiese Productions.

Q: As a great follower of Hitchcock, tell us how you’ve used his principles of suspense in this latest novel.

A: Hitchcock often outlined the difference between mystery and suspense. Mystery is an intellectual process like a whodunit. My novel Playing Mrs. Kingston is a murder mystery, but I made sure that it was much more than that and was full of suspense. Hitchcock said that suspense is an emotional process that makes the audience care about the characters and often cited the bomb under the table, which is about to go off. The audience knows about the bomb but the characters do not, and that’s where the suspense arises. I made sure that my readers rooted for the characters and that the story was full of suspenseful questions. Who killed Miles? Will Leiobesky expose Catriona? Will Mario go to jail?

Q: Everyone who has ever tried to accomplish something outside the norm has benefited from the support of a mentor(s), and although we know Hitchcock played a huge role in the direction you’ve taken with your books and movies, is there anyone else in your life who has significantly mentored you or contributed to your success? If so, who are they and why do you consider them instrumental to you and your work?

A: I would say F. Scott Fitzgerald is an enormously important writer in my work. The Great Gatsby is one of my favourite novels. It is the perfect American novel, where the characters are in pursuit of the American dream, rather like my protagonists. Fitzgerald’s prose is so deceptively simple and elegant, and in the many party scenes in Playing Mrs. Kingston, I was inspired by Fitzgerald’s portrayal of rich and beautiful people full of money. I was also greatly influenced by Thomas Hardy as an impressionable teenager and love writing about irony and coincidence in the novel, such as characters being in the same place at the same time. Like when Catriona, her theatre boss Lowry, and the Inspector who is chasing her, are all at the Whitney Museum, and Catriona could be exposed at any time for not really being Mrs. Kingston.

Q: When writing a novel, what do you find is the most difficult area to tackle, the beginning, the middle, or the end, and why?

A: The middle, or the second act is the most challenging, because you have to sustain interest and motivate the reader to continue reading into the third act where the whole story moves towards and everything should start falling into place. The middle section can be very challenging for a writer, but it’s the heart of the novel, full of complications and problems for your characters. My background as a screenwriter helped me literally navigate the streets of New York when creating a road map for my characters through the second act.

Q: You wanted to write a novel that followed the Hitchcockian principles of suspense, but did you find implementing those principles more difficult than you expected, or did they come easily to you?

A: I would say it is harder because you’re creating suspense through language rather than visuals, so I relied on big set pieces when writing my scenes, often in everyday places where chaos could erupt at any moment. Hitchcock loved to set his characters in places like the Plaza Hotel or the United Nations Building, symbols of law and order, where the everyman is thrown into and murder literally takes place. So I set my novel in theatres, art galleries, museums, train stations, where extraordinary events happen in ordinary situations.

Q: You write Playing Mrs. Kingston from a female protagonist’s POV, as a male writer, can you share with us why, and were there any difficulties in sustaining this throughout the writing?

A: Again I was inspired by Hitchcock, who often rooted for the suffering heroine in his film. There’s a wide belief that he was misogynist, but he most definitely was not. He was deeply emphatic with feminine feeling. Some of his best films have strong female characters at the centre; consider Notorious, Vertigo, and Marnie. He loved women and identified with their plight in patriarchal society. Winston Graham, one of my favourite authors, wrote Marnie from a first person perspective. One female critic said it was the best book about a woman written by a man. I tried to follow this with Playing Mrs. Kingston, by identifying with Catriona as a role player who is determined to succeed in 1950s New York.

Q: You are clearly drawn to the dark underside of human psychology, as evidenced in your fascination with Hitchcock and your own novel, Playing Mrs. Kingston. Can you explain what draws you to that genre and why?

A: I have a zoology and psychology background, and I see things from the point of view of instinctual animal behaviour. All good writers are natural psychologists and question the why of human behaviour. Catriona is so driven toward her goals, I think she is motivated instinctually and doesn’t always make the best decisions in the long run, which is why she becomes embroiled in this extraordinary situation of pretending to be someone she is not.

Q: Do you ever get nervous about releasing a new project, or worry about reviews and critics? What do you do about it?

A: I don’t get too nervous. I’m a television producer and have been involved in the media all my working life. As long as I know that I’ve done the best job I can under the circumstances, then I am relatively satisfied.

Q: What are your thoughts on good and evil, and the complex human psyche?

A: Sometimes I’m very sad about human behaviour, and New York where I lived for several months, is full of lonely displaced people. I feel great empathy with minor characters in the book like Leiobesky, the Polish blackmailer, or even Singer, the Swiss bank manager. On the other hand, when I experience acts of random kindness from strangers, it affirms my belief that human beings can be wonderful. Ultimately, we are so precious and unique in the universe that we should really value each other more. We only have one life and should try to fulfill our potential to the maximum.

Q: Tony, you’ve done everything from film, to novel writing, to world travel, what inspires and drives you in each of these various directions?

A: The quest for new stories, sharing human experiences, empathy with my fellow human beings, and telling a good yarn, is what drives me.

Q: What surprising fact about yourself can you share with our readers that they couldn’t discover by reading your bio, books, or watching your films?

A: I’m very dichotomous. The great screenwriter, Jay Presson Allen, who I interviewed, once said that writing is a divorcement from life. I’ve sacrificed a large part of my life in the last few years in getting my books published. At the same time, like the characters in my novel, I love meeting people and going to parties and collecting stories to write about.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: Another biography on Alfred Hitchcock, another novel about a girl who falls in love with a ghost, much more travel, and many great experiences.

 

Website: http://www.tonyleemoral.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/TonyLeeMoral

Literary Agency website profile: http://www.loiaconoliteraryagency.com/authors/tony-lee-moral/

 

 

A Conversation with Gyles Brandreth

Gyles CollageWhat can possibly be worse than a fictional character of your own creation getting far more fan mail than you do? In the case of Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s receiving three envelopes respectively containing a severed finger, a severed hand, and a lock of hair while you’re just trying to get away from it all for some R&R at a spa in Germany. To make matters worse, the celebrated author has been joined by the effusively chatty playwright, Oscar Wilde, who insists that they hop the very next train to Italy to answer an obvious cry for help.

Oscar Wilde and the Vatican Murders was my first introduction to the work of Gyles Brandreth but I knew by the time I turned the last page that I simply had to discover more about this wickedly witty and whimsical author.

And oh what a jolly discovery that quest turned out to be! From 6,000 miles away, this amazing gentleman graciously accepted my invitation to give readers a glimpse into his world and the passions that fuel his imagination.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: The remarkable volume and diversity of your published works suggests that you came into the world with your fingers aggressively fixed to a keyboard. What’s the real story behind your journey as such a savvy and prolific wordsmith and who were the mentors that helped shape your career choices?

A: You are about right. I certainly knew that I wanted to be a writer from about the age of eight. The poet TS Eliot went to the church where I was a boy server and he encouraged me! How’s that for a distinguished mentor? As a boy I lived in Baker Street (opposite 221B – truly) and I loved the Sherlock Holmes stories. I wrote my first play when I was 12. It was called “A Study in Sherlock”. My wife will tell you there’s not been much professional development with me over the past 50 years. What gripped me then grips me now. (My wife would also tell you that with me there’s not been much development of ANY kind over the past 50 years…)

Q: What authors were you reading at age 10? 20? 30? In retrospect, which ones would you say had the most influence on your own style of creative expression?

A: At 10, Arthur Conan Coyle and Agatha Christie. At 20, Oscar Wilde and Dorothy L. Sayers. At 30, Anthony Trollope and W.M. Thackeray. In any of my Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries, you will see how all of the above have influenced me.

Q: You’ve also worn the hats of an MP, a Whip and Lord Commissioner of Prime Minister John Major’s Treasury, a popular broadcaster, and a theatrical producer. Aside from the obvious question of, “When did you ever find the time to sleep?” which of your many venues exemplifies the tenets of your best-selling book, The 7 Secrets of Happiness?

A: One of the 7 secrets is to be “a leaf on a tree”. Every leaf is unique and a leaf that’s not attached to a tree feels free and floats about a bit, which is fun, but soon it falls to the ground and dies. Each of us needs to be a leaf on a tree – unique, yes – but also attached to an organism that is larger than we are and alive and growing. Sometimes a writer’s life can be lonely. I felt most like a leaf on a tree when I was a member of Parliament – attached both to the House of Commons (an amazing place) and to my constituency (the beautiful and historic city of Chester).

Q: What did you most want to be when you were a lad growing up?

A: So many things! That was the problem. I wanted to be an actor, a writer, a politician, a TV anchor, a woman. And, because I have been very lucky, I have had a go at all of them.

Q: If your philosophy of life were printed on a tee-shirt, what would it say?

A: “Be happy.” (See No. 7 of The 7 Secrets of Happiness for more details.)

Q: The two of us share a mutual love for the stage as fellow actors, directors and producers. (And kudos to you for wowing audiences with your musical theater portrayal of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest.) What would you say are some of the best lessons that treading the boards have taught you about pennng snappy dialogue and compelling characters for your works of fiction?

A: Character is what counts. If the people in your play are real, your audience can believe in them. Character comes first. Then comes story. Then the lines will follow. If your characters are real, what they say will be in character and if the situations are dramatic, they will respond. The great Ibsen would spend a year thinking about his plays before he began to pen them. He would think through the characters first, then place them in their situation, then make them speak. With my Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries, I have had the advantage that so many of my “characters” are already there. The challenge is to portray them truthfully.

Q: So what was the inspiration for making the gifted playwright the cornerstone sleuth of your new mystery series?

A: Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde were childhood heroes of mine. When I came across the fact that they had met – in 1889 – and had become friends (Conan Doyle describes the meeting in his autobiography), it occurred to me at once that here was an opportunity to create a series of Victorian mysteries with Wilde and Conan Doyle as my Holmes and Watson. I have always enjoyed a traditional murder mystery. As Oscar said, “There is nothing quite like an unexpected death for lifting the spirits.” (Or did I think of that line and give it to Oscar? That’s one of the problems with writing these books. I lose track of where fact ends and fiction begins.)

Q: I simply have to ask this. There’s a point in the book where Conan Doyle is contemplating giving hs fictional detective an older brother named Mycroft who would be patterned after his witty, intrepid and sartorially colorful colleague, Oscar. Is it more than coincidence that actor Stephen Fry not only portrayed Wilde in film but subsequently played Mycroft in the second Sherlock Holmes movie starring Robert Downey, Jr.?

A: I think it’s distinctly possible that Conan Doyle had Wilde in mind when he created Mycroft, Sherlock’s even more brilliant brother. (Stephen Fry, incidentally, was the first to bid for the TV rights to my Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries, not with a view to appearing in them but hoping to produce them.)

Q: Two of your acclaimed biographies are about members of the Royal Family (Philip and Elizabeth:  Portrait of a Marriage and Charles and Camilla: Portrait of a Love Affair). Given your enviable reputation as a skilled interviewer, who in history would you most like to have an extended chat with if time travel were possible?

A: William Shakespeare. It is strange that we know so little about him when he knows so much about us.  Apart from the hygiene issues, I think I’d have felt very much at home in Elizabethan England.  And I’d love to meet Shakespeare and to hear some of his theatre stories. And where was he during those “lost years”?  In France and Italy, I reckon.  And which of his plays is his favourite?  And does he have another for us hidden in his bottom drawer?

Q: Rumor has it that you’ll need a bigger fireplace mantle and more wall space for all of the awards you’ve won. Which of these many honors gives you the highest sense of personal or professional accomplishment?

A: As European Monopoly Champion I came third in the World Monopoly Championships – and that pleased my parents who met over a Monopoly game in 1937 and eloped a few weeks later.

Q: Which do you feel is more challenging – to write a story for children or a plot geared to adults?

A: it is all story-telling. With kids’ stuff it tends to be shorter, but the need to capture, hold, intrigue and surprise the reader is the same. I have written six murder mysteries featuring Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle as my detectives and the extra challenge there is to bring the period and the people to life as accurately as I can – while still (I hope!) spinning a compelling yarn.

Q: What would people be the most surprised to learn about you (besides behind a descendant of the last man beheaded in England for treason)?

A: That I was taught to play Scrabble by a friend of Oscar Wilde. He was 100 at the time and I was 15. He won all our games. I told him he cheated because he used obsolete words. He told me they’d been current when he first learnt them.

Q: Along with your daughter and grandson, you’ve authored a collection of family games called The Lost Art of Having Fun. Why is it, do you suppose, that we’ve misplaced the unapologetic joy of play and being silly? Is technology to blame or is it something more than that? Inquiring minds want to know.

A: Yes, our book is aimed at providing analog fun for the digital age.  Research suggests that kids in the UK are now spending up to 7 hours a day in front of a screen. This is terrifying. It’s got to stop. We’ve got to start looking at one another again: we’ve got to start talking to one another again. Playing games is a good way to get cross-generational communication going. The idea of playing a game alarms a lot of people – until they give it a go.  Fun is fun.

Q: Speaking of fun, you’ve got a delightful connection to teddy bears. Tell us about it.

A: My wife and I founded a Teddy Bear Museum about thirty years ago. Jim Henson gave us the original Fozzie Bear and he stills live at our museum. I was a friend of A A Milne’s son, Christopher Robin Milne, so I have shaken the hand that held the paw of Winnie the Pooh!

Q: What’s your best advice to today’s aspiring writers?

A: Mark Twain said the secret of writing a book is application – “applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair”. I can’t do better than that.  My other rule is: don’t talk about it, do it. Just get to that desk and stay there until today’s quota (1,000 words) is done.

Q: What style works best for you when developing a new book – to do all of the requisite research before you ever start writing or do you prefer to look things up as you go along?

A: With non-fiction you need to do your research before you start. With a novel – like my Victorian Oscar Wilde murder mysteries – you need the essence of the plot, but as you proceed you will find that events overtake you and the characters can take you to places you didn’t expect to go …  With my Oscar Wilde series I have been meticulous with research, so that all that you learn about Wilde and Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker, for example, will be true. With a history-mystery the reader needs to feel that the history is correct. For me, it’s been a joy to spend the first ten years of the twenty-first century living in the last ten years of the nineteenth.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: I am touring a show called “Looking for happiness”. It’s a two-hour stand-up comedy show that began life at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Now there’s a book to go with it, The 7 Secrets of Happiness that’s being published in the US, Russia, China and elsewhere. I am going to assorted launches: Moscow in August, for example. Because it is raining non-stop in England right now, next January and February I want to be performing my “Looking for happiness” show in Florida in January and New Zealand in February. Can you fix that for me? (Gyles: You should add Pasadena, California to your tour list. Not only is it a beautiful city with much to commend it but I’ll throw in the added bonus of taking you to lunch as well.)

 Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: if you have time dip into my website, www.gylesbrandreth.net, and find out a bit more about me – and what else I do. The pictures of me as Lady Bracknell with Oscar Wilde’s grandson are fun. And if you want to see a video of me talking about happiness try the Open Road Media website.  And if you fancy a short tour of Oscar Wilde’s London, take a look at www.oscarwildemurdermysteries.com

Murder at Melcham Hall

Dave Watson

It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly, a shot rang out! A door slammed. The maid screamed.

What is it about mysteries that compel us to pour a cup of tea, settle into a cozy armchair by the fire, and proceed to match wits with fictional detectives? Lovers of this genre have a new sleuth to admire in Inspector Wesley – the creation of author Dave Watson whose latest book, Murder at Melcham Hall, is the third in a page-turning series that transpires across the pond.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Let’s start with some background about your upbringing in Middlesex. Was it a landscape that fueled your imagination for history, mystery and village life?

A:  I was born in 1956 in Heston, Middlesex, some twenty miles from London. In those days Heston was a tiny village where the hive of activity took place along the small parade of shops and, of course, the local public house. The village is steeped in history and I have traced my family back to the early 1700’s where Watson was the predominant surname. When I was a youngster, there were no fences to separate neighbours’ gardens and everyone walked in and out of their neighbours’ back doors. I have always longed for a village life again and maybe one day that dream will come true.

Q: Were you an avid reader as a child? If so, what authors and titles might we have found on your nightstand?

A: I have always been an avid reader. As a child I read all the ‘Biggles’ books written by Captain W E Johns. In my teenage years I read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings along with Jules Vernes’ classic 20,000 Leagues under the Sea.

Q: Who or what first sparked your interest in becoming a writer?

A: I wrote a couple of short stories for my children when they were in Junior School and that was probably the spark. It was something I really enjoyed.

Q: Are there some favorite authors that influenced your own style of storytelling, character development and dialogue?

A: The authors who have influenced my style of writing are Agatha Christie, Kate Ellis and Jacqueline Winspear. These authors have the ability to write leaving the reader to want to keep turning the page. They create characters that one can envisage and relate to, almost as if they were real.

Q: If you could go to lunch with any of these authors and ask them one question, who would it be and what would you want to know?

A:  It would have to be Agatha Christie, and my question would be, “Did you always decide who the murderer was at the start of each novel, or did you change the culprit as the story unfolded?”

Q: What’s the first book you had published and how long did it take from start to finish?

A: The first book was titled Full Circle and it took me around eighteen months from start to finish.

Q: For many authors, the task of finding the right publisher for their work can be even more time consuming than writing a book in the first place. What was your own experience in this regard?

A: To anyone starting out I would simply say, shop around. The Writers and Artists year book is a good guide. Look for publishers who specialize in your genre. It is also important that you find a publisher who understands your work.

Q: What governed your decision to create a mystery series and what are some of the particular challenges of this approach?

A: Initially I think Agatha Christie is responsible. One of the main challenges in each story is remembering the personalities and mannerisms of the main characters.

Q: So what’s Murder at Melcham Hall all about?

A: The story relates to centuries of corruption and fraud surrounding the ownership of Melcham Hall. When a young girl is found murdered on the estate, Inspector Wesley soon uncovers a web of deceit. Someone living at Melcham Hall is not who she appears to be and when an elderly woman living in the grounds of the estate disappears, things take a dramatic twist.

Q: One of my college professors once said that if you’re going to write murder mysteries, it’s better to set them in an earlier time period versus contemporary because of all the advances in technology that make crime-solving easier. What are your thoughts about that?

A: To some degree that’s correct. I also think readers often prefer to be taken back in time as stories set in an earlier period often carry more nostalgia.

Q: Who’s your favorite character to write about and how did s/he evolve in your imagination?

A: My favorite character has to be Inspector Wesley. I grew up watching old British detective series on television (in the days of black and white television) and Wesley evolved from there. Rather a plain character who sits back to roll a cigarette whilst contemplating the case in question.

Q: How much historical and police procedural research goes into your stories?

A: Quite a lot really. It helps to get a feel for a location and if you can base it on somewhere you’ve been then so much easier to visual places. My police procedural research is mostly done from watching TV programmes and learning from other authors.

Q: Writing is a solitary craft. Do you allow anyone to have sneak peeks at your work in progress or make them wait until the whole thing is done?

A: I occasionally ask family or friends for feedback, especially if I’m unsure about a particular paragraph or chapter. It helps to obtain feedback. I have learnt that no one asks a silly question.

Q: What’s a typical writing day like for you?

A:  I usually shut myself away around mid-morning until mid-afternoon. That time of day works for me. However, it’s in the evening that I read other people’s novels and discuss book matters with friends and colleagues via Facebook and other outlets.

Q: Have your characters ever surprised you by doing or saying something you hadn’t planned when you were fashioning the story in your head?

A: Yes and no. Once or twice I have written a few lines about what one of my characters is doing at the time, only to stop and ask myself the question. Would he/she really say that?

Q: You also have a short story out about a pair of adventurous cats. That’s quite a departure from Inspector Wesley, isn’t it?

A: Smudge’s Adventures is a short story written for charity. A close friend lost her baby due to Group B Strep which is a life threatening infection. My son and a few friends ran a number of 10K races to raise money and I thought I could add to the pile by writing a short story donating all proceeds to the charity. http://www.gbss.org.uk/

Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?

A: Ah good question. I guess it would be that at 57 years of age I have only been writing for around 4 years. I wish I had started earlier. There’s a story in everyone.

Q: What’s your best advice to writers who are just starting their own journey and wanting to get published?

A: Be prepared to allocate yourself some time each day and stick to it. Put your story together and read it numerous times before asking someone else to proof read it. Take time to find someone who is prepared to edit your work. Only then, search for a publisher, someone who works in your genre. Look at who else they publish. Look to see who publishes other works similar to yours.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m currently working on a 4th Inspector Wesley novel, titled The Loxwood Legacy which I hope to have published in the Spring.

Q: Where can readers learn more about you?

A: The best place is to check out my website www.davewatson.info or take a look at my author page on Amazon.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: It is an amazing feeling knowing that other people read your books and in doing so share your thoughts and ideas. It makes all those solitary hours of writing so worthwhile!

 

 

Desolation Row

Desolation Row

The 1960’s. It was the era of the Nixon/Kennedy debates, the Berlin Wall, the turbulence of civil rights, the Beatles, foreign espionage, the moon landing, and the emergence of a counterculture generation that believed that loving one another was preferable to committing acts of violence. Central to this latter mindset was the controversy of the Vietnam War and the decision of many able-bodied young men to avoid the U.S. draft by leaving the country. In debut author Kay Kendall’s new release, Desolation Row, her newlywed heroine not only finds herself married to such a man but also in jeopardy of losing him as a result of dire circumstances beyond the control of either of them.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Tell us how your journey as a writer began and what inspired you to embrace the mystery genre for your debut in the world of publishing.

A: My favorite stories involve romantic suspense set against a backdrop of great turmoil and danger. Stories about World War II and the Cold War fill that bill for me. I wanted to write my own version of that kind of romantic suspense. In the case of Desolation Row, a young woman from Texas marries her college sweetheart and goes off to Canada with him during the Vietnam War. Then her husband David is arrested and jailed for murdering the son of a United States Senator. Only the new bride, Austin Starr, believes he is innocent. Against all odds, she decides to rescue him, to prove that he was no killer.

Q: Did you read a lot of mysteries when you were growing up? If so, who are some of the authors whose storytelling styles you most admired?

A: I read every one of the Nancy Drew mysteries, just gobbled them up. I also read classic fairy tales that had an air of suspense to them. From there I leapt right on to the famous Cold War spy stories of John le Carré. In contrast, I read just one book in the series that featured Cherry Ames in various nursing professions.   Not my cup of tea at all. Now that I am “all grown up,” I don’t even watch medical shows. They simply don’t interest me, whereas mysteries and suspense and spies sure do.

Q: Who and what are you reading now?

A:  I’ve just begun to read Sue Grafton’s latest offering in her famous alphabet series that stars private eye Kinsey Milhone. This one is called W is for Wasted, so she doesn’t have many letters in the alphabet left to explore. I’m impressed by how much her mysteries have grown in complexity over the years. I heard her speak at a writers’ conference last month, and she is a hoot—besides being massively talented.

Q: Does the title you chose for your new book – Desolation Row – have a particular meaning to you?

A: All the titles of my Austin Starr mystery series will be taken from Bob Dylan songs. If you know the era, then you will recognize those titles and realize that the stories are set in the sixties. I had to make sure that any title I used was from a song that had been released by the time my story took place. Bob Dylan is so prolific a song writer that it is not hard to find an appropriate, evocative title. In the case of Desolation Row, the title captures Austin’s husband’s sense of desolation as he waits in a row of cells in prison.

Q: Tell us about your female protagonist, Austin Starr, and the passions that drive her thoughts and actions.

A: Austin is smart, a real bookworm, and loves history. She’s young and naïve and has been taught by her mother that the role of wife and mother is the only one that will bring fulfillment to a female. Austin is not sure this is true, but she goes along with it and, with that grounding, she feels she has to go to Canada with her husband, even though she does not want to leave Texas. Her husband is a political activist but she is not. Once David is jailed, only one thing counts for Austin—proving his innocence. After that, she hopes somehow, someway, to return home to Texas. That is an over-arching question to this series—will Austin ever return to the United States, which is her heart’s desire?

Q: Is she modeled after a real person?

A: Austin is a combination of traits that I see in my nearest, dearest, and longest-held friends.

Q: If Hollywood came calling, who would you cast in the lead role and why?

A: Because Austin Starr is only twenty-two years old in 1968, when Desolation Row takes place, the actress who plays her has to be quite young. She has to be able to be naïve and sheltered and scared. Although Austin gets around to being gutsy eventually, she does have lots of fears. I’d pick one of these young actresses—based not on their looks but their ability to portray vulnerability: Dakota Fanning, Elizabeth Olsen, or Sheilene Woodley. I think they are all excellent.

Q: Desolation Row is set against the turbulent backdrop of the 1960’s. Why did this specific era personally resonate with you?

A: Within the mystery genre, historical fiction is my personal favorite. Many authors locate their sleuths and their spymasters during the wars of the twentieth century. The two world wars and the Cold War all have hundreds of mysteries set during those times. The only large wars of last century not “taken,” not overrun with mysteries, occurred in Korea and Vietnam. The latter is a comparatively empty niche that I concluded needed to be filled with more mysteries—and I decided I was the one to do the filling. I wanted to show what life was like for young women of that era—not the type that made headlines, the Hanoi Janes or Angela Davises, but the moderates who nonetheless got swept along by the tides of history during the turbulent sixties. All that turmoil lends itself to drama, intrigue, and murder.

Q: Did you do all of your research in advance or look things up as you went along?

A: I had my fill of research a long time ago in graduate school and chose something I could write about without having to do lots more. If I hit something that I wasn’t sure of, then I looked it up. For example, I mention the Maginot Line and thought I knew exactly what it was, but I did research just to make sure. I was right to begin with, by the way. I also had a Canadian judge read my manuscript to ensure my portrayal of the criminal justice system was correct, and also journalist who had attended the University of Toronto read the manuscript to make sure I had the period details right. Austin Starr and her new husband David move from Texas to Ontario because he is resisting the Vietnam War draft, and they both become grad students at that university.

Q: Did you always envision that the book would become a series or was it a matter of not wanting to let go of your characters after you typed “The End?”

A: I adore historical mysteries that come in series, and that is exactly what I set out to do in the beginning. I am writing the second book in the series and have the third and fourth plots in mind already.

Q: How did you go about finding the right publisher and what was your experience with the publisher you ultimately chose?

A: I submitted the manuscript of Desolation Row to several agents and to three publishers that would take un-agented submissions. Many American agents and some publishers are not keen to take on a book that is not set in the United States and definitely didn’t see the Canadian setting as a plus, but the publisher I ended up with had already issued books that have Canadian content. As soon as I saw that on their web page, I knew that Stairway Press of Seattle would be a good fit with my book. Lucky for me, I turned out to be right. The people at Stairway have been a joy to work with, and because my publisher Ken Coffman runs his operation like a writers’ cooperative, I had a lot of input into how my book turned out physically.

Q: I love the cover design! What’s the story behind it?

A: Isn’t She lovely? I get so many comments about the cover. That pleases me because I found that cover model myself. If I had been with a huge publishing house, I would have had little to no input opt for a hippie-ish looking young women. The same model used in book one will be on book two as well, naturally!

Q: What do you know about the publishing world now that you didn’t know when you first started?

A: I’ve heard lots of horror stories from authors about their dealings with publishers. I used to think that once a writer secured an agent and a publishing contract, then the writer was almost home free, so to speak. Now I know that is not true. There are plusses and minuses to being with big publishers and small ones, and also to self-publishing. I knew bits of all this before, but now I know it all at a much deeper level and with lots more detail

Q: What do you know about the life and habits of being a working writer now that you have published your first book?

A:  I’ve learned that a writer has to do enormous amounts of self-promotion. Also that you really, really have to want to be a writer because it is not easy and is, in fact, tons and tons more work than I ever dreamed. That said, I absolutely love being a working writer, every bit of it. Well, perhaps not the ups and downs, but even the big-name writers say they have those too and that the capriciousness and anxiety inherent in the writing life are all just part of the whole package.

Q: Did you allow anyone to read Desolation Row while it was a work in progress or make them wait until you were completely finished?

A: I am in two writers’ groups and therefore many people had the opportunity to review Desolation Row before it came out. I found their constructive criticism helpful.

Q: Many book clubs are using Skype to invite today’s authors into their living room meetings. Have you done this and, if so, what do readers need to know in order to book you for a virtual appearance?

A: Yes, I love visiting book clubs using Skype! I’ve done it once, and we went on talking on Skype for more than an hour. If anyone would like to sign me up for a book club gig, please email me at Kay@StairwayPress.com

Q: What would your fans be the most surprised to learn about you?

A: My author’s photo shows me holding one of my house rabbits, named Dusty. Fifteen years ago my husband and I began rescuing bunnies that people abandon. Few people know that—after cats and dogs—rabbits are the most often given up to animal shelters. I am a member of a rescue organization called Bunny Buddies in Houston and active in getting people to learn what great house companions rabbits can be.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m writing the second Austin Starr mystery entitled Rainy Day Women. Austin’s only good friend in Canada becomes the prime suspect in the murder of a graduate student in Vancouver who was the leader of a women’s liberation group. Rainy Day Women is a famous Bob Dylan song, but it fits so perfectly. Vancouver in Canada is just as rainy as Seattle, plus the plot centers on women.

Q: Where can readers learn more about you and your work?

A: I have two different pages on Facebook—one is personal where you can become my friend and the second is my author’s page that you can “like.”

These are http://www.facebook.com/kendall.kl and http://www.facebook.com/KayKendallAuthor

As well my personal website is http://www.KayKendallAuthor.com

I’m also on LinkedIn, and I do Tweet @kaylee_kendall

 

 

 

Murder on Camelback Mountain

Steven Wyner book cover

“Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle,” wrote Mickey Spillane. “They read it to get to the end. If it’s a letdown, they won’t buy anymore. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book.”

It’s a formula for success that Arizona author Steven Wyner has taken to heart with the debut of his Herb Nash series, Murder on Camelback Mountain. Wyner artfully couples his passion for the Southwestern landscape with his extensive knowledge of how lawyers and private eyes operate in investigating crimes and bringing wrongdoers to justice.

 Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Prior to penning your Murder on Camelback Mountain, you spent 20 years doing ghostwriting for lawyers. How did you fall into that particular profession and what did the work entail?

A:  I owned a bus tour company during the Reagan years that ran turnaround gambling trips to Las Vegas. This was before Las Vegas reinvented itself, and way before Indian casinos had proliferated the Phoenix area. Competition amongst tour operators was fierce and nasty. My company was sued by a larger competitor. I spent two years fighting them and fighting with my own attorney who liked to say I had a propensity for the law. The case was finally dismissed but I had lost my zeal for the bus tour business and went back to (night) school. As I was about to complete my paralegal studies people began asking me to help them represent themselves in family law and guardianship cases. The self-help craze was sweeping the nation, but people still needed help completing complicated court paperwork. It wasn’t long before I was being solicited by lawyers looking for ways to save money on fulltime payroll. They hired on a contract basis to legal ghostwrite for them and the next thing I knew I was in demand as a legal ghostwriter.

Q: Is truth really stranger than fiction?

A:  I’ve found that to be true in the legal world. That’s why you may often hear workers in law offices say I ought a write a book.

Q: What are some of the challenges you encountered as a wordsmithing “silent partner”?

A: Lawyers don’t really burn midnight oil, at least not since the advent of the computer age . . . and the light bulb.  They’ve become increasingly dependent on others to do their legal research and writing, while they’re in court or out looking for more clients. Skilled legal ghostwriters anticipate what needs to be written or not written, as the case may be, even before a lawyer orders up a project. One even learns to write in that particular lawyer’s voice. It gets real scary sometimes when that happens. There are two main challenges to deal with. First, take nothing for granted. I’ll vouch for about 85% of what I write, but I insist the lawyer take the time to double check my work to make sure they’re comfortable with what I have researched and written. Many lawyers like to cap off what I write with something I may not have been privy to. But sometimes they sign off without reading what they have just signed. Yes, that’s what I said. Maybe it’s because they trust my abilities more than they should, or maybe because they’re just lazy or in a hurry. Sometimes, that can come back to bite them in the ass . . . usually in open court. Lawyers are only people, even though they’re held to a higher standard. So my second challenge, even though it shouldn’t be, is to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Q: How did you make the segue from ghostwriting for attorneys to becoming a published author?

A: You mean how did I go from writing legal fiction to writing real fiction? A few years back I was involved in another (yes, frivolous) lawsuit. This time I did all the legal ghostwriting for the attorney who was representing us. The case was dismissed in our favor halfway through a two week jury trial that followed three years of litigation. It was my mother who said, “You ought a write a book.”  I had no interest in recounting the horrible events of that case, so I tried to fictionalize them. The characters literally jumped out of the keyboard and begged me to tell their story. But I didn’t know who the hell they were. I felt like I was conducting an intake interview in a law firm. After a year of writing, I had a novel called Zepka’s War which originated during WWII. It’s about Saul Zepka, a demolitions expert who wrongly believes he killed some American soldiers in the hedgerows of Normandy and then discovers 40 years later that he’s a hero. I had totally forgotten about writing the book about the lawsuit. Then I spent a year or so writing query letters to literary agents and trying to perfect the art of being rejected. They’d say things like “I’m too busy this year” or “Zepka’s War is not a good fit for this agency.”

Q: So what is Murder on Camelback Mountain all about? Inquiring minds want to know.

A:  Herb Nash is on his way back to Phoenix from a lost weekend in Los Angeles. It’s really been his first chance to be alone since his recent divorce after 25 years. On his way to a business appointment at friend’s law office to discuss working on a new probate case, he discovers he and the lawyer, Lamar Madison, are about to be questioned by a homicide detective who suspects them both of brutally murdering a small time con-artist and only son of one of the city’s wealthiest widows.

The dead man’s dismembered body parts were discovered earlier that morning splayed around a storm drain in the heart of an exclusive Camelback Mountain neighborhood. All because their business cards were found tucked inside the dead man’s shirt pocket, they’re “persons of interest” and potential suspects in the murder investigation.

The only thing Herb Nash has ever used his PI license for was for skip-tracing deadbeat dads and credit criminals. Lamar convinces him to use it to open doors in search of more likely persons of interest to keep the police busy and off their backs. In the process Herb Nash cheats death, takes down a psychopathic killer, and discovers a startling secret about him.

Q: What was your inspiration to write it?

A:  During my Zepka’s War experience I found that many literary agents were looking for detective novels. I had read everything by Michael Connelly, John Grisham, Lee Child, Joseph Wambaugh and many other lesser known published authors. I was familiar with the style and convinced myself that I could write something along those lines. I knew it would not be a Michael Connelly or a John Grisham, but maybe it would be a Steve Wyner. Since I was in the legal support business with significant experience on the legal side and exposure to the detective side and 20 years of case files to use as my inspiration, I decided my protagonist, Herb Nash would be created as a private detective who dabbles in paralegal work on the side, or the other way around, as the case may be. He becomes a go to guy indispensible to lawyers. Particularly, lawyers who often find themselves in ethically challenged situations. I’ve found lawyers in these cases are looking for a non-lawyer possessing legal knowledge to help them through their ethical dilemma, even while they snobbishly try to knock the guy down a peg or two on the socio economic scale.

Q: Did you work from an outline or simply listen to your muse as you went along?

A: The title came to me from I don’t know where, and then I just started writing on the basis of people I’ve known and what I always thought should happen to them, or would not have been surprised to discover what did happened to them.

Q: Tell us about your protagonist Herb Nash and what makes him unique in the world of sleuthing.

A:  First, he’ not a super hero, which means the reader only has to suspend disbelief once in awhile.  Unlike a Jack Reacher, where you have to do that cover to cover, which is obviously fine, I know there are a lot of readers who also enjoy reading about a guy like Herb Nash. Second, he’s in the mid age range of baby boomers. He’s dealing with no longer being 30 or even 40. Mentally, he’s okay, but physically he’s starting to feel his age. Third, carries no gun after a lifetime doing sedentary PI work, tracking down basically non-violent offenders of one kind or the other. He does own a gun, but it’s not a sexy Glock or Beretta. Herb’s 38 snub nose is a hat tip to Raymond Chandler, and it’s used for target practice and nothing more. In the real world where Herb Nash dwells, PIs don’t usually carry guns.  He’s carved out a niche for himself and as I said earlier, he’s built a reputation among local lawyers as a go to guy. They may love him or hate him, but not because he can shoot and hit anything that moves.

Q: What made you choose Arizona as the backdrop for your story?

A: I’ve lived here for over 30 years. It made more sense than Debuque.

Q: How much research was involved to get all of the investigative/procedural information right?

A: Much of it is from personal knowledge from cases I’ve been involved in, and some of it came from a Phoenix cop moonlighting as a security guard at Starbucks.

Q: Did your characters “talk” to you during the development of the story? Did you listen to them?

A: Not so much as they did in Zepka’s War. Herb Nash looks to me for just about everything. He and the rest of them do pretty much what I tell them to do without too much complaining.

Q: From start to finish, how long did the book take to write?

A: Probably about 6 months stretched out over a year.

Q: Did you allow anyone to see your chapters in progress or did you make them wait until you were completely finished?

A:  Occasionally, I’d test ideas and partial paragraphs on a lawyer I work with. My mother helped proofing.

Q: Did you envision Herb Nash to be a recurring character in a mystery series at the start of the book or was it a case of simply not being able to let go of him after you typed “The End”?

A: I knew he would be a recurring character the minute he woke up at that truck stop in Monterey Park on page 1.

Q: Let’s say that Hollywood comes enthusiastically knocking on your door and wants to turn Murder on Camelback Mountain into a feature film. Who would comprise your dream cast for it and why?

A: William H. Macy . . . he’s the right age and has the mix of average guy softness around the edges, quirkiness, and go for the jugular cunning I imagined.  I’d settle for John Malkovich for the same reasons.

Q: If you could go to lunch with a contemporary mystery writer, who would it be and what one question would you most want to ask him/her about their life, their books or the publishing industry?

A: Michael Connelly. We’d be having Moo Shoo chicken at the Friends of China Restaurant, in Los Angeles, a place I’ve actually eaten at to confirm Harry Bosch’s opinion of the food quality. I’d ask Mr. Connelly how he can stay focused cranking out at least one best seller a year for the last 20 years without having to take out the garbage, or fix a leaky faucet . . . at least in the beginning, before he hit the big time.

Q: Like a lot of authors today, you’ve gone the route of self-publishing. What were some of the considerations that went into your decision to ultimately choose Create Space?

A: My age and my ability to make something from nothing. I’m too old to wait a lifetime for some snarky literary agent to tell me I just hit the query letter jackpot. I tried that but enough is enough already. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit and what with the self-publishing industry maturing the way it has, it was full speed ahead. I’m comfortable with Create Space’s model and it’s user friendly.

Q: What do you know about the publishing world now that you didn’t know when you began?

A: I know how to write a great query letter, my walls are papered with them. But seriously, tastes in writing are clearly subjective. So getting published for an unknown author is more a numbers game played by literary agents and publishers that is not always necessarily based on quality or skill, although that is essential.  Imagine my surprise when I find a typo in a John Grisham novel. Anyway, I guess I always thought that a book is published, therefore, it was meant to be. But now I believe many books are being published that should not have been and many are not published that should be. And that getting published is all based on the whims and biases of literary agents and publishers. It would be nice to be discovered by one of them and see Herb Nash depicted on the silver screen by William H. Macy, but in the mean time I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.

Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?

A:  That I tried to heal myself by getting on the highway and listening to Elvis, and dangerously ignored the damage to my psyche?

Q: So what’s next on your plate?

A:  Keep an eye out for the next Herb Nash thriller The Crossword Killings and the paperback and Kindle editions of Zepka’s War on Amazon.com. Also on Amazon.com is a book called Four Quirky Short Story Compilation: Lifetime Guarantee Series & Money Grows on Trees, inspired by endless nights of watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents on Netflix. And I’m working with a couple of attorneys to ghostwrite AZ Primer on DUIs.

If anyone wants to know where I stand on the issues of the day, they can catch me on FB anytime and feel free to request that I be their friend.

 

A Murder of Crows

Murder_of_Crows_cover_(322x480)

As the saying goes, birds of a feather flock together. But do our feathered friends also have an inside track on felonious foul play? In her latest release, A Murder of Crows, Jan Dunlap’s protagonist – Birder/high school counselor Bob White – wrestles with hypnotized students, wind farm controversy, faculty secrets, and rare birds to unmask a murderer.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Let’s start with some background on your journey as a writer and the moment you knew that this was something you wanted to do.

A: I fell in love with the idea of being an author the first time I walked into a public library. I think I was in second grade, and I was entranced by the fact that you could find a book about anything in a library. I wanted to write a book to put up on those shelves!

When I was in high school, I wrote for the school newspaper, and I so enjoyed the writing that I took an English/Communications major in college, then went on to work professionally in Public Relations and advertising. I really enjoyed research and interviews, so I thought I would always be writing non-fiction, and for many years while I was raising my children, I freelanced for regional and national magazines writing about personal spirituality. I also wrote a humor column for my local paper based on raising my children. I admired Erma Bombeck so much, and her columns helped me stay sane as a mom, so I latched onto that style of writing: conversational and tongue-in-cheek.

One day, I finished reading a novel, and it was so poorly written, I decided I could do at least as good a job as that author had done. I guess you could say my pride got the better of me – I had to give it a try. I discovered I really liked inventing characters and witty dialogue, so I decided I’d find a niche and see if I could land a book on a shelf somewhere.

Q: Were you a fan of the mystery genre when you were growing up? If so, who are some of the authors that you admired?

A: I read all the Nancy Drew books, but then lost interest in mysteries until I discovered Tony Hillerman when I was in my late 30s. I’ve always loved the Southwest, and I loved how Hillerman wove the Native American culture and the land itself into his novels. That got me hooked on mysteries. Nevada Barr has that great sense of place, too, and I always learn a lot of natural history from her books. I liked that educational component in both Hillerman’s and Barr’s writing, and I try to do that same thing in my books, but with birds and conservation.

Q: How did you go about honing your writing and storytelling style?

A: Writing a humor column for about five years really gave me the practice I needed to find my voice. I turned out a weekly column, and even though the columns were short, I labored over them to hit exactly the right tone. I read books by authors whose style I admired – like Janet Evanovich (her Stephanie Plum series) – and authors whose craft impressed me – like Steve Berry, David Baldacci, John Grisham – and studied how they developed plots and tension. I actually outlined entire published novels to better understand the structure of a story!

Q: There are lots of subgenres of mystery writing – the P.I., the amateur sleuth, police procedurals, cozies, capers, locked rooms, noir, suspense, howdunits. What category does A Murder of Crows best fit and why did you choose it as the best vehicle for your plot?

A: A Murder of Crows, like all the Birder Murders, is a cozy. When I was trying to find a niche for writing novels, I knew I wanted to write about birders solving murders, but I wanted it to be a humorous series, so the cozy subgenre seemed ideal. My books are more driven by the characters than the plot – one of my booksellers calls them ‘mystery light,’ which is exactly what I was aiming for. I want readers to have fun when they read my novels, not get stressed out!

Q: So what inspired you to mix birds with murder?

A: My younger son went on a birding trip when he was in high school. It was the dead of winter, and I knew he’d be in remote locations. Being the overprotective, nervous mom I was, I worried something dreadful would happen to him, and I wouldn’t be there to help. The worst thing I could imagine was an injury and freezing to death. And then I imagined something else: my son finding a dead body! I realized it would make a great mystery if birders found bodies in these remote places they go birding.

Q: Are you a birdwatcher?

A: I am! Most of my birdwatching takes place on my porch, though. We’re lucky enough to back up to a preserved piece of forest and marsh, so I get lots of varieties of birds passing through my yard. I’m not at all a dedicated birdwatcher like my protagonist – I have yet to drive hours in hopes of seeing a specific bird in the wild!

Q: Do you have a favorite feathered focus?

A: I love Bald Eagles. Every time I see one flying, I have to stop what I’m doing and just gaze at it. The grace and power of that bird is awe-inspiring for me.

Q: Conservation themes are a recurring theme in your books. What kind of research goes into this?

A: A great deal! I do extensive research on conservation issues to be sure I cover both pro and con sides in my novel. I do a lot of online investigating, I read books, I interview experts in the field, I watch videos. I find it all so interesting, I wish I could put more of the research into my books, but I always have to balance what is necessary to the story, and what is just interesting information.

Sometimes I turn up really funny anecdotes to include. For instance, in A Murder of Crows, I was researching complaints about wind farms, and found a few stories about folks who insisted that the frequency of the turbines gave them hallucinations, so they wanted to sue the wind farms. The complaints, it turned out, were fabricated in hopes of getting financial settlements. That’s the kind of material I love to work into stories.

Q: Tell us about your protagonist and the skill sets he brings to the table?

A: Bob White, as an expert birder, is a skilled observer, so he notes details others might miss as he tries to solve murders or mysteries. He’s also a sensitive listener, and as a high school counselor, he’s trained to problem-solve and listen to his gut instinct when it comes to the human element. He’s also very likable and non-threatening, which often can catch his antagonists off-guard to his own benefit.

Q: If your books were turned into a television series, who would play the lead?

A: Tom Hiddleston has the height, the smile, and the likability.

Q: How much of your books are based on real places and real people?

A: A lot! I love writing about real places both to give readers a grounding in reality and because then I get to go there myself in order to capture it on the page. Many of my characters are composites of people I’ve met: my protagonist, Bob White, is partly a combination of two high school counselors I know, my son, my husband, and me. I really enjoy creating new characters, too, because I start with one very human trait and build from there.

Q: Do your characters ever talk to one another – or, for that matter, to you – inside your head?

A: Just a minute – let me check with them, and I’ll get back to you. (Pause) Yes, yes, they do.

Q: Have they ever surprised you over the course of writing their actions and conversations?

A: All the time! Here I thought that as the creator of the characters, I got to call all the shots, but being an author is like being a mom – they don’t always listen to you or do what you want them to do! I know I’m controlling too much when I find myself stuck in the progress of my plot. That’s when I realize I’ve written all of us into a corner, and I need to go back and really let the characters drive the plot, not me. Sometimes, I’ll read a piece of dialogue I’ve slaved over and then delete it all, because it’s not the character’s voice, it’s mine. Like kids, characters can be really stubborn when things don’t go their way.

Q: How did you go about making the all-important decision of who would publish your work?

A: It was the process of elimination. I spent almost three years querying agents to represent me to a national publisher, but no one took me on as a client. After several agents said that no one was interested in birds – even though it’s one of the fastest growing hobbies in America – I decided to try a small publisher in Minnesota since we have a very active birding community in the state. I researched regional publishers (no agent required) and found North Star Press, Inc. of St. Cloud. They focused on books with a Minnesota tie-in, and my publisher herself was a birder, so she was very enthused about the project. That was five books ago.

Q: What do you know now about the publishing world that you didn’t know when you started?

A: Writing is the easiest part of a writer’s task – once you’re published, you need to devote enormous amounts of time and energy to marketing your book. I wish I’d written all 12 books in my series before I’d gotten the first one published because I’m always behind now on writing!

Q: What do your five children think about their mom’s mystery-writing career?

A: They are all totally supportive, and help me out by being my first readers and critics, teaching me more about social networking for marketing, and encouraging me to keep at it. As long as I don’t embarrass them in print, they’re okay with my writing. Although I think one of them once said I was using writing as a passive-aggressive outlet…

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: I’m writing book #6 in the series right now. It’s titled Swift Justice and will be out in 2014. I’m also planning a trip to the Rio Grande Valley to research birds and settings for book #7.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know?

A: I love hearing from readers at my website www.jandunlap.com and often work into the books the ideas they share with me. I’m also on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, where I pin images and ideas for upcoming books to give readers a sneak peek into what’s ahead for Bob White. Finally, I do write a brief humor blog on my website to give visitors a weekly laugh. And my publisher does offer free Kindles of my books on occasion: the third book in the series, titled A Bobwhite Killing, is going to be free on Kindle at Amazon.com July 10-14, 2013. It’s a great opportunity to try out a Birder Murder and get to know Bob White and the world of birding!