A Chat With C. Hope Clark

Mystery author C. Hope Clark is well known within the writing world for her mystery novels and very successful Funds For Writers website and newsletter. In fact, FFW is listed as one of Writer’s Digest’s 101 Best Websites for Writers and continues to be atop resource for new and established writers seeking paid writing gigs.

With her many years of experience, we know our readers will gain a great deal from Hope’s many helpful insights and advice on writing, publishing, and book promotion. If you haven’t discovered her mystery novels yet, you’ll definitely want to dive in! Welcome, Hope!

Interviewed by Debbie A. McClure

Welcome, Hope. Perhaps you could start off by telling us about your books. 

Mystery is magic to me. The craft of pitting author against reader, with the author carving their story such that they hope the reader is surprised at the end, not seeing what’s coming, versus the reader avowing to figure it out. Mysteries are my favorite to read, and therefore, my favorite to write. Published by Bell Bridge Books, my eleven novels are in the Carolina Slade Mystery Series (five) and the Edisto Island Mysteries (six), all set in real life settings in South Carolina.

Both have strong female protagonists. Carolina Slade investigates for the US Department of Agriculture, pursuing rural crimes that urban dwellers cannot fathom. Callie Jean Morgan is the police chief for the tiny tourist community of Edisto Beach, on the jungle-laden Lowcountry on the South Carolina coast. The stories get thicker and deeper with each release, and readers have come to love the returning characters as well as the new ones that appear in each book. 

In April 2021, we plan to release the seventh Edisto Island Mystery, titled Reunion on Edisto. But later in the year, we intend to release books one and two in a third series, the Sterling Banks Mysteries, this time involving a strong female PI who also happens to be “the remaining heir of the oldest family in the oldest county in South Carolina.” She inherits the family 3,000-acre pecan enterprise, and while maintaining the huge farm, she takes on selected cases, often involving her two childhood buddies – one a local deputy and the other the foreman on her farm. 

I love that your series and characters continue to grow and develop. Tell me, where do you get your story lines and character profiles?

A handful of characters are molded after people I know, like Sophie Bianchi in the Edisto Island Mysteries. She is a real yoga instructor on Edisto Beach. (Yes, it’s a real place.) Savannah Conroy is similar to a close friend in the Slade mysteries. Carolina Slade performs duties I used to perform with the federal government, and since I married a federal agent, Wayne Largo might be loosely akin to him. But the vast majority are just made up people who serve the story’s needs and accent the characteristics I need to make the protagonist look one way or another. 

The story lines, however, are a combination of my experiences as an internal affairs investigator and my husband’s cases. But half of the books are simply composites of what he and I have witnessed and heard of or flat made up to be feasible. Since I believe setting ought to be a character in books, the sense of place often helps direct or emphasize the crime. Reunion on Edisto, for instance, is about a high school group planning a 25-year reunion, only they are all coping with the death of two classmates that occurred during their senior year. I know of two classmates who died from my own class, and while I did not write their story, their deaths catapulted me into this story about loss of classmates to murder and suicide. So . . . you write what you know, make up what you need to, and gather what you see. In truth, stories are mostly about living life with your eyes wide open to capture what to write.

That bit of your background and your husband’s is interesting. What research do you do for each book?

I visit the places. I believe in using real places, except in the third series, in which I create a fictitious county out of a real area. I carve it out of two other counties and use the real rivers, towns, highways, etc. So I research place. 

If I need law enforcement research, I go through my husband. If he doesn’t know, he knows people who do. The Carolina Slade material often comes from my past, and I know where online to look, or who to talk to. 

But I do not research until I reach a spot in the book where I need to. Setting and characters come first, to me. Then the plot. The details that need research are acquired along the way, either in person, interviews, or online. I just do not believe in researching a book to death, though, and too many novice authors never finish or even start a book for doing too much research. I just do it as needed.

Besides your books you have another very successful venture. Tell us about Funds For Writers.

FundsforWriters is a website and newsletter that directs writers to resources to earn a living. It was founded to emphasize to writers that they are doing themselves and the writing community an injustice writing for free. We post grants, contests, markets, publishers, and jobs with calls for submissions in a weekly newsletter. We post about 24-28 opportunities each week. The readership numbers 26,000, and the website has been labeled Writer’s Digest’s 101 Best Websites for Writers for 20 years as of this year. I am a writer’s advocate. 

I’ve long been a follower and admirer of that platform. Tell us, what is your goal with FFW?

The original goal was to find markets and contests for myself, and use my research to earn a little money with the newsletter. I started back when there were only three writing newsletters, actually. But it soon grew, and it became my brand. Then years later, I returned to my fiction, my first love, and used my reach obtained from FFW to find readers. I found my own publisher through FFW research, as a matter of fact, and gave it to my agent, who I later discarded when I learned I could pave my own way from all I’d learned from years of FFW. 

What common mistakes do you think new writers make?

Publishing too fast. Not honing the craft before trying to publish. Because you write something does not mean it’s publish-worthy. A lot of words need to be written and discarded before you publish, and that means for short stories, novels, copywriting, script-writing, any type of writing. Be willing to throw words away. Be willing to be critiqued. Be willing to accept that your first words are crap. 

Writers often do not research the markets or publishers they are submitting to. Almost memorize them. Pitch to markets that want what you have to offer. Half or more of the submissions I receive do not fit FFW, so I have to believe that agents, publishers, and editors endure the same lazy submissions. So many wrong submissions like that are much of the reason that many sources do not send rejection letters. They’d need a fulltime person to do so, and that person would be nothing more than an expense. The more precise you are in your submissions, the more likely you’ll receive a reply.

That’s great advice! So what do you struggle with in your own writing or writing career?

Not writing faster. I’m not a book-a-month writer. I prefer writing 80-100K words in a story, much like I like to read them. I want to invest in a long story, and those aren’t written overnight. I also struggle writing a short story. I don’t enjoy reading most shorts because of the endings, so I’m never satisfied with my attempts to give a solid beginning, middle, and ending to something only a couple thousand words. 

Do you have any advice for getting paid writing gigs that you’d like to share?

Create a solid website and quit writing for free. When I hire someone to write for FFW (I purchase 52 pieces a year at $60 for 600 words) and the submitter has only published for free, I am inclined to turn them down. Same goes for someone without a blog or website. As a publication paying for content, I am counting on that writer I pay to further distribute the link and garner me additional readers. If a writer cannot help me in that regard, I’m inclined to reject. There are so many markets out there paying, and to shortchange yourself by writing for free because you don’t “think” you are good enough to be paid for it, makes me question whether the work is worthy of purchase or the writer is sure enough of themselves to give me a good product. Writers and publishers have a give and take relationship. Nothing is one way. Respect yourself by only writing for paid markets. In FFW, I won’t post anything that pays less than 10 cents/word unless it is scifi/fantasy, which considers professional rate to be 6 cents/word. As you’ve probably figured out, FFW is a tough-love entity, but my readers adore it.

What are your thoughts on self vs trad publishing?

Too difficult to answer. What are your goals short term, mid-term, and long-term? If you want to self-publish, then be willing to sink serious money into the editing, formatting, cover, AND promotion. Be willing to put in tons of marketing time. So many people try to claim that traditional does no marketing for its authors, and they are wrong. Just the simple reach and distribution of traditional is so much further. I have done both. I self-published several nonfiction/how-to books and I’m traditionally published for my fiction. I do not care to self-publish my fiction. And having done both, I can honestly say that I get to spend more time writing with traditional than with self-publishing. But a lot depends on how much control you want, how savvy your marketing talent, and how much investment you can make up front.

In traditional, while you contract with the publisher, they make their money on numbers of books sold. In self-publishing, they make their money from the authors paying to be published . . . not the number of books sold. Ponder that and be willing accept their allegiance in both cases. 

Either way, you better be in it for the long haul. A writer will struggle making any sort of money until they’ve written a half dozen books or more, and even then, it won’t be serious money. You have to build a following and be willing to write consistently to feed their hunger or they move on to another author. There are too many good books and authors out there for an author to write one or two books and watch to see how they do. You’ll be quickly forgotten. 

Can you talk about some publishing scams you’ve seen recently? What should new writers watch for?

Anyone asking to publish you is a red flag. There are too many awesome writers out there knocking on publishing doors for publishers to seek them out. Those asking for your work are also asking for your money. 

Get a contract or at least an email confirmation for articles, and a detailed contract for a book that you have an agent or attorney review. I’ve helped more authors try to get out of a bad deal than I care to think about. Sometimes I tell them to forget that book or article and just move on to write another. Just like it is easier to get married than divorced, it’s much easier to sign a contract than get out of one. Get another set of knowledgeable eyes on that contract, and talk to others with experience with the contract provider. 

Do you have any advice on being taken seriously as a writer?

Take yourself seriously first. I can smell an author who does not take themselves seriously. Agents, publishers, and editors can, too, and they have zero time to work with someone who is nervous and constantly questioning themselves (or the publisher). I have been asked, “What do I do to quit feeling nervous about submitting?” I say to submit or quit. Others say, “How can I make myself write? I just don’t feel the desire.” Again, I say write or quit. The feeling part is not part of the equation. This is a business, people. Would you hire a nervous contractor, attorney, doctor, or tutor? No. You want someone confident in what they do, because you’re paying them to be confident in fulfilling your needs.

Also, read ALL instructions or guidelines and follow them religiously. Edit religiously. Be prompt. Beat deadlines. Show that you take your job personally and that you are reliable. I want my publisher or editor to love seeing emails from me, because my submission means less work for them than the average submission. Make them want you. 

What under and over estimations do you see new writers making?

In terms of gigs, assuming you know more than the employer in terms of what they want, the word count, or any other specs in the job, is dangerous. As someone who purchases articles, I look at the subject first and word count second. When it exceeds 650 by more than 10-20 words, I do not even read it. Some have even told me that the article needed to be longer because the information was so critical. Well, so is my space in the publication, and it happens to be 650 words. As a new writer, just do what you are told (i.e., follow guidelines) to get your foot in the door. You write for a living. They publish for a living. Don’t pretend you know better than they do about their needs and desires. 

As for books, do not think the first book is THE book, and that the fact you wrote something book-length means it is worth being a book. Especially in a first or second book, a writer will grow exponentially from page 1 to THE END, meaning you need to start over and start rewriting to make the amateur first part as mature as the ending. And you know what? You will grow again, and will need to repeat yet again.

This is also called developing a voice. There is no how-to book on developing voice. It comes from tons of writing and lots of effort to improve with each word that goes on the page. As for overestimating, I do not believe the grand majority of writers can over-edit. That usually happens with more seasoned writers, and even then, it is rare. Just put the thought out of your head. Edit until it shines.

So many writers struggle with marketing and promotion. I’m sure any advice you have would be welcome.

First, work darn hard on your online presence. COVID has made the world realize that the action is now online. Be active in some sort of social media. Not all of it, but one or two of them. Give away enough review copies, but don’t become a K-mart special by selling your work free or cheap, because that is how you will be embedded into someone’s mind. Be worthy of being paid for. Sometimes that takes time. But if you invest your free books into review copies, you gain notoriety sooner. I give away 30-40 books for reviews with each new release, sometimes more. And I check back in after a month to see if they received the book and if they are enjoying it. If someone keeps your book and doesn’t review it, don’t make the mistake of offering them another review with another book later. (But don’t argue with them either. Accept the loss.)

Guest blog. When I go on a blog tour, which I create myself through research, I post 20-40 guest pieces in under a month. Topics? Whatever the blog owner wishes. Like markets, research the blog to know its needs, and if the owner doesn’t post or tell you their needs, interpret it from the blog itself. Show you respect their work. 

I also try to saturate my local area. I’ve gotten involved in local activities and made it known that my career was being an author. I tell them where my books are and have a quick elevator pitch for each of the two series. A local coffee shop sells my books, and in two weeks in December, that tiny shop went through 40+ books just because I posted on the town Facebook page that I had restocked signed copies of the novels at The Coffee Shelf, and that they make great gifts. 

Be confident and ever working on the next opportunity. Always have another book in the works or scheduled. People binge these days. As a matter of fact, my third series is being held back until Fall 2021 until there are two books to release so that the series doesn’t have just one book on the shelf. 

Never fail to own up to being a writer/author, and every time you meet someone, you have a chance to earn another reader, or even better, another fan. 

You’ve given us some great insights and food for thought. So what’s next (and/or current) for you?

Three books will be released in 2021. Not sure I can keep that pace for the following years, but I will continue with at least two per year. And I will continue with FFW for as long as the readers enjoy it. When the world opens back up, if personal appearances return, I’ll be back presenting a few places a year. But I love having a publisher that will publish just about whatever mystery I wish to write. We have an excellent relationship that has taken a few years to cultivate, and I’m honored to have them in my corner. And I think they like me, too.

Thank you Hope. It’s been a true pleasure chatting with you, and we wish you every success in your future.

To find and follow Hope, click on the links below:

www.chopeclark.com

www.fundsforwriters.com

https://www.facebook.com/chopeclark/

https://www.goodreads.com/hopeclark

A Chat With Jeri Westerson

Jeri Westerson

I met Jeri Westerson at her reading at Vroman’s Pasadena, for her then new release Booke of the Hidden and, having attended several author readings for research, I was stunned at the quality and detail of her event. I had already devoured her novel in seven hours straight, literally unable to put the book down, and had considered myself a fan of hers for life. However, I held her in much higher esteem after meeting her in person, and seeing how much she cared for the fellow authors in the audience and how she had a knack for making everyone feel welcome. It is my honor and pleasure to introduce you to her.

Interviewer: Joanna Celeste
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Q: You have worked with publishers on both sides of the pond and have self-published. What are the advantages of each experience?

A: There’s always an advantage to being traditionally published. Right now I have—and it blows my mind a little—four publishers: St. Martin’s still has the rights to a few of the Crispin books, mostly the first one; Severn House (my UK publisher) picked up the rest of the series of all new books; Diversion publishes my current paranormal series, BOOKE OF THE HIDDEN; and a small LGBT publisher, MLR Press still holds the rights to some of my Skyler Foxe Mysteries. In between all that, I have published a few historical novels, the rest of the Skyler Foxe Mysteries, and one Crispin book on my own. That makes me a hybrid author. The advantages to being published traditionally is the “discovery” aspect. In other words, how will readers find you? And if you are traditionally published, and with a big New York publisher at that, being in their catalogue is a huge push forward. It’s the imprimatur to booksellers, libraries, and reviewers, that your book is worth reading, which in turn puts it in front of the eyes of readers. You still have to do the lion’s share of promotion yourself, but when they take care of sending books to reviewers and setting up other things, with a publicist at your disposal, it helps a lot. The UK publisher is no different from US publishers, except for two release dates; one there and one here. Why they aren’t on the same date, I have yet to determine. Tradition, I guess. With a larger publisher, you can expect an advance. It’s nice to have operating funds. A small to medium publisher won’t offer you an advance.

So, once you’ve been publishing for a while, understanding some of the nuances of publishing, publicity, and marketing, then you might wish to venture into self-publishing. I certainly wouldn’t have done it out of the gate, and I always advise people NOT to do that. But many are impatient. I laugh when I hear they sent queries to two whole agents and got rejected. Good grief, if I had stopped at that I wouldn’t have 24 books out there published right now. Books that are well-written, well-reviewed, with multiple award-nominations. What’s wrong with paying some dues and learning along the way?

Q: In the twenty+ years you have been involved in this industry, you have been front row to a lot of change. What has been the most notable to you?

A: I suppose ebooks and self-publishing. The only way to self-publish in the old days was to go to a “vanity press” and pay them to publish you. You can still find them today, but there’s no reason to go with those who will promise you the moon, and deliver little. There are several platforms today (Amazon being the biggest and easiest to navigate), but there’s so much more to it than pressing the “publish” button. I mean, if you want to be reviewed by Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal—and you do—they have a four to six-month lead time. In other words, the book can’t be published for at least four to six months. So what’s your hurry? All that money you’re going to rake in? That’s not going to happen. In that case, take your time. Hire yourself a content editor, then a copy editor. Hire a good cover designer. This is your face to the world. Don’t half-ass it.

And then there are the ebooks. When they really started exploding on the scene in 2010-11, something in there, they saved my skin with St. Martin’s, at least for a while. My series would have been dead if it hadn’t been for the ebook market. The books were cheaper, for one. And convenient, for the other. My overall sales are still higher in ebooks. But that’s changing too.

Q: How do you imagine or anticipate the industry moving forward from here?

A: There’s a real problem with piracy, and with readers who think that artistic content should be free. I don’t know what can be done to change those attitudes. But overall, book sales are down. Book tours aren’t profitable for the mid-lister, like me. Who knows how it will evolve? I know there will always be people who enjoy reading genre fiction, who want a good size 300-400 page book, who will pay for the privilege of buying it or encouraging their library to get it in the stacks. But right now, where are those younger readers? I’m trying to tap into them with my paranormal, but it’s tough.

Q: Your reading was one of the most engaging I had ever attended. What do you consider critical elements to a successful reading?

A: The first thing is, do NOT read more than five minutes. Even if you are the best actor in the world, the attention span these days means you must keep it short. And for those who aren’t used to reading aloud, practice. Practice by yourself and in front of someone. Read more slowly than you think you should. When we read to ourselves we zip through it, but when reading aloud, you need to Say. Each. Word. Be lively! As if you are reading to your child. Do voices. Pick an interesting scene with dialog. Have fun with it.

Q: Would you recommend new authors set up readings, even if they only get a few attendees?

A: Yes, because if you’re a newbie then no one has ever heard of your books. And this is a way to help them hear it. Being in a bookstore setting for this is the best because people just wandering through might be engaged by your reading. In a library, it’s harder because you will likely be in a closed room for your event. But do schedule those, too. Make sure the person setting up your event will advertise to whatever reading group they might have at the library. Have them schedule you accordingly. (Have an “event,” and that means doing more than a reading. Have an interesting presentation that only has to do with your book peripherally. I talk about aspects of medieval history when I do a library event, not just talk about my new book) Your event might be to speak at their book club meeting.

Q: You served two terms as president of the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America (https://mysterywriters.org) served a term as Vice President of the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime (http://www.sistersincrime.org), and two terms as president of the Orange County chapter of Sisters in Crime. At the reading, you strongly recommended authors network. What were some of the best things you learned from your vantage as president and vice president of those organizations?

A: Being welcoming. You have to welcome the new, the shy. Don’t just hang with your besties. Go out and talk to people you don’t know that might have been coming to the meetings a while. These are the people you want to invite to volunteer to be on the board. And there is nothing like volunteering to learn the ins and outs of organizing, to feel better about networking with others, to learn to be a little less shy. You’re now one of the team.

Q: Booke of the Hidden, your new paranormal book series, is a different direction for you, paranormal and urban fantasy. Are there any resources you can cross over from your medieval mysteries, the Crispin Guest series?

A: I still have to do research, but it isn’t as extensive as the medieval mystery research. It’s a cakewalk! So one does use those skills. Then it’s just telling an interesting and involving tale.

Q: Speaking of, your latest Crispin Guest medieval mystery novel, The Season of Blood, was just launched Christmas Eve last year, with your next, The Deepest Grave, set for a UK release in April, with a US release in August. What do you do to keep track of details and Crispin’s history or character development across the series?

A: I have not only an historical timeline of events with real people and what they’re doing, but I have a parallel timeline for Crispin. This helps me to establish when I want him to cross over the line into what was really happening in London or elsewhere. Chaucer pokes into the story from time to time. He was once Crispin’s best friend when they both worked for the duke of Lancaster. Then Lancaster shows up occasionally. Katherine Swynford, Lancaster’s mistress makes an appearance. Henry Bolingbroke, Lancaster’s son, who becomes Henry IV, is also an important addition to the series. Jack Tucker, Crispin’s apprentice, grows up with the series. In the latest book, SEASON OF BLOOD, he is engaged to be married. And in the upcoming book, THE DEEPEST GRAVE, Jack is going to be a father and Crispin has to cope with Jack’s wife living with them. It helps the series to grow right along with the characters, rather than keeping it static like a Hercule Poirot. Poirot is the same from the first book to the last. These changes that have happened in Crispin’s life have truly seasoned him and allowed him to grow as a person, and I find this a fascinating place to go with these characters.

Q: How does your writing schedule usually go?

A: I write every day, including weekends and holidays, unless I skive off. I used to have a really regimented schedule, but I find that as I’ve gotten older and my attention span has gone all over the place, my best laid plans are all for naught. I start at seven in the morning and mess around on emails and on Facebook. Usually around 9 or 10 I will begin to write, and that means reading over what I wrote the day before, sometimes going farther back in the manuscript to read it all for sense and to get into the rhythm again. But I find I write a few paragraphs, and mess around on social media. I write a page, and then stop to do research. I stop and start a lot. And sometimes I will stop in the middle of the day to watch movies. I’ll get a second wind about three and write for several hours. It all depends. And there is no right or wrong about it. As long as I meet my deadlines. And I try to make sure I get nine months for each book.

Q: What are some things you wish were talked about more in your industry?

A: What writers make. We really make very little for all the work we do. Maybe they wouldn’t pirate books so much if they knew how important each sale is.

Q: You have had quite a host of careers and occupations! What was the moment you decided to become a full-time author? (Though, you are also an expert on the Middle Ages, with talks around the country and acting as a guest lecturer. Where you get to demonstrate medieval weaponry, how awesome is that?)

A: Well, I wasn’t doing all that lecturing and talking until I was published. And that took a decade+. That’s why I had so many silly careers. I was a full-time mom, and writing part time with a part-time paying job. Before all this, I was a graphic designer and art director. That was a great career. With absolutely no intentions of becoming a writer. I wrote for fun in my free time and never let anyone know I wrote. So I fully intended to continue to be an artist. But I semi-retired to have a baby. And when he was about two, I decided to get back into freelancing. But the whole industry had gone to computer graphics and I knew nothing about it. I couldn’t afford the Mac I would have to acquire or the lessons to learn how to use it. So by necessity, I was trying to think of something I could do at home and also raise my son, and it occurred to me that I might try to be an author. How hard could it be? (Insert laughter) Harder than I thought, even with all my researching and getting an agent (I’m currently on my fourth). But eventually—with my husband always standing by me—I prevailed.

Q: You had shared excellent advice for new writers to read a lot, write a lot, and network; to not do this for the money; that this had to be their passion. What was some of the best advice you received when starting out?

A: I didn’t get any. I was on my own, writing historical novels in a vacuum before I started writing mysteries and finally getting to network with other mystery writers. But I soon learned the best advice for me: listen to the experts, the people further along than you. They’ve already been through it. If they make a suggestion—or a critique of your work—listen to what they have to say. Also, my training in graphic design helped me, too. It taught me that I’m creating a product for an audience. It isn’t “art” per se. It fulfills a function but it also has to work artistically. So do works of fiction. Your clients are your editor and the reading public. Yes, you are the creator, using your artistic skills, but it still has to please those readers out there.

Websites: http://www.jeriwesterson.com/ http://bookeofthehidden.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/crispin.guest
Twitter: @jeriwesterson
Instagram: jeriwestersonauthor
Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/jeriwesterson/ https://www.pinterest.com/jeriwesterson/booke-of-the-hidden/
Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Booke-Hidden-Jeri-Westerson-ebook/dp/B074TS6G7R/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1515549307&sr=8-1&keywords=booke+of+the+hidden+by+jeri+westerson