Killing Time

The Etonville Little Theatre is producing Dracula and somebody planted a stake in a stranger’s heart. Sleuth Dodie O’Dell is on the job!

Just in time for Halloween, a bewitching new mystery by author Suzanne Trauth.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: We’re clearly kindred spirits in our respective expertise with novels, theatrical scripts and screenplays. Of these three storytelling platforms, do you have a favorite?

A: Choosing one would be like choosing a favorite child! You love them all. Because my background is in theatre, playwriting was most familiar but the genre I started writing last. Writing screenplays taught me storytelling structure. But novels have provided the most freedom, the most leeway in storytelling. I would have to say my favorite is whatever genre I am working on at the moment and right now, at least through the pandemic, it’s been novels, so novels are my favorite genre right now.

Q: What was your first foray into publishing and where did it lead in your evolution as a writer?

A: My initial publishing ventures were in the academic arena—a book co-written with a colleague on acting technique titled Sonia Moore and American Acting Training, that focused on character development and the creation of story. I also co-edited a play anthology that included a play I’d co-written. The anthology, Katrina on Stage, focused on plays written about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Though these works were either non-fiction or theatre-based, writing them sowed seeds of discipline, the importance of editing, meeting schedules. And character development was the topic, or formed the basis, of all the works which naturally fed into the creation of character in novels.

Q: How do/did these various genres influence each other?

A: Since I started writing screenplays first, I had an opportunity to learn structure, hone dialogue, and create the specific world of characters quickly. Writing plays was an easy transition with dialogue and character, though I felt screenplays were more like an outline and theatrical plays allowed characters more room to express their emotional and internal lives. Once I settled into writing novels, both genres influenced my storytelling via a tight structure, dramatic dialogue that pushed the narrative forward, and characters that were specific, had clear wants and needs, and relationships.

Q: If you could sit down with any three writers whose work most influenced your own style, who would they be and what would you like to ask them?

A: Elizabeth George: “Though you are an American living in California, your Inspector Lynley Series takes place in England. How do you mine a foreign country and its language, manners, history, geography, and customs to be credible for an international audience?”

Agatha Christie: “When you disappeared in 1926 for eleven days, what really happened to you?” It’s still one of the great mysteries about the queen of mystery.

Louis Penny: “You’ve created a lovely, gentle, intelligent protagonist in Armand Gamache. How do you balance these wonderful character traits with the need to have a flawed protagonist as well?” I love this series and am working my way through all of her books.

Q: Tell us how your Dodie O’Dell mystery series came about.

A: I had written a book a number of years ago that featured Dodie and some of the characters currently in the series. When I approached an editor, a terrific help, he suggested I decide which I was writing: women’s fiction or a mystery? “Where do you see your book on the bookstore shelf?” I immediately said “mystery” and he set to work assisting me in the developmental editing process. I queried Kensington Books at his suggestion and was offered a three book contract.

Q: What is it about female sleuths that make them so appealing to mystery lovers?

A: Good question. I think most mystery readers are women and more and more protagonists are female. In my experience, they are rarely hard-boiled and bring sensitivity, humor, and personable traits to the sleuth. I’m thinking Kinsey Milhone in Sue Grafton’s series, Stephanie Plum in Janet Evanovich’s books, even Miss Marple and Nancy Drew which, by the way, I grew up reading!

Q: Is there a particular character in this series with whom you strongly identify?

A: I suppose I’d have to say Dodie…in a way she is my alter ego. I would have enjoyed engaging in amateur sleuthing on a regular basis years ago. However she manages a restaurant, and I include lots of menu items in the books, but I don’t cook so much…at least I didn’t before the pandemic hit. I’m actually cooking more now!

But since I spent decades teaching, producing, and directing theatre, I have a soft spot for Penny, the whistle-blowing stage manager. I was able to channel my funny, crazy, traumatic theatre experiences through her.

Q: Your mysteries include a good amount of time spent in the world of theatre, a focus which reflects both your academic background and the number of years you spent acting, directing, teaching and penning plays. In light of the current pandemic which has shuttered production companies across the country and around the world, what is your prediction for theatre’s comeback…or will it?

A: Yes! I definitely believe theatre will come back. It’s an art form that has an almost three thousand year history…an institution like that cannot simply die. However, I think “coming back” will take time and require flexibility. For example, some regional theatres are producing work outside under tents; some are severely limiting indoor seating and size of productions and casts; new plays are being written and presented in staged readings on Zoom and other platforms. Writers are still creating and actors still performing. I do fear, however, that it will be a while before Broadway reopens. But I am hopeful that even two thousand seat houses will one day be able to fill them. I so look forward to it.

Q: How do you choose which plays and details of production to feature in each book?

A: When I started the series I began with Romeo and Juliet, a play that is well known to most readers, for the first book, Show Time. I continued to choose shows that most people would have some familiarity with: classics, a musical, a new play based on an old chestnut. Once I had the play, I worked the mystery around it: Who is murdered? Who is new to the theatre company? What characters in the company would have a motivation to kill? What would the rehearsal process be like with this particular production? How does the rehearsal and performance mesh with Dodie’s sleuthing and attempts to solve the mystery? I could then incorporate running jokes, like the artistic director’s comical pre-show warm-ups. I have to say, much of the theatre activity is based on my experience, and then enhanced.

Q: Writers often do “casting” in their heads as they develop their characters. Is this the case for you?

A: While I don’t actually cast characters in my mystery series, I do see them and hear them as I am writing and they give me quite the runaround! Sometimes they get ahead of me and I have to catch up…maybe it’s my theatre background but the characters are always “acting out.”

Q: In your own experience, what are the pros and cons of writing a mystery series versus standalone works?

A: Writing a series gives me the opportunity to develop characters and setting over a number of books. I have the time to create arcs for the main characters and watch them change and grow. Readers tell me they love to see the small town of Etonville come alive book after book. However, I have to be careful not to repeat myself with a series: though each book has primarily the same cast and setting, the play, murder, motivations etc. have to change.

I am writing my first standalone novel now and I am finding it exhilarating. I have the freedom to wander in different directions. I can make the book breathe. On the other hand, each standalone novel requires a whole new setting and cast of characters. I think it takes much more preparation and research time. Though I have to admit I am a “plantser,” I combine some plotting with writing by the seat of my pants.

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

A: I am a celebrant and perform weddings in the New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania area.

Q: What’s currently on your reading list?

A: I have several great books that I am in the midst of or looking forward to reading:

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Aftermath by Julia Alvarez

Bury Your Dead by Louis Penny

The Abolitionist’s Daughter by Diane McPhail

Q: Best advice for aspiring writers?

A: The same advice I was given over and over: persist. Don’t get bogged down by perfectionism (especially on that first draft), in-your-head criticism, or distractions. Write every day even if it’s only one sentence! Find a great editor when you are ready to share your book with the world. And, I am doing it for the first time this year, try NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month. It is a project to push writers to attempt 50,000 words during the month of November. In other words, draft a new novel. I am cheating a little since I hope to have the novel half-drafted by November.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: I am in the midst of a standalone mystery that I hope to have drafted by Christmas—with the help of NaNoWriMo. I am also finishing a last draft of a new play.

Q: Anything else you’d like to share?

A: Thanks so much for having me on your blog! I really enjoyed sharing my thoughts on writing with you.