Author Saralyn Richard knows how to weave an excellent tale of murder and mystery in her newest page-turning book, A PALETTE FOR LOVE AND MURDER, that’s sure to pull readers in and hold them fast. Fans of her protagonist, Detective Oliver Parrot, will enjoy continuing to follow his adventures, and his life, in this intriguing new series that’s winning readers from all walks of life. A creative writing instructor at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, Saralyn loves to pen stories of mystery, mayhem, and love that have garnered terrific reviews. Read on to learn more about this fascinating author and her work.
Interviewed by Debbie A. McClure
Q Why did you choose to set this series in the world of Brandywine Valley?
A I’ve been fortunate enough to visit relatives in Brandywine Valley frequently. It is one of my happy places. The country landscape is scenic and lush, and the people who live there are among the country’s wealthiest and most powerful. Whether I’m hanging with the equestrian crowd, visiting the amazing Brandywine River Fine Arts Museum, antique shopping at Kennett Square, or hiking through the gorgeous vegetation at Longwood Gardens, I know I’m experiencing some of the best that rural America has to offer.
Some years ago, I attended a birthday celebration at a country mansion there, and after the nine-course meal, I was lounging by the fireplace and chatting with another partygoer. I said, “This would be the perfect setting for a murder mystery.” When she recovered from the shock, I added, “but for that to happen, one of us would have to die, and one of us would have to be a killer.”
What struck me about the setting was that it was so serene. It was the last place one would expect a murder to take place.
Now, having set two novels in Brandywine Valley, I have to say that the people who live and work there are so friendly and cooperative. I’ve interviewed policemen, architects, restaurateurs, artists, horse owners, magazine publishers, funeral home directors, museum employees, landscapers, and others. Everyone has been delightful to talk with and very happy to be interviewed—as long as they weren’t going to be the murder victim or the murderer!
Q What distinguishes Detective Oliver Parrott from other literary detectives?
A In MURDER IN THE ONE PERCENT, the first book in the series, we meet Oliver Parrott as he starts his rookie year as detective. He’s African-American, raised in an underprivileged urban neighborhood, and a former college football hero from Syracuse. He’s chosen a career in criminal justice because he wants to right wrongs, but sometimes the people he meets and the milieu in which he serves rub him the wrong way.
The fact that he’s an outsider, an Everyman detective (as Kirkus magazine calls him in its review of MURDER IN THE ONE PERCENT), gives him a strong rooting interest with the reader.
Parrott’s fiancée is a Navy SEAL on tour of duty in Afghanistan. His cousin Bo has been killed by policemen in a random accident. Throughout the first book and the second, A PALETTE FOR LOVE AND MURDER, his personal and professional lives come together in various ways, and Parrott becomes more than just a detective. He is a smart, responsible, organized, determined, moral, and caring individual; someone we would all want for a son, a husband, an employee, or a friend.
Q Why did you choose to write with a male protagonist?
A I don’t recall choosing at all. Parrott came to me, fully developed, and he happened to be male. As a former teacher, administrator, and school improvement consultant, I’ve spent a lot of time around young people who come from similar backgrounds as Parrott, and I suppose he is an amalgamation of the best of them. I’ve written other mysteries with female sleuths, but it never occurred to me to make Parrott a female.
Q How much research did you do into the art world, and how did you choose which aspects of that world to incorporate into your work?
A Art history was an area of concentration in my college curriculum, so I’ve long been an appreciator of paintings, sculptures, museums, and artists. The Brandywine River Fine Arts Museum is one of my favorite small museums in the world, and I admire the works of the Wyeth family. It was easy to imagine a plot set in the art community of Brandywine, but I did do extensive interviews with artists, dealers, museum personnel, and others. The National Arts Club in New York, which is mentioned several times in the book, is another place I adore.
Q Do you dabble in art yourself? If so, what do you do? If not, have you thought of exploring that area of expression?
A In one of my previous positions, I was the Fine Arts Chairperson of a large high school, so I was able to hobnob with the creative types. I’ve always had a creative passion, and I’ve taken piano, art, dance, and needlework classes. One of these days when I have time I hope to be able to paint, but right now, I’m content to admire the work of others.
Q Why did you choose the art world as your backdrop in this book?
A The proximity of the Brandywine Valley to the museum, and art galleries in the Kennett Square area, made it a perfect choice to center the book on the art world. I enjoy reading art mysteries, and I knew I would enjoy writing one.
Also, artists are fascinating people. In a sense we lead double lives—the interior lives of our imaginations, and the exterior lives of reality. Sometimes there are struggles and obstacles and secrets that live within this dichotomy, and those provide fertile ground for stories.
Q The art world can seem mysterious and nebulous to many people. What have you learned about it that surprised you and that you’d like to share with us?
A I learned about climate and security-controlled art warehouses, where a person who buys a multi-million-dollar painting for an investment can store his purchase and avoid paying taxes until he takes the painting out to sell it. Sometimes paintings are stored in these warehouses for years, and the privacy of the owners is strictly preserved.
Q What is your favorite part about writing mysteries?
A Because a mystery author presents an intellectual and emotional puzzle for the reader to solve, there is a tight connection between the author and the reader. Every step of the way, the reader is discovering clues and evidence and foreshadowing that the author has carefully laid out for the reader. In no other genre is that author-reader wavelength so well-matched. Any time I talk with a reader, I delight in the conversation. I love hearing what the reading journey was like, whom the reader suspected, whether or not the reader was surprised by the ending.
A mystery is a feeling person’s book; a thinking person’s book. It’s a joy to engage with the reader’s heart and mind.
Q Reviewers have lauded A PALETTE FOR LOVE AND MURDER for its in-depth depictions of characters and relationships, as well as its sensitive treatment of difficult topics, both of which are rare in mysteries. Did you intend to veer away from the genre tropes, and, if so, why?
A Traditional mysteries are plot-based, but, over time, genre-blending has changed that landscape, particularly when it comes to using the tools of characterization, such as deep point of view, unheroic characters, villains with redeeming characteristics, unreliable narrators, and amateur sleuths. Many of my favorite mystery writers portray characters with complexity and depth. For example, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is someone I know so well—he could be my friend, my neighbor, my brother. My detective, Oliver Parrott, is the same way. After you’ve read the book, you will know him inside and out. Modern readers want to connect with protagonists. They want to feel the story from inside the protagonist’s shoes. As an author, I want the same thing. I feel it makes for a more authentic, relatable reading experience.
Q How do you come up with the names in your books?
A I approach name selection in the same way as I would if I were naming a new-born baby of mine. The name has to endure throughout the writing of the book, and long afterward, so I want to make sure it has staying power. Many of my characters are named after people in my life whom I want to honor. Many names are ethnic in nature, or attuned to the time period in which the characters were born. Once in a while, I’ll change a character’s name after I’ve started writing the book, but that’s rare. Once I’ve named him, that name starts to fit him perfectly, and I think of him as ___. In Brandywine Valley, the houses have names, too, so I have an added opportunity to play with names. The house in A PALETTE FOR LOVE AND MURDER, for example, is named Manderley, after the mansion in Daphne du Maurier’s REBECCA.
Some of my characters’ names are humorous, some are intentionally ordinary or unusual, and some are nods to famous characters in other authors’ books. Parrott, for instance, is a nod to Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.
Q As a teacher of creative writing, what is your belief about talent vs. craft in the act of producing a work of fiction? How important is research in the writing of a fiction book?
A Talent vs. craft is the age-old question, much like, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Over the years I’ve had students with immense talent, but little regard for perfecting craft, and I’ve seen the opposite, as well. The truth is that both talent and craft are required to produce a work of fiction, and there is no ideal measure of how much of one or another is needed. A facility with words is certainly important, as is having a good story to tell. Whether those constitute talent or craft is debatable.
Research, however, is a much more concrete and definable part of the process of writing. I believe research is indispensable in developing a story that is realistic, believable, and authentic. Today’s reader wants to come away from a work of fiction knowing more about the people, places, and things within the novel. Research keeps the story up-to-date and relevant.
Q Who is your ideal reader?
A My ideal reader is anyone who is open to immersing himself in the milieu of the story; willing to engage with the appropriate characters; alert in catching the subtleties of clues, humor, and tension; and allowing himself or herself to be drawn in.
Q What is your greatest satisfaction in being an author?
A Because being an author is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for me, I have many satisfactions: having a job that delights me every single day, being able to interact meaningfully with other authors and people in the publishing industry, holding my books in my hands, attending book clubs and other meetings where my books are being discussed, winning awards for my writing, and the list goes on and on. But, hands-down, the most important satisfaction for me is having a reader understand and appreciate my book. When someone tells me I’ve touched his or her life, I know I’ve succeeded as an author.
Q What plans do you have for future books?
A I have a standalone mystery, A MURDER OF PRINCIPAL, coming out in January 2021. I’m writing another standalone, BLOOD SISTERS, which I also hope will come out in 2021. Meanwhile, with all of the political unrest and recent events related to police brutality, Detective Parrott has been whispering in my ear. I’m sure he has another story or two to share with us.
Reviews, media, and tour schedule may be found at http://saralynrichard.com.
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