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.

Killing the Girl

“There are two tragedies in life,” wrote George Bernard Shaw. “One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.” Unfortunately, the desires so often lusted after when we are too young to know any better can carry perilous and sometimes deadly consequences. Such is the premise of U.K. author Elizabeth Hill’s gripping debut novel, Killing the Girl. A buried body about to be unearthed. Lies that are hidden in the past. Will Hill’s protagonist escape justice or pay for the sins of her friends? Who else deserves to die?

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Tell us about your journey as a writer and who or what had the greatest influence on your storytelling style.

A: I joined the library when I was young and was an avid reader. Many writers have influenced me from Christie to Lawrence to King. One book stands out that made me want to write and that was, Stolen by Deborah Moggach. My previous career was mainly in credit management and litigation, but writing was my dream. Unfortunately, my spinal problems worsened, and by summer 2018, I decided that it was time to leave the 5.30am alarm clock and see if I could start a new career.

Q: What books might we have found on the nightstand of your adolescent self? Your young adult self? Now?

A: Nancy Drew was a favorite, then Christie and many mystery writers, though I read many by Graham Greene in my late teens. Now it’s anything with a mystery, and there are too many talented writers to name them. Jane Harper is one stand out.

Q: You classify Killing The Girl as “domestic noir.” What prompted you to choose such a dark genre for your debut novel?

A: I wanted to write about the reasons women kill, (those that aren’t serial killers), and decided that for my first novel the premise would be a relationship between lovers. My principal character set out on her doomed path to fall in love with the gorgeous Frankie and told me about what pushed her to the point where she killed him.

Q: What was your inspiration for this particular plot?

A: Relationships going wrong, dreams being thwarted, and people using and abusing others. Killing The Girl is about relationships between women and lovers, Killing The Shadowman is about relationships between women and their fathers. My third novel will be about women’s relationships with their mothers—that will be called, ‘Killing The ‘Something’.

Q: Tell us about the story’s setting. Is it a real place or one which exists only inside your head?

A: The place setting is imaginary but vaguely set on a range of hills south of Bristol, UK. There was a possibility of a ring road being built years ago around these hills. That’s where the idea sprang from—what if your house was demolished for a ring road and you had buried someone in your garden…

Q: Oftentimes what we perceive to be a dream life when we are younger can become the stuff of nightmares when seen through the prism of adult perspective. Such was the tortured path you crafted for your main character, Carol. During the development of the story, did you ever feel badly about giving her so many wicked obstacles?

A: No. I wanted to push her to her limit, and I wanted the reader to react against what she was accepting as normal behavior, but also to understand that she was young and naïve. Many women put up with abuse and I hoped that the story would make them think about what they would accept – or not – and recognize cohesive behavior if they were in that kind of relationship.

Q: If Carol could be offered a single do-over, what would it be?

A: To learn to become independent and gain self-confidence.

Q: What are the prevalent themes in Killing The Girl, and why did you choose them?

A: The themes are, ‘go careful what you wish for’, and ‘you can’t make someone love you’ -both chosen to illustrate that you have to accept life’s limitations and make your own way despite the many set-backs you encounter.

Q: What governed the decision to write Carol’s story in first person rather than third?

A: The first drafts were in third person (there were eighteen drafts!) but one day I started writing and Carol ‘took over’ so the novel had to be re-written. I’m glad I changed it as, to me, the first person is more effective and Carol came ‘alive’ on the page.

Q: The plot is split between 1970 and present-day. How is this an effective device for the development of the plot and its characters?

A: The time zone was used to illustrate the difference in women’s lives. In the 1970s, especially in working-class backgrounds, the primary aim for every woman was marriage—also encouraged by their families and society. The Equal Pay Act came into effect in 1970 but we didn’t see a great change in pay straight away. Many women couldn’t afford to leave home without marriage, even if they had a reasonable job. That spurred many women to marry too young and be trapped in a life of domesticity before they had developed a sense of who they were as people.

Q: How did you come up with the title?

A: The title was originally, ‘Wicked’, but one day, as I was re-writing part two, it just announced itself. She had to ‘kill’ the girl she was and grow to accept her part in what had happened.

Q: Why have you chosen to write about women and why they kill?

A: The market is full of men who kill women and I wanted to be different. It’s easier for me to write from a woman’s perspective as that can be based on what I’ve experienced in general, or seen happen to others – not that my friends and I have killed any boyfriends! The premise is much more interesting as this type of killer is not as prolific and therefore more original. 

Q: Would women make good serial killers of random victims, or are they psychologically attuned to only kill those who personally harm them?

A: There are very few women serial killers (that we know about) compared to men so maybe they are good, as they have escaped justice and kept under the radar. To me, women kill for different reasons and often because they are pushed to the limits of endurance, rather than killing being a main option.

Q: Tell us about your writing process (i.e., how many drafts do you write, do you re-write/edit early drafts, do you allow anyone to read your work in progress?).

A: I write many drafts, and many fresh drafts, deleting thousands of words, until I’m happy. Then I send it to beta readers and pay attention to all feedback before implementing all relevant changes. I also use a story editor and a proof-reader/line editor.

Q: What’s the takeaway for your readers after they finish the book?

A: I hope that they are surprised at the ending in a way that makes them reflect on life and that the story stays with them a while after reading the last page. That the novel makes them think about how someone can focus on their own life so much that they miss something surprising right under their nose. That the story illustrates how entwined our lives can be and what friendship means to them.

Q: Best advice to aspiring writers?

A: Accept that your first draft will be terrible but contain everything you want to say. Never correct it or re-write that awful first draft. Open a new document and have the original beside it, then go through each scene and chapter writing the new draft, bearing in mind that you now know what will happen and the path each character takes. This will produce a fresh, generic draft that will save you time in the long run and will be more original.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: To finish Killing The Shadowman.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: My new world of writers and readers is a lovely place and I’m grateful to all my new writer friends for their assistance, the giving of their time, and sharing their experience with me. Although writing is at times stressful, and a solitary pursuit, there is always another writer who has ‘been there, done that’ to listen, or to point in the right direction for help and resources. For that I am truly thankful.

Old Sins Never Die

The good news is that journalist Emmeline Kirby and jewel thief/insurance investigator Gregory Longdon have an opportunity to thwart an international assassination when they overhear someone attempting to hire a rogue MI5 agent for the deed. The bad news is that they have no idea who the intended victim is going to be. In the latest book in Daniella Burnett’s mystery series, Old Sins Never Die, the intrepid pair has more than enough on their plate to keep them one step ahead of certain danger.

It’s enough to put any new marriage to the test.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Let’s talk about your journey as a writer. Who or what would you say had the greatest influence on your passion for storytelling?

A: It began with a love affair with reading. I thank my parents for reading to me and my sister from a very young age. This developed into an appreciation for the written word. All writers are readers at heart. Writing is like breathing. It’s something I must do. I can’t imagine not writing. I would be like an empty shell, lost and forlorn on a stretch of silken sands. I love devising plots, adding twists and turns, and leaving a string of red herrings in my characters’ wake just for a bit of fun.

Q: Were you an avid fan of mysteries when you were growing up? If so, who are some of the authors whose work especially resonated with you?

A: Since my mother introduced my sister and me to mysteries and thrillers, I’ve been off on a literary adventure. Agatha Christie is my hero. She was truly a master at her craft. Her deliciously wicked and ingenious plots appeal to the reader’s intellect. Christie had an astute insight into human nature and all its foibles. One wouldn’t characterize Daphne Du Maurier as a mystery author, but I admire the brilliant way she created an atmosphere of suspense. As each page was flipped, the reader had the sense that he or she was taking another step toward the danger.

Q: Do you ever play armchair detective in your real life or do you leave all the savvy sleuthing to your fictional characters?

A: Oh, I am definitely an expert armchair detective. I enjoy racing the sleuth to the solution. It’s a matter of paying careful attention to the clues that the author casts before readers. Only on very rare occasions have I been proved wrong, when it comes to unmasking the murderer. I suppose it’s because my mind leans toward the devious.

Q: Do you share any particular attributes with your lead players, Emmeline and Gregory?

A: I think a part of every author is in his or her characters. Perhaps it’s a trait you wish you had. Or a witty riposte you should have flung back at some quite insufferable person. Now, as an author, you have a second chance. Anything is possible. The author and his or her characters set out on a journey together. It’s a conspiracy, if you will. Each brings something distinctive to the story as it unfolds.

Q: What do you feel makes you uniquely qualified to shine in this genre?

A: Everyone comes from different backgrounds. Each one of us is shaped by the myriad people with which we come into contact; the situations in which we find ourselves; and the opportunities we’re given—and let slip through our fingers—in life. It is this confluence of factors combined with our inherent nature and temperament that make us unique. Therefore, only I could have conjured up Emmeline and Gregory. It is the story that I wanted to tell.

Q: Tell us what governed your decision to develop a series rather than a standalone title.

A: I chose to write a series because I wanted to take time to develop my characters—their flaws, admirable qualities, likes and dislikes. Each book provides another nugget of information to peel back the curtain on Emmeline and Gregory, while also leaving something dangling. After all, the human species is full of contradictions that are begging to be explored.

Q: Series fiction is not without its own set of challenges, especially if your readers don’t read the books in the sequential order in which they were intended. Share with us how you addressed keeping each book fresh and yet still building on what your readership already knows.

A: Each book can stand alone. Readers will be fine if they pick up one of the middle books because I include some of the backstory so that they understand the characters and don’t feel lost. Of course, if readers want to see how the relationship between Emmeline and Gregory develops, then they should start with the first book.

In terms of keeping each book fresh, I find it devilishly good fun to dangle a little surprise on the last page to leave readers clamoring to know what happens next. It also sets me on the path of the plot for my new book.

Q: Oftentimes the kiss of death in television series where there is sexual chemistry between the two leads is the decision to marry them off. How do you plan to maintain the heat between Emmeline and Gregory now that they have said, “I do”?

A: Gregory’s shadowy past provides endless possibilities and the fact that he continues to derive an adrenaline rush from stealing jewels. Meanwhile, secrets and lies are a constant threat. And yet, Gregory has gotten under Emmeline’s skin. She can’t deny her love for him. What’s life without a dollop of trouble, now and then.

Q: If Hollywood came calling, who would comprise your dream cast?

A: I’ve often been asked this question. Naturally, all my choices are British actors. Rufus Sewell would be perfect as Gregory. He’s charming, witty and handsome, and extremely talented. Emmeline is a bit more difficult, but I believe Lily James would bring her to life with great skill because she has such a wide acting range. Hugh Bonneville would pull off the character of Superintendent Oliver Burnell of Scotland Yard with aplomb. Rupert Penrys-Jones would be terrific as Philip Acheson, who ostensibly works for the British Foreign Office, but is a MI5 agent.

Q: What makes for a good mystery?

A: A tantalizing puzzle that the reader must unravel hooks me every time. It has always been about answering the question, “Why?” I love following the clues that the author has strategically dropped. Once the reader understands a criminal’s motivation, everything falls into place.

Q: What tropes do you loathe the most in mystery novels?

A: I find insanity (although terrifying) a boring motive. Rather than devising a knotty reason for the crime, an author is taking the easy road by suggesting that the murderer could not help himself or herself. On the same token, serial killer novels make me shudder. They focus too heavily on gore and violence.

Q: Who’s your favorite detective and why?

A: Hercule Poirot, bien sûr. I adore Poirot for his razor-sharp mind. Yes, he is fusty and arrogant, but not in a mean-spirited way. He is merely confident in his own abilities and impatient with those who are slow-witted. Poirot has a tremendous respect for the law and therefore cannot allow a criminal to flout it. Meanwhile, he is sensitive and empathetic. He understands that we all have faults, as well as good qualities.

Q: If you were throwing a dinner party and could invite any three writers to join you, who would be on the guest list and what would you most like to ask each one?

A: Agatha Christie, of course. I would hang on her every word, absorbing things like a sponge. I would like to know whether she was involved in any adventures in her personal life that influenced her writing. Anthony Horowitz would be invited too. I saw him in an interview once. He has an incisive mind and a droll personality. I would ask him for advice on subtle ways to add shocking twists to the tale. Finally, Jeffrey Archer would round out the table. I would pepper him with questions about his life. He’s a peer of the realm, a former politician and was sent to jail for perjury and perverting the course of justice. I would be curious to know about the fascinating life he has led.

Q: What’s on your current reading list and where do you most like to spend time enjoying the work of others?

A: I’m looking forward to reading The Rose Code by Kate Quinn; Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig; Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz; Hidden In Plain Sight by Jeffrey Archer; The King’s Justice by Susan Elia MacNeal; Poppy Redfern and the Fatal Flyers by Tessa Arlen; A Devious Death by Alyssa Maxwell, and so many others. My TBR pile never dwindles since there is a perpetual need to nourish the mind and the soul.

As for the nook where I like to escape with a book, I usually like to read curled up in a comfortable armchair or in bed. In the summer, I often lose myself in a good book in the cool shadows of a tree as the dulcet susurration of the balmy breeze dandles the branches above me.

Q: Best advice for aspiring authors?

A: I would tell aspiring authors to write the story that they want to write and not what others tell them or what the current market trends are. To write a great story, you have to breathe it, live with it, and nurture it in your dreams and waking hours.

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

A: I am utterly useless when it comes to technology and anything mechanical. Don’t ever ask me a question having to do with a computer. If my laptop starts giving me a problem, my first reaction is to throw it out the window. Another secret I will share (more of a warning) is that I’m impatient and have a short temper.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: Viper’s Nest of Lies, Book 7, will be published in fall 2021. I’m currently working on Book 8. There’s no rest for the wicked. Emmeline and Gregory are always dragging me off on another adventure.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: If readers would like to learn more about me, my website is http://www.daniellabernett.com. There’s an e-mail address on the site, if anyone would like to drop me a note. Readers also can follow me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100008802318282 or on Goodreads https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/40690254-daniella-bernett.

A Palette For Love and Murder

A Palette For Murder

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.

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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.

Buy links: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/A+Palette+for+Love+and+Murder?_requestid=2258777

https://www.amazon.com/Palette-Love-Murder-Detective-Parrott/dp/1644372045/ref= Social media links: https://www.amazon.com/Saralyn-Richard/e/B0787F6HD4/ref= https://twitter.com/SaralynRichard https://www.facebook.com/saralyn.richard, https://www.twitter.com/SaralynRichard, https://www.linkedin.com/in/saralyn-richard-b06b6355/, https://www.pinterest.com/saralynrichard/, https://www.instagram.com/naughty_nana_sheepdog/ https://www.pinterest.com/saralynrichard/ and https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7338961.Saralyn_Richard. https://www.bookbub.com/profile/saralyn-richard

 

 

 

 

Unmarriageable

Unmarriageable

Although Jane Austen was English and hailed from a different century, her sharp-witted commentary on patriarchal societies and the “proper” role of females obviously resonated with the sensibilities of a certain teenage Pakistani named Soniah Kamal. Her delightful novel, Unmarriageable, is a modern-day cross-cultural treat, and we’re pleased to feature the wonderfully talented and prolific Soniah this month at You Read It Here First.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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 Q: Were family expectations of matrimony and motherhood pressed upon you while you were growing up or—like Austen herself—were you born with a gene for purposeful rebellion?

A: Both. The pressure of getting married was always there even though I was a straight A student but I also had the pesky habit of questioning why? Within a Pakistani context, why was it ok for guys to smoke but not girls? Why could my much younger brother have a phone in his room while I was not allowed to, meaning why are boys allowed privacy but not girls? Why was it ok for him to stay out at all hours with his friends, but I had a curfew or was not allowed to go out at all? Good girls don’t question why but accepted that parents, teachers, adults, know what is best for her. Clearly I was a very Bad Girl. Just because needed explanations for decrees. I actually wanted to be an actress, but my father forbade it, and yet he sent me to out to college by myself in the US in early nineties. I always like to ask if this makes my parents’ values conservative or progressive?

Q: Austen was clearly an influence on your life perspectives and on your writing, but who are some of the other authors whose works we might have found on your nightstand and regular reading list(s)?

A: Growing up in a post colonial country in a certain era, the British author Enid Blyton loomed large. However I grew up for a while in Jeddah Saudi Arabia where I attended an International School with books from everywhere and so Judy Blume, S.E. Hinton, L. M Montgomery, Anne  Frank, a wonderful anthology that contained work by Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Gwendoyln Brooks, Shirley Jackson, Anne Sexton. Decades later I found this anthology at a local library sale and I pounced on this chunk of sunshine from my childhood.  In the classics, my favorite authors were Thomas Hardy, E. M. Forster, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, and in translation anything by authors such as Ismat Chugtai, Kishwar Naheed, Qurratulain Hyder; in fact, as I grew older, whatever I could find by South Asian authors.

Q: Who are you reading now?

A: I’m giving a keynote address at a Jane Austen Festival hosted by JASNA Louisville (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TDhHx1ud0fg), and so at the moment am back to being steeped in Jane Austen’s work which is always welcome. However, once I’m done I’m looking forward to finish How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr and reading Lee Connell’s The Party Upstairs about a unraveling friendship as well as Rakhshanda Jalil’s But You Don’t Look Like a Muslim about Muslim identity in India.

Q: The parallelism of Pride and Prejudice through a Southeast Asian postcolonial lens was a delight to read. Well done! What was especially fun, though, was deciphering the Pakistani names and matching them to their English counterparts in Austen’s novels. Given the number of characters peopling this luscious plot, I’m curious as a fellow author whether some of the minor players may have been borrowed from your own family and friends? If so, how did they feel about this inclusion?

A: Thank you! I’m so glad you appreciated the postcolonial angle and retelling which was the very reason I wrote it. I grew up a postcolonial child schooled in the British medium system meaning English and British classics were my educational foundation. As an adult when I came across the reasons Thomas Babington Macaulay, back in 1835, suggested to British Parliament to implement English as the language supreme across colonies in order to create a confused “person brown in color but white sensibilities”, it became imperative to me that I write an alternative postcolonial parallel retelling, a reorienting if you will of this policy. Professor Nalini Iyer of Seattle University has called Unmarriagable Macaulay’s worst nightmare.  As the essay at the end of Unmarriageable (US paperback, green cover with faces, edition) says, I wanted to fuse my English language with my Pakistani culture and it seemed absolutely fitting to choose Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice which I believe is a quintessentially Pakistani novel.  Jane Austen was Pakistani; she didn’t know it. There is also an essay included about why I chose the names. Many of them are not Pakistani names such as Lady or Georgeullah. I give a reason for Lady within the class conscious themes of the novel but also, and here is one of the many Eastern eggs in Unmarriageable for Austen fans: Austen’s first novel was published as ‘by a Lady’ and so Lady.

Unmarriageable is also a standalone novel, so those not coming from love of Austen need not worry. As for Georgeullah, often Pakistanis come to Western countries and Kamran will go by Kamran etc. and so in reverse of that George joins the popular suffix  -ullah, and Wickaam is spelled with a double a because in Urdu ‘aam’ meaning ordinary which is what he is in both Austen’s and Unmarriageable’s world. As for your last question, “Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.”

Q: With which of the Binat sisters in Unmarriageable can you picture yourself having a lifelong friendship?

A: This is a hard one. Probably Alys, Qitty and Sherry, an honorary sister. I admire Sherry’s common sense and being able to stand up to peers when needed and I very much like Alys’s no nonsense blunt sprit, needing to speak up for what is fair whatever the cost to herself as well as her being able to see through layers of hypocrisy and speaking up. Let’s say the Alys and Sherry were going to the Aurat March, a women’s right march held annually in Pakistan- Sherry would be making posters as would Alys and at the march Sherry would hold up a poster while Alys would have the loudspeaker.  I suppose Alys can get a bit exhausting but I’d prefer that to complacence. Qitty and I would completely bond over the comments we receive over about being fat. I’ve been both thin and fat and have seen the world through both these bodies. Since body positivity movement has, thankfully, gained traction and ‘fat’ has lost much of its shaming, I’ve notice the new word used to try to shame me is ‘obese’.  Qitty is, of course, very young, but we’d have a smile at those who pat themselves on their backs for supposedly doing well at the genetic ‘lottery’ while conveniently bypassing the fact that ectomorphs, endomorphs and mesomorphs are body types and that magazine/online quizzes which congratulate you for being one and not another are absolutely ridiculous and feeding into this ‘beauty’ hierarchy.  Qitty and I are big proponents of the tag line in Unmarriageable which is ‘books over looks’.

Q: If a reader had no prior frame of reference to Pride and Prejudice, Unmarriageable still makes for a satisfying standalone read. For those of us who are familiar with the source material, you’ve artfully planted a number of “Easter eggs” throughout the chapters—little insider secrets and literary references that prompt a smile. What was your favorite gem to hide in plain sight of Austen aficionados?

A: Unmarriageable is certainly a standalone novel and I worked extremely hard to make it so. However, if you are a Janeite then certainly there’s yet another layer of reading. I’m so thrilled you saw both and the Easter eggs. I’d love to know which ones you caught. There are so many favorites! Lady’s name’s Austen connection of course, and Tom Fowle shows up, and there are nods to each of Austen’s six completed novels in Unmarriageable and it’s so much fun in book clubs to hear the participants try to figure them out. Too many people have not read the delightful Northanger Abbey so that’s a hard one right there.

Q: Do you see Mrs. Binat as the quintessential “cross-cultural mum”—a woman who is as much a comedic helicopter parental wanting to meddle in everything as she is anxious and fretful that her offspring might end up sad and alone? To me, she feels interchangeable with every Jewish, Italian and Latina mother I’ve ever known.

A: Mrs. Binat may have a funny way of expressing her worries for her daughters but certainly her behavior stems from her fear that they might end up, as you say, sad and alone. Unmarriageable explores why she thinks choosing to be unmarried would equate to being sad and alone. Alys certainly doesn’t see it that way. She believes it’s better to be happily unmarried than unhappily married, and she tries to teach her students this too, much to the Principal’s dismay. That said, in Muslim honor cultures, the only legal way to have a physical relation, and thus biological children, is through marriage and this is what, I think, Mrs. Binat doesn’t want her daughters to regret missing out on. The number of readers from different cultures who reach out to tell me that ‘Unmarriageable is just like them’, and “My mother was a Mrs. Binat”, has been a consistent thrill. Jewish, Italian, Latina, like you point out, but also Irish, Southern US, Nigerian, Greek, Mexican, Brazilian, I could go on.

When it came to wanting me to get married, my own mother was a Mrs. Binat, but her worry came from love and concern, so I was really able to recognize this aspect of Mrs. Bennet/Mrs.Binat.  However, in Unmarriageable, Mrs. Binat is also looks obsessed, but then look at her own history— Mr. Binat literally sends her a proposal after taking one look at her, so in her world, looks reign supreme.  In Unmarriageable, there is a tussle between mother and daughter because Mrs. Binat thinks people like Alys with their ‘books over looks’ mantras are fools and Alys thinks her mother’s ‘looks over books’ attitude is unsmart.  We live in a world now where women are expected to be smart and earn also, but often still adhere to a certain beauty standards and this mother-daughter pair clashes over this.

Q: It’s always amazing to me that for a woman who had so much to say, Austen penned only a handful of novels before her death at age 41. Do you have a personal favorite (and have you read it more than once)?

A:  Mansfield Park is my favorite Austen novel. It’s her grimmest in many respects and one in which she totally skewers the concept of loving and supportive families and relatives. Can there be any nastier aunt than Mrs. Norris who cherry picks which niece to be decent to depending on how it will benefit her? I’ve read all of Austen’s novels countless times and they are all favorites in different ways.

Q: There’s been no shortage of film adaptations of Austen’s work. In your opinion, which one do you think comes closest to earning the late author’s seal of approval?

A:  I’m quite sure she would have enjoyed the 1995 BBC adaptations with Elizabeth Ehle and Colin Firth, the wet white shirt withstanding. There is a certain playfulness to that adaptation be it Alison Steadmans’ excellent self-obsessed and worrywart of a Mrs. Bennet or David Bamber’s bumbling yet pretentious Mr. Collins, just every actor played their part so beautifully, and because it is not a film but six episode drama, each almost an hour long, each scene in the novel is depicted on screen. It’s my favorite adaptation so I may be biased. As for screen retellings, I think she may have been well pleased with Clueless as Emma and the time traveling Lost in Austen which very cleverly interprets Pride and Prejudice. 

Q: “Janeites”—the name by which Austen fans define themselves—are fiercely loyal to the brand. To set your own version in the modern century and a different culture held the potential to send them reaching for smelling salts and fanning themselves in agitation. I understand that such was not the case when they first became aware of your book?

A: I’m a lifetime JASNA member so well acquainted with all the many thoughts pertaining to taking on Austen and I will say I was particularly intimidated because Unmarriageable is a parallel retelling meaning it exactly follows the plot line of Pride and Prejudice and all the characters are present, too. I believe this is the first parallel retelling to date and explaining that this was not a sequel, or prequel or an inspired by was the first order of business and that I’d written this from a postcolonial perspective. I live in Georgia and there were a few, especially older JASNA Georgia members, who did look askance. I gave Unmarriageable to two members to read and this was the litmus test for me, Janeites who know their Jane inside out, and it wasn’t until they both got back to me and said they loved it, that I exhaled. I mean this is literally, literally Pride and Prejudice set in Pakistan.

My first JASNA event was with JASNA Georgia, a book club and Q and A, and this was a first time a big group of Janeites would be reading it. On the day, I lingered at the door for a bit before entering, and when I did, I received a standing ovation. I cried. I had not expected the applause or the pats of the back by those who’d previously been askance. Since then, Jane Austen Books, the largest national Jane Austen booksellers and who know every variation of Austen out there, have said that Unmarriageable is ‘Our favorite Jane Austen Adaptation’ and Austenprose has called it ‘the retelling of her dreams’.  JASNA Kentucky, which hosts the biggest Jane Austen Festival, has invited me to be a featured keynote speaker, and I’ll be speaking at the 2020 JASNA AGM annual meeting, and JASNA Northern California invited me to deliver Austen’s birthday toast.  I was a featured keynote at the Jane Austen Summer Program and have served as a Jane Austen Literacy Ambassador and a judge for their Jane Austen short story competition. I could go on. Janeites have given Unmarriageable the reception of my dreams. So many have told me that reading Unmarriageable is like they’re reading Austen for the first time and could there possibly be any compliment more gratifying.

Q: If you could invite Jane Austen to lunch in your home, what would you serve?

A: I’d serve her a rich desserty chai as described in my essay at https://antiserious.com/soniah-kamal-chai-me-essay-e5b146ac1950.  I’d serve her keema (mincemeat) and chicken cocktail samosas and pakoras and Pakistani style mini pizzas made on naan. Since lunch for a guest at my house means at least eight to ten entrees there would a mutton pulao and also mutton and beef and chicken dishes such as korma and koftas and namak gosht and because I was a vegetarian for four years and love my lentils and vegetables, at least two dals, probably yellow and black, and a four to five vegetables dishes cooked in the Pakistani style, okra, eggplant, collard greens, cauliflower. There would be cumin potato cutlets and Pakistani styled spaghetti and countless condiments and rotis and white rice. All the entrees would be cooked from scratch of course. I’m not big on desserts so probably I’d have my daughter make a strawberry pavlova and also serve kulfi ice cream. I’d serve Jane Austen what I serve any guest invited to my house for lunch or dinner.

Q What are three questions you would especially like to ask Austen?

A

Why did she say yes to Harris Bigg Wither’s proposal that evening and then say no the next morning? What exactly was it that changed her mind?

If she knew she was going to be who she has become would she have done/written anything differently?

What was she planning to do with Ms. Lambe’s character in Sanditon?

Of course, I would have loved to see what Austen would have done with the industrial age in her work had she not died young and, in fact, her mother and many siblings lived into their eighties.

Q: Darsee has a wonderful line in which he expresses, “We’ve been forced to seek ourselves in the literature of others for too long.” As someone who has spoken passionately about immigration and assimilation, what are your thoughts on the challenges of embracing an adopted country’s language, customs and traditions without losing sight of the very elements which make our own heritage so precious and unique?

A: I was recently invited to deliver the keynote speech at a citizenship oath ceremony (https://bittersoutherner.com/southern-perspective/2020/we-are-the-ink-new-citizens-soniah-kamal-speech) in which I then had the great honor of handing out citizenship certificates and shook hands with all 150 new US citizens. To top it off, this took place in the same building where I myself had become a citizen. Of course there is a never a single story and each immigrant’s becomes one for different reasons and embraces aspects of their adopted country in different facets. Thanksgiving is an American holiday and the Thanksgiving meal is always one where the turkey, and green beans and cranberry sauce and potatoes can be prepared in to reflect one’s culture and, thus, illustrate a lived assimilation.

My first Thanksgiving in the US, I was invited by a college mate to her home and it was wonderful to sit amidst her large Irish-American family and hear the roots of this holiday and what they make of it and what they were going to do with this huge turkey’s left over, make sandwiches for a week at least. I loved the cornucopia of desserts, the sweet potato pie, apple pie, and my favorite, pecan pie, with fresh cream and ice creams. Darcy’s sentence, of course, comes within the context of British Empire and Babington Macaulay’s colonial policy of replacing native languages with English which then, by default, became the language of power and advantage meaning qualifying for the well paying, prestigious jobs. Generations opted for an education in English and many did not even learn another language and so their entire history shifted to British classics, as did mine actually, so there I was looking for myself in Hardy or Austen.

While it’s wonderful to be able to find universalities within lived experiences even across centuries, it’s not an exact match and in losing language and the ability to read it also means one’s losing a sense of self within history and tradition. Darsee laments not growing up reading literature from own culturally lived experience. When Pakistan became a sovereign country in 1947, it retained English as one of its official language and so with Unmarriageable I wanted to fuse the English language I grew up with my Pakistani culture.  The theme of analogous literatures in Unmarriageable—that is, books which connect thematically or otherwise from the Subcontinental cannon and Western cannon—is a topic very dear to my heart. All the literature mentioned in Unmarriageable feeds into themes in the novel, being it Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye or Leslie Marmon Silko’s short story Lullaby.

Q: Your writer’s journey thus far has accrued a number of impressive awards and accolades. Which one means the most to you?

A: Any award, accolade, recognition is so hard to achieve, whether regional, or national, or international, there are so many brilliant books, and so each one is precious to me from just being nominated to winning, from praise by someone with three followers to praise by a major avenue. Unmarriageable has really seen so much love by so many different readers and organizations everywhere and each and every one is a blessing. I will say giving a TEDx talk, a citizenship oath ceremony and a keynote at a writers conference were never things I expected to happen and each led to epiphanies about my life and writings that were most unexpected.

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

A: Who knows? But here’s one: I was born full term yet 2 ½ pounds, what it knows as dysmature and I wasn’t meant to survive the night but here I am.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: Right now I’m just enjoying this ride Unmarriageable is taking me on.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: Thank you so much for these lovely questions. My next novel, An Isolated Incident, is debuting in the UK this month and I’m delighted to see which journey this will take me on. I wrote because my late grandfather, a refugee from Kashmir, made me promise that I would write about the Kashmir conflict. Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner called An Isolated Incident ‘a wonderful novel’ and my grandfather would have certainly have been proud of me for fulfilling my promise.

 

 

 

 

The Sign Behind the Crime Series

Ronnie Allen

No matter the season or reason, who among us doesn’t love playing armchair detective? In her The Sign Behind the Crime mystery series, author Ronnie Allen invites us on a ride-along through the mean streets of New York … and the meaner minds of crafty villains seeking to elude capture for their dark deeds.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: When I read that you and your husband made a relocation leap twelve years ago from the bustle of New York to the rural quiet of Central Florida, I couldn’t help but hear the Green Acres theme song dance through my head. Is it true that you can take the girl out of the city but not the city out of the girl?

A: Totally, Christina. I miss NYC on so many levels; the diversity, the restaurants, shopping, fast paced energy. I don’t think I’ll ever be a Floridian. And I went back home through my novels which are set in NYC. The last time I was in Manhattan was for ThrillerFest in 2015 as a debut author.

Q: Tell us how your educational and professional background made you such a natural to pen a pulse-pounding crime series with psychological elements.

A: For one, psychology is my formal education. I’m a NYS licensed School Psychologist, and have been a teacher in the NYC Department of Education for thirty-three years, retiring in 2003. Aspects of my careers are in my books. The killer in Gemini is a pretend school psychologist, and one of the detectives, Det. Samantha Wright, in Aries and the rest of the series was an elementary school teacher before she joined the police force. My holistic and alternative therapies training and experiences are also in the books, manifested through character development and the plots. Dr. John Trenton in Gemini is psychic and clairvoyant and has the same skills in the areas in which I’m certified. Det. Samantha Wright is at the beginning of becoming in tune with her abilities and her approach was similar to mine when I first became aware.

Q: Did you envision writing a series when you began or did typing THE END on the first book inspire and dare you to not let go of the gritty crime world you had created for your readers?

A: Actually, I didn’t foresee the series until I was in the middle of writing book two, Aries. I had started writing book two before Gemini was in contract. I didn’t want to write the same characters if I didn’t know the book would be picked up. When I was writing Aries, the astrological components started to reveal themselves, and I got that ‘ah ha’ moment. My tag line was The Mind Behind the Crime because I write psychological thrillers. The Sign Behind the Crime popped into my mind as the astrological signs give the clues to solving the crime. I approached my publisher about it and we ran with it.

Q: Whether it’s a novel, a film or a television program, writing about crime requires a high degree of accuracy, plausibility and realism in order for the fiction to ring true. Tell us about the level of research you employed in order to click on all cylinders.

A: Yes, research is crucial in the crime genre. Nothing is as easy in real life as portrayed on TV. I had several consultants; a detective in NYC, and a Captain of Major Crimes here in our small county, and others for the different subplots. I have folders of printed out research from police procedural courses I’ve taken as well as internet searches. I was at FBI headquarters in NYC in 2015 and received a wealth of information there. Also, getting forensic psychiatry correct was crucial for my characters and the situations in which they found themselves. Police procedure, department names, terminology used all vary from state to state. It was interesting to see the differences between the NYC PD and our Sheriff’s office. The author also needs to know what organizational names and locations have to be fictionalized, such as psychiatric organizations, hospitals, and schools.

Q: Do you allow anyone to read your books while they’re still a work in progress or do you make them wait it out? Why does your chosen method work for you?

A: During my writing process, no one reads them. When I get a complete first draft, or second, or third, then I go to my critique partners and beta readers. This works for me because I strongly believe that writing is rewriting and rewriting. Nothing is written in stone in the first or even following drafts. I want people to see my best possible work effort. If someone points out something, I don’t want to say, “Yeah, I know, I have to fix that.” It’s very frustrating for a critique partner to spend their time giving you feedback and then for you to know about it.

Q: Plotter or pantser?

A: I started out being a plotter, a very intense plotter. I had Gemini in my brain, and in notes before I hit the computer. As I was writing, if my character started to take over, which they did, I ran with it. The second book was also heavily plotted. Book three, Scorpio, was a mix, and by the time I was writing Libra, I was like, “Whoa, where are you going so fast?” Libra is the longest book.

Q: The four books in your series have all been given the names of zodiac signs. Why is that?

A: I’m a Gemini, so I decided to start with me. It went through several title changes, and when the Gemini aspects came out, I said, ‘that’s it!” And as a series, I felt it was fitting for the rest of the books.

Q: Do they need to be read in order or could each be read as a standalone?

A: Gemini and Aries can definitely be read as standalones. The third and fourth books have the characters from the first two, and I weave in enough backstory so that the reader will not get lost.

Q: Will there be more books in this crime series? (You do, after all, have eight more zodiac signs to go …)

A: I’m not sure. I wrapped up Libra with the happiest ever after the reader could want, so I’m content with ending the series there.

Q: Are any of your fictional characters fashioned after real-life people you know (including yourself)?

A: Definitely me. My readers will learn a lot about me. I’m a part of all of the major characters. My parents, Esther and Sam, are Dr. John Trenton’s parents in the series. It’s their personality, and names, not their careers. I tell my friends that no one I actually know is in the books.

Q: Which of these fictional personas would you most like to go to lunch with (and why)?

A: To go to lunch? Definitely Drs. John Trenton and Frank Khaos. Frank is the forensic psychiatrist who’s introduced in Aries. For one, I love hunky men. Dr. Trenton is a holistic psychiatrist, and I can lean more about Medical Orgone Therapy that is one of his specialties. I participated in this in the 1970’s in another form, and it pivoted me into wanting to work with chakras as part of my holistic healing practice in NYC. Frank is a BJJ fighter and I’m fascinated with martial arts.

Q: What’s the takeaway for your fans after they’ve read the final chapter(s)?

A: There are several takeaways; dreams can be manifested, your childhood traumas do not have to determine the quality of your adult life, resolving an issue from childhood is not as fearful as you thought before you took the action, traumas can push you to be a better more compassionate human being.

Q: As a fellow wordsmith, I have an extensive collection of reference books, most notably the Howdunit series published by Writer’s Digest. (You can imagine how unsettled it made our dinner guests on the occasion I’d leave one out on the coffee table.) Hypothetically, if you were to embark on a successful life of crime, what would you be most likely to pursue?

A: Yes! I can imagine how it made dinner guests feel. I don’t know! If I hadn’t resolved my childhood trauma around asthma like AriellaRose Larcon in Aries, I probably would have been a serial killer. I can’t imagine me hurting anyone, though.

Q: Best advice to aspiring authors before they begin their journey to getting published?

A: Thank you for asking this. I feel too many writers want to cut short this process. My words of advice; make sure you listen to those who have accomplished what you want. For example, in social media groups, be careful on whose advice to take. Don’t fall for any scams. Have critique partners and beta readers go through your manuscript before you submit. I’m a proponent of traditional publishing. Make sure your manuscript is as good as it can be before submission. Read the publishers guidelines on their website before you submit. Follow the directions. That’s a major reason for rejection. If you’re lucky enough to get feedback and it’s consistent between editors, listen. Edit, rewrite. Don’t submit the same manuscript repeatedly with the same errors. The writer has to step back and get their ego out of it. Don’t say, “It’s my manuscript, and I want it this way.” Because I listened, I received my first contract on only my seventh submission.

Q: What do you do to prepare yourself mentally for each new project?

A: When plotting, it comes to me naturally. There isn’t mental preparation. I don’t have to talk myself into it.

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

A: I’m very much like my characters, except for the murders or violent parts. I’ve had a very pampered life, so writing these scenes is really a stretch for me. Some scenes have actually happened. Not telling which ones, though.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: I’m coming from a film and screenwriting background from the late ‘70s through mid ‘90s, and I would like to get my books to a TV episodic series.

Q: Anything else you’d like to share?

A: Thank you so much, Christina. My website is http://www.ronnieallennovel.com, and your readers can find me on Facebook at Ronnie.allen.507. On Twitter and IG, I’m @ronnieanovelist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Chat with Caroline England

 

Caroline England headshot

Caroline England knows the law, and she knows how to write stories that capture and hold a reader. That’s a powerful combination! Born in Sheffield, England, Caroline now resides in Manchester, UK. Having left a lucrative career as a divorce lawyer, she now writes stories filled with mystery and intrigue, and characters readers are drawn to.

Her domestic psychological thrillers, Beneath The Skin, also known as The Wife’s Secret (ebook), was published by Avon Harper Collins in October, 2017. Since then she’s gone on to pen many more stories that are gaining quite a bit of interest on many fronts. Also writing under the pen name, Caro Land, her first Natalie Bach novel, Convictions, a legal suspense, was published in January 2020, with additional titles just released. What tremendous accomplishments! Welcome, Caroline.

Interviewed by Debbie A. McClure

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Q You had a career in the law before turning your hand to writing. How much has this career influenced your writing?

A I was from a family of lawyers, so I was somewhat blinkered when I applied to study law at the University of Manchester. After my degree I tried to break free by applying for a journalism course, but at the time it felt easier to take the professional legal exams and become a solicitor.

As a trainee I worked mainly in criminal law. After that I practiced divorce and matrimonial work, then went on to do professional indemnity, also known as legal malpractice, representing professionals such as lawyers, accountants, and surveyors, who’d made a mistake – or not – as the case might be.

All these areas of the law helped on a practical level (see below) but also on an emotional level in terms of characterization and digging beneath the human facade. Being charged with a crime and facing prison is terrifying; going through a divorce or having a fight over the custody of your children is often deeply traumatic. An allegation of professional negligence can be debilitating too. Accordingly, I was given a fabulous insight into the human psyche because I saw people at their lowest ebb, emotionally stressed and raw, having to bare their souls and admit to their darkest deeds, sometimes keeping secrets and telling lies like the characters I write about!

Additionally, where people are in conflict, it’s fascinating – and eye-opening – to hear the same story told from completely different viewpoints, which is very much what writing is about.

As an ex-lawyer I’m able to write about UK legal procedure and cases, so the law has also influenced my writing on that practical level. My three published Caroline England books, Beneath the Skin, My Husband’s Lies, and Betray Her are psychological thrillers, but have lawyer characters. Also, under a pen name Caro Land, I have written two legal dramas: Convictions (published in January), introduced my solicitor protagonist, Natalie Bach. Though a feisty legal eagle on the outside, Nat is vulnerable, real, relatable and, I hope, engaging. Though there are legal cases, crime, darkness, and intrigue, there’s humour, love, and friendship too.

The follow-up, Confessions, was published this month. We follow more of Nat’s challenges and dilemmas both personally and professionally. Her cases range from mercy killing to cowboy builders, from revenge porn to murder, and all sorts in between.

In Confessions, Nat is seconded to criminal law firm Savage Solicitors, so I was able to draw on my duty solicitor days when I sat in on police interviews, visited inmates in Strangeway’s Prison, and frequented the local magistrates courts.

Q How did you jump from lawyer to writer?

A When my third daughter was born I took the decision to give up the law and be a stay-at-home mum. Before I abandoned my solicitor’s desk, I wrote the first few lines of my first novel. After that I became pretty much addicted to writing, spending my free time on the first drafts of three or four books. My novel writing stayed firmly in the ‘novel closet’, but I did admit to penning poems and short stories, and I joined a writer’s group. I regularly sent the short stories to magazines and literary publications, and I was delighted to have many of them published. I was even more thrilled to be approached by an editor who had seen one of my twist-in-the-tale short stories and wanted to publish a collection of them. This short story collection, Watching Horsepats Feed the Roses, and the follow up, Hanged by the Neck, are available to buy on Amazon. If your readers like a quick fix, these sweet and sharply twisted dark tales might appeal to them!

Q Why did you choose crime fiction as your genre?

A Back in the novel closet days, I just wrote stories I would like to read without any ‘genre’ in mind. When my debut, Beneath the Skin (known as The Wife’s Secret in ebook), was taken on by HarperCollins, I was told, to my surprise, that it was crime fiction, albeit on the psychological thriller or domestic suspense end of the spectrum. On reflection, I think my style of writing is a blend of crime and contemporary because my real interest is people, their secrets and journeys and lives. The legal drama novels are an extension of that, but this time the characters revolve around the law.

Q How much do you draw on real life to create fiction?

A Like Frankenstein, I get inspiration by pinching tiny bits of people’s lives, news stories, films, TV, newspapers, documentaries. The legal cases I have worked on help, though of course it wouldn’t be ethical to steal them outright! Like many authors, I put a bit of myself in characters and storylines too. Then there’s my crazy imagination…

Q How important is location?

A My novels could be set anywhere in the world because they are predominantly about people, which, of course, is universal. We may be different sizes, shapes, age, race, colour, sex, or creed, but we’re all human beings with the same joys and emotions and worries and fears.

However, they do say to write what you know, so my novels are all set near to where I live in Manchester, UK. Knowing an area gives a story heart and authenticity, and that helps the reader visualize and experience it, even if they live far, far away!

A How did you get a traditional publishing contract?

A The publication of my short story collection gave me a huge confidence boost, so I concentrated more seriously on the draft manuscripts I had already written. Beneath The Skin was the first of those and I started sending it out to literary agents. Though like most authors, I had a lot of rejections (and a book deal that fell through), I eventually got lucky and found my agent through submitting a short story in 2016.

The offer from HarperCollins came through a few months after signing up with my agent. Fortunately I didn’t know a great deal about the process back then, so I wasn’t constantly fretting or looking out for emails. My agent didn’t tell me about any rejections, but waited until an offer was made. I had assumed that if an editor liked a manuscript, that would be a yes, but in fact any new novel needs the thumbs up from various departments, such as marketing and sales. I was thrilled to be offered a digital deal initially, but the real pleasure was when the publishers confirmed the book would be in paperback too! It was published in 2017. My Husband’s Lies followed in 2018 and became a Kindle top ten bestseller. Just this week the audiobook of My Husband’s Lies was published by Penguin Random House Audio – I’m so excited to listen and see how the narrator has vocally interpreted the characters.

Q What are your top tips to budding writers?

A Only a few writers get lucky with an agent or a publisher the first, tenth, or even thirtieth time of trying. When yet another rejection comes your way, my advice is to shed a few tears, then pick yourself up, dust yourself down and carry on polishing that manuscript until it positively gleams.

Looking back, I would also recommend paying for a professional edit if you can afford it. An alternative is to find a beta reader to give feedback on your work. Don’t ask your great aunt Mildred, who’ll say it’s fantastic, but someone who is prepared to dish some hard truths if necessary – doing a swap with another writer is a great idea.

Above all, write, write and write more – never give up!

Q Your main characters are strong women of action. How much of your own personality finds its way into your written characters?

A As mentioned above, I think most authors put an element of themselves into each character they write – both male and female. Beneath the Skin and My Husband’s Lies have sections from different character view points, but Betray Her, as well as the two Natalie Bach legal books, are from one female POV. My next novel, Truth Games, is due out in November 2020, and it’s again from one female POV. Perhaps having three strong daughters and a brilliant female publication team at Little, Brown Book Group is an influence. However, I do have more written books which include male POVs ready to spring from my laptop!

Q Do you weave fact and fiction (i.e. real stories that have been fictionalized) in your books? If so why, and if not, why not?

A My stories and characters are entirely fictional. Some of the legal cases in the Natalie Bach books may be roughly based on real ones I have come across, but they are very much inspirational only! As a former lawyer, I most certainly wouldn’t want to be sued for libel!

I also personally feel that you need to abandon ‘fact’ or real life experiences when writing fiction. Trying to be factually accurate can hinder the creative flow. Also, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, and therefore not always believable.

Q When writing a new story, have you ever been “surprised” by a story line, angle, character, or aspect of the story you hadn’t anticipated?

A All the time! I’m very much a ‘pantser’ (in that I fly by the seat of my pants rather than plotting out a story). I have a vague idea of a secret, a lie, a twist or a reveal and I head towards that, but all sorts happens along the way. Some authors talk about a ‘writing magic’. I’m delighted to have experienced some of that. I love it when a character decides to go in an unexpected direction. Mine very often do!

Q How much research do you do when writing a new story?

A Fortunately I don’t need to do too much in depth research, and I’m in awe of authors who do, but I like to keep my writing as realistic, grounded, and as honest as I can, so I carefully research issues such as mental health or other medical aspects. I also need to check out any legal implications, as the law changes all the time!

Q What have you learned about yourself during and after the writing process?

A I’m fairly single minded, self disciplined, and dedicated whilst I’m writing, as well as tenacious. I guess I already knew these things, but they are pretty vital in the writing process, as there are so many disappointments along the publication journey, and it’s all too easy just to give up at times. You also have to be flexible and take your editor’s feedback on the chin! It’s pretty disheartening when you have to delete a whole chunk of beautiful writing to up the pace, or take out a favourite twist, but a good editor really does know what’s for the best.

Q What’s next for you, Caroline?

A Although Betray Her has been available in ebook and audiobook for some time, I’m very much looking forward to the UK paperback release on the 16th of July 2020. I’m also looking forward to seeing Truth Games ebook out later this year. I have just seen the cover and it’s FAB!

I’m still writing away and I’m just polishing my fourteenth novel, another psychological thriller, but with a gothic element. I’d love to see that and all my other manuscripts published.

Another huge wish is to see my stories on screen, so fingers crossed Natalie Bach or my other characters will one day appear in film or on the TV

You can find Caroline’s work and connect with her here:

Website: carolineenglandauthor.co.uk

Twitter: https://twitter.com/CazEngland

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CazEngland1/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/cazengland1/

 

 

Mon Amour, Friend or Foe

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It’s 1939 and eighteen-year-old American Paulette Rousseau arrives in Paris to study at the Sorbonne and to pursue an independent and happier future away from her self-absorbed parents. Her prayers appear answered when handsome and charismatic Guy de Laval invites her to join a chemistry study group he tutors. But when Guy asks her to join the French Resistance the following year, she questions whether she can live up to his expectations. Author Elizabeth Pye joins us to discuss how her latest novel, Mon Amour, Friend or Foe, came into being.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: When and where was your passion for the craft of writing first ignited?

A:  Right in my backyard, so to speak. I grew up in Spotsylvania County Virginia in a rural area twenty-five miles from Fredericksburg, the closest town to our home.  My daily life was surrounded with reminders of the history of the early years of our nation. For example, a stroll along the streets of Fredericksburg took me past James Monroe’s Law Office; Rising Sun Tavern—where most of the pre-Revolutionary  statesmen and most of the generals, including French officers, visited there, and in 1775 the  earliest Declaration of Independence was drawn up there; General Hugh Mercer’s Apothecary shop—where it is said George Washington kept an office; the home of Washington’s mother; and Kenmore, the lovely restored  home of Colonel Fielding Lewis and his bride,  Betty Washington Lewis.

All of the historical reminders of the Civil War will need to be visited on another day. Of course, that history is rich, indeed.

I concur with award-winning author Robert Heinlein, who said, “A generation which ignores history has no past and no future.”

Q: Did you have favorite authors and genres you liked to read were you were growing up?

A: My favorite authors were Louisa May Alcott, (Little Women), Nathanael Hawthorne, (House of Seven Gables), Frances Hodgson Burnett (Secret Garden), Edgar Allan Poe (The Murder in the Rue Morgue and The Fall of the House Usher).

Q: How about now?

A: My favorite authors include Daphne Du Maurier (Rebecca and The Glass-Blowers),  Anya Seton (Green Darkness), Susanna Kearsley (The Winter Sea), Kristin Hannah (The Nightingale), Lucinda Riley, (The Lavender Garden), Jennifer Robson (Somewhere in France), Cara Black (Murder on the Left Bank), Jean-Francois Parot (The Nicolas Le Floch Affair), Honore de Balzac (The Vicar of Tours), Alan Furst (Mission to Paris)  I prefer historical Romance, mysteries, and paranormal novels. As far as nonfiction goes, I enjoy memoirs and biographies.

Q: What is your particular draw to historical novels, especially plots which are set in France?

A: I am fascinated with history, and think that there are stories to be told in many ways. Historical novels provide an enjoyable way to go back in time and learn about ways of life during various periods of interest.

From a young age, I have been a Francophile although I had little exposure to French culture. I romanticized the French language, preferred Louis XV rococo style furniture—a far cry from the early American favorite of my mother, loved formal French gardens. Many years later my dreams were fulfilled when I first traveled to France and experienced the beauty of the Paris and Loire Valley (The Valley of the Kings) chateaus.

Q: Tell us what inspired you to pen your French Connection series and, most recently, including Mon Amour, Friend or Foe?

A: My love affair with many things French had piqued my interest sufficiently that I visited a hypnotherapist for a past life regression.  I slipped in to relaxed state and became aware of my surrounding in eighteenth century Revolutionary Paris. I described my surroundings and provided names and dates of events when questioned by the hypnotherapist.

Thus, began an ongoing research project to confirm or debunk the information I described. I became more and more immersed in French history which led to my French Connection Series and the completion of the first draft of Return to Chateau Fleury, which I set aside when my husband was diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer.

I decided to write Mon Amour, Friend or Foe after the publication of Return to Chateau Fleury, the second book of the series, because the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II occurs in 2020, and remains in the memories of many people. I wanted to immerse myself in the story to gain insight as to how the French people responded to the occupation of their country. Aline, one of my favorite characters, is carried forward from Book 2 to this one.

Q: What is the underlying theme and structure of this latest title?

A: Mon Amour, Friend or Foe, is the third book in the series and is structured on the Fichtean Curve model, rather than the generally used Three Act Structure.

The primary theme of the story is Love vs. Duty. Secondary themes are Fear and Courage.

Q: For any type of series, there are inherent benefits and challenges. For instance, can your French Connection books be read out of order and still embrace continuity?

A: A qualified “yes.” Each of the three books can be read as a stand-alone novel; however, Silk or Sugar is the only one of the three that is confined to one time period—1803 of the Napoleonic era.

Q: During your research for your historical novels, how do you blend fact and fiction?

A: Most of my characters are fictional, but the challenges they face are represented with as much historical accuracy as possible, as are actual historical individuals who are included for historic context.

Q: Would you like to have lived during the historical periods you write about?

A:  I write about historical periods of epic proportions because I question how I would respond in such a situation. With challenge comes opportunity. During those times the individual is challenged to confront their strengths and weaknesses, to draw on latent talents and strengths they might not know they possess.

Q: For family and friends who know you well, would they recognize you as any of the fictional personalities in your books?

A: I doubt they would, although I’m sure some of my personality traits are expressed. On the other hand, I pen-in many of the traits that I admire, but do not possess. I’m more able to control their response to challenges than I can for myself.

Q: Some authors create storyboards during the development process. Others like to put on period music to get them into the mindsets of their characters and the atmosphere of their settings. Your own method—the design of 1:12 scale models—reminds me of how I use set design to envision backdrops for my stage plays. How did you come up with this delightfully creative tool for visualization? (and please describe an example for us of how and why a mini diorama works for you)

A: I studied interior design and enjoy decorating my own home in the French style.  Miniatures allow me to continue working on design projects, and to immerse myself in the environment of my characters.  While working on various chapters of Mon Amour, Friend or Foe, I designed the heroine’s small Paris apartment kitchen area, which served a dual purpose as her resistance work space where she typed coded messages for resistance leaders; the hero’s office in the family’s eighteenth century  Parisian mansion while he served the Free French movement, and the alcove of the great hall in the family chateau in the Loire Valley in which the family held Christmas celebrations for the surrounding community. I have a collection of French music CDs to put me on location.

Q: Would you describe yourself as a plotter or a pantser? (and why does this method work effectively for you)

A:  I’m a panstser. Before I begin a new novel, I have a general idea of the main characters and their roles in the story, but do not have more than a topics outline. I know where the story is going without a roadmap as to how to get there. I remain open during the writing to allow my characters to direct me.  I keep a note pad with me to capture promptings from my muse at any time of the day or night. With Mon Amour, Friend or Foe, I didn’t know how the story would end until the last few chapters, which contrasts with my experiences with Silk or Sugar and Return to Chateau Fleury.

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

A: I’m a researcher at heart, and as such completed a hypnotherapy course and became a certified hypnotherapist. I kept that status for two years. I didn’t go into the business, but did regressions for family and friends.

Q: Like many of your fellow authors, you chose to go the route of self-publishing. Multiple books later, what did you learn about the DIY route that you didn’t know when you began?

A: I was fortunate to belong to a critique group that included members of multiple book publications. Some had worked with traditional publishers and shared their experiences with me before I had published my first book. I had gone the way of entering Romance Writers of America sponsored contests and noted that much time could be spent that way.  I evaluated the lengthy process of seeking a traditional publisher and the decrease in assistance they provided their authors. I prefer the control I have when self-publishing. Now that I have three books, I confess I must do a better job promoting them.

Q: What are you doing to promote the French Connection series? In your view, which avenues have been the most successful for you?

A: So far, I have found Facebook ads and author’s page, my blog on my website, and book fairs and festivals work well. I’m ready to begin adding to my promotional efforts.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: I’m beginning research for Lucia’s Poppy Fields, book 4 of the French Connection series, a novel about the Great War and the Spanish Flu Pandemic.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: Visit me on Facebook or  or on my website: Https://www.EPye.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reaper: A Horror Novella

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As far back as The Inquisition, the speculative existence of demons among us has woven a dark seduction over impressionable minds of all ages. Despite centuries of religious teachings that things which go bump in the night, wander fog-shrouded cemeteries, or assume the shape of bats and wolves to feed on human prey are to be avoided at all costs, curiosity has not only killed many a cat but lured many a reader into creepy plots that conjure nightmares. But hey, what’s not to love about a good story that brings on goosebumps? Jonathan Pongratz, author of Reaper: A Horror Novella, explains his own draw to the horror genre.

Interviewer; Christina Hamlett

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 Q: Did you read horror novels and watch horror films when you were growing up?

A: Growing up, my parents wouldn’t let me read or watch anything relating to horror, but I was determined. Though I couldn’t buy any horror books against their knowledge, I spent many late nights creeping from my bedroom to the dark living room. In time I watched all the great classics, in turn giving myself constant nightmares, but it was very much worth it!

Q: Is there a favorite that stands out in your memory?

A: As far as films go, Halloween is probably my favorite. The film really focuses on the mystery and terror of the boogeyman, while also having a great build up to the blood and gore. I rewatch it every year around Halloween.

On books, I really haven’t read that many horror novels to be honest, but my favorite thus far is Sarah by Teri Polen. A scary spirit with an insatiable lust for vengeance made it a real page turner for me.

Q: Last book or movie that really scared your socks off?

A: The last one that terrified me was IT Chapter One (the remake). Every scene had such scare factor that by the end I was something of a nervous wreck. It’s very rare that that happens to me, and I was extremely impressed.

Q: What are you reading now?

A: I just finished up reading the Watchmen comic series. If you’re not familiar, it’s a superhero themed comic set in the 80s, but much more grisly, dark, and violent than most other superhero novels I’ve read before. It is pretty similar to the movie adaptation, and I absolutely loved it!

Q: What was your attraction to writing a horror-themed story?

A: I’ve always loved the horror genre. I have watched hundreds of scary movies, and writing a horror-themed story was a way for me to pay respect to the genre itself. Chills, thrills, adrenaline,

I wanted to write something creepy that got my blood pumping and hopefully the readers as well.

Q: Whose work in the horror genre do you most admire?

A: I’d have to say George Romero and James Wan. George Romero is popular for his zombie movies, Wan for Insidious and The Conjuring franchises. Both have been able to create compelling, dark landscapes that are simply unforgettable. I always gravitate back towards their works, and it’s a constant source of inspiration for my own ideas.

Q: How and when did your own journey as a writer begin?

A: My real writer’s journey began when I moved to Kansas City about eight years ago. I was at something of a crossroads in my life, and though I hadn’t written anything in years, something about the change of scenery awakened something within me. Ideas started forming in my mind, and I couldn’t ignore them. I felt an intense compulsion to write, more than I had ever felt before. I haven’t stopped writing since.

Q: Share with us the inspiration behind the plot and characters for Reaper: A Horror Novella.

A: I was watching horror movies around September of 2018 when an idea started forming in my mind. The boogeyman, creepy basements, and vanishing children are all themes that I’ve seen in movies before, but for some reason, as I rewatched my favorites this time around I was more inspired than usual.

I wanted something nostalgic, an ode to my own days as a kid, so I went with the early 90s. I wanted to write a creature feature centered around Halloween and the boogeyman, while portraying the sibling rivalry between a comic book kid and his bratty little sister. A lot of the main character’s personality are actually small pieces of my childhood.

Q: Plotter or pantser?

A: Plotter all the way. I like to have a chiseled out plan before I start writing, even if I do end up pantsing here and there on the spot. If there isn’t a chapter summary, it won’t get written.

Q: If Hollywood came calling, who would your dream cast be for this title?

A: You know, I’m not very good with names, so I would just want each character to be portrayed correctly and settle for that. Gregory as a classic 90s comic book nerd, Imogen as a bratty little sister, their parents as loving but detached. The one person I did have an actress in mind for is his mother, Patricia. I’d like to see someone that looked like Catherine Mary Stewart play her part.

Q: How long did it take to write Reaper: A Horror Novella from start to finish?

A: From draft to publication it took me about six months, which I believe to be a bit fast. The first draft itself took about 2-3 months.

Q: Did you allow anyone to read it while it was still a work in progress? Why or why not?

A: I used to do that, but nowadays I don’t. I feel that I’ve grown enough in my writing that I should be able to complete a compelling, well-written first draft. Sure, there will always be little things here and there, but you can’t catch everything. I also don’t like other peoples’ opinions weighing in until after I’ve completed the story in its totality, so that I know what I actually want to keep and what I can compromise on if there’s a problem.

Q: I understand that a sequel is already in the works?

A: Yes! I am in the late stages of writing my first draft of the sequel. Ironically, I had no intentions of continuing this story, but a week after I published the first one I woke up one morning and the sequel just started pouring into my head. If that’s not divine intervention, I don’t know what is! Sometimes you just have to go with the flow, so I did.

Q: What are some of the challenges/rewards inherent in continuing an existing story versus leaving it as a standalone?

A: Well, I believe that writing a standalone may be a bit easier. You can write a great, compelling story and move on to other projects afterwards. Some readers are series-averse. I have phases where I do not want to read a series. Sometimes you just want a one off, and that’s okay. Writing a series, however, can be quite the headache. Not only are you writing more than one novel, but ensuring the continuity is there is extremely important, amidst a plethora of other things you have to watch. That being said, it can be easier to write more than one book once you solidify your style of writing for the main characters. I had a much easier time with Gregory when writing the sequel than I did with the first book.

Q: Like many of today’s authors, you chose to go the self-publishing route. What did you learn from this that you didn’t know when you started out?

A: A lot, actually. Without a traditional publisher backing you up, you literally have to do every single step of the publishing process yourself, which can easily get confusing. ISBNs, the cover, formatting the digital copy, setting up with a print-on-demand service. I lucked out that my dear friend and fellow author Emerald Dodge took mercy and held my hand through a big chunk of the process.

Q: How are you going about marketing your work?

A: Honestly, for the most part I stick to my social media platforms. I use WordPress and Facebook primarily, but also utilize Tumblr and GoodReads to boost my presence when I can. Marketing is definitely something I could work on quite a bit more, but honestly I don’t have a lot of time after all is said and done.

Q: When and where do you feel you get your best wordsmithing done?

A: I usually write in my room with the ambient music cranked up. I have a desk and desktop with a large screen that makes things so much easier. As far as timing, that’s where the plotter in me thrives. I write before work, on lunch, and after work in at least 30 minute intervals. That’s about all I can do with my crazy busy life, but I have a system that yields results.

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

A: I’m pretty predictable nowadays, but every once in a while I love to rock out with some karaoke. I was a choir kid growing up and was even in several show choirs. Jazz hands!

Q: It’s a dark and stormy night and you’re out by yourself. Which would you rather face down—a vampire, a witch or a zombie?

A: Face down or persuade to turn me? Haha! My answer is vampire all the way. I’ve always had a love for vampires since reading Anne Rice in high school, and I’m pretty sure I would be able to convince a vampire that I’d be the best prodigy ever rather than have one kill me. I mean, my vocal and writing skills alone should earn me a lofty eternal life.

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

A: At my website www.jonathanpongratz.com. I also post frequently on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jonathanpongratz but the content is richer on my website. I’ve got a lot of great stuff planned!

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: I always like to impart a little bit of wisdom to newer writers. If any of them are listening now, I’d like to urge them to keep writing. Find a time every day to write in a comfortable space, even if you have to fight for that time. Some things are worth fighting for, and you’ll grow so much faster if you stick to it. The world is full of possibilities!

Not Again

Maria Henriksen headshot

Innocence meets tragedy and romance meets conviction in Maria T. Henriksen’s new novel, Not Again. This faith-based YA page-turner is set in the 1980s and will not only resonate with today’s teens dealing with seemingly insurmountable challenges but also with middle-aged women who weathered similar storms in their youth and, despite scars, emerged with a deeper understanding of their own beliefs and strengths.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Tell us about your journey as a writer and who/what inspired you to try your hand at a novel.

A: Ever since I was in third grade I wanted to write. My teacher showed the class laminated books that previous students wrote and illustrated. I couldn’t resist the urge to create something original myself, so I wrote and illustrated books and comic strips. The desire to create a story or artwork never left. No matter what job or stage of my life I was in, I found myself involved in some creative process whether it was taking photographs or scrapbooking. I even got excited when a professor in college assigned a huge term paper. I cheered while everyone else groaned.

Q: You describe Not Again as a YA edgy Christian romance. That’s quite a mix of genres! What’s the story behind its development?

A: I wanted to write what I liked to read and at the time it was convenient for me to read young adult novels since I had access to them as a substitute teacher. However, those novels lacked the kind of romance that I like to read to about, so I incorporated romance as part of the driving force behind the main character’s transformation. The edgy part is where it gets sticky, perhaps controversial. My novel is realistic to the point that the descriptions make you feel like you’re experiencing life along with the main character and it tackles real life issues. I make no apologies about that and many have found my writing to be gripping.

Teens today are exposed to all kinds of things online and in real life. Ignoring these realities doesn’t make it go away. Instead, my intent is to address these issues head on, all of it, including the good, the bad and the ugly. Not Again offers alternate ways to approach these real challenges. The novel was God inspired and through the obedience to Christ, Not Again has the potential to transform many lives.

Q: What types of books were you reading when you were the same age as your heroine?

A: I was not fond of reading at all when I was a teenager. In fact, almost any kind of reading made me fall asleep. It was especially embarrassing my freshman year in high school when I was too tired from reading the long questions and even longer multiple-choice answers that I fell asleep and awoke with drool on my arm.There was one time, however, that I did read for leisure. I was enthralled by the novel, The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton and to this day it is one of my favorite books.

Q: What governed your decision to set the plot in the 1980s rather than the present day?

A: The 80s was such a simpler time. There weren’t any distractions as there are today like cell phones, the internet, social media… Also, I was a teenager back then and was able to channel my experiences, thoughts and feelings of that time and use them as a springboard to create an original story line.

Q: What are some of the themes you tackle in Not Again and how will these resonate with today’s teens?

A: As an educator, it is important to me to incorporate teachable moments in a relatable and entertaining manner. Being exposed to teens every day, I witness first-hand how they deal with the same centuries-old topics such as bullying, self-image, friendship, romance, conviction, faith, courage, trust. These are some of the topics that are addressed in Not Again and it approaches each of them in a positive, refreshing and sometimes witty manner.

Q: In what ways are you similar to your main character, Christina? In what ways are you different?

A: Christina is kind of my alter-ego, but she’s prettier, taller, thinner, smarter, more athletic and more talented. You get the picture.

Q: If Hollywood came calling for a movie or television series, who would comprise your dream cast?

A: This cast of characters is based on the age of each actor’s performance in said production.

Christina De Rosa – Victoria Justice (Tori Vega in Victorious)

Avery Evans – Zac Efron (Troy Bolton in High School Musical)

Katie – Peyton List (Emma Ross in Jessie)

Morgan Ricci – Bella Thorne (CeCe Jones in Shake It UP)

Paul Martin ­­– Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter)

Joey – Noah Centineo (Peter in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before)

Mindy – Camilla Mendes (Veronica Lodge in Riverdale)

Miss Brenda – Octavia Spencer (The Help, Hidden Figures, The Shack)

Q: Many of today’s authors are going the way of self-publishing. Was this your original intent with Not Again or had you tried the agent/traditional publisher route first?

A: Traditional publishing never appealed to me. With the advent of self-publishing, writers have control over every aspect of their writing. It’s not that I’m a control freak by any means. However, having the freedom to create my own cover with photos that I took is very rewarding. I even wrote the song and took the photographs and video that are featured in my book trailer.

Q: What have you learned about self-publishing that you didn’t know when you started?

A: I didn’t realize how challenging, technical and involved self-publishing is. As a self-published author you either need to figure out how to do something or farm it out. Paying someone to do aspects of publishing is very costly. It can be expensive if you do certain aspects yourself too because you need equipment, software, training. I find all of that to be very overwhelming. Nonetheless, I forged through and was able to produce a quality product.

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

A: As much as I treasure my time alone weaving stories, I thrive on interacting with people and getting to know them on a deeper level.

Q: What brings you the most joy about writing and publishing?

A: I absolutely loved writing my novel. Being able to put in writing what is playing around in my brain is extremely rewarding. As far as the publishing part, to be able to say that I’m a published author is very satisfying. My greatest joy is yet to be realized. I look forward to the day when a person’s life is forever transformed from reading Not Again.

Q: And the most stress?

A: The amount of work that is involved in writing and publishing is very stressful. It’s never ending, overwhelming, and costs a ton of money. Also, it’s very challenging to find competent, reliable persons of integrity to perform services that you can’t do or don’t want to do.

Q: Best advice to an aspiring author?

A: Be prepared to spend an exorbitant amount of time and money on your work. If you aren’t willing to make that commitment, then don’t even bother. You should be consistent, disciplined and willing to learn and do more than you would ever fathom. Always get referrals if you are outsourcing a task and follow a certain protocol to make sure you are compatible with your service providers. Even though I did that, I still had more than my share of grievances that continue to plague me to this very day.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: I plan on developing an ecommerce website where you can purchase an autographed copy of Not Again along with themed accessories and swag as well as complete my sequel to Not Again.

Q: Where can readers learn more about you?

A: I start my day off by posting morning blessings or inspirational posts on social media; FB, Instagram and Twitter. Reading the scriptures and looking at the accompanied pictures fills the spirit. For inspirational and Christian content, you’re welcome to follow me. It’s a great way to start the day! Your support is greatly appreciated. Here are my social media links.

https://www.facebook.com/PurpleNchocolate/

https://www.instagram.com/maria_t_henriksen/

https://twitter.com/mariathenriksen

https://www.mariathenriksen.com

I started a fabulous FB group. It’s my way of giving back to the writing and Christian communities. We feature Motivation Monday, Transformational Tuesday, Wellness Wednesday, Thankful Thursday, Funny Friday, Sovereign Saturday, Scripture Sunday, heartfelt topics and so much more! I would love for you to be a part of this warm, caring community. If you would like to be a member of this amazing group, check it out at www.facebook.com/groups/292254218386413. Traditionally, my monthly blog/newsletter featured photos and stories written by me about my life or loved ones or as they relate to my novel. Moving forward, I will be mixing it up by showcasing authors and their writings as well as having guest writers contribute to the blog.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: I have yet to find my target niche – teens.

These are teens who:

1.) are believers in Christ

2.) once followed the straight and narrow path but went astray

3.) are searching for a meaningful way of life that speaks to them on a level beyond their understanding.

With the support of my readers, friends and fellow authors, I hope to find these teens and help to enrich their lives. Let’s make this world a better place one reader at a time!