Who Doesn’t Love Libraries and Author Panels?

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To some authors, promoting their books can be tedious and demoralizing, but last week I was pleased to take part in two types of book promotion I enjoy, and they were at the same event.

Three panelists and our moderator gathered in a small upstairs room at the Ella McClatchy Library in downtown Sacramento to chat with a room full of book enthusiasts. The audience asked lots of questions and then stuck around until closing time to talk with us about all things book related, which happened to be the panelists’ favorite subject as well.

Prior to the event, our moderator sent us some of the topics we’d be talking about. Several of the questions had a slightly different spin than I’d answered before and I thought you might be interested.

What led you to choose murder as your subject?

The simple answer is that when you’re writing about murder, you’re writing about the ultimate “high stakes.” For my mystery short stories, I explore what combination of events could turn an ordinary person into a murderer. With my series, the murder is more of a jumping off point. My driving force has been to explore a social issue through that medium, and my characters’ journeys are as important as the plot.

How do you research your kind of murder?

The murder has to have its own personality and a specific reason for that particular type of murder weapon. While researching a historical component in Close Up on Murder, the second in my Spirit Lake series—set in contemporary times—I devised a symbolic murder and not one you’ll often read.

In my third, Blow Up on Murder, the weapon is specific to a type of technology and I had a lot of fun researching that.

My go-to research tools are Google, Google images, I talk to experts, visit libraries, watch videos and related movies, read magazine articles, etc. Whatever I need to do for the story to be believable. Only a small percentage of what I’ve learned gets into the story, just enough to make the situation seem real and as accurate as I can make it.

The murders in my short stories—I have one in the 2017 Capitol Crimes Anthology and one in the 2013—are diabolical and devious. In both cases, the stories took an unexpected turn based on what popped up through research.

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 What influenced you as you created your characters?

In my Spirit Lake series, I created a woman in a tough field. She’s a photojournalist with insatiable curiosity and a strong sense of right and wrong, who covers war and disasters worldwide. I wanted to explore how she is perceived in her working world, where her assertiveness and drive are applauded, and contrast that with how she’s viewed in the small town of Spirit Lake, by her brother, the man she loves and old friends, who think she’s reckless and foolish. And also how she deals with wanting to go on the dangerous assignments to show the world how it impacts the most vulnerable: women, children and the elderly, while feeling torn about leaving her loved ones and her guilt for worrying them.

The setting of my series is a small town in Northern Minnesota near an Indian reservation. Native American culture plays an important role in the area and I wanted to pay homage by creating several recurring Ojibwe characters.

Some characters only appear in one book and a random magazine photo will spark a character. That happened in my latest, Blow Up on Murder, and that added an unexpected dimension to the story.

My short stories usually start with asking myself what would cause an ordinary-seeming person to act completely out of character. In The Good Gardener, my story in the Capitol Crimes 2017 anthology, I wondered how far a middle-aged woman who was a loving wife, doting mother, avid gardener and steadfast employee would go to hang on to what she thought she deserved. It was an interesting set up for me as an author to explore.

Do you get depressed writing about death?

My mysteries begin when a social ill haunts me. It angers rather than depresses me, and by writing about it, I work through some of those feelings. Although I write my series from my protagonist’s point of view, I also delve into what the other characters are experiencing. The bad guys in my books always believe their actions are justified so I have to imagine what that perspective would be like.

Do you describe police procedures? If not, what kind of investigation does your character do?

My main character is a photojournalist, and in two of the books, she’s first to discover the murder. She knows better than to tamper with a scene, but takes photographs before the authorities arrive. As a writer, I have to know enough about police procedures, the FBI, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and tribal police, and how those entities interact, to be able to accurately write about it. However, everything is seen through Britt’s eyes, and she’s not an expert on detailed forensic techniques.

What was the hardest thing you encountered when writing?

I love every aspect of writing a mystery or short story. I devour how-to advice on craft and am grateful for all those authors who share what they’ve learned. The initial excitement of a budding idea gives me enough steam to begin what will be at least a year-long project. Even though the middle can be daunting, I’ve found that if you get that right, it enriches the entire story. It might even be the most important. And yes, I even enjoy the rewriting and final editing.

What do you do for inspiration?

Inspiration can happen anywhere if your head is in the right place. When I go for walks with my dog, she’s aware of every smell, sound and movement around her. I’ve tried mimicking her. When she stops to sniff something on the ground, I put my own nose into a bush or tree at my level even though my sense of smell isn’t the greatest. If my dog hears something that excites her, I try to listen hard with that same head-raised alertness. It’s great practice for being in the moment, that place where ideas have room to bloom.

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Books inspire me, and online articles or newspapers and magazines. I especially like Wired for the technology information. I watch television. Lately Outlaw Tech is my favorite.

When a subject catches my imagination I go for it. Then the research leads to more research, and as I write, characters show up as needed.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my creative process. I’m curious to hear how you might respond to some of these questions, or questions you’d like me to answer. Let’s hear it!

 

 

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Walk On

I said goodbye to my old dog yesterday. We walked at least twice a day together for almost four years, until she couldn’t anymore. Native Americans use the phrase “walking on” when someone dies and I like to think that’s what she’s doing.  The piece below is based on a prompt from my Friday writing group.

Following Dog

Arms pumping, iTunes pounding in my ears, I’m on my daily run through the neighborhood. Past the foreclosed house,  past the homes that line Locust Street, where last week a flock of wild turkeys stopped traffic. I turn right onto Bellwood, trying to get a decent workout with New Year’s Eve champagne sloshing in my stomach, when a black dog stares at me from someone’s lawn. I wonder if the owners know it’s loose, but I don’t stop. I have my route to finish.

I turn a corner and the dog evaporates from my mind. Ten minutes later I’m rounding the cul de sac on Wildflower Way, my final stretch.  I move to cross the street and trip over something. The black dog. It must have been on my heels for blocks. Creepy.

I feel along the grimy pink collar. No tags. I walk back to Bellwood and try every house on the street, but no takers.  I don’t have the energy to continue knocking on doors.

She’s a lab or shepherd, maybe terrier mix, about forty pounds.  White muzzle, half-moon scar on her side, an arrow-shaped one near it. Another on her leg. She whimpers and scratches at her right ear. I lift it to take a look and gag at the stench. I drop the ear to hide the infected mess inside.

I call the SPCA, but everything is closed on New Year’s Day, even the vet. Animal rescue says an old, sick dog won’t be kept more than forty-eight hours.  I take her picture and post a found dog notice on craigslist and the newspaper and plaster the neighborhood with posters.

We go to the vet the next day. They name her Lucky. She also has abscessed teeth so we’re there a long time. The vet can’t believe a dog in that much pain could be so sweet-tempered. We head home with three kinds of meds.

No one claims her. Not that I would give her back to anyone who could let an animal suffer like that. She doesn’t bark. She doesn’t pay attention to other dogs except small white fluffy ones. She is infinitely patient with children. People pet her but she shows no interest.

We don’t know each other’s history. I don’t know how she got her scars and she doesn’t know how I got mine.

It’s New Year’s Day a year later and I’m running through the neighborhood with Lucky at my heels.  She follows me, whether I sit at my desk, or walk to the kitchen or go to bed. She’s interested in my every move and grins when she sees me even after a short separation.  Everyone says she is lucky to have found me, but they have it backward.

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