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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New Q & A on Kev’s Blog

Kevin Cooper at Kev’s Blog made my day last week by posting a Q & A with me about my book and how I came to write it. His questions made me think, and I appreciated the opportunity. The best part is connecting with new people who have lots of different interests and backgrounds—the reason I started blogging two years ago.

You’ll find interesting reading on Kev’s blog: music, book reviews, Q & A with new writers, and much more. I hope you’ll check out my Q & A and take a look at Kev’s blog!

Here are a few examples of the questions and answers:

Kevin: How long have you been writing for?
You could say I’ve been writing my entire adult life including working on my own personal projects and during my career as a writer, editor and communications specialist for corporate and non-profit organizations. Most recently, I was senior writer and editor for a criminal justice organization, and that background has been helpful in plotting my Spirit Lake mysteries. And now that my children and grown and I’m not commuting to a job every day, I’m finally living my dream of writing fiction full time.

Kevin: Why do you write?
I write for a lot of reasons. I’ve kept a journal for twenty years because that’s what balances and focuses me. Writing short poetic fiction with a small weekly group helps me tap into a deeper level of creativity. I read all kinds of books, but the mystery genre is satisfying to write. The stakes are high, it’s fun to figure out the clues and hide them from readers, and justice is always served in the end.

Kevin: So is mystery your main genre?
It’s hard to categorize, but Traditional Mystery comes closest. My mysteries have an edge, but lots of heart, and they’re also about family and community, which isn’t always pretty. I’ve chosen a small town setting because it’s a microcosm, but the same shameful secrets and selfless actions happen among humans everywhere. So even though my mysteries are about the horrible things people can do to each other, they’re also about the everyday heroes who tip the balance and enhance our lives. People who pay attention to us, who see us and our flaws and love us anyway.

Kevin: Who would you say are your favorite/most influential authors and why?
There are too many to name, so I’ll narrow it down to my favorite mystery authors who write about the parts of the country similar to mine—Minnesota, Michigan, Canada. Here are four: Steve Hamilton, John Sandford, William Kent Krueger and Louise Penny.

Okay, I’ll name a few others I love: Annie Proulx, Louise Erdrich, Kate Atkinson, Ian McEwen, Richard Russo, Michael Chabon, Elisabeth Strout, Jim Lynch, Larry McMurtry, Anita Shreve, Sherman Alexie, Wally Lamb.

Kevin: What is your latest (published) book called and what is it about?
Focused on Murder—A Spirit Lake Mystery, is the first in the series with Britt Johansson, a former Pulitzer prize-winning LA Times photographer whose reckless behavior nearly ended her career. She gets a chance to redeem herself when she’s working in Northern Minnesota and stumbles across an international crime ring that ultimately pits her and her brother against a psychopathic killer.

Her hometown of Spirit Lake is a perfect location for all kinds of dirty deeds: easy entry points along the vast wilderness of the US/Canadian border, an Indian reservation that’s off limits to most law enforcement, and a dangerously mistaken perception that nothing happens in small towns.

Kevin: Sounds very interesting. Who or what influenced you to write it?
My story ideas are based on a social issue that haunts me, and then I have a cast of characters that change and grow through the series, depending on what they’re dealing with.
I believe average women and men perform heroic acts every day, although maybe not always chasing down bad guys and saving people’s lives as they do in my mysteries. My female protagonist, photojournalist Britt Johansson, like many journalists, will stop at nothing to get the story, or in her case, the photo. She’s a crusader who champions the vulnerable of the world and wants to bring their stories to light.

Kevin: Is your book part of a series?
Focused on Murder is the first in the Spirit Lake Mystery series, and I’m close to finishing the second. After that, I’ll publish a Prequel that reveals the story of what initially brought Britt back to Spirit Lake—a murder, of course, but whose?

Kevin: Could you give us a little spoiler?
This is from my work in progress—a cryptic comment from Edgar, the Ojibwe Elder who often guides Britt, even though his obscure hints drive her crazy:

The creases in Edgar’s face folded in on themselves. “I’m troubled. The anger seems new, and yet old.”
His claw-like hand clamped over my wrist. “Be extra careful. Evil is seeking you from more than one direction.”

Kevin: Do you have any advice for other writers?
I had a completed draft of Focused and asked an editor to review the structure. People who read a lot of mysteries are sophisticated when it comes to the puzzle; not enough information, or revelations that come at the wrong time frustrate them. It does me too, but it’s much different writing one than reading one. The editor said I’d written the first half as a mystery, and the second half as a thriller and I needed to make up my mind what I was writing. I hadn’t seen that flaw until she pointed it out, and I agreed. I chose mystery and ended up rewriting much of the second half of the book.
My advice is not to worry about those kinds of things early on. Just write. Because the work I did wasn’t wasted, it helped to hone my story, develop my characters more deeply, and rewriting brought in some interesting new characters who wouldn’t have been there without the extra work.