Tell me about yourself.
I’m a Midwesterner who hasn’t lived there since high school. I’ve had lots of different jobs, following my husband around the country, at first with the military, then with corporate moves. While still in Moline IL, I was a waitress and short order cook, baker for a nursing home, nurses’ aide, janitor in a tractor factory, and babysitter. After I was married, some of my jobs were secretary (once for mental health center), bookkeeper, and computer programmer. Always, though, a writer.
You have several novels out that have very different subjects. Is that hard to do?
It’s not hard to keep them separate in my mind. I think that’s because they ARE so different. I seem to be writing a tons of books all at once, but actually the products of my last twelve years of writing are just all being published at once.
My Cressa Carraway Musical Mystery series was the first one I thought had a chance and I worked very hard for years to get an agent with it and the sequel. That was the result of following instructions to write what I know, since I’m a musician and I like to compose, as does Cressa. The first book also takes place where I grew up.
After I failed to get anywhere with Cressa, I turned to another love of mine, prehistory and Neanderthals. I worked VERY hard on this book (I have an idea for 2 more, but they’re not written), reading textbooks, making up a language–and world building. When that one gained the admiration and praise of agents (more than one said I had outdone Jean Auel), it broke my heart when they added, “But I don’t know how to sell it.”
The Imogene Duckworthy books came spinning out of the dust of the high Texas plains, where we lived for a brief three years. I went at this project hell bent for entertaining myself, if nothing else. I wrote everything as over-the-top as I could. Lo and behold, it got published and even was nominated for an Agatha award.
The Fat Cat series is a work for hire, which means I’m taking the germ of an idea from the publisher and writing a story from it. Berkley wants it set in Minneapolis, which is good, because I’ve lived there and love the area. I worried about liking the project enough, but I’ve fallen in love with my characters.
How much research do you do for your books? I can’t imagine how hard it was to research information for “Death in the Time of Ice.”
That was the hardest to research. It did take a lot of reading and self-education, but I’ve always been interested in prehistory, so it wasn’t a hardship. The other three are set in places I know. The research for those has involved emailing people who are there sometimes, to get more detailed knowledge.
The research that helps all my books was my course at the Austin Citizen’s Police Academy, plus a few forensics and writing courses I’ve taken over the years.
Tell me about the awards your books have received.
Your timing is excellent! EINE KLEIN MURDER was just chosen as a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award at Killer Nashville in August. CHOKE, the first Imogene Duckworthy mystery was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel of 2011. Two years earlier, a short story “Handbaskets, Drawers, and a Killer Cold” was nominated for an Agatha for Best Short Story of 2009. So, I’m at the bridesmaid stage–nominated, but no wins –yet.
How long have you been writing?
All my life. As a young child, before I could read and write, I told stories. But I’ve been writing full-time for about 12 years, since I retired as a programmer.
You write novels and short stories. Which do you prefer? What did you start writing first?
It’s much easier for me to write a short story, but after having finished a few, novels are getting easier. I wrote short stories for many, many years before I attempted a novel. I wrote something that I called a novel when I was in 5th grade, but it was about 20 pages handwritten, so it was too short to even be a novella. It seemed like a novel to me at the time.
Can you share your writing process? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I guess I’m both. I just spin out the short stories. I won’t say they aren’t pre-plotted, but they’re plotted only in my head. Sometimes they take form as I write, but often the idea comes to me all at once.
For novels, I like to put down my main plot points (I like to have 8-12) and write from one to the next. I know, before I start, what the main events will be and about where I want them to fall along the story arc. I don’t always stick with the original plan, but I can’t start writing a whole novel without setting down a plan.
How do you edit your first draft?
After the first draft, there’s usually plenty to do, so I print it out and read through, marking it up along the way. Later revisions are for layering in what I think needs to be there: hooks, obstacles for each scene, making sure the 5 sense are used when possible, grounding the beginnings of new scenes, backloading scene endings, etc. My last pass is reading aloud.
Do you belong to a critique group? Or a general writing group?
I don’t belong to one anymore for novels. I send my short stories through two online groups, one with the Guppies and another one with several rather hard-boiled writers, all guys.
I’ve put my earlier novels through Guppy crit groups with good results. I also used my face to face group in Austin for several years. I still use some of my early crit partners for readers. I’m writing too fast now (because I have to) for a chapter by chapter critique, but I feel much more comfortable if several people have read my novels before I turn them in.
How do you find the time to write?
It’s my fulltime job now. When I couldn’t find another contract programming job, I declared myself retired and started calling myself a writer.
How did you find your agent? Was it a grueling process or super easy?
I tried for many, many years to get one. I had actually given up and had gone to small presses. My first one didn’t work out, but the other two are super. I’ve had a ball self-publishing, too.
When I was trying to get a contract for a cozy, I hooked myself up with some cozy writers. One of them told me Berkley was looking for a Texan to write a series. I had written numerous proposals, trying to get my foot into that agency’s door, and I told my friend I just didn’t want to write another proposal. They take about a month and consist of three chapters and a complete synopsis. I also invested myself, emotionally, in each proposal I wrote. When they would get turned down, I felt like my characters had all died a premature death–I would mourn them. So, no, I couldn’t do that again.
The friend suggested I send them CHOKE, which had been published and had gotten the nomination at that time. I did, and the agent, Kim Lionetti at BookEnds, liked my voice and offered me a contract. She’s the one who got me the Fat Cat three-book contract, not long after I signed with her. She’s super!
So, no, not super easy. More like grueling.
What are your best writing tips?
Don’t give up. If you can just keep going, good things will happen eventually.
Do you find the internet to be a help or a hindrance?
Both! It probably take 1/100th of the time to research little things that it would take without it. On the other hand, it’s hard to ignore the distraction of all the chatter and activity going on without me when I’m working hard and ignoring it.
Do you have a writing mentor?
No, just writers I look up to. The many Guppies I’ve gotten to know who have persisted and gotten publishing contracts are inspirations to me.
Who are your favorite authors?
O. Henry and Mark Twain have taught me tons about writing short stories. Mystery novels? I have shelves full of favorite authors. I don’t think I could select just a few. My guilty pleasure is true crime, though, and Ann Rule is my favorite there.
Are your characters based on real people? Or do they all live in your imagination only?
I suppose they are, since the only people I’ve ever known have all been real people. I don’t think any character is based on any one person, though. I think people I’ve known, read about, seen on TV, or heard of, all get mashed together in my brain and emerge as characters.
What’s your go-to writing food? [I find myself craving peanut butter and andes mints—not together, of course]
Chocolate and, oddly enough, candy orange slices. And Scotch.
How do you celebrate the end of a book?
Chocolate and Scotch. And a bit of time off, but not much. I have deadlines!
What’s on deck? What new books do we have to look forward to?
I’m turning in my first FAT CAT manuscript September 15th, then taking a day or two off, I think. Then I’ll probably start on the second book, since it needs to be done 9 months after that. I have a bare bones beginning for that one at the moment.
I’m working on some short stories, too. I like to take Saturday off and do short stories on Saturdays. I’m working on several anthology stories. They don’t have tight deadlines, but they do have deadlines.
My first FAT CAT book will be published in 2014, with the 2nd and 3rd following 9 months apart.
In the Imogene series, I have ideas for STROKE, the 4th in that series, in a folder and in my head. The sequel to EINE KLEINE MURDER is nearly done. The second Neanderthal book is still mostly in my head, but I have a good arc for it, I think. I have no idea when I’ll work on those, or when they’ll come out, but some day!