Monday, June 28, 2010

A Visit with Vicki Hinze

Multi-award winning, bestselling novelist Vicki Hinze, (aka Victoria Barrett and Victoria Cole) has written more than two dozen novels for Bantam, St. Martin's Press, Pinnacle, and Silhouette, and three nonfiction books for Spilled Candy Books. An active lecturer on the writing craft and the business of writing, she sponsors the Writers' Zone mentoring program and the Edna Sampson Benevolence Fund to assist writers in financial straits.

Vickie, how did growing up in New Orleans influence your writing? And when did you actually begin to write?

New Orleans is colorful, and I would say that its most significant influence is in the unique individuality of the people, which makes for interesting and complex characters. Too, the bayous and swamps and marshes are full of mystery and folklore that make for intriguing settings.

I began writing before starting grade school. To read the Sunday comics, I had to read and discuss the front page of the paper all week. My dad's rules. I wrote political essays. Later, I moved into poetry and then very briefly into short stories, and then moved to novels. I wrote the first novel in 1986, first sold in 1992. I don't recall a time when I didn't write, to be honest.

I have to ask: why do you wear hats covering your eyes in your publicity photos?

I could say it suits with the mystery and thriller aspects of what I write, but the truth is I needed new pro photos and I was undergoing a series of eye surgeries. Swelling and bruising are hidden by those hats. Readers wrote in liking them, so I've kept the hats.

What prompted your war games series? And why body doubles?

My husband was in special ops and so I'm naturally interested in the topic and missions. Body doubles became intriguing in the first Iraq war, when I discovered that Saddam had nearly a dozen known body doubles. And so the "what if" concept kicked in. What if black-market terrorists used doubles to infiltrate high-level top-secret positions where people have access to all manner of intelligence and technology? That set my imagination on fire.

How do you go about researching your novels? And what in your background prepared you to write about politics and war?

The research depends on the subject matter, but often I do what I can on the web and then contact subject matter experts to confer.

The preparation I'd say comes from a lifelong interest in politics spurred and nurtured by my father and later being aware of the impact of politics on my life and later still on the lives of my children. My husband being in the military for twenty-two years generated a deep interest. To better understand the man, I spent a lot of time studying warfare, the history of war and methods, means and technology.

You have a diverse group of women protagonists? Have you patterned them after women you’ve known or admired?

All of the protagonists--male or female--are people I respect and admire. I might not agree with them or their actions, but I still respect them. The females well might be victims but they don't let that steal their identities or their futures. I can't say they're based on any one woman but are rather a composite of admirable traits I see in everyday, ordinary women who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances.

Tell us about your latest release.

Forget Me Not is a story of a woman who is carjacked, beaten and left for dead. She recalls nothing and others are trying to kill her. She must discover why to survive. She's definitely a victim, but she holds fast to faith. That sprang from the question/statement that led me to write the book. If, I wondered, you lost everything--every single thing including your identity--would you lose yourself? In writing the book, I discovered the answer to that question and more. It wasn't easy to write and some of the explorations weren't comfortable, but they were worthy.

When and why did you start your Yahoo group, Writers Zone?

To be honest, I've lost track of when. It started out as Aids4Writers but one of the members was deeply impacted by AIDS, which was a new term to us when I started, so I changed the name of it. Well over ten years ago. Probably close to fifteen.

Every year, as part of a self-improvement program, I tackle a virtue. That year, I wanted to "do good for goodness' sake." You see, when I started writing, I didn't know another writer. I would spend days looking for the simplest information. It was very frustrating, and I promised myself that if I ever learned anything about writing or the business, I would share. So the program was born for the purpose of sharing while looking for nothing in return. I intended to post every day for a year, and then to move on to the next virtue. But as the year came to a close, I mentioned to the followers that I was going to miss them and their questions which kept me on my toes. The feedback was swift and furious, with followers asking me to please continue the program. And so I have.

For the first several years, I attempted to post every day. As my career took off and I had less time available, I'd post three or four times a week. But a shift has occurred that has required me to change the way that I run the program. And that is, many of the questions I receive are ones too author-specific to share with the group. So these days the majority of the work is between the author asking and me privately. I don't and never have claimed to know it all. But I do network, and share what I know or what I can find out from others. So the program started with me trying to do good for goodness sake and continues because they asked.

And which subjects do you touch on most?

I answer a lot of questions on writing craft, but in the last couple of years likely due to the rapidly changing market), the bulk of the questions have been related to the writing business. Within that aspect of our industry, the questions widely vary. Some are very basic, wanting to know the what happens to a book after it submitted. Others are a lot more complex, dealing with agent or editor relations, promotional tips, reading royalty statements, terminating agreements—all manner of things. Character, pacing, and suspense are common themes I'm questioned on consistently. Of course, that brings in things like conflict, goals, and other intricate aspects of character that impact the other novel elements as well. But I also get a lot of questions on time management and making presentations, too.

What’s the best way to become a bestselling writer?

The short answer: produce consistently high-quality work for a targeted, established genre and market it as though your life depended on it. When you do this, you build a bond with the reader, and s/he comes to trust you. By staying in the same genre, you make it easier for readers to find and follow you. It is increasingly important that authors get involved in marketing their own work. Because it is, it behooves the author to learn to do market wisely and well. The key word is platform, and it's never too soon for an author to start building one. I don't know that that is the best way to become a best-selling writer, but I do know it seems effective.

Who most influenced your own writing and what would you be doing, if not a writer?

My parents influenced my writing. Both of them loved books and read constantly. It wasn't uncommon for my mother to read two or three books a day. Those daily discussions on politics with my dad early on in life taught me a lot more than just about the stories that appeared in the newspaper. Writers are good observers, and they learn to look at things from different perspectives. The ability to do that is one of the gifts that my dad gave me in that little ritual of earning my way to read the funnies.

I have no idea what I would be doing if I didn't write. I remember once early on, I was frustrated to the max. I told my husband I was going to quit. He suggested that I really think about it because he couldn't see me being happy not writing. So I did. I locked myself in my office and thought about it for hours. What I discovered, wasn't that I was frustrated with writing. I was frustrated with trying to sell what I wrote. I walked out of my office, and I told my husband that when I died I wanted him to bury me with a pencil in my hand.

The idea of going through eternity and not being able to write down my stories was just more than I could bear. So I really don't know what I would do if I were not a writer. I would probably teach writing, or counsel writers, or teach the business end of being a writer. I just don't know that anything unrelated to writing would hold my interest long-term. I'd have to be pretty fascinated. One of the things that I absolutely love about writing is knowing I'll never master it. I can study, write my fingers to the bone, and I'm still going to learn new things and try new methods and techniques all the time. The adventurous nature of that makes it hard to beat or even to match.

Advice to aspiring writers.

If you can quit writing, do it.

That sounds brash, but the truth is writing for a living is a very difficult thing to do. So you have to have an unshakable sense of purpose in doing it or you'll never make it. The quickest way to find out if you have that unshakable sense is to quit. If you can quit, you aren't likely to have the disposition or discipline or endurance to make it through the ups and downs of being a writer. It requires total commitment. If you love writing, you will not be able to quit. You won't be content without it. And that makes this the fastest way to find out whether or not it's in your best interests to pursue writing as a career.

There's a lot of information for writers in my MY KITCHEN TABLE blog and in the writer's library on my website at Spend some time there, exploring. It could spare you from tromping through the same mud puddles others or I have tromped through.

Choose a path of the stories you love most then stay the course. Be flexible, but realize that the higher up you get on the career ladder the less options you have to write "different" stories. Why? Because your readers' expect a type of story from you and that's what they want. That's not to say you can't write different things, but that you need to prepare your readers for the shifts or their expectations will be violated.

Keep studying the craft, the business, and keep reading.

Thank you, Vicki!

Vicki's website:

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Visit with Sandra Parshall

Sandra Parshall's first book, The Heat of the Moon, won the Agatha Award for best first novel. Her latest book in the series, Broken Place, features her protagonist, Rachel Goddard, a spunky young veterinarian. The novel has earned starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Library Journal.

Sandra's giving away copies of Broken Places to two lucky visitors who leave a comment here.

Sandra,tell us about your life of crime.

For years I wrote mainstream fiction without selling a word of it. I hadn’t grown up reading Nancy Drew and didn’t start reading mysteries until I was in my thirties, so I had no great ambition to write them. When I discovered the work of Ruth Rendell and Thomas H. Cook, I was introduced to a whole new world of fiction.

I realized that crime stories didn’t have to be formulaic, like the Christie and Sherlock Holmes books. Within the framework of a crime story, a writer could explore the most extreme human behavior and emotions. A story could be “about something” and entertaining at the same time. I still didn’t think I had the talent to manage the intricate plot of a mystery or suspense novel, though. It wasn’t until the idea for The Heat of the Moon came to me in a dream that I drew a deep breath and jumped into the water at the dark end of the pool.

Why do you think you’re drawn to crime?

I like dramatic stories about people in crisis, and crime changes lives drastically. I want to see how people cope with the aftermath of a crime like murder – the most extreme action any human can take against another.

When did your writing begin?

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write. When I was barely able to form letters into words and sentences, I wrote stories on lined pulp paper pads. I think the urge to create stories is inborn and can’t be explained.

Did your parents encourage your creativity? And does anyone else in your family write?

No, I didn’t receive any particular encouragement. I was the weird one, always either reading or writing. One of my aunts was a journalist who had (unrealized) ambitions to write fiction, but I don’t know of any other relative with an interest in writing.

Has living in Washington, D.C. influenced your writing in any way?

Other than providing a setting for my first book, The Heat of the Moon, I don’t think it has. Although I’m keenly interested in politics, I don’t read political thrillers and would never write one. But Washington is much more than politics. It’s a beautiful area, with glorious natural parks and wildlife refuges up and down the Potomac, and the museums and galleries are among the finest in the world. I love living here, although I’m conscious of being at what could be ground zero in a future terrorist attack.

Tell us about your latest novel, Broken Places.

In this book I mix the characters’ personal issues with a bit of history and what I hope is a lighthanded stroke of sociology. The murder victims, Cameron and Meredith Taylor, came to the mountains as idealistic youths in the late 1960s, determined to do their part in the War on Poverty and improve the lives of the local people. Like many of the antipoverty volunteers, they were poorly trained and immature, completely unequipped to deal with engrained poverty and an unsympathetic local power structure. Instead of leaving when their year was over, the Taylors stayed, pursuing activist goals. By the time they’re killed, they have plenty of enemies. The case is personal for Rachel Goddard and Tom Bridger because the Taylors’ daughter is Tom’s old girlfriend. She returns home after her parents’ deaths, not only to see justice done but also to win Tom back.

What’s the best part of writing, and the worst?

I love creating characters, bringing them to life, and developing stories. Nothing ever goes in exactly the direction I expected, and I enjoy being surprised by my own story. The worst part is the doubt that goes with marketing – will anyone like it, will anyone think it’s good?

Do you outline your books or wing it? And how do you categorize your books?

I can’t “wing it” completely. I have to know where I’m headed. So I do outline, but in a loose way. The outline changes as I write, because, as I said, stories tend to go in unexpected directions and I’ve learned to follow them.

My first book is psychological suspense, the second and third are dark traditional mysteries with Gothic overtones.

What’s your writing schedule like? Do you aim for a certain amount of words or hours per day?

I would love to be one of those super-disciplined writers who can sit down every day and turn out a precise number of words, but I’m simply not like that. I think I’m doing well if I can get myself to the computer at a reasonably early hour. I probably sit at the computer for three to five hours a day. But the truth is that I’m always writing. Like most writers, I take the story and characters with me wherever I go, whatever I’m doing, and I’m always working on some aspect of a book at all times.

Advice to aspiring writers.

Be absolutely sure this is what you want to do and that you have the talent to ultimately succeed. You might write for years before you sell anything, and you won’t survive if you don’t believe in yourself and feel a burning desire to write. Beyond that, never stop learning. Read with a critical eye, and consider every bit of writing advice you come across, in case it contains some nugget of wisdom that will open doors in your mind.

Thanks for taking part in the series.

Sandar's website:
HEr blog site:

Saturday, June 5, 2010

A Visit with Nancy Means Wright

Nancy Means Wright is the author of 15 books, including five mysteries from St. Martin’s Press. Her latest release is an historical novel, Midnight Fires: a Mystery with Mary Wollstonecraft.

She was a Bread Loaf Scholar for her first novel, an Agatha winner for a children’s mystery, and has published stories in American Literary Review, Level Best Books, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, et al. She lives in Vermont with her spouse and two Maine Coon cats.

Nancy, tell us about your first writings at age nine. Why did your mother destroy them and why did you later write opening chapters of depressing novels?

Like most girls of that age, I was inspired by Nancy Drew. I liked her spirit, longed for adventures, secretly envied her with only a father (my mother had a very dominant personality). And I’d always walked to school making up dialogue and scenes, like the kidnapping of a pesky older brother.

The scenes played out, and soon I was writing them down. I had some fifty pages before mother found them and thought she had a juvenile delinquent living in her attic. That was my first rejection. And then my beloved father, who brought home licorice and hugs each night from work, died suddenly when I was twelve. The depressing novel chapters came when mother put me in a girls’ boarding school for five years, and because she was a housemother there, I was supposed to be a model student and obey all the rules. I wasn’t and I didn’t.

Your first novel, The Losing, is about a young woman trapped in a boys’ school, who anesthetizes herself with sherry. How much of that is autobigraphical?

Definitely the boys’ school, myself, and the sherry. I wasn’t allowed to teach English because the headmaster claimed it a man’s subject! So I taught remedial reading which was boring, and the sherry became ever more inviting. Finally I got an MA in French and put on plays that weren’t the headmaster’s “cup of tea,” so I felt vindicated. And I cut back on the sherry.

Did you actually write by kerosene light in a house built in 1795 in Vermont, with no plumbing or electricity? How did that come about?

Winters we lived in dormitories at that school (I’d married a Vermonter, a paragon of “the simple life” and civil disobedience). We bought the 1795 house for $3000—named it the Broken House. Summers I was studying French—did my homework while the diapers spun in the the laundrymat machines. The same jug of water was recycled for cooking, washing hands, dishes, rinsing out stinky diapers, and finally dumped into an unflushable toilet. This went on for five summers until my husband succumbed to indoor plumbing and electricity. I never did get a bathtub to ruminate in or spin plots.

When did you decide to write mystery novels? And who inspired you to write them?

I divorced in the early nineties and taught in a liberal arts college in Poughkeepsie, NY. On a weekend home in Vermont, I read about two elderly farmers who were assaulted one night for the cash they refused to bank. When the police caught the perps spending bills that reeked of barn—I knew I had to write a mystery. I put that assault into the first chapter of Mad Season, and Ruth Cavin at St Martin’s Press bought it.

You have some unusual book titles: Poison Apples, Harvest of Bones, Stolen Honey, Pea Soup Poisonings, The Great Circus Train Robbery and Mad Cow Nightmare. How would you categorize your work and do your books have a common theme?

They’re all mysteries, somewhere between cozy and noir (I call the St. Martin’s series “rural noir.”) And each title alludes to a theme in the novel. For instance, Poison Apples is set in a vandalized orchard, and Stolen Honey refers to the thirties’ Eugenics Project in which so called “degenerates” (often simply illiterate folk) were sterilized in order to “breed better Vermonters.” Horrible! The law was on the books until ’73, and not only in Vermont. In my novel a young professor is strangled when she writes a paper, comparing the project to the Holocaust. If there is any theme common to all, it’s the plight of small farmers today, as my sleuth is an impecunious single mother dairy farmer.

Tell us about your latest novel, Midnight Fires, which features eighteenth-century feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft (mother of Mary Shelley who wrote Frankenstein). Do you identify with her in any way?

She has been an alter ego to me since I first read her work and letters in the sixties in a consciousness raising group. Her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) blew me away with its radical call for the right to divorce, for equal education with males, and for females to think for themselves and not be the pawns of fathers and husbands. Like me she left home in her teens, taught school (is a rebellious governess in Midnight Fires), and above all, wanted to be a writer. And like me, her desire for independence conflicted with her sensuality—head versus heart. She made ill-fated choices in men—until her late thirties when she found the right one (writer William Godwin) but she died, alas, shortly after childbirth.

What’s the most important trait a writer can possess? And is perseverance more important than writing talent?

I dare say curiosity. A driving curiosity to discover what makes people tick, and to virtually become these real or fictitious people, and vicariously live their lives. Perseverance is important (it’s the name of my wonderful new publisher!) but I do think writing talent is equally key. Without the “drive” you won’t succeed, but without good writing, a book won’t go beyond your doting mama’s eyes.

How do you spend your day and when do you write? What’s your schedule and do you aim for a certain amount of words per day?

Like Pavlov’s dogs in that long ago experiment, the saliva flows round 8 a.m.and I head for my computer. Until I (recently) broke my right arm, I seldom have writer’s block, so I keep at it until noon and then return in the evening for a second sprint—or revision. Afternoons I shop, walk, read, do workshops—whatever! No, I never aim at “so many” words. I’m disciplined, but I don’t outline, and I take what comes. I let it surprise me.

Advice for fledgling writers?

Well, Vermont writer Howard Frank Mosher nails up rejection slips and adverse reviews on the side of his barn and shoots holes in them. I just leave mine in a cardboard box and let my Maine Coon cats make a nest or pee on them. So send that ms out again!

What three inanimate objects would you save in the event of fire or flood?

First my latest manuscript, be it fiction, play or poem. Then my glasses, since I’m hopelessly near sighted. After that, probably my wallet with its preponderance of identity/ credit/ insurance cards, photo IDs, and my good luck 18th century Piece of Eight.

Thank you, Nancy, for taking part in the series.

Nancy's web and blog site:"

Her Facebook page:!/pages/BECOMING-MARY-WOLLSTONECRAFT/178981144431?ref=ts"