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: http://www.sandraparshall.com
HEr blog site: http://www.poesdeadlydaughters.blogspot.com


Barb Schlichting said...

Interesting about where the ideas come from and always, 'writing'. Just living in Washington DC would make anyone's imagination go wild just from it's history alone. Thanks!

Miss Mae said...

You didn't grow up reading Nancy Drew??? For shame! LOL

Seriously, congrats on winning the Agatha award. That is huge success!

Wishing you the best!

shirley said...

I didn't read Nancy Drew either as I was hooked on Agatha Christie by age 9. Your books sound worth a visit! Keep on writing.

Ann Littlewood said...

I'm glad to hear about another writer who worries over each book's reception! But it sounds as if you can leave that all behind--two starred reviews! Congratulations! I'm eager to read it.

Sandra Parshall said...

Oh, Ann, no writer ever leaves behind those worries about a book's reception. You've had your own share of rave reviews, but I'm sure you still chew your nails and worry about whether the next book will be kindly received. :-)

Sandra Parshall said...

Sometimes I feel as if I'm the only female mystery writer in the world who didn't idolize Nancy Drew as a child. I *still* haven't read the Nancy Drew books. I give all the credit (or blame?) for my interest in crime fiction to Ruth Rendell and Thomas Cook.

Jean Henry Mead said...


I didn't read Nancy Drew either, so you're not alone. :)

Melissa Emerald said...

Great interview, Sandra!
I'm heartened by the fact that someone as talented as you did not read Nancy Drew as a kid. While I've dabbled in all sorts of writing most of my life, I didn't start reading for pleasure until my mid-30s. (Maybe I shouldn't admit that in public. LOL) Now, I can't fall asleep without reading at least a few paragraphs (usually more) at bedtime.

BTW ... I wouldn't worry too much about how your book will be received. It's already got five stars at Amazon. :-)

jenny milchman said...

Sandra, I love reading about your process...you put into words much of what I feel about suspense fiction. Your novel has been recommended to me by many different people--clearly the word is out. I look forward to starting with THE HEAT OF THE MOON!

Beverly Stowe McClure said...

An interesting interview. I enjoyed learning how you write. I'm another one who hasn't read Nancy Drew. In fact, as a kid I read very little.

Congratulations on your award. That's awesome.

Helen Ginger said...

Totally enjoyed this interview. We're similar in the way we write, as far as outlining and how that outline changes as we write.

I love D.C. It's a great city to explore and so easy to get around in. I'm heading there in August for a week and need to map out what new places I want to go see.

Polly Iyer said...

Love Sandra's books. Haven't gotten around to this one yet.