Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Visit with Patricia Stoltey

Patricia Stoltey is great example of an older writer with a sense of adventure and no fear of computers. Her favorite pastime is reading anything from light YA novels to dark thrillers. Well traveled, the Colorado novelist writes her murder mysteries about familar places.

Patricia, you have interesting titles for your books. How did you come up with them and in which areas are they located?

I thought hard about that first title, because I wanted a format and rhythm that would work for future books. My goal, if the characters succeeded as a series, was to tie each plot to a different part of the country and use that reference in the title. The first part of The Prairie Grass Murders is set in central Illinois, and the plot revolves around land use disputes. The debate about setting aside good farmland as prairie grass preserves is an element in the dispute.

The Desert Hedge Murders is set in Laughlin, Nevada, and Oatman, Arizona, so that’s the desert part of the title. In this case, a hedge fund scam is the crime that triggers the murders. Is that too sneaky?

If I decide to write more books in this series, I’m thinking of titles like The Banyon Tree Murders (set in South Florida) or The Cache la Poudre Murders (set in Colorado), etc.

Tell us about your latest mystery and your series protagonists.

There are two 60ish main protagonists in this series, retired circuit court judge Sylvia Thorn and her brother Willie Grisseljon, a Vietnam veteran. They dominated the first book in the series, but in The Desert Hedge Murders, they’re upstaged by their parents and Mom’s travel club, The Florida Flippers.

Sylvia agrees to escort the group on a long weekend trip to Laughlin for gambling and sightseeing. When they check into the hotel in Laughlin and find a body in the bathtub of one of the rooms, the stage is set for serious senior sleuthing.

How did you come up with the Florida Flippers, your madcap senior travel  group? 

The idea for Mom’s travel club came after I’d selected the Laughlin/Oatman location for the second novel. I was thinking of reasons why Sylvia and Willie would go there, and escorting the senior group seemed like a great idea. As I wrote each one of the characters, I imagined them as older versions of my three cousins and my sister-in-law. That helped me keep the characters from looking and acting too much alike.

One of my blogger friends described the book as “Golden Girls meet Murder She Wrote.” I think that’s a great logline.

When did you begin writing and when was your first novel published?

In my 20s, I wrote bad poetry and bad short stories, attended conferences and writing classes over the years, and knew I wanted to try a book someday. Working full time and raising kids interfered, until the mid-80s when I had a two year break (in France). I focused on the action/adventure novel my brother and I wanted to write about his experiences in the transportation industry in the 70s. We finally got that manuscript published in 1999, but only as an audio book. I also wrote the first draft of a romantic suspense novel during that break, but it still sits on the shelf, unloved and unpublished. I finally made it into print in 2007 with The Prairie Grass Murders.

You’ve lived in France as well as various areas in this country. What prompted the long distance moves?

 A spirit of adventure, the desire to reinvent myself after major life changes including the death of a spouse, a longing to experience more before I get too old to travel—I think all those things played a part.

In 1998, just before my husband and I retired and moved from Florida to Colorado, I took a solo jaunt to Norway to check out my maternal grandfather’s birthplace and meet the Norwegian cousins. That was also an amazing experience.

What’s your writing schedule like? Do you outline your books or just have a vague idea of what’s going to happen when you sit down at the computer?

I’m a binge writer. I spend weeks and months thinking about a story while I’m working on other projects, pulling weeds, writing blog posts, etc. When I sit down to write, I write long and hard, for days at a time. I may have a few notes regarding timeline or plot twists, but I don’t outline until I’m several chapters into the story. Then I usually put together a chapter synopsis to keep the plot straight.

Do you have an agent? 

I do not have an agent, and I didn’t spend much time looking for one. I found Five Star/Gage through a conference workshop moderated by an editor from Tekno Books, the group that acquires books for this publisher.

I plan to search for an agent again as I finish up the two projects I have in the works. Neither one is well-suited to Five Star’s mystery line, but if I write another Sylvia and Willie novel, I’ll submit to Five Star without hesitation.

What's your current project?

I’m fine-tuning a novel set in frontier Illinois, circa 1830. I think of it not as a “Who done it?” but as a “Who’s gonna do it?” although it will probably be classified as women’s fiction. The title is Wishing Caswell Dead. I’ve also completed the first draft of a contemporary suspense novel, tentatively called Dead Wrong.

Advice to fledgling mystery writers.

Attend mystery conventions as a fan while you learn the craft so you can meet published authors and network, network, network. Establish an online presence and learn about blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media long before you publish. Buy a copy of Chris Roerden’s Don’t Murder Your Mystery and read it very carefully. Try your best to find a traditional publisher approved by Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. If you end up self-publishing or going with a small publisher that has no in-house editor, hire a topnotch editor to help you fine-tune your manuscript.

Thanks, Patricia.

Patricia's website:

Her blog site:

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Visit with South African Crime Writer, Roger Smith

Photo by Shelley Christians

Roger Smith tells it like it is in his native South Africa. The brutality of his novels will shock most Americans but he writes about a way of life in the country of former apartheid.

Roger, you've been called the Elmore Leonard of South Africa and the shooting star of the crime scene. What sets your work apart from the other crime novels?

I’m very flattered to be compared to Elmore Leonard and I can only imagine it’s because Wake Up Dead is an ensemble piece like most of Leonard’s work, with the POV shifting between a number of different characters. And there’s something Leonardesque about the attraction/ repulsion hot American widow, Roxy Palmer, feels for conflicted ex-cop turned mercenary, Billy Afrika. But the body count in Wake Up Dead is way higher than in Leonard’s books – especially the later ones.

International readers tell me they are fascinated by the South African setting of my novels – which is new to most of them – and appalled by the brutally of the society I depict.

Why do you choose to write about violence, brutality, poverty, exploitation, gang and prison life?

I live in – and write about – an extremely violent country. When apartheid ended in the mid-90s South Africa went from being pariah of the world to everybody’s darling under Nelson Mandela, but the bubble burst when Mandela moved on: crime and corruption replaced apartheid as our number one social ill.

We now have the highest homicide statistics in the world. One in three South African women will be raped in her lifetime, and nearly 1,500 children were murdered in South Africa last year. Most of those children were also sexually violated. A few days ago South Africa’s ex-commissioner of police – head of Interpol at the time of his arrest – was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for racketeering.

So I don’t portray anything that doesn’t happen every day in South Africa. I loathe the comic book porno-violence of a lot of European and U.S. crime writing (and movies, TV and video games, for that matter) where bloodshed is used to titillate. People aren’t turned on by what I write – they’re shocked. As they should be.

What about your own background?

I grew up under apartheid in South Africa. As a teenager in Johannesburg, I watched white cops mow down black school kids my age during the 1976 youth uprising. A few years later I was drafted into a white army fighting a meaningless bush war against older versions of those black kids.

In the 1980s I was a founder member of a non-racial film co-operative that produced anti-apartheid films for foreign TV networks. As a screenwriter I have written for movies and TV in Africa – everything from sit-coms to drama series. No soaps, I’m pleased to say. I now write crime novels fulltime.

Tell us about your latest novel, Wake the Dead.

Wake Up Dead opens with this line: “The night they were highjacked, Roxy Palmer and her husband, Joe, ate dinner with an African cannibal and his Ukrainian whore.”

Cape Town, South Africa, is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Africa. Eurotrash rub shoulders with gangsters and hookers from the old USSR. Leaders of dubious African “liberation movements” live in lavish exile on the slopes of Table Mountain, while plotting coups in their home countries. And people of mixed race – two-thirds of the population – live on the flipside of the Cape Town picture postcard, the Cape Flats, which is about as violent a place as you’ll find outside of a war zone.

Each African summer a skinny tribe of botoxed and Brazilian-waxed beauties from around the world migrate to Cape Town, hustling for shoots in the ad industry. And looking for husbands. Rich ones. Women like Wake Up Dead’s flawed heroine, Roxy Palmer, whose first bad decision was marrying a man for all the wrong reasons. Her second bad decision leaves her fighting for her life.

Wake Up Dead begins with a car-jacking, a violent collision between privileged Cape Town and the Flats, an incident so commonplace that it barely makes the local news. What fascinates me is to look beyond the statistics, to get into the people who are flung together by these violent events, and the impact on their lives.
When Roxy’s gunrunner husband, Joe, is left dead after the car-jacking, the blame falls on Disco and Godwynn, the ghetto gangbangers who speed away in Joe’s convertible and Roxy becomes their target.

Billy Afrika, a mixed-race ex-cop turned mercenary, moves in on Roxy because Joe Palmer owed him a chunk of money – money he needs to protect the family of his dead partner who was butchered by the psychopath, Piper, who breaks out of prison to be with his prison “wife” Disco.

The result of these entanglements is, inevitably, bloody.

How important is humor in crime novels?

I’m not a great fan of comic crime novels – “capers” and whimsical cozies leave me cold. But all great crime writers like Chandler, Leonard, and one of my current favorites, Daniel Woodrell, weave humor into their novels, through dialogue or the dark and outrageous predicaments they contrive for their characters. The criminal world is rich with black comedy.

I think there’s a lot of humor in Wake Up Dead: albeit typically South African gallows humor. We do it well, because we’ve had so much practice.

How do you research your books?

Around ten years ago I moved down to Cape Town, and I fell in love with – and later married – a woman who grew up out on the Cape Flats, a sprawling ghetto outside the city, home to millions of people of mixed race, where the rape, murder and child abuse statistics are the highest in the world. The true stories she told me and the world she introduced me to changed my view of Cape Town forever and inspired me to write crime novels.

A few years ago, I went with her to prison to visit her brother. He’s in his thirties, a human canvas of prison artwork. Since the age of fourteen he has spent a total of two years out of jail. He knows if he ever goes out into the world again he won’t stand a chance, will end up where he always ends up: back in prison. I knew I wanted to write about men like him.

My wife is my greatest critic. She keeps my work honest and realistic.

Here’s the YouTube link to a short video interview I shot with an ex-convict from the Cape Flats who closely resembles Wake Up Dead’s psycho-killer, Piper. He tells of life in prison – including a bloody gang-murder. Not for the faint-hearted.

How important is an agent and how did you acquire one?

Getting published without an agent is nearly impossible, unless you go the vanity press route. I was determined to have an agent in New York and pursued Alice Martell. She read the manuscript of my first novel, Mixed Blood, agreed to represent me and got me a two-book deal in a matter of days.

Is there a difference in the reading tastes of South Africans and Americans?

Not really. If you visit a bookstore in South Africa you’ll find pretty much the same books you’d find in the U.S. or the U.K. But there is more of an appreciation of noir crime fiction in the U.S. and Europe; South Africans tend to favor more conventional mystery fare.

Advice to budding crime/noir novelists.

Read voraciously. Learn from good (and bad) writers. Finish that first novel even if it’s a mess. When you rewrite your work (and you should, many times) be ruthless in your editing. In the immortal words of Elmore Leonard: cut out all the bits that readers skip.

Thank you, Roger.

Roger's website: