Saturday, December 11, 2010
A Conversation with Donis Casey
Donis, you have some unusual titles for your Alafair Tucker mystery series. The series is obviously a humorous take on Western mysteries. How did the series come about?
Thanks, Jean. All my titles are taken from something that one of the characters says, which is often a well-known phrase of the period. When I decided to send the first novel around, I wanted an eye-catching title, but couldn’t come up with anything suitably ethnic. Until one evening when I was talking to my mother on the phone. I asked her about her colorful neighbor, and she replied, “I think that old buzzard has a girlfriend.” Voila! My country-raised mother had a penchant for using animals as descriptors--“that snake,” “he’s a dog,” etc.
There’s a lot of humor inherent in raising a bunch of kids, like my sleuth is doing, so I do have quite a bit of humor in the books. But I don’t think of the series as being comic. Rural Oklahoma in the 1910s was a tough place. Alafair and her husband Shaw have had more than their share of trouble and heartache.
Here is how the series came about: In 1999, after I closed my business and discovered I now had time to do research, I decided to write a family genealogy for my siblings as a Christmas present. In the course of the research, I ran across stories and anecdotes about ancestors, which led me to remember stories my grandparents and parents had told me about their parents and grandparents, and life on the farm. I began questioning my mother, and then to write down my own memories. When I shared my stories with my husband, he began to reminisce about his (extremely colorful) Oklahoma pioneering family. This led me to begin questioning his siblings. At the end of the process, I had a book length genealogy packed with stories from the French and Indian wars, the Revolution, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, ambushes, murders, adoptions, divorces and adultery — settlers and Indians, massacres, poisonings, axings, shootings, drownings, and smashing people in the head with beer bottles. In the end, I said to myself, “Donis, you have enough material here for ten books.”
Tell us about your background and how it influenced your writing.
I have written all my life. The first short story I wrote had to do with a little girl who turned into a cat. I was about six. My grandparents and parents were great spinners of yarns, so I came about my storytelling talents honestly. Of course, most writers are made from readers, and I was and am a voracious reader. My love of reading led me to become an English major in college, then an English teacher, and eventually a librarian with a specialty in U.S. government publication, which gave me a great background in American history.
Are your characters based on people you’ve known in Oklahoma?
Alafair and her family are all based on relatives of mine, living and dead. One of my great-grandmothers was named Alafair Wilson. Another was called Selinda Tucker. I interviewed many relatives for the series. Many of the details of Alafair’s life on the farm, such as using kerosine-soaked corn cobs to start a fire, come from my mother, who grew up on a farm during the Depression. Many of the incidents related actually happened, both in my family and my husband’s (the less savory ones, he points out).
Briefly tell us about Alafair Tucker.
My sleuth, Alafair Tucker, is a woman in her early forties who lives with her husband Shaw and their ten children on a prosperous farm in Muskogee County, Oklahoma, in the 1910s. She never sets out to solve murders, but all those pesky kids keep getting involved in unsavory situations, and need their mother to get them out of trouble. Fortunately for me, Alafair is the kind of woman who will literally do anything, legal or not so legal, for her kids.
There is nothing that irritates me more in a historical novel than a character who has modern sensibilities. So, as best as I can make her, Alafair is a woman of her times. She leads a life that is so busy that it wouldn’t be realistic if she could easily drop everything on a whim and go off to gather clues. But she has her army of grown and half-grown children to snoop for her, as well as her web of women relatives and friends who are willing to help. Her information network is better than the sheriff’s.
Which writer’s work influenced your own and why?
Though my Alafair series couldn’t be more different when it comes to time, place, and language, it is blatantly patterned after Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael books. Just like Peters’ series, I wanted mine to be centered around a warm-hearted sleuth with a lot of insight into human nature. I wanted to have a very strong sense of place and time in my books, which is something that particularly impressed me about Peters’ books. I’m also very much influenced by Mark Twain’s use of language.
What’s your writing schedule like? And do you strictly adhere to it?
Most of the time, I write in the afternoons. I long ago developed the habit of doing my chores and errands in the morning, before the Arizona heat is at its worst. I routinely take a break at about 3:00 for 15 or 20 minutes, to eat an apple, stretch, and maybe read something that has nothing to do with anything. However, if I’m on a roll, all bets are off. When I am on a deadline, I do set myself a goal of at least 1,000 words a day, about three pages. I often can do more. Sometimes eking out 1,000 words is torture.
How important are writer organizations?
I think that for beginning writers, or for a yet-as-unpublished writer, writer organizations are extremely helpful. Conferences, festivals, fairs, and meetings are how a writer builds her network and learns the business as well as her craft. After one’s writing career is more established, conferences are where you keep up with the trends, meet the movers and shakers, share what you’ve learned. Writing is by it’s very nature a solitary craft. It’s most helpful to commiserate with other writers. We all need a support group, or it’s easy to fall into the illusion that you’re the only one suffering with your career. I guarantee you’re not. Even the Very Big Names eat their hearts out on a regular basis.
There is a group for every genre and type of writing that exists, I belong to several organizations myself, mostly mystery groups, but historical fiction groups and Western writers associations as well. Each writing niche has its audience and it’s peculiarities, and if you’re going to make a success of it, it’s very helpful to associate yourself with others who can support and direct you.
How long did it take to publish your first book, once it was completed? And did you go about getting published?
In my youth, I wrote a long book and got an agent who shopped it around for literally years. She never sold it, but I did get a lot of useful feedback from editors. Years later, when I reached a point in my life where I didn't absolutely have to work to live I went home to write full time. It took me a little less than a year to write The Old Buzzard Had It Coming. When I was done, I intended to find another agent, and was getting my query package together when I checked the Poisoned Pen Press website and saw that they would read unagented material. Since they have a very good reputation, I thought, what the heck, I'll send them a query while waiting for a response from an agent. A week later, I got an email from the press asking me for an outline and 3 chapters. Then, in a few more weeks, they asked for the entire manuscript. Three or four months after that, before I had settled on an agent, Poisoned Pen made me an offer, which I accepted. Almost exactly one year from that first query, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming was published. It was received very well, winning the Arizona Book Award, becoming a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award, and the Benjamin Franklin Book Award, and being named an Oklahoma Centennial Book in 2007.
Believe me, how Buzzard got published is not the normal author experience. I expected the usual--many rejections before acceptance, and I was amazed that the very first place the book was submitted to accepted it. All those years of practice paid off, I suppose. And I also suppose that I finally wrote the book I was meant to write.
I know you've worked as a librarian. What about librarians looking for when acquiring books?
I was a librarian for most of my working life, but I wasn’t really THAT kind of librarian. I worked in academic libraries, acquiring and referencing publications of the U.S. Government. I dealt with a specialized audience of researchers. However, all acquisitions librarians buy what their particular users want. If your book is young adult fiction, approach the YA librarian in a public library, or a middle/high school librarian. Most public libraries, and some colleges, will have a special collection of works by local writers. Always make yourself known to your home town librarians and booksellers, and offer to do programs and presentations as well.
Advice to fledgling writers.
Every writer should know that no matter what kind of book you write, no matter how you get yourself published, if you want to succeed, you have to write the most excellent book you can. You have to love what you’re doing, and you have to know your craft.
The way to write an excellent book, even more than having a brilliant idea or great skill or technique, is to park your butt in the chair and go, go, go. NY Times best-selling author Cara Black told me that her first draft is always crap. William Shakespeare’s first drafts were probably crap. You’ll get discouraged. But you rewrite. And rewrite. And rewrite. And one day the book ends up finished, and even good and entertaining. It's a miracle.
Everyone tells you how hard it is. You may think that published writers know something that you don’t. That they’re way better or luckier or more skilled than you. But I’ll let you in on a little secret--not necessarily. Here’s the one secret no one tells you before you set out to live the writing life. You have to be unbelievably brave. You have to put yourself out there. You have to go for it. Success is lightning in a bottle. But you will never succeed unless you are willing to fail.
Thank you, Donis.
Donis's website: www.doniscasey.com
She blogs at www.typem4murder.blogspot.com every Saturday, and at http://www.fatalfoodies.blogspot.com/