Saturday, December 25, 2010
Bruce, Rogue Island has received rave reviews, including Publishers Weekly’s listing as one of the ten best debut novels of 2010. How long did the project take from concept to release?
What prompted you to write about Rhode Island’s seedier side?
Was Rogue Island’s plot based on stories you‘ve covered as a journalist?
Briefly tell us about your writing background.
I spent 13 years writing for The Providence Journal, where I specialized in investigative reporting, and 13 years working at The Hartford Courant, most of them as the writing coach. Then I moved on to The Associated Press’s national headquarters in New York. There, I ran the news service’s elite team of national enterprise writers for eleven years and served as the writing coach for another three. Stories I edited won virtually every major journalism prize including the Polk (twice), the Livingston (twice), the Batten Medal, and the ASNE award. I also edited two Pulitzer finalists and helped edit a Pulitzer winner. I retired from journalism in 2009 to write crime novels, and I also continue to review them for the AP.
What’s the most important ingredient in a crime novel?
If I must pick one thing, it’s the characters. If I start reading a book and don’t care deeply about the people in it after a few chapters, I toss it aside and read something else. Rogue Island is definitely a character-driven novel. But hey, everything matters—the plot, the quality of the prose, and don’t forget the setting. As one of my crime-writer friends, Thomas H. Cook, once said, “If you want to understand the importance of place in a novel, just imagine Heart of Darkness without the river.” For a book to be good, all of these elements must be handled well and fit together seamlessly.
Whose work influenced your own? Your most read novelist?
I discovered crime fiction by reading Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett in my teens, and they remain major influences. I reread their work every year or two. As for current crime novelists, I’m a great admirer of Daniel Woodrell and Thomas H. Cook, two brilliant writers who succeed at everything except making the best-seller lists. I find Dennis Lehane’s best work astounding. Laura Lippman, James Lee Burke, Kate Atkinson, and Ken Bruen often take my breath away. I love Ace Atkins’ remarkable historical crime novels and James Ellroy’s staccato, high-on-amphetamines prose. To name a few. But the fact is, I’m influenced by everything I read including the bad stuff that teaches me what NOT to do. That said, the opening passage of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row is my favorite in all of English.
How difficult was it to acquire an agent, and how did you find the right one?
It’s not easy for a first-time novelist to find an agent, but I was lucky. Otto Penzler, the dean of America’s crime fiction editors and the proprietor of Manhattan’s famous Mysterious Bookshop is a friend of mine. He read my manuscript, loved it, and recommended me to LJK Literary Management. There, Susanna Einstein, one of the top agents in the business, agreed to represent me. Otto calls himself “the godfather” of my first book.
For whom do you write?
It’s perilous for a writer to think too much about trends in public taste because it can be so fleeting. Right now, someone out there is working on a vampire novel that will be completed just as teenage girls everywhere lose interest in the subject. So I write for myself, telling the stories I want to tell in the way I want to tell them. The late Robert B. Parker, one of the most successful crime novelists of our time, once told me this: “You write what you can.”
How important is humor in crime/noir novels?
Some crime novelists, such as James Ellroy, write great books that are unrelentingly grim. Others, such as Tim Dorsey, write slapstick-noir novels that keep you laughing from beginning to end. Most crime writers, including me, fall somewhere in between, tempering dark stories with flashes of humor. Some writers try to accomplish this with a wise-cracking protagonist, but a smart mouth is not enough. Humor shouldn’t be tacked on. It should serve the story. Parker’s Spenser has a smart mouth, but his put-downs reveal character, showing us his attitudes toward pretentiousness, authority, and women. In Rogue Island, I tried something different. Each line of humor in this dark story is there to reveal the character’s world view. But a writer must beware of anything that falls flat. The trouble with humor is that it has to be funny.
Advice to aspiring crime writers?
A. Don’t quit your day job. For every best-selling author like Harlan Coben or Chelsea Cain, there are hundreds of writers whose books sell only a few thousand copies—or don’t get published at all. I know, I know. I said I quit MY job to write crime novels; but I worked in journalism long enough to have a decent pension; and my wife, an award-winning poet and college professor, makes more than enough to support our family.
His blog: http://brucedesilva.wordpress.com/
Saturday, December 18, 2010
Diane Fanning is a true crime writer and crime novelist, whose book, Written in Blood, was an Edgar nominee featured on the TV program, 20/20. Her research led to the release of an innocent woman from prison who had been convicted of murder.
Diane, why did you decide to correspond with serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells? And how long was it before he confessed to you in a letter that he had murdered 10-year-old Joel Kirkpatrick, whose mother had been convicted of killing her son?
I sent my first letter to Tommy Lynn Sells after I acquired an agent and a contract to write about his crimes. In my first letter, I told him I was writing a book and requested a visit with him. At the time, he had been transferred from Death Row to the Bexar County Jail in connection with the murder of Mary Bea Perez. After that visit, at the end of September 2001, the correspondence continued.
I interviewed him face-to-face nearly twenty times at the jail and on Death Row before June 2002, when he wrote the first letter that indicated his possible involvement in the murder of Joel Kirkpatrick. He made additional remarks in another letter two weeks later. I visited him on Death Row that July and he provided additional information.
What did you say to Sells that prompted the confession? And did you believe the boy’s mother was innocent all along?
At the end of May, I stumbled across an ABC Prime time show about the Joel Kirkpatrick case. I heard Julie and her family and friends claiming innocence. I was highly skeptical. And then, the show presented comments from the prosecuting attorney. It was what he said that made me doubt Julie’s guilt.
Among other things, he said they knew there was no intruder because they found no stranger fingerprints at the scene and because an attacker would come with a weapon, not use a knife found in the kitchen. I knew the things the prosecutor was saying were not true. Many killers leave no fingerprints; many use a weapon found in the home—including Tommy Lynn Sells. It was after listening to the state’s attorney that I tended to believe that someone like Sells could have committed that crime.
I wrote to Sells about the ridiculousness of the prosecutor’s statements. I did not name the attorney, I did not name the victim, the city or the time frame or mention Julie Rea Harper. Sells wrote back asking if the murder occurred on the 13th of October, two days before he killed Stephanie Mahaney. It did.
That was the first moment that I thought that Sells might be involved. However, at that point in time, I only doubted Julie’s guilt and suspected the possibility of Sells’ involvement. I was not certain of either.
Three months after the release of the book in July 2003, Bill Clutter, an investigator for the Innocence Project at the University of Illinois at Springfield, found corroborating evidence—three witnesses who had seen Sells in the small town of Lawrenceville on the weekend of Joel’s murder. Revelations of botched crime scene processing—no one dusted for fingerprints, for example—along with overlooked and untested evidence and other information were then revealed. After learning more, I became totally convinced of Julie’s innocence and nearly certain of Sells’ responsibility for the murder of Joel.
When and why did you become interested in writing crime fiction?
I have been an avid reader of crime fiction for decades and have been interested in writing it since before I wrote my first true crime. My first success at obtaining a book contract was in non-fiction but I maintained my interest in fiction. At the time, I had a full time job as the Executive Director of a non-profit organization and struggled to handle just one genre. Once I was able to leave my day job, I had the time to also write my first love: crime fiction.
You majored in chemistry in college so why didn’t you become a chemist instead of a crime writer? Have your chemistry studies served you well when writing your crime series?
I was a science major because that was what I was supposed to do. My real love was writing and I pursued that instead. Initially, I wrote commercials for radio, television and magazines along with free lance articles and personal essays.
A science background is definitely useful in writing about the increasing complexities of forensic investigation.
Tell us about the Lucinda Pierce crime novel series.
Lucinda Pierce is a homicide detective in Virginia. She bears facial scars from a domestic violence incident that are a reflection of the childhood emotional scars that drove her into law enforcement. She feels isolated from the world because of her physical and psychological injuries but is fighting to overcome those obstacles in her life.
She is tough, but not invincible; demanding but empathetic—a strong female protagonist with flaws and feelings.
There are now four books in the series: The Trophy Exchange, Punish the Dead, Mistaken Identity, and Twisted Reason. You can read the first chapter of each of these books on the Reading Room page on my website.
For whom do you write?
Primarily, I write for my readers. But if you mean who are my publishers, the answer is that my true crime is through St. Martin’s Press, my fiction through Severn House.
Do you outline your novels as you do your true crime books?
When I was seeking my first contract to write true crime, I had to do an outline within my proposal to the publisher. However, once I’d started writing the book, I essentially ignored the outline. I do not outline any of my books from start to finish. I do sometimes outline short portions of the book while the writing is in progress when I feel a need to arrange and solidify my thoughts.
How did you acquire an agent and how long did it take to find the right one?
I spent two years unsuccessfully looking for an agent. When I found the right one, at the right time with the right material, I had an agent within 24 hours of submission.
Advice to aspiring writers?
Read like a maniac. You can learn something new from every genre, no matter what you are writing. And keep writing—practice makes us all better at what we do. Most important of all, never, never, never give up. Approach each rejection as a challenge to overcome—the right material at the right time to the right person can happen if you write with passion and commitment.
Thank you, Diane.
Diane's website is http://www.dianefanning.com/
Her personal blog site is http://dianefanning.blogspot.com/
Her cooperative blog site is http://womenincrimeink.blogspot.com
Twitter url is http://www.twitter.com/dianefanning
Facebook urls are: http://www.facebook.com/diane.fanning
Saturday, December 11, 2010
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/
Saturday, December 4, 2010
Beth, you have a unique senior sleuth mystery series. How did you come up with the idea of Sadie Witt helping the newly departed into the hereafter?
Hearing a casual mention of crossing over to the other side as I channel surfed the television is how the idea developed. I chuckled and hoped the recently departed wouldn’t take a wrong turn on their journey. That silly thought grew into a notion, moved on to character development, and ended up as my Sadie Witt mystery series.
Tell us about the Witt sisters.
Sadie Witt is an eccentric, fun-loving resort proprietor who sees the dead. She’s not thrilled with her death coach responsibilities, but that doesn’t deter the fashion-challenged senior sleuth from welcoming a steady stream of deceased guests from the mortuary next door. Will Sadie’s guests cringe when they realize she was assigned to lead them on their final journey? Yes!
Jane, Sadie’s twin sister, is the polar opposite in both appearance and attitude. Prim and proper, and insistent on following old-fashioned protocol, Jane struggles to keep Sadie in line. Plus, Jane can’t see Sadie’s dead guests. This leads to trouble and shenanigans.
How long was it between sitting down to write that first chapter and publication? And what obstacles did you encounter along the way?
Approximately three years from concept to signing a two-book contract. Then about six more months to publication. The biggest obstacle was losing my agent. Illness and other issues lead her to release her clients. It was back to square one. I wrote the second book in the series before I decided to approach smaller publishers on my own. That resulted in an offer for the series.
What’s the worst part of writing for you and the aspect you enjoy most?
Finding time to devote to writing is the most challenging. I work full time in human resources at a hospital and work on my books evenings and weekends.
The most enjoyable is completing an outline. I determine what goes into each chapter before I actually start writing. I need a roadmap. I wish I could write by the seat of my pants, but I’m not one who can do that. That road map keeps me on course and guides which characters appear and in what order. I do take liberties on making changes as new possibilities blossom.
How do you publicize your mystery novels?
I mail to a combination of 2500 bookstores and libraries around the country as well as participate in blogs and on-line groups. Facebook and Twitter are also good marketing avenues. Speaking at libraries, civic clubs, church, and women’s groups is an excellent source to spread the word.
Tell us about your soon-to-be released book, Outwitted.
The Witt’s End Resort in Northern Minnesota will never be the same when Sadie Witt assumes the role of funeral director’s helper after the untimely murder of the previous assistant. Shenanigans abound when the resort manager unwittingly rents Cabin 12 to the funeral director’s ex-husband, a raucous character who causes one outrageous funeral mishap after another.
Flamboyant Sadie isn’t your typical sixty-four year old senior citizen. She also functions as a conduit to the hereafter for those who failed to cross over. The recently departed arrive with issues, and she must help them unravel the puzzle.
After skeletal remains are discovered under Cabin 12, Sadie and her sister set out to solve a murder and reveal a secret that ties a prominent community member to a notorious crime operation.
BE WARNED…If you think Cabin 12 harbors a mystery, don’t check into Cabin 14, because no guest ever leaves alive!
Who influenced your own work and whose novels do you read most?
I believe Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series influenced me the most. I love her light humor and great characters.
I most enjoy reading Karin Slaughter and Harlan Coben. Readers can pick up one of their books, even without a cover indicating the name of the author, and immediately know who wrote it because of style, pacing and intrigue. Great writers!
How important is online social networking and have you used the various sites successfully?
If you know how to inform without over selling, yes, social networking is excellent. Knowing how to reach your audience is the most challenging. Facebook and Twitter are the two sources I use. Luckily, my posts have generated sales and I have met many great on-line readers.
I also have two blogs. One features Minnesota authors, illustrators, bookstores, etc., and that has opened up invitations to speak or blog on other blogs.
Advice to aspiring writers?
Never give up. There were times I was embarrassed by terse rejections and gave in to self doubt, but after a few days I put my writer’s armor back on and tried again. If you give up, it will NEVER happen. You also have to believe in your work.
Your web and blog site urls?
Beth's website: http://www.bsolheim.com/
And her blogsites: http://readingminnesota.blogspot.com/, http://mysteriesandchitchat.blogspot.com/