NiFtY Author: Jeri Westerson

We’re taking a break from contemporary mysteries and moving back in time…far back in time. Try…the Middle Ages. Meet Jeri Westerson, author of the Crispin Guest medieval mystery series. In addition to writing great books, she’s not afraid to don a helmet and wield a sword (see photo below!).

BH: What’s your one-paragraph pitch for the latest novel in your Crispin Guest series?

JW:  In THE DEMON’S PARCHMENT, Jacob of Provencal is a Jewish physician at the king’s court, even though all Jews were expelled from England nearly a century before. Jacob wants Crispin to find stolen parchments that might be behind the recent gruesome murders of young boys, parchments that someone might have used to summon a demon which now stalks the streets and alleys of London.

BH: The Demon’s Parchment, due out October 12, is the third book in this series. When you wrote the first novel, did you plan to create a series mystery?

JW: Yes, it was always designed that way. I had never written a series before so when I completed the first one I just jumped right into the next book, first to see if I could write a series and second because I really liked my character.

BH: What are some of the joys of writing a series character?

JW: Writing series fiction is wonderful because you can really have a chance to explore your character fully, and in my case, to see him age. His story arc can go on a long time. At least for as long as the publisher wants to publish the books. I hope that will be a long time because I have quite an extensive timeline for Crispin. I think that it’s a good idea to have some idea how the series will conclude and then all the background story arcs can lead inevitably to that conclusion. I really don’t know of any series that should go on forever. The stories can get too trite, too clichéd. Best to conclude them in a timely fashion. That being said, I’ve got some thirteen more novels in mind before I’m done with Crispin.

BH: Crispin Guest sounds intriguing: flawed, enigmatic, sexy…Where did you get the idea for this character?

JW: I wanted to write a medieval detective story, not like a Brother Cadfael with an amateur sleuth, but something more along the line of a medieval Sam Spade, a tough guy who’s hired specifically to do the dirty work. I thought that this Dashiell Hammett/Raymond Chandler kind of hard-boiled detective would translate well into the Middle Ages. No one else was doing it. As far as I could tell, authors were churning out the same old medieval mysteries they always had, and that was fine, but I wanted to write something a little different, with a little more action, a little more violence, and sex! They say you should write what you can’t find out there to read. The trope of the hard-boiled detective as a loner, someone who has a chip on their shoulder, who has run-ins with the cops is a familiar one. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe was designed as a white knight with his own code of honor, and so I thought that a real knight—disgraced or otherwise—would work as well. Everything is kept true to the time period, including Crispin’s feelings about honor, faith, and other cultural necessities. (And actually, all the sex is off screen so no worries for all the fan boys and girls out there, and there are quite a few young male readers.)

BH: And who’s the hottie posing as Crispin on your website header? I have some single friends who may want to get in touch with him.

JW: Mmm. Yes, he’s got quite the following now. He’s the fellow on all the book covers. All I know is that he is a model named Wes and probably lives in Oregon. Before we changed the covers from the rather static VEIL OF LIES hardcover, my editor showed me Wes’ model sheet and I said oh yes. He’ll do. The paperback division didn’t like the hardcover VEIL cover image and so St. Martin’s went back to the drawing board to come up with something else, something different. Something like I wanted in the first place! Since my novels are very character driven, I thought it would be better and more interesting to have a figure on the cover in a moody London background and they certainly delivered. It makes it look very different from your average medieval mystery. I love my book covers now. I think they are very cinematic. Hollywood, take note!

BH: Do you plan to stick with Crispin for awhile, or do you have other project ideas (or both)?

JW: I certainly have a lot of Crispin’s story to tell, but currently I am working on a second medieval mystery series, one that’s a little more light-hearted than Crispin’s tales. If that one doesn’t work out I’ll have to think of another one. It’s a good idea to have a few series out there, something else for fans to sink their teeth into. But I fully intend to continue with the Crispin novels. Number four, called TROUBLED BONES, comes out Fall 2011.

BH: Is it hard to write from a male perspective? Do you have any tips for authors who wish to write from the perspective of the opposite sex?

JW: I don’t find it hard at all. In fact, in all the novels I have written (some twenty-two) I’ve only written from the female perspective three times. I don’t enjoy that. I enjoy getting into the male mindset, all that uniquely male thinking. I find that whole “band of brothers” thing fascinating. There is no female equivalent. I was a tomboy growing up and I think I’m still a bit of a tomboy. I always gravitate toward the groups of men at parties…unless they’re talking about sports. Can’t get into that at all.

The only advice I have to offer on writing the opposite sex is observation. I hate reading a female character who does guy things or a male character who does girl things. You shouldn’t be able to tell whether the author is male or female either. It shouldn’t matter if the characters are well written.

BH: Do you write full-time?

JW: I have had the luxury of writing full time only since June but that won’t last. When the money runs out you might see me at your local McDonald’s behind the counter. If you think you are getting into writing novels for the money you are sadly mistaken. Even writing for a big publisher does not guarantee a living wage, at least not at first. They say that it takes till the fifth book for the author to make a profit. I have to pay my own way to mystery fan conventions, book touring, and something as innocuous as getting bookmarks printed. All my advances go back into promotion. So I do a lot of traveling and a lot of public speaking. It’s all about sales. So buy, buy, buy! Fortunately for readers of all stripes, my books are available in a few formats: hardcover, paperback, and e-books. (The SERPENT IN THE THORNS paperback was released September 28.) And readers should check out my series book trailer on my website. It gives you a good idea of what the series is all about. Very moody. Talk about cinematic. And you get to hear Crispin speak!

BH: What is your writing schedule like?

JW:  I do my writing business in the morning, answering emails, going on Facebook, Twitter, blogging (I have two blogs; mine called www.Getting-Medieval.com. It’s like a magazine of articles on history and mystery, and Crispin’s blog at www.CrispinGuest.com. It’s his Facebook page, by the way, so look for his name, not mine.) I do a little writing and/or research in the late morning, some reading during the middle of the day, then do more writing late afternoon and into the evening. I’m also trying to write some short stories and a barrel of blog posts for my fall blog tour.

BH: What does your workspace look like?

JW: I have a home office chock full of books, books, and more books. My desk is, in fact, specially built just for me (by me and my husband. We are truly Renaissance people with many hands-on skills) with a ten foot long flat surface (covered in papers and notes) with shelves above and behind me with another ten foot long surface mirroring my desk. I have a lot of research books about knighthood, everyday life in the Middle Ages, medieval words, cookbooks, commerce, religion, forensics, people, roads, maps, clothing, woodlands…you name it, I’ve got it. I also have a lot of toys, a lot of knights in battle all over the shelves; some Harry Potter stuff like a Time Turner; a couple of fox pelts hanging on the shelf; some assorted snowmen (because I collect them); a bunch of old cameras (because my photographer husband collects them); some skulls (a sheep, a goat, a cat, a rabbit, a mouse—all collected from our yard or surrounding area when it used to be more rural); a dagger I like to play with while I write; a small figurine of Death; a rubber chicken; a Shakespeare bobble head; two framed posters (one of a Klee the other a Kandinsky); a rather dashing picture of my hubby; a candy dish, empty; a figurine of a Golem; my “Box of Death” which I cart around to my speaking engagements which includes a helm and a bunch of medieval weapons; a coffee cup warmer; computers and printers (of course); and a comfy swivel chair that has seen better days. And two cats who are really not supposed to be in there, but they worm their way in with big soppy eyes and soft furry faces and type in my novels and leave hair absolutely everywhere.

BH: What is your favorite book on the craft of writing?

JW: The last really great novel I read.

BH: What is the best writing advice anyone has given you?

JW: Don’t give up. That would be from my long-suffering husband.

BH: Any words of advice to aspiring writers for keeping the hope alive?

JW: Learn the business. Don’t be an amateur, be a professional and learn your craft, research the industry before you start to ask questions. Then network with other authors. Keep on writing and reading. As you finish one novel, start writing the next. Don’t wait around for the first one to sell before you start another. The first one may never sell. Mine didn’t. Write the best darn books you can. Take the advice of professionals. Don’t dismiss it just because you don’t want to hear it. And don’t self publish just because you can’t place that one darling manuscript. Maybe there’s a reason for its being rejected over and over. Write the next book, and the next. Hone your craft.

Thank you, Jeri, for telling us about your books, sharing your insights about the writing life, and bringing us one step closer to Wes, your Crispin cover model.

For first chapters of Jeri’s novels, book discussion guides, and her fabulous series book trailer, go to her website at www.JeriWesterson.com.

Click the titles to view each book on Amazon.com:

The Demon’s Parchment (third in the series)

Serpent in the Thorns (second in the series)

Veil of Lies (first in the series)

NiFtY Author: Marja McGraw

This week’s NiFtY Author is none other than Marja McGraw, author of the Sandi Webster mystery series. Now she’s branching out into a new series, The Bogey Mysteries, which also promises to delight readers. Details on Marja’s books, as well as her thoughts on research, writing, and how pets enrich a story, can all be found below!

BH: What’s your one-paragraph pitch for the latest novel in your Sandi Webster series?

MM:  Imagine you’re a young, female P.I., it’s late at night and you’re watching the motel room of an errant husband. Surveillance can be so boring, you think to yourself, until the angry wife shows up and blows your cover, and the husband comes after you. Now imagine that Humphrey Bogart, who’s been gone for many years, comes to your rescue. Huh?

BH: How many books have you published, and which is your favorite?

MM: I’ve published four books in the Sandi Webster series, one stand alone book, and the first book in a new series (The Bogey Mysteries) is due out before long.

Hmm. My favorite would probably be The Bogey Man, because not only was it fun to write, but I was able to research and use a lot of 1940’s slang. Chris Cross, whom Sandi refers to as the Bogey Man, really wants to emulate Bogart as he was in his private investigator roles in the movies. Also, the new series is a spinoff from this book, which is opening new doors for me.

BH: Tell us a little bit about Sandi. What makes her unique and engaging as a series character?

MM: Sandi is relatively young and a little naïve for a private investigator.  She tends to romanticize her job, which isn’t very realistic. She grew up watching the old P.I. movies, and she’s tried to model herself after the vintage gumshoes. Her partner, Pete, balances her attitude with his own ex-cop demeanor. She has an overbearing, menopausal mother who inadvertently teaches her about being tough. She’s constantly growing and changing as a character. She often feels she has to prove herself to people because of her naiveté, and she comes up with some fairly unique ideas in times of stress and danger.

BH: In a conversation with a friend recently, we discussed how some famous authors (unnamed for purposes of not slinging mud) have trouble keeping their series going for too long because eventually the hero’s development stalls. Do you have any tricks to share on avoiding that trap?

MM: What can I say? I’m mumble mumble years old, and I’ve never stopped changing and growing. Consequently, I try to fashion my characters to follow real life development. Circumstances change us on a constant basis. So I guess my trick would be to take a good look at real life and create circumstances in the stories in order that the characters may grow.

BH: Your novel A Well-Kept Family Secret departs from your other Sandi Webster books in that it involves a hundred-year-old case. While doing the research, did you come up with any new details that changed the shape of the novel?

MM: Nothing that actually changed the story, although the history for that era was quite interesting. I was able to include some of it in the story (in small doses), and I think that enhanced it. The people and their lifestyles were interesting around the turn of the century. This story involved the old Red Light District in Los Angeles, and I found some interesting papers and maps. For instance, there’s a tax map that shows Ladies’ Boarding Houses in Chinatown, and those were actually the brothels – so even maps helped.

In 1994 I read an article in the newspaper about the water district doing work on the parking lot at Union Station in downtown L.A. In the process they uncovered portions of the old Red Light District, including outhouses, which is where a lot of items were disposed of.  I contacted the archaeologist who handled the project, and he supplied me with invaluable information.

Why was I so interested in this period? Because my great-great-grandfather was one of two men who ran the real red light district. I grew up hearing stories about him, what he did, and about a buried treasure attributed to him and his brother.

BH: Do you have any other projects planned?

MM: As I mentioned, the first book in a new series will be out before long from Oak Tree Press. I’m pretty excited about it. Bogey Nights was a lot of fun to write. It’s probably a little more mature than the Sandi Webster series, because the characters are married and have a son, and I found a whole new type of humor in their lives. I’m working on the second book now, and the working title is Bogey’s Nightmare.

BH: I read one of your blog posts on how having pets in a story “enhances the storyline.” Could you elaborate on that?

MM: Absolutely. I’ve included canines in both of my series, so I’ll stick to dogs in my answer. A dog can play almost as big of a role as a human character if you’ll let it. They’re smart, funny and terribly loyal and protective. They’ll do anything in their power to keep their human happy, although they can be the cause of some angst, too. A dog can even be a possible victim or a hero, and they can provide comic relief. They can demonstrate hurt feelings, joy, sadness and grab your heart in the process. They can enhance the story without simply being filler.

I recall one of the lowest times in my life when I was sprawled out on the bed, crying my eyes out. My dog jumped up with her (gutted) teddy bear and laid it on my arm, and then snuggled up next to me until I’d cried it all out. Take note: the dog comforted me, while people kept their distance. I also recall another dog who became very frustrated with me because he thought someone was knocking at the door every time there was thunder during a storm. He couldn’t seem to figure out why I wouldn’t see who was there.

BH: What is your writing schedule like?

MM: I generally work for four to six hours in the morning, when I’m the freshest. I’ll work anywhere from five to seven days a week. Most of my stories take six to nine months to write. I write, let it sit and then go back and read it again, making changes where necessary. I have critique partners who read the stories two chapters at a time, and when they return the chapters, I rewrite again. When the story is done, I go back to the beginning and read it straight through, making more changes and edits.

In the meantime, I update my website every few months, and I try to keep my blog (located on my website) updated weekly, with a new one appearing on Sunday or Monday.

I critique for the same people who look at my work, review a book every once in a great while, and try to put together a marketing plan as best I can. Promote, promote, promote.

My writing schedule includes a lot more than just writing.

BH: What does your workspace look like?

MM: When we had our house built, I had them turn the third bedroom into an office. I have an oak roll top desk that fits nicely into what would have been the opening for a closet, and the closet shelf holds my paper and other supplies. Copies of the book covers adorn the wall by my desk along with a photo of Humphrey Bogart, and I have bulletin boards that I can jot quick notes on, so I won’t forget ideas as they come to me. For my birthday, my husband bought me a painting of a man wearing a suit and fedora, sitting at the bar in a lounge. The view is from the rear and you can just barely see the man’s jaw line. He has a martini in one hand and a cigar in the other, and it could most definitely be a picture of the Bogey Man sitting at the bar in the lounge part of the restaurant he and his wife own.

Other than that, my workspace is pretty much a mess.

BH: Sounds like my workspace. Oh, I’ll admit it. It sounds like my whole house. What is your favorite book on the craft of writing?

MM: I can’t honestly say I have a favorite. I’ve read several, and I pick and choose what I need from each of them.

BH: What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

MM: Never give up and keep striving to make your writing cleaner with each read through. And grow a thick skin, because not everyone will like what you write. (Nah, really?) Always, always, remember your manners and treat people the same way you’d like to be treated. Lastly, and most importantly, don’t let family and friends fall by the wayside because you think you’re too busy for them.

BH: Any words on advice to aspiring writers for keeping the hope alive?

MM: If you honestly believe you’ve written a good book that people will enjoy reading, never give up. Read some of the stories behind successful authors, and you’ll see that some of them went through a lot of hoops to get where they are now.

The Sandi Webster series is published through Wings ePress, and I’ll always be thankful to them for giving me a chance.

Now let me tell you my success story. I’d submitted Bogey Nights to Oak Tree Press, and they liked it, but they wanted to meet me. They were attending a conference in Las Vegas and asked if I could be there. Ha! Like I would have missed that opportunity. They offered me a contract right there, on the spot, something they’d never done before. Sometimes good things happen when you least expect it.

BH: That’s the kind of story that keeps us unpublished authors type-type-typing away. Thank you, Marja, for stopping by and answering some questions for us!

I don’t know about all of my writer and reader friends, but for me, it’s inspiring and informative to hear responses like this from other authors. The success stories are great because they get me movin’ and hopin’, and the advice is always sound, coming from other professionals in the trenches…er, I mean field.

To learn more about Marja and her books, you can visit her website by clicking here.

NiFtY Interview with Lauren Carr

Lauren Carr is the author of three mysteries. Before she moved to novel-writing, she wrote mysteries for television and the stage. Let’s welcome Lauren Carr for my latest NiFtY (Not Famous…Yet) Author Interview!

BH: What’s your one-paragraph pitch for It’s Murder, My Son?

LC: What started out as the worst day of Mac Faraday’s life would end up being a new beginning.  After a messy divorce hearing, the last person that Mac wanted to see was another lawyer. Yet, this lawyer wore the expression of a child bursting to tell his secret. This covert would reveal Mac as heir to undreamed of fortunes, and lead him to the birthplace of America’s Queen of Mystery and an investigation that will unfold like one of her famous mystery novels.

BH: Tell us a little about your path to publication.

LC: My first book, A Small Case of Murder, was self-published and named a finalist for the Independent Publisher Book Awards in 2005. After being picked up by Five Star Mystery for my second book, A Reunion to Die For, I decided walked away from an offer from another traditional publisher to return to self-publishing for It’s Murder, My Son.

I turned down the traditional publisher to independently publish through CreateSpace for a variety of reasons. Mainly, I had all the same responsibilities and had to make the same investments of time and yes, money, toward making my book a success when I was traditionally published as I did when I self-published. I came to realize that with all of my education and experiences, I was more than capable of successfully publishing my books independently. So far I have been right. It’s Murder, My Son has received only positive reviews.

BH: Do you plan to write a sequel to It’s Murder, My Son, or have you embarked on a completely new project?

LC: I’m already working on it. In Old Loves Die Hard, Mac Faraday returns to Georgetown to clear his ex-wife’s name when she is accused of killing the assistant DA she had left Mac for.

BH: This book isn’t your first published novel, though; you’ve published two other mysteries. Are they part of a series? Can you tell us a little about them?

LC: A Small Case of Murder and A Reunion to Die For are the Joshua Thornton Mysteries. Joshua Thornton was a JAG lawyer who leaves the Navy after his wife dies, leaving him to raise five children alone. In A Small Case of Murder, Joshua returns back to Chester, West Virginia; his, and my, childhood home, where his children discover a letter that implicates a local pastor in an unreported murder.

In A Reunion to Die For, Joshua Thornton becomes the county prosecuting attorney and investigates the murder of an investigative journalist investigating the death of a high school classmate. The classmate died during their senior year in high school. Her death was classified as a suicide. Joshua begins to question if it really was.

BH: Where did you get the idea for your first novel?

LC: In 1998, my family was vacationing in Copper Harbor, Michigan. One rainy day, we decided to go antiquing. We had gone into this one shop and I found a beautiful silver tea set. The shop owner was very chatty and told me how he had acquired it. He had purchased all of the contents of an old house in which an elderly woman lived at an estate sale. While packing everything up, he was up in the master bedroom talking to the daughter of the homeowner when he turned over the box springs and found a brown cardboard box underneath. The daughter asked, “What’s that?” He replied, “Whatever it is, it’s mine.” The box contained the silver tea set, never used, completely in it’s original packaging, along with cards and letters all dating back to 1968. When he told me that story, I thought, “Suppose one of those letters implicated someone in a murder?” By the time we returned home from vacation, I had the plot for A Small Case of Murder outlined in my mind.

BH: On your website I learned that you gave up writing for television and stage to become a full-time mom, and you wrote your first book after that. How long did it take you to write the book?

LC: My “retirement” lasted about six months. Then I was back at the keyboard writing A Small Case of Murder. That was my escape. When I started writing it, I was writing only for myself. I had given up my literary agent, who never did anything for me anyway and didn’t handle novels. It took me about six months to finish the first draft. When I dug it out and dusted it off a year later, I read through it and thought I had something. So I started editing and working on it again. I spent another couple of years playing with it before I started to look into having it published.

BH: What was that like, balancing writing and motherhood?

LC: Tough.

BH: I’m listening to “Hear, hear!”s throughout our studio audience. Do you have any tips to share with other writing moms?

LC: Maybe this isn’t so much a tip about writing moms, but about life, as I see it having turned fifty this year. “When Mom’s unhappy, everybody is unhappy.” So, don’t be unhappy.

After a year of writer’s block and unhappiness, I decided last year to “give up” my career. I love the writing, not the frustration of dealing with literary agents and publishers and trying to please them, etc. So I decided to write my little mysteries and self-publish through CreateSpace and if they sold, and people liked them, great. If not, so what?

Well, when I made that decision, I was happy, and then everybody was happy. It became about the writing again. As luck would have it, I was offered a contract from a traditional publisher but turned them down in favor of self-publishing with CreateSpace. I’m sticking to my plan.

As long as it’s not self-destructive, do what makes you happy. If it makes you unhappy, stop it. Life is too short to be miserable.

BH: It seems to me that writing a mystery necessitates knowing just how much information to give, how much to hold back, and how much extra is needed to hide the important clues. Did the sense of knowing how much to include and when come naturally to you, or did it take some time developing?

LC: Both. I found that I had a sense of it, but had to develop it. It is comparable to having a natural talent like singing or throwing a football. Sure, when you first open your mouth to sing a song or get out onto the field to throw a ball, you may be really good, but you need to sing or throw that football everyday to develop it.

I write every day. I’ve written stuff that no one will ever read, until I’m long dead, if I’m lucky. But just the exercise of doing it has improved my skills at being able to write a scene and finely plant clues without giving away too much or holding back too much. I have found that by my third book I was better laying out the clues than I was with my first book.

BH: If you’re in a writing slump, what sort of things do you do to feed your inspiration?

LC: Mope a lot. During that year that I had writers block I kept trying to work it out by sitting at the laptop and staring at the screen. I would spend a day surfing the internet between sentences and find that I only wrote one paragraph at the end of the day. Finally, I decided to hang that up and started reading old mysteries that I hadn’t read in twenty years or so. I also read some inspirational books and got involved in more volunteer work at our church. Once I started meeting more people and having more experiences, I snapped out of it. I guess that was the key. I took my focus off myself and put it on the world around me.

BH: What is your writing schedule like?

LC:  Today? What it is today is different from what it will be tomorrow.

Now that I have a book out, I spend the day nine-to-five promoting it: doing interviews, making phone calls, printing up marketing materials and doing mailings.

I wake up early in the morning, six o’clock, to let the dogs out, brew coffee, and work on the next book until it is time to “go to work” doing the business end of writing. Now I am not necessarily writing that whole time. I take time out to drag my son out of bed, cook him breakfast, clean up the kitchen, etc. At five in the evening, I’ll stop “work” and cook dinner. After dinner and cleaning up the kitchen, then I will return to my writing until I go to bed. I reserve the weekends for writing, unless I have a book event.

BH: What does your workspace look like?

LC: I am blessed in that I have an actual writer’s studio. It is on the top floor of our house and has a fabulous view. This is my space. My husband is a neat freak. Everything has to be in it’s place and I am the opposite. This is my space, where I can be myself.

BH: [Battling jealousy over your writer’s studio….] What is your favorite book on the craft of writing?

LC: Stephen King’s On Writing. I don’t like much of Stephen King’s books. Sorry, he’s a wonderful writer, but they scare me so much. But On Writing was fabulous. He tells a lot of truths about writing techniques.

BH: Stephen King’s stories scare me too. He gives great writing advice, though. What is the best writing advice you ever received?

LC: Keep on writing. I heard it on TV once, and have no idea who said it. Reviewers, literary agents, publishers, their opinions are subjective. If you really want to be a writer and you really believe you have talent, then keep on writing and don’t give up. If you give up, then you don’t have the commitment and love for writing to succeed.

BH: Any words on advice to aspiring writers for keeping the hope alive?

LC: There is a scene in Whoopi Goldberg’s movie, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit where she is talking to one of her students. This girl has a lovely singing voice and really wants to be a singer, but her mother has nagged her into squelching her dream. Whoopi corners this girl and tells her that either you are a singer or you aren’t. If you are a singer, then you are born a singer and you are going to sing even if you become a truck driver. You wake up singing. You sing in the shower. You sing even when you aren’t singing.

That struck me because that is what it is to be a writer. I gave up my career, what there was of it, to be a mom but in the middle of the night while holding my baby who is now one hundred and ten pounds, I was thinking up plotlines for murder the way other mothers are thinking up lullabies. I had books running through my head until after six months I had to sit down at the computer and make it into a book.

Now is the best time to be a writer because advances in both technology and the publishing world (CreateSpace, Smashwords, and other companies) have opened doors so that any writer who is serious about writing books and getting them out there to readers can do it.

BH: Thank you, Lauren, for the interview and the insights into your writing!

To visit Lauren’s website, click here. Lauren also has a fantastic blog devoted to mystery writing, named, funnily enough, “Lauren’s World of Mystery Writing.”

She’s also got a book trailer for It’s Murder, My Son, and if that whets your appetite for the book (I bet it will!), you can click here to buy the print edition on Amazon. It’s Murder, My Son is also available on Kindle and audio. You can find a pdf of the media release here, and a pdf of deserved praise for the book here.

NiFtY Author: Cindy Sample

Cindy Sample doesn’t quite fit the mold for my typical, Not-Famous-Yet author interview. For one, she’s jumped ahead of the rest of us and actually published her book, and two, she’s a romance/mystery writer. She’s also funny – much funnier than I am – so without further blather, here’s the interview!

BH: So, published! How does it feel?

CS:  It feels wonderful.  Sort of like giving birth to my children.  It just took longer.

BH: Tell us a little about your book, Dying for a Date.

CS:  Dying for a Date is a humorous romantic mystery about a single mom who gets talked into joining a matchmaking service called “The Love Club,” the safe alternative to on-line dating. I discuss the trials of dating as a single mom, and throw in a few dead bodies just to keep it entertaining.

BH: Laurel McKay, the heroine in Dying for a Date, sounds funny, charming, and feisty. Is she based on anyone you know in real life?

CS:  There is a slight possibility that my protagonist is based on me twenty years ago.  I was 39 and a newly single working Mom as well.

BH: What was the greatest challenge in finishing Dying for a Date and getting it ready for publication?

CS:   The hardest part was letting it go and knowing I could never revise one more word again.

BH: Can you tell us a little about your path to publication? Did you get an agent first, or did you go directly to a publisher?

CS:  I did get an agent and we had great responses from NY publishers but February 2009 was not a great time to sell a mystery series from a debut author.  I ended up receiving offers from two smaller publishers.  I liked the feedback that I received from the other authors published with L&L Dreamspell and chose to go with them. It’s been a great experience working with my publisher. They did a great job of editing and I love the cover they designed.

BH: Where do you get most of your ideas and inspiration?

CS:  I seem to have an incredibly fertile imagination. Right now I have more plot concepts than I would ever have time to complete in this lifetime. An example would be one time when I was in a spa and they asked if I was allergic to shellfish.  Minutes later I had concocted a plot where I killed someone allergic to shellfish with a seaweed wrap.  Yes, I know I’m kind of strange but they say mystery authors are very well balanced because we just off the people who annoy us on paper.


BH: Are you currently working on another project, or are you focusing more on publicity for Dying for a Date, or something else entirely?

CS:  Right now I’m marketing and writing.  I’ve been planning events all over the 4 county area.  I’ll be visiting several local libraries in the area and giving presentations along with several other authors from Capitol Crimes, the Sacramento chapter of Sisters in Crime.  We’re a group of mystery writers (published and pre-published) as well as mystery fans. I’m also attempting to squeeze in time to complete the sequel, Dying for a Dance, a murder mystery that takes place in the glamorous world of competition ballroom dancing.

BH: Do you have a set writing schedule, or are you more of a “when the mood hits” kind of girl?

CS:  I am a very social person so the most difficult part of writing for me is to sit my butt down in my chair.  What I’ve discovered works best is to block out an entire week and just write.  On those weeks I can start at 8 AM and work until midnight almost every day.  One of my friends refers to my rather unusual technique as binge writing.

BH: Binge writing – I love it. What does your writing workspace look like?

CS:  I have a beautiful office overlooking Folsom Lake.  The walls are crammed with books and photos.  But where I write is usually in the kitchen just because it’s cozy.  Plus it’s closer to my coffeepot.

BH: You’re the first mystery writer I’ve interviewed. Can you share anything that’s unique to the mystery-writing process?

CS:  A friend of mine who has authored over 40 non-fiction books and is working on her first novel says mysteries are by far the most complex books to write. You have to ensure that your clues are subtle yet give the reader the ability to guess who the villain is, along with red herrings to lead them astray.

BH: Who is your favorite author?

CS:   Too many to choose from.  Of the greats I think Leon Uris and James Clavell.  In the mystery/thriller spectrum, I enjoy Michael Connolly, Lisa Scottoline, and Robert Crais. In Women’s fiction Jennifer Crusie, Claire Cook and Jennifer Weiner are my favorites.

BH: How about your favorite book on the writing craft?

CS:   I have two full shelves of books on the craft of writing, particularly mysteries.  I think my favorite is Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass.

BH: I’m already drawing comparisons between your novel and Janet Evanovich’s writing. Have you read her books? What do you think of them?

CS:  I love her Stephanie Plum series, at least most of the books. When I was pitching my book I used the pitch that my protagonist, Laurel McKay, was like Stephanie Plum as a soccer mom.

BH: One of your strengths as a writer is your sense of humor. Do you have any tips for other writers on how to develop humor in their writing?

CS:  For some reason whatever can go wrong normally does go wrong in my life and I learned years ago that the most annoying mishaps can usually be turned into a wonderfully funny anecdote. It’s rare for anything to bother me because I know that it will become an entertaining story down the road. Many writers keep daily journals. If you’re interested in incorporating humor in your work, jot down those things that strike you as funny during the course of a normal day.  You’ll be surprised how much material you end up with.

BH: What is the best advice anyone has given you with regards to your writing?

CS:   The three P’s which are persistence, persistence, persistence. My first version of Dying for a Date was at best, mediocre.  But after taking classes and attending mystery conferences, reading every recommended book on fiction, reading and analyzing the work of my favorite authors, and being persistent with my own numerous revisions, I’m thrilled with the published version.  It is an enormous amount of work to publish a novel but the joy it brings is unparalleled. Follow your passion, be patient, and definitely be persistent.

It sounds like there are two alternate P’s there: passion and patience.

Thank you so much, Cindy, for joining me for an interview. Free t-shirts to the studio audience! (Um, there is no studio audience. And no t-shirts.)

For more information on Cindy and her writing, as well as Where To Buy Her Book (so cool!), you can visit her website.

Keeping Ahead of Trends in YA Lit

Weekend Writing Special

You’ve finished the first draft of your young adult manuscript. It’s new! It’s got a great hook! Nobody has done anything like this before! It’s a reality-television-show-to-the-death featuring vampire-esque aliens. You imagine literary agents begging, no, clamoring, for your manuscript. Your idea is The Newest Thing.

Until, a few weeks later as you’re hard at work on revisions, all of a sudden everyone has done this. And their books are being published Right Now. That author of Twilight (whose name I keep forgetting) does a horror reality television show novel. Suzanne Collins has something with alien-vampires. J. K. Rowling creates a Harry Potter spin-off featuring vampires who run a television series about aliens.

My personal experience with this is not nearly as extreme or ridiculous. I had this idea for a future, post-apocalyptic setting for a novel, and I dove (dived?) right in. Minutes later, I read The Hunger Games. Then The Forest of Hands and Teeth. Then, while reading Publishers Lunch from Publishers Marketplace, I found two other post-apocalyptic YA trilogies due out in a year. How can I compete with that?

I can’t. Not as far as the general idea goes. No one can. In a lot of ways, we are all tuned into the collective unconscious. We read many of the same books, watch the same movies and television shows, hear the same news stories, and on and on. My hook has to be more than “post-apocalyptic” etcetera and so forth. An intriguing story idea can do a lot…

…but an awesome character does so much more.

An author friend of mine was worried about this a few months ago, as was I. We’d just finished revisions on our manuscripts (we thought) and we were ready to embark on our new projects. “I’m thinking vampires,” she said. “But it’s been done, you know?”

I did know. I wrote one. And then I told her something I should pay attention to myself: if the characters are memorable and compelling, it doesn’t matter what the setting is, or what creatures they are. Vampires, werewolves, telepathic fairy-kin, selkies, were-amoebas. After all, we’ve read contemporary fiction featuring regular old humans for…hmmm…just about forever. Humans? Regular people? In a regular setting? How boring…not. Most of Sarah Dessen’s books feature teenage girls in the same little town in North Carolina. I’ve read every single one of them because her characters are fabulous.

So it’s not just another vampire book, or another post-apocalyptic zombie book, or another (sigh) werewolf book. It’s a real story featuring a compelling character who deals with an intriguing, gripping conflict. You don’t need to keep ahead of trends, or even worry about them, if you’re writing what you love and focusing on your own unique characters.

NiFtY Interview with Josh Fernandez

Kato Peruses an Author Contract (Oh if only my Clarkie could do the same!)

For my second-ever Not-Famous-Yet Author Interview, here is Josh Fernandez. He’s an amazing writer with a hilarious, irreverent voice, and he has a book of poetry coming out this fall. It seems I’ve snagged him for this interview just before his jump into fame. Okay, so publication does not equal instant fame. For instance, I, like many other people, still have no idea who wrote that weird Twilight book.

BH: What’s your one-paragraph pitch for Stickup Kid?
JF: Buy it or I’ll murder you! No, it’s an exciting little story about a small half-Mexican, half-Caucasian kid named Bear who lives with his mom in Brookline, a very Jewish suburb of Boston. One day Bear separates from his class while they’re on a field trip and he meets a man named Stoop. Bear runs away from home and finds Stoop, who takes him in and teaches the naïve boy about his Latin heritage, but he also teaches him the art of being a stickup kid—a purse-snatcher, a robber, a thief …

BH: You’re one of the few people I know who actually makes a living from his writing. What do you write to pay the bills?
JF: I write mostly arts and culture stories. I write for Spin.com, Sacramento News & Review, Boulder Weekly and some other papers that are scattered throughout our glorious country.

BH: How do you think your nonfiction writing influences your fiction, if at all?
JF: Non-fiction writing has helped me write fiction in a number of ways. It’s really helped me find a voice. My goal when writing for newspapers isn’t to be a solid journalist; my goal is to simply entertain the reader. I get a lot of hate mail. News writing has also helped me find the focus of whatever I’m writing. Nobody wants to read a long, blathering story, except for my grandpa. But he could barely read. And I think he was just pretending to read, trying to escape my grandma. RIP, gramps.

I also write poetry, which helps with everything except for money. Although, I just signed a contract with R.L. Crow press. They are going to publish my first full-length collection of poems, tentatively titled Dancing to Genocide. It should be out in the fall.

BH: What is your writing schedule like?
JF:  I’ve never really had one until I started writing Stickup Kid. I’d kind of just write when I felt like writing, which kind of ended up being all the time. But for the novel I got up every morning at 8, went to the coffee shop and wrote until 2 or 3. It was important that I did that because I have a tendency to stay in my underwear all day and watch YouTube videos of high school kids getting hit in the nuts with various objects.

BH: Voice is one of the aspects of Stickup Kid’s beginning that I admired the most. It’s also a quality all writers are after, and something which confuses many beginning writers. Do you have any tips to share on how to cultivate voice?
JF: I think basically you have to just have a voice. Sometimes I teach a writing class at Sacramento City College and I ask the students if they ever have thoughts that pass through their heads that they’d never tell anyone because they seem weird or sick. They always say “Yes.” Then I tell them to take those thoughts, write them down and then throw away everything else. And then they don’t say anything. Because they’re all asleep. Because I’m really boring. The point is, you just have to be unafraid to grab the core of who you are and put it down on a page. Nobody wants to read the outer part of you that’s been influenced by the outside world. That’s already been done. People need to read the inner you. That’s very new age. I learned that from Yanni.

BH: Your blog title “I Know, I Hate Blogs Too!” just begs me to ask what it is you hate about blogs. So, what do you hate about blogs?
JF: I don’t hate blogs. I just hate bloggers. Ha! I am a blogger, so what does that say? Really, it’s just the journalist in me that hates the idea of people who don’t get paid taking our jobs because they offer their blogging service for free. There’s so much bad journalism now because of this idea that “anyone can be a writer!” It’s the same with self-publishing. Anyone can say, “I’m a published author!” and then be a writer, while the rest of us who are actually trying to write stuff that people will read get left in the dust. Basically, I’m saying “Waaaaah!” But in more words.

BH: Since I started my own website/blog, I discovered roughly 167,738,744 other writer blogs and websites. Are you an island or do you frequent anyone else’s?
JF: Oh I read blogs all the time. I kind of just cruise around to see what other people are doing. I can’t really think of any off the top of my head, though.

BH: Can you compare Bear, the main character in Stickup Kid, to anyone you know in real life?
JF: I based a lot of Bear off my own life. And I took parts of friends from childhood and put them into his character. There are a lot of things that happened to me that also happened to Bear. All the good, heroic things were me. The horrible and twisted stuff was, um, my friends. Yeah.

BH: What does your writing workspace look like?

JF: Pictures! We have a spare bedroom that we made into an office. It’s good to have an office without a TV. I’d never get anything done with the possibility of Judge Judy lurking nearby.

BH: What is your favorite book on the craft of writing?
JF: I really like Robert Pinsky’s The Sounds of Poetry. It allows you look at words in an entirely new perspective. The first time I read the book it made me a little insane. I had no idea words were that delicate.

BH: Last we spoke about it, you were revising Stickup Kid with an agent’s guidance. Where are you in the process? Have you signed a contract with that agent?
JF: I’m editing it right now. When I’m done I’ll hand it over. They want the cleanest copy I can make. After that, if they like it, which hopefully they will, actually, I don’t know what happens after that.

BH: How did you & the agent originally connect?
JF: Luck! I set up my website and one of their interns happened to click on it. He read the part that mentioned I was writing a book and he told me to send the first 20 pages. So I did.

BH: What is the best writing advice anyone has given you?
JF: It was something about a bow. It was like: make your paragraph like a bow, tight enough so that when you pluck it it will resonate with the perfect pitch. Crap, no, that wasn’t it. I get a lot of great writing advice, but then I forget everything. My mind is small.

BH: Do you “tweet”?
JF: Yes. I was totally against it, but then I realized that it was another way to get my stories out there so I’m getting used to twitter.

BH: Why do you want to be published?
JF: That’s a great question. It’s all a blur now. I’ve been mulling the story of Stickup Kid in my mind for so long that I just wanted to get it out. I really like the story and I honestly think that other people will like it. I like to write stuff that I like to read. I kind of want to see if other people like the same stuff that I do.

Here's the feature image without Josh's forehead cut off. I spent at least an hour trying to fix the feature image. Sorry, Josh. Love the bunny.

BH: Any words on advice to other writers for keeping the hope alive?
JF: Writing isn’t a very hopeful profession. I think it’s a great hobby, but there’s a lot of heartache and rejection in the world of writing. I am the kind of person who expects to be rejected, so when I’m not I feel like I’ve tricked someone. It’s great. Not all people are like that, though. A lot of people expect to be published and expect people to gush over their writing. And when they don’t get published they blame everyone else. It can’t be like that. You have to pay a ton of dues, and when you’re done paying dues, you have to stand there while people dangle pink slips in front of your face that say “We’re sorry, Mr. Fernandez, but we regret to inform you that your story isn’t what we were looking for …”.  Man, that was like the least hopeful thing I’ve ever said. Sorry. I’ll just say: Keep the hope alive!

There you have it, folks! Words from very-nearly-famous author Josh Fernandez. When he’s famous he’s promised to get us all book deals with his amazing influence. Not really. I’m promising that for him.

Thanks again, Josh, for the interview!

You can check out Josh’s website by clicking here.

Black Magic Sanction by Kim Harrison

The first book of Kim Harrison’s I read was Every Which Way But Dead. And I was blown away. Like Kelley Armstrong, Kim Harrison was one of the first women in the horror genre to actually get my attention. Yeah, Laurell K. Hamilton got my attention too, but the first book of hers I picked up was Cerulean Sins, and it got my attention more in the way a train wreck gets a person’s attention. Or, perhaps more accurately, in the way unexpected and distasteful pornography gets a person’s attention.

Kim Harrison made urban fantasy cool. Her world is so real, from the descriptions of all the Inderlanders (nonhumans) mingling with the humans, to the church her main character, Rachel, lives in, to the very idioms used by her characters. It’s such a thoroughly written setting that I feel like I could live there. Black Magic Sanction keeps the world alive. The characters, the creatures, everything is there.

***weak spoiler here…close your eyes, D-Chan***

Holy. Elf. Can you believe she makes herself pixy-sized and gets to see the inside of Jenks’s house/stump? I would read the whole book again just for that one description. This is where Harrison absolutely impresses me, because I never would have even explored the idea of going inside the pixy stump. I mean, Rachel is a human (well, a witch, but human-sized. You know what I mean), and way too big. But in this novel she has to get inside, for reasons I won’t divulge, and wow.

***spoiler over…you can open your eyes now***

The only problem I had with Black Magic Sanction was the issue most longer series get into: too many characters. There are so many memorable people in Rachel’s world, and that mirrors life exactly, because we all interact with many people on a daily or weekly basis (unless we are introverts who finally get our wishes and just get to stay home for a few days. Without toddlers. But I digress). This is where literature should not mirror life, and Black Magic Sanction could have benefited from a smaller cast of characters.

I keep waiting to read a Kim Harrison book in which Rachel has simply gone too far in her journey, where she’s hit the limit of her character growth and there’s nowhere else for Harrison to take her (again, not trying to rip on LKH, but see what Anita Blake is doing? If you do, you’ll understand why I get a little skittish once a series gets past book 5 or 6).

That hasn’t happened yet. Rachel is still learning and growing, and I’m thrilled to watch it all happen.

For Kim Harrison’s blog, click here. For her website, click here.