1. Tell us about your latest published book and your current writing project.
My latest is my 50th book. MANNA FROM HADES, published by Minotaur [St Martin’s] is the first in a new series of Cornish mysteries set in the 1960s/70s.
My main character is Eleanor Trewynn, a widow in her 60s, who spent her life travelling all over the world working for a big international charity. When she was widowed, she retired to a small fishing village in Cornwall (the fictional Port Mabyn), bought a cottage, and turned the ground floor into a charity shop.
The vicar’s wife, bossy but efficient and kind, runs the shop, as Eleanor has only to look at the cash register for it to malfunction. Her job is to drive around the countryside collecting donations of goods for the shop. This allows her plenty of opportunity to meet all sorts of people besides the villagers, but it’s in the stockroom behind the shop that she finds the body of a scruffy youth who looks vaguely familiar.
My secondary protagonist is Eleanor’s niece, DS Megan Pencarrow, one of the first woman detectives in the Cornish force. She and her impatient, misogynistic boss, DI Scumble, investigate the murder, which is complicated by the discovery of a mysterious hoard of jewelry.
Also involved is Eleanor’s next-door neighbour, Nick Gresham, an artist. He becomes very important to my present work in progress, the second book in the series [tentatively entitled A Colourful Death], in which a fellow-painter is murdered. Nick is suspected, and to clear him, Eleanor goes to stay at an artists’ commune, where she soon discovers the victim was almost universally disliked.
2. How did the idea for your Daisy Dalrymple character and series first come to you?
When I decided to start writing mysteries, I had been writing Regencies for a good few years (in fact the main impetus was both the publishers I was writing for ceasing to publish Regencies within 6 months of each other). I wanted to change periods, so that readers who picked up a mystery wouldn’t be confused and expect a romance. However, having been born and grown up in England I decided to keep the English settings (though I wrote Regencies set in Russia, Belgium, France, and even one that began in Costa Rica and another that started in Istanbul and took my characters all the way back to England).
The 1920s was a time of rapid social change in England, as in America. The First World War had decimated a generation of young men, and women were gaining new freedoms as they filled in jobs that used to be strictly male. I wanted to show one young woman coping with the changes. I decided to make her aristocratic, partly because Regencies tend to deal with that segment of society, but mostly because I wanted to write a country-house mystery. I felt the daughter of a viscount was better able than a housemaid to ask both the duke’s family and the servants what they had been doing at 5 o’clock on Sunday afternoon.
So that’s where the idea of Daisy began. I then decided I didn’t want her to be a spoiled socialite, so I killed off her brother and fiancé in the war and her father in the influenza pandemic of ’18-19. Daisy had to work for her living. I also wanted her to be able to move around the country, so that my settings wouldn’t be confined to either London or to a small village where half the population would have to be murdered so that she could investigate (a la St Mary’s Mead). This led to her becoming a journalist, writing articles on stately homes for a magazine.
As for her character, obviously she had to be curious, not to say nosy, so that she’d want to investigate. She had to be comfortable talking to all sorts of people, which is easier if you tend to like people, so she’s a friendly sort. And she had to be independent, or she wouldn’t have worked for a living in the first place, when she could have gone to live with her extremely difficult mother and become a doormat.
The series began with the idea that I’d never again have to think up a title. My proposal was for Death in January, Death in February, Death in March… with each murder being connected with the month in question. For instance, the first, DEATH AT WENTWATER COURT, has a body found in a frozen skating lake. The publisher who bought the series didn’t go for this, which is just as well as I’d have run out of months. My most recent Daisy mystery, BLACK SHIP, was the 17th, and the 18th, SHEER FOLLY, will be out in September ’09.
3. You’re very prolific. How do you keep the writing flame burning?
I’ve been writing for 30 years, so in books per year I’m not particularly prolific. Changing genres helped keep me going. I loved Regencies but was ready for something else. Likewise, I love Daisy, but I was ready to move on to something a bit different—different period, protagonist nearer my own age—when I proposed my new series. I’m lucky enough to be able to continue with Daisy as well as trying something new.
Even when I’ve got to know a particular period pretty well, my books change settings and characters constantly and each requires new research, so I’m constantly learning about new places and subjects. For instance, for Black Ship, I learnt more about rumrunners and bootleggers than most Americans know. So I’m always digging up interesting and often fascinating information.
The ever-burning flame is also encouraged by the fact that it pays all my bills.
4. Have you ever suffered from writer’s block. If so, how did you deal with it?
Never long term. Frequently short term. Do something else (weeding comes to mind) for a while.
5. Describe a typical working day for you.
First thing every morning (except Sundays, my one non-writing day, when I go back to bed with breakfast and the newspaper), I go for a walk by the Willamette River. When I get home I eat breakfast while reading the first section of the paper, thus getting the bad news over early so I can forget it by lunchtime. Then I write for the rest of the morning. I used to take an hour for lunch, but I found I rarely got more than a sentence or two written in the hour after so now I run errands or do chores. Then back to work. In the evenings I mostly read—I don’t own a TV—with an occasional symphony concert or a meal out with friends. When the evenings are light, I’ll work in the garden. I grow lots of fruit as well as veg and flowers. In my dog-days I’d walk my dog again in the evening: see question #11.
6. Authors must promote. What has been your most unique promotion?
I once dressed up in sort of vaguely Regency clothes for a newspaper article. “Sort of vaguely” because they provided the gown and they hadn’t much idea of historical accuracy. The photographer wanted me wandering through a meadow of flowers—fortunately it was spring when flowers abound in the Willamette Valley. He also—in a burst of historical accuracy—wanted me to take off my glasses. A Regency miss wouldn’t be seen dead in glasses. I put my foot down, as I can’t see a thing without.
More recently I dressed up in sort of vaguely 1920s costume for a Eugene Symphony Guild benefit dinner. Much more comfortable, or would have been if I hadn’t discovered too late that every pair of pantyhose I possessed had dead elastic (I hadn’t worn pantyhose for a couple of decades but I’m a packrat). I had to explain why I kept hitching myself up—oh, well, it’s always good to get a laugh when you want it. Also, I’m not the sort of person who can drape a scarf elegantly around her shoulders and have it stay there, let alone a sash around the hip-level waistline. So altogether there was a lot of hitching up done.
7. What is your most cherished reader reaction to your work?
I love to hear from readers who tell me Daisy has helped them through troubled times. For instance, one lady wrote to me that she was going to stay for a couple of weeks with a friend dying of cancer and she was packing the entire series of Daisy books to take with her to reread. And I heard from a guy who said he had had a very difficult few months but Daisy helped take his mind off his problems.
Also, I often hear that people regard Daisy as a friend they like to spend time with…so will I please write faster.
8. Who or what has been the biggest influence in your writing career?
My ex-husband. When we met (I was on my way around the world), I had finished college but he still had a few non-engineering classes to deal with, one of which was World History. Not his thing. I wrote all his history essays for him, got As for all of them and so impressed him that he decided I ought to write a book. Well, the next few years we moved around a lot, had a child, and I had a lot of part-time and temporary jobs (market research, childcare, construction—from foundations to roofing, building design, proofreading, and writing definitions for a dictionary of science and technology). Then we settled down and he wanted me to get a “proper” job. So I said I’d first like to try writing that book he’d always said I should.
I sat down at the kitchen table with a pad of paper and a ballpoint pen, and wrote TOBLETHORPE MANOR (aka in large print A Girl with No Name), my first Regency. When, to my surprise, it sold, my path was set.
I suppose that first editor who bought my first book should share the honours with the ex who set me on the path.
9. What part of the craft of writing has improved since your first book?
I don’t honestly know whether anything at all has improved, and I don’t know whether to boast about it or be dismayed. I had to reread most of my Regencies to edit them for e-book publication (www.RegencyReads.com), as they were on floppy floppies and had to be scanned, or in Volkswriter format which comes out in MSWord with a paragraph stop at the end of each line. To tell the truth, I enjoyed them and there was practically nothing I wanted to change. The only real exception was the one book I did with The Editor From Hell, who insisted on major changes that in my opinion were all bad. I changed it back to my original as best I could (though when it subsequently came out in large print using the e-text, I found I’d left a monkey on the stairs who shouldn’t have been there—fortunately easy to correct in the e-book).
10. Tell us something about where you live—we love to travel.
I live in Eugene, Oregon, at the southern end of the Willamette Valley, between the Coast Range and the Cascades. It’s a middle-sized city, large enough to have everything one could want, small enough (given Oregon’s anti-sprawl laws) to get out easily into the farmland (lots of small fruit and vegetable farms with U-Pick in season), mountains, forests and beaches. We’re home to the University of Oregon, the Eugene Symphony and Oregon Mozart Players, ballet and opera companies, a terrific non commercial classical music station (KWAX .com on the web), the Oregon Bach Festival, and the Country Fair—last refuge of hippies. We’re within reach of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Crater Lake, Portland and the Columbia Gorge. The coast has rocky coves, dunes, miles of sandy beaches often practically deserted. Some might consider the weather a disadvantage. It’s typical Northwest, but far less rain than Seattle, and our summers are dry for a couple of months. We get little to no snow on the valley floor but there’s plenty in the nearby mountains if that’s what you like. And because of the rain, we have trees, trees, trees and waterfalls, and grass green year-round.
We’re the only city in the world that has a Slug Queen. www.slugqueeneugene.com/
I’ve been here 17 years and I love it.
11. Chat about your pets—we love those, too.
I’m a dog person. In 30 years I’ve had two dogs. Willow died last November and I’m waiting till after a trip to England this summer to head for the local shelter.
Willow was a black Lab/German shepherd mix with the best traits of both. She was big and soft and lovey-dovey, adored children—in fact, if a small child approached she would lie down and wait to be petted. She didn’t like to swim, and refused to go into the river deeper than her tummy, but she loved to walk by the river. In her old age she couldn’t make it quite that far, so I’d leave her on a friend’s front porch while I walked. You can see pictures of her on my Facebook page.
12. If you could set a book anywhere in the world and in any time period, where and when would it be and why?
Oddly enough, the Middle East, in what were medieval times in Western Europe.
I’ve never been particularly interested in the Middle Ages, and though I’ve been to Israel and to Istanbul, and would like to go back to Turkey, otherwise I’ve no great desire to travel in the Middle East. However, quite by chance I found out about two real women who rose to power in that time and place despite facing obstacles we can’t begin to imagine. I immediately wanted to tell their stories.
They would take the form of a mystery series set in the 11th century in Constantinople, dealing with the extraordinary life of the Empress Zoe, and a single historical in the 13th century, ranging from the Russian steppes to Egypt, about Shajar-al-Durr, who started out as a nomad girl, became a slave, and ended up as Sultan of Egypt.
There’s also a book I want to write someday, a sort of caper mixed with the “coming of age” of two middle-aged women, that starts in Southern California and reaches its climax in Istanbul. When I started thinking about it, it would have been a contemporary story, but now, because of aspects of the story-line, it would still have to be set in the 1990s. My two heroines, one American, one English, have both let others run their lives, or simply gone with the flow, until something happens that brings them together and makes them face and overcome great difficulties for themselves. It’s a humorous story, though.
So all I need now is time to write them and an editor to buy them. May have to wait till I retire—if that ever happens!
To find out more about Carola and her books: