I’d like to welcome mystery writer Jo Hiestand to Dames of Dialogue.
1.You’re a prolific writer. Please tell us about your latest book.
Siren Song is my eighth published novel, but the first in a new series. Michael McLaren is an ex-cop who resigns his job due to a great injustice done to his friend. As the book opens, it is one year later and he is a lonely, bitter man repairing dry stonewalls in Derbyshire, England. The friend of a murdered woman comes to him and asks him to investigate the cold case. He begrudgingly takes the case and that’s how he is lured back into investigating cold cases on his own — which will be further novels in the series. As with my other series, Taylor & Graham, the McLaren Case mysteries take place in Derbyshire.
2. What’s next?
The second book in the McLaren series, Swan Song, is finished. It will come out in April 2011. I’ve already got a book signing scheduled for Swan Song for next summer — in the actual castle where about a third of the book takes place. Incredibly exciting for me! The third book is lurking in my mind — I’ve got the basic idea but no more — but I’ve begun writing the first book in a third series. This one will take place in my home state of Missouri.
3. You’re multitalented in the arts: published author, musician, photographer and sketch artist. Do you prefer one over the others and, if so, which one?
This is difficult! It depends somewhat on my mood on a specific day. But generally, I would say writing and music are tied for favorite, followed by photography and then sketching to lesser degrees of passion. Music’s always been a huge part of my life. I was being groomed as a concert pianist in my high school years before I switched to playing the harpsichord. The folk music era happened at that time and I taught myself guitar and several other ‘folk’ instruments. I formed a folk singing group with five other girls — we were The Six Pack — and we played semi professionally around the area. Then I did a solo stint one summer in England, in pubs and folk clubs in the Sale,
Cheshire area. So music takes up a chunk of my time. If I didn’t love it, I’d concentrate on something else!
4. Change ringing sounds lovely. Can you describe it for us?
If you’ve read Dorothy L Sayers’ classic mystery The Nine Tailors then you know exactly what change ringing is. For those who haven’t, it is playing changes, or mathematical patterns/permutations, on a set of large Quassimodo-sized bells hung in a bell tower. As with many other things British, it is peculiar and practically unfathomable to anyone who isn’t British!!! Bells are assigned numbers, starting with the highest (tenor) bell. A tower usually holds 6-12 bells, which make up a ring. Starting with the highest bell, a downward scale on eight bells would be rung: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8. This is great but gets boring to the player and listener after a bit, so the numbers are mixed up. The next time through, you might play 2, 1, 4, 3, 6, 5, 8, 7. The third time through, it is mixed yet again. Many different patterns and permutations are possible, but bells can move only one space in the sequence at a time — this is due to the skill and time it takes to ring those huge bells (weighing several hundred pounds to nearly a ton). You must ring your bell slightly faster or slower in order to change its ringing sequence in that particular pattern. The bells don’t physically change places; it is just the time when they are rung in the sequence. It’s terrific mental and physical exercise, besides being a team sport.
In some books Paul writes several chapters as one of the characters, Police Constable Scott Coral. These are written first person POV. I write the main bulk of the novel from the first person POV of Det-Sgt Brenna Taylor. After I plot the book, I let Paul know the basic story line. He then decides what he’d like Scott to comment on, become involved with, etc, and he writes Scott’s chapters. I love this series because we’ve got a female police detective and a male street cop, and this gives the books a blend of not only the two genders’ POV but also detective vs. patrol officer. Paul actually is a working police officer, so his chapters are very real. He also writes all the fight scenes in the books — this came about because he laughed himself silly over my first attempt at writing a fight. I made the mistake of writing it how I saw it on television. Not a good idea…. Paul also tells me about universal things, such as police officer emotions and reactions. I think we’re a great team — and it’s fun writing with him!
6. Police officers are usually reticent about forming friendships with strangers or letting people into their lives. How did you meet Paul…and persuade him to write with you?
Paul and I met while he was on duty as a police officer. I was attending a citizens police academy at the time, and one of the requirements was to ride with some officers on the street. It was a completely random encounter, as Paul was on duty at the time I was to ride. We ended up talking more about writing than police work, if I remember correctly. We stayed in touch after that by e-mail. I finally asked Paul to read a manuscript, then edit it, then give tactical advice….up until where we are today. Death of an Ordinary Guy, the first Taylor & Graham novel, had just been published when we met, and I was extremely excited. On some subsequent ride-alongs — I can’t remember which one — I asked him if I could model a character after him. He said yes and he chose his character’s name. I felt like we were really a team when he began writing chapters as the character. That happened in book five, Horns of a Dilemma.
7. What inspires you as a writer?
Another tough question! I know what inspired me to become a writer — my love of the Golden Age mystery authors such as Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L Sayers and Josephine Tey. But what inspires me now…. Well, a few things. One is definitely linked to Paul — I like ‘educating’ our readers on police emotions and their private lives and what they go thru. I don’t think most people realize how incredibly difficult their job is and I try to show this in my characters. I like to show that police officers are just ordinary folks doing a tough job, and how they handle their own problems. Another inspiration is plain ole teaching. People are fascinated by the English customs I use as the backbone of each book’s plot. It’s incredibly fun to research that and use that in my story, giving my readers a bit of the custom’s history as they follow the mystery. And probably the last thing that spurs me to write is something I have no control over: I have to! I’ve tried to quit writing several times, whenever I’d get a rejection slip, for instance. But I’d be back writing within a few days. Something compels me to write. I don’t know what or why, but it’s deep within me.
8. Can you tell us a bit about your journey to publication?
My first published article was about my trip to the Ngaio Marsh House/Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand. That appeared in Mystery Scene magazine. Then it was nearly ten years until my first novel was published. That was five and a half years ago and since that little hatching I now have eight novels total that are ‘out there.’ I’ve been blessed with a lot of help: two English police detectives who have since become personal friends, a pathologist/coroner who answers my medical questions, a great Sisters in Crime chapter from which I have several close friends. But it all goes back to that magazine article on the Ngaio Marsh House. While I was in New Zealand I met the curator, had dinner with him, was shown around the city and the places associated with Ngaio. He told me about a newly forming Ngaio Marsh Society in the US. I joined when I got home and subsequently became the contributing editor to the newsletter. From that I make other contacts and those led me to research a place in Derbyshire where my first novel was to be placed. That led me to my English police detectives, etc. It’s been an amazing trail of meeting people who are enthusiastic and eager to help me. I’m truly astounded when I think back on all that’s happened in six years.
9. Describe a typical writing day.
It varies only by time in the winter or summer. In the summer I’m usually up by 5:30 or 6 and at the computer an hour or so later. I write just about nonstop until early or mid afternoon, depending on how The Muse and I are getting along! In the winter, it’s darker and colder and I don’t get out of bed so easily. So getting up around 7:00 is the norm. Then I begin writing nearer to 8:00. Most writers wear the same thing or have rituals, I’ve discovered. I’m no different. I have cup after cup of hot tea in the autumn/winter months, and glasses of fruit juice in the summer. In the winter I wear one of two sweatshirts, jeans or a pair of royal blue sweatpants, and thick socks. In the summer I wear one of three t-shirts: my NYPD t-shirt, my Taylor & Graham t-shirt, or my St Louis Sisters in Crime t-shirt — all with a saggy pair of blue shorts that have more shredded areas than whole sections. I have lunch at my computer while I write. When I shut it down for the day, I answer emails or do other things like get mailings together. Not much different from other writers, I don’t think. Funny how rituals come into play to crank out a page of text!
10. What do you love about writing? What do you dislike the most?
Wow, a double-edged sword! I love creating the story, the characters and their world. I love moving them about and giving them lives. I love the feeling of justice that usually comes at the end of most of my books. It’s so unlike the real world that I get an immense sense of satisfaction from it: this time the victim is avenged and the bad guy is punished! Hooray! What I dislike most…the marketing and promotion. I just want to write. I want to sit at my desk and churn out stories and not worry about the business end of it. I am a creative person; my business skills stink! I understand that the marketing and promotion go along with it these days, but I certainly don’t like it. Nor am I good at it just yet! Perhaps someone will give me some tips or I can take a class — honest!
11. The Dames love to travel and I note you’re an experienced traveler. What is your favorite place to visit and why?
Right now, I’d have to say two places are deep in my heart. One is New Zealand — such incredibly beautiful scenery and just-made air. Such a unique country, with its animals, plants and diverse scenery. The history fascinates me, too. I really got into Maori culture and history for years when I got back. And I love England — but I guess that is obvious because two of my series are placed in England. I love the villages, the landscape, the folk music, the history (well, Renaissance through Tudor times). I feel a kinship with England that I can’t explain… some feeling that pulls me over there.
12. We adore animals. Do you have any pets? If so, please tell us about them.
My place is very zoo-like, inside and out! Officially I have three male cats: Chaucer, Dickens and Tennyson. Chaucer and Dickens are brothers and are all black. Tennyson (along with two sisters and their mother) was rescued as a baby from a deserted house. He’s pure gray. They keep me company while I write. Tennyson always lies on the carpet to the right of my chair. Dickens usually curls up in one of the wicker baskets on the floor by a bookcase. Chaucer likes a basket that sits on top of my desk. I guess they’re keeping their eyes on me. But they relinquish the patches of sun and warm bedding when I go into the kitchen to brew up a cuppa or make lunch — if I’m feeding myself, I should feed them, they’re thinking! Unofficially, outside I’m
constantly visited by wild animals: about a half dozen raccoons, three possums, several chipmunks, two groundhogs, a family of foxes and two coyotes — this will probably expand to a larger family soon, as the female is out in the daytime seeking food. Oh, and a family of skunks — smelled but not seen. Several dozen species of birds at the bird feeders. And at least one great horned owl couple that I hear at night. Bats in my….bat house (not belfry). That’s about it, I think. I love every one and am glad I live where they do. I try to keep the backyard critter-friendly and wildish so they can have a quasi sanctuary in the heart of suburban St Louis. Besides, it’s fun watching and photographing them!
For more information about Jo Hiestand, please visit: