Today, the Dames of Dialogue are pleased to have mystery author Sue McGinty, the creator of the Bella Kowalski series with us.
1. Welcome, Sue! Tell us about your latest release, Murder at Cuyamaca Beach, the second book in your Bella Kowalski series.
In Murder at Cuyamaca Beach former nun and dirt-digging obituary editor Bella Kowalski becomes involved in a series of killings seemingly connected to the homeless program at her Los Lobos parish church. The village itself is no stranger to controversy due to its ongoing sewer debacle. She is aided, and sometimes thwarted, by her husband Mike, a former Chicago detective now working part time as a cold case investigator.
I’d also like to tell you about the first novel in the Bella series. As Murder in Los Lobos unfolds, the astute reader will intuit that something is rotten in Los Lobos, and it’s more than just waste from the aging septic tanks. Soon Bella Kowalski and her husband Mike find themselves up to their eyeballs in a deadly mix of murder most foul, long-buried family secrets and snarky local politics.
Both books were great fun to write and are based on real events here on California’s Central Coast—except for the murders, of course.
2. I love when an author weaves reality into their fiction books. Your protagonist, Bella Kowalski, in your series, is a former nun now working as an obituary editor. Where did you come up with the idea for such a unique character?
Nuns have had a great influence in my life not the least of which was 11 years in a Detroit Catholic school. Also, my aunt was a Dominican nun who spent over 75 years in several Wisconsin convents. I used to visit her even after I moved to California as an adult. So when I thought about a character for my Bella series, I asked myself, as all writers do, “Sue, what do you know?” and remembered I knew quite a lot about religious life. The opportunity for conflict between Bella’s former life and her present one, with a husband who’s an ex-cop, can be explored in so many ways. I also know several former nuns who gave me great feedback. One said that I got it “just right.” I made Bella an obituary editor to put her in the middle of situations dealing with death. I briefly considered making her a mortician but decided that was a bit too creepy for the mysteries I wanted to write.
3. She sounds intriguing and fun and there are so many ways you can go with her. Can you share little bit about what you’re working on now or what’s coming next?
I’m currently working on the third book in the series, Murder in Mariposa Bay, where Bella finds herself in the middle of several life-changing events after the murder of someone from Mike’s mysterious past. I’m also the editor of a collection of historical mysteries by the Central Coast Mystery Writers. Somewhere in Crime, our sixth anthology, will be out in time for the holidays.
4. Wow, you really have a full plate: editing as well as writing your own books. Great title for the anthology! How long have you been writing?
Well, I honestly can’t say I’ve been writing all my life, though I always got good grades in English composition, mostly because I figured out how to give teachers what they wanted. This trait served me well in my later career as a technical and ghost writer in corporate America. After moving to the Central Coast, I wrote freelance articles, short stories and a YA novel that I still hope to publish. I’ve always loved to read mysteries so I guess you would say that a series was a natural outgrowth of that passion.
5. I love series too, both writing them and reading them. I like that you can really get to know your characters when you write series books. Where do you find inspiration for your writing?
Like my literary idol, PD James, I find inspiration in places, especially places that are part of the natural world. For example, I can stand above the cliffs of Montana de Oro, (Escarpa el Dorado in the novels), and picture waves washing over a body on the rocks below. The funky little town of Los Osos where I’ve lived for 17 years provides a constant source of inspiration with its drop-dead scenery, eccentric local characters and 40-year wastewater treatment problems. These have made us famous—and infamous—in certain circles. I can pass a sprawling ranch outside town and think, “What a great place to shelter the homeless—and what if someone was murdered there?” In my work-in-progress novel, Murder in Mariposa Bay, the dénouement takes place in an abandoned motel in the dusty California Valley, the perfect place for a sting operation gone wrong.
6. We have a lot in common in that respect. I’m often inspired by nature. There’s just something about a long walk in the woods that feeds my creative side. Other than PD James, who are some of your favorite authors, the ones you read when you could or should be doing something else? Why do they appeal to you?
The list is endless, and subject to change without notice, kind of like life. As mentioned, I’m passionate about PD James, a fervor I share with fellow Aberdeen Bay author, Madeline Gornell. Thanks to Marilyn Meredith’s husband Hap, I’ve just discovered William Kent Krueger, author of the Cork O’Connor novels. I love Krueger’s sense of family and community. I love Penny Warner for the quirkiness of the Inspector Gamache novels. Michael Silva transports me to exotic places like no other writer—except James. I confess to an addiction for John Grisham even though he often gets his protagonist so far up a tree the ending is unsatisfying to me.
7. An impressive list–and I’m with you on Grisham. What is a typical writing day like for you? Do you have any habits or established routines that work best?
My typical writing day starts early, around 5 AM, because that’s the only time I can be reasonably sure of not being interrupted. It also starts with a cup (or 2 or 3) of strong Irish breakfast tea with milk and sugar, a habit acquired at my English grandmother’s knee. I find that if I start writing, avoiding all temptations to check news or social media, I’ll come back to it later. If I start doing something else, it takes me forever to get to the writing and often it doesn’t happen at all. I like to do mechanical things like list-making in the evening as I’m not a night person at all. I’d make a good farmer if I weren’t a writer because of the hours I keep.
8. Ugh, mornings, I don’t do mornings! Well, okay, I do but not very well. I’m definitely a night person but like you, if I don’t start my day writing, it usually will fall by the wayside and I never get to it. How do you promote your work? Any tips for other authors?
I really love hand selling and have a strong local following since my stories have a Central Coast locale. I treasure our 3 local bookstores, Volumes of Pleasure, Book Exchange and Coalesce Bookstore. They’ve been very good to me. We’ve lost a couple this year and it’s very sad. I love libraries for their sense of community and find that they’re terrific venues, as are the less-traditional ones like craft fairs. With the advent of e-books, which I love BTW, I hope our libraries don’t become like ATMs for books. It’s so important to preserve places like libraries where communities can meet face-to-face in this increasingly digitized age. That said, I love Facebook because it’s the closest thing I can find to hollering over the back fence. I haven’t explored blogs as I carefully hoard my limited intellectual energy for fiction writing. That said, this has been so much fun I may dip my toe in the water. For authors I’d say just keep at both the writing and marketing side of the profession. If you fall off the wagon due to personal issues or time constraints, climb right back on.
9. Oh, I can’t even imagine a world without libraries. I love them. Great description of Facebook: “the closest thing I can find to hollering over the back fence.” So true! Who or what has been the biggest influence in your writing career and why?
Once again the list is long, and subject to change: certainly Novel Idea, my critique group, who is always there with sage advice delivered with wit and wisdom; Sisters in Crime, both Central Coast, LA, San Joaquin and National chapters, because they’re so good at what they do, and provide an ongoing source of inspiration; same with SLO NightWriters, our local all genre group; Catherine Ryan Hyde, author of Pay it Forward for mentoring me in her excellent classes.
10. I value the writing groups I belong to. I always come away from the meetings with a nice boost of inspiration. What part of the craft of writing has improved since you wrote your first book?
.I wish I could say it’s my speed. It takes me about 2 years to produce a novel. This may sound strange, but the first draft is agony for me, but I love rewriting. I’ve gotten a bit better about moving more quickly through the first draft and concentrating on character development and scene building in the rewrite stage. This is where magic happens
11. I have a love/hate relationship with rewriting, but when it goes well, it is like magic. Tell us a little bit about where you live.
I think I’ve given you a taste of what Los Osos (aka Lobos) is like. To get here you drive 12 miles west from San Luis Obispo until you get to the ocean. Not Cabot Cove of “Murder She Wrote” fame, but close. Also, not Utopia, but again as close as I’m likely to get. I do wish it was closer to a major airport as I love to travel.
12. Sounds fabulous and if it’s close to the Cabot Cove from “Murder She Wrote,” I imagine it’s a beautiful place to live. One last question—I always love to hear the answer to this one!—What do you consider the single, most satisfying aspect of being a writer?
There are many: the sense of molding a rough piece of clay (much as a sculptor would) in the rewrite process, constantly meeting new people and having them recognize me in public places—so good for my fragile ego. I love having almost unlimited opportunities to read great writers and call it “research.” But the part I like best is writing dialog. Putting words in characters’ mouths and controlling all aspects of a conversation, and all the nuances therein, is such a kick.
So I guess Dames of Dialogue is a perfect place for me. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to natter on about our shared love of mystery.
Contact me at http://www.SueMcGinty.com
Great answers, Sue. And thank you so much for being with us today. I enjoyed getting to know you and hope you’ll come back often!