By Laurel-Rain Snow
Tell us about your latest book.
Murder by Syllabub, the fifth in the Ellen McKenzie mystery series, has been recently released. Ellen lives in a small town on California’s central coast, but in this book her Aunt Mary’s closest friend has inherited a Colonial plantation, or what’s left of it, from her recently deceased husband, and is having a few problems. It seems there is a ghost, dressed as a colonial gentleman, prowling the upstairs hallway and he tried to kill her. Aunt Mary is skeptical; ghosts, if indeed there was one, don’t usually push crates over on people, but she’s going to help her friend anyway. She’s not going alone, though. Ellen insists she’s going with her. They arrive to find the “ghost” dead on the dining room carpet, an empty glass of syllabub in his hand. The police suspect Elizabeth, Aunt Mary’s friend, who not only has a strong motive but a bowl of syllabub in her refrigerator. If Ellen and Aunt Mary are to prove Elizabeth innocent, they have to solve a murder whose roots lie in the eighteenth century.
Can you share a little bit about what you’re working on now or what’s coming next?
Aunt Mary has been a strong character in all of the Ellen books, and it seemed time to give her a series of her own. I am almost finished with what is to be the first in the Mary McGill Helping Hands mysteries. I am not, however, planning on abandoning Ellen McKenzie and her now husband, Dan Dunham. They’re just too much fun.
What is a typical writing day like for you?
There is no such thing as a typical day. The way I’d like it to go is, get up, let the dogs out and turn on the coffee, read over what I wrote the day before while I sip the first cup, feed the dogs while I mull over what I like and don’t like and get started on the day’s project. Afternoons are reserved for promotion, which means internet postings, trying to set up signings or appearances, answering emails, etc.; then the late afternoons are devoted to running grandkids to soccer, flute lessons, etc. Somewhere in there I catch the news and start dinner. The evenings are mine. Sort of, because it never quite works out that way.
When you’re writing, who’s in control, you or the characters?
I love this question because that is such a fluid thing. To start off, I am. I have the main characters, protagonist, antagonist, some of the “sidekicks” in my mind, and have an idea of where I want the story to go. Once we get going, and the writing starts to flow, people I do not know keep coming in, and my carefully thought out characters turn on me. Once I had the murderer wrong. I person I had set up (I thought) as the murderer kept telling me “I didn’t do it.” It wasn’t until I finally listened and got the right murderer that the book came together.
I hear this answer often, and I think this process is true for many of us. How long have you been writing?
That depends. If you mean all that stuff I used to write and hide in the cedar chest, a really long time. If we’re talking about the things I wrote after I actually got up the courage to let someone see something I’d written, a little over ten years. The first thing I wrote was an article about my five children’s eventful careers in 4-H. We were a city family and knew nothing about farm animals. We learned. My, how we learned. That article was purchased by Family Fun who actually paid me. I was on my way.
I think we can also count the things you hid. Who were your favorite authors as a child? Have they influenced your writing career in any way?
I would love to say Nancy Drew, but my mother wouldn’t let me read those books. I’m still not sure why, but I read all of the Pollyanna books, any book I could get my hands on about animals (I still have a copy of Beautiful Joe on my book shelf as well as Lad, a dog) all of the Louisa May Alcott books, and systematically read my way through the library. I’m not sure how they influenced my writing, except when you read a lot of books that have clearly drawn characters, interesting and intelligent plots, and are well written, it is bound to influence you, even if you don’t realize it at the time. I grew out of those book to read Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey. Also Rex Stout and Agatha Christie.
Louisa May Alcott was one of my favorites, too. What are your thoughts on the standard writing advice, “write what you know”?
Again, it depends on what you mean when you give that advice. I think way too many times people interpret it writing about a place, a job, a sport you have been involved with. If so, it’s a way to start. But there’s so much more to that statement. Take Walter Mosley. He writes about Easy Rollins, a black man who lives in LA in the 50’s. Mosley takes us through the black districts of LA with a deft hand. He knows that area, but its not the geography that matters. Anyone can tell us what freeway off ramp to take, can describe the houses, the grafitti-covered store fronts, but Mosley knows the people who live in those houses, knows what their lives are like, what their frustrations are, what their dreams are like. I couldn’t write their story. So I choose not to try. I write about people in small towns, no less tight knit communities, no less frustration, lots of dreams, plenty of drama, but from a different perspective. I think that’s what that statement means.
Yes, I agree. Whatever we know that allows us to bring the characters to life…that’s important. Were books an important part of your household when you were growing up?
They were probably the most important thing in our household. I can remember the day I got my first library card. After that, there was no time I didn’t have a stack of books by my bed, waiting to be read. My father and mother were both avid readers and passed on to my brother and me. My father often read aloud to us and he was a great story teller. Maybe that’s where I got my love of story. Or, it could be the Irish in me.
Love of stories is a familiar theme for us writers. Any teacher who influenced you…encouraged you or discouraged you?
I’ll tell you about one who discouraged me. I was in the first grade but read at a much higher level, so was put into a first-second combo class. I could read but my hand writing (they had penmanship classes back then) spelling and math skills were still very much at the first grade level. The teacher had a shelf of books for first grade and another for second grade and you had better not deviate. I had already read all of the second grade books. The fiction ones. I’m quite sure I hadn’t read the math. She used to make fun of me, tell the class how smart I thought I was because I could read, but couldn’t do math or write a paper in cursive. What she taught me was to keep my head down, volunteer nothing and make sure I sat in the back of the class where no one could tell that I had a library book tucked into the social studies book I was supposed to be reading. It took many years before I had any confidence in my abilities to speak out in class again. I share this because sometimes it’s easy to forget how fragile a child’s ego can be.
Teachers like that one do all students a disservice. Thanks for sharing. How do you classify yourself as a writer? Fiction or non-fiction? Specific genre such as mystery, short story, paranormal or more general such as women’s fiction, Appalachian, etc.
Fiction. I grew up on stories, lots of them, stories I read, stories my father told, stories on the radio and later on TV. I love fiction, both writing it and reading it. I write mysteries. Why? I guess a number of reasons. I love the puzzle, but unlike the crossword I like the puzzle that people provide. What happened to that person that made him/her a murderer? What chain of events pulled our hero/heroine into this tragedy? What happens when their two worlds collide? No two people react the same way under the same circumstances, especially highly stressful ones, so I love to see how my characters react as one tries to solve a puzzle and the other tries to make sure the puzzle isn’t solved. For both of them, their lives will never be the same.
I agree that understanding what makes people behave the way they do is central to our characterizations. How do your people “come” to you? Are they based loosely or closely on people you know?
First, I don’t consciously base my characters either loosely or closely on people I know. Having said that, I’m sure some characteristics from some creep in, but as my characters take form on the page, the less they are likely to be to “real” people. Two of my grandkids asked to be in one of my books, so, I put them in the book I’m currently writing. They were to have a walk-on only and I made it clear the children would have their names but they wouldn’t be THEM. They aren’t. Those two kids marched onto the page, refused to leave when they should have and just about took over the book. They are darling kids, so are my grandkids, but they aren’t the same. I have no idea why that happens, but it does all the time. I often have people turn up that I had no inkling were there when I started to write, but in they walk, full blown. Aunt Mary in the Ellen books was one. Where she came from, I don’t know, but she arrived one day, and five books later, she’s still there. She’s changed very little, which is a good thing. She’s a really neat lady.
I like that aspect of how the characters come to us. Any book on writing you have found most helpful? Or classes you’ve taken?
When I first started to get serious about writing, actually about the time I found out that writing is a craft and like most things you have to learn how to do it, I started looking around for classes. I lived in California then and found that UCLA had extension classes, often on the week-ends. I went to a lot of them and they were wonderful. However, I also went to writers conferences, both big and small, for mystery writers and for general writing skills, and learned a lot from them. I bought, read and re-read many books on writing, some on technique, some on grammar, others on plot construction, dialog, character building, and got something out of each one. But the book that encouraged me the most, that challenged me to think about what I was doing, why, and what I wanted to get out of all this blood sweat and tears that I was expending, was Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird. I recommend it. I also recommend looking up online classes, conferences, creative writing classes at your community college, and some critic groups. But put your toe in those waters carefully. Some are wonderful, supportive and informative, some are okay but it’s the blind leading the blind, and a few will harm more than help. If you think you’re involved in one of those, you’re probably right. Go look some place else.
Thanks for joining us today, Kathleen…I am eager to read your books!