–Welcome to Dames of Dialogue, Janet, and Happy New Year! Tell us about your latest book.
DEATH RIDES THE ZEPHYR is a historical mystery set in December 1952. That may not sound historical, but it was over 60 years ago. Most of the book takes place aboard an eastbound run of the train known as the California Zephyr. It was also called the Silver Lady, because of its shiny stainless steel cars. The train, a streamliner, was known for its luxurious amenities and service, and for its Vista-Domes, which gave passengers a 360-degree view of the scenery in the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. The Zephyr also had a female crew member, much like a stewardess, called a Zephyrette. The first time I found out about Zephyrettes, I knew I would write a mystery about one. The Zephyrettes did everything from make announcements and dinner reservations, to minor first aid and minding kids. They were expected to walk the train every few hours and assist passengers. The Zephyrette, by my reasoning, was just the person to observe behavior, collect clues, and solve a mystery! So all aboard the Silver Lady for an adventure with my protagonist, a Zephyrette named Jill McLeod.
–Can you share a little bit about what you’re working on now or what’s coming next?
I have written ten mysteries in a series featuring Jeri Howard, who is a private investigator in Oakland, California. The most recent is BIT PLAYER, which was published in 2011. I am now working on another Jeri Howard novel, with a working title of COLD TRAIL, with a pub date of spring 2015. Jeri’s mother and father have played roles in the previous books, and I’ve decided in this book to center the plot on Jeri’s younger brother. More than that, I will not say! As to what comes after that. I have the plot for another California Zephyr mystery featuring Jill tumbling around in my head, as well as half a short story. There are several other historical novels I’d like to do, some mystery and some not, plus a couple of contemporary mysteries.
–What is a typical writing day like for you?
Until the end of October, I was working full time. My day started at 4 AM, so I could put in an hour or so at the computer before going to work. I’d been doing that for over 30 years. I retired in November, so I’m still defining my days. I’ve taken some time off from writing to focus on Christmas preparation. A pattern is emerging, though. I get to my computer around 8:30 or 9 AM and write until mid-afternoon, then I go for a walk. I know when I get caught up in writing, several hours will go by in the blink of an eye.
–When you’re writing, who’s in control, you or the characters?
I like to think I’m in control, but I never know. When I was writing the second Jeri Howard book, TILL THE OLD MEN DIE, I had figured on one character as the killer of two victims. However, in the course of writing the novel, another character began waving hands at me, saying, “I did it!”
–Promotion is a big—and usually the most hated—part of being a writer. Can you share a little bit about how you promote?
I have done a lot of promotion during the 20-plus years since my first book came out. The landscape has changed so much. In years past I went to almost every convention, especially Bouchercon, the world mystery convention, and Left Coast Crime, which is held in the Western United States. I also did lots of booksignings, both here locally in the San Francisco Bay Area, and other locations in the country. I no longer do that. I got burned out and I’m not sure its effective any more. I do usually go to Left Coast, and am planning to go to Bouchercon in 2014 because it’s in California. But I’m no longer willing to drive 90 miles on a week night to do a signing, or fly to another city to do a couple of signings. I am also finding, like lots of writers, that doing a booksigning in a store has become less effective. I am involved in two blogs, one of my own and one for Perseverance Press authors. The blog are not so much for promotion as for me an opportunity to write short pieces on things I want to write about. I was on Twitter for a while but no longer. Just don’t get it. I’m also on Facebook but don’t check it very often. I’ve come to the conclusion that the best thing for me to do is write and get a lot of books and stories out there.
–What are your thoughts on the standard writing advice, “write what you know”?
Write what you know is fine, with one caveat. If you don’t know, then find out. I had always wanted to write a horse racing book, because I do enjoy them. I’d written a short story called “Witchcraft,” with a jockey as a protagonist. I like the character, Deakin Kelley, and I wanted to use him again, so I devised a plot for a Jeri Howard novel, A KILLING AT THE TRACK, with Deakin taking a strong supporting role. As I started the book, it became clear to me how little I knew about the business and sport of horse racing. I needed more information, the kind that couldn’t be gleaned solely from books and articles. Through a friend of a friend, I connected with a woman in the Bay Area who trains race horses. I spent several days following her around the track, getting the information I needed. I was very pleased when the book was favorably reviewed by California Thoroughbred, which said I’d done my homework well. I’ve had similar research experiences with other books. For DEATH RIDES THE ZEPHYR, it was very important to me to accurately portray the operations of the California Zephyr. I interviewed two former Zephyrettes, spent hours in the archives of railroad museum libraries, climbed around on trains, and even drove a locomotive. I was thrilled when a volunteer at the Western Pacific Railroad Museum told me I had both the history and the train stuff right.
–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.
I’m a fiction writer. I write mysteries and historical fiction, two genres I like to read.
–Besides “writer,” what else are you; what is your “day job”?
In years past, my “day job” has been everything from newspaper reporter, Navy journalist, Navy officer, legal secretary, to administrative assistant. Now that I’m retired, it’s writer. Also gardener, seamstress, birder and cat wrangler.
–Describe your writing process once you sit down to write—or the preliminaries.
I don’t outline, much, but then what I do could be construed as an outline. When I’m starting a book, I’ve already been mulling over the ideas and characters, jotting down notes here and there, clipping articles from the newspaper or printing them from the Internet. When I finally sit down at the computer, I write whatever comes into my head, for several weeks. As that one document grows, it will contain plot ideas, character sketches as I get to know the people who populate the book, location information, notes to myself about what I need to research and scenes I need to include. Then I gradually begin shaping the document into a synopsis, a road map of where I’m going and hope to wind up. At this point I’ll have the start of a first chapter and pieces of various chapters, though I may not yet be sure in what order those chapters will go. Eventually, in the middle of writing a book, I’ll do another synopsis, a detailed chapter-by-chapter look at where I am so far. This generally helps me figure out where I need to go and what scenes I need to include to get me to the end.
–Where do you get your ideas?
I like to say they are in the air, like pollen. Frequently they will come from real-life events. The plot of my first Jeri Howard novel, KINDRED CRIMES, came from a murder case in Colorado, where I grew up. The second, TILL THE OLD MEN DIE, came from another Colorado case involving a missing professor. TAKE A NUMBER came from a case in Missouri where the murder victim was so disliked that there was no shortage of suspects. And my Monterey book, DON’T TURN YOUR BACK ON THE OCEAN, involved something I’d read about in the newspaper, pelican mutilations on the California Coast. The newspaper also provided a plot twist for BIT PLAYER, a small article I clipped out and kept, knowing I would use it one day. And sure enough, I did. The idea for DEATH RIDES THE ZEPHYR came from the train itself, the old California Zephyr, and learning about Zephyrettes. The ideas can come from anywhere. What I do is grab hold and follow along for the ride.
–Have you bought an e-reader? What is your overall impression of electronic publishing?
I have a Kindle, which was a gift to me. From the standpoint of a reader who used to travel with five or six paperbacks (didn’t want to run out of anything to read), now I carry the Kindle loaded with all sorts of books. Much (but not all) of my new book purchases are electronic. I’m one of those readers who has run out of places to put books. As a writer, I really like electronic publishing. It has given me the opportunity to get my entire backlist of Jeri Howard novels, plus all 12 of my short stories, out there for readers. I anticipate publishing my California Zephyr short story electronically, once I finish it.
–How do your characters “come” to you? Are they based loosely or closely on people you know?
Frequently the characters show up in my head and I realize I have to put them in my books. Sometimes a character who was supposed to play a peripheral role becomes more important during the course of a book. I allow myself time to explore the character and their quirks and this helps me write fully realized characters. I don’t usually base characters on people I know. However, I will say that the murder victim in my Jeri Howard novel, TAKE A NUMBER, is based on an old boyfriend, and yes, I really enjoyed killing him off.
My blog, Got It Write:
The Perseverance Press blog, Get It Write: