Welcome to Dames of Dialogue, Karen! Tell us about your latest book, A Gift for Murder.
A Gift for Murder was originally published in hardcover by Five Star/Cengage, then in mass market paperback by Harlequin Worldwide Mysteries, and was recently released as an ebook. It’s a cozy mystery with some romantic elements.
For fifty-one weeks of the year, Heather McNeil loves her job as assistant to the director of the Washington, D.C. Commerce & Market Show Center. But the Gifts and Home Decorations trade show, the biggest show of the year at the center, is a week-long nightmare. This year’s version is being worse than usual. Misplaced shipments, feuding exhibitors, and malfunctioning popcorn machines are all in a day’s work. Finding the body of a murdered executive dumped in a trash bin during the show isn’t. The discovery tips throws Heather’s life—personal and professional—into havoc.
The police suspect the victim’s wife killed him, but Heather doesn’t believe it. She’s gotten glimmers of an entirely different scenario and possible motive. Questioning exhibitors about the crime doesn’t make her popular with them or with her employers, but if she doesn’t identify the murderer before the show ends, the culprit will remain free to kill again.
Her only help comes from an exhibitor with ulterior motives and the Market Center’s attractive new security officer, Scott Brandon. Despite opposition from some of the exhibitors, her employers, and the police, Heather seeks to expose the killer before the show ends. To solve the mystery, she will haves to risk what’s most important to her and be prepared to fight for answers, her job, and possibly her life.
Can you share a little bit about what you’re working on now or what’s coming next?
I have a couple of projects in various states completion and submission. The story I’m actively working on right now is the sequel to A Gift for Murder, tentatively titled Wired for Murder.
My current working blurb is: Amidst the chaos of the opening of the Business Technology Show at the DC Market Center, Heather McNeil, assistant to the center’s director, has to deal with a few extra bits of trade show madness, including a loud and very public argument between the president of the largest exhibitor and an arrogant engineer working for a competitor. When the engineer is murdered, while on the phone with Heather, she has to find a way to cope with the trauma. And being Heather that means wanting to know why the murder happened and who did it.
What is a typical writing day like for you?
Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been trying to get on a regular schedule of writing for two hours from 8:30 to 10:30 before I get to work at the business that pays the bills, doing websites and other graphic design for authors and small businesses. So far it seems to be working. Before that I generally wrote in the afternoons, but I’ve realized that isn’t my best creative time. I usually write for an hour or two in the evenings as well.
Who are your favorite authors, the ones you read when you should be doing something else? Why do they appeal to you?
Barbara Michaels, Sarah Addison Allen, Ellis Peters, Charlaine Harris, Mary Stewart, Gillian Roberts, Jim Butcher, J.R.R. Tolkien, Andre Norton, Jack Campbell, Lois McMaster Bujold, Simon Green, Susanna Kearsley. I don’t really know what they have in common that makes them appeal to me except that they’re all very good writers and storytellers. They all do intriguing plots with characters who develop in interesting and sometimes unexpected ways.
How long have you been writing?
About thirty years. Yeah, even I can’t believe it’s been that long. I wrote my first full-length novel in 1984. I still have the manuscript—it’s in the attic, with a sticky note on it that says, “Burn me.” It’s bad. Really bad. I had a decent idea but no idea how to write a novel. The first novel I sold (to Avalon Books, in 1988, published 1990) was actually the sixth novel I’d written. It took me that long to learn how to do it right. I’ve had an up-and-down career since then, but I’ve had quite a few things published since.
What do you consider the single most satisfying aspect of being a writer?
Because I’m a “pantser,” writing without an outline or much knowledge of how the plot works out, I’m always antsy through most of the first draft, wondering how, when, and even if a story will finally come together. So far, it’s always worked, though, and it’s a great feeling when the threads of the plot all start to mesh and I see the whole pattern. And then when I finally finish the first draft, it’s a real high. There’s usually plenty of rewriting that needs to be done, and lots of editing and polishing, but for me the hard part is getting that first draft done.
Who were your favorite authors as a child? Have they influenced your writing career in any way?
My earliest reading memories involve reading all the Nancy Drew books I could get hold of, along with my brothers’ collection of Hardy Boys as well. I graduated into my Dad’s library of mysteries, which included Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Dashiell Hammett and others. A school friend introduced me to science fiction and fantasy, and I dove into Arthur C. Clarke, Heinlein, Andre Norton, Poul Anderson, etc. As a kid, I worked the fiction section in our local libraries hard. Somewhere along the way, I found Gothic romances and it was love at first paragraph. Obviously it’s no accident that when I started writing, I produced mysteries, fantasy and science fiction, with some romantic elements.
How many hours a day do you write, where, any specific circumstances help or hurt your process?
I write four hours a day most days, two hours in the morning and two in the evening. I have a home office and I try to start right after breakfast as the first cup of coffee is hitting my system. I don’t listen to music or anything else while writing. I start a writing session by reading over what I wrote last, making a few corrections along the way. When I get to the end, I’m usually ready to keep going.
I’m a straight-line sort, starting my first draft at the beginning and writing from start to finish, although I occasionally will go back and fill in missing things when I realize the need them, but for most things, I’ll simply make notes on post-its on my desk for things I know I need to change. Once the first draft is done, I do the major editing pass, where I go through and smooth out the rough spots and make the corrections from the post-its. After that I do another polishing run, then send it to my critique partners and beta readers.
Beside “writer,” what else are you; what is your “day job”?
I’m a website designer/developer, who also does book covers and other graphic design. I’ve been doing it for about ten years now, but I’m starting to cut back the time I spend on that to make more time for writing.
What is your VERB? (This is a big poster at a local mall)? If you had to choose ONE verb that describes you and you behavior or attitude, what would it be?
Have you bought an e-reader? What is your overall impression of electronic publishing?
For several years, I read books on my iPhone, which worked reasonably well, but then I got a Kindle, and I totally love reading on it. My eyesight has never been all that good, and it’s great to be able to enlarge the text to a size that’s comfortable for reading. Plus I can hold it one hand. On the writer’s side, it’s a wonderful opportunity as well. I’ve been requesting my rights back on my backlist books for a while now and have been epublishing them. I still have a few more yet to go, but it’s been nice to see some of those older books getting a new lease on life. Then there are those books that none of my various publishers wanted—usually because they didn’t fit into any marketing niche. I’ve already published one of them (The Wizard’s Shield) and have a few other manuscripts that have been languishing on my hard drive. That’s the upside. The downside is that too many would-be ‘authors’ are putting out books that really aren’t ready for public consumption. I’ve read a few epublished books that were awkwardly written, full of inconsistencies and grammatical errors. Now, if a book sounds intriguing, but I don’t know the author or haven’t read reviews, I’ll download a sample and judge from that whether to get the whole thing.
How do your characters “come” to you? Are they based loosely or closely on people you know?
Honestly, I’m not sure where my characters come from. I see them in the film running in my head and at first I don’t know much about them, but as the story continues while I’m writing it down, I gradually get to know and understand them. Most of that comes from seeing their actions and listening to what they say. I’d have to say that most of them aren’t really based on anyone I know, but they probably have aspects of many people I’ve met, heard of, read about, or seen on television or movies.
Karen McCullough is a web designer by profession, and the author of a dozen published novels and novellas in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres as well. She has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy, and has also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She has three children, four grandchildren and lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.