Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Jacquelyn Mitchard

Jacquelyn Mitchard is the New York Times bestselling author of 22 novels for adults and teenagers, and the recipient of Great Britain’s Talkabout prize, The Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson awards, and named to the short list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Her first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, was the inaugural selection of the Oprah Winfrey Book Club, with more than 3 million copies in print in 34 languages. It was later adapted into a major feature film starring Michelle Pfeiffer.

Mitchard's new novel is The Good Son.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

It should do a great deal of work but I don’t think that the title does that work, in this case, with The Good Son. That title is controversial, both for me and others, because it’s been “inhabited,” as they say, so many times, most famously for a movie with Macaulay Culkin as a child. It’s meant to be ironic or at least ambivalent for my book, but it was not the title I would have chosen as I tend to want more lyrical titles. Indeed, if the title of my first and best-known novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, had been as literal as this one is, it would have been something like Yikes, My Son was Kidnapped and Now Here He is! Or You Can’t Go Home Again, They Moved. In any case, I didn’t think the world needed another book called The Good Son (or The Good Daughter).

What's in a name?

I’m very, very picky about character names, and while I’m not like Dickens with Mrs. Gradgrind or Martin Chuzzlewit, I do want the name to comprise some essence of the character. In this story, the main character, Thea, even discusses with her best friend what her name means (it means “gift of God” in Greek). The name of the son is Stefan, which means “victorious,” or, in Greek, “garland,” and in the second meaning, referred to his love for plants and botany and also his eventual triumph. The name also has to “sound” like the character: For example, Stefan’s father is a football coach, and though his real name is John Paul, he’s called “Jep,” which I think of as a sporty name. One of the most important elements for me in naming characters is that the names sound very different from each other. They shouldn’t have the same number of syllables for start with the same letters, for example. I wouldn’t call two friends “Kathy” and “Kailey” or “Ramona” and “Rebecca.” And even further, I don’t like to have any names from previous books show up in a current book, so, if I keep this up, eventually people are going to be named “Sabina” and “Ignatz."

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

My teenage self would not be surprised at all by this story because she was as drawn to mayhem as I am, maybe more so.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I put a great deal of work into beginnings and endings, much more than “shows” in the book. Of course, the work that a writer puts in to a story shouldn’t be obvious or evident, which is why I can have trouble with elaborate, tricksy sentences such as the kind that Jonathan Franzen sometimes writes. In my mind, the ideal story sets forth almost everything the reader needs to know in the first pages and the rest of the book is letting the reader see why all those things are important so that there comes this huge shock of recognition at the end (“Oh! That’s why she always carried an umbrella …”) The beginning is the opening door, convincing the reader to take your hand and come with you on this adventure because reading a book is a substantial investment of time and patience. It’s not as cheesy as just being a “grabber,” but it has to be that as well. Whereas an ending is not just the end of the story, which is painful for the reader, but the beginning of the world after the book. The reader is going to think about that ending long after he or she is finished reading the story. I’m pretty appalled by the sort of post-modern technique of just having a book stop, without drawing together all the threads from the previous chapters.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I am every one of them and every one of them is I — at least some aspect of my character. At least emotionally, I have to be able to inhabit that character through empathy, experience, world view, speech. And yet each of them is different from each other. A friend, writing to me the other day about something I told her I believed, said, are you speaking for all your personalities?

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Storytelling, music, events in the news … and definitely my own relationships with other people. For example, one of the main characters in one of my best-known books, although it’s a woman, has my brother’s personality and way of speaking. I listen to the way other people speak and commit those patterns to memory, like song lyrics.
Visit Jacquelyn Mitchard's website.

My Book, the Movie: Two If by Sea.

The Page 69 Test: Two If by Sea.

The Page 69 Test: The Good Son.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, January 17, 2022

John Keyse-Walker

John Keyse-Walker practiced law for 30 years, representing business and individual clients, educational institutions and government entities. He is an avid salt- and freshwater angler, a tennis player, kayaker and an accomplished cook. He lives in Ohio and Florida with his wife. Sun, Sand, Murder, the first book in the Teddy Creque mystery series, won the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award.

Keyse-Walker's latest Teddy Creque mystery is Palms, Paradise, Poison.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

In the most ground-level sense, Palms, Paradise, Poison gets the reader fully into the substance of the story. “Palms” establishes that the setting of the book is tropical. “Paradise” shows that the setting is not just warm but idyllic. “Poison” is a guaranty of injury or murder. Put together, the three words say it all: Murder in the idyllic tropics.

I must confess that I am bad with titles; none of my working titles has ever made it into print. My wife, Irene, has come up with the titles to all three of my published books, as well as the fourth slated for release sometime in mid-2022. She is a title whisperer.

What's in a name?

Does the name build the character or the character build the name? The latter, I think. I do not try to use character names that imply some quality of the character’s personality. I like to leave that part to the character development in the writing itself.

However, I do believe it is very important to make the names of characters appropriate to setting or ethnicity. Much of the action in Palms takes place in Cuba, so I researched the common surnames and given names for the island and use names that a local would recognize as a name that their neighbor might have.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I love writing both and find neither difficult. Something always inspires beginnings. In Palms, which opens with a hurricane striking the small island of Anegada, my real-life experience with Superstorm Sandy and Hurricanes Irma and Eta made the writing and the drama real. And endings almost write themselves.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Good writing is based upon the writer’s experiences in the world. Those experiences are viewed through the lens of the writer’s personality, so I think there is much of me, both bad and good, in my series main character, Constable Teddy Creque.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The natural world has been a significant inspiration to me. Every life is shaped by the natural environment in which one lives and I try to bring that to my books. My other influence is movies. While writing, and especially while writing dialogue, I visualize my characters as if they were acting in a movie.
Visit John Keyse-Walker's website.

My Book, The Movie: Sun, Sand, Murder.

My Book, The Movie: Beach, Breeze, Bloodshed.

The Page 69 Test: Palms, Paradise, Poison.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Sarah Rayne

Sarah Rayne is the author of many novels of psychological and supernatural suspense, including the Nell West & Michael Flint series. She lives in Staffordshire.

Rayne's The Murder Dance is the most recent novel in the Phineas Fox series.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I find titles harder to think of than plots. There've been times when I've spent longer on trying to come up with a title than on writing a synopsis for the book itself. I've even made out charts with what I think are key words, and played put and take with them until something possible emerged. But with The Murder Dance the title simply presented itself, and I hope it tells the reader what the story is about - a dance that has, at its heart a murder first committed over four hundred years ago.

What's in a name?

A good deal is in a name, as many of the great writers of fiction have known. Names can indicate a considerable amount about a character. Would Ebenezer Scrooge have come across as the ultimate miser if he had been allotted a gentler, softer name? As it is, the harsh consonants strike a nicely disagreeable dissonance, and even the word Scrooge has passed into the English language as depicting a mean person. In Martin Chuzzlewit, the name of the dissolute midwife, Sairy Gamp for a time was synonymous with a colloquialism of the day for umbrella. Even now, I can remember my grandmother saying it looked like rain today, so she would take her gamp.

And Richard Brinsley Sheridan - no slouch when it came to bestowing colourful names - gave us Mrs Malaprop and the term malapropism for mispronunciations, and also the exuberant Sir Lucius O'Trigger, along with Sir Anthony Absolute, and Lydia Languish. They're names that instantly conjure up vivid mind pictures of the people in question.

I can't rival any of those in naming my characters, but the influence probably comes through here and there.

In The Murder Dance I created a parson called Humbert Marplot, a fruity Victorian actor called Sir Peregrine Pond, and the lively Elizabethan diarist, who unfolds much of the murder at the story's core, and who is only ever named as 'Greenberry'.

As well as this, I was able to make use of two genuine names - a pair who been servants and accompanists for Will Kempe - the Elizabethan clown-actor who is at the heart of the plot. Master Kempe's own account of his life refers to his two trusty servants - Slye and Bee. It was very good to use two such distinctive names and know I was writing about real people.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

In my teens I started at least three novels, which never got much beyond the first chapter, although I did write a play for the Lower Fourth to perform, with parts for everyone in the class.

Later, I toyed with the intriguing prospect of becoming a poet, and starving for my art in a garret - although the few lines of poetry I did manage had more in common with limericks than with lyric verse. But I think if I could have looked across the years and been able to see where I am now, my over-riding emotion would be absolute astonishment that not only did I manage to finish a novel at all, I finished almost thirty of them (to date), and they were all published.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Endings are usually what I've worked out at the start of a book, so there's an aim, a grand denoument to be worked towards. However, I nearly always hit a bogged-down state after about seven chapters - ie around page 70. Generally I decide the plot isn't moving fast enough and there isn't sufficient tension, so I often have to go back to the beginning and re-jig the whole thing. It's remarkable how later chapters can alter what happened earlier, so it's nearly always something that's worth doing.

It can feel as if no progress is being made during that re-writing, but hopefully it tightens the entire story, and snares the reader's attention more strongly.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

They're in a world apart - although it's a world I like entering. I may once have actually done so... I had written a scene describing a particular character - explaining that he was in his early thirties with soft dark hair, slightly too long, and wearing a green corduroy jacket and brown knitted tie.

That done, I went off to the supermarket, and there in the checkout, two customers ahead, was a man in his early thirties with soft dark hair a bit too long, a green corduroy jacket, brown knitted tie… I watched, fascinated, as he put items into a plastic bag – pasta, wine, cheese and fruit. (If he had been buying tinned spaghetti or baked beans, I would probably have had to re-think the seduction scene planned for Chapter Eight.)

I followed him out, (of course), but the carpark was awash with torrential rain and visibility was on a par with a Victorian London pea-souper. And by that time, whoever he was (whatever he was), my dark-haired, green-jacketed man had melted into the mist.

I do know that the sensible explanation is that I had seen him in the supermarket on a previous occasion, subliminally absorbed his appearance and used it. But I have never been able to rid myself of the sneaking suspicion – and the hope – that he had stepped, however briefly, from the pages of my own imagination, and that no one else in that supermarket saw him except me.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

There have been so many it's difficult to pick out individual ones. But one that stands out is seeing a particular film on TV. I was about eleven years old, and I thought, vaguely, that the film, which dated to the 1940s, would be utterly boring. But it was a rainy Saturday afternoon and those were the long-ago days when there was only one TV channel, so I curled up in a chair to watch. The film absolutely enchanted and mesmerised me. It was never televised again, but I never forgot it. It's usually known as The Dream of Olwen but also as While I Live. The plot centres on a young woman coming into a clifftop house, not knowing who or what she is, sitting down at the piano and playing an unpublished piece of music written twenty years earlier, by a girl long since dead. For me that film ticked all the boxes – eerie music, secrets from the past, and, of course, a faint whiff of the supernatural.

Note: The film has, in fact, since been released on DVD. I've watched it several times over the last few years, and it still works the magic for me.
Visit Sarah Rayne's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Murder Dance.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, January 10, 2022

Alafair Burke

Alafair Burke is a New York Times bestselling author whose most recent novels include The Better Sister, The Wife, optioned for a feature film by Amazon, and The Ex, which was nominated for the Edgar Award for best novel. She is also the co-author of the bestselling Under Suspicion series with Mary Higgins Clark. She currently serves as the President of Mystery Writers of America and is the first woman of color to be elected to that position. A former prosecutor, she now teaches criminal law and lives in Manhattan and East Hampton.

Burke's new novel is Find Me.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I often have a working title without being committed to it. It would be crummy treatment of a human, but I’ve come to accept that you don’t owe a title any loyalty. Sometimes a title really sticks. I have a book called The Better Sister, for example. From early concept to publication, the title never shifted. But I usually mull a title over for months.

The working title of this new book was The Girl She Was for a very long time. In fact, it’s being published in the UK under that title. Readers might have girl-title fatigue, but in this instance, the word actually fits. Hope Miller cannot remember who she was or where she came from prior to her sudden appearance fifteen years earlier in a small town in New Jersey in an overturned SUV. The doctors assumed she’d eventually regain her memory, but she never did and had to make a new life for herself under an assumed name. When she vanishes fifteen years later, the search for Hope also means a search for the truth about who she used to be and what brought her to that town on her own. Find Me, in contrast, is filled with action and uncertainty. It also has a nice double meaning. Hope’s best friend, Lindsay Miller, is searching for Hope, but that also means finding the truth about what led to Hope’s sudden appearance fifteen years ago in a small town, with no memory of who she is or how she got there.

What's in a name?

I change character names so much that even I get confused sometimes about where I eventually landed! When I first started Find Me, it was based on the west coast, and the car accident occurred not in New Jersey, but in Yreka, California. Forced to choose a name for herself other than Jane Doe, the woman from the accident chose the name Rika as a little joke (“Why, Rika?). When I decided to move the story to the northeast, I moved the car accident to a small town called Hopewell. It made sense that the townspeople would start calling her Hope.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

Um….very? Or at least, teenaged me would be surprised to learn that she became a novelist at all. When I was a teenager, my father was a novelist without a publisher whose earlier books had gone out of print. As someone who wanted an actual steady income, I definitely didn’t want to be a writer. I ended up going to law school, and yet here I am, nearly two decades into a writing career. I’m clearly not very good at predicting the future.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

To me, beginnings are harder, because so much is still unknown. But I change a lot, beginning to end. I change it all. I think any writer had to be willing at least to revisit every choice. I spend at least a year getting to know these characters and their arcs. With Find Me, I knew the big part of the ending, which I obviously can’t describe. But I knew Hope’s backstory and how it led her to the east coast. I knew the big twists that connected Hope to some other characters that readers will get to know along the way. But the friendship between Lindsay and Hope caught me off guard. In fact, when I started the book, the woman who went looking for Hope was a different narrator altogether—a victim’s advocate with the police department who took Hope under her wing after the car accident. But when Hope’s friend Lindsay became such a devoted and loyal bestie, she also became the primary narrator.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I believe some small part of me is in every single character I create, even the so-called bad ones. Most importantly, I think to be a good writer, one needs to be exceptionally empathetic. It helps to be able to know how someone is feeling, even if that someone isn’t you. Like me, Lindsay is a lawyer by training and, in her case, by trade. She’s intensely logical and single-minded. That determination comes in handy when it feels like she’s the only person who cares that Hope is missing.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The social issues I care about have a way of finding their place in my pages. Though my work certainly isn’t known for being squarely about class or race or the inequities of the criminal justice system, the observations are there for readers who want to see them.
Visit Alafair Burke's website.

The Page 69 Test: Dead Connection.

The Page 69 Test: Angel’s Tip.

The Page 69 Test: 212.

The Page 69 Test: All Day and a Night.

The Page 69 Test: The Ex.

The Page 69 Test: The Wife.

The Page 69 Test: The Better Sister.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, January 7, 2022

Tara Goedjen

Tara Goedjen never stays in one place for long. She has worked for a publishing house in Australia, as a tennis coach in Spain, and she wrote No Beauties or Monsters on the island of Guam and in the desert of New Mexico. Now she lives and writes in a rainy corner of the Pacific Northwest. Goedjen is also the author of The Breathless.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The title, No Beauties or Monsters, alludes to the external threats in the novel, which is set in a remote desert town in California where an unusual number of people have gone missing. But the title also hints at the internal struggles that each character is facing: many of them are put into life-and-death situations that reveal whether they’re capable of doing monstrous things or beautiful ones.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

I grew up reading Stephen King, so I don’t think my teenaged self would be at all surprised by my mystery-thriller with speculative elements. No Beauties or Monsters is definitely a book that I would’ve loved as a teenager, because it’s atmospheric, and eerie, and even otherworldly in places.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

The beginning of No Beauties or Monsters starts off with seventeen-year-old Rylie being forced to move from San Diego to an isolated desert town in California, a place called Twentynine Palms. And Rylie is thinking of all the reasons why she doesn’t want to move; she’s actually been to Twentynine Palms before and she doesn’t have the best memories of the surrounding desert. It’s always seemed strange to her, and threatening. So it’s no surprise that on the drive to her new home, something terrifying happens. This opening scene introduces the hook of the book – but it also introduces who Rylie is and how she behaves in tense situations. I wanted to set up her character and set up the intrigue of the plot, as well as set up the overall atmosphere. For that reason, beginnings tend to take a lot of rounds for me, because they’re working on so many levels.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

My main character, seventeen-year-old Rylie, is obsessed with rock climbing, while I’m scared of heights, so in that respect we’re very different. But Rylie also loves national parks like Joshua Tree—one of the main locations in the book—and she is extremely protective of her younger brother, which reminds me of myself. When I was younger, my family moved around a lot, so I was constantly having to evaluate our surroundings and decide who was friend and who was foe. This is similar to Rylie’s experience in No Beauties or Monsters, because when the novel opens, her family is moving to California’s Mojave Desert, a destination that she’s hesitant about. And it turns out that Rylie’s instincts are right, because strange things start to happen once she arrives.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The TV shows I watched when I was younger, like Unsolved Mysteries and The X-Files, and the shows I’ve loved more recently, like Netflix’s Stranger Things and The OA. In a way, No Beauties or Monsters is a homage to those early influences that I loved so much as a kid.
Visit Tara Goedjen's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Breathless.

The Page 69 Test: The Breathless.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Karen Odden

Karen Odden received her Ph.D. in English literature from New York University and subsequently taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her first novel, A Lady in the Smoke, was a USA Today bestseller, and A Dangerous Duet and A Trace of Deceit have won awards for historical mystery and historical fiction.

Odden's latest mystery is Down a Dark River.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Unlike my first novel, A Lady in the Smoke, about a Victorian railway disaster, which went through so many titles that my agent started calling it “Choo Choo Go Boom,” Down a Dark River only ever had the one. It dropped into my mind early and stuck because it felt perfect. From the beginning, I knew the mystery would be set in Victorian London; and the powerful, filthy Thames River would be at the heart of both the setting and the story, for the murdered women are found in small boats, floating down it. From our present-day perspective, it’s hard to understand the power the Thames had to shape Victorian England, but by the 1870s, millions of tons of coal, food, mail, and goods from Europe and beyond were making their way up and down the Thames annually; the river was the lifeblood for the city. It was also the sewer, full of detritus and even dead bodies. For me (and some Victorian writers), the river serves as a metaphor for London’s progress and wealth but also for its overcrowding and poverty—dichotomies I explore in my novel. Furthermore, I knew my Scotland Yard inspector, Michael Corravan, would have to go down the “dark river” in his mind back to his past, when he was surviving by thieving and bare-knuckles boxing in seedy Whitechapel; he needs to recall the painful moments when he felt powerless and longed for revenge before he can empathize with the villain and solve this case.

What's in a name?

In a very early draft, I named my protagonist Michael Wren—but at the advice of a beta-reader who thought “Wren” too delicate, I changed it to Corravan. This name alludes to the bird genus “Corvin,” which include the ravens and crows—dark-feathered birds of prey, scrappy and fierce, like my protagonist. As I fleshed out Michael’s backstory, I wanted him to be Irish because in the 1870s, anti-Irish feeling was running high in London, in the aftermath of both the mass migration to the city (during the potato famines that killed 1 million Irish) and the Clerkenwell bombing by the Irish Republican Brotherhood that killed and injured dozens of Londoners in 1867. So, by virtue of his race, Michael Corravan is an outsider who will run up against prejudice as a policeman; but he has the inside track on crime in Whitechapel, the seedy part of London where he grew up. Also, “Corravan,” a common name in county Armagh, is a corruption of the Irish (Gaelic) name O Corra Ban. “O” means “grandson of”; "Corr" means “odd or singular,” while the addition of "Ban" means “white.” So Michael Corravan’s name suggests his Irish ancestry, that he is odd and unusual (an outsider), and that he’s the hero in the conventional “white” hat. Although flawed like we all are, Corravan has a strong moral code and is loyal to those he loves.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

I think my teenage self would be very surprised by it. Most of my most voracious, immersive (ie. escapist) reading was about young women protagonists; I devoured books by Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, L.M. Montgomery, Louisa May Alcott, and Elizabeth George Speare. I don’t think I would have been able to imagine writing a male character, although I did develop a passion for the Jason Bourne novels around age 17. Indeed, writing in Corravan’s voice, in first person, was a challenge because I didn’t want him to sound like a woman writer’s idea of how a man would sound. I spent hours reading Victorian police accounts (written by men, of course) out loud to train my ear to what I felt was a masculine cadence.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

With all my novels, the beginnings sing to me, and I can usually get them down quickly. But, as a writer friend said recently, inspiration only takes you to about chapter 2. After that I have to dig for my ending. As I work, I put plot points for both the character arc (in this case, Corravan’s emotional growth) and the mystery arc (the murdered women in boats) on index cards and lay them across the floor in my hallway so I can rearrange them, while also keeping my rescue beagle Rosy from pawing at them. Sometimes she moves cards around in ways I hadn’t considered. (Clever dog!) The ending usually emerges when I’m about halfway through the first draft, and then I write toward it.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I’d say I parcel myself out among the characters. Corravan is much more courageous than I am, but I did give him my desire to help people, as well as some “savior” complex: so long as he’s rescuing someone else, he doesn’t have to face his own vulnerabilities. The character I probably have most in common with is Belinda Gale, the novelist and Corravan’s love interest. (When my daughter Julia read an early draft she said, “Belinda Gale is your self-plant, Mom.”) Belinda provides the EQ to balance Corravan’s street smarts, and she challenges him. Belinda wants him to gain insight about himself; similarly, I cause him to learn over the course of the novel.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

For every one of my novels, I have found the germ of the idea in non-fiction, in the historical or real-world tidbits I find in my research or general reading. I found the germ for Down a Dark River several years ago, as I read a non-fiction article about race and the law in contemporary US. Within the article was a short account that chilled me. The incident involved a young Black woman in Alabama, who jaywalked across a quiet street. She was hit by a car, driven by an affluent white man, who was DUI but under the legal limit. She was put in a hospital for weeks with injuries, and when her family sued, the judge awarded her a very nominal $2,000. The injustice clawed at my heart, of course, but what struck me was the aftermath: the outraged father threatened not the judge but the judge’s daughter. This stuck with me for a long time because I realized that in some ways, the father’s action was not just simple “revenge” but a last-ditch, non-verbal demand for empathy. This father wanted the judge to understand what it was to almost lose a child.

In her work on intimacy and belonging, Brené Brown talks about how, as human beings, our deepest need is for connection, which involves being seen and heard and acknowledged by others. What if revenge is sometimes, at bottom, a desire for connection, for the acknowledgement of (and empathy for) our own painful experience from someone else? I don’t ever want to write a book that preaches a message, but for me, revenge is more complicated than the brief (glib) phrase, “an eye for an eye” suggests, and empathy is a powerful force. I wanted to explore the relationship between revenge and empathy in my book.
Visit Karen Odden's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Karen Odden and Rosy.

The Page 69 Test: A Lady in the Smoke.

My Book, The Movie: A Lady in the Smoke.

My Book, The Movie: A Dangerous Duet.

The Page 69 Test: A Dangerous Duet.

Writers Read: Karen Odden (January 2020).

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Thomas Bardenwerper

Thomas "Buddy" Bardenwerper served for five years in the US Coast Guard. He is currently pursuing a JD and a master’s in public policy at Harvard Law School and the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government.

His new novel is Mona Passage.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The Mona Passage is the body of water that separates the Dominican Republic from Puerto Rico. On an almost daily basis, Cuban, Haitian, and Dominican migrants attempt to cross this stretch of water in search of better lives.

Pat McAllister is a US Coast Guard officer stationed in San Juan whose cutter patrols the Mona Passage for cocaine smugglers and migrants. His neighbor and best friend, Galán Betances, is a Cuban emigrant. Galán’s sister, Gabriela, is still in Cuba and at risk of being committed to a mental health facility.

The only way for Gabriela to live a full life is to cross the Mona Passage and join Galán in San Juan. Pat, who becomes caught up in this plan, must decide if he is willing to risk everything to unify a family.

Other titles I toyed with were Blood and Water, Gabriela, The Last Patrol, and Wet Foot, Dry Foot.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

That’s a great question! First off, my teenage self would be surprised that I had written a novel at all. I enjoyed creative writing in high school but didn’t envision myself ever writing a book.

What would have been less surprising to my teenage self is the general subject matter of Mona Passage – specifically its Coast Guard elements and Latin American setting. While I knew almost nothing about the Coast Guard as a teenager, a military career had been in the back of my mind ever since my oldest brother had joined the Army. And in terms of Latin America, a trip I made across Cuba as a 16-year-old sparked my interest in the region, an interest that I have continued to pursue personally and professionally ever since.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Endings. An ending is your readers’ last glimpse into the world that you created. If your story wraps up too neatly, it can be too easily forgotten. If the narrative arc is completely unresolved, readers will be angry. I tried to create an ending that was just unsettled enough that the story will stick with readers long after they put the book away.

For Mona Passage, I went through several iterations of an epilogue set during Hurricane María before bagging the effort altogether. First, although I lived in Puerto Rico before María and returned shortly thereafter to assist in the relief efforts, I was not there during the storm and didn’t feel like I could do it justice. Second, I feared that any epilogue would take away from the power of the final chapter’s last scene.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

There are obvious similarities between me and Pat – one of the two protagonists. Pat serves in the Coast Guard, thoroughly enjoys living in Puerto Rico, and values family above all else. But none of that means he is me.

Indeed, I struggled writing the character of Pat early on because I was modeling him too closely on myself. I had a hard time depicting his vulnerability or his most intimate moments, moments that hit too close to home. I discussed this with my wife, and she suggested that I picture somebody else from my life when I wrote the Pat scenes, and sure enough the trick worked! Suddenly Pat took on his own identity.

So, who is Pat modeled after, you ask? Now that’s a question I can’t answer. Maybe one day!

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My time in the Coast Guard inspired the plot of Mona Passage, but in terms of my actual writing, film was a major influence. Indeed, after having written the first few chapters, I felt like I was merely transcribing scenes from a movie that was playing in my head. I tried to focus on dialogue, action, and description while avoiding as much as possible any self-indulgent literary flourishes. I know my limitations!

Anyway, I plan to shop Mona Passage to book-to-film agents in the near future so that this story can reach as wide an audience as possible. Wish me luck!
Visit Thomas Bardenwerper's website, Facebook page, and Twitter perch.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, December 27, 2021

Teresa Dovalpage

Teresa Dovalpage is a college professor and author of three theater plays and twelve novels. The last four belong to the Havana Mystery series published by Soho Crime. Death under the Perseids is the most recent one, set on a cruise ship headed for Cuba.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

It works nicely. There is a death (in fact, several deaths) in the story, and a key action takes place during the Perseid meteor shower. But I must say that The Tears of Saint Lawrence would have been a good title too. In fact, that’s the one I will use for the Spanish version. Las lágrimas de San Lorenzo is the meteor shower’s name in Spanish because it happens on or around St. Lawrence feast day, August 10th. Lorenzo is a main character (the protagonist’s true love and an amateur astronomer) so it would be fitting as well.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

My teenage self wanted to be a writer so she would say something like “Pero of course!” She also loved mysteries and would be pleased with my last four novels. But there would be a surprise for her. I don’t think my teenage self would have ever considered writing in English, a language I didn’t start using daily until I was thirty years old.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Beginnings tend to be more difficult. Except for the few happy occasions when a story comes to me fully formed, it takes me a while to find the tone and the voice. That usually happens when writing—and rewriting—the first chapter. Once I get them right, everything starts flowing. After I decided to use the first person and found Mercedes’ voice, Death under the Perseids moved very fast. That’s why I have kept Mercedes as the narrator in the sequel and hope to continue with her for at least two more books. It will make my beginnings a piece of cake.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Most of them have a little bit of me or are based on people I know. I like to delve into personal experiences (mine or others’) to create believable characters. But in Death under the Perseids, Mercedes was getting too close for comfort—she comes to the United States after marrying an older American; she was a student at the University of Havana; she likes to cook—so I tried to erase some of the similarities. She’s more flirtatious than I have ever been, for sure. And she hates reading.

Candela, her Cuban-American Tarot-reading, antique-loving pal, is a composite of two friends of mine. It’s fun to put them in my character’s shoes and imagine what they would do.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Family, for sure. My Cuban familia appears more or less disguised in all my books. Mamina—Mercedes’ grandmother—is based on my own grandma. I used some of her favorite sayings like en boca cerrada no entran moscas (no flies get into a closed mouth). I hope to have also captured her essence: a mix of generosity, acceptance, and no-nonsense attitude.

Pets too. Well, they are part of the family! Nena, Mamina’s rescue mutt, is a fictional version of La Niña, my mischievous English foxhound.

Traveling has also influenced my writing. My husband and I love to go on cruises and I have used them as settings for Death of a Telenovela Star and Death under the Perseids. Cruise ships have that “locked room” feel that works so well for mysteries, but with more opportunities for compelling visuals. Besides, many shenanigans that I witnessed on board have found their way into the books.

Last but not least, I am inspired by Cuba. My native country is a constant presence in my work. Every book I have written up to now contains references to or is set in the island.
Visit Teresa Dovalpage's website.

The Page 69 Test: Death Comes in through the Kitchen.

My Book, The Movie: Death Comes in through the Kitchen.

Coffee with a Canine: Teresita Dovalpage & La Niña.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Camilla Trinchieri

Camilla Trinchieri worked for many years dubbing films in Rome with directors including Federico Fellini, Pietro Germi, Franco Rossi, Lina Wertmüller and Luchino Visconti. She immigrated to the US in 1980 and received her MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. Under the pseudonym Camilla Crespi, she has published eight mysteries. As Camilla Trinchieri, she is the author of The Price of Silence and the Nico Doyle mysteries, Murder in Chianti and The Bitter Taste of Murder.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I don’t know how much of the story a reader will glean from my title. The word ‘taste’ is apt because my characters do a lot of eating in the series. In this story the taste is bitter because the victim is poisoned. I also wanted to underline how the victim’s family and friends might feel. Even the investigators. I also wonder what taste is left in your mouth when you discover someone you loved is the killer. It can’t be sweet.

What's in a name?

A name gives information. My main character’s name popped in my head—Nico (Domenico) Doyle. It told me he was the son of parents who came from different backgrounds, Italian and Irish, differences that can lead to difficulties. The mixed name seemed apt for a retired New York homicide detective now living in a small Tuscan town where his Italian wife is buried. Trying to make a new home for himself, Nico helps out at his wife’s family restaurant, adopts a mutt named OneWag (too proud to wag more than once) and gets involved in a new murder thanks to his friendship with Maresciallo dei Carabinieri, Salvatore Perillo. The maresciallo’s name reveals that he is from the south of Italy. Naples, in his case. His right-hand man, young, blushing Daniele Donato, has a name that comes from the north of Italy—Venice. The origin of these names might be lost on an American audience. They are important to me because I am Italian. The name has to fit.

Bitter Taste is filled with names, some belonging only to walk ons. Why give them a name if they are not vital to this mystery? Because I am trying to depict a village, its surroundings, its people ,.. people have names.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

Writing murder stories would have seemed perfectly natural to me. I emigrated from Italy to New Orleans. barely a teenager. I had gone to an American school in Rome, and I knew English. In my new school I started writing depressing short stories. I think I wrote to ground me. My teacher kept asking me to write what I knew. I wasn’t in the least bit interested in what I knew. It’s entering an unknown world, trying to understand people that interests me. That’s why I write murder mysteries.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Beginnings take forever. I mull them over in my head for weeks sometimes. Place always comes first for me. It’s what got me started on the Tuscan series. On a trip from Sienna to Florence, I was intrigued by the small villages I drove through. Having lived only in big cities, I wondered what it would be like to live in a village and get to know the people. A place and a question gave me the beginning. The first book, Murder in Chianti, starts out with Nico roasting tomatoes in his new home when a gunshot goes off followed by a dog yelping. Nico runs out thinking the dog is hurt. To start the story for The Bitter Taste of Murder, Nico parks his car in the town piazza to meet his Dante-quoting friend for their usual breakfast at Bar All’Angolo. I wanted to show that Nico has planted roots in Gravigna. Maresciallo Perillo interrupts the peaceful morning by walking in to complain about his encounter with a very unpleasant wine critic. Murder isn’t very far behind.

As to endings, I find that the stories conclude naturally. All that needed to be said has been said. After murder, I try to end joyfully with a celebration filled with good food and wine.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I love to cook and there is a lot of food in the series. Nico volunteers at the restaurant run by his wife’s cousin, Tilde, who is an excellent cook. Nico starts to come up with recipes to offer Tilde. Most of my characters are Italian as I am. They are familiar to me. I feel at home with them. I’m not sure if any of them connect to my personality. I don’t plan them. They come to me, just a spark at first, then as they speak, I discover who they are. I learned early on not to force them to do what I think is right. They’ll tell me what’s right.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My having to live in many different places has been an incredible inspiration. My father was a diplomat and we moved every four or so years to different countries. That is why place is so important to me. You come to a new city, knowing no one. You have to assess where you are, who the people around you are. I gave Nico that job.

Movies have been a very strong influence. I was in the dubbing business in Rome. For eight hours a day, sometimes twelve, I watched actors on the screen speaking lines, revealing their emotions. I think that’s the reason dialogue comes easily to me. I wanted to be an actress and now that’s what I do when writing. I try to become the character, thinking and doing what he/she dictates.
Visit Camilla Trinchieri's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, December 20, 2021

Elizabeth Breck

Elizabeth Breck is a California licensed private investigator. She went back to school and graduated summa cum laude from the University of California San Diego with a bachelor's degree in Writing. She writes the Madison Kelly Mysteries about her alter ego Madison Kelly.

The latest book in the series is Double Take.

My Q&A with Breck:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

As many likely know, the publisher has the final say on the title of a book. Double Take used to be called Tapestry of Lies, and in fact I called it that all through the writing of it. However, my publisher felt it sounded too much like a cozy mystery (“Pancakes and murder” type of book), and my book is much more of a thriller/mystery; I saw their point. I offered about forty different options before we settled on the title Double Take. As a reader, when I get to the end of a book, I want to understand what the title had to do with the story—so I kept going until I found a title that the team loved, but I felt still represented the plot. By the end of the book, you will definitely understand why the book has that title, but I can’t give it away now or it will be a spoiler. Anyone who reads the book and can’t put it together by the end, please contact me via my website or my twitter and I would love to discuss it with you!

What's in a name?

The heroine of my books, Madison Kelly, is my alter-ego: we are both licensed private investigators, and when I was Madison’s age, I lived in the exact studio apartment by the beach where Madison lives now (I actually gave her the apartment above mine that I coveted, the one with the ocean view). I named her Madison because of a story from my youth: there was a time in my younger years where I made friends with someone also named Elizabeth. In a moment of flippancy, we decided to give ourselves different names, as a solution to awkwardly calling the other by our own name. I had another friend who’d just had a baby and named her Madison, and I loved the name. So I said to my new friend Elizabeth: “Call me Madison.” So, when it came time to name my alter-ego in the books, I gave her the name Madison, since it really was another name for me.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I find beginnings and endings the easiest to write; the middle is the hard part. I also feel beginnings and endings are the most important, so I always write them before the rest of the book. Once I’ve written the first page, and I’ve decided what happens at the end, I begin plotting the book in earnest. I knew for Double Take that I wanted readers dropped immediately into the action of Madison working an exciting case, but I also wanted to show the reader what she’d been up to since the first book in the series had ended (the books stand alone, but for those who’ve read the first book, Anonymous, I wanted to ease them back in).

I would say I edit the first couple of pages more than anything else in the book, but I don’t change them. I pick better words, delete clunky sentences, etc., but the meaning doesn’t change. Similarly, once I’ve decided on the ending, it doesn’t change substantially. They are the bookends that are holding up the rest of the book, and they are my foundation for writing. I then carefully plot each scene in the book, using an Excel spreadsheet, to see how we get from that beginning to that ending. I deliberately place clues for the reader, red herrings, and exciting and thrilling moments to keep the reader interested and desperate to find out what happens next!

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

When I started the first Madison book she was more similar to me than she is now. In fact, I took a break in the middle of writing the first book and picked it up again months later. When it was time to start reading from the beginning, a lot of time had passed since I’d written it. Madison did something at the beginning of the book and I said out loud, “Oh no! Madison would never do that!” She had become a fully formed person in my mind as I wrote the book, and I understood her now.

We are both tough, we are both brave and adventurous, and we are both loners; however, Madison is much more of a loner than I am, and she is more of a daredevil in her dealings with people and in her life. She is less emotional than I am—at least on the surface. I will cry at a McDonald’s commercial; not Madison. She has had a lot of loss in her life, but she doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve. As she says in the books, “Sometimes if you start crying you’ll never stop.”
Visit Elizabeth Breck's website.

--Marshal Zeringue