By R.G. Belsky
Ellie Stone—the feisty, funny reporter in James W. Ziskin’s highly acclaimed series of thrillers—is a young woman in her 20s who works at a small-town newspaper and solves murder mysteries back in the early 1960s.
Author Ziskin is a man who has worked mostly in cities like New York and Los Angeles and was barely alive more than half a century ago, during the time period of his books.
So what was Ziskin’s inspiration for creating such a unique character as Ellie—who is back this month with HEART OF STONE, the fourth book in the series?
“I loved the time period but only settled on it for some practical reasons involving the first book in the series, Styx & Stone,” said Ziskin. “I needed a setting close enough to the end of World War II to allow for memories that were still fresh, yet far enough removed to blur the focus.
“The decision to make my reporter a young woman was an easy one since I wanted constant conflict for my main character. So I thought of writing about a woman and giving her a job women didn’t often hold in those days. Men are constantly dismissing Ellie’s competence and reminding her that she’s ‘just a girl.’ But the fact that people underestimate her is actually an advantage for Ellie. She uses it to great effect in her investigations.”
Ziskin writes the Ellie books in the first personwhich certainly presents some challenges for a male author. But he says it’s the best way for him to connect with the character of Eleonora “Ellie” Stone, a self-described “modern girl” who—despite the straight-laced times of the early ‘60s—likes to drink and occasionally ends up in bed with a man.
“I’m trying get into her head,” he said. “If I wrote her in the third person, I doubt readers would have the same emotional connection with her. And of course all writers observe people and create characters from their experience. These characters can’t all be the same sex as their authors. So maybe it’s a good thing once in a while that a male author creates a female narrator and tries to climb inside her skin.”
By George Ebey
Annette Dashofy brings us the next installment in her Zoe Chambers mystery series, WITH A VENGEANCE.
Chambers and the rest of rural Monongahela County’s EMS and fire personnel are used to wading into the middle of trouble to rescue the sick and the injured. But when someone with an ax to grind seeks retribution by staging accident scenes and gunning down the first responders, Zoe finds herself forced to not only treat her own brethren of the front lines, but also, in her role as deputy coroner, seek out whoever is killing her friends.
The Big Thrill recently caught up with Dashofy to learn more about her series and what it takes to write an effective suspense story.
What first drew you to writing stories involving mystery and suspense?
I’ve always loved writing stories and I’ve always loved puzzles. Writing mysteries seemed a natural progression for me. I’ve tried writing other genres, but I still always end up with a dead body, so why fight it?
Tell us about your character, Zoe Chambers. What has her journey been like up to this point?
Zoe’s a paramedic, and she’s been good at that job right from the start. But she’s also taken on the position of deputy coroner, which has been a challenge and not at all what she expected. Over the course of the series, she has struggled with whether or not to continue with the coroner’s office. It’s been fun for me to take that journey with her, and for the first three books, I honestly wasn’t sure of how it was going to work out either! And of course, she’s still trying to figure out her relationship with Police Chief Pete Adams. Will they or won’t they? Stay tuned!
What elements do you feel are essential for a good suspense story?
Above all else, I think emotion. If the reader doesn’t get emotionally involved in the characters and the circumstances surrounding them, the most intricate plot won’t mean a thing. Also, I like a smart villain. If the protagonist doesn’t have a worthy opponent, I tend to lose interest. And in my own writing, if my villain isn’t clever enough, I sense something’s wrong in the story.
Mark Adduci, writing as J. M. LeDuc, is a native Bostonian who transplanted to South Florida in 1985. His first novel, Cursed Blessing, won a Royal Palm Literary Award in 2008 as an unpublished manuscript in the thriller category and was published in 2010. Sin, the first book in his Sinclair O’Malley series, introduces an exciting protagonist. O’Malley, called Sin, was recruited by the FBI straight out of Quantico for her intelligence and attitude and released by the bureau for the same reasons. Then they needed her back! Sin returns in PAINTED BEAUTY.
Where did you get the idea for PAINTED BEAUTY?
When I began thinking of where to take Sinclair O’Malley in book 2, I knew I had to escalate the tension from the first book. Well, that was a tall order, considering Sin dealt with human trafficking and corrupt government officials in book 1. I wanted her to face a killer so twisted and psychotic that even the killer had no control over his or her actions. I wanted the villain to tread the fine line between genius and insanity. That’s where the “artistic vision” of the character came from. I also wanted to hint at more of Sin’s past and the reasons she had originally been kicked out of the FBI. Finding and entwining William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience was a God-send. The words and meaning behind his poetry ended up being the driving force of the novel. From those basic premises, the other plot lines wove themselves in as Sin and the rest of the characters spoke to me.
How did you get into the mind of a twisted killer to write that character?
It was difficult at first. I did a lot research on serial killers and psychoses, as well as what personality traits and quirks they had in common. Once I came up with the underlying MO, it was easier to get into the mind of the character.
What kind of research did you do with the FBI and police?
I’m lucky in that regard. I still have a few contacts within the agencies from way back when. I’ll just leave it at that. The toughest part for me was that Sin is not a rule follower, so I had to have her break from protocol, while making it realistic.
Connie DiMarco is well known for her Soup Lover Mystery series published by Berkley, writing as Connie Archer.
Now writing under her own name, she has started the Zodiac mystery series featuring professional astrologer and amateur sleuth Julia Bonati.
DiMarco is happy to turn from lighter cozies to “cozy noir.” It’s closer to the kind of books she liked to read when she was in high school: the James Bond series by Ian Fleming. She loved the James Bond character so much that she learned how to play baccarat.
Bond always finds a way out of any desperate situation. “James bond has all these gadgets and doodads,” she says. “But when push comes to shove, its always mano-a-mano for him. All the artificial things drop away and James is on his own.” The book that impressed her the most was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. ”That was the book in which James questions if he wants to continue [as a secret agent]. He falls in love and his wife is killed. It was so out of keeping with the usual fare, James was heartbroken and vulnerable. The shock of her death has always stayed with me.”
DiMarco found her agent, Paige Wheeler (at that time with Folio Literary), after cold-querying with an initial darker novel. While waiting for her own book to sell, Wheeler asked her if she would be interested in doing a work-for-hire. “I didn’t even know that that was,” says DiMarco. “But it was for Berkley, so of course I said yes.” Berkley sent her a concept, a one-page bible, and asked her to write some sample chapters. “They wanted the soup shop in Vermont, but the plot as they outlined it had a very dark tone. The protagonist had just lost her parents, it started in the darkest, deadliest part of winter. I decided that what the series needed was a little humor. They liked that and hired me to write the series.” She used the name Connier Archer, as Penguin retained the rights to the author name.
“In a series it’s important to have your characters evolve, not just chronologically, but emotionally.” The Soup Series amateur sleuth is Lucky Jamieson, the owner of a soup shop who has a personal relationship with most of the village’s residents. This gives her a natural “in” when it comes to solving murders. “I was a total novice when it came to writing a series. This is what I did, almost unconsciously: in each book, when evil arrived in the village it came from the outside. But it was connected to one of the core characters and some of [that character’s] secrets are revealed. A main character is introduced in the first book and some secondary characters, and one of the secondary characters becomes the lead in the next book and so on.”
By Dawn Ius
When a $4 million Stradivarius violin is stolen from the locked room of a bed and breakfast in Wisconsin, retired cop-turned private investigator Rushmore McKenzie is once again called into action.
But as he soon learns, this case is far from typical. Not only does the foundation that owns the violin refuse to buy it back from the thief (or thieves), the violinist who has played it for the past 12 years is desperate for its return—even if it means fronting the reward money himself.
To get back the invaluable instrument, McKenzie must go against the local police, the insurance company, the FBI’s Art Crime division, and his own lawyer’s advice. With his 13th novel in the series, author David Housewright pits his protagonist against some of his biggest challenges yet.
In The Big Thrill this month, Housewright takes us deeper into the world of his series protagonist, and shares what inspired this page-turning mystery.
Having not read the synopsis, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the “countess” is a $4 million violin. What was the inspiration for this book?
I wrote a book called Curse of the Jade Lilly dealing with art theft. During the course of my research, I learned about some of the things that so-called “cat burglars” like to steal including priceless objects like Stradivarius violins—that no one hears about because the victims often quietly make deals for the safe return of the objects. I just kept it in my pocket until I had a story to tell.
I had no idea a violin could be worth $4 million, certainly not one that would be played and not preserved in a museum. What kind of research was required for this story?
Actually, $4 million is at the low end. Some Stradivarius violins—and cellos—go for much more. And of course, I had to learn about that and many other things as well. It wasn’t that difficult, though. STEALING THE COUNTESS is my 18th novel, and over the years I’ve built a pretty reliable cadre of sources including cops, FBI agents, and district court judges that I can call on.
Murder at the 42nd Street Library is Con Lehane’s first book in an irresistible new series that introduces librarian and amateur sleuth Raymond Ambler, a doggedly curious fellow who uncovers murderous secrets hidden behind the majestic marble façade of New York City’s landmark 42nd Street Library. The story opens with a murder in a second-floor office of the iconic, beaux-arts flagship of the New York Public Library. Ambler, the curator of the library’s crime fiction collection, joins forces with NYPD homicide detective Mike Cosgrove in hopes of bringing a murderer to justice. So we had to ask . . .
Libraries have always been special places for writers, but what inspired you to set a mystery in New York’s landmark 42nd Street Library?
On my web page is a short piece I wrote for Mystery Readers Journal called “On Becoming a (Fictional) Librarian.” In it, I describe my first visit to the New York Public Library. Scholar that I am, I went there to meet a girl, a lovely girl, whom I still remember. This isn’t the conscious reason I chose the 42nd Street Library as the setting and a librarian—actually, a curator—as my detective. I believe the idea was buried in my consciousness, waiting for the right time. The right time came when my publisher decided not to continue my Bartender Brian McNulty series. My editor, Marcia Markland, at Thomas Dunne Books suggested the 42nd Street Library as a setting and a librarian as a character. The rest was up to me.
We often think of amateur sleuths as falling into the “cozy” ranks of mystery writing, while you tend to add a bit of grit to your storytelling. Where does Murder at the 42nd Street Library lie on the scale from cozy to hard-boiled. And does it matter?
I’m not much of an analyzer of where I am on the crime fiction spectrum. I hold an MFA in fiction writing and at one time thought I was a literary writer (though I have no idea what one of those is either). I became a mystery writer—and a mystery reader—late in life, first as a fan of The Maltese Falcon, because of the movie. I finally read all of Hammett’s books in a row after that. A while later, I was working on a construction crew, building a bar in Hartford, Connecticut, where I would tend bar. I mentioned Hammett to one of the carpenters, who told me Raymond Chandler (whom I’d never heard of) was better, so I read The Big Sleep and then all of Chandler’s books one after the other. A year or two later, I discovered Ross Macdonald, and read … well, you get the picture. Those were my influences. I found many others since then. I’d say (with great trepidation) that I’m closest to Ross Macdonald in sensibility, though I wouldn’t say it out loud. However, my first book, Beware the Solitary Drinker, was first published in France by Rivages/Noir, so I was first categorized as a noir writer. I had to look that up, too, to find out what one was … and was pretty quickly disabused of the notion that I was a noir writer (though I love Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and most of the other noir writers) when I sat on a panel with Eddie Muller soon after my U.S. publication.
By Eyre Price
It’s not often that a writer is more heroic in real life than the characters he creates on the page, but E. Michael Helms is exactly that. A Vietnam combat veteran, it was his harrowing all-too-true adventures that first brought Mr. Helms to the printed page and earned him the critical acclaim and devoted readership that has followed him over the course of his career.
Recently, I had the pleasure and honor of asking Mr. Helms about his heroic past, his tough-as-nails fictional alter ego, and other topics.
Your debut as an author was with 1990’s The Proud Bastards, a memoir of your experience as a Marine in the Vietnam War. What are your reflections of that publishing experience?
That book was tough to write, and it was only after I sought help for PTSD in the mid to late 1980s that I was able to get it out. It began as journaling, part of the therapy I and other combat vets in our group underwent. I’d done some freelancing for a New York editor who oversaw several gun and ammo magazines, and also Vietnam Combat magazine. My “journal” had begun to take on a book form. I submitted a couple of chapters as standalone articles for the mag. He told me to send him the entire manuscript when I was finished. I didn’t know at the time that he also dabbled as a literary agent. He made a quick deal with Kensington/Zebra, and suddenly I was a published author
DEADLY DUNES is the latest in your Mac McClellan series. What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of writing a series?
I really enjoy the familiarity of the reoccurring characters, watching them grow into their roles as well as individuals. Not only the big players such as Mac and Kate, but also those regulars who give the writer the option to let them take on bigger or lesser responsibilities within any given story. Each has his or her own life outside the limelight of whatever particular case Mac is grappling with at the time.
As for the disadvantages of writing a series, keeping all your ducks (characters and details) in a row, remembering the “who, what, when, and where” of each, can be a challenge. There are readers out there who will remind the author if he stumbles or fumbles with even the smallest character or factual detail. But it’s fun and keeps you on your toes to fact check as you write.
By George Ebey
Author Robert D. Kidera is back with GET LOST, the latest installment of his Gabe McKenna mystery series.
What do you do when the dead come back and your loved ones disappear? All Gabe McKenna wanted was a new floor for his barn. What he got was seven corpses, all long dead. Seven rich men, missing from New York. One of his closest childhood friends is gunned down in an Albuquerque casino. With time running out, McKenna must uncover the connection and prevent his loved ones from joining the growing ranks of the dead. From New Mexico to New York to a lonely cliff once home to an ancient people, McKenna struggles against a bloodthirsty criminal enterprise for whom money matters more than any man’s life.
The Big Thrill recently caught up with Robert to learn more about his characters and what it takes to write good suspense fiction.
What first drew you to writing stories involving mystery and suspense?
I began reading mysteries as a child, all the way back with the Hardy Boys, Sherlock Holmes, etc. I like solving problems, riddles, puzzles. Later in my life I read Raymond Chandler. From then on, I knew my bent for writing would propel me in his direction and genre. I love tension and the resolution of tension, danger and uncertainty and how a person deals with the challenge. Those are the types of stories I find the most compelling as a reader. When I began my writing career, choice of genre was a no-brainer.
Tell us about your character, Gabe McKenna. What has his journey been like up to this point?
When we meet Gabe McKenna at the beginning of Red Gold, my first novel, he is a broken man. A widower, he is on leave from his teaching career, with no direction except for the shortest route to the nearest bottle. Red Gold is at heart the story of his rediscovery of himself along with the treasure he seeks. It ends on a hopeful note, with a new direction, new love, and new possibilities.
I met Larry Sweazy at the Southern Kentucky Book Fair, where we sat at adjoining tables and shared anecdotes while hoping to attract new readers. I left with a copy of Rattlesnake Ridge, his first western mystery featuring Texas Ranger Josiah Wolfe. It reminded me of my favorite Louis L’Amour novels, and I was hooked.
Sweazy’s latest project, SEE ALSO DECEPTION is a beautifully written and authentically researched mystery with a complex heroine. The sole caregiver for her severely disabled husband, Marjorie is a believable combination of strength and vulnerability, loneliness and stoicism. She’s someone I’d definitely like to see more of.
I asked Larry to talk with us about his new book and his writing process, and he generously agreed.
Thanks for joining us, Larry. Can you tell us a bit about your journey as a writer?
I fell in love with reading and stories early in my life. I had the requisite difficult childhood and I escaped into books whenever I could. After discovering theater in high school, I flirted with becoming an actor, but after reading so many great books, it occurred to me one day that I could write, I could tell stories for a living. From there, my journey was long and curvy. I wrote a lot, read a lot, worked a lot of different jobs, gathered a ton of rejection slips, and then managed to sell my first novel (the seventh one I had written) when I was forty-seven.
Your books are pretty research-intensive. What’s the most frightening thing that’s happened to you while researching a work-in-progress?
The difficult thing about research is knowing when to stop. I think you have to be completely obsessed with an idea for it to be worthwhile. And that’s the hard part for me. Becoming so obsessed about something that I lose sight of the book I’m writing. I wish I could give you an example of some harrowing adventure that went awry, but most of the time, I end being lost in a book instead hung out on a ledge somewhere.
A Reporter Who Storms Off the Ladies’ Page
By E.M. Powell
Reading a well-crafted historical mystery is always a pleasure and with A FRONT PAGE AFFAIR, Radha Vatsal delivers precisely that. The novel is set in 1915 in a New York City that is going through turbulent times, with shocking events on its own doorstep such as the shooting at J.P Morgan’s mansion, and tragedies abroad: the sinking of the Lusitania and the outbreak of the Great War. In this pre-television, radio and social media world, newspapers play a vital role in relaying the news of the day.
Enter Vatsal’s Capability “Kitty” Weeks, a young woman of privileged background who has little time for the restrictions of her class and gender, and who would love nothing more than to report on the important stories. But serious journalism is only for male reporters. A deeply frustrated Kitty is confined to writing about fashion and society gossip on the Ladies’ Page.
Fate provides Kitty with a gruesome opportunity when a man is murdered at a high society picnic on her beat. She is given the story and is soon embroiled in its solving and in a wartime conspiracy that threatens to derail the United States’ attempt to remain neutral in a world at war.
Kitty is a likeable and courageous heroine who isn’t afraid to push all sorts of boundaries. Vatsal says she partly drew inspiration for her from contemporary women who were real life boundary-pushers. “Kitty has characteristics like courage, persistence, and love of adventure that she shares with the action-film actresses of the 1910s, like Pearl White, whom she admires.”
The reader gets a real sense of Vatsal’s affection for the city and her deep interest in its past. And although she lives in New York, it hasn’t always been her home, which partly informs Kitty’s character. “Like me, Kitty went to boarding school and comes to New York with an outsider’s perspective.” Vatsal uses this to her advantage. “I think I ask more questions and I don’t take anything for granted. I want to know why things are the way they are and how they came to be that way—in that respect also, Kitty’s character is similar to my own. New York is a fantastic city to write about, because every little detail seems to have an unexpected story behind it.”
Writing From a Unique Perspective on Crime
By Dawn Ius
As millions of TV viewers settled in to watch history repeat itself, Marcia Clark considered hiding out somewhere for a few weeks to escape reliving yet another portrayal, another chilling perspective on the trial of the century, The People V. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, produced by Ryan Murphy.
For the former prosecutor-turned bestselling author, re-witnessing the trial, even disguised as an at-arms-length bystander, made her miserable. In the end, curiosity won out.
“I wanted to see what they did, how they showed it, whether they got it right,” she says. “I was very glad to see that they did get it right to a great extent, at least when it came to the big issues. And the performances were stellar.”
Especially the work of actor Sarah Paulson, who Clark describes as “simply brilliant.”
“She was so good, her ability to show how I was feeling inside throughout the trial was so spot on . . . it was painful to watch.”
Indeed, Paulson’s compelling portrayal has once again cast Clark—and O.J. Simpson—into the spotlight, perhaps for better or worse.
“I think it’s good that the case has sparked some serious discussions about important issues. I just hope people will remember that these discussions come at a terrible cost,” she says. “Whenever people speak of the case, I hope they will remember that the reason they’re having that discussion is because Ron and Nicole were tragically murdered.”
Even years after leaving the L.A. District Attorney’s Office in pursuit of a new passion, this is still the Marcia Clark that resonates with people. A prosecutor that fought passionately, diligently, and tirelessly for justice against unsurpassable odds. But since 2011, Clark has been making a new name for herself writing thrillers that have earned her a loyal—and growing—fan base, not to mention well-deserved praise from masters of the genre.
Anne Rothman-Hicks and Ken Hicks have lived together in New York City since August of 1973, about a month before Ken began law school at Columbia University and Anne started working as an editor at a publishing house. Anne actually was born in New York City and lived there until (as she puts it) she was exiled with her family to the suburbs of Westchester for her teenage years. She came back as soon as she could.
During their 43 years as New Yorkers, Anne and Ken have walked the city from top to bottom and explored its neighborhoods, parks, museums, and bridges on an almost daily basis. So, guided by the adage “Write what you know,” they have featured New York City in each of their several, diverse books, from thrillers to mysteries to mainstream to ‘tween fantasies.
In their mainstream novel, Kate and the Kid, self-involved twenty-something Kate is duped into babysitting an emotionally needy six-year-old child as a favor for a friend in her building: a favor which is supposed to occupy only one short evening but turns into an overnight adventure and then a lot more. Initially, Kate thinks that taking care of a young kid is the last thing she needs, but gradually she realizes that a connection with the Kid is exactly what she needs to learn about truly generous, unconditional love. Location-wise, the story travels through Central Park and the playgrounds of the Upper East Side, and all across the city. New York is an integral part of the narrative; in fact, as one reader put it:
“It’s almost as though the city itself is another character in the book. The writer seems to know where all the best parks are, and the best playgrounds, and exactly how to get there. New York neighborhoods come alive is this novel so if you live in New York City or want to live in New York City or have even just thought about New York City, you’ll enjoy the way Kate And The Kid makes it all seem familiar.” Stanford Gal, Amazon Review, Feb. 8, 2015
Praise Her, Praise Diana is a thriller that the writers also set in New York City. In this novel, a mysterious purveyor of vigilante justice–a woman code-named Diana–starts to kill and castrate men in revenge for a rape that had occurred years before. As Diana evolves into a force that cannot be ignored, other women begin to support and even imitate her actions, and a wave of gender-based violence and tension sweeps through New York City. The action takes place all over the city, including the Upper West and East Sides, Chelsea, Central Park, TriBeCa and the courthouses on Centre Street, where a grand jury weighs the fate of one of the characters while a crowd grows outside, threatening to become a mob. At one point the main character, Jane Larson, considers leaving the city to live with her new lover in the peaceful countryside of exurban Connecticut. However, the city itself seems to call to her and draws her back.
By George Ebey
With MOOSE FEVER, author A.J Marcus brings us the third book in his mystery series featuring Colorado Parks and Wildlife Officer, Brock Summers.
This time around, Summers and his fiancé, wildlife rehabber Landon Weir, are preparing for their wedding when someone starts killing moose along a creek in the northern part of Teller County. As the moose casualties rise, human bodies turn up, and the case is taken over by the sheriff’s office. When a Forestry Service Ranger is killed, the service joins the hunt. All signs point to one of the many photographers who have been taking pictures of the moose.
Then Weir discovers a small piece of gold in the creek and while there now appears to be a motive, Summers and Weir still lack solid suspects. Bullets fly as the duo seek to track down the perpetrator while trying to get everything wrapped up in time for their wedding.
The Big Thrill recently caught up with Marcus to discuss his series and what he has in store for readers next.
What first drew you to writing mysteries set in the parks and wildlife field?
In real life, I’m a falconer. I have regular interactions with our local Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers. I also have a degree in biology which I got many years ago due to my love of animals. When I started thinking about the types of mysteries I’d like to write, I first thought about things that would impact wildlife and the natural world around us. I’ve also worked in wildlife rehabilitation and I know some of the things we’ve encountered there that left us scratching our heads. It seemed like a great fit for a mystery book series. When I run out of ideas I hit Colorado Parks and Wildlife magazine for some of their stories, or just watch the news. Some of MOOSE FEVER came out of the news reports a couple of years ago.
One of the pleasures in doing interviews for The Big Thrill is getting the chance to meet new and interesting people, even if that meeting is over the net rather than face to face. Robin Yocum is my latest interviewee.
Robin, you’ve done quite a few jobs, especially in your formative years. Pumped gas, mopped floors, baled hay, and all the rest. Did any of them help you with your subsequent writing career?
I always had a job when I was a teenager. I don’t know if any of those jobs helped me with my writing career, but they sure motivated me to get an education. My dad worked at Weirton Steel, in West Virginia, and arranged for me to take a tour when I was a junior in high school. I think he did it to motivate me. If that was his plan, it worked. It was loud and hot and dirty, and I thought it was the most dangerous place in the world to work. I remember seeing a ladle of molten steel being poured and some guy standing a few feet away eating his lunch. I wanted nothing to do with that mill. If I screwed up at school, Dad would say, “That’s fine. Just keep it up, funny man, and instead of going to college you can come work next to me in the mill.” That was motivation.
It’s important to note that I’ve used the Ohio River Valley as a backdrop for two novels, and it’s also the setting for a third, which is due out later this year from Seventh Street Books. The industrial Ohio Valley of my youth makes for a rich setting. I use many of the people I knew from the valley as inspiration for my characters.
I am incredibly envious of your having met John Glenn. What was he like?
I interacted with John Glenn several times as a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch. He was a U.S. senator from Ohio during my eleven years at the paper. During every encounter, Glenn was always gracious and humble.
However, my first meeting—and it was very brief—came in the spring of 1971. I was a freshman in high school and walking down the alley to school when I saw a group of people in Bea Helmick’s back yard. Bea was a widow who lived seven doors down from us. She had a flat-topped garage upon which had been installed an air pollution monitor. Brilliant and Steubenville had been deemed two of the most polluted communities in the United States and the government was getting involved and trying to reduce the pollution.
Brain twisting murder mysteries can take place just about any place, but if you’ve never read one set in the genteel setting of a university campus, here’s your chance. The halls of academia host horrible deaths in THE SEMESTER OF OUR DISCONTENT.
In the book, English professor Lila Maclean takes a new assignment at a prestigious university. It’s a great opportunity but turns dark when she finds the corpse of one of her fellow professors. What’s worse, all of her coworkers think Lila is either the killer, or is protecting him. The only way to clear her name is for her to find the killer. That’s certainly a challenge in a small private school with many unspoken codes. Luckily, Lila is not your average college prof.
“Having had a rather unorthodox upbringing as the daughter of a famous artist, she doesn’t feel as though she fits in,” Kuhn says. “And she definitely does not think of herself as a detective. But she’s good-hearted and stands up for what she believes in.”
Lila does have an impulse to speak out which is not appreciated by some of her colleagues. But it is a useful quality for a person suddenly thrust into the role of detective.
“She’s a reluctant amateur sleuth at first,” Kuhn says, “and she doesn’t have the kind of existing methods that, say, a PI would have. But as a professor, she’s been trained to find and interpret textual evidence, and she approaches her sleuthing the same way—trying to gather and make connections among different types of evidence, beginning with questions and moving into searches and observations of various kinds.”
From the outset, Lila encounters a lot of opposition at the university: “She’s in a showdown with her new boss, and she goes on to clash with other people in her department,” Kuhn says. “She finds herself at odds with the detective working the case, and she even comes up against a secret society whose purpose is unknown.”
The woman that Private Investigator Eddie Shoes photographed kissing her client’s husband ends up dead. When Eddie’s client disappears, Eddie wonders if she is being stiffed her fee, if her client is in trouble, or if she is the killer. Solving this mystery leads Eddie straight into trouble, followed quickly by her adrenaline-junkie gambling mother. To make matters even more interesting, Detective Chance Parker, Eddie’s ex, has moved to Bellingham and is the lead investigator on the homicide.
While Elena Hartwell’s novel ONE DEAD, TWO TO GO (an Eddie Shoes mystery) is her first foray into the literary world, she has been a playwright for more than twenty years. “I’ve always wanted to write a novel,” Hartwell says. “I wanted something tangible. A book on a shelf instead of just the memory of a production.”
Hartwell is not only excited about the permanency of her new novel, but about the opportunity for growth a literary work offers. “Mysteries can be done onstage, but it’s not that common,” says Hartwell. “Whereas, mystery novels and series are huge in the literary world. I wanted that experience.” Readers can look forward to at least two more novels in the Eddie Shoes series.
Hartwell’s main character was born out of a road trip conversation with her husband John “JD” Hammerly. When he mentioned the name, “I said, that would be a great name for a Private Eye.” “If Kinsey Millhone (Sue Grafton’s P.I.) and James Rockford (The Rockford Files) had a love child, she would be Eddie Shoes,” Hartwell says. In contrast, two other characters in the Eddie Shoes series “do have their feet in the real world.”
Detective Chance Parker is modeled after Hartwell’s horse, Second Chance. Hartwell adopted Second Chance after he was saved from the kill pen. While initially physically and psychologically “far gone,” Hartwell says, “after a year of groundwork he became a completely different horse.” Detective Parker sports many of Second Chance’s characteristics, including his brown hair with red highlights and some of his physical attributes—such as “standing on his toes, vibrating with nerves.”
If you think you’d enjoy a wild ride through streets filled with quirky characters involved in every kind of hustle and caper, you’ll want to read J. L. Abramo’s, BROOKLYN JUSTICE.
There’s a lot going on in this book, including a good measure of bad behavior. What holds it all together is private eye Nick Ventura. Brooklyn born and raised, Ventura wanted to be an NYPD detective when he grew up. Unfortunately, by the time he realized the aspiration, his unscrupulous past disqualified him.
“Those who like a tough guy with a soft heart—who is loyal to his friends—would like Ventura,” says Abramo. “He’s a guy who knows trouble, but not how to keep his nose out of it.”
Ventura first appeared in a novella called Pocket Queens. The story ended, but as so often happens, the character would not let his author rest.
“He drove me to write five short stories involving him,” Abramo says. “They appear sequentially—covering a period of ten months—and feature many recurring supporting characters. Call it what you will—a collection of shorter fiction or a novel in stories.”
Or simply call it BROOKLYN JUSTICE. You’ll see a Buick plowing through a storefront with a dead detective aboard; a fatal rendezvous in the shadow of a Coney Island landmark; a man gunned down walking his dog in the wrong place at the wrong time; a mob boss assassinated leaving a neighborhood restaurant, and so much more. And Ventura is involved with all these events. As you can see, Ventura is not trying to save the world from total destruction, or dealing with villains who want to rule the world. This is a different kind of thriller.
Clea Simon has garnered a name for herself for using animals, and more particularly cats in her novels, now covering three series. THE NINTH LIFE is the first Simon book I read and it won’t be the last. I found myself agreeing with Joseph Finder’s assessment: “Forget everything you know about ‘cat mysteries.’ THE NINTH LIFE is a dark and gritty story of life on the streets told from the unique point of view of a narrator who sees things humans can’t. [It’s] a window into a world of constant and surprising dangers, frustrations, and almost unbearable tension, and it’s one I won’t soon forget.”
Blackie provides the narrative point of view and it is from his non-human perspective that we garner most of our information about a nightmarish urban landscape filled with drugs, abuse, and prostitution.
For each of her novels, Simon starts with a problem of some sort. For THE NINTH LIFE, Blackie can’t remember his past or what has happened to him. His memory begins with him being pulled from a flood. He has no recollection of how he got there or who would want to hurt him and until he finds out, he is vulnerable.
Blackie meets up with Care, a young woman who is also in trouble. For Simon, Blackie came first as a character, and his issues are at the core of the book. She sees him as the guiding mind, while his companion, Care, is the heart.
Simon shows not only an excellent command of language but considerable skill in creating tension and using an animal, more specifically a cat, as the protagonist, telling the tale in the first person. She relies on using cat characteristics as the means for conveying description.
“I simply work to get into that mindset, that persona,” she said of Blackie. “Blackie is a very rational, as opposed to emotional, creature—much like I imagine most animals to be. He has no room for sentiment in his life. It is very kill or be killed.”
After more than 40 published books in the erotic romance and young adult genres, author Karenna Colcroft is turning her pen to mystery this month, with the release of her new work, DAWN OVER DAYFIELD.
The Big Thrill interviewed Colcroft via email in January to get the scoop on this daringly different and powerfully written new release—and her answers are as intriguing as her thriller debut.
DAWN OVER DAYFIELD is a dramatic change of pace for you. What made you decide to branch into mystery/suspense?
To be honest, the story decided for me. It was originally intended to be a male/male erotic romance novel, but the plot of solving murders and almost being murdered, and exploring history and connections between two families, vastly overshadowed the romance. And, given that Andy and Weston’s lives were in danger during parts of the story, it didn’t seem reasonable for them to suddenly stop everything to have sex. In addition, I was going through some things in my life that made writing erotic romance difficult.
The hero in DAWN OVER DAYFIELD is a young gay man searching for his birth parents. What inspired this combination of characteristics—gay and adopted?
Andy is gay because my original plan for the novel was a male/male romance, meaning both main characters had to be gay men. He is adopted because the story was initially inspired by a friend of mine who had written his family’s genealogy. When he was telling me about the research he had done, and that much of it had involved traveling to small-town libraries and historical societies around Massachusetts, the first thing that popped into my brain was “I need to write a male/male romance; it would be kind of cool to have one guy be a historical librarian, and the other be looking into his family’s past for some reason.”
When a Ponzi Scheme Turns Deadly
J.A. Jance has reached national bestseller lists over and over with her multiple series, known for their fast-paced plots and appealing protagonists. CLAWBACK, her new novel, features Ali Reynolds. When the series began, Ali, a TV journalist, was bounced from her job by bosses who want a younger face and betrayed by her husband and moved to Sedona, where her parents own a diner. Twelve books later, Ali is happily remarried and involved in meaningful work, but her life turns upside down when her father is suspected for murder after a Ponzi scheme destroys his life savings. Jance knows firsthand the devastation of such financial crimes. She and her own husband lost half a million from their retirement fund because of a Seattle-area Ponzi scheme. As she says, “It’s a very bad idea to make a mystery writer mad.”
I loved the Sedona, Arizona setting for CLAWBACK. How do you think that city, with is particular mixture of retirees and wealth and natural beauty, plays into the plots of your writing?
Locale always plays an important part in my books and in my plots. By using places I know as the background for my stories, I don’t have to invent my own private universe. Invented things are a lot more difficult to remember and keep track of from book to book than real things are. Knowing the geography, the distances, the weather involved as I write a particular passage makes it possible for me to put all those things in the background while keeping an eye on what my characters are saying and doing in the foreground.
As for Sedona specifically? I love it. I love the scenery and the people. By the way, there is a homeless camp, summer and winter, far up on the edge of the Mogollan Rim, but the camp in the Ali books is a fictional creation.
And yes, Sedona does have its share of one-percenters who jet in and out of town, staying far above the fray as it were. But then there are all the “little” people, the ones who do the necessary jobs that keep all the wheels on the bus as far as the town’s tourism industry is concerned. They’re also the ones who keep the other necessary pieces of infrastructure in good working order. I think CLAWBACK shows those two parts of the community in an interesting juxtaposition.
I read CLAWBACK during the same week that “Madoff” was shown on television. You have been hurt by another financial criminal. Do you think robbing people of their investments and Ponzi schemes are a ripe fodder today for thriller plots?
Having been victimized by a Ponzi scheme—please note the words on CLAWBACK ‘s dedication page—I absolutely believe Ponzi schemers are “ripe fodder.” Unfortunately, the fictional outcome in CLAWBACK is much more satisfying to the victims involved than the “real world” outcome of ours has turned out to be.
There are ordinary secrets and then there are far more nefarious secrets born in combat and brought home by returning soldiers. The combat secret in wartime correspondent Gwen Florio’s gripping DISGRACED is like an improvised explosive device lying in wait as a small group of soldiers returns from Afghanistan to their homes in Wyoming. The reader knows an explosion is coming—that the secret will be revealed—and that the dangers lurking around every corner of protagonist Lola Wisk’s path to the truth are equally perilous.
Florio propels the reader at rocket speed from the grisly opening scene in Afghanistan to a soldier’s suicide at a welcome home ceremony in Wyoming in the first few pages. The riveting set up is the mysterious killing of an American soldier and Afghan civilian during a combat patrol. Florio narrates through the eyes of Lola, a recently furloughed reporter. Lola is helping a friend by picking up her cousin, a returning soldier named Palomino “Pal” Jones, from the airport in Casper, Wyoming. During the welcome home ceremony, another member of Pal’s unit, Cody Dillon, commits suicide in front of shocked onlookers. Scurrying for cover with her daughter Maggie in tow, Lola gathers Pal and takes her home to rural Wyoming. Lola’s reporter friend, Jan asks her to stay with her cousin given the suicide and some other odd communications she had with Pal prior to redeployment. With a potential story brewing around the suicide, and to extend the favor to her friend, Lola decides to stay in Wyoming. Lola attempts to balance the demands of digging for the story, caring for her daughter, and watching over Pal.
Lola gets sucked into the mystery of what happened to this small group of friends in Afghanistan when she begins to piece together the transformation of each of the soldiers who returned. Pal, who once sported long beautiful hair, now wears it short, as if she is trying to be a different person. She barely eats and when she does it is canned ravioli. She hacks her arms with sharp instruments in ritual defacing. From Delbert St. Clair, Lola learns that Pal, Cody Dillon, Mike St. Clair (Delbert’s grandson), and a few other locals all deployed together. She hears the story of a lone Taliban that killed Mike, a Shoshone Indian from the Wind River Reservation. Too late, the rest of the group managed to kill the Taliban. The mystery revolves around that combat action. Two of the returned veterans are arrested after a fight in a bar, prompting Lola to interview each returning soldier to determine what actually happened to Mike. At the risk of her relationship with Maggie’s father and the safety of her family, Lola presses ahead with her investigation.
DISGRACED deftly handles soldier suicide, posttraumatic stress, poor leadership, racial tension and other topical issues. Florio’s skill as a writer and former journalist are evident in her flowing prose and gritty narrative. Having reported for the Denver Post in Afghanistan, Florio writes with a unique authenticity about combat and veterans.
Have I ever been to Mali? No. Can I find it on a map? Vaguely, over there somewhere.
Both of these facts made me a little nervous when sitting down with award winning French author Laurent Guillaume, who’s written a hard-boiled noir about a refugee French cop who sails into the middle of an extraordinary case in Mali.
Given Laurent is both an ex-cop and a former advisor to the Mali police, it’s perhaps no surprise that this book has a rather excellent premise. I sat down with him and translator Sophie Weiner, who made sure an Australian interviewing a Frenchman via an American all went smoothly.
Hi Laurent (and Sophie!), thanks for agreeing to speak to The Big Thrill. Can you tell our readers a bit more about WHITE LEOPARD?
In 2009, a Boeing 747 unloaded some mysterious cargo in northern Mali and got stuck in the sand trying to take off again. The plane had just delivered several tons of cocaine that was headed to Europe and the Middle East. Investigating this case, we uncovered an extremely well organized network of Colombian and Spanish drug traffickers that settled scores with dollars or a chainsaw, depending on how much opposition they got. I had wanted to write a novel about the drug trade in Africa for a long time, but I didn’t know what angle to attack it from. I hesitated between an approach like Don Winslow used in Power of the Dog, his thriller that takes a deep look at drug trafficking between Mexico and the United States, or using the point of view of one person. I chose the latter, and the Air Cocaine case inspired the story.
Then all I needed was the imaginary vehicle: a protagonist who, like me, travels between two worlds. Solo was the obvious choice. His father’s Malian, his mother’s French, and he’s split between two continents, two religions, and two approaches to life. He is also a former French police officer who is running away from a dark past in France. He has no more family, and his life is in ruins. He wants to die, but despite the trauma and the solitude, he can’t, because his desire to live is so deeply engrained. He drinks, snorts coke, and spends time with ladies of the night… he’s not really a good guy, but he’s the kind of man I like.
Sarah Bennett’s return to her father’s home mid-war is anything but a happy reunion. Having spent the last year in an asylum and under suspicion of killing her mother, Sarah’s release is marred by unanswered questions, distrust in her new stepmother, and paranoia about war spies. A second murder heightens everyone’s suspicions and the pressure mounts for Sarah to remember the fateful night of her mother’s murder in order to clear her name.
Harkening back to popular gothic suspense novels, THE SPIRIT OF GRACE offers elements of the supernatural, a glimpse of old world San Francisco, and a hint of romance.
Thomas’s debut, the first in the Sarah Bennett series, features a “feisty heroine who overcomes her inner struggles as she thwarts the bad guy.” The series will follow Sarah as she struggles to accept and keep secret her “unique ability,” despite the strain it places on her relationships. An amalgamation of men and women that Thomas admires in her own life, Sarah exemplifies strength, curiosity, and a “plucky attitude.”
The setting for THE SPIRIT OF GRACE in old world San Francisco represents one of Thomas’ passions, as she spent many years in the San Francisco Bay area before moving to Mississippi with her husband. “When I lived near the City and worked there, I could ‘feel’ old San Francisco, especially since some of the old buildings are so timeless. San Francisco has a unique charm, which resonates with me,” she says. Setting the novel in the past allowed Thomas “to create a world (and inhabit it in the abstract) where everyone is ‘unplugged’ and relating to each other in a more genuine way.”
Garnering influence from the old television soap opera Dark Shadows, Thomas says she is drawn to television murder mysteries, such as Masterpiece Theatre. “I do love the old Agatha Christie’s, with Joan Hickson as Miss Marple, and I enjoy Rosemary and Thyme, Downton Abbey, and Land Girls. As you can see, I really like British drama.”
By David Healey
The setting and the landscape are as much of a character in Larry D. Sweazy’s new novel, A THOUSAND FALLING CROWS, as is his protagonist, former Texas Ranger Sonny Burton. After losing an arm and retiring as a result of his run-in with bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde, Sonny is just as down and out as Depression-era Texas with its Dust Bowl storms and hard times.
Fortunately for Sonny (and the reader), it’s a case of once a lawman, always a lawman. He finds himself drawn into the search for a Mexican immigrant’s missing daughter. Wallowing in self-pity, the case brings him back to life. It also sets in motion a fascinating journey through 1930s Texas.
As to why he chose to write a western, Sweazy, a Western Writers of America Spur Award winner, said, “There’s a romance to westerns that’s universal. It’s the American genre. It’s the self reliance, it’s the journey, it’s the characters shaped by the landscape.”
He also sees a natural connection between westerns and crime ficition. “They are mostly morality tales. They ease right into crime fiction.”
He recalled an era when kids grew up watching westerns on black-and-white TVs. For that generation, there remains a certain nostalgia for the genre—but that doesn’t mean westerns can’t win over a new generation of readers.
While the American West was a unique time and place, who knows that there won’t be a new frontier someday to capture imaginations all over again? I think it could happen again.” Sweazy points out that Gene Rodenberry envisioned Star Trek as Wagon Train in space.
Until then, readers will have the setting of this new novel, which is rich in details, down to the brands of beans eaten by the characters and the operational quirks of a Ford Model A. Even telephones remain a relative novelty in the rural Texas of 1934. There are no radios yet in police cars, so in an emergency, lawmen have to knock at the door of the nearest farmhouse to use the phone. It is a time period vastly different from our own 24/7 connectedness, and yet it is an era that many readers will remember from their own grandparents’ stories.
She loves to write about remote locations, and living in North America, Europe, Asia and the Caribbean fired up her imagination, but it was after she moved to a small resort town that the transient community, consisting of people from all over the world, inspired her to write about the day-to-day drama of living in an isolated mountain resort.
In July 2015, Stanley published Descent, introducing readers to Kalin Thompson, a big-city woman who moves to Stone Mountain Resort hoping a drastic change to her life will help her recover from the death of her husband. She gets more change than she expected. Kalin arrives as the human resources manager and after only months on the job she’s thrown into the role of security director.
BLAZE is the second book in this series.
Tell us about BLAZE
BLAZE is a tale of arson and revenge.
Just when Kalin Thompson thinks her life makes sense again, she finds herself preparing her home for evacuation. She should be at the altar getting married. Instead, flames creep close to her house, her fiancé is fighting the fire, her dog disappears in the forest, and the one road to safety is blocked. What more could go wrong?
The Stone Mountain series takes place in a ski resort located in the depths of the Purcell Mountains. Descent, the first in the series, follows Kalin Thompson as she grows accustomed to small-town living while searching for the killer of an up-and-coming Olympic caliber skier.
What inspired you to write BLAZE?
Every year, forest fires are a big concern in my neighborhood. The cost in lives, both human and wildlife, and in property is incalculable. The idea for BLAZE evolved from a frightening night I spent while working at a ski resort.
Terry Shames discovered the power of writing when she read Stephen Leacock’s short story “The Man in Asbestos” in the fifth grade. “I read it and I was just dumbfounded. I still remember the feeling I had: ‘I could do that. I could write like this.'”
That feeling, and the sense of direction it gave her life, never left her. She was determined to major in English in college but her English teacher dissuaded her, encouraged her to major in something else that would teach her about the world. So Shames majored in political science. Later she got an MFA in Creative Writing.
In college she wrote short stories. As a child she had spent every summer with her grandparents in Summerville, Texas.
“What child likes to go visit their grandparents in a town where they don’t know anybody?” Shames told me in an interview. “There is nothing special about Summerville, Texas. I just love it. I still have family there. There is a family reunion there every year. I have cousins who have children, they love the town too. But there is absolutely nothing special about it.”
But for Shames, at least, there is something special about it: a source of inspiration that she was able to turn to even after the requirements of life had slowed down her writing career.
Her first novel was a sci-fi book. “I wrote it at night when I got home from work. I set myself a goal of typing five pages every night. But by the time I finished it the publisher who was interested went out of business.”
Calibrating the balance of crime-fueled suspense, romance, and comedy in a novel is fiendishly hard—yet Janet Evanovich makes it look easy, and the results are in. TRICKY TWENTY-TWO debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times hardcover best seller list on November 29th, business as usual for Evanovich. Bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, a curly-haired Trenton girl with a pair of handcuffs she can’t always clamp onto her prey, two men trying to get into her skinny jeans, and one gerbil running the wheel at home, has won legions of devoted fans.
Evanovich grew up in South River, New Jersey, and in her thirties began pursuing a writing career. After numerous rejections and four months into a secretarial temp job, she sold her first story, a romance, for $2,000. She now lands onto Forbes‘ list of 100 Highest-Paid Celebrities.
Evanovich’s first novel featuring Stephanie Plum, One for the Money, was published in 1994. Along with that series, she’s written the Lizzy and Diesel series, twelve romance novels, the Alexandra Barnaby novels and Troublemaker graphic novel, How I Write: Secrets of a Bestselling Author, as well as the Fox and O’Hare series with co-author Lee Goldberg. She lives in Florida, her family working on her book empire alongside. According to Evanovich, “It turns out I’m a really boring workaholic with no hobbies or special interests. My favorite exercise is shopping and my drug of choice is Cheeze Doodles.”
We caught up with the fast-moving Janet Evanovich to learn a few of her secrets.
The judge of a screenwriting fellowship recently said a strong writer’s voice is the most important thing in launching a career. I think it’s more important in fiction than people realize. You have an effective and entertaining voice in the Stephanie Plum series. How would you advise writers to develop it?
I don’t think a writer can “develop” voice. Voice comes from a writer’s point of view and is heard in a writer’s head. It’s a reflection of a writer’s personality. Some writers have a generic voice that disappears on the page and others, like me, have a voice that is more unique. The hard part is not developing the voice but rather recognizing that the voice is there.
What is the most rewarding aspect of a long-running series? What is the most challenging aspect?
The most challenging part of a long-running series is the reintroduction of continuing characters. It has to be done in a way that is interesting to both the core reader and the new reader. The most rewarding aspect for me is the fun of getting up in the morning and going into The World of Plum or The World of Wicked or The World of Fox and O’Hare and watching the characters develop with each new book.
How do you write sustained dialogue passages in which there is laugh out loud comedy?
Comedy is the easy part for me. I grew up in Jersey watching I Love Lucy. Most of my comedy is character driven so I simply get into a character’s head (like Lula or Grandma Mazur) and run with it.
What is your secret to keeping suspense levels high in a book that has that many light moments?
For the most part I follow the pattern of a screenplay and divide my book into three parts. When I get to a pivotal plot-point mark, I drop in a dead body. Sometimes just for variety I blow up a car or have someone get kidnapped or fall off a fire escape into a pile of dog poop.
In Top Secret Twenty-One there are some intriguing crime developments having to do with Russia, in Tricky Twenty-Two it’s biological warfare. How did you conduct that research?
Google, Google, Google.
How do you incorporate Trenton’s rising murder rate into the books, or do you feel it’s best to stay away from that?
The books are set in Trenton, but my characters live in The World of Plum. My characters don’t age. Good guys and hamsters don’t die. Crime is a constant. And at the end of the day Stephanie succeeds in thwarting evil. I tend to ignore the changing face of Trenton.
You didn’t achieve a writer’s contract quickly or easily in the beginning of your writing career, and you persevered to outstanding success. How would you advise beginning writers who are frustrated with trying to find an agent and publishing contract?
This is a tough one. You need to have a thick skin and tenacity and you need to hone your sales person skills when it comes to getting an agent. I think organizations like ITW and RWA can be helpful.
Do you hear from real-life female bounty hunters on Stephanie Plum?
Every now and then I’ll get a letter or someone will pop up at a signing. In the beginning of the series I attended PBUS conferences and had much more contact with actual bounty hunters and bondsmen than I do now. Unfortunately (or fortunately) my writing schedule has me pretty much tied to my office these days.
Janet Evanovich is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Stephanie Plum series, the Fox and O’Hare series, the Lizzy and Diesel series, the Alexandra Barnaby novels and Troublemaker graphic novel, and How I Write: Secrets of a Bestselling Author.
To learn more about Janet, please visit her website.
Photography Credit: Roland Scarpa
I found the idea for THE THRONE OF DAVID while reading the Old Testament—and knew it was a high concept idea from the very first. Understanding the scope of the story helped me stay focused as I wrote the manuscript, and when I sent out queries, two of them, both agents wanted the book. I’m convinced it was the high concept element that got their attention.
I can hear you asking, just what is high concept and how do I incorporate these ingredients into my writing?
High concept fiction is a term hijacked from Hollywood. Think ‘visual’, ‘high stakes’, and ‘easily communicated.’ It’s attractive to publishers and agents and eventually, readers and moviegoers.
The reaction you want when an agent reads your synopsis is: “Why didn’t I think of that?” or “Why hasn’t somebody written about this before?” Or, “You tell me your amazing idea, and then I decide I have to kill you so I can steal it!” When people light up after you tell them about your book, you know you’ve got them. This is what high concept is all about.
The essential elements of a high concept book are:
- an original idea
- mass commercial appeal
- a great title
- a big problem
By Ian Walkley
Sherry Fowler Chancellor writes thrillers, romances, and YA novels, and her latest thriller offering, THE EISENGER ELEMENT, follows a determined young detective, Emilia Hammond, on her first assignment with the New Orleans Police Department, determined to prove herself capable and worthy of her shield.
Sherry Fowler Chancellor is a lawyer by day and writer, amateur photographer, and history buff by night. She lives on the beautiful gulf coast of Florida and loves her little slice of paradise.
Sherry, could you give us the “elevator pitch” to the story?
A Garden District lawyer and a New Orleans detective with a shiny new gold shield collide at the scene of a murder.
I understand you developed the essence of the book during NaNoWriMo in 2013. How did you discipline yourself to that challenge?
THE EISENGER ELEMENT was my NaNoWriMo story for 2013. I’ve participated and won every year since 2009. I love it. The mad dash to the finish line motivates me. I get excited to update my word count and watch that graph move along. I’m a lawyer in my day job and it’s pretty hectic there, too. I seem to thrive on the pressure. I do a lot of lunch hour writing and use the weekends to really up the word count.
Did you change the story much during the editing?
I actually didn’t change much on this story after I submitted it to the publisher in May of 2014. I finished the first draft during NaNoWriMo and polished it for a few months afterward but once I turned it in, I waited for the edits and made just the editorial changes as suggested.
Michael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Both were born in South Africa and have worked in academia and business. Stanley was an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a pilot. Michael specializes in image processing and remote sensing. He also contributes to the monthly Africa Scene feature in The Big Thrill.
On a flying safari to Botswana, they had the idea for their first mystery, A Carrion Death, which introduced Detective “Kubu” Bengu of the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department and was short-listed for five awards. The series has been critically acclaimed, and their third book, Death of the Mantis, won the Barry Award for best paperback original mystery and was shortlisted for an Edgar Award. Deadly Harvest–the next book in the series–was shortlisted for the ITW best paperback original thriller award.
Set amidst the dark beauty of modern Botswana, A DEATH IN THE FAMILY is a thrilling insight into a world of riots, corruption and greed, as a complex series of murders present the opera-loving, wine connoisseur detective with his most challenging case yet.
When grief-stricken Kubu defies orders to bring the killers to justice, startling and chilling links emerge, spanning the globe and setting a sequence of shocking events in motion. Will Kubu catch the killers in time … and find justice for his father?
What inspires you about Botswana?
Botswana is a beautiful country with friendly people, superb wildlife areas, and good governance. It may seem odd that we–as South Africans–chose to set our books there rather than at home. However, we have spent time there in various capacities and know the country well.
Apart from giving us an excuse to explore parts of country we don’t know so well, it allows us to investigate issues important to the region that aren’t the legacy of the apartheid era in South Africa.