By Kira Peikoff
Author Ada Madison, a.k.a. Camille Minichino and Margaret Grace, debuts a brand-new series this July with The Square Root of Murder (Berkley), starring math professor Sophie Knowles. In this first installment, Sophie’s colleague—the most disliked professor on campus—turns up dead after a party, and Sophie’s own assistant is suspected of the murder. Sophie is confident that her assistant is innocent, and is determined to get to the bottom of the crime, using her talent for solving puzzles to arrive at the truth.
Madison is an expert in her genre: The Square Root of Murder is her fourteenth published mystery. Her other books include eight novels in the Periodic Table Mysteries series and five novels in the Miniatures Mysteries series. As if that weren’t enough accomplishments for one career, Madison also holds a doctorate in physics; is on the faculty at Golden Gate University, San Francisco; and is a science editor at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Madison about mystery writing, her career journey, and, of course, puzzles. Here’s what she had to say:
What was the inspiration for this idea?
I’m turning all parts of life into mysteries. First with physics and then with miniatures—I make miniatures. Physics is asking questions, like a detective, except you’re querying the universe. Making a miniature is making a model of reality, which is what you’re doing when you’re writing fiction or doing physics. I do like to figure out puzzles and be a detective.
In this book, I went back to college campus teaching. There’s so much going on underneath the philosophy, a lot of posturing. Turf wars. I tapped into that. What if some of our turf wars got so aggressive that something like this happened?
Given the underlying tensions, I pulled those out and exaggerated them to make a story.
Do you outline first, or just write?
I just go in and do it, and then I outline as I go along to keep track of what I’m doing. I allow myself three or four months to write a book.
It doesn’t matter what your process is as long as you write. I finally caught onto that. Stop trying to do it the way people tell you it should be done.
Your fourteenth mystery just came out. Does it get any easier?
It does. The thing that gets easier is that I no longer get worried that I’m not going to make it. That I’ll never get out of this, that I’ll have to cancel my contract. Now, when I get into tight spots, I have experience and know I’ll get out of them.
What’s your daily routine?
I still work as science editor at Livermore National Lab, and teach. I don’t have full days a lot of the time. I don’t like routine. I’m very good at using small amounts of time. If I have only 15 minutes, I will do something on my book, even if all it is is to format it or change a name or put in some phrase. I spend many hours a day, but sometimes I don’t start until after dinner and then work until 2 or 3 a.m.
I really need to be productive. I’m not saying this is a good trait at all. But I’m happiest when I’m productive. If at the end of the day, I can say I did X, Y, Z, it just makes me feel good. Maybe it’s the way I was brought up, which was a very work-oriented environment. I lived on a beach and went to work making hot dogs and cotton candy as a kid. My father was an unskilled laborer. There was no question of everyone in the family working. I went to school, I was lucky, but also had to work when I got home.
With such a full schedule and book deadlines fast approaching, how do you cope with writer’s block?
I never get that. I get player’s block. I’m not a good relaxer. Even when I watch movies, I analyze. Same with reading books. One thing I love to do is go to art museums. I recently spent almost a day at the Met and just enjoyed it, because I know I’ll never be a sculptor or a painter.
Which comes first—character or plot?
Always character. I have a hard time with plot. Characters come easy. Plot I have to work out. The reason I chose mystery to begin with was I knew my weakest writing ability was plotting, and I figured writing a mystery would force me to have a plot. The elements were given.
I focus on the main character and her worldview. I try to have metaphors reflect fact that this woman is a mathematician. That’s what makes a book pleasing and cohesive.
What kind of research did you do in order to render an amateur murder investigation?
I have a wonderful cop source. I took the advice of many authors and called the police department to ask for help with procedure. It was best thing I ever did. All I had to do was write a letter, and it counts as community service for them. I was assigned a homicide detective, and ended up talking to him a lot. Every now and then we go out to lunch. It’s been more than 10 years. He’s now an investigator.
What’s the hardest real-life puzzle you’ve ever solved?
Making up puzzles is harder than solving them. I would say constructing an acrostic.
Who are your literary heroes?
Joyce Carol Oates. She’s one of the best today. Martin Cruz Smith. Jeff Lindsay. Ian McEwan.
Lastly, do you have any advice for young writers?
Don’t limit yourself. Try to learn whatever you can about many things and it will come out in your writing in ways that you can’t even imagine right now. Keep learning, keep writing, and keep open to all the possibilities in front of you.
You need to learn how to write and you need to have something to write. You might need more of one or the other. Either way, just complement whatever you already know and see where it takes you.
To learn more about Ada, please visit her website.