By Gary Kriss
Sandra Parshall, whose new book, BLEEDING THROUGH (Poisoned Pen Press), will be released on September 4, is a living, breathing, royalty-collecting example of what can happen when you set aside the rote rules of writing and, instead, go with your gut.
Even if it’s painful.
Oh, and it doesn’t hurt if you have a penchant for over-indulging in pecan pie. Well, actually, in Parshall’s case, it did hurt, but the pain led to gain. You see, a few years ago, Parshall—oh, hell, let her explain it.
“I overindulged in dessert at the end of a holiday dinner, and as a result I had a night of fitful sleep and vivid dreams,” Parshall recalls. “I seemed to have the same dream over and over: two little girls standing together in an open space during a storm, the younger one crying for their mother. Afterward I couldn’t get the image out of my head. I wanted to know who those girls were, where their mother was, and why they were alone outside in a storm. My imagination began filling in the details, and six months later I had a book.”
That book was THE HEAT OF THE MOON, the first novel for this former journalist and, unexpectedly, the first in what would become a wildly popular series set in the mountains of rural Virginia and featuring veterinarian-cum-sleuth Rachel Goddard. Unexpectedly, because Parshall wrote the book as a stand-alone, then despaired over its future.
“For a long time I didn’t think it would ever be published,” she says. “Editors at the big publishers in New York seemed unable to categorize it, and it was rejected repeatedly, often with what writers ruefully call ‘rave rejections’.”
But Poisoned Pen Press knew a good thing when it saw—umm, that is read it—and, in 2006, THE HEAT OF THE MOON appeared to glowing reviews from the top trade publications. It captured both a large readership and an Agatha Award for best first novel. Meanwhile, during that “long time” of doubt, Parshall had written two more novels, including one featuring a character who seemed very close to Rachel Goddard.
“I loved Rachel as a character and wanted to continue writing about a female veterinarian, so I altered her backstory a bit and changed her name and made her the center,” Parshall says of the similarity. Then Poison Pen decided it wanted Parshall to do a series, so, she says, “I retooled the book, let Rachel be Rachel again, and made it a follow up to THE HEAT OF THE MOON. And while Parshall admits that the transition to DISTURBING THE DEAD, the second book, “felt bumpy to me,” reviewers and readers didn’t agree and it, too, became a great success as did two more books in the series, BROKEN PLACES and UNDER THE DOG STAR.
Which, boys and girls, brings us to BLEEDING THROUGH, the fifth and newest addition to the series, in which, Parshall says, “Rachel Goddard copes with her terrified sister and a vicious stalker, while Deputy Tom Bridger tracks down a female law student’s killer.”
However, for Parshall’s legion of devoted followers, BLEEDING THROUGH will answer some lingering questions and hint at some new directions for the series. (Worry not, first-time Parshall readers: the book, like the others in the series, has its own legs, so it can be read independently of the others.)
“Some of my readers have been bugging me since DEAD OF THE MOON was published to revisit the mother/daughter/sister issues raised by that book,” Parshall notes. “They also want me to explain exactly what happened to Rachel in the three-year gap in story time between HEAT and DISTURBING THE DEAD. In BLEEDING THROUGH, I’ve given those readers what they want – but perhaps not exactly in the way they might expect.” Indeed, she says that the book’s title is taken from “the scene where Rachel realizes that the past is ‘bleeding through’ into the present” and that “the resurfacing past is what the book is about.”
Still, Parshall suspects that some of her loyal readers “still won’t be satisfied,” but says “I’ve done what I believe is right for Rachel – what she would choose to do” and that “it’s time for Rachel to put some of her problems behind her, forge a better relationship with her sister, and move on with her life.”
On the other hand, Parshall, who confesses that “I love animals; I’m not crazy about humans,” says those readers who were “put off by the dogfighting element in my last book, UNDER THE DOG STAR,” will be “happy to hear that the new book doesn’t have any heart-wrenching references to pets.”
Maybe not heart-wrenching, but heart-tugging—ah, gentle thriller-follower, that’s a different story. In BLEEDING THROUGH, Parshall, who has been lauded for her ability to create novels that are, in the words of BOOKLIST “more psychologically astute than many romantic-suspense tales, yet more romantic than high-end psychological thrillers,” dangles the prospect of Rachel marrying Deputy Tom, her love interest since the second book.
“Marrying Tom will be a major step for her,” Parshall says.
OK, swoon if you must, but don’t get too comfortable: this ain’t no Harlequin cozy-cuddly (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Be forewarned by Parshall that “Rachel can’t wipe out the past, though, and as long as she chooses to keep the truth about her childhood a secret, she will have to fear that someone will expose it.” Need more convincing? How’s this: Parshall says that “the action Rachel takes at the end of BLEEDING THROUGH will also haunt her, however justified it may be.” Take that, Miss Marple!
Tantalized? Live with it since you won’t shake much out of Parshall until the next book in the series, already in progress, which, Parshall says, will find Rachel and Tom involved in “a battle over outside influences trying to bring drastic change to their mountain community.”
Although she won’t divulge any more about the plot, Parshall has no hesitancy in talking about the “template” she employs in the Goddard books. “When writing about series characters, the author has to tailor the plot to them,” she explains. “Is this is a story that will challenge them in dramatic ways? Can I show something new/different/intriguing about my characters through this plot? I develop new characters who will fit the story. I don’t think you can ever separate story and character. They feed into each other and develop together.”
Since Parshall is particularly adept at creating the local atmosphere of the Southern mountains in her novels—Tom Bridger, for example, is a Melungeon, part of a mixed racial/ethnic population little known beyond pockets of the Southeast United States—she also places importance on setting. “The setting certainly determines what kind of story you can tell and what kind of characters will populate it,” she says. “It creates the social atmosphere the characters live in. I think setting is crucial, and writers should make full use of it.” At the same time, Parshall says she’s not offering “deep truths about a region and its people and culture.”
“I’m writing crime fiction, and my last four books have been set in the southern mountains, a part of the U.S. that I happen to be familiar with,” she says. “My only ambition is to entertain readers.”
However, Parshall is very definitely a thriller writer, so you can take this to the bank: her next book, like BLEEDING THROUGH and all its predecessors, will adhere to what Parshall’s tags as the distinguishing characteristics of a thriller. It will have “a sharp edge” and “generate and sustain a feeling of danger, the sense that something terrible might happen any second.” And while Parshall laments that publishers label “everything except knitting cozies” as thrillers, she’s much more discriminating. “A thrill doesn’t let a reader relax,” she says, adding that this distinguishes them from mysteries.
“Most thrillers have mysteries at their core, but not every mystery is thrilling,” she observes. “A mystery is a puzzle that must be solved, and the tone can run the gamut from cozy to noir.”
She also says that “thrillers are indisputably more violent and graphic now,” offering that “some of the novels published today would never have made it into print in an earlier era.” And while this gentile lady–who drinks nothing stronger than iced tea and diet coke, watches Ospreys via video streaming, and is terrified of spiders–still crafts some rather savage scenes, much of the savagery involves the mind rather than the body. Any wonder she’s “happy to see that psychological thrillers are still being published, bought, and read.”
And Parshall seems equally happy to provide them, through the Goddard series and, perhaps, beyond. “I want to write suspense novels with new characters, and possibly a new series,” she says and promises “that’s something I’ll think about when I finish the book I’m currently working on.”
So for now, Parshall is content to fill the morning and early afternoon hours of her day sequestered in a room of the McLean, Virginia home she shares with her husband of many years, a retired Washington journalist, and two cats, Emma (the Muse) and Gabriel (the Lazy One), where her trusty computer is perched on a desk cluttered with paper and books that long ago buried a little family of ceramic pandas.
There, in absolute quiet, Parshall ponders how to best follow the advice she offers writers: “Get into scenes late and get out early. Make something happen in every chapter, in every scene. An agent told me many years ago that I didn’t have enough sensory detail and its absence would prevent readers from connecting with the characters. Good advice that I’ve never forgotten.”
There she concentrates on her greatest strength as an author—“I think I’m pretty good at creating suspense”—and watches out for her for her greatest weakness—“I have a tendency toward melodrama that has to be reined in sometimes.”
There she uses the internet for research, say for making a rural jail seem realistic, or checks in with Dr. Doug Lyle for answers about forensics and medicine.
And there, of course, she writes. Sometimes it’s her weekly blog for “Poe’s Deadly Daughters.” Other times it’s a piece for THE BIG THRILL as one of its contributing editors. Most times it’s her fiction and that’s when she religiously follows “the only writing rule that matters,” the only writing rule she tries “never to break”—“Give the reader a good story.”
And when that part of her day is done, she’ll leave the room, perhaps to indulge in her passion for photography or perhaps to indulge in her guilty pleasure, chocolot (yes, yes, please, no “sics.” It’s spelled “chocolate,” but by her own admission, for Parshall it’s “chocoLOT.)
But wait, you say. Isn’t Parshall’s gastronomic (over) indulgence—the one that brought her fame and fortune—pecan pie?
Alas, poor pilgrim, to her dismay, Parshall says that particular exercise in excessive eating “hasn’t helped me creatively since that lucky night years ago.”
HOWEVER, that doesn’t mean that it won’t work for you. So here’s the pecan pie recipe for success that South Carolina born and bred Sandra Parshall shared with author Julia Buckley. (The recipe for curing gastric distress? Hey, you’re writers and life isn’t handed to writers on a silver platter, so get over it!)
1 ¼ cups sugar
½ cup corn syrup
¼ cup butter or margarine
3 eggs, slightly beaten1 cup coarsely chopped pecans
1 teaspoon vanilla
Pastry for 9-inch pie
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Combine sugar, syrup, and butter in 2-quart saucepan. Bring to boil on high, stirring constantly until butter is melted.
Remove from heat and gradually add hot syrup to eggs, stirring constantly.
Add pecans and cool to lukewarm.
Pour into pie shell and bake for 40-45 minutes.
Serves 6 to 8.