By George Ebey
Terry Shames’ debut novel, A KILLING AT COTTON HILL, is the first in a new mystery series featuring the exploits of Samuel Craddock, the former police chief of a small Texas town.
When Dora Lee Parjeter is murdered, her old friend Craddock steps in, only to discover that a lot of people had it in for her. The conniving rascals on the farm next door want her land for nefarious purposes; her estranged daughter could be seeking vengeance; her grandson wants money for art school; and then there’s that stranger Dora Lee claimed was spying on her. Does Craddock still have what it takes to find the killer?
I recently checked in with Terry who was happy to share her insights into how A KILLING AT COTTON HILL came to be.
What led you to write A KILLING AT COTTON HILL?
Over the years I’ve written a few short stories about the fictional town of Jarrett Creek, but never in the mystery genre. It’s a fictionalized version of the small Texas town where my grandparents lived when I was growing up. I always loved visiting there and still feel a connection with it when I go back.
A few years ago, I took an amazing crime writing workshop put together by authors Sophie Littlefield and Cornelia Read. On the last day Sophie made an impassioned speech describing how after writing more than half a dozen unpublished novels, she shifted into hyper-drive and made getting published the most important goal in her life. And it worked for her.She said it took more than perseverance—it required determination and focus. She urged writers to dig really deep for “the book that only you can write.”
Like Sophie, I had written several novels, but publication had eluded me. Within a month of taking the course, I began work on A KILLING AT COTTON HILL—which was totally different from anything I’d ever written.
I know it seems like a myth that a novel can simply write itself, but that’s truly what happened. I had no outline nor character notes—nothing. It was as if I was channeling Samuel Craddock. The crazy thing was that I wrote most of the book while I was on a boat. My husband and I spent several weeks on our catamaran every winter. I had never really tried to write anything on the boat, but since I had already begun the novel and it was roaring along, I decided that every morning I would get up at 6, grab a cup of tea, kick my husband out of our cabin and write for two to three hours. I didn’t emerge until I had hit my writing wall. The novel poured out: It took me only two months to finish the 75,000-word first draft. In another month I had finished the edits and started sending it out. Within three months I signed with an agent.
Oh, yes, and recently someone in my writer’s group said that this was a novel only I could have written. And I think he’s right.
Tell us about your main character, Samuel Craddock. How does he handle the challenges that face him in this story?
Samuel’s wife died of cancer several months ago, and he is in limbo. In his early 60’s, he’s still a vigorous, strong man, but he has nothing to drive him. The challenge of figuring out who killed his old friend Dora Lee Parjeter, gives him a new lease on life. He discovers that he still has what it takes to live up to his reputation as the “best lawman Jarrett Creek ever had.” Since his days as chief of police he has matured and takes things with more equanimity and humor than he did when he was younger. He also realizes that life damages people in ways that are hard for them to recover from. He understands people’s weakness, and does a delicate dance between forgiving their foibles and yet refusing to let them get away with criminal behavior.
What’s the most rewarding thing about writing a mystery?
I’m fascinated by what drives people to resort to crime. I once heard Doug Lyle talk about the need for people to save face as being at the heart of a lot of crime. That really resonated with me and I keep it in mind when I write. I want to know what happened to create a situation where a basically decent person risks everything in his life by killing someone. It’s rewarding to peel away those layers and get to the core of the matter.
The most challenging?
For me the most challenging part of writing crime fiction is making sure the clues are neither too obvious nor too obscure. I usually don’t start writing with an outline—I’m just interested in some characters and what they are up to. But at some point about 20,000 words in, I step back and outline. That’s because more than once in my early writing days I wrote myself into a corner. Now I try to have a good idea where I’m going so I can plant the clues and shape the narrative.
What’s next for you?
My second Samuel Craddock novel, THE LAST DEATH OF JACK HARBIN, is in the last stages of editing and is due out in January, 2014. And my wonderful publisher, Seventh Street Books has just asked for two more in the series. The world of Jarrett Creek seems so real to me that I have no problem coming up with new ideas. I’ve always wondered how a writer manages to keep a series fresh when writing about murder in a small town. There are only so many people who can be murdered before it starts seeming ludicrous. But in actuality, the murder in A KILLING AT COTTON HILL happened in a small hamlet several miles away from Jarrett Creek. The second was in Jarrett Creek and the third will take place in the county seat, Bobtail.
The first two books were based tangentially on stories I heard growing up, and the third one, as yet unnamed, is also based on a tale from my past. So mining stories I’ve heard through the years seems like a rich vein.
My agent is also shopping two other novels, both of which I finished last year. One is set in Berkeley, where I live, and one in the Bahamas, where our boat stayed for a couple of years.
Terry Shames (Berkeley, CA) is a freelance writer and coeditor of FIRE IN THE HILLS, a book of stories, poems, and photographs about the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire. She grew up in Texas and continues to be fascinated by the convoluted loyalties and betrayals of the small town where her grandfather was the mayor. Terry is a member of the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.
To learn more about Terry, please visit her website.