A PARLIAMENT OF OWLS, the sixth title in Christine Goff’s The Birdwatcher’s Mysteries, brings a strong, complex heroine in the person of Angela Dimato. Angela is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent who deals calmly with everything from rattlesnakes to obnoxious people, but who also deals with inner conflicts over lost loves and especially, the murder of a colleague.
In A PARLIAMENT OF OWLS, Angela discovers the body of a slain soccer mom amidst the burrows of a prairie dog town. As she investigates the murder, she must also deal with her own grief and crippling flashbacks from the murder of her partner. As we follow Angela’s tense and puzzling journey, we also get a tour of Colorado’s magnificent flora and fauna, courtesy of author Christine Goff and her lifelong love of natural Colorado.
Goff took time out of her schedule this month to answer some questions for TheBigThrill.
The heroine in A PARLIAMENT OF OWLS is a strong, independent woman, but she also has an inner sensitivity that struggles with lost friends and broken romances. What are you trying to achieve with Angela Dimato?
Angela is a loner, and similar to a lot of people I know. I tried to depict her just as you see her—strong on the outside, softer on the inside. I want readers to believe she is someone they can trust, someone capable of doing a man’s job and yet possessing the sensibilities of a woman. I think a woman’s insight and compassion can be a strength when solving crimes.
One of the key plot points in A PARLIAMENT OF OWLS is an owl species that lives in burrows. How did this idea evolve?
In truth, it was my publisher’s idea. He said I hadn’t done owls. Since that’s what he wanted, I queried my Colorado Birder’s list-serve to see which owl they thought I should use. It was between the spotted owls in southwestern Colorado and the burrowing owls. The burrowing owls were most popular, so I started to think of a location that best fit the plot idea I came up with and settled on the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge, just a few miles north of downtown Denver. It’s a great little oasis in the midst of the urban sprawl.
A PARLIAMENT OF OWLS is the sixth book in your Birdwatcher Mystery series. What have been the greatest challenges for you in keeping the series fresh and each book original?
I think it’s easy for mystery writers to fall into the “Jessica Fletcher Syndrome,” the woman from Murder She Wrote who has solved more than 200 murders in her small town of Cabot Cove. My method for avoiding that was to use the same milieu of characters, but rotate through protagonists, focusing on whoever is most vested in solving the mystery. The fact that I incorporate large, global environmental themes into the books tends to make all of the books different also. For example, in A Rant of Ravens (Book #1) the story revolves around the illegal trading of peregrine falcons to the Middle East. In Death of a Songbird (Book #2), it’s about the coffee industry and the effects on migratory birds. In A PARLIAMENT OF OWLS, it’s about habitat and the litigation (or violation of laws) that impacts protected bird species.
In addition to the Birdwatcher Series, you’ve published a much-acclaimed espionage thriller, Dark Waters. What got you into that genre, and will we see another espionage title any time soon?
When I was first contracted to write the Birdwatcher’s Mystery series, I ended up spending two months in Israel with one of my young daughters, who was there for medical care. While we were exploring the country in our free time, I came up with an idea for a thriller. After we came back, I set the idea aside while I wrote the first five books in the Birdwatcher’s series, only picking it up again a few years ago.
Set in Tel Aviv, Dark Waters features a Diplomatic Security Service agent who is at her new post for just two weeks when she is sent to protect a U.S. federal judge and his daughter from an assassin who killed her predecessor. Naturally, she uncovers a sinister plot that leaves millions of lives hanging in the balance. Set amid the Israel-Palestine conflict, this book hopefully keeps the reader frantically turning pages. It got great reviews and I am currently working on the next in the series, Red Sky, scheduled for release in early-2017.
Your passage into the writing profession started with a tough mentor and included a difficult path to publication. Talk about that experience and how it has affected your career as an established novelist.
We all have our stories. Mine started in Summit County, Colorado—in the middle of ski country U.S.—in Frisco, population 2,425. Suffice it to say, there were no published long-fiction writers around, until Maggie Osborne, a New York Times bestselling romance author, moved into Silverthorne. I asked her if she ever taught workshops. She said she would, provided that I could find three other interested people. I did, and we set up a class—five, 3-hour sessions, each focusing on a different aspect of writing (plot, character, dialogue, etc.) Maggie was tough, and after the first session, no one came back except me. I ended up with one-on-one instruction. The book that came out of that workshop was Frozen Assets. It never sold.
In addition to that manuscript, I have an assortment of failed attempts sitting on my bookshelf—a young adult, a horror novel, a stand-alone thriller. With each book I learned a lot about the craft of writing and honed my skills. I think working as hard as I did has made me determined to always grow and stretch as a writer. I put everything I have into every book.
You live in Colorado and write about that state’s natural settings with love and insight. Where does your passion and knowledge come from?
I’m a mountain girl. I was raised in Evergreen, Colorado, which is a small mountain community west of Denver. I spent my youth hiking, skiing, horseback riding, camping and exploring the state. My dad loved the outdoors and he used to take me fishing, sailing and four-wheeling. We had birdfeeders on our front deck, and he introduced me to my first bird—the broad-tailed hummingbird. The outdoors lives in my soul.
Any mystery writer will appreciate that the first 25 pages of the book introduce the heroine, the main conflict, and several secondary conflicts. How has your approach to plot structure evolved over the years?
I learned very early on from my mentor that you should always start a book with action and then fill in the backstory as needed. Pace is difficult. A mystery can progress a little more leisurely than a thriller, but I’ve found my readers like page-turners. In order to keep the middle from bogging down, I work in a four act structure versus the three act structure many writers use. I like to break my book into quarters and make sure that I have a twist or turn or exciting element introduced at strategic points. Of course, often this massaging and restructuring of the book takes place after the first draft. Usually when I start, all I know is where I will begin and end.
The setting and pace of your Birdwatcher Mysteries is reminiscent of the great Tony Hillerman, among others. Who are your favorite mystery authors?
That’s very flattering. I love Tony Hillerman’s books.
Like most writers, I cut my teeth on the classic writers. Currently on my pre-order list are: Lisa Gardner, John Gilstrap and Alex Berenson. I’ve recently bought books by Tami Hoag, Francine Mathews, Gayle Lynds, Jamie Frevetetti and Karna Small Bodman. I think Reed Farrell Coleman just gets better and better. I read a lot, and I read fast. In the past year, I’ve read Lee Child, Michael Connelly, and most of the mysteries that have hit the New York Times list or gotten starred reviews. I’ve also discovered some new mystery writers like Ellen Byron, Leslie Karst, and Mark Stevens, who has a hunting guide series set in Colorado that’s terrific.
You write “cozy mysteries.” How do cozy mysteries differ from other kinds of mysteries?
“Cozy” is a term that gets a bad rap. Basically it’s a traditional mystery that doesn’t have any swearing, graphic sex, or gory violence. I try and abide by those rules in my Birdwatcher’s Mystery series, though I’ll admit I have occasionally slipped in a swear word. Some people would tell you I write an “edgy cozy,” but I prefer to think of my books as traditional mysteries. In some of my books I have amateur sleuth protagonists, in others I use law enforcement-types (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agents or Forest Service employees), which make those more police procedural in nature, but they’re all mysteries with a who dunnit component, clues, and a satisfying ending.
What is the most frightening thing that has ever happened to you while doing research?
The actual scariest experience might have been in Israel while I was formulating the idea for Dark Waters. My daughter and I boarded a southbound bus in Tel Aviv and missed our stop, ending up in an ultra-orthodox area of the city. Realizing our mistake, we got off the bus intending to turn around and head back for the city. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find the bus stop. It was just around sunset and families were coming out to stroll the streets. They were dressed in conservative Jewish attire: men in their long back coats, payots, tophats and wool fringes; women in dresses with conservative necklines that covered their arms and knees, and stockings; the married women in wigs or scarfs that covered their hair. Being American and coming out of a beach day in Tel Aviv (a very cosmopolitan city), I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt and my daughter had on a tank top and flip-flops. The men started saying “lech” and spitting at us. I turned to Danielle and asked her “what are they saying?” not expecting an answer. She said, “Go home.” When I asked her how she knew that, she said it’s what our good friend and neighbor in Colorado used to say to his dog Hamoodi when he wanted her to leave.
Anyway, to make a long story short, I would have gladly gone home, but no one would talk to us except to hurl insults and spit. The cab driver wouldn’t let us in his cab because we would taint it, and we couldn’t find the bus stop to catch the northbound bus. Finally a young teenage girl whispered, “Cross the street and take the 92 north.” When I tried to thank her, she shunned me. Later an Israeli friend told us how lucky we were. He said that even a conservative Jew like himself wouldn’t go there, especially at that time of day. He shared stories of women being stoned in that community for not dressing properly. Suffice it to say, Danielle and I made it back safely, but it was unnerving, and we were more careful after that.
Oh, and then there was the rattlesnake in the prairie dog hole….
When aspiring novelists ask you for advice, what’s the most important suggestion you have for them?
Read and write. If you’re not reading in your genre, you’re out of touch. Through reading the masters in your genre you learn about pacing, turn of phrase, narrative, and dialogue. And a writer must write. In this business it’s all about turning out a great book. You only get better as a writer by honing your craft. The best way to do that is by writing.
Christine Goff began her career as a newspaper columnist. Her Birdwatcher’s Mystery series has been nominated for two WILLA Literary Awards, a Colorado Author’s League Award, and have been published in the United Kingdom and Japan.
To learn more about Christine, please visit her website.