By Karen Harper
Ann Parker is a fine writer with an unusual backstory that pays dividends in her new novel, MORTAL MUSIC, as well as for her great backlist. She is generous with her advice to writers, and with her insight into how to make characters “jump off the page.”
She shares some of that insight in this The Big Thrill interview.
Please tell us about your new book, MORTAL MUSIC.
San Francisco music-store owner Inez Stannert has a past that doesn’t bear close inspection, including running a saloon in the wide-open silver boomtown of Leadville, Colorado. When the “Golden Songbird,” prima donna Theia Carrington Drake, hears Inez play piano and demands she replace her accompanist, Inez hesitates. The holiday concert series would be a golden opportunity to bring attention to her music business, if she is willing to step out from the shadows. Once Theia’s husband/manager, Graham Drake, offers to sweeten the pot, Inez accepts, and trouble begins. When murder strikes a member of the Drakes’ entourage, the stakes soar, secrets emerge, and passions flare. Someone wants the Golden Songbird silenced—but who?
Many writers have interesting pasts, but you have a fascinating combination of degrees and careers. An English lit major, of course, but degrees in physics? You are a science writer also. Is there a big jump from science/physics to historical fiction or are there some crossover skills?
I ended up majoring in both English lit and physics because I loved both fields and couldn’t decide between them. They both require strong analytical skills, so they have that in common. When it comes to writing about science and technology and writing about historical fiction, the ability to research efficiently and effectively—and determine what to put in and what to leave out—applies equally.
In my day job, I must be able to come up to speed and write about a variety of subjects, many outside my area of expertise. The magazine editor I work with assigns topics to the writers in my group, and we writers must dive in, talk to experts, digest background information, spin it around, and spit it out in a form that is digestible and interesting to a fairly general audience. I use the same techniques and approach in writing fiction.
Also, developing effective “listening” skills is critical for both kinds of writing: not only for gathering initial information in research, but also in gathering (and processing) feedback. As a writer employed by a scientific R&D laboratory, I run my drafts through a well-defined review cycle, and must address comments from editors, scientific contacts, and others. As a fiction writer, I receive feedback from critique partners, subject-matter experts, beta readers, agents, and editors. The ability to listen with an open mind, take criticism in stride, and process suggestions with an eye to fashioning the best solution to address any problems is very useful.
Your interesting website—with a historical Wild West banner adorning the home page—mentions that some of the inspiration for your Western novels comes from your family heritage. Can you explain, and does this affect both subject matter and setting?
My family history definitely came into play when choosing the initial settings, as well as the story directions of my novels. Both of my parents were raised in Denver, Colorado, and I have fond memories as a young child going back there for family vacations. However, it wasn’t until I was in my mid-forties that I learned my paternal grandmother had been raised in the silver mining town of Leadville, Colorado, in the 19th century. Up to that point, I’d never even heard of Leadville. My Uncle Walt, who imparted this surprising bit of family history to me along with tantalizing bits of the town’s silver-boom history, then said, “Ann, I know you’ve been thinking about writing a novel. I think you should research Leadville.” So I did!
I also gave my protagonist my paternal grandmother’s maiden name—Inez Stannert—in honor and acknowledgement of this heritage. I should point out that my grandmother was a very proper woman… she never set foot in a bar or saloon, much less worked in one. However, both she and my fictional Inez were women of strong convictions with spines of steel.
When my protagonist Inez moves west to San Francisco in A Dying Note, that also mirrored my family’s history. After World War II, my parents moved west and settled in the San Francisco Bay Area. My protagonist’s strong affiliation with music is also reflective of my upbringing. Both of my parents played piano, and my father originally hoped to become a concert pianist. When I was growing up, music was a constant in our house, and it has continued to be an important element in my own life. This love of music is reflected in all my books, but is particularly strong in the San Francisco-based books, A Dying Note and MORTAL MUSIC. The stories themselves flow from the rich history of their settings.
Publishers Weekly praised your writing as having “plenty of convincing action…” Does including that come naturally to you or do you have to work harder at that? Do you have any tips for writers trying to incorporate more action in their own fiction?
I suppose it comes naturally to me. I find action scenes fun to write, so that helps. As for advice, I would suggest looking for opportunities that occur logically in your story and plot. Is your character going into a sketchy part of town? Walking down those “mean streets” provides a great opportunity for suspense, conflict, and action. If you find that your characters are spending more time thinking and talking than doing, break it up. Even the smallest gesture or movement—raising a teacup, sliding a hand into a pocket—can ratchet up tension and increase the energy in a scene. Finally, use the conflicts in your plot and character interactions as springboards for action. There are plenty of other tips as well, such as “keep your sentences short” and “use active verbs.” Also, in an action scene—say, a bomb explodes, shattering a window and stunning your protagonist—pacing is important. Keep up the pacing but don’t hurry through the scene. Stay in your protagonist’s skin and let us know what your character feels, hears, sees, tastes, and smells.
Your book covers seem to fall into two categories: photographic or artistic. Do you prefer one format over the other? Do these differing styles suggest a different style or topic of writing?
It’s true that there is a different “look” for the covers of my most recent books. Just as with much else in our consumer-driven lives, cover design goes through trends. And keep in mind, the first book in my series, Silver Lies, came out in 2003… more than 15 years ago. For the most part, cover art is the decision of the publisher—Poisoned Pen Press, and more recently, Sourcebooks. I’m no artist, so I bow to those skilled in design and the visual arts.
What’s interesting to me is that the stylistic switch occurs at the point where my series changes its venue. The first five books, up to and including What Gold Buys, have photographic covers and are set in Colorado. The sixth and seventh books, A Dying Note and MORTAL MUSIC, introduce the “new look” and are set in California. If nothing else, the switch in cover style alerts a series’s reader that change is in the air. All that aside, I’m very pleased with the new covers. We’ll see what readers think!
What attracted you to the musical titles and themes of A Dying Note and MORTAL MUSIC?
When it came time for Inez to move to San Francisco, I pondered long and hard as to what she could “do” there. She had to have a job, a profession, but I couldn’t realistically plunk her down and set her to running another saloon. For one thing, she is a stranger in a strange town. As a woman, she would have to move carefully and get her footing. Also, she is now guardian for a young girl, Antonia Gizzi. Inez would want to create an environment appropriate for Antonia’s rearing. Since I had already established Inez as a pianist in previous books, it made sense for her to look for a suitable position in the music field. Once I made her the manager of a music store and began researching and creating her life in that new milieu, the themes and titles emerged.
If you could give an aspiring author one piece of advice you wished you had known in your pre-published days, what would that be?
As soon as you finish your first book, start on the second. Don’t wait to sell or publish the first. Momentum is everything in this business…
Your “real life” is obviously busy. Can you share advice on how you balance a writing career with everyday demands?
To be honest, I could use a little advice on this topic myself. I am propelled by panic and deadlines, which isn’t an ideal way to go about things (and probably less than ideal for those who must listen to me wail when life gets crazy). When I’m deep into a book, the voices in my head do a lot of chattering, so I use smartphone technology to make “voice memos” to myself on the go. Sticky notes are also a lifesaver, great for scribbling down bits of dialogue, etc., for later. (The lining of my briefcase and the dashboard of my car are often festooned with sticky notes.)
Another suggestion: even if you don’t feel like writing, if you have a space of time, grab it. I found that going back and reading/editing what I wrote in the previous session will often provide the momentum I need to push forward and keep writing. I tell myself, “Just write 250 words. A page. That’s easy.” I plunge in, only to surface three or five pages later. Just as you don’t climb a mountain in a single leap, you don’t write a book in a single session. It’s step by step, word by word. One word follows another to form a sentence. Sentences follow each other to form paragraphs, paragraphs join together to form scenes. Keep going, and it eventually happens: you reach the end.
Ann Parker is a science writer by day and fiction writer at night. Her award-winning Silver Rush historical mystery series, published by Poisoned Pen Press, is set in the 1880s, primarily in the silver boomtown of Leadville, Colorado, and more recently in San Francisco, the “Paris of the West.” The series was picked as a “Booksellers Favorite” by the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association.
To learn more about the author and her work, please visit her website.