Grab a cup of coffee and settle in for a page-turning tale of murder and betrayal small town style. DEAD BROKE IN JARRETT CREEK is the third in the mystery series featuring the lovable Samuel Craddock, former chief of police. The fictionalized town of Jarrett Creek, Texas has its share of secrets and a cast of characters to rival any soap opera. Recent financial troubles have caused the town to totter on the brink of bankruptcy and left it unable to pay for a full-time police force. When Gary Dellmore, a man with as many flaws as enemies, turns up dead, the town looks to Craddock to return to work and solve the murder. Craddock’s investigation reveals that Dellmore was a philandering husband, a crooked businessman, and an indiscreet banker. The fun begins as we ride along with Craddock to the front porches and cozy kitchens of his Texas neighbors as skeletons fall from their closets and illicit liaisons are revealed.
THE BIG THRILL caught up with author Terry Shames and we chatted about her latest book and her life as a writer.
Samuel Craddock is a character you want to sit down and have coffee with. He’s smart, honorable, and doesn’t take himself too seriously. Is he based on a person you know or did he materialize completely out of your imagination?
Samuel presented himself to me full-blown. He’s a combination of many men I’ve known in my life. As a kid, I always liked to hang around men—I thought they were more interesting than women, because women always talked about babies, clothes, and dieting. When I grew up, I joined the ranks of the women, but my early education in hearing stories was through men. In particular, Samuel is a combination of my grandfather, my father, my husband, and my dear friend Charlie, who died a few years ago. Incidentally, my grandfather’s name was Samuel, but everyone called him Sam—and that’s one reason I never call Samuel Craddock “Sam.”
Is the town of Jarrett Creek similar to a town you know?
Oh, absolutely. When I was growing up, I loved to visit the town where my grandparents lived in central Texas. It was a source of endless fascination because everybody always seemed to be up to something. Anybody who thinks small towns are boring has never looked beneath the surface.
Craddock hints of a romantic relationship with Loretta but we never see any concrete evidence of it. Will a romance develop?
Samuel likes Loretta and enjoys her friendship, but he’s never had any romantic interest. There is some evidence that she would like more of a relationship, but he is still grieving the death of his wife and has no interest in becoming romantically involved with anyone.
The arrival of Ellen Forrester seems to indicate a complication for Craddock and the possibility of a relationship developing. Will Ellen play a more prominent role in the next book?
Ellen is definitely going to be more of a romantic interest, but it’s going to be slow going.
Tell us something about Craddock that no one knows.
He once had to arrest a close family member. You’ll read more about that in a future book.
When you first began to write this series, were your drawn more to the story or the characters?
Completely drawn to the characters. Plot is very hard for me, which is why when I started getting reviews that praised the plots I was surprised. I hope that means the struggles I have with plotting are not apparent.
What kind of research did you have to do to come up with such an authentic character and presentation of the inner workings of the police in a small town?
Thank you for putting it that way. I’m glad Samuel and his community are authentic characters. From the first time I started writing about them, they seemed incredibly real to me. The “research” for that part was simply observing my family and surroundings in Texas for many, many years. And when I say “family” I mean extended family, and there are about a zillion of them. Plenty of fodder.
To research the police procedures, I started with the assumption that small town police departments aren’t equipped to handle major crimes—and I was right. In each book, Samuel has some connection with a statewide crime-fighting organization—the highway patrol or the Texas Rangers. I read a lot about how police departments work in Texas and it was fascinating. One website on the Texas Justice System pointed out that there are significant variations from one locality to the next in the way the system operates. The way a crime is investigated, prosecuted and tried depends largely on where you are. Happily for me as an author, it gives me leeway to bend things to my own devices.
Do you start with an ending in mind or work your way to the end organically?
I usually start with an idea of what happened to someone. About 20,000 words into the manuscript, I stop and take stock. By then I know who is involved and some of the possible outcomes. Then it’s time to make decisions about how the book ends so that I can sprinkle in red herrings and real clues.
How much time do you spend editing? How many drafts do you typical write?
The first two books in the series practically wrote themselves. I was under no deadlines or pressure of any kind, and they came to me easily. Hard to believe, but I only did two or three drafts, including editing. Then came book three and I felt the pressure not only of meeting a deadline, but also of living up to my readers’ expectations. That had never occurred to me before, and it really put my feet to the fire. I thought I knew where Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek was going, but by the time I finished the first draft, I was really unhappy with it. It had gone in a direction that felt contrived. Fixing it meant ripping the last half apart and putting it back together with huge chunks edited out. But by the time I was done, I felt much better about it. Number of drafts? Hard to say. I have a terrific writers’ group—and the others neither read nor write mysteries. So they tell me whether the story and characters resonate for them. Oddly, even though they don’t read much crime fiction, they have a keen sense of whether the mystery works. I depend on their comments. I also have a great editor at Seventh Street Books. He catches everything that the rest of us missed!
What is your favorite thing about being a writer?
So much to love! I’ll pick out one thing because it just happened and gave me great satisfaction. I’m thinking of writing a book not in the Craddock series and I’ve been poking around with ideas for who my protagonist will be. I’m trying not to push, but writing a few lines when the new protagonist reveals something about himself to me. But I couldn’t quite get his background. And then the other day I was reading a Laurie King book set in the past. She had a passage that interested me, so I stopped reading and thought about it. Suddenly, I understood something key about my main character’s background. He has absolutely no connection to any of the people or plot in Laurie’s book, but something she said triggered him to come out of hiding. That’s what I love—the creative part of me that does its work under the radar and then shows itself to me. Once when I was walking into my office, I thought, “Oh, good, I can get back to reading my book.” And then I realized that no, it wasn’t reading my book—it was writing my book.
Do you write largely for entertainment or do you also try to deliver a message?
This is a good question following on the heels of the previous one. I don’t intentionally set out to deliver a message, but all my books seem to have one. For example, the second book, The Last Death of Jack Harbin had a lot about how veterans are treated—the hard decisions they and their families have to make when they are wounded in the service of our country. As for Dead Broke in JarrettCreek, I think a lot of the financial problems people are faced with these days are due to rampant greed being allowed to thrive in the last several years. Don’t get me started…but read the book and you’ll know what I mean.
Which three authors have inspired you the most and why?
Wow, no one has asked me that. And I think one author will surprise everyone. Truman Capote. The way he enters a room in his fiction is exquisite. Anytime I feel a little uncertain about writing, I will pick up his short stories and before I know it I’m back on track. Anybody remember K.C. Constantine? His books are gritty and raw and he burrows into the inner heart of his characters in a way that I’m in awe of. Not that I think I come close to writing as well as either of these authors, but they inspire me to stretch myself as a writer. In the mystery genre, I have to say there are too many to choose from. But I love the moment when I run across a sentence or scene and think, “Oh, man, I wish I had written that.”
What was your favorite book as a child?
I know the answer should be Mystery of the Moss Covered Mansion, Carolyn Keene. I must have read it twenty times. But when I picture myself reading, it’s the Raggedy Ann and Andy series. I’d probably read them now and wonder what I was thinking, but to my first grader imagination, they were fabulous.
What is the best book you’ve read in the last 12 months?
Don’t ask me that! It’s so hard to answer. I can give you the names of some I loved: Timothy Hallinan’s Queen of Patpong, William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace (there’s a reason he won all those rewards), and I’m a new fan of Priscilla Royal. I don’t really read much historical fiction, but her writing transcends time. And I’ll read anything by David Mitchell. He’s not a crime writer per se, but I always think that at the heart of all the best fiction is a mystery.
What do you do to relax when you are not writing?
What is this “not writing” you speak of? I’m much more social than some writers, so I enjoy doing things with friends—hiking, going to art shows or music events, entertaining at home. And of course I love to read.
What is next?
I just turned in Craddock number four, and I hope to do more of them. But I’m also going to branch out a bit. I love reading thrillers. I attended Thrillerfest in July and my brain is buzzing with thriller ideas. We’ll see what happens.
Terry Shames is the author of the best selling Samuel Craddock series, set in the fictitious town of Jarrett Creek, Texas. Terry grew up in Texas and has great affection for the town where her grandparents lived, the model for Jarrett Creek. She lives in Berkeley, California with her husband and two rowdy terriers. Find out more about A KILLING AT COTTON HILL (nominated for the Strand Critics award), THE LAST DEATH OF JACK HARBIN, and DEAD BROKE IN JARRETT CREEK on Terry’s website.
To learn more about Terry, please visit her website.