Annelise Ryan is the USA Today bestselling author of the popular Mattie Winston mystery series. I caught up with Annelise to chat about her upcoming release, NEEDLED TO DEATH, a spin-off from the Mattie Winston books. Ryan developed this new series with her editor to allow readers to enjoy a different, fun character in the “Mattie-verse.”
NEEDLED TO DEATH, which Kirkus termed a “provocative page-turner,” features Hildy Schneider, a social worker. Motivated by her own difficult past, Hildy has an unparalleled commitment to supporting troubled clients through grief and addiction in Sorenson, Wisconsin. But when a distraught group therapy member reveals disturbing details about her late son’s potential murder, Hildy goes from dedicated mental health professional to in-over-her-head amateur sleuth.
I asked Ryan how she avoids the “Cabot Cove” syndrome with two series set in the same small town. (Or one series, for that matter.) She laughed and pointed out that it’s a bit of a challenge given the small size of the town used as a setting for both books. In response, she developed a way for Hildy to branch out geographically with the new “Helping Hands” job she takes on in NEEDLED TO DEATH. Hopefully, Ryan says, that will keep things interesting and more realistic.
As for the murder frequency, she used significant time hops in the Mattie Winston series to spread the death around a little more. (There’s a line you won’t hear every day.) Also, both Mattie and Hildy have jobs that can take them into other parts of the county they live in, so the geographic area isn’t confined to tiny Sorenson, Wisconsin.
Reviewers have noted Ryan’s ability to craft complex characters.
“I don’t typically foresee the future and the changes my characters will experience. It’s an organic and evolutionary process with each book,” Ryan says. Her writing style is to live the life of each character for the duration of the book she’s working on and maybe see enough of their future for the next one in the series. “It creates more of an adventure for me that way, wondering where these characters will go the next time out. Sometimes I’m surprised, sometimes I get to be a god and force things on them.”
Like many authors, Ryan draws from real life experience, the headlines, and pretty much any inspiration source to develop her plots and her characters.
“I love to delve into all the different aspects of a character’s life and the many roles we play—mother, father, son, daughter, sister, brother, wife, lover, coworker, friend, neighbor, stranger, enemy—all of them overlapping and interacting, and impacting the other people in our lives,” she says.
When it comes to plot, Ryan is known for writing with a touch of humor while tackling serious topics. In NEEDLED TO DEATH, she addresses foster care and mental health disorders. We started with a common coping strategy among people who work in high-stress fields, where tragedy can be commonplace—humor.
“I’ve found that some of the funniest people I know are the ones who have survived hardships in life, some so awful that the rest of us can only imagine what it’s like, and they’ve used humor as a coping mechanism,” she says. “The humor is often dark and the dance around it can be delicate at times because it’s easy to offend some with it.”
In her health care “day job,” Ryan says she’s seen patients use self-deprecating and occasionally dark humor to help them deal with their ailments, whether mental or physical. Being able to laugh at themselves and their situations seems to help both patients and professionals fare better than those who take everything so seriously.
Turning to the specific issues tackled in NEEDLED TO DEATH, Ryan says, “I’ve also seen the dark underbelly of mental illness and foster care. Our ability to properly care for the mentally ill is laughably and sadly inadequate, and the abuses in foster care are abhorrent. There are great foster parents and families out there… But there are also many who are in it for very unphilanthropic reasons and the kids who end up in some of these homes suffer.”
Balancing these light and dark elements can be difficult, but Annelise enjoys the challenge. She notes that she’s cautious at times in our politically correct-minded society.
“I think the light and the dark need to go together to keep things in balance,” she says. Her goal is to get people to see the humor in a situation, not to offend anyone. She’s found, however, there will inevitably be those who will get offended no matter what. “Some people enjoy wallowing in the dark elements to the point where they don’t welcome the light ones—i.e. humor.”
Bringing in a law enforcement character to help an amateur sleuth is a time-honored method. We talked about ways to avoid both the clichéd aspects of those relationships, as well as not violating police procedures (with the officer discussing the case with a civilian, for example).
NEEDLED TO DEATH takes a different approach to this challenge. Pairing a social worker and/or therapy dogs with the police is a new technique under trial in several cities. Ryan points out that in Madison, Wisconsin (her home town) social workers ride with the police. Several other cities are adding therapy dogs to their K-9 rosters.
The social workers receive basic job training that covers police procedures. “That doesn’t mean blunders can’t occur, however, and they can be useful plot devices on occasion.”
Social workers are bound by rules of confidentiality, she adds, so keeping things under wraps is second nature to them. Hildy is an amateur sleuth, but by the end of the first book she is also a legitimate working member of the police force.
Ryan says she’s recently retired from her regular nursing position, other than continuing to work on an as-needed basis, picking up shifts here and there. With more time to write, she says, “I’m exploring ideas for some new suspense and thriller titles, and perhaps searching for more subtle ways to offend people.”
Annelise Ryan is the USA Today bestselling author of the popular Mattie Winston mystery series and a pseudonym for Beth Amos, who also writes the Mack’s Bar Mystery series under the pseudonym Allyson K. Abbott. Beth is a real life emergency room RN living in Wisconsin. She believes laughter is the best medicine, and with the Mattie Winston series she is hoping to “medicate” the masses.
To learn more, please visit her website.