CRIME & COMMUNITY: MEIKE ALANA INTERVIEWS TERRY SHAMES

A Risky Undertaking for Loretta Singletary: A Samuel Craddock Mystery (Samuel Craddock Mysteries) Cover ImageTerry Shames will be back at BookPeople joining debut author S.C. Perkins (Murder Once Removed). Her latest, A Risky Undertaking For Loretta Singletary has her hero, brought out of retirement, Jarret Creek police chief Samuel Cradddock looking for his missing friend. Our Meike Alana caught up to Terry before hand to ask her a few questions.

1. Loretta is a favorite character of mine, and I’m sure of many other fans as well. From the title I expected the book to feature Loretta—but in fact she’s actually missing and the book deals with Samuel’s search for her.  Yet despite her physical absence, Samuel and the reader learn a lot more about the character—some of which is a little surprising! Can you tell us how you came to adopt this approach?

In one of my earlier books, I tried to write a book without Loretta, and found that it fell flat. There is something elemental about her presence in the books. Like a Greek chorus in early Greek literature, she is the voice of the community,. She loves gossip, but it isn’t mean gossip, she just likes to know what everybody is up to. In that role, she’s able to give Craddock information he might not otherwise be privy to. Because she doesn’t take any guff from Samuel and has her own sharp opinions, she also lends humor to the books.

In art there is a concept called Negative Space, which can define what an observer sees on the canvas. In coming up with the idea of  Risky Undertaking, I wanted to highlight how important she is to the community by having her disappear. Samuel is trying to deal with an uproar in town over the annual Goat Rodeo, and he knows if Loretta was around she’d be just the right person to take care of the situation. Without her, things run off the rails. Other characters have to step in, and they are not successful at doing what Loretta does. In particular, she keeps the church ladies in line. Without her, they go off on a wild tear.

Dru Ann Love has a blog in which she asks authors to write a Day in the Life of a character. I did that for Loretta and it was fascinating. It’s interesting how much you learn when you concentrate on how characters spend their days when they aren’t on the page—what time they get up (Loretta is a very early riser), what they eat for breakfast (she never eats much), what they do to relax (Loretta reads romance novels). Loretta is so much of a presence, that her absence actually told us how much she defines the space around her.

2.One of the things we at MP love about your series is that the characters are so well-developed—every visit to Jarrett Creek feels like revisiting old friends. This time around we meet some new faces—can you tell us a little bit more about the characters you’ve introduced? Any maybe a little glimpse as to whether we’ll get to know them better going forward?

The characters in Jarrett Creek are as real to me as if I could walk in and visit them. Sometimes when I bring up a new character, like the Catholic priest, I’ve known all along that he was there, I just never needed him to be a presence in a book. Just like in real life, sometimes we know someone is part of our community, but we don’t actually know them. I like to either bring in these long-time, hidden, community members, or introduce new characters for recurring characters to bounce off of, because otherwise the cast of regular characters  would get stagnant. Occasionally one will take my imagination, and I know they will come back. One of those is XXX, who first showed up in The Last Death of Jack Harbin. He showed up again in my last book and will play a role in the one I’m now contemplating. Other drop-in characters will only be important to a particular story. In the prequel, An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock, I introduced a woman who was instrumental to the story and to Samuel’s growth. In the end, I knew she would not be in later books, and I actually cried when I had to say goodbye!

Sometimes I’m surprised by the way my minor characters push themselves into the story. For example, I had no idea that Maria and Connor were going to be at odds with each other, giving a larger role to Connor than I had envisioned. It just happened, and seemed perfect.

Not all “drop in” characters are so lovable that I want them to stay around. I liked coming up with the new Baptist preacher, but he butts heads with Samuel right away. Not a good sign for his future.

3. One of Samuel’s really admirable traits is that he’s not afraid to ask for help when he’s out of his depth, and that’s the case here. When he learns that Loretta has been visiting online dating sites (see surprising things about Loretta above!) he sees the need to explore those sites further and has to ask for help from his younger deputy. What led you to adopt that angle?

I’m afraid that I took Samuel’s need for help with on-line dating sites from my own life. I know nothing about dating sites, and a younger guy in my writing group set me straight about them. I always like to play Samuel off against Maria, and it seemed perfect for him to turn to her, as a younger person to learn something about a modern concept that he knew nothing about. And I was surprised by how conversant Connor was with the sites.

There was a particularly important scene in this book in which Samuel asks for help. In this case, Samuel is actually in a state of panic. This was a direct result of one of my readers saying that he loved that Samuel never panicked. I knew in that moment that he had to panic. What better reason for panic than to be frustrated that a close friend was in danger? And what better person to take a stern approach, and bring Samuel back into line, than his old law enforcement pal, Schoppe.

4. Speaking of online dating sites—any interesting stories related to your research for that plot point?

A couple. I discovered that a woman I know who is happily married spent a lot of time on dating websites before she met her husband (and she didn’t meet him on a website). She told me she spent a lot of money on the sites, because they are always advertising new ways to  find someone. I was surprised. She’s adorable. I was surprised. I had no idea the sites were mining for people’s money. The other story was that the man in my writing group who clued me in about dating websites helped me understand that most young people use them these days. Who knew?

5.  One of the challenges in writing a small town setting in crime fiction is the “Cabot Cove” syndrome—at some point, a small town can’t sustain the number of murders that take place. You’ve managed to avoid that and each book feels really fresh in terms of the cases that Samuel investigates. Can you talk a little bit about how you keep things so interesting and varied? Where do some of your ideas come from?

Jarrett Creek is a small town, but it’s part of a wider web of communities, so the first crime actually did not happen in Jarrett Creek. The same was true in the fourth. In several of the books a lot of what happens involves outsiders who stir things up or who commit the crimes or are instrumental in the plot. Samuel has had to drive to Houston, Dallas, Jacksonville, San Antonio, the Hill Country, Bryan/College Station, and Burton to investigate the crimes, so this introduces new territory. In one book, some of the off-stage action takes place in San Francisco. One of the books was a prequel, which is much the same as having the action happen somewhere “different.” You can’t let things get stagnant. I couldn’t stand to do the same story again and again. I’d get bored. But these stories are about people, and people are endlessly different.

6. So a question about your writing process—how has that changed over these years as you’ve transitioned from debut author to seasoned veteran?

I wish I could say that it has changed, but with every book the process is pretty much the same. I think about what the main idea is, about the social and psychological issues in play, and I let mental pictures come. Sometimes the pictures make no sense, but I trust that they will fit somewhere. There is a scene toward the end of Risky Undertaking that I had in my mind from the beginning. It’s what I was working toward. One thing I always have to have, though, is a good first scene. It sets up the whole book. From the first book, A Killing at Cotton Hill, when Samuel is on his porch and Loretta comes to visit, to this last book, “Risky Undertaking,” when two brothers are fighting, I feel like that scene puts in motion everything that follows.

7. Can you tell us what’s next for Samuel? Personally and professionally?

The next book is going to be about the biennial motorcycle rally held at the lake in Jarrett Creek. The hard part will be balancing the huge crowd of strangers with the citizens of Jarrett Creek. Also, if there is a crime committed there and Craddock is going to be responsible for finding out what happened, he’s going to have to do it in the long Fourth of July weekend. In addition, the rally hires outside security guard, and I have to figure out where those things fit in. I’ve set myself quite a task! At the same time, I’m curious as to where his relationship with Wendy will go. And even more curious to find out if Samuel is going to train his dog, Dusty, not to be a nuisance.

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