WRITING AT A DETAILED LEVEL: AN INTERVIEW WITH CAROL POTENZA

Caror Potenza won the 2019 Tony Hillerman award along with a book contract for her novel Hearts Of The Missing. It also made MysteryPeople’s top five reviews of the year. It introduces us to Nicky Matthews, an officer in New Mexico’s Fire-Sky reservation’s tribal police. When she catches a body with a heart missing it leads to a deadly conspiracy on the rez, involving money, class, and tribalism. Carol was kind enough to answer some questions from us.

Hearts of the Missing: A Mystery Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: The first time I ever heard of The Fire-Sky tribe was in your book. What makes their tribe unique?

Carol Potenza: After much thought, I decided to create a fictional New Mexico tribe: the Tsiba’ashi D’yini or Fire-Sky. I did this for a couple of reasons: one, I didn’t know any of the individual Native Pueblo cultures well enough to select a specific tribe; and, two, I have sources on a couple of pueblos who helped me out with things like traditional practices, Native American sovereignty, and police procedures, but who preferred to remain anonymous. I wanted my protagonist to be an outsider to Native culture so I could emphasize both differences and similarities between the people in my book. In the end, I decided I’d use known elements—details I could find already published or shared, for example—from the nineteen New Mexican Pueblos, and not dig into anything these tribes wanted kept private.

MPS: Nicky Matthews is fresh take on the police protagonist. How did you go about constructing her?

CP: Thank you. That’s a wonderful compliment. I think a lot of authors live in their heads. I know I do. As Nicky’s character evolved, I realized I had a little bit of a “Walter Mitty” syndrome. I’d fashioned my protagonist as someone I admired, someone I wished I could be. Nicky is younger, in great physical shape, has straighter hair, and is much braver than I am. She stands up to bullies and knows what to say to them in the moment, while I always craft that perfect come-back after a confrontation is long over. She’s willing to do the right thing no matter what, even if it means she might lose her job—or her life. Nicky has flaws and personal problems, too, but they’ve come about because her character isn’t afraid to push boundaries, be fearless, expose herself.

Nicky also has “visions”, something she says she’d never had until she started working on the Fire-Sky reservation. I gave her this ability because some of my contacts on New Mexico Pueblos actually saw and experienced the things Nicky sees in the novel—like the old Native woman in the glass. I used their true stories to make Nicky different from any police protagonist I’d read. And I have a lot more ghost stories to weave into my books.

MPS: You use the mystery theme of identity in a wonderful way that is tied to the culture. What did you want to explore about tribal identity?

CP: In Hearts of the Missing, I wanted to explore not what makes people different, but what makes people the same. To do that, I needed a sequestered or separated community. Living in New Mexico, I had a number of cultures to choose from—we are a minority-majority state. I chose Native American Pueblo culture because I had friends, family, and contacts who worked and lived on reservations and pueblos, and, like a lot of Americans, my family lore included Native American ancestors. Then I flipped everything on its head. I wanted my European-American heroine to be an outsider in a Native American sovereign nation. In the Tsiba’ashi D’yini pueblo, ancestry and genetics defined who an individual was. Because of her ancestry, her genetics, she will never be a member of the tribe she’s come to love. Even if you’d lived on the pueblo all your life, like my Ryan Bernal character, you can’t become a tribal member if you had the wrong genetic ancestry. I wanted to explore how the notion of genetic belonging could be both exclusive and destructive as well as inclusive and protective.

MPS: As a debut author, did you pull from any influences?

CP: Oh, yes. I love stories that use science in their plots, whether it’s pandemics or epidemics, forensics, DNA, genetics and genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, ancient cultures, archeology, paleontology, and the list goes on. As I started to gather the pieces of Hearts of the Missing, I wanted science to play a major role. Books like Preston and Child’s Relic, Thunderhead, and Fever Dream, and Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and Congo were inspirations because they took believable science and twisted it into such amazing, complex, and satisfying stories.

Probably the biggest influence is the writing group I joined when I first decided to write, along with its members. The Land of Enchantment Romance Authors (LERA) in Albuquerque taught me how to craft an emotionally engaging story, one where the reader truly cares for the characters, becomes buried in the pages, and has a stake in the outcome. Romance writing is about emotion and character connection. I took what I’d learned from romance writing—what I’m still learning—and used it in Hearts of the Missing, even though it’s a southwestern mystery with supernatural elements.

MPS: You won the Tony Hillerman Award and I felt some echoes of his work in yours. Is there anything you admire about his writing?

CP: I admire Hillerman’s sense of setting and his description of the desert southwest, so spare yet so evocative. I admire the respect and fondness he had for the Native American cultures he wrote about. And I loved the way he butted cultures into each other: Navajo and whites; Zuni and Navajo; Navajo and Tano—a fictional pueblo culture in Sacred Clowns. He used the outsider/insider themes so deftly to add tension and conflict.

MPS: I noticed you have a background in chemistry and biochemistry. Can you see any way those skills are applied to the way you write?

CP: A scientific PhD trains you how to approach unsolved scientific questions. It teaches you how to gather evidence, assemble it into a coherent story, present it to your peers in the form of written, reviewed publications. It demands huge amounts of background reading and research, the linking together of sometimes-disparate ideas for new revelations. A science background dictates an understanding—at a detailed level—of how techniques work, the ability to find and tie up loose ends. It pushes you not to do derivative work, but to explore some new and unique property or direction to prove your hypotheses. Sound familiar? I think it parallels what an author has to do when writing a police procedural mystery.

SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH JOANNA SCHAFFHAUSER

I was hooked on No Mercy as soon as I read the opening line: “You kill one guy, one time, and suddenly everyone thinks you need therapy…” The protagonist, Ellery Hathaway, a police officer, is famous because she killed a particularly brutal murderer. He’s in prison, she’s involuntarily suspended.  

No Mercy: A Mystery (Ellery Hathaway #2) Cover ImageThe author, Joanna Schaffhausen, keeps the action and adrenaline and droll wit that first sentence implies. This is the second book in a series involving Hathaway, the first is called The Vanishing Season, for which she won the Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award in 2016.

While dealing with harassment, unwanted attention and personal threats for her actions, Hathaway is pushed to join a group therapy consisting of other survivors of terrible crimes. As she and an FBI profiler, Reed Markham, began to investigate the cases of two of the survivors in the group they find things are not as simple or clear as one would expect.  There are many twists and turns as well great character development.

The author has a doctorate in psychology. Previously, she worked as a scientific editor in the field of drug development. Prior to that, she was an editorial producer for ABC News, writing for programs such as World News Tonight, Good Morning America, and 20/20.  

She agreed to do an interview via email.

Scott Butki: I want to start by asking where in the writing process you came up with the awesome first line: “You kill one guy, one time, and suddenly everyone thinks you need therapy…”

Joanna Schaffhausen: Ha! Well, they say you need to hook readers early with a killer first line. I just took that literally.

More seriously, the audience has to get to know Ellery Hathaway quickly, and this line captures her thinking at the start of the book. Part of the mystery is whether she will still feel the same by the end.

Scott: How did you come up with this story?

Joanna: I asked myself what would be next for Ellery after the events of The Vanishing Season. Most police departments now mandate counseling for officers involved in shootings, especially if they result in the death of a human being, so it made sense that she would be required to do some introspection. Ellery, though, has survived to where she is largely by blocking out unpleasant events, so she’s not excited to talk about her feelings. So then I asked what she’d be doing instead, and the answer was obvious: she’d start investigating her fellow support group members.

Scott: I, and I assume many other readers of your books, find police officer Ellery Hathaway a fascinating character, someone who shot a murderer in cold blood but refuses to apologize. How did you come up with her character?

Joanna: Ellery survived a notorious serial killer as a teenager and has to live out her days in his shadow. This premise is loosely based on Carol DaRonch, who survived her encounter with Ted Bundy back in the 1970s. Bundy was executed for his crimes in 1989, but for Carol, he never dies. The public appetite for Bundy stories means that Carol gets to see his face on magazine covers, has to turn on the TV and see who is playing her in the latest movie adaptation, and field endless messages from kooks and creeps.

In the fictional world, Ellery’s had enough of other people dictating her life. She wants to be a force for good in the world, but she doesn’t like letting people get close to her, emotionally or physically. She has her own moral code and isn’t easily dissuaded from it.

Scott: How would you describe Ellery and FBI Profiler Reed Markham?

Joanna: Ellery has a passion for justice and is especially moved by women and children in harm’s way. The fact that she survived a brutal experience at the hands of a serial killer has given her the sense that she lives on borrowed time. She will risk her life without a second thought to save others.

Reed Markham is biracial and was adopted by a wealthy white Southern family after his Latina mother was murdered when he was a baby. He is empathic, intelligent and, as Ellery notes, lives his whole life on the premise that he makes a difference. He rescued Ellery as a young, green FBI agent and rocketed to fame on the back of the case. The world told him that he was a big hero, and for years, he believed it. Reuniting with Ellery has shown him all the ways he didn’t save her, and thus, it’s like a wound for both of them that never completely heals. However, they are also the only two with this precise shared history, the only two that see each other clearly in the storm cloud of a famous story, so they remain drawn to each other because of this.

Scott: How has your background – which included studying neuroscience, a doctorate in psychology, working for news programs – helped you with this book and this series?

 Joanna: The brain is so endlessly fascinating! Both neuroscience and psychology have devoted much research to criminal deviance, and these articles make for fascinating, if frustrating, reading. Behavior as complex as violent crime will have multi-factorial roots, including genetic, developmental, and environmental origins. Studies provide insights into why some people turn violent, how they justify this behavior to themselves, and how investigators might use this knowledge to stop them. However, none of it provides definitive answers. There is so much that is unknown, and this gray area provides fertile ground for writing.

Working for the news taught me so much. There are whip-smart, curious, and talented people at all levels, but we’re all feeding the same hungry beast in the audience. The beast wants sensational headlines and crazy, entertaining stories. It wants the stories now, in bite-size form. It can be a challenge to balance the truth, which is often messy, boring, and long-winded, with a format that demands a fast, digestible narrative.

Scott: I understand you get some of your idea from true crime stories. What is it that you take away from those stories?

Joanna: Partly, I am interested in the puzzle aspect. How did the investigators piece together the clues to find the suspect? This can provide a road map for similar fictional cases. I’m also interested in the psychological and emotional impacts of crime, so I want to know what it felt like to be involved in the cases. Yes, from the victim’s and investigator’s sides, but also people who were falsely accused, people who were related to the perpetrator, people who were witnesses, etc. I am interested in how all the pieces fit together into one story.

Scott: What did you learn from writing fan fiction for the X-Files?

Joanna: I could write an essay on this topic alone. I wrote approximately 1.2 million words of XF fanfic spanning fifteen novels and a bunch of shorter works, and that’s invaluable practice in terms of craft. However, I think the most important lessons for me are those that are difficult to find before you’re published, namely what it’s like to write for an audience. Not just your critique group or your best friend, but a diverse set of readers numbering in the thousands. My main takeaways are these:

  1. You can’t control your story once it’s out there. People will have reactions to it that you never anticipated, and that’s okay. Some will love it. Some will hate it. The author doesn’t get a say in how people feel about their story, and the reaction isn’t personal (even if it might feel that way sometimes.)
  2. Some stories are more popular than others, and the reasons are mysterious. I have works that people read once and yawned, and I have others I receive daily letters about, even after twenty years. I couldn’t tell you when I was writing them which would be the popular works and which would be the duds, nor could I do anything to force the issue. The only thing I could do is to write the next story. This is a freeing concept if you embrace it.

Scott: What do you want readers to take away from your book?

Joanna: First and foremost, I hope they are entertained. I am a storyteller at heart. Beyond that, Ellery and Reed’s stories are largely about identity. What are the defining factors that make us who we are? What are the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and how do they change over time? One of the threads through all the books is that we have more power over our own stories than it often feels like, and I hope readers embrace that too.

Scott: What can you tell us about the next book in the series, The Neon Boneyard?

Joanna: Reed receives shocking information about his family at the end of No Mercy, which sets up his quest to learn what happened to his murdered mother. She was stabbed to death in Las Vegas when Reed was only a baby, and the killer was never caught. Reed and Ellery set out for the neon lights to see if they can unearth the truth after all these years.

Scott: What are you working on next?

Joanna: I’m working on another serial killer tale. An amateur sleuth trying to find a serial killer who disappeared twenty years ago ends up dead in the same fashion as his victims. Did she get too close and force him out of hiding, or did someone else in her life use her unusual hobby to murder her?

Scott: What’s a question you wish you were asked more often but haven’t been? Here’s your chance to ask and answer it.

Joanna: How many unpublished or abandoned manuscripts do you have?

At least a half dozen completed original novels and a handful of partial manuscripts. Some of these were written after I published my debut book, which shows you that publishing is not some magical wand to forever success. This doesn’t mean that all these other manuscripts were failures, either. I learned from them and cannibalized some for other works, and hey, maybe one or two will even resurface later in another form. Writing is about trying new things and if one of those attempts doesn’t yield immediate success, it doesn’t mean you failed as a writer. You take what you can learn from that project and move onto the next one.

INTERVIEW WITH HELEN CURRIE FOSTER

Helen Currie Foster’s latest mystery to feature Texas lawyer Alice MacDonald Greer, Ghost Next Door, starts with her small ranch being invaded by drones and escalates when a food writer is murdered during the first barbecue cook-off her town of Coffee Creek is putting on and the killer has her sights on her. With her gal pal, Red, she is out to unravel this very fun, Texas-flavored mystery. Helen was kind enough to take a few questions from us about the book.

Ghost Next Door Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: With this mystery, you delve the town of Coffee Creek. What did you want to explore with that?

Helen Currie Foster: The Hill Country is beginning to change, but local flavor remains strong. The landscape itself demands character in the people: they’re either dealing with drought or flood, are either baking or freezing. As Molly Ivins put it, “Texas! –land of wretched excess!”

Bland suburbanization continues its inexorable march west, but people still love places like Coffee Creek: the feed store, the post office where everyone picks up the mail, Friday night lights with the bats darting after the bugs and the PTA frying burgers and selling hot dogs…… AND big sky, live oaks, limestone, and secret springs.

MPS: What I really enjoyed about the book was the relationship between Alice and Red. Where you wanting to say something about female friendship?

HCF: Alice knows she’d never have moved to Coffee Creek, much less begun to belong there, without Red. Red’s a long-time friend who lured Alice (at the lowest point of Alice’s existence) out to Coffee Creek to start over again. Alice loves Red because Red speaks truth, declines to put up with any of Alice’s introverted angst, and honors her own deep Texas roots. Red has Alice’s back; Alice has Red’s. Red’s game for adventure, even (or especially) for danger. She also says yes to frivolity. Alice knows she needs Red. Alice’s friendships with Red (and Miranda) are crucial to her survival.

MPS: Cooking, especially barbecue plays a big part in the story. Did you do any kind of research for this?

HCF: Oh, yeah. A lifetime of research. I’m deeply competitive when it comes to brisket. So competitive that, unlike in Ghost Dagger, where I did share a character’s recipe for Scottish pastries, I didn’t share the character M.A.’s recipes in Ghost Next Door for the dry rub or the mop she uses on her prize-winning brisket, or for the secret technique that keeps it juicy and not burned on the bottom. Like many others, I’ve spent decades pursuing the perfect brisket, whether mine or someone else’s. An all-time best was the brisket taco with the “green sauce” from a food truck on the courthouse square in Fort Davis…EPIC. I will share the recipe for that green sauce on the website.

As to the Coffee Creek Cook-Off, the town adapted the actual Lone Star Barbecue Society Rules.

MPS: One of things that makes your books work is how even characters that are just on a few pages pop. Do you have an approach in writing every person Alice encounters?

HCF: Yes. Even when characters get bit parts, they play an important role in the plot. Alice pays attention to them, watches them, listens to them. She picks up key clues from them. So they must be as alive, as vivid, as any main character—but they have less time to make that impression!

Characters reflect people I’ve met, worked with, been scared of, been enchanted by. Real people. Like the south, the southwest revels in its characters. The guy at the garage, the old man who loads hay at the feed store, the plumber planning to start a commercial venture with marijuana, the clerk at the post office—they revel in their independence, they expand into their own stories, they’re comfortable in their own skins. They don’t try to look like everyone, or talk like everyone.

MPS: As a writer, what has made Alice a character worth coming back to?

HCF: Great question. Alice isn’t perfect. She’s insecure, introverted, critical. And she’s driven. As a lawyer she feels absolutely compelled to finish what she signed on for, what her clients need done. She’s sometimes short-tempered and hasty, because she’s infuriated by people who try to intimidate her or her clients. I admire her strong sense of justice. And you know, Alice loves mystery novels…I have to admire a fellow mystery-lover.

 

Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go to the Corner Mailbox

Guest Blog by Nancy Boyarsky

I’m insatiably curious about people and the things that go on around me. Sometimes I see things on my morning walks, for example, that strike me as odd and pique my interest. Below is an example, but let me preface my tale with a caveat. To the police, our lower Westwood neighborhood is one of the safest in L.A.—although it might sound not so safe to someone living, for example, in a small-town in the Midwest.

Lately, we’ve had been a scattering of home burglaries and a few street robberies. But most criminals working the area have taken to stealing from cars. The latest wrinkle in car-related crime involves night-time theft of auto parts, like tires and airbags, sometimes catalytic converters. For those of us with homes so old that our garages can’t accommodate modern vehicles, cars have to be left in the driveway or on the street. So we lock them up and hope for the best.

But I’m talking about another type of crime. I witnessed it on a day when I set out to mail a letter. Although the mailbox is only a block away, I drove because it was my first stop in a round of errands.

A young man, late teens to early 20s, was at the mailbox. He was wearing a T-shirt and khakis, and he looked clean-cut. Besides, it was mid-day. Broad daylight. No alarm bells went off in my head.

As I drew closer to the mailbox, I noticed something odd. Instead of depositing mail, he was pulling out envelopes, a few at a time. He had a wire that looked as if it had been fashioned from a coat hanger. He was using it to poke in the box and snag mail.

When I realized what was going on, I decided not to stop. Instead, I circled the block and came back, parking a few houses away from the mailbox. I pulled out my cell phone and called 911. After the usual “what-is-your-emergency?” greeting, I explained that I was, at that moment, witnessing a crime. Even as I said this, the young man had stopped rifling in the mailbox. He’d stepped back and was now scanning the street, as if he expected someone to pick him up.

The 911 operator told me that a crime involving mail wasn’t an emergency, but she would transfer me to someone who would know what to do. I went through several connections, each one seemed puzzled by my complaint. Finally, the last person I spoke to said that a mailbox wasn’t within the preview of the LAPD; it was the property of the U.S. Postal Service, and thereby a federal matter. He gave me a phone number so I could report the problem to postal service.

Meanwhile, the young man, apparently giving up on his ride, was looking around, consulting his watch. He didn’t see me, or if he did, he didn’t give any indication.

I dialed the number for the USPS. Ten minutes or more had passed since I’d first spotted the ongoing crime. But the young man was still on the corner, and I’m not one to give up easily.

When I reached the number I’d been given, I realized it was the general information line for the postal service. The automated voice asked me which language I spoke. In some frustration, I pressed “one” for English. Then it asked if I wanted to track a package, get post office information, ask for re delivery. I was encouraged to sign up for more information at myuspc.com. Finally, I was asked to say in a few words what I wanted.

The young man had started to walk away, taking his time, not in any great hurry.

I kept at it, trying to make the automated call system understand that I wanted to report a mailbox break-in. I’d just about exhausted synonyms for “break-in” when a live person came on the line. By now the perpetrator had disappeared. The man at the postal service listened to my story, then asked for the postal box’s location. He said he’d report it to the local supervisor for my area. I realized that he was somewhere else, maybe in Des Moines, or even Washington, D.C.

Later, I contacted my neighborhood association and learned that people had been complaining that they were unable to use their local mailboxes because someone had put a sticky substance in the mailing mechanism, so envelopes got stuck and did not actually drop into the mailbox. Obviously, this was a more sophisticated approach than using a bent coat hanger.

The next issue of the neighborhood association’s newsletter gave a list of sticky mailboxes. Ours was on the list, even though glue had never been the problem.

With that, I decided that my career as a crime fighter was over. At least for me, writing fiction about crime is more rewarding.

Nancy Boyarsky’s latest mystery, Liar Liar, featuring private eye Nicole Graves, can be purchased at BookPeople.

MEIKE’S REVIEW OF GREEN FEES

Green Fees: A Merit Bridges Legal Thriller Cover ImageAustin attorney Manning Wolfe has brought her considerable legal expertise to the crime fiction genre, and the result is a smart, fast-paced thriller series featuring Texas Lady Lawyer Merit Bridges.

In her latest, Green Fees, Wolfe spins a story of lies and treachery that reflects the perfect blend of humor and chills.  Austin is terrorized by a serial killer named The Enforcer who continues to elude law enforcement, but Merit is distracted when her predilection for younger men leads her to  become involved with the much-younger golf pro Mark Green. When Mark accepts help to pursue his PGA dreams, he becomes indebted to the wrong person—Russian loan shark Browno Zars—and comes to Merit for help. She uses every legal trick she can think of to loosen Zars’ grip on Green, not realizing that her actions have brought her to the attention of The Enforcer. As she’s captured and held against her will, facing certain torture and death, Merit has to dig deep within to confront pure evil.

The award-winning Wolfe strikes all the right notes with this series. Merit is surrounded by complex, relatable characters–like Betty, Merit’s colloquialism-spouting, Ann Richards-hairdo sporting office manager. Merit is mostly serious (she has an illustrious legal career and is a devoted mother to her dyslexic son Ace), but she also knows when to let her hair down and just go after that young man while sipping on some fine red wine. There’s a satisfying variety of characters that operate on all points of the spectrum spanning right and wrong. And as a bonus for those of us here in Austin, Wolfe’s deep love for the city shows in her meticulous and glowing descriptions of our town’s scenery.

SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH AMY STUART

In Amy Stuart’s second novel in a series, Still Water, we follow Clare O’Dey, a private investigator, as she tries to find Sally Proulx and her son, William after their disappearance. This is a novel full of twists about a town full of secrets and behind the secrets are still more.

Amy Stuart agreed to do an email interview for her new book. Her first book was Still Mine.

Still Water: A Novel Cover ImageScott Butki: How did this story develop?

Amy Stuart: Still Water is a “sequel of sorts” to my first novel, Still Mine. A couple of the characters continue on in the second book, so to some degree the story developed out of the ending of the first book. I wrote Still Water with enough backstory in place so readers could start it without reading my first novel beforehand. The idea behind Still Water was to create a second missing person case that my protagonist, Clare, could tackle now that she’s got a little more experience under her belt.

Scott: Which came first, the plot or the characters?

Amy: Because this is a second book, the characters arrived on the page before the plot did. I had a general sense of where I wanted to take them, but the characters played a large part in shaping what happened in this book. As a writer it’s a very interesting experience to start a new novel with some familiar faces on hand; to some degree, you are forced to let them guide you through the story. I loved that.

Scott: Should readers read the first book in your series before this one?

Amy: Not necessarily! I’ve heard from lots of readers who read the books in order, and others who read Still Water as a standalone, and still others who read Still Water first then returned to read the first book as a sequel. I’m not about to tell readers how to best enjoy the books and I’m thrilled that they’ve found different ways to do so. That’s a writer’s dream.

Scott: How would you summarize the plot and the main characters?

Amy: Still Water follows Clare as she arrives in a place called High River to search for a woman – Sally Proulx – and her son who’ve gone missing. Clare immerses herself in the town, posing as a friend of Sally’s, but what the people of High River don’t know is that Clare works for a man named Malcolm Boon and this is her missing person second case. What Clare doesn’t know is that Sally’s disappearance is tied to High River’s long and dark history and that everyone she’ll meet is somehow involved.

Scott: The book involves, among other things, lots of secrets, including women on the run from abusive husbands. How did you go about researching things for this book?

Image result for amy stuart authorAmy: The most important thing for me in writing a novel like this is to authenticate the characters and their life stories and to make their reactions and personalities complex enough for readers to really get what they’ve been though. To research, I try to read a lot of case stories and firsthand accounts from women with similar experiences. I think when you’re taking on difficult issues in a book, you have a responsibility to get it as right as you can.

Scott: How does being an English teacher at an alternative high school help (or hurt) your work as a writer?

Amy: I’ve always found teaching to be a great antidote to writing; whereas writing is very solitary and inward, teaching is the exact opposite – social, outward. It’s such an honor to be able to convey my love for reading and writing to young people. But as my books move out into the world, I’ve found it harder and harder to strike the balance between two careers, so I’ve been moving away from full-time teaching. I can’t imagine a future where I’m not teaching in some capacity, though. I feel lucky to have true great passions in teaching and writing.

Scott: What do you want readers to take away from this story?

Amy: It means a lot to me that readers can see my characters grow and change over the course of a book, but that their growth feels authentic and plausible. I want my readers to feel that even the most flawed characters deserve redemption. I hope that my readers see how much I invested in my characters and the story when I was writing it.

Scott: Was it a coincidence, this coming out during the #MeToo movement, or did that movement play a role in your writing this book?

Amy: I was writing this novel just as the #MeToo movement was taking shape, so it was definitely in my head as the words were hitting the page. It felt particularly important to me to give the women characters a voice and the chance to emerge from their hardships with strength and resilience. I don’t see my novels as a form of social commentary, but I do want them to reflect my view of the world.

Scott: What are you working on next?

Amy: I’m back with Clare and Malcolm working on the next book in the series. Furiously! I can’t wait to see where they go next.

 

A conversation with Ashley Dyer

Splinter in the Blood: A Novel Cover ImageIf you like mysteries with lots of twists you need to read Splinter In The Blood, the debut novel by Ashley Dyer.

The story starts out with a bang, literally, with a scene in which Detective Chief Greg Carver, the lead investigator of a serial killer named the Thorn Killer has been shot. He is sprawled on his seat in his own home. OK, maybe there are other mysteries that have started this way.

But I’m not done setting the stage because Carver remembers the shooter standing in front of him. Soon, by the end of the next chapter, he has remembered who shot him: His partner, Sgt. Ruth Lake, who after shooting him takes away his files, compromising the crime scene.

As the book proceeds there become two investigations: Who shot Carver and who is the Thorn Killer? Lake, of course, doesn’t tell anyone what she did, and is not supposed to be working on the former investigation but can’t stay away.

Gradually, we began to understand her motives, her disdain for Carver as a person and as an investigator. And Lake and the Thorn Killer are both fascinating characters.

Ashley Dyer, who is actually two different people working together, agreed to an email interview. One part of the writing duo is Margaret Murphy, a Writing Fellow and Reading Round Lector for the Royal Literary Fund, a past Chair of the Crime Writers Association (CWA), and founder of Murder Squad. A CWA Short Story Dagger winner, she has been shortlisted for the First Blood critics’ award for crime fiction as well as the CWA Dagger in the Library. The other part is Helen Pepper, a Senior Lecturer in Policing at Teesside University. She has been an analyst, Forensic Scientist, Scene of Crime Officer, CSI, and Crime Scene Manager.  She has co-authored, as well as contributed to, professional policing texts. Her expertise is in great demand with crime writers: she is a judge for the CWA’s Non-Fiction Dagger award, and is Forensic Consultant on both the Vera and Shetland TV series. Thanks to them both for chatting with us, and you can read more about them on their website.

Scott Butki: How did you two decide to join up and work together?

Helen Pepper:  I’d done a lot of work with Ann Cleeves. Ann is a member of Murder Squad, a group of crime writers from the north of England, which was founded by Margaret. So we’d met a few times at writing events. Margaret told Ann she was looking for a forensic advisor and asked if I might be interested. I was VERY interested, because I knew Margaret was such a great writer.

Margaret Murphy: I’d written a one-page outline (more of a blurb, really) for Splinter In The Blood in 2014, but it wasn’t until 2016 that I started working on it in earnest. I knew, by this time, that Ruth Lake, one of the two main protagonists, was a former CSI, so naturally, Helen came to mind. You’ve seen her bio, so you will have guessed that she has an ability to bend time – how else would she fit so much into a day? Even so, I was apprehensive that a collaboration of this kind might be a project too far, and I was delighted when she agreed.

SB: How did you go about working together? Some writing partners alternate chapters, others have one do the writing while the other checks the details, for example.

HP: I’m not a writer, Margaret’s the driving force there. What happens is Margaret will come up with an idea, then we’ll get together and talk it through. My job is to come up with ideas as to how we can use forensic science in the story, both to move the story along and maybe to create a few red herrings!

I also advise on police procedure and how things are done in real life, which quite often involves pointing out that, yes, there might be a really fancy piece of kit that will get us a result, but there’s a really straightforward inexpensive way to get to the same result, and police forces don’t have an endless budget.

Margaret then disappears to write the book (a minor job!). Whilst she’s writing we bat ideas back and forth and she sends me completed chapters to check. I love this part of the process, it’s so exciting to see how Margaret makes the story come to life.

MM: When I feel that I have a story idea we could run with, I usually write a short, two-to-three-page synopsis. After that, we bat ideas back and forth, talking about story, forensic procedures that might come into play, police approaches to particular categories of crime, and so on. One example of Helen telling me I can’t have a jazzy piece of kit to do forensics goes like this (no spoilers): I found an academic paper on the use of laser technology to create a 3-D holographic image of a fingermark inside a clear block of material. I took it to Helen, very excited about it, and proud of myself. ‘You could do that,’ she said, ‘but you probably wouldn’t have such an expensive piece of kit, and anyway, why would you, when you could just take a strong flashlight, shine it at an angle through the block, then take a photo?’ (Collapse of stout party.)

After we’ve talked story lines and forensic elements, I mull for a bit, then start on the full outline, which may be 20,000 to 40,000 words long.

SB: How would you summarize the plot and protagonist?

MM: The story begins with an image: a woman standing over a shooting victim; he lies sprawled in an armchair in his own home. She’s holding a gun. By the end of the next chapter, we know that the shooting victim is Detective Chief Inspector Greg Carver and the woman holding the gun is his trusted partner, Detective Sergeant Ruth Lake. By this time, Lake has systematically removed or destroyed evidence and recreated the scene.

For the past year, Carver and Lake have been investigating a series of bizarre, ritualistic killings: five female victims, all tattooed – even the soles of their feet. Over a period of weeks, the “Thorn Killer” inks strange patterns and eyes on the victims – some opened, some closed. Even more cruelly, the ink contains a paralytic which slowly suffocates them. Carver wakes from a coma some days later, and as he struggles towards recovery, he experiences strange hallucinations and ‘auras’ – a form of synaesthesia – caused by the injuries to his brain as he lay near death.

He is lying about how much he remembers and Ruth is lying about what she did at the crime scene – can they catch the killer when they’re lying to each other and everyone around them?

SB: What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

HP: Enjoyment, and a need to read the next book!

MM: All of the above, and also one or two instances when they think, ‘Well I didn’t know that!’ Hopefully, akin to the sudden ‘Aha!’ moments in my background reading, when I want to dash out of my office and grab the next person I see to tell them all about it. But I’ve learned to be very careful with those moments as a writer – you don’t want your readers to feel they’re being lectured to – and excitedly approaching a stranger in the street with my latest scientific factoid, doesn’t always end well…

SB: Helen, I’m guessing that as someone who has been an analyst, forensic scientist, scene of crime officer, CSI and crime scene manager you must cringe when watching tv crime shows. Is it thus therapeutic to work on the Vera and Shetland tv series to ensure they got it right?

HP: I don’t watch too many TV crime shows – they tend to make my teeth itch! Though since I’ve been working on Vera and Shetland I’m a little more forgiving than I used to be. I started out thinking that we could make everything absolutely accurate, but it’s just not possible. In real life there’s a huge team, each of whom each make a small contribution. The senior investigator sits in an office juggling budgets and authorizing overtime and detectives spend an awful lot of time filling out forms and writing reports – which doesn’t make riveting TV viewing. So now I see it as my job to guide writers towards realism, but still keeping it interesting.

SB: Margaret, what was the adjustment like going from writing crime fiction on your own versus as a partner?

MM: I’d worked on a few TV and online scripts and story lines in the past which involved ‘round-table’ discussions with visual artists, producers and writers. Although none of these projects were commissioned, I did enjoy the process, so I was looking forward to working with Helen – and she’s made the transition very easy for me.

SB: What were the advantages and disadvantages of co-writing this?

HP: For me there’s only advantages. Working with Margaret gives me an insight into how the writing process works and allows me into a whole different world. I think one thing that CSIs and writers have in common is that we are really nosey – we like poking around in other people’s lives. I love finding out how the writing works, and I adore meeting ‘real’ people at writing events. You might need to talk to Margaret about the disadvantages!

MM: It’s fun being able to share interviews, podcasts and book tours with someone else – it can be lonely on the circuit, staying in motels and watching bad TV for entertainment. From the performance point of view, I can be excitable and expressive, a bit of a mimic, too – whereas Helen is relaxed and very droll, so we riff well off each other, and audiences enjoy the balance.

Disadvantages: Helen has a ‘proper’ job, teaching police and CSIs of the future to solve real crimes, so I sometimes have to curb my need to know something NOW! Immediately! Without delay! while she fulfills her other responsibilities.

SB: Who are some currently working crime fiction writers you’d like more people to check out?

HP: I think Margaret could answer this better than me. I don’t get to read much crime fiction. I’m a judge for the Crime Writer’s Association non-fiction dagger, so I read an awful lot of non-fiction crime. I’m also a university lecturer, so I have to keep up to date with what’s happening in academia – not to mention the TV scripts and Ashley Dyer reading. I have to say, though, that the murder squad writers are all really excellent. Although they all write crime fiction their approaches are really different, so however you like your crime, one of them would have something for you to enjoy.

MM: Dennis Lehane is a master on so many levels. I feel a strong connection to the recurring theme in his books – both series and standalone – that violence has consequences that are individual, generational and societal. But he is able to do all of this in the most stylish, entertaining narratives you will ever find in crime fiction.

Richard Montanari writes menace like no one else. His books are all very different, yet all have a tension and page-turning pace to envy. I’m usually a slow reader, but his prose, sometimes hard edged, sometimes lyrical always has me reading way past my bedtime.

AJ Finn – his debut is a lovely, twisty take on the domestic noir. Though he explores well-recognized tropes, he does it in a fresh, intelligent and witty manner. The Woman in the Window has hugely enjoyable Hitchcockian references and more than one playful nod towards noir films, and the ending is deeply satisfying, too.

SB: What’s it like having publicists comparing your work to Netflix’s Mind Hunters, BBC’s Broadchurch and American TV’s Criminal Minds?

HP: Pretty mind-blowing! It’s such a great feeling when people like what you’ve done.

MM: One word – gratifying.

SB: Are you already working on the second book? How far do you have this planned out?

HP: The second book’s all finished (and it’s an absolute cracker!). We’re just starting out on book three, and I’m really looking forward to it.

MM: Helen has a more objective view (and I hope she’s right!) As a writer, I’m always terribly anxious about submitting a book. We are awaiting our editor’s verdict as we write this…

BTW, we both microblog on our Facebook page @AshleyDyerNovels (we do giveaways and competitions, too!). We’re on Twitter as @AshleyDyer2017 and we even do forensics and background-to the-story videos on YouTube as Ashley Dyer Author – do come and join us!