Seattle Author Debuts Murder Mystery

Today’s guest is Seattle author Joan Merrill with her debut novel And All That Murder, a Casey McKie Mystery. I had the privilege of helping with the editing process and I can say this is a fun, fast-paced, exciting read.

Synopsis of And All That Murder: Casey McKie is a 36-year-old private investigator who lives in San Francisco’s Chinatown and hangs out at her singer friend’s jazz club in nearby North Beach.

When Dee asks Casey to check into the supposed suicide of a long-time friend, Casey hesitates. She doesn’t buy Dee’s belief that he was murdered, all signs pointing to suicide. But, friendship wins out, and Casey reluctantly agrees, believing it will be easy to disprove Dee’s theory.

After a second body is found, Casey decides Dee may be right – someone is targeting people from the jazz community. As more bodies turn up, Casey follows clues to an Oakland blues club, a Seattle record company, and a Palm Springs gay escort service, her quest ending in a deadly encounter with the killer.


1.   Joan, what attracted you to the idea of writing a mystery
?

Writing a mystery was something I thought I could do, since, being an avid reader of the genre, I was acquainted with the format.

2.  I know you have a background in the music industry. How did this help you in writing your novel
?

One of the precepts for writers is to write what you know, so I made the jazz world the ‘milieu’ for the novel. Also, I had a lot of issues about the business I wanted to express.

3.  Do you have a background in writing?
Since childhood, I wanted to be a writer, whatever that means.  I’ve always enjoyed writing; for example, doing a college paper was fun and not a chore. In my professional career, I’ve written a number of scripts, liner notes, as well as three textbooks. But, to me, being a “writer” means being a writer of fiction. So, those books did not satisfy my lifelong goal. And All That Murder does.

4.  Is crafting a mystery harder than writing other fiction
?

I haven’t written other fiction, but my guess is that it is harder in the sense that you must create more than one viable suspect, giving them all believable motives and opportunities and making them equally as suspicious as the real killer. I think logic is the most important ingredient of a mystery and being logical the most important qualification for the mystery writer.

5. How do you go about planning your books—do you outline? Do you know the ending before you start?

Based on my limited experience (one book published, one in rough draft) I don’t know if I have developed a pattern. But the first things I did were to decide on the PI’s home base (San Francisco, a city I know and love), the ‘milieu’ (the jazz world), the private investigator’s characteristics, and who will be her confidante. (A PI must have a friend who serves as her “sounding board,” for every so often in a mystery, you have to give a “progress report.”

6. How long did it take you to write this book and get it published?

It took several years to get this book to the point of publication. It was the book I started while in writing class and discussed in my writing group. Also, I didn’t work on it all the time. But now that I have given up my other job, I can concentrate solely on novel writing. I plan to have my second mystery finished by fall. And I have the broad outline for the third one.

7. Why did you decide to self-publish?

I didn’t want to spend a lot of time “selling” the book to agents or publishers; I wanted to get it published and start on my next book. For several years, I worked as a talent agent and manager for jazz artists, where my main occupation was trying to get them gigs. I didn’t want to do any more “selling.” Also, I don’t think self-publishing lessens the gratification of having a book published.

8. What are the pros and cons of doing it this way
?

The pros of self-publishing: you can get it done fairly quickly, no need to spend months or even years finding a publisher. The cons: you are entirely on your own. Whatever you write is printed; you don’t have an editor or proof-reader. You make a mistake and there it is for all the world to see. In addition to three friends who read my book, I used a professional writer to copy edit and critique. But the biggest problem for me was proof reading. I had to send my manuscript in three times; I kept discovering typos I’d missed. That cost me time and money. With my next book, I plan to hire a professional proof reader.

9.  What do you think the techniques are for making a mystery a good read (one that keeps the reader guessing all the way to the end)
?

A mystery novel must keep the plot moving along the inexorable path to the solution to the crime. Each scene should present a step along that path. Also, as I said earlier, you have to present the real killer along with believable suspects, giving them all plausible motive and opportunity, and not make it obvious who is the real culprit. Another challenge is to vary the settings. The PI does a lot of interviewing of suspects and, if the setting is always the same, the reader may become bored. I also think that along with an intriguing plot, a mystery writer should create an interesting ‘milieu,’ to allow the reader to experience a new world. For example, Dick Francis writes about horse racing; Tony Hillerman writes about Native Americans living on reservations; Donna Leon’s mysteries take place in Venice, so we learn a great deal about Italian politics and culture; and Elizabeth George, who is American and lives in the Northwest, sets her mysteries in Great Britain and takes great pains with her descriptions of place.

10. For writers new to the mystery genre, what would you suggest they do in beginning their stories?

To begin, a mystery writer should decide on a) the crime b) how and why it was committed and by whom, c) who will investigate the crime, giving his or her motives for doing so, and d) what he or she will do to uncover the culprit (at least the first steps), and e) the climactic scene, when he catches the perpetrator. Some writers prepare meticulously (Elizabeth George, for example, as she describes in her book “Write Away”) while others outline only loosely. Whichever the approach, I think a mystery writer needs to have a basic plan before beginning a novel. I can’t fully imagine the characters or the actions of the book when not writing. For me, the process of writing inspires creative imagination.

11. What are your favorite authors in this genre?
My favorite authors are Ruth Rendell (who also writes under the name Barbara Vine), Martha Grimes, PD James, Elizabeth George, Donna Leon, Sue Grafton, Patricia Cornwell. I like Dick Francis and Tony Hillerman, although their books have a certain similarity, but I generally prefer woman writers. Some male writers who have achieved great popularity make an obvious appeal to male fantasies, creating situations and scenes that border on pornography.

12. I understand you are planning another book. Will this be a series
?

The rough draft of my second book is near completion and I expect to publish it this fall. I have the basic plan for a third in the Casey McKie series. I plan to continue the series so long as I find it challenging.

An excerpt from And All That Murder:

“They found him this morning in his office. Shot in the head. A gun lying next to his hand. With a note. The cops think it might be suicide. But they’re not sure.” Her voice faltered.

The mournful sound of a muted trumpet from the CD player filled the silence. I didn’t know what to say. Her friend was dead. It was tough any way you looked at it.

Dee took a deep breath and seemed to pull herself together. “My ass it’s suicide. That’s bullshit. The po-lice don’t listen.”

I stared at her, my thoughts spinning. I was sorry that Dee had lost her friend, but I thought she was exaggerating. It sounded like suicide to me. I figured she didn’t want to admit it. It was easier to blame the cops.

“But if there was a note –” my voice trailed off.

She only stared at me. She ought to realize that leaving a note indicated suicide, for God’s sake.
We fell silent. Miles Davis’ trumpet sounding louder in the quiet. I stared out at the darkening sky. She was in denial. It was bad enough to mourn a friend, but to believe he was murdered only made it worse.

Her voice was steady and determined. “Casey, I want you to investigate.”

And All That Murder is available at an introductory sales price on Joan’s website and also at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iUniverse online bookstores.

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Meet Helena Harper: Teacher, Poet, Translator

Helena Harper is a native of England, but she grew up in a household that did things somewhat differently to other English households, because her mother was German (her mother had met her father in Hamburg at the end of WWII, when as a British soldier he had been stationed there). This mixed background has had a profound influence on Helena and her understanding of so-called national divisions and whom we call an ‘enemy’ and whom we call a ‘friend’.

From an early age she loved to read and write, particularly fantasy stories, and later she enjoyed studying foreign languages. At Surrey University she studied German, Russian and International Relations and spent considerable periods of time in Germany, Austria and Russia as part of the course. After university she went into banking, but soon realised that was a big mistake. “I felt like I was being suffocated,” she says of the experience.

She then spent a year teaching languages at a private school in London, and enjoyed it so much she decided she would get properly trained. She did a Postgraduate Certificate in Education at Exeter University and then started her career as a modern languages teacher, a career which has lasted twenty years. During that time she has continued to write, concentrating primarily on fantasy stories for young children. However, in the past few years she has also discovered the joys of writing poetry for adults, and her first two books are poetry collections: It’s a Teacher’s Life…! and Family and More – Enemies or Friends?, which have been inspired by her professional and personal life.

Helena is now a private tutor and translator. She is continuing to write children’s stories, and illustrations for her first children’s picture book are now being done. Her aim is to see the book in print before the year is out. Many people ask Helena why she likes to write. She feels she can best express it like this:

The blank page calls,

the heart responds,

imagination spreads wide its wings

and launches into infinity…

Fingers dance,

words flow,

the page fills,

the soul takes flight

and the spirit sings.

Copyright © Helena Harper

Have you always been interested in writing poetry?

Actually, no!  I’ve always loved to write, but my first love has always been writing fantasy stories for young children.  I wrote poetry atschool, of course, and every so often when I was on holiday, but it wasn’t a regular thing.

So, what prompted you to write your first book, It’s a Teacher’s Life…!

Well, I’ve been a teacher for 20 years and about three years ago, when I was having a lovely holiday at a beautiful place in the country, I was inspired to write some poetry, and when I came home, I then had the idea to write some more poems about my life as a teacher. Each poem would concentrate on a different aspect of school life, such as the lessons, what went on in the staffroom, school trips, exams, report writing, and so on. I also wanted to pay tribute to some of the support staff who do so much to keep a school running, but are often forgotten about e.g. the cook, the caretaker/janitor, the nurse, the school secretary – the unsung heroes of life is what I call them.

What prompted you to write your book Family and More – Enemies or Friends?

I had the idea one day whilst driving to work. I was just thinking about my family and other people in my life who’ve had a big influence on me, one way or the other, and suddenly the idea popped into my head that I could write a second collection of poems about them and the lessons I’ve learnt from them.

Why is it called Enemies or Friends?

That’s got a lot to do with the fact that my mother is German and my father was English, and I just couldn’t get my head round the fact that, had I been born a few years earlier, all my German relatives would have been my ‘enemies’. To me they could never have been ‘enemies’, just ‘family’. It got me thinking about how futile it is to talk about so-called national divisions.

What’s the attraction of writing poetry as opposed to writing children’s stories? When I write poetry, I can concentrate on the rhythm and sound of the words and use vocabulary I wouldn’t be able to use in my children’s stories. It’s a marvellous linguistic challenge – the sound of words has always been something that’s fascinated me. It’s one of the reasons I studied modern languages. When I write my children’s stories, it’s more about escaping into a wonderful world of fantasy, leaving the mundane ‘real’ world behind – I find it wonderfully exciting and liberating.

When you’re not writing, what are you doing?

Tutoring, translating, reading, walking, playing tennis or dancing, doing Pilates, spending time with my niece and nephew.

What are your future writing goals?

The illustrations for my first children’s picture book are being done at the moment and I will then get the illustrations done for my second picture book. I’m really looking forward to having my children’s books published and going into schools to talk about them. Having been a school teacher for 20 years, I’m no stranger to the school environment, although it will perhaps be a little strange that I will be going into schools first and foremost as a writer rather than a teacher, although everyone can learn something useful, I hope, from my stories.

Helena’s books are available in paperback from all major online retailers. Can be ordered through any bookstore. Stocked by Haslemere Bookshop and Weybridge Books in the UK.  It’s a Teacher’s Life is available on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and through Google Products

Family and Moreis available as an ebook from Eloquent Books and is due to be published as a paperback by Pen Press Publishers soon.

Helena’s author’s website: http://www.helenaharper.com/
Authorsden website: http://www.authorsden.com/helenaharper
Blog: http://helenaharpersblog.blogspot.com/
Follow Helena on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/helenaharper

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The Horse That Wouldn’t Trot

This entertaining and informative book by Rose Miller is not only a fascinating history of Tennessee Walking Horses, but also contains delightful anecdotes about her trials and tribulations in breeding, training and showing horses. By the end of the book, I felt like I knew her family and horses like neighbors, experiencing their successes, joys with births and sorrows in death.

A back injury led Rose to the Walkers’ smooth gait and their dependability for pleasure riding or for show. She shares her soul-deep love for the animals and how she relates and communicates with the horse’s mysterious mind. For example, the stallion who dug a hole under the fence to get to a mare, or certain stallion’s preference for mares of a particular color. Or the show horse who associated the words “mail box” with getting close to an object and standing still, a valuable training tool.

The book includes great photos of Rose’s beautiful horses in shows, in parades and of her prize show stallion posing with a bride in full wedding attire for a bridal supplement to the newspaper.

Rose has done a good job of building tension in writing about the show competitions. She also explains the history of the Tennessee Walkers, how their distinctive gait was bred into a more “showy” step and the unsavory practice of “soring” horses (applying caustic chemicals and chains and more) to make them step higher to thrill the audiences and win the competitions.

When I was growing up on a ranch in eastern Montana, my horse was a Tennessee Walking Horse, a red roan named Strawberry. He had a wonderful, easy gait that I always describe as like riding a rocking chair. But although he was a great kid’s horse, very laid back, I always thought he was a bit lazy. We always fell way behind the other horses when they were trotting out to the pasture. Now I understand it was because Walkers don’t trot and their gait doesn’t match. I also now understand the term “barn sour,” because while we fell behind on the way to the pasture, Strawberry would be out in the lead when heading home. A lesson learned too late!

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it to horse owners as well as readers who simple have an interest in horses and their varied traits and personalities. The Horse That Wouldn’t Trot is available on Rose’s Website and at Amazon.com

Rose Miller’s next book is Mules, Mules and More Mules: The Adventures and Misadventures of a First Time Mule Owner, which will be coming out this fall.

Rose and Praise Hallelujah, her prize stallion

The Horse That Wouldn’t Trot: A Life with Tennessee Walking Horses: Lessons Learned and Memories Shared

This entertaining and informative book by Rose Miller is not only a fascinating history of Tennessee Walking Horses, but also contains delightful anecdotes about her trials and tribulations in breeding, training and showing horses. By the end of the book, I felt like I knew her family like neighbors, experiencing successes, new life and death.

A back injury led Rose to the Walkers’ smooth gait and dependability for pleasure riding or for show. She shares her soul-deep love for the animals and how she relates and communicates with the horse’s mysterious mind. For example, the stallion who dug a hole under the fence to get to a mare, or certain stallion’s preference for mares of a particular color. Or the show horse who associated the words “mail box” with getting close to an object and standing still, a valuable training tool.

The book includes great photos of Rose’s beautiful horses, in shows, in parades and one of her prize show stallion posing with a bride in full wedding attire for a bridal supplement to the newspaper.

Rose has done a good job of building tension in writing about the show competitions. She also explains the history of the Tennessee Walkers, how their distinctive gait was bred into a more “showy” step and the unsavory practice of “soring” horses to make them step higher to win more.

My horse when I was growing up on a ranch in eastern Montana was a Tennessee Walking Horse, a red roan named Strawberry. He had a wonderful, easy gait that I always describe as like riding a rocking chair. But although he was a great kid’s horse, very laid back, I always thought he was a bit lazy. We always fell way behind the other horses when they were trotting out to the pasture. Now I understand it was because Walkers don’t trot. I also understand the term “barn sour,” because while we fell behind on the way to the pasture, Strawberry would be out in the lead when heading home.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it to horse owners as well as readers who are just interested in horses and their varied traits and personalities. The Horse That Wouldn’t Trot is available at

Rose Miller’s next book is

Bride of the Living Dead Author Talks about Research

My guest today is author Lynne Murray, who is blog-jogging through a virtual book tour for her romantic comedy, Bride of the Living Dead. Lynne has had six mysteries published. Larger Than Death, the first book featuring Josephine Fuller (sleuth of size who doesn’t apologize), won the Distinguished Achievement Award from NAAFA (the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance).  She has written three e-books of encouragement for writers as well as essays, interviews and reviews on subjects that rouse her passions, many of those can be found under “Rants and Raves” on her web site. Lynne lives in San Francisco and when not writing she enjoys reading, watching DVD film directors’ commentaries and spoiling her cats, all of whom are rescued or formerly feral felines.

In Bride of the Living Dead, Indie film critic, Daria MacClellan, wants to marry the man she loves, but she’s slipping on rose petals as if they were banana peels on her way to the altar. Big, beautiful and rebellious, Daria, who is most comfortable in a monster movie poster T-shirt and blue jeans, finds that her wedding is hijacked by family drama. How did she sign on for a formal wedding planned by Sky, her perfectionist, anorexic, older sister? Daria adores her fiancé and she loves horror films, but her wedding seems to be spiraling downward in that direction. Will a picture perfect pink wedding turn her into the Bride of the Living Dead?

In her post today, Lynne talks about research.

I admire novelists who do intensive research so that a reader can travel (or time travel!) to different times and places, but for my own writing I’ve got mixed feelings about research.

Back in college a fellow student journalist who was already a published poet confessed to me that she was shifting her focus to the history of Japanese religion, a field that required massive amounts of research and mastery of a couple of classical languages. She said she felt a tremendous burden lifted when she realized she wouldn’t have to spin fiction out of thin air, with all the self-revelation that that entails. We’re still friends and I know she made the right choice for herself. She’s now a distinguished scholar at an Ivy League university.

My own experience was the exact opposite. I love reading nonfiction and also fiction set in historical times and exotic places, but I felt tremendous relief when I left the fact-based realm of journalism and entered the make-it-up-as-you-go-along world of storytelling.

Maybe that’s why no one has ever been tempted to use the word “distinguished” in the same sentence with my name—but I’m okay with that, I’m too irreverent to wear that kind of a adjective for long anyway.

A certain amount of research is necessary to lure the reader in and anchor a story in a plausible version of the world. Sometimes I’ll research a bit to see if I want to spend a year or so in that setting. It helps to pick a topic that catches my attention enough to explore, but not too deeply!

Often I’ll have my viewpoint character approach something as an outsider. This was a very natural approach for Bride of the Living Dead because I’ve not had anything to do with the world of formal weddings. I’ve only attended a few of them and never served as a bridesmaid in my youth.

Daria, the heroine of the book, shares my blissful ignorance. But Daria’s sister, Sky, who is planning her wedding, is obsessed with every detail. Fortunately I only needed to know as much as Daria did, so we could both watch Sky from the outside without really knowing the details of what she did.

I did do a little research and discovered that I Daria and I both rather like the color periwinkle, who knew?

An earlier example and a much rougher subject, was mountain climbing in my Josephine Fuller mystery, At Large. My protagonist’s photographer ex-husband did a bit of mountain climbing in Nepal, but my heroine stayed back at the hotel when he headed for the mountain. She did help sort out her husband’s climbing gear (which yielded a murder weapon that cast suspicion on her).

A witty mystery writer friend, Lora Roberts has a great motto taken from the old Orson Welles wine commercial:  “We do no research before its time.”

It helps a lot to narrow the field of inquiry and to look for details that help the reader’s imagination without drilling down to irrelevant details, which I would probably screw up anyway.

I once corresponded online with a man who was a serious train buff and he said he could not go to a movie featuring trains because, “They always get it wrong.” Those kinds of readers are impossible to please, so I give myself permission from the beginning to lose them. I confess that after living in San Francisco for decades, I get impatient when an author throws the Golden Gate Bridge into every scene, but if the story is good enough, I’ll give them a pass and keep reading.

Lynne will continue her blog tour with a call-in program Friday, June 4. To receive the teleconference call details (phone number and access code), send an email to pearlsongconversations@pearlsong.com. The call details will be automatically emailed to you. There is no cost for participating in the teleconference call, other than any long distance toll charges that might apply.

Bride of the Living Dead is available through the publisher Pearlsong Press . Also visit Lynne’s blog and her Real Time Writing Diary, and “friend” her on Twitter. For her other tour stops, visit booktour and enjoy.

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