When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. I was writing stories in pencil on lined pulp paper when I was very young.
Was your first published book (The Heat of the Moon) the first you wrote?
Far from it! I wrote several books over many years, had several agents, but couldn’t make a sale. I was trying to write mainstream/literary fiction, and I was in the wrong genre. The Heat of the Moon was the first suspense/mystery novel I had attempted, and I realized then that I had found the type of book I wanted to write. But it took years to sell.
Where do you get your ideas?
I could be cute and say, “At the Idea Store. It’s over on Leesburg Pike, next to the Container Store. I always stop and pick up a sturdy container for my new idea before I take it home.”
But the truth is: I look around. I listen. I watch people. (You may not think I’m watching you, but I am. Closely.) I read and listen to the news. A writer can make a story out of anything simply by asking, “What if?” The trick is finding an idea that excites you and will hold your interest for a year or so. An idea that will grow roots and branches and become something far more complex than the tiny seed you began with. Characters you can bear to live with day and night for many months. Every author is an individual, of course. What interests me will bore another writer. I have to love an idea enough to stick with it long-term.
Do you base characters on real people? Has anyone ever become angry because he or she saw an unflattering portrayal in one of your books?
I sometimes use a real person as a starting point for a character, but by the time I’ve written a single scene with that character, the real person has disappeared. Fictional people grow and change with the story and become unique individuals. I do sometimes use the names of friends for characters, but usually with their consent. I use other people’s pets, too. (For example, Mr. Piggles the guinea pig is in my books because Meg Born donated money at a Bouchercon charity auction to secure him a place, and several dogs and cats have appeared because their owners bought naming rights at an auction.) No one has ever complained about being in one of my books or about the way I’ve used their pets. (So far. Fingers crossed.)
How long does it take you to write a book? How much time is devoted to revision?
I wrote my first published novel, The Heat of the Moon, in six months. I have written other books in a year. I needed about 18 months to write Poisoned Ground, but that was primarily due to life events, not the difficulty of the writing. About half the total writing time is devoted to revision.In today’s publishing world, a book a year is considered a minimum, and I would like to keep to that schedule, but I can’t always. I have cozy-writing friends who turn out three or four books a year, and all I can do is gape in amazement.
What is your daily writing routine?
Ideally, I come to my computer after breakfast, write until lunch, then write for another couple of hours after lunch. Life sometimes interferes, in the form of dental appointments and sick cats, but I get the most work done when I keep to a routine.
Do you use a laptop or desktop?
Desktop. I have a laptop but can’t imagine using it to write a book. The touchpad makes my fingers hurt.
Do you use any special software, such as Scrivener?
I own a copy of Scrivener. I have it installed on my desktop computer. I have yet to use it. One day I will, I’m sure, but I can’t predict when. For many years, I have used Lotus (now IBM) Word Pro, an old word processing program that I love and hate to part with. I can use WordPerfect if I must. I will never use Microsoft Word for writing, although I have to convert the manuscript to Word before turning it in.
Do you have animal companions while you write?
Of course. Miss Emma is my tireless muse, nearby in the same room. Gabriel pops in for comic relief and to remind me to take a break (during which I am welcome to rub his belly).
What other writers have influenced you?
Flannery O’Connor has probably influenced me more than anyone else, with her sharp, clean prose and her clear-eyed view of humanity and the world we’ve created. Living writers I admire – I will spare them the embarrassment of being named as influences on my own writing – are Ruth Rendell, Thomas H. Cook, Edna O’Brien, Louise Erdrich, Tess Gerritsen, Lisa Gardner.
Why do you write crime fiction?
Although I enjoy a lot of literary and mainstream fiction, I find I’m impatient with books that don’t have a strong narrative drive – stories that aren’t moving toward a definite goal. I want a novel with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and I want the ending to be a true conclusion rather than an arbitrary stopping place. I want a story that has a point. In my reading, I don’t always demand that the villain be punished at the end – sometimes it’s more realistic if he escapes to wreak further havoc – but any villain who turns up in one of my own books is going to get what’s coming to him.
What question or complaint do you hear most often about one of your books?
Some readers think Rachel should have made a different decision at the end of The Heat of the Moon. I don’t agree, obviously. She made the only choice she could under the circumstances. Some readers think a certain character should have been more severely punished at the end of Broken Places, but in fact I left her fate a bit vague. Under the law, very little could be proved against her, so a harsh fate would have been unrealistic, but her actions cost her everything she valued, so I wouldn’t say she got off free and clear.
Do you mind when readers criticize your choices for your characters?
Not if they’re polite about it. (Of course, I never agree with them.) I do mind if they become insulting and aggressive. The book is written and published. It isn’t going to be changed because a reader doesn’t like some aspect of it. I respect the right of authors to make their own creative choices in their own work, and I believe readers should respect that right too.
Of all your books, which is your favorite?
I will always love The Heat of the Moon the most because it was my first attempt at suspense and it was the story that introduced me to Rachel. I like my sixth book, Poisoned Ground, a lot too. It has the kind of multi-layered plot I love and a set of quirky sisters I thoroughly enjoyed writing about. But I’m also proud of Disturbing the Dead, Broken Places, and Under the Dog Star because of the complex plotting and the characters. If I couldn’t take pride in each book, I wouldn’t write.
Do you go on book tours?
No. Few writers do these days. If you’re not a bestselling author, or someone your publisher is trying to turn into a bestseller, you have to pay all expenses out of your own pocket, and the return on that considerable investment is dubious at best. I attend mystery conferences and do appearances within easy driving distance of my home.
Is your desk neat or messy?
Always messy, except when I am photographing it for some reason. Then it suddenly becomes extremely neat. What the photo never shows is the mess I’ve dumped on the floor temporarily.