Interview: Sybil Johnson

We are delighted to welcome Sybil Johnson, author of Fatal Brushstroke.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
It’s 70 degrees and sunny, not too dry, not too humid with a breeze blowing in from the ocean. After eating breakfast and reading the two papers we receive, I’d write an entire FATAL BRUSHSTROKE cover_200chapter on my WIP with plenty of time for other things. I’d spend some time with my husband. We’d have lunch and walk down to the beach to check out the waves. I’d work on a tole painting project, do a little reading, a little research, and watch some TV. Just generally a peaceful, productive day.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
I love making cheesecakes—trying out recipes, modifying recipes, creating new ones. That means whenever I see an interesting flavor of cheesecake in a restaurant, I must order it. Purely for research purposes, of course.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
Agatha Christie. Such a prolific writer and interesting person.
Helen Keller. Her life reminds me obstacles can be overcome.
Eleanor Roosevelt. Two things she said speak to me: “You must do the things you think you cannot do.” and “Do one thing every day that scares you.” I try to take those to heart.

Do you listen to music when you write?
I generally like it quiet, but every once in a while I’ll listen to instrumental music. Usually, it’s something like harp music or smooth jazz. I can’t write when people are singing. The only exceptions to that are Gregorian chants and the Hawaiian singer Keali’i Reichel (when he’s singing in Hawaiian.)

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
Milk chocolate because it’s on the cozy end of the spectrum.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
I woke up one morning with an idea that wouldn’t go away—a young woman finds the body of her tole painting teacher in her garden.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
Things aren’t always as they seem. Everyone can be driven to murder given the right circumstances. Even a person most people would consider “bad” has a good side.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
Rory had a happy childhood. She knew she was adopted, but knew nothing about her birth parents. When she and her parents moved back to Vista Beach, she found out her birth parents were criminals. That was a punch to her gut. She’s still dealing with that.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
This has turned out to be a remarkably difficult question. Rory Anderson has Elizabeth Taylor’s blue eyes, the accident-proneness of actress Jennifer Lawrence, and the intelligence and analytical thinking of Abby from NCIS.

If you could host an author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Agatha Christie, Elizabeth Peters, Jane Austen, Patricia Wentworth, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain

What’s next for you?
I’m finishing up book #2 in the Aurora Anderson Mystery Series and starting to think about book #3.


Sybil Johnson’s love affair with reading began in kindergarten with “The Three Little Pigs.” Visits to the library introduced her to Encyclopedia Brown, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and a host of other characters. Fast forward to college where she continued reading while studying Computer Science. After a rewarding career in the computer industry, Sybil decided to try her hand at writing mysteries. Her short fiction has appeared in Mysterical-E and Spinetingler Magazine, among others. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, she now lives in Southern California where she enjoys tole painting, studying ancient languages and spending time with friends and family.

Twitter: @sybiljohnson19
Henery Press:



Happy Thanksgiving

It falls to me, happily, to wish you and yours a most excellent Thanksgiving.

I am grateful to Cynthia Kuhn for pulling together a magnificent group of writers.

I am grateful to you, our readers and commenters.

I am grateful to the Nancy Drew mysteries, to Tolkien, Lessing, Hess, and a plethora of other writers for getting me reading.

I am grateful to Fred Chappell, Joanna Russ, and Robert McKee for teaching me so much about writing.

I am grateful to my critique partners far and wide for helping me hone my craft.

I am grateful to my fans who want to read more of my words.

I am grateful to the wildly beautiful and bewildering world we live in that keeps inspiring me to tell stories.

Now for a tryptophan-induced nap.

Happy Thanksgiving.

You Inspire Me

Earlier this month I wrote about places that inspire me.  But people also inspire me, perhaps in the most important way of all.

Writing is a lonely profession, and it ain’t easy.  One of my favorite quotes likens writing to sweating blood.  Granted, some books practically write themselves, but for most of us, most of the time, writing is sweating blood.  I’ve never met a writer who claims writing is a cakewalk.

Inspiration lures me onto the roller-coaster ride of writing a novel, and then what?  Starting is easier than finishing (at least, for me), and I need another kind of inspiration to crest the rough spots.  It comes in the form of a cheering section, or a silent hug of support, or a really smart coach, or a random comment from a stranger.  Even if I write in the closet, I still need a carrot to keep going.  I need people around me.

Case in Point:

NaNoWriMo.  This month is National Novel Writing Month, when thousands of people around the world sign on to write a novel of 50,000 words in 30 days.  Buddy support inspires NaNo-ers to accomplish a lot more than they would otherwise.

Case in Point:

Peer Pressure.  For many years, I used to write in the closet.  Then in a fearless moment I signed up for a novel-writing class through my local university.  This was back in the dark ages when you had to fill out a form and hand it to a human being.  She scanned my enrollment form and said excitedly, “Oh!  Maybe your novel will be published one day, and I’ll get to read it.”  I had no idea back then if I could even write a novel, but once I got to class and saw other students writing and finishing their novels, I felt pressured inspired.  If other people could do it, then so could I.

Sure, writing is hard, but having a community of support makes dreams happen.  People—friends and even strangers—keep me going, and I’ve found that’s the best kind of inspiration of all!

I Was a Bouchercon Newbie

Bouchercon was fabulous. The whole time, I kept thinking: I cannot wait to write about this. Yet now that the time has come, I’m finding it difficult to articulate just how incredible it was to meet writers whose work you bookfaceadmire–and to discover that they are not only gifted but also kind and encouraging (thank you, lovely people). It was surreal, to be honest. If I start listing all of the wonderful writers I met, I will surely miss naming someone, so I won’t even try. Instead, I will offer Some Things It May Be Helpful To Know Before You Go. (And if you’re an experienced Bouchercon-er, please add your suggestions at the end!)

Panel Hop: There are so many panels scheduled that choosing among them seems impossible. But at Bouchercon 101, the first panel I attended (highly recommended), they said it was acceptable to come and go as you please. So you can theoretically hit multiple panels during the time allotted for one, if you so choose. All of the panels I attended bconwere great, with panelists talking in vibrant and compelling ways about their work and the genre!  But I will give a shout out to the Bloody Murder panel, which was unique in that some of my favorite mystery writers were talking about their favorite mystery writers—and because Sisters in Crime posted the list here so you can see the recommendations for yourself. Tip: don’t miss the Author Speed Dating and New Author breakfasts, where you’ll meet many writers and hear all about their books. Your To-Be-Read list will overflow with goodness!

Prepare For Swag. The conference bags are full of free books (squee!), there are promotional materials everywhere, and most authors have a bookmark for you. Also, publisher reps will sometimes give out books. Also, there are books for sale.  Also, you can bid on books in the silent auction. Also, you can win books at certain events. So here is something important to know: the conference arranged for a UPS table so that shipping your newly acquired goodies home could be a snap. Here’s another tip: check in at registration and pick up your book bag the night before the conference begins so that you won’t have to lug around a heavy bag the whole first day.

Use The Bouchercon App. Attendees received a beautiful archive-worthy large program and handy pocket prograbconappm, both of which I used and will treasure, but there is also a downloadable Bouchercon app listing all events and panels, along with times, locations, and maps. You can go through and choose what you’d like to attend and make your own personal schedule, then set reminders that appear on your phone ahead of time so you won’t miss anything! There is also a Twitter feed embedded, providing attendee responses in real time, which is quite fun to read.  (iTunes version is here.  Google Play version is here.)

Talk To Everyone. At the Bouchercon 101 panel, they emphasized that you should talk to whoever you found yourself with, including The Authors. As a shy person, I was wholly prepared to ignore that advice. Yet everyone was so friendly and willing to talk!  And I do mean everyone.  You could be just standing there and suddenly it’s Oh, Hi Sue Grafton RIGHT NEXT TO YOU.  And then you’re chatting. (Maybe fangirl/boying out a little. But that’s okay. Most people were, in one way or another.)

Find Group Members. It was thrilling to meet so many Sisters in Crime and Guppies and Mysteristas in real life! Many attendees will wear identifying bling on their conference badges. And you should wear your membership pin, if you have one, so they can find you, too! But most importantly, if you recognize someone who is a member of a group to which you belong, go up and introduce yourself. Just do it.

Consider Additional Events. Sisters in Crime offered a full-day “SinC into Great Writing” event the day before the conference began and a business meeting breakfast during the conference, both of which were extremely worthwhile (register for those before you go to the conference and make hotel reservations accordingly). The Guppies also had a meet-up, which was so much fun!

Make Contact Cards. In the past, I’ve invited interesting writers met at conferences to visit Mysteristas, then was always scrambling around for a pen to jot down the URL. So I planned ahead this time and had cards made up with the blog address, email, etc.  But when I met people and gave them a card, they would want to jot down my name, too. Thus, I was still scrambling around for a pen. The lesson here: even if you don’t have a book out, create a business card with your contact information on it.  You never know who you’ll be talking to, so be prepared for everything. Which brings me to the following…

Have Your Pitch Ready. I was asked, in passing, to pitch my WIP. I think my response was something like, “Uh, you mean, like, right now? Uh, okay. [Insert babble sounds here].” Oops.  Live and learn.

Offer To Help. Bouchercon needs volunteers during the conference. In helping out, you will meet more people, so it’s fun and good karma at the same time.

Bring Comfortable Shoes. Cannot stress this enough. I thought my shoes were comfortable—I wear them every day, after all—but somehow between not staying at the conference hotel and lots of walking around beautiful Long Beach, it was blister-city. So maybe this should be: bring two pairs of comfortable shoes in case your first pair doesn’t work out.

Sign Up Early. The conference offers a reduced rate for early birds and the conference hotel sells out fast. Both of those = reasons to register now!

Thank you to the fantastic conference organizers and attendees for making Bouchercon such an inspiring place.

(For more perspectives, see also Diane Vallere’s great post here and the wonderful compilation of recaps on the Bouchercon 2014 Facebook page.)

Guest Post: Donnell Ann Bell

Keeping it Real – Or Not

“Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.”

Corrie ten Boom, Clippings from My Notebook

Hi, Mysteristas, it’s great to be back again.  I have a topic that constantly concerns me regarding my writing. It’s been a nagging voice in my head, it’s frozen me at times, and I’d love your thoughts and opinions.

I’m a worrywart – in life and in my writing.  It’s a personality thing, and I struggle to control that useless emotion.

I also prefer to wriBuried Agendas - 600x900x300te about real places.  I like to ground a story in realism and tell a fictional story within those surroundings.  However, we’re warned constantly as writers that if something bad happens in your book, make it a fictional place.

That’s exactly what happened in my recent release, Buried Agendas.  My mind kept revolving around one central idea. What would happen if a chemical was created that never should have been created?

Worry number one was that I wasn’t qualified to write such a book.  Being married to a chemical engineer does not make you one. But the good news is when you’re a writer, and an idea takes hold, if your muse is powerful enough, it squashes uncertainty.

When the idea simply was driving me mad, I contacted Region V’s EPA, and asked about a chemical I wanted to use.  A wonderful agent in its office sent me all kinds of information on the formula I was curious about.  The reports detailed that many years ago, the chemical in question was so prominently used; that it had been in production for so many years, caused so many ill-effects, that it was eventually taken off the market, EPA-banned, and the site on which it was created turned into a superfund site.

Wow.  What had I gotten myself into?

I tried to dismiss the idea, but my muse refused to abandon the story.  The brainstorming and the research continued.  To be fair when the EPA was obviously on one side of the issue, I contacted plant chemists, plant managers , underground tank experts, lawyers and doctors.  Pretty soon, I had a novice blueprint of what I wanted to write.  Therefore I chose a novice protagonist in which to tell my story, and as I try to do in every book, I did my best to tell the story through the characters’ eyes, while keeping the author’s viewpoints to herself.

Needless to say, the setting in Buried Agendas is completely fictitious, but I do try to ground it somewhat in reality.

If you want to write a story, work around those nagging naysaying doubts.  They say, “Write what you know.”  I’ve always said I know enough about topics to be dangerous.  But I’ve a curious mind, and I’m a storyteller.  Worry or not, the story has to come first.

I wonder if I’m alone in this.  Do you keep it real? Are you a fearless creator?  Does doubt ever grab you by the throat and silence your muse? How do you combat it? Do you stick to what you know, or, like me, do you become absorbed in a topic until you have no choice but to get it down in print? Tell me your creation stories.  I’d love to know.

Okay, Mysterista Readers: Donnell is giving away a copy of Buried Agendas to one commenter, trade paperback or digital, winner’s choice. Let’s hear what you have to say!


Donnell Ann Bell grew up in New Mexico and today lives in Colorado.  A homebody at heart, she concentrates on suspense that might happen in her neck of the woods – writing Suspense Too Close to Home. She is the author of The Past Came Hunting, Deadly Recall and Betrayed, all of which have been e-book best sellers. Buried Agendas is her newest release. Along with veteran police officer Wally Lind, Donnell co-owns Crimescenewriters, a Yahoo group putting law enforcement experts together with writers. Donnell loves to hear from readers. Like her on Facebook or contact her via her website   

Mysteristas write

You regular readers know the Mysteristas as a group of seasoned bloggers. We write short, quick and to the point. Well, that’s true, sort of. We are also a group of seasoned writers. A group with books either on the way or in print. Writing long – novel length – is another of our joys. Two of us have recently released books. Since Friday is free day – we thought it would be fun to introduce you to them.Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00066]

Newly released, Murder with Altitude by Sue Star is the second in a series about life and murder one mile high.  Super mom and martial artist sleuth Nell Letterly finds a dead body while on a training run with her students.  This embroils Nell in the battles of powerful, established families with attitudes off the charts.  They want to ruin her life,  and so does a lawyer on a rampage.  Not to mention the developer who wants to own all of Boulder, Colorado.  By the way, her father is losing it, her daughter is becoming more uncontrollable, and her deceitful husband is still missing.  Time for Nell to find the killer before the killer finds her.  DBBW cover

Kait Carson released Death by Blue Water, the first in series, where the action takes place above and under the sea. Paralegal Hayden Kent knows first-hand that life in the Florida Keys can change from perfect to perilous in a heartbeat. When she discovers a man’s body tangled in an anchor line at 120’ beneath the sea, she thinks she is witness to a tragic accident. She becomes the prime suspect when the victim turns out to be the brother of the man who recently jilted her, and she has no alibi. A migraine stole Hayden’s memory of the night of the death.

As the evidence against her mounts, she joins forces with Officer Janice Kirby. Together the two women follow the clues that uncover criminal activities at the highest levels and put Hayden’s life in jeopardy while she fights to stay free.

So, what do Mysteristas do when they’re not blogging? Well….they’re still writing!



Inspiration: WWHPRD?

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). You’ll find a lot of varying opinions about NaNo, everything from “you’ve got to be kidding me, why encourage writing garbage” to “go ahead and be bold!” Me, I like NaNo. The novel I’m polishing now, that I want to start pitching soon, is last year’s NaNo project. And no, it doesn’t look anything like that first draft. I like NaNo because of the energy. Making a public commitment (I will do X by Y) makes me feel accountable, like people are watching. If you’re a beginning writer, looking to establish a writing routine, NaNo (or one of the many variations) is great for encouraging that because you can’t succeed without a routine. If you do have a routine, NaNo is great for stretching.

But this post is not about NaNoWriMo. Not directly.

This year’s project is the second in my Laurel Highlands Mysteries, series. I had an idea sketched out, a few things in Scapple thrown together and connected by dotted lines. It was going. But something was missing. I couldn’t really put my finger on it. But something was off.

I kept writing, doing what Hallie Ephron calls “hold your nose and write.” I’d figure it out, eventually. Maybe on draft 18, but eventually, right?

But then I started thinking something else. I started playing “what if?” What if it didn’t play out the way I thought? And then I realized something. I was doing exactly what one of my inspirations, Hank Phillippi Ryan, told me to do when we chatted months ago about a different project.

“But plotting is hard,” I said (okay, I whined). “We’ve all heard the trope, only 7 plot lines in the world.”

“I’ll make it simpler,” she said. “I believe there’s only two.”

“If that’s the case, how do you make it unique? How do you create something fresh?”

“Let yourself be crazy. Be bold. Ask ‘what if’? Don’t worry about logic, not yet. Just put it out there. The answer will come to you.”

I found these words incredibly comforting. Hank is like me. She’s said on her blog, Jungle Red Writers, that she never knows “whodunit” ahead of time. She writes every day to find out what happens. I’m the same. Oh, I’ve tried a really detailed outline. That was last year’s project. Outlines work for a lot of wonderful writers I know. Me, uh, not so much.

When I read Hank’s latest, Truth Be Told, there was one moment where I had to read the pages three times to make sure it wasn’t a typo. “Oh my God, she didn’t,” I said.

She did.

She asked, “what if?” She stood at the edge of the precipice, looked down, and thought, “what if?” And then she jumped.

Could I do that? Could I be that brave?

And then I realized: I already did that, twice. Once with last year’s NaNo project. That “what if?” moment resulted in almost a complete rewrite of the entire manuscript and the tossing of that very detailed outline. I did it again with a different project, a rewrite of my 2013 Black Orchid Novella project that Hank had read and given me feedback on (which had prompted the aforementioned plot discussion).

I looked at my current project and whispered, “What if?” It was a little scary. “Hank would do it,” my subconscious whispered.

I decided I could be that brave. I jumped.

And the minute I jumped, the minute I decided to pursue “what if?” and go into the darkness, it clicked. That feeling of “something is missing” disappeared. The story felt right. I hastened to scribble my ideas in Evernote, lest I forget them.

Tonight I’ll transfer those notes into Scapple and see how they connect. Then I’ll start plotting out scenes again. I’m in luck. This time I asked “what if?” before I’d written “the end.” I’ll have to change my map, I might have to go back in revision and tweak some things, but I can change course. And tomorrow, I’ll keep drafting with renewed enthusiasm.

I think every author has someone who inspires them, someone who took them by the hand (literally or figuratively) and whispered, “You can do this. Come on, jump. It’ll be fun.” Those people are more than fellow authors. Their kindred spirits, connected by some magical fluff of the universe.

And now that I know this, every time I get stuck, I can ask two questions: What if? and What would Hank do? From those two questions, I can find inspiration.

I must remember to thank Hank when I see her in December.

So Mysteristas, do you have a literary inspiration? Who and why?