Interview: Leslie Wheeler

Please welcome Leslie Wheeler, author of Rattlesnake Hill!

perf5.500x8.500.inddWhat’s your idea of a perfect day?

My perfect day begins with breakfast for my cat and me—can’t start the day without it—and a glance at my local newspaper, The Boston Globe. Then if Marmalade the cat is feeling frisky, I’ll play with her a bit. After that, it’s up to my study on the third floor of my condo to write while my mind is still fresh and clear but also in touch with the dream world of my unconscious. Though difficult at times, writing is an activity that gives me great pleasure. I’m excited when ideas come to me, and a productive session leaves me with a feeling of accomplishment. I’ll break for a quick lunch, then around 2 or 3 PM, my low point in the day, I’ll either go to the gym, or if the weather’s nice, I’ll take a walk around the Fresh Pond Reservoir in Cambridge, which puts fresh air in my lungs, clears my mind, and removes the kinks in my body that I’ve developed from sitting at my computer. I’ll return, refreshed and relaxed, and if there’s time, I’ll put in an hour or more at my desk. My perfect day ends with me either cooking dinner for my significant other and my son and his girlfriend, all of whom live nearby, or having dinner with my significant other at his place. Afterwards, I might watch a little TV, read a book or a New Yorker article that interests me, then it’s lights out.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase/expression or meal?

From head to toe, the accessories you’re most likely to see me wearing are a beret on my head and patterned socks on my feet. The beret I currently sport is made of soft, dark green wool that after several years of wear fits my head of thick, unruly curly hair perfectly. I’m so attached to it I’d probably freak out if I lost it, as I have when I’ve lost previous favorite berets. I wear a beret outdoors in the fall after it turns chilly and into the summer until it gets too hot and I replace it with a cotton or straw sun hat. The patterned socks I wear come in all colors with lots of different designs. Many feature cats, but others showcase birds, fish, moose, bears and deer. The socks always give me a lift—no pun intended—when I put them on, and I feel sad when a favorite pair develops holes and I can’t wear it anymore.

What themes do you regularly revisit in your writing?

One theme I often revisit in my writing is that of parents’ efforts to control their children’s lives. In Murder at Plimoth Plantation, this is presented in a humorous manner through the portrayal of my main character’s sister-in law, Eileen, who is such a helicopter mom that she jets in from California to Massachusetts once a month to visit her daughter, an interpreter at Plimoth Plantation. In Murder at Gettysburg, the theme takes a more sinister turn that I won’t go into here lest I give too much away. In Murder at Spouters Point, an interfering older brother tries to prevent his sister from marrying a man with a questionable past. In my new book, Rattlesnake Hill, a grandmother’s incessant message of gloom and doom causes her granddaughter to approach people warily, making it difficult for her to have close relationships with men.

Another theme I’ve dealt with frequently is the way in which the past is repeated in the present. Both Murder at Plimoth Plantation and Murder at Spouters Point focus on the often troubled relationships between white people and Native Americans, historically and into the present-day, while Murder at Gettysburg, with its emphasis on Confederate reenactors, takes a hard look at how some people in this country are still fighting the Civil War. In Rattlesnake Hill the past repeats itself in the present with two romantic triangles, separated by over a hundred years, that involve members of the same family.

A third theme that as writer especially interests me is the conflict between remaining on the sidelines of life as an observer and being fully engaged. Not surprisingly, I’ve examined this conflict through Miranda Lewis, the main character of my Living History mysteries, and Kathryn Stinson, the main character of Rattlesnake Hill, both of whom are torn between detachment and involvement.

What inspired you to write your new book?

Rattlesnake Hill grew out of the deep love I developed for the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts after many years of living there, first full-time, now part-time, in a small town that’s off the well-beaten tourist track. I have often been struck by the beauty of the Berkshire landscape, but I’m also well aware of the area’s dark side in the hardscrabble lives of some of the locals.

A story I heard about local people haunted me so much that I built the novel around it. It’s a tragic tale about a love triangle that ended with a woman’s murder and her lover’s blinding. Part of the reason this story had such an impact on me was that I knew and still do some of the people involved. The blinded lover’s father did the excavating on my property and for many years plowed the driveway. I often saw his son riding in the truck with him, dark glasses covering his sightless eyes. Also, relatives of the man who did the shooting are neighbors who live up the hill from me.

In the novel, this love triangle takes place over a hundred years ago, but it’s a story that reverberates over the generations until it’s repeated in another triangle that also ends with a woman’s death. When my main character, Kathryn Stinson, plunges into a passionate affair with a man whose ancestor was involved in the long-ago triangle, and who also figured in the more recent one, the story threatens to repeat itself a third time.

If you couldn’t write, what would you do?

If I couldn’t write, I’d spend more time doing all the things I do when I’m not writing. I’d read more, travel more, garden more, cook more, go for long walks and hike more, hang out with friends more, do more home improvement projects, and continue to do events and give workshops related to writing. But actual writing is so much a part of who I am that I’d feel diminished without it. While I enjoy other activities, I’m most happy when I’m writing—when it’s going well, of course! There have been periods when I couldn’t write, and those were difficult for me. One such period occurred after my husband’s death a number of years ago. I was so overwhelmed by everything that needed to be done, including getting our son through his first year of high school without his father, that it was several months before I ventured into my study. When I finally did sit down at my computer and write, it was such a wonderful experience that I knew I had to continue.

*****

An award-winning author of American history books and biographies, Leslie Wheeler has written three living history mysteries: Murder at Plimoth Plantation, Murder at Gettysburg, and Murder at Spouters Point. Her new book, Rattlesnake Hill is the first in a new series of Berkshire Hilltown Mysteries. Leslie’s short stories have appeared in such anthologies as Day of the Dark, Stories of Eclipse, and Level Best Books’ New England Crime Stories series, where she was formerly an editor. A member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, she is Speakers Bureau Coordinator for the New England Chapter. Leslie divides her time between Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Berkshires, where she writes in a house overlooking a pond. Find her at her website (http://www.lesliewheeler.com) or on Goodreads (http://www.goodreads.com/lesliewheeler)

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DNA – The story of you

Seems like DNA testing is all the rage.

I watch the Olympics and I see advertisements for companies that will test your DNA. 23andme is one such company and I believe Ancestry.com offers a testing service. I keep reading stories of people who have jumped on the DNA-testing bandwagon. They are simply curious or they are deliberately tracing their roots.

Part of me is intrigued by this. See, I know almost nothing about where my ancestors came from. My maternal grandfather is from Croatia. That’s about all I know. I know–or more accurately, suspect–the rest is a melange of northern European; English and German, maybe a smattering of other stuff.

My aunt (my sister’s mother) is big on researching the family tree. At least on her mother’s side. She’s compiled lists of people going back over 100 years and even used to ask me to take pictures of gravestones for family members buried in Pittsburgh.

I have no such reference for my father’s family. His father is the only one of his family to escape being an alcoholic and there was very little interaction between my father and his father’s family. He knew one brother (at least) from his mother’s side, but that’s about it. And he’s never shown any interest in knowing.

I’ve spend most of my life being content at seeing myself as your stereotypical American mutt as far as ethnicity. Sure, it caused some consternation during elementary school (for me and my kids) when those days of “bring something from your ethnic background” came around, or when teachers assigned the “family tree” project. But I muddled through.

Now, though, I admit to being intrigued. I could finally find out if my suspicions for the last 40-odd years are right. But then, my writer brain being what it is, I go off on tangents:

  • …what if I find some weird genetic information, like a small percentage of my DNA is from West Africa?
  • …what if, somehow, my biological material (along with countless others) wound up in nefarious hands?
  • …what if DNA was being obtained by a company for secret biological/genetic manipulation purposes?

And so on.

I know that points 2 and 3 above are pretty far-fetched. But all of it is great story fodder. And, well, I don’t think I could help myself going there and I really don’t want to.

Yet.

Plus, someone recently raised the question of does this DNA testing also tell you if you’re at risk for disease? I wouldn’t want to know that unless I could take some sort of action. For example, my mother died of breast cancer. When my doctor suggested I get tested for the gene, I declined–because the suggested treatment was something I wouldn’t do at the time. I’m not big on “here’s this potential problem, but either there’s nothing you can do except worry OR choose this treatment that is really awful.”

So what about you? Would you choose to do DNA testing?

Making a Book—Peg’s Recipe

(This article originally appeared in my December 2016 newsletter.)

Several weeks ago I completed the first draft of my new manuscript. The celebration was brief because I knew there was a lot more work ahead of me… edits and revisions. This new stage is where it’s possible to take an “okay” book to a “great” book. To me, the hardest part is over—finding the story and writing it. What happens next is pure magic. Yeah it’s work, but it’s still magic.

I thought I’d share a little bit of my process with you.

This particular manuscript took me about eleven months to research and write. That’s pretty much the norm for me. While I’d love to write two reader-worthy books a year, I haven’t quite figured out how to do that.

A few days after I finished the first complete draft (many scenes having already been rewritten numerous times), I do a series of self-edits. The first is a read-through where I look for plot and character inconsistencies, glaring errors, scenes that need to be cut or added, etc. and then apply those changes. Then I do a text-to-speech edit that points out over-used words, and missing words, and places where I used the wrong word. It’s a computerized voice that demands your attention. When I work through the same words over and over, my mind does an auto-correct from what is actually written to what I think is written. For example, I remember in this edit hearing the word “now” when it was supposed to be “know.” I make those corrections and then do another full read-through.

At this point I’m standing in the middle of a word-forest and have lost all perspective. I know the story can be better, but where? How? (Just so you know, the story can always be better. At some point I just have to let it go.)

That’s where my beta readers come in. For this manuscript, I have seven people who have agreed to read and share their comments with me. Four of them are successful authors in crime fiction, one is a trusted friend who could be an editor if she wanted, and two are readers whose opinions matter to me. I’m in the middle of my fourth round of revisions from beta readers, with a fifth one waiting. So far they’ve run the gamut from general observations to a line-by-line edit. I value all of them, and it’s amazing… they’ve each caught different things! And each person made this commitment during one of the busiest and most stressful times of the year. Every one of them has my gratitude.

After I finish the beta revisions, it will finally be time for me to bring out the Big Gun, a/k/a my editor. Each of my three books has had a different editor, perfect for that book at that time. I’ll be using the same person I used for THE SACRIFICE for a lot of reasons. First of all, she’s an amazing editor who makes my brain bleed (in a good way). She’s also familiar with these characters because this book is the second in a series, following THE SACRIFICE. She was referred to me by an author many of you might read, Timothy Hallinan. Peggy Hageman, formerly with William Morrow, was involved in the editing process for Tim’s Edgar nominated, THE QUEEN OF PATPONG. (If you haven’t read Tim’s Poke Rafferty series set in Thailand, do yourself a favor. My advice is to read them in order, beginning with A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART.)

Sorry, talking about books and authors can often get me running off on a tangent.

The process of the final edit can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, depending on the scope of the story and any issues with the manuscript. My plan, always, is to present something that’s fairly clean so the remaining editing process can be as smooth as possible.

While my manuscript is with Peggy, I’ll be in touch with my cover and interior designer. Together we’ll hopefully come up with a compelling cover that reflects the story inside.

And finally after it’s edited, it’s time for a really good proof reader.  So many edits and revisions and changes can wreak havoc on those tiny details—the same ones that text-to-speech helped me with earlier. Only now, even t2s is unlikely to work. My ears and eyes have grown numb and there’s a disconnect in my brain. So someone else, fresh to the manuscript, is needed to give it a nice, tight read. One more edit to go.

There you have it. My revision process. It takes a village to create a book, at least one of mine.

It’s all better with friends.

Interview: Vivian Schilling

Please give a big welcome to Vivian Schilling, author of Quietus!

Quietus coverDo you listen to music when you write?

Yes, I find music incredibly inspiring. I love soundtracks in particular with their ever-shifting movement and mood. I’m a huge fan of film composers James Newton Howard, James Horner, Hans Zimmer, and Vangelis. I find Javier Navarette’s score to Pan’s Labyrinth and Clint Mansell’s The Fountain absolutely haunting. Lisa Gerrard’s Whale Rider never fails to get me swirling through the room as I plot my character’s next move. Music adds a whole physical element and dimension to writing I often miss with mere silence.

What made you interested in writing this particular story? 

I narrowly survived a car crash when I was a young girl. Though I lost consciousness, I have a vivid memory of being alone in a dark place along with the overwhelming feeling I didn’t belong there. The firemen and paramedics, even the doctors told me it was a miracle—sheer chance—that I had survived. They kept me in the hospital for days looking for signs of injury but found only minor cuts and extensive bruising. Four years later, I lost both of my parents unexpectedly within less than a year of each other. At twenty-two, I found myself questioning the seeming synchronicity of life and unpredictability of death, and my inability to reason my way through loss. I wanted to know why I was spared while my parents weren’t. To this day, I remain fascinated with the question of fate and our body’s final breath when life’s greatest mystery will be revealed.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?

As in Quietus, my themes often involve a deeply conflicted protagonist in search of philosophical, moral or spiritual answers. Quietus also explores the line between life and death and questions whether modern medicine and resuscitation play a role in its balance. Other recurring themes: prejudice and the power of perspective; the psychological battle wherein man versus himself; addiction and the underlying issues that create them; and somewhere—almost always—the bond between mother and child, sister and brother.

Tell us about your main character:

Kylie O’Rourke comes from hard-working, impoverished parents, her father an Irish lobsterman, her mother a daughter of the Georgia bayou. Transcending poverty, Kylie makes a life for herself in Boston as an interior designer and is at the height of success when she, her husband, and closest friend are in a devastating plane crash. When she wakes in the hospital weeks later she finds her world turned upside down. Suddenly everything she thought she knew of her past, of her husband and of her core beliefs falls into question. Even the victory of her own survival becomes ridden with doubt.

Kylie grew almost mythical to me in the way her resilience continuously surprised me. And though she kept a small part of herself hidden, I felt I grew to know her to the depths of her soul. I actually came across a picture of her once in a magazine—a young woman exactly as I had imagined her: big-boned, tall and solid, with strong facial features, dark auburn hair and the clearest of green eyes. Not only a strong woman—a warrior. And there she was with her face turned slightly away. I couldn’t help but rip the page from the magazine, but by the time I reached home it had vanished. Somehow, even that seemed to fit Kylie O’Rourke.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m a huge animal and nature lover. I love hiking through forested mountains and along the sea. I love rainy days and clear nights. I love fairy tales, mythology, a strong tale of suspense, and a well-drawn narrative set in the past or in the wilderness. I love old houses and imperfect objects. I have an ancient couch I simply can’t let go of, its wooden slats sagging to the floor. I love long stretches of time secluded in a remote place where I am completely alone with my thoughts.

*****

Schilling headshotVivian Schilling is the author of the acclaimed novels Quietus and Sacred Prey, as well as a screenwriter, producer and director of independent films. She recently completed work as co-writer and producer of the French documentary “Bonobos: Back to the Wild” and is currently at work on her third novel.

Interview: J.D. Allen

Please welcome J.D. Allen, author of 19 Souls.

19_soulsWhich books/authors inspired or influenced you the most?

When I was young, I had lots of nightmares. Bad ones that jarred me awake, sweating and crying. Then my friend Cindy gave me the Shining to read. I was probably 11 or 12 years old at the time. That book blessed me with the realization that other people had monsters in their head and that I could write about them, dissect them. I wasn’t crazy. I tried some short stories at that age. They sucked of course, but the nightmares got easier to understand and then became less and less frequent. So, Stephen King not only influenced my first written stories but my mental health as well.

Do you listen to music when you write?

Not when I write, but I usually have a few songs I like to listen to that have an influence on me while I’m plotting or in the car. The serial killer’s motives in 19 Souls were worked through over a Cher song. The Disturbed version of The Sounds of Silence helped me get into the head of a character attempting suicide in a stand-alone book I’m finishing up.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.

Jim Bean? Hmm. He’s angry like Dirty Harry. He’s got a tainted soul born from betrayal. Like Rockford, he’s not the most refined PI in the biz, but dang it, he’s loyal and won’t quit. He takes a case; he’s going to see it through, even if he gets an ass-whooping in the process. And maybe he’s a little Marlow. Underneath the wisecracking, hard-drinking, tough private eye, Bean is quietly philosophical—and he reads.

Tell us a bit about your new book.

19 Souls follows PI Jim Bean through a typical missing persons case that goes sideways. Bean finds out his client is actually a serial killer out to find her most coveted prey. And Bean’s led her right to him!

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started out?

Write what you love. When I first started to write with the intent to earn, I stumbled into romance—almost on a dare. That story got published, and I lingered in the wrong genre for years. Go for the gold. Dream big.

*****

Private Investigator Jim Bean is a straightforward, to-the-point man. When his latest client, Sophie Evers, asks him to find her brother Daniel, Jim has no idea how complicated his life is about to become.

Daniel is not Sophie’s brother. He is her most coveted prey. Clinging to the belief that they belong together, Sophie kills Daniel’s real sister to manipulate Jim into flushing Daniel out of hiding. She will create the “perfect life” for the only man she’s ever loved, no matter how many people she must kill along the way.

When Jim discovers the truth about Sophie, he’s driven to set things right before her delusional plan claims even more souls.

*****

jd_allenJ.D. Allen attended Ohio State University and earned a degree in forensic anthropology and a minor in creative writing. Her Sin City Investigation Series debuts in February, 2018 with 19 Souls from Midnight Ink.

Allen’s short story “Grasshoppers” was published in the Anthony Award-winning Bouchercon 2015 Anthology Murder Under the Oaks and in 2016, she was nominated for the Killer Nashville Claymore Award. Allen also went on to win the Mystery Writers of America Freddie Award. She is a member of the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention National Board, as well as president of the Triangle Chapter of Sister in Crime.

Spring Time in Alaska

It’s almost spring in Alaska and a woman’s thoughts turn to using up last year’s frozen salmon. But first a quick tutorial on Alaska salmon – just in case you see some in the market and think you might want to buy it.

shutterstock_1523975 king salmonI’m not a fisherperson, but if you live here long enough, you pick this stuff up as men want to tell you all about the swell fish they brought you. Here’s the thing about free fish: you know when you aren’t young and cute anymore because men quit bringing them. That’s OK – I can buy my own now, thank you very much.

There are five types in Alaska: sockeye (red), humpy (pink), coho (silver), chinook (king) and chum (dog). Why we have two names for every fish, I don’t know.

Sockeye (red) salmon are the best tasting. The first sockeye to hit Alaska swim into Copper River in early summer, where they are caught in mass quantities (fingers crossed), put on a plane, flown directly to Seattle where some happy looking youths toss them back and forth to each other at Pike’s Market Place. It’s just as well because I’m not spending upwards thirty dollars per pound for a fish. I can eat steak for that. Lots of steak. In fact, I could probably pick up a side of beef for the price of one fish.

Humpy (pink) salmon are favored for sport fishing. Once upon a time, I had a “close personal friend” (CPF) who was a fishing guide, and he took me to Kenai River to fish. We were on this boat in the middle of the river with other boats floating around us. There was a nasty old gallon plastic milk jug of which I took little notice. As I looked longingly at the outhouse on the shore, he explained that the milk jug was for his personal use, so he could fish all day long. Moving on. So, he puts bait on a fishing pole and sticks it into a brace-thing that looks like the brace-thing people nail into their houses to display flags, and he points to it and says, “That’s your pole.” Then he does it all over again with another pole and says, “That’s my pole. Now we sit and wait.” Me, him, surrounded by men on the river, and a nasty milk jug. What’s there not to like?

Then something starts tugging on my pole. He grabs it, reels it in, holds it up in the air and says, “That’s your fish. It’s a pink. Do you want to take it home and embarrass me in front of all my friends who are watching us now?” The CPF is shaking his head with gravitas. I look around to see all those men in their boats looking at us, and I say, “Guess not.” Whereupon he unhooks the fish and tosses it back into the river. Apparently, pink salmon are not highly prized by the guides.

Coho (silver) are good eating. They come into the rivers late in summer and it’s just lovely because the entire town of Anchorage empties out and you can go to Costco and have the place to yourself.

Chinook (king) are giant red salmon. They have more fat, more flavor and more calories. The picture here is of a man with a king salmon which I included just so you fisherfolk can eat your heart out.

And then there’s chum (dog) salmon. I bought a frozen salmon filet once in the middle of the winter, having past the age when men brought me free fish, took it home, cooked it. It stank to high heaven, had the flavor of sawdust and the texture of day-old biscotti. Then I read the label more closely. Under “SALMON”, was the word “chum” in teeny-tiny letters.

Now, I do know the reason why chum is called dog salmon. In western Alaska, the Eskimos feed chum to their dogs because if they run out of food in the winter, they’d rather eat the dog.

So, this is what you do with last-year’s salmon:

1.     Donate it to the zoo,

2.     Bake it in the oven, let it cool, and mix it with a lot of mayo and pickles and whatever else you would put in a tuna salad,

3.     Bake it in the oven, mix it with beaten egg, breadcrumbs and some spices, then cook it up as a burger (my personal favorite),

4.     Make pirok, a Russian fish pie. You use a pie shell on the bottom and top. In the middle goes the flaked fish, breadcrumbs, beaten egg, heavy cream, veggies and seasoning and then you bake it. Kirsten Dixon, the gourmet cook and lodge owner, has a recipe posted on-line: Kirsten Dixon’s Russian Alaska Salmon Pie Recipe

Bake it and give it to your dog. (No garlic or onion.) She’ll love you for it. But don’t eat the dog. All that fur can’t be good for you.

The question today is: How do you cook up the stuff you find in the back of the freezer?

Hanging Feet

P1080357

When mystery story enthusiasts see something like this, as I did on my recent Caribbean cruise, all sorts of possibilities pop to mind.  Because we’re never really on vacation.  I like to call it getting away.

Getting away is an important part of a writer’s life (or anyone’s, for that matter) on account of the 3 R’s:

  • Recharge
  • Refuel
  • Re-e-e-lax

For the last several years, I have been “studying” the fine art of getting away, and this cruise was my latest installment.  My conclusion?  Everyone needs a get-away every once in a while.  It doesn’t have to be fancy.  It could be as simple as watching a movie or enjoying happy hour while the babysitter takes care of the kids.  It could be a virtual journey with a good book, a day on the slopes, a weekend camping trip, or two weeks in Timbuktu.

A good get-away, in my opinion, boils down to the following requirements:

  • A break from the routine.
  • A change in scenery.
  • An environment where you can make personal discoveries, either navel gazing by yourself or connecting with your favorite people–no plugging into devices allowed!

Get-aways come in all types of packages, depending on your needs.  Personally, I need to get away in the winter to someplace warm and sunny.  Now, don’t get me wrong–I love winter snow and roaring fireplaces.  But getting away from the routine and seeing something completely different for a while helps me love my routine even more, because I am recharged, refueled, and relaxed.

Who do you think the hanging feet belong to?

  1.  a hapless victim from the cabin on the deck above
  2.  a villain trying to break into the cabin above to steal a diamond as big as a strawberry, or
  3.  a window washer