Interview: Betty Jean Craige

Please give a warm Mysteristas welcome to B.J. Craige, author of the Witherston Murder Mysteries!

Dam Witherston coverWhich books/authors inspired or influenced you the most?

The big novels of Barbara Kingsolver—The Poisonwood Diary, Prodigal Summer, and The Lacuna—as well as her essays collected in Small Wonder influenced me with respect to my style of my fiction. The mysteries of Louise Penny influenced me with respect to the setting of my mysteries.

However, most powerfully, the ideas of ecologist Eugene Odum influenced me with respect to my vision of the world as an interconnected system. I wrote a biography of the scientist (and friend) titled Eugene Odum: Ecosystem Ecologist and Environmentalist (2001), and in the process I learned to think about nature and culture as a planetary whole whose parts are interdependent and interrelated in both time and space.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?

Having spent four decades as a professor at the University of Georgia, I have grown to love the mountains of north Georgia and western North Carolina, where Cherokees lived for a thousand years. So I set my mysteries in a fictional small town twenty miles north of Dahlonega, site of the 1828 Georgia Gold Rush. Here I could tell tales in which the past inhabits the present. In the course of writing the three novels I created a fictional genealogy of the Withers family that began in 1828 when Hearty Withers discovered gold and got rich. With each novel I learned more Georgia history.

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

The over-arching theme of all my fiction is this: The past inhabits the present.

Tell us about your main character.

Although the detective in my Witherston Murder Mysteries is Mev Arrollo, the characters whom I have developed most are her identical twin sons, Jaime and Jorge. Jaime and Jorge, who are fourteen years old in Downstream and sixteen in Dam Witherston, help solve the mysteries with the aid of their eccentric great aunt Lottie, the local online newspaper, the web, and the maps, wills, deeds, journals, and letters they track down. Jaime is serious; Jorge is funny. Both are smart. Many animals appear in the mysteries as well: an African Grey parrot named Doolittle, dogs named Mighty, Sequoyah, Gandhi, and Coco Chanel, goats named Grass and Weed, a donkey named Sassyass, a pig named Betty, a cat named Barack, and chickens named Moonshine, Sunshine, Henny Penny, Mother Hen, Feather Jean, and Feather Jo.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?

I would invite Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Earl Stanley Gardner, Stieg Larsson, and Louise Penny.

What’s next for you?

I have just completed a thriller titled Aldo, which Black Opal Books will publish in 2018. In it “Aldo” kidnaps the president of a prestigious university and demands, as ransom, that the university fire a scientist conducting germline gene therapy (genetic therapy that affects the patient’s descendants). The events in the story raise questions about academic freedom and the pressure upon universities to make big donors happy.

*****

BJ Craige and CosmoDr. Betty Jean Craige is University Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature at the University of Georgia. She has lived in Athens, Georgia, since 1973. Betty Jean is a teacher, scholar, translator, humorist, and writer. Her first non-academic book was Conversations with Cosmo: At Home with an African Grey Parrot (2010). After retiring in 2011, she published a column about animal behavior in the local paper titled “Cosmo Talks” and began writing fiction. Her Witherston Murder Mystery series, set in north Georgia, includes Downstream (2014), Fairfield’s Auction (2016), and Dam Witherston (2017).  http://www.bettyjeancraige.com/

Buy links:
Dam Witherston
Downstream 
Fairfield’s Auction

Busted! Arresting Stories from the Beat

 

Busted!Busted! Arresting Stories from the Beat edited by Verena Rose, Harriett Sackler and Shawn Reilly Simmons was published in May of 2017 by Level Best Books.

It is an anthology of thirty-one short stories written about or by police. The first story, a psychological thriller entitled “Bygones” was written by Bruce Robert Coffin, a retired detective sergeant from Portland Main and author of the Detective Byron Mystery Series. The last story, “Bad Friday” was written by award-winning British writer Martin Edwards, who has authored mystery series and the acclaimed The Golden Age of Murder, and is so accomplished he has his own Wikipedia page.

Authors include Jack Bates, Micki Browning, Leone Ciporin, Bruce Robert Coffin, Randall DeWitt, Sharon Daynard, Peter DiChellis, Martin Edwards, Sanford Emerson, Tracy Falenwolfe, Kate Clark Flora, Gavin Keenan, CC Guthrie, LD Masterson, Steve Liskow, Cyndy Edwards Lively, Ruth McCarty, Alison McMahan, Claire A. Murray, Dale T. Phillips, AB Polomski, Keenan Powell, KM Rockwood, Verena Rose, Steve Roy, Harriette Sackler, Brenda Seabrooke, Shawn Reilly Simmons, Albert Tucher, Kari Wainwrigth and Vicki Weisfeld.

The stories run the gamut from period pieces including my “Cattle Raid of Adams” to female officers to modern-day issues of gang violence, homelessness, returning veterans to small-town cops, and animals.

Anthologies are a great way to spend a few minutes immersed in a story when you don’t want to commit to reading a full novel, and a great way to meet new authors. It’s perfect for carrying around in your bag for those periods of lounging in doctor’s offices, airports, in the plane, or by the pool or beach.

Pick up your copy of Busted! through Amazon.

Seeds of Inspiration

Two of my short stories were published this month. In the “The Velvet Slippers”, housekeeper Mildred Munz plots a solution to intolerable work conditions.

Liam Barrett, first generation Irish American and a police officer, makes his debut in “The Cattle Raid of Adams”. Liam has set aside his personal ambition and taken on the responsibility of supporting his widowed mother and siblings following the death of his father. He must solve the riddle of a disappearing bull while dealing with a headstrong younger brother.Child workers N. Adams MA

These two short stories are set during the Gilded Age in Adams and North Adams, Massachusetts. Located in the northern Berkshires, this is the place where my Irish ancestors settled after immigrating in the 1860’s. During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s it was home to the cotton mills where Lewis Hines photographed working children, bringing national attention to child labor and the adoption of child labor laws.

During a genealogy-research trip to Adams a few years ago, I was struck by the charm of the two towns, and their proximity to Pittsfield and Lenox. At the same time children were laboring in cotton mills, the nouveau riche and at least one robber baron lived in “summer cottages” just a few miles away.

By the time Hines took this photo in North Adams, circa 1911, my family no longer worked in the mills although in the previous century, most of the Gannon and Barrett children went to work when they were fourteen years old. By the time this photo was taken, my family, still in Adams, owned bars, dress shops and farms. One of my grandfather’s cousins built the Barrett hotel now the Barrett House, across the street from the railway station, where it still stands today.

It was these conditions that led to the rise of unions, the Molly Maguires and the Pinkertons. You can imagine how the proximity of these two populations, the robber barons next door to the immigrant laborers, was fraught with tension and ripe with inspiration. This summer, I will be working on Book I in the Liam Barrett series.

Mysteristas: what are you summer writing plans?

Designer Seeds

“Write the story that only you can write,” one of my writing teachers once told me.

I wasn’t sure at first what that meant.  At the time, I was writing a historical mystery set during the days leading up to the first Turkish coup, when Ataturk’s generals stepped in to restore his vision of westernization, which was gradually eroding.  It was an exciting story, with lots of drama and suspense, and it was inspired from my personal experience.

But it wasn’t my story.  A historian could’ve written it, and probably a lot better.

The manuscript spent a lot of time languishing in the bottom drawer of my desk while I pondered and researched even more.  And then that writing teacher’s advice finally clicked with me.  He had been talking about a sort of “designer seeds.”  The story seeds that were designed especially for me to write weren’t about the historical events but instead about the American dependents living there at the time and interacting with those events.  That was me, and it was my story.

So, my imagination got to work, with the help of those story seeds designed just for me, and I embroiled my fictional American dependents in those events preceding the coup.  It became the story with a slant that only I could write.

Once we writers find our “designer seeds,” I think we end up with stories that are more unique and filled with passion.

Continuing this month’s metaphor, I’m super pleased to announce the planting of seeds of my book.  Dancing for the General will finally sprout in the garden of books in July!

Mystery Writers Should Listen to S-Town.

Recently, I gave into pressure from everyone I know and watched S-Town, a podcast from the producers of Serial. By “everyone I know” I mean a bunch of people online who I’ve never met. Nobody I actually know has watched S-Town. That’s neither here nor there, just an observation about my fractured existence. Let me tell you, though, S-Town was just as good as “everyone” told me it would be. S-Town was essentially an excellent mystery novel, the kind of thing that should be enjoyed in an armchair with a tumbler of bourbon, maybe even a cigar. Even the prose was beautiful. Every now and then, Brian Reed would say something that I wish I could highlight, the kind of phrase I might produce after a few drafts. He just said it, though. Poetry came out of his mouth. I guess that’s why he’s on the radio.

Anyways, S-Town is a great mystery. It probably doesn’t hit every beat on Save the Cat, but who does? I for one don’t care that much about the damn cat. S-Town is a true literary mystery. It hits the important beats.

For example, the hook: a guy, John McLemore, called into NPR from Shit Town, Alabama to report a murder. In a leisurely southern drawl, he described his rose garden and then revealed that the Shit Town authorities swept a murder under the rug. The culprit: racism. John Grisham anyone!? The alleged murderer was the heir apparent to Triple K lumber. Don’t you just wish you made that up!? I mean, as an author. It’s deplorable as an actual business name.

Here come a couple of spoilers. They’re big ones, but they come early, both in episode 2, maybe 3. S-Town isn’t one of those books you flip through just to see how it ends. Even if I’ve spoiled it, it’s still worth listening to the whole thing. It’s all about the journey.

So the radio host, Brian Reed, goes down to Alabama and investigates the Triple K murder. Turns out, dun dun dun, plot twist #1, there was no murder.

The story isn’t over, though. Before the end of the next episode, someone else dies. During the remaining episodes, Reed investigates the death of the man who called into the show to report the murder, John McLemore.

It’s not exactly a murder investigation. It’s an investigation of John McElmore’s character, which proves to be a worthwhile pursuit, as he was a very interesting man. Brian Reed interviews people John knew from various periods of John’s unexpected life. He was someone worth hearing about–complicated yet relatable, brilliant. He’s the kind of character writers strive to create.

By the end of the podcast, Brian Reed solves the puzzle of John’s death, at least it seems. It’s a real man’s story, but at the same time it’s the kind of ending that a mystery writer would hope to come up with–surprising, clever, and right in front of everyone’s eyes the whole time. This is contrast to Serial, the other podcast “everyone I know” listened to. I loved Serial, but Sarah Koenig could not provide a satisfying resolution because the story she was investigating didn’t have one.

Anyways, I’d highly recommend S-Town, especially to mystery writers. Real life or no, it’s an example of how character can and should drive plot.

Detecting good fiction

You want to talk about seeds? Detective fiction is planting some really good ideas in me. Most recently, I read The Black Echo, the first in the Harry Bosch series, by Michael Connelly. [I know I’m way late to the game.] My husband started watching Bosch on Amazon and I caught the first season, but dropped off somewhere (I might’ve been in an editing cave). Now, I have to go back and watch Season 2 and 3 because I am fascinated by police procedurals.

giphy1

My next manuscript is going to be a teenage riff on detective fiction. Like a quirky, Poconos version of Veronica Mars. And while, I think I have a handle on the process of sleuthing, there are characteristics of a good detective I need to remember. For example, Harry Bosch misses nothing. He understands the business of crime. He knows when a witness is lying, even if he can’t ascertain why at that moment. He subverts the rules when it justifies the outcome. He questions motives. He sees what others don’t. He’s not just a good cop, he’s an astute one.

The most liberating thing about writing teenage detectives is that I don’t need to know the nitty gritty about law and police work. Michael Connelly was a crime beat reporter for the LA Times. When you follow Bosch on an investigation, you feel like a cop. The details are spot on. I like that, but I don’t have the skillset right now to do it. For my teenage sleuth though, she needs to be smart like a detective. She needs to be methodical, and she needs to ask questions. She needs to lay out various scenarios based on the evidence she collects. And that, I feel, I can do (after edits and revisions, of course). If this project comes out as good as it seems in my head, I’ll have a real winner.

Who is your favorite detective? I’d like some recommendations.

Interview: Vinnie Hansen

Welcome Vinnie Hansen, author of Lostart Street and the Carol Sabala mysteries

LostartStreetWhat’s your idea of a perfect day?

I’d sit down with a brilliant idea and dash of 5000 words. Between gusts of genius, I’d glance up at an exotic tropical setting and sip strong coffee laced with half and half. After that hour sprint, I’d spend the rest of the day hiking and exploring with my husband, finishing the day with a meal of fresh fish prepared in a local manner. Before falling asleep, I’d be reading a first-rate book of literary suspense.

Do you have a signature phrase/expression?

If you ask my husband, I use all sorts of “weird” expressions left over from my Midwestern upbringing: “Okie dokie,” “not my cup of tea,” “achin’ for a breakin’.

Which books/authors inspired or influenced you the most?

For my Carol Sabala mystery series, that’s easy: Sue Grafton with a spash of Martha Grimes’ dark humor and Elmore Leonard’s characterization. But Lostart Street is a cross-genre novel. I can’t pick a dominant influence for it.

Do you listen to music when you write?

No. If I were truly listening to music, I wouldn’t be writing. Music is way too distracting. If I like it, it will beckon me. If I don’t like it, why would I be playing it?

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?

Bittersweet with lots of nuts.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?

I wanted to write a book where place impacted the characters and plot, where community is central. As private, independent, and perverse as I may be, I believe we have a deep-seated need to belong. Community can heal wounds and help us feel whole.

I suspect that most genre writers have a hankering to break free from their brand. With Lostart Street, I scratch that itch. Instead of a mystery, Lostart Street is a novel with mystery, a bit of romance, and a death. Or, as I’ve tagged it: a novel of mystery, murder and moonbeams.

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

A character with a sense of isolation searching for inclusion/identity/wholeness.

Tell us about your main character?

Twenty-eight-year-old would-be writer Cecile abandons her life in San Francisco to accept a teaching position in a small California coast town. She’s forced to act quickly and rents a unit in a complex meant for the elderly and handicapped. Cecile is wounded from a failed relationship and overwhelmed by her first year of teaching. But her new neighbors won’t leave her alone. A series of events in the apartment complex push her toward a life-changing decision . . . .

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

Okay, three characters: Ove from A Man Called Ove, for Cecile’s loneliness and isolation, Sylvia Barrett from Up the Down Staircase because Cecile is struggling through her first year of teaching, and Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird because of Cecile’s internal arc.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers you’d include?

Well as fate would have it, there are six other authors at Misterio press, so this works out very nicely. I’d invite K.B. Owen, Kassandra Lamb, Kirsten Weiss, Shannon Esposito, Gilian Baker, and Joan Bassett to my party. We work together all the time, but we’re spread across the country. I’ve met only two of my cohorts face to face. It would be a blast if we could be at a dinner party together.

What’s next for you?

I’ve signed a contract for Sleuthing Women II: Ten Mystery Novellas, which will include Smoked Meat, a prequel to my Carol Sabala series. The e-collection is a follow-up to the best-selling Sleuthing Women: Ten-First-in-Series Mysteries and will be out in the fall of this year. After that, my short story, “Miscalculation,” will appear in Akashic Books’ Santa Cruz Noir in the spring of 2018.

Lostart Street is now available for pre-order!

*****

Vinnie Hansen fled the howling winds of the South Dakota prairie and headed for the California coast the day after high school graduation.

As a child, she read books while huddled on top the dryer. Vinnie grew up to write numerous short stories and the Carol Sabala mystery series. The seventh installment in the series, Black Beans & Venom, made the finalist list for the Claymore Award. Now she brings you Lostart Street, a cross-genre novel of mystery, murder, and moonbeams.

Still sane after 27 years of teaching high school English, Vinnie has retired and lives in Santa Cruz, California, with her husband and the requisite cat.

Visit her website at http://vinniehansen.com or check out all the wonderful female mystery writers at http://misteriopress.com

For a quarterly book recommendation and update on Vinnie’s writing, please sign up for her newsletter http://eepurl.com/cv7F55