Interview: Shannon Baker

Please welcome Shannon Baker, author of the Nora Abbott Mystery Series.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
I can think of lots of perfect day scenarios but if I had to pick just one, it would be hiking in the Grand Canyon with my best guy. We’d wake to the sunrise over the Colorado River and spend the day in the sunshine, exploring the trails. Right now, as I write this, I’m stuck in rural Nebraska and it’s not even going to hit above freezing today. So thank you for bringingbrokentrust home the point of just how far from my perfect day I actually have strayed!

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
I am so generic! I have no signature anything. Apparently, I have an anti-signature color, though. A few weeks ago when I visited my daughter she nearly didn’t recognize me as I walked down the concourse. I was wearing a pink sweater. My ex (her father) hooked up with a woman whose signature color is pink. My daughter didn’t think I’d ever be caught in that color. Huh. No bimbo can tell me what I can or can’t wear!

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
Helen Hooven Santmyer. She wrote And Ladies of the Club, which I read in the 80’s. I loved the book and thought that someday I’d like to write a sweeping story like that. Then I figured if I was ever going to get to the point that I could, I’d better start working on it. I probably won’t ever write something that ambitious, but it did make me start writing.

Mari Sandoz. She came from the same area where I lived for 20 years, the Nebraska Sandhills. She overcame such obstacles and failure to achieve such success with her writing.

An Economics professor at the University of Nebraska, Dr. Petr. I got married and moved to the Nebraska Sandhills before I graduated in business. As I was filing papers to complete my classes via independent study and correspondence (this was way before online classes) he stopped me in the hall. He gave me a mini-lecture about making sure I finished school and not giving up on finding something meaningful to do with my education that it made me feel guilty if I even thought about not getting my degree. I didn’t use my degree for nearly 20 years but it made the difference in me getting a job when I really needed one and that completely changed the direction of my life for the better.

Do you listen to music when you write?
Again, I’m super boring here. No music. I can write in coffee shops and cafes, I can write outside, I can write in libraries and airports. But I get distracted by music. I want to sing and dance.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
Probably 60% cocoa, because it’s not terribly dark but not sweet, either. It’s medium boil, according to my publisher. I’d add a few chopped almonds, because Nora’s mother is nutty, and I’d throw in some toffee, because her love interest, Cole, is sweet but they clash a little. There would be a mystery ingredient that you couldn’t identify to include the whole mystical Hopi element.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
When I first moved to Flagstaff several years ago, the community was in an uproar over making snow on the sacred peaks outside of town. Good for business, bad for Native religion. Since I accidently got a job at The Grand Canyon Trust, an environmental non-profit, I added that strange experience. I mashed it all together and came up with Nora Abbott, who owns a ski resort in Flagstaff in book one, Tainted Mountain, and in book two, Broken Trust, moves to Boulder, CO and accidently hires on with a corrupt non-profit.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
It seems that no matter what my books are about, there is usually some kind of mother issue going on. And there’s usually some character arc dealing with strengthening independence and learning to know yourself. Why do you ask?

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
Nora is an overachiever. She grew up in Boulder and while her mother married rich men and cruised through the whole affluent scene, Nora developed a more serious view of the world and became an environmentalist. She’s always taken care of her mother and everyone around her. In Broken Trust, Nora is trying to learn how to take care of herself. But she’s connected to the Hopi tribe in an unexpected way and they aren’t willing to leave her alone.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
There’s an Ally McBeal element to Nora, where she’s dramatic and prone to wild bursts of imagination. She’s got a little bit of Hillary Clinton, where she can compartmentalize trauma and get the job done. And she’s got just a touch of Rachel Carson, who wrote Silent Spring and started a whole environmental movement.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
I came to the mystery world pretty late. I thought I’d written a stand-alone thriller and when my editor offered me a contract for a mystery she asked, “Is this a series?” I only hesitated a second before saying, “Yes?” So I started reading mysteries. So my guest list is slanted to contemporary writers.  Jessica Lourey, Catriona McPherson, Craig Johnson. Not only are they terrific writers, they are so fun and funny they’d keep the table lively. William Kent Krueger, because he’s, hands-down, the nicest writer in the world. (And he’s a terrific author.) Harlan Coben, because he’s so unbelievably good and he’s also generous and kind. Hank Phillipi Ryan, because she’s so fabulous it would add a real shine to the gathering.

What’s next for you?
Broken Trust will hit the shelves in March 2014 and in March 2015, Tattered Legacy will follow. Tainted Mountain is set in Flagstaff, Broken Trust takes place in Boulder, CO, and Tattered Legacy takes Nora to Moab, UT. All books deal with Hopi mysticism, environmental issues, relationships and, of course, murder. I am working on a new series set in rural Nebraska with a reluctant woman sheriff.

Thanks, gang, for hosting me. Your questions were certainly not ordinary and made me think. Ouch.


Shannon Baker writes the Nora Abbott Mystery Series, a fast-paced mix of murder, environmental issues and Hopi Indians published by Midnight Ink. Tainted Mountain, the first in the series is set in Flagstaff, AZ and is a New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards finalist. Broken Trust, due March 2014, takes place in Boulder, CO. A lover of western landscapes, Baker can often be found backpacking, skiing, kayaking, cycling, or just playing lizard in the desert.  She is on the board of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and a member of SinC and MWA. Visit Shannon at


On “Almost” and Completion

One of my favorite books of the past two years (and many other people’s favorite as well) is THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. I’m assuming most everyone reading this has read it or is familiar with John Green’s tail of two lovestruck teens who meet at a cancer support group.

More than anything else, there’s an overwhelming sense when reading the book not only of love but of what happens when someone is staring down the possibility of an unfinished life.

Which is terrifying.

It’s terrifying watching two teens struggle with the idea that they could go before they get to do everything. And it’s a point that’s driven home even more by protagonist Hazel’s favorite (fake) book that’s left completely unfinished. The words just stop in the middle of a sentence. It’s isn’t almost finished. It’s incomplete.

Hazel and her beloved Gus travel to The Netherlands to track down the author of the novel to find the elusive author and find out what happens.

But the author—and the characters—know that this isn’t how life works. If something is left unfinished, almost done, you may never get answers.

When talking about books, the idea of a story/manuscript/series having an “unfinished life” isn’t obviously as terrifying as when this happens in real life (or in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS). But it’s still disappointing.

As discussed in my last post, I have a complicated relationship with “almost.” I’ve spent my whole life doing things rather than almost doing things. But when it comes to books, there is some lack of control over completion.

Sure, as you may have ascertained, I’m one to finish the manuscripts I start. I don’t have any abandoned almost-book half-naked in a drawer.

However, the idea of the unfinished is different all together when it comes to publishing. For awhile, trilogies reigned, buffered by their popularity in YA. But recently, there’s been a pull back.

I know a few under-contract authors with big, six-figure deals, who have been told the three books they had planned will actually only be two. Or maybe only one book sells at a time when the author has been hoping for a series since birthing the characters from his/her brain.

This is a different feeling of almost.

I write my books as standalones that could continue to a series—something I’d love to do and have planned, but it won’t kill me to “finish” the tale because I don’t set it up like that. At this point in my career, I just want those characters to live, whether it be in one book or three. I think most writers understand this feeling, no matter the stage.

But as a reader, what can be done by a canceled series or unfinished plotline? It’s not the same (truly or metaphorically) of an unfinished life, but really now, what would our literary world have been like if J.K. Rowling had never been allowed to write all seven HARRY POTTER books?

Or if THE HUNGER GAMES was stopped on book two?

Or (more plausibly) if George R.R. Martin is never able to complete the GAME OF THRONES series, leaving us to wonder about the fate of our favorite characters and Westeros? I’ve read that the producers of the TV show related to the books know how the story ends, but what if we never get the book version of the end?

Yes, almost is a scary place in the literary world. As a reader, what would you do if you found out your favorite series just cut off, left unfinished, for one reason or another?

Interview: Nancy Lynn Jarvis

Please welcome Nancy Lynn Jarvis, author of the Regan McHenry Real Estate mysteries.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
It starts with cold left-over Chinese food and a cup of tea eaten while watching a sunrise over Monterey Bay on a crisp November day. At that time of year there’s enough moisture and clouds in the air that the sky is streaked red, orange, violet and amber.

Next, I’d chethe murder houseck Kindle sales and discover there have been many overnight, possibly with one in France or Italy because selling a book in either country would be such fun. I’d spend the day writing using only a light outline so my characters could tell me what to type and writing would be an adventure, almost like reading a book. Later in the day, I’d hear from another writer I’ve met on some form of social media telling me about a five star review they received or some other good news.

As the sun starts to set, I’d be sharing a glass of wine with my husband when the phone rings. Clint Eastwood would be on the line saying he read “Mags and the AARP Gang” and thinks it would make a great little movie. He’d like to play Harvey, the character who does Clint Eastwood impersonations, if that would be okay.

After my husband picks me up off the floor, I’d spend the rest of the day calling people I love to tell them what a great day it’s been.

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

I wear red more often than any other color, especially on 49ers game days, but other than that, no.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
1. Agatha Christie who made me love a good mystery.
2. Charlotte Bridges. She was a friend who always wanted to see her name in print. She wrote every day but never finished anything because she was constantly distracted by those who tried to “improve” what she wrote. She died of a brain tumor and is the reason I published my first book. It was hurriedly published with a dedication to her in it so she could have her final wish before she died.
3. Tony Hillerman whose Navajo policemen on the Big Reservation tracking bad guys without forgetting to take in an approaching snow storm inspired me to set my Regan McHenry mysteries in worlds I knew well. Santa Cruz became my Big Reservation, and the world of real estate became my Navajo culture equivalent.

Do you listen to music when you write?
No. No. No. I want absolute quiet when I write.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
It would be dark and spicy like a Godiva Aztec Spice truffle. The Murder House is a darker mystery than most of the others I’ve written and what causes the house in the book to be haunted — if it is — is the spicy lives its former inhabitants lived.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
I found the picture of the young woman I used on the book cover and was immediately drawn to her. She seemed to have dark secrets and great sadness in her. She also was so pale she seemed ghostly. I wanted her to be part of my next mystery. Then, as a writer of real estate mysteries, I thought it would be fun to think about how to disclose the presence of a ghost in a house, considering as many people believe in them as don’t.

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

My stories seem to revolve around honor and how that affects my characters’ core values and behavior, even if some of the characters hold values not widely shared.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
Regan is of Irish decent and proud of it. She grew up in San Francisco in a family filled with Irish cops. She married too young and had two sons who are essentially grown at this point. When she was on her own after her first marriage ended, she began working as a Realtor and finished college with a degree in behavior science. She’s detail oriented and prides herself on listening and hearing things others might miss; she also great at reading people…at least most of the time. She’s tenacious, smart, a tad pushy, and a terrible liar. She’s also caring and most importantly curious, which may be a kind way of saying nosey.

Regan has earned her success and done well financially, but the most significant thing she’s done is picked Tom for her second husband. He’s tall, handsome, and has incredibly blue eyes that still stop her heart even after several years of marriage. He’s also as logical as she is intuitive and as deliberative as she is impulsive.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Regan is primarily Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, although a much younger version of her. I also see a touch of Julia Childs in her because she’s a bit of a foodie and slightly awkward occasionally, and I think she has a bit of the romantic and impractical Mary Queen of Scots in her, although she probably sees herself as more of a Queen Elizabeth I.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Three dead: Agatha Christie, Tony Hillerman, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to talk classic mystery writing. Two live and well known: Sue Grafton and Laurie King to find out how they did so well; and a friend and fellow writer I’ve never met live, Yolanda Renee, whose work I admire and who, like me, would get a kick out of talking to the others. I’m sure we’d both take copious notes.

What’s next for you?

For some reason, I got it in my head that I’d like to write a book set in the 1880s west. I discovered the Harvey Girls, women recruited from the eastern United States to work as waitresses in Harvey restaurants and hotels along the Santa Fe Railroad lines, and thought it would be fun to see how a young woman fleeing Boston before she could be forced into an unwanted marriage might cope in the completely new environment of the old west.


Nancy Lynn Jarvis finally acknowledged she’s having too much fun writing to ever sell another house and let her license lapse in May of 2013, after her twenty-fifth anniversary in real estate. After earning a BA in behavioral science from San Jose State University, she worked in the advertising department of the San Jose Mercury News. A move to Santa Cruz meant a new job as a librarian and later a stint as the business manager for Shakespeare Santa Cruz at UCSC. She invites you to take a peek into the real estate world through the stories that form the backdrop of her Regan McHenry mysteries. Real estate details and ideas come from Nancy’s own experiences.

(A special note from Nancy Lynn Jarvis: Tomorrow is my birthday. As a child we used to get it off because it is George Washington’s birthday; now we celebrate President’s Day and I’m not special. To cheer me up for that loss of status, please say stop by and say, “Hi.”)

Buy autographed and inscribed books at and pick up a free recipe for Regan’s Mysterious Chocolate Chip Cookies while they are at the site.

Amazon author page:


Remembering the time I almost…

We all have an “almost” story.

Sometimes, it’s the thing you almost did, but didn’t. And sometimes it’s the other way around (have I lost you yet?). Either way, getting to “almost” and going beyond can make a powerful difference in your life’s path.

My own “almost” moment, at least my most recent one, happened in 2011. I was unemployed, let go from a company where I’d been for twelve and a half years. I had two kids, a mortgage, two car payments, and all the associated bills. Scared? You bet. I had to find a new job.

Except my husband said, “Take the summer off. You know, finish that novel (the one I’d been working on for ten years at that point). See where it goes.”

So I took the summer off. I finished the first draft of the novel. But now what? Then I saw a piece in the local paper about this national organization called Sisters in Crime, and how a local mystery bookstore had a connection. So I went down to talk to the owner. “There’s a meeting here on Sunday,” she said. “Come on down.”

On Sunday, I parked and stood on the sidewalk. This is stupid, I thought. These women have probably been writing for years. How can I seriously think I belong in this league? I almost got back in the car and went home. But something in me said, “Why not?” so I went inside.

Three-ish years later, I’m the secretary of the local SinC chapter. I’ve submitted three short stories that were accepted for publication, including one in our chapter anthology that was released in December 2013. I helped put together the anthology. I’ve met some really fantastic people, and learned a metric ton about writing and publishing.

Most importantly, I learned I didn’t suck. I did belong in the same league as the rest of those women. Yeah, there’s more to learn – there’s always more to learn – but I found a writing tribe of “sisters” to learn with. Had I gotten back into my car that August afternoon, I would have missed it. I almost did.

But perhaps that’s the true power of “almost.”

Almost Over Before It’s Begun

I’m currently writing the third of three books in the Material Witness mystery series, a fabric-themed cozy series. Interestingly, the first book won’t be out until 3 months after the third book has been turned in. While I’ve written other series characters in the past, I’ve never approached a book as if I was writing the last of the books with those characters. And maybe I’m not. This is a 3-book contract, but if readers enjoy the characters as much as I do, they might be asked back to the party. And if not, that’s okay too, because these characters get three whole books to tell a story. Which brings me to the three-book story arc.

It’s an interesting challenge for a writer. A first book in a series is an introduction to a set of characters. In the case of a cozy, it’s also an introduction to a setting—a critical part of the series. I chose to make up a town that was geographically based on a real town. But as I wrote that first book, I added characters that I’d like to see again, and interestingly enough, they became a part of book two and are now becoming a part of book three. New characters come and go, but exploring the secrets at the core of the town that has become my cozy version of Peyton Place has been a lot of fun! If in book one the character is displaced and learns Something Big about herself, then in book two she’s moving forward with this new knowledge, in this new life, and getting established. Book three has to up the ante, but also wrap up any loose ends that were introduced in the first two books.

It is a strange thought to have in the back of my mind that this book might be the last book that these characters are in. (not discounting the fact that I could continue the series on my own, but for the purposes of this post, I’m thinking about the 3-books). It’s not a sad thought. It’s an analytical thought, one that helps me determine what a character might say or how they might act in a specific situation. How much of my hand do I show? If I give away all of the secrets of the town in books 1, 2, and 3, what happens if there’s a book four? And if I don’t give away enough, will people want to keep reading about them?

I read somewhere (I think it was Janet Evanovich’s HOW I WRITE: Secrets of a Bestselling Author) to never hold anything back for the next book, and that advice has served me well. I think, as writers, we have to trust that the ideas will be there when we need them, for the next book, and for the one after that. We also have to know that some characters are best in a stand-alone and others can support dozens of books. For me and my set of characters I’m currently working with, I’m happy they’re going to get their place in the sun (come November 2014!)

Why I wrote: Blessed are the Dead

This is part I of a three-part series on why I wrote my debut mystery, Blessed are the Dead.

I’m one of those cliché writers who have wanted to write a book since I was 10. Sometimes you are just lucky enough to find your passion at a young age. However, I was distracted from that passion, for, oh, about 30 years. That’s because I had to get a “real job.” I found one that combined my love of writing with a steady paycheck – journalism.

For about 15 years of my life, my passion was journalism, specifically crime reporting for newspapers. When I wasn’t writing about crime for the newspaper, I was at home reading the people who have done it best: Tom Wolfe (The New Journalism), Truman Capote, and Edna Buchanan, (Pulitzer-prize winning former Miami Herald police reporter).

Then I had kids. A reporter friend of mine told me that I was the kind of person who put so much passion into what I did, she could see I had to give up reporting when I became a mother.

She was right.

But it was also the juxtaposition of covering the seedy side of life and then coming home to pure innocence in the form of a baby. It wasn’t working. Not to mention that if a murder took place at 5:59 p.m. when I was scheduled to be off work at 6 p.m., I still had to cover it.

So, for several years I focused on being the mother of two youngsters under age two.  It took everything out of me. I had no idea how intense parenting would be. A good friend of mine wrote a nonfiction crime book while her little ones were young and I am still in awe of her. Her book was based on one of the most horrific crimes our newspaper had ever covered. Although I had lived through the gruesome, gritty details of the case when it ran in our newspaper, after her book was published I had to read it in spurts. That’s because the story it told was so terribly disturbing. (And yet so well written!)

Meanwhile, when I left the newspaper, I had carted along a giant cardboard box with file folders and notes about a story I wanted to write one day. It was about my dealings with a serial killer —  a true life monster — who claimed to me that he had kidnapped and killed little girls. I figured some day I would have the energy to write a nonfiction book about it.

Then one day, my youngest started kindergarten. I signed up for a writing class on the novel at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. My youngest was only gone from the house for two and a half hours, but I devoted that time to writing. To my surprise, what I began writing was fiction, not nonfiction. I found what I really wanted to do was write a novel — fiction not fact— inspired by this haunting serial killer.

A few months later, I had completed my first draft of a novel about an Italian-American police reporter and her dealings with a serial killer. Now, the real work would begin.

Stay tuned next month for Part Two. This originally ran at

Interview: Deb Donahue

Please welcome Deb Donahue, author of Chasing Nightmares.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?

It starts out with me waking up not sleepy, which means it starts the night before by getting a full night’s rest! My beautiful small dog Sophie likes to lay her head on my tummy when she can tell I’m stirring and nuzzles my hand with her nose. She is so soft and silky I love running my fingers through her fur. When I ask her if I should get up, she gets all excited andchasingnightmares starts to nibble my fingers to encourage me to sit up and put my glasses on. Next comes a strong cup of coffee using my espresso maker, with a healthy dollop of Cinnabon-flavored coffee creamer while I watch Good Morning America. After breakfast the best work day is when the sun is shining bright through my office window, brightening my spirits. On a perfect day, I finish work feeling happy and satisfied with what I have written and eager to get back to work the next morning. My best evenings are the lazy ones, where I can sit in the recliner with Sophie in my lap and a cup of tea on the end table while I watch one of my favorite television shows.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
Pasta with meat sauce is my weakness. My father was half Italian and I can remember the wonderful smells in his grandmother’s kitchen when I was really little. I make a wonderful meat sauce using Italian sausage and hamburger and add a little red wine at the end like she used to. I could eat this every meal for a week and not get tired of it!

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
Gordon Rogers, the drama teacher and later principal at my high school. After I graduated, I went to talk to him about my dream to be a writer and his encouragement is probably the only reason I was brave enough to reach for the stars.

Madeleine L’Engle, who was so adept at creating worlds and characters that I wanted to emulate her, even though I don’t write or even usually even read, the same genre as her Wrinkle in Time books.

Edward Stratemeyer, although I didn’t realize this until very recently. I found out he is the founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate which came up with the idea for The Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew mysteries. Those books, particularly the first two series, filled my childhood with a sense of wonder and excitement and began my love of mysteries.

Do you listen to music when you write?
Usually not. If I am deep in my head creating words, catchy lyrics take me out of the zone. I prefer music with no lyrics or a song I know so well I don’t really “listen” to it anymore.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
A Hershey’s bar with almonds. Because it’s sweet and smooth but with “bumps” you can chew on a while.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
When I went on a vacation a while ago to Colorado, I was struck by how many old mine shafts dotted the mountains. I thought what a great place to hide some bodies!

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
I have a tendency to write females as the heroine, more often saving the hero, rather than the other way around. Also, I think we all have shadows in our selves—insecurities, fears, etc.—and I like to write about facing those dark bits and finding ways to deal with them, rather than pretend they don’t exist.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?Anne’s abandonment as a child and having to be raised in foster homes has led to a lack of self-confidence, but it also gave her an understanding of how much it would mean to have someone in your life who does take care of you and love you unconditionally. Since she never had that, she goes out of her way to try to be that to people she cares about.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
1) The daughter in the movie Mommy Dearest. Although most of Anne’s terrors are internal–her phobic fear of the dark–Charles is just as crazy as the mother in that story. 2) Meg Murray in A Wrinkle in Time because Anne has the same determination and propensity to love, and 3) Oliver Twist because she is an orphan who has to deal as best she can with misfortune after misfortune as she searches for happiness.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Madeleine L’Engle, Dorothy Dunnett (marvelous historical novelist but also wrote a mystery series), Lawrence Block, and Sara Paretsky.

What’s next for you?
I am finishing up a cozy mystery titled A Bull by the Horns which I hope will be the first of a series. It’s about a working farm in the Midwest U.S. that has been turned into an art colony. When one of the residents ends up murdered, the rest of the guests are at the top of the suspect list. There are various farm animals who populate the grounds and complicate the plot, and the main character has a farmer husband who is also a part-time deputy in the small town near them.


Deb Donahue knows all about country living in the Midwest.  She spent her early married years tending a huge garden and preserving the contents to keep them through winter.  She and her husband raised and butchered their own beef, pork and chicken which she then prepared using delicious recipes from her Grandmother’s cookbooks. Her first son was born in the heat of summer, when the strawberries were ripe and needed picking.  Her youngest arrived during the worst blizzard in years; during the drive to the hospital her husband had to watch the line of fence posts to make sure they remained on the road. Living in the country was never boring because she had books to keep her company.  Romances and mysteries by authors like Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart and Dorothy Dunnett.  Is it any wonder that these are the themes she chose to write about when she finally decided to fulfill her childhood passion for writing?

Twitter: @CoffmanCozies