• How did you get started writing?
A million years ago, when my three kids were young, I quit my corporate job to stay home with them. While my new job came with many perks, a paycheck was not one of them. So I started a home daycare and took in other children. It was fantastically fun and chaotically challenging, but it wasn’t always, how you say, mentally stimulating. So at naptime, I went upstairs to my office and wrote funny, slice-of-life essays à la Erma Bombeck. It was perfect because I could write one in an hour or so, before anyone missed me. On a whim, I sent one off to a magazine and immediately forgot about it (because my brain had turned to mush, remember?). Until the day I got a check in the mail. That was the sweetest $50 I ever made. It was so much more than money. It was validation. Somebody understood and appreciated what I was doing. They thought I was funny and had something to say. Very heady stuff for someone with a mushy brain.
Fast forward seven years or so, when my middle child was around ten. He and I were at the library looking for historical fiction books he hadn’t read. Alas, there were none. As we walked back to the car, he put his widdle hand in mine and said, “Why don’t you just write one, Mom?” I looked down at his earnest, hopeful face … and laughed. “You cray-cray, boy!” I said. (No, I didn’t. I was a good mom.) But it did seem far-fetched, simply a child’s fantasy. But it nagged at me and I thought about it all the way home. Seven minutes later (we live in a very small town), I was sitting in front of the TV watching the Broncos play football. On my lap rested a yellow legal pad where I listed all the periods of history I was interested in. I settled on the Civil War, partly because it interested me, but also because I knew kids in our school district studied it in 4th grade and again in 7th grade. I knew there’d be a market. But could I actually write an entire novel?
Turns out I could! I decided to self-publish it because that interested me, too. The only problem was that 5,000 copies were delivered to me a couple of weeks before 9/11. Remember all those unopened envelopes tossed into dumpsters because everyone was afraid of anthrax? Yeah. A lot of those envelopes would have included my book because my marketing plan was to send out a bunch of review copies. So I had to totally rethink how I was going to sell this book. I tell people self-publishing this book was like getting a PhD in publishing with a Roman candle stuck up me bum.
Long story not much shorter, I spoke to whoever would listen to me and basically hand sold all those books over the course of a few years. I have two boxes left in my basement. Collector’s items, they are.
But the experience lit a fire under me. I could write a novel and talk people into buying it! It was truly a revelation. So I wrote some more for kids, younger and older, but then it got to be more difficult to go into the schools. The money for author visits dried up, the gatekeepers became more persnickety, and I developed this condition … what was it called … oh yeah, “potty mouth.” School visits were not a good option any longer.
So I transitioned to writing for adults where I’m as happy as a cactus in sunshine.
• Where do you get the inspiration for your stories?
I’m drawn to stories where people—who are exactly like you and me—are just going on about their lives, then BLAMMO, they get tossed into some kind of chaos. How do they react? What do they do? They’re the ultimate reluctant heroes and want nothing more than to return to their previous, boring lives. I like the idea of “what ifs” in real life as well as fiction. When I come upon a car accident, I can’t help but think, “What if I hadn’t taken that call before I left home … would I have been the one in the accident?” Or, “What if I hadn’t turned that corner/quit that job/met that person/taken that chance? My life would be totally different.” But I doubt it would be any better!
• Do you know how your novels will end before you start writing, or do you make many changes along the way?
Yes, I know how they’ll end, and yes, I make a ton of changes along the way. I start at the end and know how the crime happened, whodunnit and why, and then I work my way backwards, forwards, and sideways to get at the rest of the plot.
I outline my stories and don’t start writing until I have a timeline and a 30ish-page synopsis that I follow. My brain works in a very linear manner. I find it almost impossible to pull a story thread and not watch in horror while the whole thing completely unravels at my feet. It sends me into bed, or a bottle, or an entire cheesecake —whichever is handiest— so I’d rather not have that angst.
With my outline, I know where I need to drop clues and pick them up again. I know which characters are liars and which ones are honest but dumb. I know the twists I want and where to place them. But I also allow the story to take interesting turns when they come up.
I equate it to driving from Los Angeles to New York. I know when I’m leaving and when I need to get to my destination. I know the route I’ll be taking. But if I see a billboard for the world’s largest ball of twine, or Carhenge (google it!), or free ice cream cones, you can bet I’m taking that detour. And even if I know I’m on Route 66 going through Tulsa at lunchtime, I don’t know where I’ll be eating until I get there and prowl around a bit.
So there are surprises along the way for me as I write, even though I have a fairly vigorous outline.
• How do you come up with characters and give them personalities? Do you think of someone in your everyday life and use them, or invent them completely?
Because of my outline, I know in broad strokes who I need to populate my little literary world, but they start out with placeholder names like elderly neighbor or bad guy or buttinsky co-worker. Sometimes I know exactly who they are before I begin, but for others, at some point in my outlining I’m able to get a handle on them, at which time I dig up a photo of a celebrity or friend. If the character reminds me of Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice, or Tom Hanks in Big, or Sean Bean, in well, anything, I print out that photo. (Aw, who am I kidding? I don’t need a reason to print out a photo of Sean Bean.) I also have a computer file of random headshots of interesting looking faces.
Then I drill down to more specific characteristics and pretty soon, the only way that character is like Meryl Streep is because of her accent or her hair or her nose. She’s unrecognizable.
Of course, for recurring series characters I need to have a pretty good grip on the character before I start on the outline. Plus, I have to remember what changed for them in previous books so I don’t do something stupid like marry them off in book three and then have them scrolling through Match.com in book four. A married sleuth will have a different take on investigating, perhaps being more careful or enlisting help more often, so those changes will inform character.
Specifically, I came up with Charlemagne Russo in my Mystery Writer’s Mysteries as I was reading a book one day involving some kickass heroine and wondered, “What would I do if I was in that situation?” And I realized I wouldn’t do any of what that character was doing. I’m too big a chicken! I thought that would make for an interesting character to put in situations.
• How much research do you do and how many details must you research?
Writing cozy mysteries means I don’t have to do a lot of police procedural or forensics research, but I get to follow all kinds of interesting rabbit holes.
There’s always something that needs to be researched, like Charlee’s car in FICTION CAN BE MURDER. When I was trying to decide what she’d drive, I stumbled on something that said a particular car had enormous cupholders. Knowing how much Charlee likes her coffee, she’d appreciate that. Also knowing how Charlee spills on herself, I knew at some point that coffee would come flying out of there.
In my new Crossword Puzzle Mysteries, I started to teach myself how to construct crosswords, which is way harder than I expected. In addition, I researched Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, depression, diner lingo, poisonous mushrooms, and green card marriages, among other things.
It’s really easy to over-research so I try to do my outline or basic character studies first and then only dive into what I really need to know, as opposed to what I really want to know. I learned this with my very first book, the historical fiction for kids I published way back in 2001. I stumbled on some first person accounts of the war, diaries from soldiers on both sides. I was stunned because I had the misconception that these soldiers would have been illiterate. The writing was absolutely riveting, with gorgeous, lilting language and I spent way too much time with them. It was marvelous to read, but I didn’t need all that for the book.
When I dig into the research for something, I start with a basic internet search, maybe Wikipedia or the Mayo Clinic or a police department website. Sometimes that’s all I need. But other times, I read a bunch of books on the subject, often beginning in the children’s section at the library because those books are short and sweet, and spell issues out in simple ways. If that’s not enough, I try to find people who will answer my emailed questions, or meet me in person or talk to me on the phone. That’s kinda scary, but you’d be surprised how many doors get opened to you when you say, “I’m writing a mystery and I have a couple of questions. Would you be willing to talk to me?” It also helps that I have a nephew who is a cop in a big city, a son who is a military cop, and another son working as a paramedic. I text them all weird, out-of-the-blue questions with no introductory paragraph, just “So … I have someone tied up in the basement and …” or “Would it hurt to get a staple in the face?” or “I just stole your weapon and …” They answer without even questioning whether I’m a criminal or not. Oooh … that could be an interesting twist in a novel!
• How do you decide whether to use a real location or a fictionalized one?
I’ll probably never use a wholly real location, because there are too many details to get wrong. And even if I get them exactly right, something may change post-publication. Say I use a real hotel in a story and describe the lobby perfectly. But three years after I publish the book, the hotel does a major remodel, knocking down walls, replacing their red swirly carpet, and moving the lobby bar to the second floor. I’d get so many letters and reviews complaining about how wrong I got it, with purists vowing never to read anything of mine ever again. “One-star for you, lady!”
I’d prefer to get a real hotel in mind, preferably one I’ve spent some time in, rename it, then describe it however I want. And if I need an extra door on the other side, then poof — I get another door.
I also wouldn’t want anything bad or unseemly to happen at a real location, so I think it’s better to fictionalize everything. It’s like that photo of Meryl Streep … it may have started out being a Marriott or an IHOP in my brain, but on the page it morphs into something completely different.
• How do you know if your book is long enough? Do you ever add an event in the storyline just to make it longer?
My contracts with publishing houses generally specify the length of the books. My genre of cozy mysteries does, too. Cozy readers tend to like books in the 65,000-75,000-word range (about 260-300 pages), and that seems to be my writing sweet spot as well. When I finish my first draft it’s probably 20,000 words short, not because I don’t have enough stuff happening, but because I tend to write fairly spare, without a lot of description or narrative. So I’m not really adding events as much as I am fleshing out the story that’s already there.
I will tell you that one time I was outlining a book and realized what I thought was a full novel just turned out to be the first half of it. Luckily I recognized it during the outlining stage rather than while I was writing. Wouldn’t that be a hoot to get to what you think is THE END when it’s really just a twist in the middle? And by “a hoot,” I mean excruciatingly painful and heart-breaking!
• What do you know about your characters that you keep hidden from readers?
Almost everything. Picture an iceberg sticking up out of the water. That tiny bit you can see above the waves is what the reader knows. But there’s a huge mass underwater that only I know. Childhoods, secrets, innermost thoughts and desires, even lies they tell themselves … I know it all. Some may come out in future books, but most won’t. Think of yourself and how much you keep hidden. Not necessarily because you have terrible secrets, but because there’s so much that makes up your life, personality, and experiences. You couldn’t possibly share all of that with anyone. My husband and I have been married since 1984 and he can still surprise me. You’d think we’d know everything about each other by now, but you’d be wrong! It’s the same for fictional characters.
• Do you do vision or Pinterest boards for your books?
I don’t do anything like that. The closest I come to visual representations of my novels are my character photo pages, and maps or diagrams I sketch of my settings, all of which is for my personal use while I write. I’m also very, very afraid of Pinterest because whenever I go on there, I look up and I’ve lost an entire morning! I think it’s a diabolical wormhole of some kind.
• What is your writing process like?
Like I said, I outline fairly rigorously, starting with a character, or an intriguing opening, or the crime … whatever information I have first. Then I work my way back and forth through all the beats that will make up the story: twists, clues, red herrings, the catalyst, etc. When my outline is done, it’s maybe five pages. Then, I write a synopsis in paragraph form from the outline, adding some more details, putting in real names instead of placeholder names like Bad Guy, or nosy neighbor, writing funny dialogue that occurs to me. This ends up being 30+ pages. From the synopsis I know what I need to research, so I do that. Next I do a specific timeline so I know 1) that everything I say that will happen in a day actually can happen in 24 hours and 2) it gives me a visual representation of each day so I remember that if it’s Sunday, my character probably doesn’t have to go to work or if it’s Wednesday at 10am, maybe she should be at work. It seems obvious, but it’s really easy to lose track of that kind of stuff.
Then I write my first draft, using the synopsis and the timeline.
I write at a standup desk on a mini-trampoline, taking Wednesdays and weekends off, focusing for an hour at a time. I set a timer and when it dings, I stop, even if it’s mid-sentence. I jot down how many words I wrote, and then take a 10-minute break. I eat something, or tinkle, or pop up Becky’s Dance Party playlist and get some cardio in … or all three! Then I’m back at it for another hour, maybe two. I don’t really like writing for more than three hours, because my productivity really goes down. But sometimes I do it anyway. It’s physically demanding, as well, so four hours can be rough. Plus, it seems like I’m a bit brain dead afterward so I struggle with the rest of what I need to get done that day. Two or three hours per day is my sweet spot.
At the end of my writing day, I email my manuscript to both of my email addresses (why, yes, yes I did have a computer crash once. How did you know?), and I print out that day’s work for my binder. And, no, I don’t look at the pages.
After I get all done with my first draft, I start in on the pages in my binder, but not before I have a celebratory adult libation! Even though I outline, by the time I write THE END, my story will have changed enough that it needs a pretty thorough going over. Plus, I have to address all the sticky notes plastered on it. “If such-and-such happens in chapter 15, I need to say something about it in chapter 4” … that kind of stuff. I add description and narrative that is missing or inadequate in the first draft. When I’m satisfied, I send it off to my trusted beta readers and my agent. I have a posse of readers, all with different strengths. Some are good at finding my logic bombs, some fix my tense and point-of-view shifts, some catch every single typo, some make sure it all flows with good pacing. Most do a combination of all that. They are the wind beneath my wings. The chocolate chips in the brownie of my life. The people who keep me from looking like a dope. I heart them with the white-hot intensity of ten thousand suns.
I give them a deadline, they give me their notes, and then I decide if they’re right or not. (Spoiler alert: they almost always are.) I fix it all again, then off it goes in final version to my editor. And I get another celebratory adult libation.
I actually wrote EIGHT WEEKS TO A COMPLETE NOVEL detailing my process if you’re interested in the nitty-gritty.
• What’s your idea of a perfect day?
One where the dog doesn’t piddle on the furniture, the phone doesn’t ring, and I magically fulfill all the tasks on my to-do list early enough in the day so that I can create a thrilling dinner for my husband which fricasees (or simmers or bakes or does whatever a thrilling dinner might do) while we open an expensive bottle of wine and carry on a scintillating and wide-ranging conversation that has nothing to do with children, bills, or piddling. Then, while he’s cleaning the kitchen, I have long rambling conversations with my kids and anyone who’s been on my mind lately. Oh, and I’ll walk on an Oregon beach at some point and take in a Broadway show. A girl can dream, can’t she?
• Which books/authors inspired or influenced you the most?
Nancy Drew books turned me into an avid mystery reader and I was crushed—crushed—to learn that Carolyn Keene wasn’t a real person. Now, as an author, I would kill for a gig like that. My, how the worm turns, eh?
In high school, when I read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I thought Harper Lee did such a masterful job, penning such a lyrical and important book with an amazing voice in Scout, but I couldn’t believe that was all she wrote. It reinforced in me the idea that writers were magical, mystical unicorns and I’d never understand them.
I’ve always read across most genres, but when I discovered Janet Evanovich, Carl Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey, and Jen Lancaster I finally felt like I was in the company of like-minded peeps and that maybe, just maybe, I could do something similar.
• Do you listen to music when you write?
No, I need absolute silence when I write. But I do stop every hour or so and flail around to my “Becky’s Dance Party” playlist, often while I hula hoop. It’s a sight to behold, I’m sure.
• What themes do you regularly visit in your writing?
Themes?? What is this, school?
• Tell us about your main characters.
In both BANANA BAMBOOZLE and MARSHMALLOW MAYHEM, 50-something Cassidy Dunne takes center stage. She’s a secret sugar addict who still has booty calls with her ex-husband even though they were only married for about ten minutes way back when. (It’s just so much easier than dating!) She’s joined in her escapades and witty repartee by her best friend from college, Dan Diehl, hence the “Dunne Diehl Novels.”
In the Mystery Writer’s Mysteries, Charlemagne Russo is a 30-something mid-list mystery writer who really only wants to write, but she gets pulled into real-life mysteries she has to solve. She has a solid relationship with her boyfriend, hangs out with her best friend from college, and is surrounded by a critique group full of quirky writers. With her, I’m able to give readers a peek behind the literary curtain, and explore and explode some of the funnier aspects of writing and publishing.
Quinn Carr is the protagonist in my Crossword Puzzle Mysteries. She, too, is in her mid-30s and has had to slink home after a pretty serious incident where her OCD was diagnosed. All she wants is to get back to normal and, though she loves her parents, she’s much too old to be living with them. But the OCD, subsequent depression, and lack of money won’t allow it. Her best friend growing up is a cop in their small town police department, who thinks she’d make a great cop, but Quinn doesn’t. She’d rather keep plugging away at constructing her crosswords for the local paper and slinging hash at the diner, inching toward that elusive “normal” she craves. While it sounds a bit deep for a cozy, it’s really not. The town has the requisite number of quirky characters (for instance, The Retireds, a group of old men who gather at the diner every day to complain; Quinn’s mom who experiments with recipes and creates things like Pretzel Pancakes and Cumin Cupcakes; Jethro the bloodhound who patrols his way through the diner every morning; the Chief of Police who hates Quinn for reasons known only to him). I just like exploring normal, funny people who get thrown into situations they’d rather not be in. And everyone—even normal, funny people—have baggage and issues they carry with them. They’re not the most important things about them, but they’re always there under the surface, informing reactions and decisions. And there’s always humor in the darkest of problems. That’s how we survive them.
• Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase/expression, or meal?
Hmm. I have this vertical line on my forehead my three children know as my “what the hell were you thinking” wrinkle. Does that count?
• What do you do for fun?
I make purses out of rescued books.
I can make one, start to finish, in about five hours (assuming my workshop is clean). Books take so long to write and get out the door, but these purses scratch my creative itch very quickly. I tried selling them on Etsy, but that requires marketing and work that I wasn’t interested in doing. The store is still up, but not very active. You can see some of the other purses there. I’ve sold quite a few, but now tend to give them away to people on my mailing list and in my Facebook group, Becky’s Book Buddies.
My husband and I love the big, splashy Broadway shows and we’re lucky most of them come through Denver at some point. We have season tickets to the theatre and look forward to every show in our subscription.
I also loves me my Netflix. We’ve never had cable TV so I get to catch up and binge on shows I’ve heard about over the years. I think I’d rather binge them anyway, because I’m not patient enough to wait a week for the next episode, nor can I remember important plot points that long, if I’m being honest. Netflix has everything I love … foreign movies, stand-up comedy, indie flicks, old favorites, original programming. And unlike going to a cinema, I can press pause while I get a snack!
• What do you typically read?
I read across the entire crime fiction spectrum—true crime, thrillers, procedurals, British traditionals, locked room mysteries … you name it—but I’m drawn to traditional mysteries with humor and cozy mysteries, which are typically lighter reads with a fair amount of humor, off-stage murder and sex, and generally a cast of fun, quirky characters.
• How are you so funny?
LOL! I come from a big, funny family—I’m 7th of 8 kids raised by hilarious parents—so the stage was set early on. Then I married a funny guy and we raised funny kids. I don’t take myself (or anyone else) very seriously and I can find the humor (often dark) in most everything. I watch a lot of stand-up comedy which has about a zillion different points of view, all of which feed my mental in-box. And, of course, having kids and dogs in your life is always hilarious.
• Speaking of hilarious, do you have any pictures of Nala?
Pictures of Nala, hmm … let me think. *mentally scrolls through tens of thousands of pictures of Nala* Yes, I think I can dig up one or two.
• What’s next for you?
I have so many things I want to write! I want to keep writing books in all the series I’ve started. I have a bunch of standalones I’m mulling over. I have some funny middle grade time travel things I’ve already written that I’d like to get back to. I have a couple of YA mystery manuscripts in my drawer with a synesthetic member of the high school marching band. I’m noodling another cozy series with a huge cast of characters, which would keep me busy for two lifetimes. I have notes on a cozy series with an elderly cast. And I have an “Ideas” file about three inches thick with stuff I want to write. I hope I live to be 847 so I can get it all done!
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