Dorothy St. James’s novel, Flowerbed of State, was published by Berkley Prime Crime on May 3, 2011. Her novel, The Nude, written as Dorothy McFalls was a finalist in the Daphne du Maurier Award of Excellence for best historical romantic mystery/suspense novel. Dorothy lives in South Carolina with her sculptor husband, and their dog, Iona, and kitten, Suki.
Tell us a little about yourself.
Thank you, Pauline, for inviting me to spend some time on your blog. My educational background is in wildlife biology and public administration. My experience is in government service. And my passion has always been, for as long as I can remember, writing fiction. The first book I wrote, Help! The Purple People Eater Is Here garnered fabulous reviews from my parents. (I was five-years-old at the time.) My writing has improved a wee bit since then. My passion for genre fiction still burns as strong as ever.
Writing the White House Gardener Mystery series has challenged me to try new things not just with my writing but also with gardening. I’ve moved my yearly vegetable garden from the safe pots on my deck out into the wilderness of my lawn. Also, like Casey, I’ve gone 100% organic this year. No more quick green-ups with Osmocote plant food for me!
Flowerbed of State is being published under the name, Dorothy St. James. Did you choose a pseudonym because this is a new mystery series?
A few of my Dorothy McFalls books have...um...sex in them. (Blushes.) Cozy mysteries are clean. Very little swearing. And absolutely no sex. I didn’t want to confuse my readers, so I decided to keep things separate with the new name. I’ve been enjoying the new identity. I feel like an undercover spy.
What is the hook for Flowerbed of State?
Free-spirited Casey Calhoun, the White House's new organic gardener, has a lot on her mind with her upcoming presentation to the First Lady outlining her plans for implementing organic practices on the White House grounds while preparing for the Spring Garden Tour and the annual Easter Egg Roll. But all her carefully made preparations begin to unravel after she's mugged in the same park where a Treasury accountant was murdered. Not long after that, she accidentally pepper sprays a Secret Service agent, a senator begins a campaign against organic gardening, and Wall Street's most eligible bachelor takes a sudden romantic interest in her. Not to mention the President's new puppy is constantly nipping at her heels and digging holes in the South Lawn.
The FBI and Secret Service assure her that they are on top of the murder investigation, but something isn't adding up.
As I read Flowerbed of State, I wondered how you researched all the details of the White House and the staff who work there.
It helps that I love research, politics, and gardening. I latched onto the research like a dog with a bone. A tough, uncooperative bone.
There’s so many things relating to the White House that need to remain classified because of national security. Also, I found current employees and anyone remotely associated with the White House hesitant to speak with a novelist, especially a crime novelist. They have their careers to worry about. So I did hit many, many walls at first.
Luckily, I found my way to a couple of reporters who generously shared their experiences and knowledge. I also made contacts with former interns who worked in the White House and in Congress. Each person added invaluable nuggets of information. In addition, I attend the White House garden tours in the spring and fall where the gardeners are available to answer questions from the public. Memoirs from former employees and blogs have rounded out my research.
I think my background in the public service also helped. Before I decided to write full time, my entire career has been spent in the public sector. I’ve worked at all levels of government. I used that experience to fill in the remaining gaps.
Your protagonist, Casey Calhoun, is hit on the head at the beginning of the story. Her recovery from this enables the writer to bring in recent history without including the dreaded information dump in the story. Was it difficult to decide how much research and inside information to include in the story?
Goodness, yes! I wrote and rewrote that beginning dozens of times over several months. I had all this information in my head about the White House and the gardening staff that I wanted to tell the reader immediately. I finally knocked Casey over the head and started the story from there.
Why did you change from romance to mystery? Did your change in genre start with Birds in Paradise published by Barking Dog Press in March 2011?
I wish I could say that I had a brilliant epiphany or flash of insight, but that wouldn’t be true. Most of my books have some level of suspense/mystery, I dabbled in writing short mysteries like “Birds in Paradise,” and I have always read and loved the mystery genre. However, I considered myself a romance writer. It took a wise editor to see the untapped potential and point me into the direction of writing a full-length mystery novel. I’m so glad she did!
You have published paranormal romantic suspense and Regency romances with Wild Rose Press, Cobblestone Press, Five Star, and Signet as well as publishing through Smashwords and Amazon. How did you become an author for Berkley Prime Crime?
As you can see, I’m quite the dabbler. I go where the opportunities take me, frustratingly never moving in a straight path. My editor with Five Star, the same editor who suggested I try writing mysteries, came up with the idea for the White House Gardener Mysteries. The book packaging company who employs her, Tekno Books, hired me to write a proposal, which they sold to Berkley Prime Crime. My dream mystery publisher!
It just proves that you never know where new contacts will lead or what doors will open.
Was your publication through small presses and e-books financially rewarding? Was it a learning experience both through the publication process and through your development as an author?
Since working with a small press led to my book deal with Berkley Prime Crime, I have to say yes. I’ve worked with some wonderful editors at the small presses and learned loads about the craft of writing and the publication business from them. But I’ve also worked with a few editors who seemed to be frustrated writers with chips on their shoulders. Those experiences left me pulling out my hair and gnashing my teeth.
With the growth of self-publishing for e-books, before I would consider signing another contract with a small e-press, they would have to prove to me what they can do for me in terms of publicity, placement, and reviews. I’m not sure if self-publishing is the way of the future or not, but it’s an exciting time to be an author. I enjoy the monthly paycheck I receive from my backlist e-books I’ve placed for sale on Kindle, Nook, and distributed through Smashwords. (Smashwords pays quarterly.)
What are your writing plans for the future?
I’m contracted for two more White House Gardener Mystery books. I hope to continue this series as long as the publisher lets me. Book two is tentatively titled The Scarlet Pepper and takes place during the White House’s summer growing season.
Casey Calhoun is back to work in the gardens in the hot, humid July sun of D.C. She's helping the First Lady get her vegetable garden ready for its first harvest when chili peppers show up where bell peppers are supposed to be. The tomatoes go missing entirely. And there's a dead reporter in a flowerbed. What else could possibly go wrong? Wait, Casey really shouldn't ask that!
It's scheduled for a May 2012 release.
Thank you for appearing on our WritersWhoKill blog. I wish you every success with Flowerbed of State and future books in the Casey Calhoun series