Rosemary McCracken is a Canadian journalist and fiction writer. Born and raised in Montreal, she has worked on newspapers across Canada as a reporter, arts reviewer, editorial writer and editor.
She is now a freelance journalist who specializes in personal finance and the financial services industry. She advocates greater investor protection, and improved financial services industry regulation and enforcement
Rosemary’s short fiction has been published by Carrick Publishing, Nefarious North, Sisters in Crime Canada, Room of One’s Own Press and Kaleidoscope Books. Her Pat Tierney story, "The Sweetheart Scamster," published in Thirteen in 2013, was a finalist for a 2014 Derringer Award.
Safe Harbor, the first book in the Pat Tierney mystery series, was her first published novel. It was shortlisted for Britain’s Crime Writers’ Association’s Debut Dagger in 2010 and published by Imajin Books in 2012. Its sequel, Black Water, was released in 2012.
Rosemary lives in Toronto with her husband, and makes frequent retreats to her stone cottage in Ontario’s Haliburton Highlands.
First, let me say I really enjoyed Black Water. Your characters were nuanced. Your writing drew me in immediately and took me along quickly through the entire book. There was no sag in the middle. As you told me, I was able to read your book without reading any other books in the Pat Tierney series. And I was happy to see there were no scenes where the heroine arrives home after barely escaping from the villain’s clutches, notices the lights in her apartment are strangely out but blithely walks in anyway.
How do you keep each book interesting in itself, yet not boring to readers who started the series with the first book?
A writer of a series needs to ensure that each book stands on its own. Some readers will not have read the books that came before it in the series, and those who have will not want to be given a detailed re-introduction to the main characters and setting. You can satisfy both groups by dropping in on the central character’s regular life in the opening pages—and weaving in details later. “I was chilled to the bone when I got home that evening,” is how I introduce Pat in Chapter One of Black Water, the second book in the Pat Tierney series. She tells us how she feels on a Friday evening in winter after a long week of work. At this point, we don’t need to know what line of work she’s in, only that she’s cold and tired and discouraged. We’ve all felt that way.
Because I write the Pat Tierney books in the first person, from Pat’s point of view, I’m able to set up an immediate intimacy between the reader and this character. Pat is sharing another episode in her life with the reader.
I write mysteries, and a key element of the mystery formula is raising the stakes for the central character. How can things possibly get worse for Pat when we meet her in Black Water? At home, she finds a voice-mail message from the police, who are trying to reach her 24-year-old daughter, Tracy. They want to speak to Tracy as soon as possible. Pat instantly goes into high alert. “Is Tracy in trouble? I took a deep breath and tried to stay calm.” Then she tells us that she hasn’t seen Tracy for several weeks. They had a misunderstanding and Pat reveals a little about what that misunderstanding was. Readers who read Safe Harbor will already have met Tracy and know something about her relationship with her mother. Those who haven’t read Safe Harbor will instantly grasp that mother and daughter haven’t seen eye to eye, and that Pat is upset about it. She feels she hasn’t been a good mother. And now she is worried that Tracy is in trouble with the police.
A sure-fire way to slow down a novel—both mystery and mainstream—is to load its opening pages with backstory, and this is especially deadly in the second and subsequent books in a series. Readers who read Safe Harbor know that Pat is a widow in her late forties, a financial advisor who cares for her clients, the mother of two girls and has recently adopted a seven-year-old boy. Readers who start the series with Black Water don’t need to know all of this in the first chapter—or the second or the third. It will come out bit by bit once the main plot has been developed and the characters are launched on their trajectories. And they don’t need to know too much about what happened in the first book in the series—or they won’t want to read it.
How do you avoid the infamous mid-book sag?
I’m not a big fan of plotting out a novel in advance. I’m a character-driven writer, and my first concern is to develop a strong, sympathetic central character with whom readers can identify. I come up with my central character, then I start writing the story that I want to tell about this man or woman. And I usually come to a point—sometimes at chapter four or five, sometimes right in the middle of the novel—where I can’t go any further. That’s because I haven’t given much thought to the major plot milestones that should combine to form a satisfying cause-and-effect relationship between the events in a story. I have to go back and map out the major milestones of my story arc.
In the fairy tale, Cinderella, the plot milestones look like this:
Set-up. Poor, beautiful Cinderella slaves away her days cooking and cleaning for her wicked stepmother and stepsisters. When the King of the realm throws a royal ball to find a wife for the Prince, Cinderella has neither the clothes nor the transportation to attend it.
First plot point. Cinderella’s fairy godmother appears and creates a stunning outfit for her, complete with glass slippers, and turns a pumpkin into a coach that takes her to the castle. Everything has changed for our heroine. She dances with the Prince, and the Prince is smitten.
Mid-point. The clock strikes midnight and the magic runs out. Cinderella races out of the ballroom, losing one glass slipper, which the Prince picks up. Cinderella returns to her life of drudgery. All seems to be lost.
Second plot point. At this point new information is infused into the story. The Prince announces that he will marry the woman whose foot fits the glass slipper. He tours the kingdom with the slipper. The stepsisters try on the slipper, but it doesn’t fit.
Climax. Cinderella holds her breath as the Prince eases the slipper onto her foot. It fits!
Resolution. They have a huge wedding and live happily ever after.
The set-up and first plot point always come easily to me. Then I need to come up with the subsequent milestones, which often means including alternative options, for my story. Rather than using them to build the novel, I like to use them as a checklist to measure my progress. If the novel seems to be going wrong, I’ll check to see if I’ve missed a stage on the arc.
Do you have a story line planned for the entire series as well as for each book? Do you have a specific number of books planned for the series?
I wish I had stories—and plot milestones for each story—planned for the entire series, but I don’t. I take it one book at a time. The novels in this series will always have Pat as their central character, but I need ideas that resonate with me. I need to be excited by the story idea I’m writing about, and a particular idea may not excite me three years down the road. I’m a firm believer that the first person that a writer has to think about pleasing when writing a novel is himself or herself. Novels take a long time to research and write—for me, at least two years—so it’s important to have a story idea that will continue to excite me for that length of time.
As for how many books will be in the series, I can’t say. I’m coming to the end of book three, and I’ll need a good year until it can be submitted to Imajin Books. My creative energy is now funnelled into wrapping up the story. When that is done and I’m doing edits, I anticipate that another story idea will come to me. I hope it will involve Pat Tierney.
I understand the Pat Tierney books, Safe Harbor and Black Water, have been described as “Domestic Thrillers.” What does that description mean?
Domestic thrillers are suspenseful stories about family situations. They can be stories about poisonous marriages, such as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, in which one spouse cannot trust the other. They can also be stories about uncovering family secrets, such as who murdered the central character’s parents 20 years ago. In my mystery, Safe Harbor, Pat learns something about her late husband that rocks her world. And in all my Pat Tierney novels, there is a family crisis of some kind for her to deal with.
From the outset, I wanted Pat Tierney to be a character that readers can identify with. She’s an ordinary woman with family responsibilities. Heroines such as Sara Peretsky’s V.I. Warshawski can work day and night on an investigation; they can leave town at the drop of a hat to pursue a lead. V.I. has no family ties apart from her dogs and her fatherly neighbor. I love reading their stories, but I can’t identify with these characters. I can’t devote all my time to work, nor can I leave town at the drop of a hat, and I don’t think many readers can either.
Do you research as part of your writing? If so, what areas do you research and what are your sources?
Pat Tierney is a financial advisor so some of the crimes in the books involve money—fraud, theft, embezzlement, etc. I’m a financial journalist, not financial professional, so I often need to call on financial experts to see if I’ve got the details right.
I also need to research police procedures, and I am extremely fortunate that I live in a city that has a co-operative police department. I’ll place a request with the Toronto Police Service’s communications department, and one of its staffers will arrange a face-to-face interview with an officer from the appropriate department.
And I may need to talk to experts in other fields. Writing Black Water, I needed to speak to a midwife to find out whether home births took place in rural Ontario 40 years ago, and how infant immunization records were kept at that time. It is so important to get the details right. If a reader spots a mistake you’ve made, he or she may not want to continue reading your book.
Who has influenced your writing?
Veteran Canadian mystery writer Gail Bowen has been a wonderful mentor. In 2009, I entered an early draft of Safe Harbor, my first Pat Tierney mystery, in the Debut Dagger competition, a contest that is sponsored by Britain’s Crime Writers Association and open to English-language writers around the world who haven’t had a novel published. The CWA didn’t get back to me, which meant, in a competition that attracts more than 1,000 entries, that mine hadn’t made the shortlist.
A few months later, Gail was in Toronto doing a stint as writer-in-residence at the Toronto Reference Library. I submitted the first 20 pages of Safe Harbor for a manuscript evaluation and I met with Gail. “This book needs to written in the first person,” she said. “We need to know what Pat Tierney is thinking and feeling every step of the way.”
Safe Harbor is a murder mystery, but it is also the story of Pat’s personal journey after her husband’s death. Yet, for some reason, I’d written the manuscript in the third person. I rewrote it in the first person, and right from the start, I knew I’d made the right decision. I felt energy emanating from the story that hadn’t been there before.
I entered the rewrite in the 2010 Debut Dagger competition. Same title and same storyline as my previous submission, but told in the first person. That year Safe Harbor emerged as one of 11 novels—out of about 1,100 submissions—that were shortlisted for the award. Being on that shortlist has been one of the highlights of my writing life.
Thanks very much for sharing on WWK. I will definitely look for your books.
Thank you, Warren, for having me here today! Your readers may want to follow my blog, Moving Target, at https://rosemarymccracken.wordpress.com/. And check out my website at http://www.rosemarymccracken.com/
Purchase links to the Pat Tierney novels: