Wednesday, May 24, 2017

An Interview With Martha Reed

by Grace Topping

Many of us may know Martha Reed through her Nantucket Mystery series. Each book in this excellent series received recognition: The Choking Game was a 2015 Killer Nashville Silver Falchion nominee for Best Novel/Traditional Mystery, The Nature of the Grave received an Honorable Mention for Mid-Atlantic Best Regional Fiction, and No Rest for the Wicked was nominated for a 2017 Independent Publisher IPPY award. What many may not know is how committed Martha is to supporting women crime writers. She is an active member of Sisters in Crime, Inc., and just recently completed a four-year term on the SINC Board, serving as the organization’s National Chapter Liaison.

Thank you, Martha, for all you’ve done for women crime writers and welcome to Writers Who Kill.

The pace of No Rest for the Wicked is one of its strongest features. Even with a complex story line it moves and is hard to put down. There are definitely no slumps in this story. Is there a secret to good pacing?

Martha Reed
First off, thank you, Grace, for inviting me as a guest on Writers Who Kill.

It’s no secret that when I’m drafting I use index cards and a storyboard. Each card outlines a plot point, a surprising twist, a red herring, or a reveal that I want to hit, and the storyboard keeps me on a tight track. This practice also helps me quickly decide which POV character needs to open the following chapter, which focuses and smoothes the story’s continuity.

You have quite a lot going on in your book: a baby kidnapping cold case, a stalker, law enforcement agency competition, and the emotional fallout of the main characters demotion. What was the greatest challenge to having all the threads of your story come together?

Finding the right balance was the greatest challenge; as a writer, I want each of these things to support the story until the resolution without having any one of them take over and skew the story off my themes. It’s an ongoing process. I’m still learning how to manipulate the story’s sub-arcs to support the traditionally “saggy middle” second act.

I’ve learned a lot with No Rest. I’m looking forward to putting what I’ve learned to the test with my next stand-alone.

The competition among the various law enforcement agencies comes out in your book. It’s obvious that you’ve done a lot of research on the operations of these agencies. How much research do you do for your stories?

I can spend days on it, and then only use the information in a few key sentences. That used to drive me nuts, but I’ve learned to accept it. There’s no need to hit a reader with a bucket of detail. When your characters are comfortable with their insider knowledge, it will naturally come through in their conversations and actions. When FBI Special Agent Cesar Mayas offers FDDU buccal collection kits, the readers love the detail, and it adds a dose of reality, and authority, to the action.

Another reason I added the agency competition to No Rest was to push my characters into experiencing personal growth, and growth comes through conflict. Having the Boston FBI step into the local investigation shook things up. That action triggered conflict, as well as fresh opportunity. It challenged long-standing friendships and alliances. Members of the Nantucket force began to question their personal life and career goals, which offered new insight into their characters. Writing No Rest was a delight, because two of my characters surprised me with their final decisions. I love finishing a paragraph, sitting back, and saying: “Well, I didn’t see that coming.”

Frequently books are categorized as being character or plot driven. You have a wonderful balance of both. How do you keep that balance in your books?

Thank you. It all comes down to telling the story in the right way. If the characters are fully rounded, they will bring their memories and experiences from their past into the story’s present. Each time a character hits a plot point (a surprise, a twist, or a reveal), the reader should see a spark of logical and plausible character reaction that then moves the plot forward in a believable manner.

That character reaction can be a good development; it can also be a bad one. No one makes the right decision every single time. Everyone makes mistakes, or has an off day, including me, and my characters.

Although you live in the Pittsburgh area, you’ve chosen to set your book in Nantucket. Why Nantucket?

When I started writing mysteries, I couldn’t find an agent or a traditional publisher who was interested in using a Pittsburgh location. They were all looking for exotic locations like Phoenix, or Baltimore. I’m happy to report that this east of the Hudson River mind-set has changed, although I think that switch had more to do with the availability of digital e-publishing, internet access, and regional readership than with any traditional publishing house thought process.

Knowing that I couldn’t use Pittsburgh, I started casting about for “exotic.” I went to a Nantucket wedding, and as soon as I stepped off the ferry I realized “this is it.” The far-away isle offered everything I was looking for in a setting: extensive pre-history, authentic charm, and an occasionally isolated location. It also helped, since I was a newbie writer just starting out that the island setting was contained. If I needed to trap my characters with a dense fog or a hurricane, I could.

My next book, a stand-alone, is set in New Orleans. I enjoyed my visit there during Bouchercon 2016 very much. When it came time to think of a fresh setting, I wanted to pick a city where my characters could get into serious trouble. At first, I considered Vegas, but NOLA stole my heart, and my vote.

Tell us about your journey to publication? Was it a long one filled with challenges?

Publishing was in the beginning of a developmental whirlwind when I stepped into it. Digital e-books were just getting started, and there was a lot of pushback from agents, the traditional publishing houses, and even from traditionally published authors, too. One famous personality told me that I would be committing professional suicide if I decided to self-publish. At the time, there was a lot of fear, and discussion, over what the change meant.

I had twenty years’ experience in financial printing, and before I made my decision to self-publish, I examined this new digital idea thoroughly. At that time, I was seeing good writers producing material that they hated, simply to maintain a publishing contract. Writers weren’t getting their royalty reports in a consistent and timely manner, either. It was like going up against a blank Chinese wall. Also, as I mentioned, I couldn’t get an agent interested in publishing the story I wanted to tell. So I took a deep steadying breath, and I decided to self-publish. I had the typesetting and formatting knowledge base; I had already developed a web site. I had to learn the marketing and promotional pieces of the business, but most authors I met were doing it themselves anyway. I hired Ramona DeFelice Long as my editor, and Karen Phillips as my graphic designer. Both are professional caliber. When I weighed the two sides, I couldn’t think of a compelling reason not to self-publish. I’ve never looked back.

Many writers are faced with the decision of whether to continue pursuing traditional publishing, going with independent publishers, or taking their careers into their own hands and self-publishing. What advice would you give writers facing this decision? What is the most challenging thing about the route you took?

My advice is to take the necessary amount of time to really think it through. There is no single easy path. I wish there was, I’d be doing it! Find an author who seems to be doing what you’d like to do, and ask for their advice. In the end, it is your decision to make. You’ll have to live with it, so make sure you really believe in what you’re doing.

I’d also like to say that it’s not one choice versus the other. Some traditionally published authors have retrieved their backlist rights and self-published them. Some “hybrid” authors have a foot firmly in both camps with a traditionally published series (or two) and self-published stand-alones. I will say that self-publishing is a ton of work, but you get to keep the creative control, and a higher percentage of the royalty.

My best advice is to make sure that you’re writing the story you really want to write to the best of your current ability. Good storytelling will rise to the top, no matter how it’s published, and in whatever format: hardback, paperback, e-book, or audio file.

We all look back on things we’ve written and wished that we had done some things differently. Anything in your books that you wished you had changed?

Sure. Hindsight is twenty-twenty. Without giving away any spoilers, I did have another character sub-arc in No Rest that I decided not to use. Making that decision cost me three day’s worth of manuscript high anxiety. The sub-arc would have added 6,000 words, and another significant red herring, although John Jarad would have been able to show off his mad detective skills yet again. I really liked the idea, but I was finishing No Rest in November 2016 during the presidential election. I kept telling myself that people are tired; they’re feeling beat up. Next summer they’ll want a beach read that’s relatively straightforward and simple.

I still love that sub-arc idea though. I’m saving it for the movie.

Which writer has influenced you the most?  Who do you enjoy reading when you have time?

Some authors blow me away with their ability: Margaret Atwood, Louise Erdrich, Annie Proulx, Nancy Pickard, Wallace Stegner, and lately, Megan Abbott and Art Taylor.

My genesis influences would have to be Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series, Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, with a tip of the hat to Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs. I’m proud of that last one. I discovered Thom Harris with Red Dragon. I was ahead of the pop curve with him. That doesn’t happen often.

What was the best piece of writing advice you’ve received along the way?

“Never give up.”

I attended a workshop with the insightful Timons Esaias, and I wondered if it was time to throw in the towel. I’d written two Nantucket Mysteries, and the second book was a beast, a real bear. I rewrote the manuscript four complete times before I was satisfied with it. I asked Tim, “Is this worth it? I’ve spent hundreds of hours away from my family. I could be doing other things.” And he said, “When you’re ready to quit is when you’re really just beginning.”

So, I took another deep breath, opened my laptop, and started writing No Rest. It was a complete joy. The story flowed like magic. My new nickname for Tim is Yoda.

What’s your favorite part of writing? Your least favorite?

I love drafting the middle of a new manuscript, when all of the ideas are fresh possibilities, and the characters and the plot can still surprise me.

I’ve developed a handy trick that I’ll share. Whenever I reach a plot point, outlined on an index card, and I’m thinking that I’ll move the story forward to X, I pause, and I ask myself: What if Y happened instead? And suddenly, in a mental blink, the new Y possibility rolls out and presents itself, and it’s usually a better surprise, twist, or reveal than what I had planned on doing with the original X. It’s a real joy, because it’s a surprise to me, too.

Whenever a bit of creative serendipity like that happens, I call myself First Reader, because with each new manuscript that’s what I am.

Since I self-publish, my least favorite chore is formatting the Word document into the many different publishing versions that I’ll need. By the time I’ve reached this stage, after copy-editing and proofing for punctuation and typos, I’m down to the deadline wire, and my brain is toast. This is when I call myself The Mayor of Crazy Town, and I’m not allowed to operate heavy machinery until it’s done.

Writing is such an isolated activity. How do you stay connected to others?

Conventions are my lifesaver, and my reward. I try to attend Malice Domestic, Bouchercon, and at least one regional convention like Killer Nashville or CrimeBake each year. I also cherish my local Sisters in Crime chapter. We usually meet one a month for a creative discussion, or a guest speaker. I love meeting my writer friends face to face.

How is it having to balance writing and promoting your books? Do you enjoy the promotion aspects?

I do, because I am gregarious, and I love to travel and meet new people. I’ve also had some professional effective presentations training, so standing up in front of a crowd doesn’t throw me. It’s like a big cocktail party, with books!

What have you learned that could help writers starting out?

Join Sisters in Crime, Inc., immediately, and then join the Guppies (i.e., the “Great UnPublished.”) The online Guppies community is the golden ticket for any newbies just starting out. It’s a wonderfully supportive, knowledgeable, welcoming, and non-judgmental writer’s community.

And then buy these books: Stephen King’s On Writing, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and Rainer Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Read them until they fall apart in your hands, and then buy fresh copies. Everything you need to know is in those three books.

Do you have a favorite place to write?

I do. I have my mother’s desk pushed up next to a big window in my apartment. It overlooks the street, and it’s very cozy. I have two crazy orchids to keep me company, although, when I’m really drafting a story and writing for hours at a time, I move my MAC over to the kitchen bar so that I can stand while I write. Standing that long took some getting used to, but I prefer it, now.

What’s next for John and Sarah Jarad? Are there going to be more books in the series?

Again, no spoilers, but if you’ve read No Rest, you know that I left John and Sarah with a lot on their plate. They deserve a break. I’ve been torturing them for three books. I’m going to go work on my NOLA stand-alone, and then I’ll come back and check on them and the Nantucket crew, to gauge how they feel about doing Nantucket Mystery Number Four. Never say never. Hey, maybe that’s the title?

Thank you, Martha.

Follow Martha on Facebook and Twitter@ReedMartha or visit her online at

No Rest for the Wicked

When state archaeologists lift the lid on a suspicious steamer trunk buried in the Madaket landfill, Detective John Jarad's world explodes. The trunk's contents reactivate intense interest in Nantucket's most notorious cold case crime, the Baby Alice Spenser kidnapping in 1921.

Sarah Jarad has a slightly different life focus. Halfway through a twin pregnancy, Sarah is convinced that she is losing her mind. She can't shake the feeling that she's being watched. She'd like to blame her paranoia on raging hormones, but that doesn't ring true. Sarah fears that her control freak ex-fiancée Mason has finally tracked her down, and that Mason is on Nantucket, plotting revenge.

As John pursues the Baby Alice investigation, myriad family scandals emerge from the Spenser's privileged and gilded past. Events flare white-hot when a copycat criminal snatches a second child. John and Sarah must race against the clock to unmask the kidnapper and expose these modern day threats.

Offering an array of colorful island characters and an intricate plot filled with surprising twists and reveals, NO REST FOR THE WICKED promises to be the perfect summer beach read.


  1. Such a bountiful font of information in one short interview!

    I'm going to have to reread all this again later after I've had a cup or two of coffee.

    I hope your book does very well for you.

  2. Hi, KM - good morning. Thank you. I love sharing the knowledge - its a form of pay it forward. Enjoy the read.

  3. Great interview here, Martha and Grace--and I was particularly struck by the discussion of balancing character and plot, which you're right, Grace, is usually presented as an either/or, but I loved Martha's discussion of conflict and challenges pushing characters toward personal growth. It's that back and forth that makes the best fiction, I think: strong characters driving a strong plot that then pushes characters further, that then.... Enjoyed all this!

  4. Martha, Thanks for sharing so much about your writing process. It's always helpful to hear how other writers do what they do even if my way is very different.

  5. Hi, Art & Warren - I just came out of the Pennwriters conference last weekend, where all did was discuss craft and process. It's one of my favorite topics, because you never know what you're going to hear, or what you'll learn.

  6. character and plot PLUS a Nantucket setting. I know what I'll be reading on the screened porch this summer.

    Great interview!

  7. Wonderful interview, Grace. Martha - WOW, I am so stealing your storyboard idea-- and I if I can get your AH HA moment to work - I will thank you every time a new twist takes off. Looking forward to No Rest for the Wicked.

  8. Thanks, Margaret - I hope you enjoy meeting John and Sarah Jarad, and the rest of the Nantucket crew.

    Kait, it's not stealing - it's sharing. I learned this trick at a writer's workshop and it has been a Godsend. Keeps the story on track. The twist part is where the fun comes in.

  9. Hi Martha, Thank you for the wonderful, informative interview.
    Like KM, I'm going to save this interview for future reference - and your first title for my beach book this summer. I've only been to Nantucket once, but I fell in love. It has that sense of being on the edge of the world, where anything can happen.

  10. Thank you, Martha, for the terrific interview. We can learn so much from each other. As I read, I find myself making notes of a clever point or witty dialogue that I can learn from. Reading is the best method for writing better. Wishing you continuing success with your series.

  11. Hi, Shari - me, too. I fell in love with ACK the minute the Eagle rounded Brant Point, and I saw the town spreading out in front of me. Pure magic! Let me know what you think - especially if I captured some of the mystery, and the charm.

    and thank you, Grace, for hosting me on Writers Who Kill. This has been great fun. I actually think that reading is a key part of writing. You know the feeling when you're immersed in something and you come up for air and think: this is really good! That's may favorite moment.

  12. Martha, wonderful interview. I live just over the border from PA in Ohio, so I'm quite familiar with Pittsburgh. I also self-publish and have not regretted going that route.
    I like the freedom to write what I want to write and not be tied down to any timelines.

    I've written down the names of all three of your books because I think they're books I want
    to read so I'll be ordering them.I'm an avid reader of many books, but mostly mysteries.

  13. Hi, Gloria - I agree about the timelines. I'm still working a day job, so I appreciate the ability to create my own schedule. As hard as I try, there are just so many hours in a day. It literally is the best of both worlds, for me.