Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for January include: (1/5) Jennifer J. Chow, (1/12) Amy Pershing, (1/19) Heather Weidner, (1/26) Marilyn Levinson.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

An Interview With Liz Milliron

by Grace Topping

My taste in reading is varied, but most of the time I favor cozy mysteries. However, once in a while I find a book in another genre that I just can’t put down. Liz Milliron’s Root of All Evil is one of those books. Although it is a combination police procedural and traditional mystery and has lots of chilling moments, it has elements of a cozy—no gratuitous sex, violence, or foul language. It was a pleasure talking to Liz about the first in her Laurel Highlands Mystery series and her characters, Public Defender Sally Castle and Pennsylvania State Trooper Jim Duncan.

Root of All Evil

Rumors of a meth operation in rustic Fayette County catch the attention of Pennsylvania State Trooper Jim Duncan. When he learns that Aaron Trafford, a man who recently dodged a drug conviction, has returned to the county, the conclusion seems obvious. Trafford has set up a new operation.

Meanwhile, assistant public defender Sally Castle’s colleague, Colin Rafferty, has become uncharacteristically nervous and secretive. Her suspicion that he’s hiding something serious is confirmed when she learns of a threatening visitor and discovers a note on his desk stating, “You’d better fix this.”

Colin’s subsequent murder is the first frayed thread in a complex web of deceit. Jim fears Sally’s stubborn determination to get justice for her friend will put her in a killer’s crosshairs, but Sally won't rest until she finds answers--even if it costs her everything.

Welcome, Liz, to Writers Who Kill.

You developed the characters of Sally Castle and Troopers Duncan and McAllister so well that readers come away knowing a lot about them, even down to their favorite drinks (Edmund Fitzgerald beer for Duncan and Mountain Dew for McAllister). For a police procedural, how important is it that we know the characters?

Liz Milliron
I think it’s extremely important in any book. Because that’s what readers relate to, right? A twisty plot is fun, but as a reader, I’m far more interested in the people and I don’t think I’m alone in that. For example, I posted about torturing Jim and Sally while I was working on book 3, and I immediately received an email from an early reader of Root who said, “Why are you messing with my couple?”

A big criticism of procedurals is they put plot and forensics before character development. Maybe that’s been true in the past, but I think it’s changing and I hope I’ve created characters people care about. I firmly believe that’s why they’ll buy book 2—to find out what Jim, Sally, and company are up to.

As a new trooper, McAllister’s assertive manner comes across as too aggressive, while Sally Castle admits she needs to be more forceful. How do women in positions like a state trooper or public defender strike a balance so they aren’t viewed as too aggressive or weak?

It’s tricky for women no matter what they do, but especially in positions that have been traditionally dominated by men. Be too nice and “feminine” and you’ll be dismissed as weak, but be too forceful and “masculine” and you’ll be criticized as a…well, witch (take out the “w” and insert another letter). But while it’s important for women in any profession to stand their ground, a cop and a lawyer are positions of power and affect more than just the woman and her coworkers. Women need to be true to themselves and not feel like they’re second-class, but there’s also no reason to be rude and domineering. If you want respect, you should show respect, without letting yourself become a doormat. Law is getting better, but police work is still overwhelmingly male.

You set your book (and previously your short stories featuring the same characters) in and around Uniontown and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. What has been the reaction of the people living in those areas to your stories?

People have been very enthusiastic. I met a couple that owns a business in Confluence, PA and they were extremely excited their town was going to be represented in fiction. The law librarian at the Fayette County courthouse in Uniontown requested a copy of Root of All Evilfor the library. To that end, I try to be respectful of the area and showcase its good parts. I want residents to be proud and happy I chose that area for my fiction setting. 

Are the bars and restaurants actual places? If I went looking for the Gray Line Diner for the best breakfast in the Laurel Highlands, would I find it?

It’s a mix. Dex’s is fictional, as is the Gray Line Diner. But the Lucky Dog Café in Confluence does exist. I thought I had made it up, but I visited one day and boom! There it was. I must have seen it on a previous visit and the name stuck in my back-brain until I needed it. The River’s Edge Café is also real—and I’ve eaten delicious meals at both. I generally shy away from using real businesses, especially if nefarious deeds are in the air, because I don’t want to negatively affect that business. This is obviously not the case for public spaces (like the county courthouse) or big businesses (like FedEx).

You seem to have good insight into the minds and actions of the state troopers, especially Duncan’s advice to McAllister. Do you have any experience in law enforcement, or this just a sign of good research?

It’s all research. I’ve attended citizens’ police academies with both the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police and the Pennsylvania State Police, as well as Lee Lofland’s Writers’ Police Academy. Because of that, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of active and retired law enforcement folks. I’ll never be able to really “know” what it’s like, but I write it the best I can. I do, however, have relatives who have military experience, including my husband and father (both 20+ years of service). There are a lot of similarities in the mindsets, and I use my experience as a daughter and wife of service members when writing.

One theme that comes across frequently in mysteries is the lack of cooperation between law enforcement agencies. City police detective Killian resists what he views as interference in his investigation by state trooper Duncan. In your research, have you found that to be the case, or is it a method for building conflict?

It’s not uncommon. In my PSP course, they talked about how some departments don’t want to report information for various reasons—too time consuming, too complicated, small departments are understaffed as it is and can’t spare the manpower to fill out forms, etc. And yes, there are a few officers in these departments who don’t want the state police “barging in.” They feel the same way about federal reporting requirements. I know from watching my husband (who works for a federal agency) that it’s tough to coordinate sharing of information, a lot of times simply because people don’t want to take the time. But it’s also a conflict-building technique. Inter-agency rivalry, that kind of thing.

Without giving too much away, bullying is another theme in your book. What message would you like to get across addressing these issues?

Bullying is not just a school-age phenomenon. It happens at all levels and stages of life, between anyone who has power and those who don’t. I don’t believe violence is the answer to bullying. At the same time, I believe you have to stand up for yourself and not be afraid to push back. Let the bully know you won’t be an easy target. I honestly do think that most bullies are not brave people. They are looking to take advantage of someone they think is weaker. Show them you aren’t weak and they’ll back off. But Duncan’s advice to McAllister on the topic is good, too. Demonstrating strength does not mean resorting to bully tactics yourself.

You got your start writing short stories. Other than length, what do you find the biggest difference in writing them? Which do you find more challenging?

Short stories are much more compact. You need all the elements—good characters, plot, setting, a twist, and vivid description—using the most compact language possible. In one of my short stories, I think it was “Batter Down,” Sally makes a comment about Rizzo, Duncan’s dog, being like a wife, and Duncan replies, “Well, he’s a lot more loving and faithful than she was.” With luck, that gets the description of his marriage and how he feels about his ex across in a dozen words.

I’m not sure which I find more challenging. Certainly, getting all those elements into a short story (especially when you are submitting where there is a word cap) is tough. While the 90,000 words of a novel give you more wiggle room, you have to be careful not to fall down a rabbit hole. Plus, the limited scope of a short story is a lot easier to keep track of than all the threads in a novel.

That’s not a very definitive answer, is it?

In your short story “Three Rivers Voodoo,” your character Violette Lemaire is a Louisiana transplant living in Pittsburgh. Since the southwest corner of Pennsylvania features prominently in your writings, are you basing your view of the area as a native Pennsylvanian or a transplant to that area?

I’m a transplant. I was born in Erie, PA, but grew up in Buffalo, NY. When I married in 1996, I relocated to Pittsburgh (my husband is also a transplant from Buffalo). Now that I’ve been here 22 years, I can’t imagine living anywhere else. But I do nurse a soft spot for Buffalo sports teams, even though I have lived in Pittsburgh as long as I lived in Buffalo (I will admit that having winning teams in Pittsburgh makes watching games more fun).

Like you, I had a career writing software manuals—something that nearly drove me to murder often. What motivated you to write mysteries?

I have loved reading mysteries for…forever. Like most, I cut my teeth on Nancy Drew, moved quickly to Agatha Christie, and then jumped to thrillers by Mary Higgins Clark, Frederick Forsyth, and Robert Ludlum. And I’ve had the idea I’d write a book for a long time, too. Naturally, it would be a mystery. I actually started writing in the late 90s, but then life happened. It wasn’t until I lost my job in 2011 that my husband said, “Why don’t you finish that book you started?” I picked it up again. I’d always envisioned writing a cozy, amateur sleuth, but when I looked at my shelves—crammed with thrillers, suspense, and procedurals—I realized I needed to change subgenres.

The thing that will keep readers from putting your book aside is the pace, which is excellent—no lags in your story. How do you keep the pace accelerating without wearing out your reader?

Thank you! I try to intersperse quieter scenes, ones that have more to do with the characters and relationships, with “action” scenes. It’s definitely a balance. Car chase after car chase is exhausting, but too many slower scenes and the pace begins to drag. My critique group helps a lot with that. They are great about telling me when the pacing has gotten too slow or too fast. And I try to remember that every scene, regardless of type, has to advance the story. The reader should come away with more information at the end of the scene than they had when the scene started, either about the mystery or the character.

Please tell us about your middle-grade fantasy series.

This was a pet project. It’s about a girl in eighth grade, who is kind of an outsider, and who escapes real world troubles by playing a video game. One day, she gets a new controller, which transports her into the world of the game. She has to fight villains and solve puzzles, and in the course of her adventures, learns some lessons about surviving middle-school. Bullying is a theme here, too, with the major lesson being “how do you stay true to yourself in the jungle of those middle school years?” When I started writing, my daughter was in 7thgrade and tackling those very questions, things I remembered having to face when I was in middle school. The writing was my way of trying to show her that it’s okay to be different and it really does get better as you get older. When the publisher folded, I got the rights back and I self-published four more titles. I need to write one more to wrap up the series, but…deadlines. The books were written under the name “M.E. Sutton.”

What’s next for public defender Sally Castle and Trooper Jim Duncan?

The second book in the series, Heaven Has No Rage, is already scheduled for release in August 2019. This one takes place in the winter. Duncan is called to the scene of a fatal fire at a local ski resort—but the fire isn’t accidental and the victim isn’t the man who rented the chalet. It’s up to Duncan to find out who he is, why someone wanted him dead, and why he was in another man’s rental. At the same time, Sally is the target of a secret admirer. Is he merely a pest, or will she find herself the recipient of more than just unwelcome attention?

Thank you, Liz.

To learn more about Liz and her works, visit her at

Bio:Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people's stories, for as long as she can remember. She survived growing up through reading, cutting her mystery teeth on Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark and, of course, Nancy Drew. As an adult, she finds escape from the world of software documentation through creating her own fictional murder and mayhem. She lives near Pittsburgh with her husband and two teenage children, and fantasizes about owning a dog - one of these days. (Headshot courtesy of


Liz Milliron said...

Thanks, Grace! These were not easy to answer!

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

congratulations on publication. I look forward to reading your book.

Kait said...

I'm waiting for the book to drop to my Kindle. August 14 is circled on my reading calendar! I've read several of the Laurel Highlands shorts and loved them and the characters so I am certainly looking forward to spending more quality time in the area and with the crew!

All the best with the series, Liz.

Grace Topping said...

Thanks, Liz, for the interview and for your terrific responses. Wishing you lots of success with this and future books.

Barb Goffman said...

Nice interview. The book sounds great. Thanks, Liz and Grace.

Ramona said...

Great interview, Grace and Liz!

Liz Milliron said...

Margaret, Kait, Barb, and Ramona - Thanks for stopping!

Gloria Alden said...

Great interview, Grace. Liz, I've put your book on my TBO list.

Liz Milliron said...

Thanks Gloria. I hope you like it!

KM Rockwood said...

I admire authors who can tackle such a variety of projects successfully. Procedurals with developed characters are a favorite of mine!

Anonymous said...

Excellent interview! The book sounds wonderful. Congratulations, Liz.

Liz Milliron said...

KM, thanks. I find writing in a variety of genres helps me grow.

Anonymous - thanks!