This is a previously published interview. My apologies to Jackie Layton, who I was supposed to interview today. E. B. Davis
Margaret S. Hamilton's short story, "Killer Weeds," appears in the January 20 edition of Texas Gardener's Seeds: From Our Garden to Yours. Congratulations, Margaret, who, if you follow Facebook know, is a superb gardener herself!
Congratulations to Jennifer J. Chow for garnering a 2021 Lefty Nomination for Best Humorous Mystery Novel. We're crossing our fingers for Jennifer!
Congratulations to Paula Gail Benson whose "Reputation or Soul" has been chosen for Malice Domestic 16: Mystery Most Diabolical anthology to be released this spring.
KM Rockwood's "Stay Safe--Very Safe" appears in this year's 2020 BOULD anthology. Congratulations, KM!
Margaret S. Hamilton's "Dealing at the Dump" appears in Cozy Villages of Death Fall 2020.
Margaret S. Hamilton's "Black Market Baby" and Debra H. Goldstein's "Forensic Magic" appear in Masthead: Best New England Crime Stories Fall 2020.
Jennifer J. Chow's Mimi Lee Reads Between the Lines (interview on WWK on 11/11) released on November 10.
Annette Dashofy signed with agent Dawn Dowdle of the Blue Ridge Literary Agency. Congratulations, Annette!
KM Rockwood's "Secrets To The Grave" has been published in the SinC Chesapeake Chapter's new anthology Invitation To Murder, released by Wildside Press on 10/6.
Susan Van Kirk's Three May Keep A Secret has been republished by Harlequin's Worldwide Mystery. The WWK interview about the book can be accessed here. We're so glad another publisher picked up this series.
This is a previously published interview. My apologies to Jackie Layton, who I was supposed to interview today. E. B. Davis
I’ve repeatedly heard that writing is a lonely and solo profession because of the demanding nature of creative thought. Choosing the right words to string into a perfect sentence takes thoughtful and uninterrupted concentration. Building that sentence into full-bodied paragraphs to structure an 85,000 word novel involves thousands of focused hours and a hearty in-house supply of coffee or tea.
There’s a reason we whisper in libraries where other people are absorbing great thoughts and it has nothing to do with disturbing the books housed on the shelves. It’s about the way we activate our minds to think through and construct creative thoughts. I sometimes wonder about the monks working away in their scriptoriums. I’m sure their vows of silence certainly helped.
Distractions are the bane of my output. Once I’m in the flow and I get disturbed it’s almost impossible to pick up the threads of that broken creative thought and successfully knit it back together. Sure, I might get the original idea down on paper, but somehow the elegance of that thought evaporates under my questing fingers even as I strive to capture it. My readers may never know that the thought break occurred, but I still flinch whenever I re-read that recast sentence knowing that somehow something better was lost.
Some writers are better at this necessary self-isolation because they have naturally introverted personalities. These writers are happiest when left alone to explore their vision and build their brave new worlds. Introverts generally hate marketing and self-promotion side of the business although they admit it’s a necessary evil. Extroverted writers use self-discipline to block off specific hours of each day cut off from the distraction of family and friends to ensure they hit their daily word count. Both approaches are right. Writers know that we need to do whatever it takes to get our stories told.
The irony is that as soon as we’re done with one story we start doing it all over again!
It’s not all grimness and toil. One benefit of a writing life that I want to celebrate more is being part of an extraordinarily welcoming and inclusive community of like-minded souls especially after 2020, our isolation year. Despite rarely leaving my home, I still felt fully engaged between reading the daily ListServ digests, the burgeoning weekly Zoom meetings and the super informative podcasts and online conferences. Yes, I did miss seeing everyone face-to-face and meeting up for coffee, drinks or sharing a joke or a meal, but I believe that day will come. To cement my belief in the future, I’ve registered for the 2021 Bouchercon convention to be held in New Orleans, LA in August. Happy days! I can already imagine the noise level in the NOLA Hilton’s bar.
And one social media benefit are the pop-up reminders of previous fun get togethers. Eight years ago, the Pittsburgh chapter of Sisters in Crime produced its LUCKY CHARMS – 12 Crime Tales anthology. A photo of our launch event popped up on my Facebook page recently. I’m still warmed when I see all of those happy shining smiles.
With the new year, let’s take a moment to recognize the true and extraordinary gift of writerly fellowship, community, and friends. Here’s hoping for renewed focus and a joyous 2021!
When I was in high school, I read a novel set shortly after the Spanish Conquest about seven people who died when a rope footbridge in the mountains of South America collapsed. When the seven people die in 1714, a local priest decides to investigate each of their lives, on the theory that he could perhaps find a thread linking their deaths together so he could understand God’s purpose behind the bridge collapse. The book is about the seven people, but at the end of it, when the priest concludes that he can’t find anything in common between the seven people and publishes his book, he is burned at the stake by the inquisition. The sentence describing it goes something like, “Father ____ was burned at the stake by the Inquisition, not understanding why.” I can’t remember the name of the book, but I have to assume since I was reading it for English and it has stuck in my mind for 40 years, it must be some kind of great literature.
That book popped up in my memory on Saturday, when I learned that one person in Michigan had won the Mega Millions jackpot that I wanted to win. I especially wanted to win this time because my sisters and mother and I went in to buy tickets together, and it would have been a lot of fun to have all of us win at the same time. Even if we had taken the cash option instead of the annuity, all four families would have won more money than we could possibly spend.
My husband and I had figured out the name of the charity we would establish with the bulk of the money, a possible place to move to (in Huntsville, to be close to my mother), what he and I would do with our time and our post-lottery travel plans, which involved a nice motor home and a trip through many different areas of the United States.
The thing I would have enjoyed the most would have been finally being able to write full-time. Don’t get me wrong; I love my job, but I love writing more. So while I wish the person in Michigan all the best, I still can’t help thinking, along with Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, “Lord who made the Lion and the Lamb, You decreed I would be what I am. Would it spoil some vast eternal plan,” if I were a wealthy person?
I also can’t help wondering, just as the priest in the book did, what thread connects the lives of the winners of big jackpots pre-drawing so that they win, and others don’t? At least I won’t get burned at the stake for whatever it is I conclude.
So what are your dreams if you ever came into a windfall of immense proportions?
P.S. My learned colleagues here at WWK inform me that the book is The Bridge of San Luis Rey, written by Thornton Wilder, and in the book five people die on the bridge, not seven.
I really need to clean my desk.
I’ve been asking my readers on Facebook to help me come up with a blog topic for today. No, cleaning my desk wasn’t one of them. I’ve made a list of the suggestions, all of which are great. But one was a topic I’ve already used recently. Several others will make excellent topics closer to the release of my next book, which isn’t until May. I can’t address current events for two reasons. One, we’re all sick of hearing about politics and COVID. And two, between the time I write this and the time you’re reading it, everything could change. Let’s face it, in the past couple of weeks, “current events” mean “in the last ten minutes.”
So I’m sitting here, staring into space, which as most writers know is legitimate work. We’re pleading with the muses to honor us with an idea. Any idea. Please!
Which is when my glassy-eyed gaze settled on my desk. Good lord. How did this mess happen?
I intended to clear it over the holidays. I need to file important papers. Create a folder to organize my workshop handouts. Compile notes from online seminars and classes. Seriously, I have about ten notebooks and legal pads piled around my office, all with half a dozen pages of notes on various topics from marketing to law enforcement to edits for my works in progress. If I need to print something out, I have to move an unstable mountain of paperwork from the top of the printer.
Let’s not forget last year’s receipts, all gathered for filling out tax forms. To be honest, that stuff is the only organized pile in the room, because nothing terrifies me more than the IRS.
I would list what’s on my desk, but I don’t have enough space in this blog for it all. And if you think I’m going to show you a complete “before” picture, nope. Not happening. If I’m successful between the “now” of me writing this and the “now” of you reading it, I will post an “after” picture though. (Edit: I was and I am!)
Is your desk neat and organized? Or do you work in the midst of chaos? Or somewhere in between? What’s on your desk?
When I find a writing tool that works, my first thought is, how cool, my second thought is, alert the media and tell the world. I consider it a public service.
One of my favorite tools is Scrivener. It’s a fabulous program from the Literature & Latte stable that has turned me into a plotter from a pantser. I do not pretend to know all the bells and whistles of the program. There are any number of fabulous classes, Facebook groups, and YouTube videos to teach the finer points for those who want to master the program. When I sing its praises, I suggest that writers learn the basics and then drill down into the aspects that work for them.
Initially a pantser, I discovered that the index cards in the inspector are fabulous plotting tools. With the Inspector open, the index cards are displayed on the right-hand side. Because I’m visual, I’ve attached a screen shot of my current WIP as a shorthand explanation. I use the color function for the
Liz Milliron, a fellow writer and former blogmate at Mysteristas, introduced me to the missing Scrivener link. Scapple is another Literature & Latte product. Full disclosure, I’ve had it on my computer for years. I think I bought it in 2016. Never used it as a writing aid. I played with it. It’s a fun program and creates documents similar to mind maps. Until this WIP, I failed to see how it could be used in writing.
The events of this year have discombobulated me. I’ve become a full-time writer. Yea! But I’m also a news junky. Boo! Writing has been steady but distracted. Current event distractions and the interruptions of life in general meant I was having a hard time remembering who did what to whom, with what, and why. By the end of each writing session, I’d spent more time scrolling and searching than I did writing. That’s when I remembered Scapple.
My stories are puzzles and they revolve around the victim. To solve the puzzle, I have to know my suspects. Then I must know where the clues are going to fall in the story and where the red herrings will lurk. To avoid loose ends, red herrings must be accounted for and my killer revealed by the clues. Ever play the game of Clue? Then you know it can be a challenge to reveal Ms. Scarlett as the murderess in the library with the wrench while Col. Peacock clamors for attention in the hall with the knife. Scapple provides an easy way to organize my suspects, clues, and resolutions in a clear format.
Do you have programs and tricks that help you keep track of the many moving parts of a story?
Lately, because I'm spending so much time alone, I find myself reflecting on the people in my life and the many friendships I have forged over the years. I have friends from every aspect of my life--childhood, college, work, travel. I maintain these relationships because they are based on something important to me--common interests, a shared history, a special bond.
What's more, my friendships reflect some major aspect of me. The people in my life give me a sense of continuity, a sense of who I am. And so I do my best to keep up these relationships. I met one friend on a cruise around South America about fifteen years ago. I followed her into a formal tea--something I never would go to--because she was carrying a book I'd read. Another is a mystery writer like me. We hardly knew each other when we were in the same high school class, but now we're in touch pretty often.
Recently, I had two very rewarding experiences regarding friends whom I'd met many years ago. Over sixty years, in one case. Last week, I received a Facebook message from someone asking if I remembered her at college, where I was her maid-of-honor. At first I thought this was a joke, until I looked at her name. Her first name (which I have changed): Marisol. Of course I remembered her! We were at university together and I had been her maid-of honor. Ecstatic, I immediately messaged her back.
Both Marisol and I were Spanish majors planning to teach Spanish at the secondary level, and we became good friends. Marisol was from Cuba. She'd come to the United States alone. This was a period of great unrest in Cuba. Castro had led the fight against Batista for control of the country and his new government had strained relations with the United States. In our senior year, they were so bad that her parents were unable to send out her tuition. And so all the Latin-American students at the university got together and paid for it!
Marisol had fallen in love, and they decided to get married in our senior year. She asked me to be her maid-of-honor and I happily accepted. We lost touch after graduation until last week. We spoke at great length that evening--after sixty years of not seeing each another. She'd read the Class Note I'd sent to our alumni magazine about my latest book and contacted me. And how interesting that one of her four children lives in the next town!
Right after exchanging messages with Marisol I took a short walk to my mailbox. Inside was a belated Christmas card from a couple I thought I had lost. My husband and I had met an English couple on our trip through Spain and Portugal over thirty years ago. We became good friends. We visited them several times in England and they visited us here in the United States. The last ten years or so our main connection was via Christmas cards and emails. Therefore, I was crestfallen when I never received a card from them in 2019. I emailed them, asking if everything was all right, but there was no response. I figured that one of them must have died and I would never hear from them again.
Until a year later! Inside was a long letter explaining that they had moved and bringing me up to date on their lives and children. As soon as I get a free moment, I'll write back.
My friendships mean a lot to me. I'm so grateful to have regained two that are especially precious.
Cassandra Sato is a fish out of water. Originally from Hawaii, she’s living and working in a college located in Nebraska. Readers who have never visited Hawaii can still empathize with her lack of clothing sense, her aversion to the dark winter days with piles of snow, and her homesickness. But she is always a professional. I liked Cassandra even if I didn’t understand her culture and vocabulary—more about that later.
Dead of Winter Break was released in November. It’s set on the lonely campus of Morton College during the holidays when most students are back home, except for the international students who can’t afford the plane fare. But the story involves those who remain on campus, lessening the pool of suspects and giving the plot a closed-circle flair.
Please welcome Kelly Brakenhoff to WWK. E. B. Davis
I was confused as to why Cassandra needed to talk with her old boss, Morton College President Nielson, who was returning to his old job, at least temporarily, and get answers as to why he was returning. Was it her business? She internalizes his return as a sign that he doesn’t have confidence in her, and even to the point that she thinks his return is a diss to her. She doesn’t know why he is returning—why does she make those assumptions?
Cassandra had conflicted feelings about Dr. Nielson. At times, he could be a charming, encouraging mentor who supported her dream of becoming a university president. Other days, he was an out of touch, domineering bureaucrat. Once he retired, part of her hoped she’d advanced one step closer to the top job on campus. Like many of us who might make faulty assumptions, she took his unexpected return personally.
Cassandra moved to Nebraska from Hawaii to fill an administrative position, Vice President of Student Affairs, with Morton College. Her best friend Meg is also in an administrative position at Morton. Did they know each other from Hawaii?
Although Dead of Winter Break can be read as a standalone story, it’s actually third in the Cassandra Sato Mystery Series. We find out in earlier books that Meg O’Brien, Morton College’s ASL Interpreter Coordinator, and Cassandra worked together at Oahu State College when they were both in their early twenties. Meg’s husband was stationed on Oahu when he was in the military and the friends reunited when Cassandra moved to Nebraska.
What is Cassandra’s PhD in?
Cassandra graduated from the University of Hawai’i at the tender age of 28 with a focus on Higher Education Administration.
Although Chairman Hershey dismissed Cassandra from the running for the president position due to her lack of age and experience, doesn’t being president of a college entail getting substantial donations from alumna and other sponsors? In previous books and this one, Cassandra does no fundraising. But Cassandra assumes his dismissal is due to her sex and race. Why?
Cassandra traces her ancestors back to Japan, although she grew up in Hawai’i where she was surrounded by the multicultural cornucopia of island life. Cassandra experiences not-so-subtle racism soon after moving to small town Nebraska where 97% of the population is white. Morton’s Board of Directors rely on Cassandra to investigate the mysterious mishaps around campus and run things smoothly in the midst of crises. She knows that very few women become university presidents, so she automatically assumes those factors when Mr. Hershey doesn’t immediately offer his support. Cassandra’s hard work usually speaks for itself, but she still has a lot to learn both professionally and personally.
Readers are sometimes stumped by the Hawaiian vocabulary and culture that infuses Cassandra’s thoughts and speech. Many of these words can be guessed by the context of the situation, but here’s a few more details. Writing these out is making me hungry. Maybe I should start adding recipes to the end of my books?
What does wahine mean? The Hawaiian word for a woman.
ASL? American Sign Language
Spam musubi? Spam Musubi is a popular Hawaiian creation consisting of four ingredients: Spam, rice, nori (seaweed sheets), and furikake (a Japanese seasoning). Cassandra thinks they taste like home.
Snowpocalypse? Also known as Snowmageddon, it’s a fun combination of the words “snow” with either “Apocalypse” or “Armageddon.” Nebraskans can usually count on at least one of these large snowstorms every couple of years.
Mochi? A Japanese rice cake made with sticky rice. In Hawai’i, it’s a popular treat at potlucks during the New Year holiday.
Shishi? In Hawaiian Pidgin, shishi means to go to the bathroom.
Tako poke? This is a popular chopped seafood appetizer whose main ingredient is sliced octopus. I like mine cooked, but it’s also served raw. If you attend any parties in Hawai’i, you will see some variation of poke.
Sensei? This is a polite Japanese word for “teacher.” One of the international students calls Cassandra sensei as a show of respecting her as his elder.
Frings? Nebraska is home to a regional restaurant chain named Runza whose most popular menu item is a Runza sandwich, which is a baked dough pocket bread filled with hamburger, cabbage, and LOVE. The second most popular menu item is Frings, a genius combination of French fries and onion rings in one happy little takeout bag. If you ever drive through Nebraska, I urge you to stop along I-80 and try them both. You’re welcome.
“A calabash family?” In Hawai’i, non-locals often do barbecues and hang out with friends or neighbors to the point your support network becomes like a big extended family. “Calabash family” might not be blood relatives, but they can be cherished friends you need when you live far from your home.
Hawai’i time? This
is a reference to island life where concerts, parties, and meetings don’t
necessarily follow strict clock time. You might find the same laid-back
lifestyle at many island, resort, or tourist places.
The story takes place over winter break. The college has closed two residence halls and consolidated the students remaining into the international student dorm, which Cassandra volunteered to oversee since she wasn’t flying home to Hawaii. When a tree crashes into her house after a snowstorm and her house is broken into, she is forced to lodge at the dorm. She meets two trouble-making students. Is Sela Roberts a foreign student?
Cassandra hasn’t looked in the student database to find where Sela is from exactly, but she obviously has enough money to buy beautiful clothes. Sela loves colorful headscarves and glamorous makeup and speaks with a British Caribbean accent. We will learn much more about Sela in the next books.
How did Cassandra end up with her dog, Murphy? What breed is he? What is his problem?
Without spoiling anything from previous books, Cassandra ends up adopting Murphy in an unexpected turn of events right before this story begins. Murphy is a white West Highland Terrier who misses his owner and senses Cassandra’s discomfort as a new foster mom. They both make some big adjustments in this book. Can Murphy worm his way into Cassandra’s heart?
When Cassandra has to crack the whip on the slovenly students, Murphy helps her have common ground with them. How does he help? What does Cassandra learn about Murphy or perhaps herself?
An ongoing conflict in this story is between Cassandra and Murphy. Does she regret her hasty decision to rescue him? She’s never even owned a goldfish before, so what does she know about bonding with an animal who has lost his mother? He naturally snuggles up to the students who swoon over him but seems to sense Cassandra’s discomfort. In this story, we see Cassandra struggle to connect with the students and the dog, in addition to all the professional challenges on her plate.
Nielson says of Cassandra that people often mistake her calm professionalism for coldness. Does Cassandra agree with that assessment?
Cassandra is an intelligent leader with high standards in a field dominated by older men. Her tunnel vision to follow her professional plan sometimes leads people to judge her as too driven. As the school disciplinarian, Cassandra is fairly secure in herself and aware that everyone isn’t going to like her. She has developed a thick skin when it comes to student criticism.
Why won’t Cassandra work anywhere until her late seventies?
Cassandra is only 34, but her ambitious life plan includes an early, successful career in higher education followed by an early retirement. She might be a tad frustrated by some of her former bosses who want to continue working until they keel over in their soup bowls. That conflict between the Baby Boomer and Millennial generations pops up a few times in the first three books and comes to a head in the next book.
Why did Cassandra buy a house in Nebraska? Because she could?
The median price of a single-family home on Oahu is $880,000 and often young adults live with roommates or extended family in order to afford the cost of living. In small town Nebraska, a home costing the median $220,000 is much more feasible for a single young adult to afford. Cassandra loves saving DIY photos of organized closets and remodeled kitchens on Pinterest and can’t wait to peel the ancient wallpaper from the 1950s era galley kitchen in her bungalow.
Can you explain why a soybean seed formula (even more than the soybean itself) is so valuable?
Sure! My brother-in-law, Craig Franzen works for a farmers’ cooperative and helped this city girl understand the intricacies of soybean seed breeding (but I’m not an expert by any stretch). Seed companies spend years testing and genetic breeding to make seeds that grow high quality plants with superior resistance to disease and drought that can feed the world while using fewer resources.
A similar industry process you might already be familiar with is when pharmaceutical companies test and develop new medicines (or vaccines). Both are highly competitive markets worth a lot of money. Companies (like Monsanto for example) own land in both the US and South America. Once they find a seed that is successful, they can plant in the US during our summer and in the Southern Hemisphere during their growing season. So, a company can get two growing cycles from one calendar year. This maximizes the time it takes to breed a better plant.
Why is a soybean seed formula considered a government secret? And why would the Chinese government report a missing proprietary file of the soybean to the USDA?
The Chinese government is responsible for feeding 1.4 billion people in a cost-effective manner. They are also doing seed research to produce higher yields that can grow in a variety of climates. The more self-reliant China becomes, the better their negotiating position during trade talks with the US. In the US, the USDA is the federal agency responsible for monitoring soils, seeds, and agriculture. It’s not complete fiction to imagine that representatives would contact US officials when they suspect their research has been stolen.
According to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, “The United States restricts or prohibits the entry of many agricultural products, which can carry foreign pests and diseases that harm American agriculture and our environment. A major pest or disease outbreak could mean higher grocery bills, shortages of certain foods, and devastating losses for our farmers and ranchers.”
Is there really such a thing as agricultural espionage?
The most well-known case occurred in 2011 when some Chinese men were caught digging up seeds from a cornfield in Iowa. The investigation uncovered a plot by a Chinese agricultural company to reverse-engineer seed lines belonging to two American companies. Any time an American company has a competitive advantage in the field of agriculture, there is a high chance that a foreign government would target that technology.
Is there really a plant repository?
Yes! The National Plant Germplasm System in Miami, FL is part of a global network of gene banks to preserve important genetic resources. Established in 1984, it is the world’s number one source for raw materials for basic genetic research, breeding and preservation of rare species. They collect and distribute various fruit, nut, and other plant species to researchers around the world.
Why isn’t Cassandra interested in romance?
Hmm . . . do we really know yet? Her first semester at Morton College was filled with one disaster after another. In this book, she’s focused on her broken house, a blizzard, and a dead boss. At least a couple of eligible guys are interested in Cassandra. Let’s all hope that in future books her life might calm down enough for her to expend energy on developing a romance. The harder task might be deciding which man suits her better. That’s a topic for future books!
What’s next for Cassandra?
Millennial Cassandra has to come to terms with her new Baby Boomer boss, and there’s going to be some friction. When Cassandra’s parents visit Nebraska over Spring Break, we’ll get to see their antics up close. Cassandra’s coworkers and students will be involved in more mayhem, and I’ve heard there will be a stage production of The Three Musketeers! Never a dull moment in Carson, Nebraska. Look for the next episode later this summer.