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Archive for September 25th, 2018

DSCF4389_pp copyMargaret Mizushima is the author of the critically acclaimed Timber Creek K-9 Mysteries. Her books have garnered a Reader’s Favorite gold medal and have been listed as finalists in the RT Reviewers’ Choice Awards, the Colorado Book Awards, and the International Book Awards. Margaret serves on the board for the Rocky Mountain chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and she lives in Colorado where she assists her husband with their veterinary practice and Angus cattle herd. She can be found on Facebook/AuthorMargaretMizushima, on Twitter @margmizu, on Instagram at margmizu, and on her website at www.margaretmizushima.com.

Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Burning Ridge. To begin with, can you gives us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?   

A: Burning Ridge is the fourth book in the Timber Creek K-9 series, and it’s an action-packed adventure featuring Deputy Mattie Cobb, her dog Robo, and local veterinarian Cole Walker. When Cole and his two daughters find partial human remains up on Redstone Ridge, a beautiful place in the Colorado mountain wilderness, Mattie and Robo are called to investigate. After Robo finds a man’s burned body, Mattie soon realizes that she has close personal ties to the victim and she is determined to learn the truth behind his death. But the perpetrator has other plans, and Mattie finds herself the target of a sadistic killer. Cole and Robo search for the missing Mattie while a blazing forest fire threatens them all.

The plot for Burning Ridge came to me while I was writing Hunting Hour, the episode that comes before this one in the series. This villain sprang from Mattie’s past to destroy everything she once believed to be true about herself, and I couldn’t wait to finish book three so that I could get started on book four.

Q: What do you think makes a good mystery? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?

Burning Ridge cover

A: I’ll list what I believe to be the top three elements from the ones I enjoy in a good mystery. First of all, you must have likeable and compelling characters. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re good people, though most of my favorite characters have depth and goodness at their core, but the reader needs to be able to relate to and root for the protagonists in the story. Second, you need a good puzzle. It helps if the plot has twists that the reader didn’t see coming, but it’s even more important that clues are laid down that the reader can follow along with the investigator. And third, you should have an interesting setting that can be shaped to set tone and sometimes act as a barrier or even an antagonist to help develop you protagonist’s character arc. Setting itself can aid or impede a character’s progress in solving the mystery. I’m sure others might think differently to answer this question, but this is the way I see it.

Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?

A: I like to start with a lacey outline, one that has plenty of holes in it. As I write, these holes need to get filled in, but at least the outline gives me a sense of where I’m going. Sometimes I write out the outline, and sometimes I simply use a plotting board broken up into a grid that represents chapters. I can then post sticky notes on each space to tag what’s going to happen and what clues I want to plant. I’m trying this last method with book five, and so far I really like it.

Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?

A: I have two main protagonists, Deputy Mattie Cobb and veterinarian Cole Walker. And I shouldn’t forget Mattie’s K-9 partner; he’s important too, but I would call him a strong secondary character. Mattie is a tough woman who grew up in foster homes after her mother abandoned her and her brother when she was six, while Cole is recently divorced after his wife left and he’s in the throes of learning how to be a single parent and still handle his busy veterinary practice. I use a written character profile to first develop my protagonists, and then I flesh out their personalities by assigning each one a type on the Enneagram, an ancient system that reflects how different people view their worlds. This way I can identify exactly which character traits I want to bring out in scene and I can predict how my characters will react under different circumstances. This is the first time I’ve used the system, and it’s given me lovely results. (For more information, you can go to an online bookseller and search for books on The Enneagram.)

Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?

A: I like to set up my villain’s goals and motivations from the beginning. Sometimes I like to make it so that Mattie shares similar goals, so that she can relate to the villain, which is what sparked the creation of the bad guy in Burning Ridge. But by the time the story evolved, he morphed into someone so twisted that there was no way Mattie could relate to him.

Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?

A: Bestselling author Jeffery Deaver says to eliminate all the parts in your novel that a reader might want to skip. I like that, although it’s not necessarily specific. On my plotting board, I try to keep the action going by moving through a variety of dog-action scenes, veterinary work, and interviews with lots of dialogue. I like to keep my chapters short (about 10 pages) and use that white space (shorter paragraphs sprinkled with dialogue). I also use beta readers who give me feedback regarding scenes that move too slowly or provide unnecessary information.

Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?

A: Ah…seems we might agree on setting being an important element! I chose an outdoor setting in the Rocky Mountains because of the challenges it brings to the story. The setting also reflects on the people who populate the book: rugged folks who love nature, animals, and are open toward others. In Burning Ridge, a charred body is found in a beautiful spot in the wilderness area where they have to pack in on horseback or hike to investigate the crime. And in fact, Mattie’s fear of horses plays into the mystery as well. And of course, the forest fire that builds toward the book’s climax creates physical and emotional challenges for the characters as well as tension for the reader.

Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?

A: I almost always know the themes for each book before I begin. Burning Ridge is about family and all the forms that might take, including those members who don’t share your bloodline. It’s a theme that is woven into all of the series episodes in various forms, because finding her family and having her own family are two of Mattie’s heart’s desires. And since Cole’s wife has withdrawn from him and his two daughters, he’s working hard to reshape his family and give his children a loving home. Now…wouldn’t it be great if these two could get together?

Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?

A: This is a good question. Craft and art intermingle during the writing of a manuscript’s rough draft. Art can continue to flourish during the editing process, too, if you have the right editor. A professional editor who is experienced with the development of mysteries can be worth his/her weight in gold. Working with the right critique group can also help, but I’ve found that it’s important to work with others who are writing within the mystery genre when creating that initial draft. Otherwise, it’s very easy to take a wrong turn.

Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?

A: The ability to sit in isolation for hours at the keyboard is a must. Yes, it’s possible to write at a coffee shop or other social venue, but in the end, a writer must go inside her own head to get those words onto the page. Persistence is a second quality that a writer needs to have in order to achieve publication. You must persist in finishing what you start, and you must be able to persist during countless revisions in order to elevate your work to the best it can be. And finally, you need to have a thick skin. This applies to the critique process, the editorial process, and the review process after publication, that time when “Aunt Rosie” tells everyone that she doesn’t like your work.

Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?

A: I agree to a certain extent. When writing a first draft, I write just about every day. I’m a fairly slow writer, so I shoot for 1000 words in my manuscript each morning in order to finish a draft and still have time to revise and polish before meeting my deadline. I save my day job and other writing duties for the afternoon. During the writing process it is like having homework, but I expect I will actually retire someday and I won’t be writing novels for the rest of my life. Then again, I might be surprised.

Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?

A: The annual Colorado Gold writing conference in Denver and the Pike’s Peak Writers Conference in Colorado Springs have been extremely helpful in terms of writing workshops, networking with other writers, and meeting my agent and publisher. I have two shelves of resource books in my office and too many to list here, but I’ve used repeatedly the Donald Maass books for Writing the Breakout Novel, and the Debra Dixon book GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict.

Q:  Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?

A: In the beginning, tapping into the flow of writing can be a heady experience. Enjoy it, but also remember that you must finish what you start, even if that means plodding along at times. You can always revise bad writing, but you can’t revise a blank page.

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Nancy Gray has published a number of works including her middle grade series Spine Chillers. She also published her YA fantasy series Blood Rain. Her short story “Chosen” appeared in Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal Author Quest: a Penguin Special from Grosset & Dunlap. Her work also appears in various anthologies.

Nancy Gray has been writing for over ten years. Gray lives in South Carolina with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys books, video games, anime, manga, and horror.

Her latest book is the mid-grade horror, Spine Chillers: Big Bad Wolf.

WEBSITE & SOCIAL LINKS:

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About the Book:

Jane is ecstatic when she gets the role of Red Riding Hood in her school play, but she didn’t realize that they’d be using the stuffed wolf prop as the Big Bad Wolf. That tattered old prop has always scared her and, lately, she has been having strange dreams about it that make it seem like it’s something more.

Jane will have to get help to save herself from the hungry spirit that has haunted her people and her nightmares before it consumes her, or worse, escapes the prison of the last creature it took to sate its horrible appetite.

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Would you call yourself a born writer?

I wouldn’t call myself a born writer, though ever since I was a child I’ve always had a vivid imagination. I made up stories to tell my older sister to make her laugh. For a long time I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I wanted to be an artist or a marine biologist, basically one of those other dreams that you think you want as a child and then realize you don’t really want when you’re older. When I was older I enjoyed reading and writing. I began trying my hand at writing short stories and eventually novels. I found that I really loved it. So I guess you could say that it was really when I was a lot older that I realized my dream job was writing.

In my experience I’ve found that most people don’t start out being a “born writer.” People can have a talent for writing, but it takes a lot of hard work to hone it as a skill. I have many early manuscripts that will hopefully never be seen by anyone. At the time I thought they were good, but now I realize they were not. I think that one of the marks of knowing you are a better writer is being able to look at your first work and realize that you weren’t born a natural, but you’ve improved since then.

What was your inspiration for Spine Chillers: Big Bad Wolf?

I had a lot of inspiration for this particular story. Some of my inspiration comes from Native American legends about the hunting grounds and stories about the legend of the wendigo. Even though the wendigo is typically portrayed as a werewolf, the essence of the legend is actually about the spirit of one who commits the taboo of cannibalism. While my story might not be entirely true to the legend, I combined many Native American themes. In this way I try to honor them and to make them all true in the context of the book. Being quarter Cherokee, I tried to do it in the best way that I possibly could.

I also had inspiration in some odd places. For one thing, the inspiration for the prop room and even the stuffed wolf came from the movie The Neverending Story. In the movie, the main character finds himself hiding in a room full of old science equipment and of all things, there’s a stuffed wolf head on a broom handle that falls down and scares him. Quite honestly, being young when I watched this movie, it scared me too. I try to evoke that feeling in the description of the taxidermy wolf. Something about it is off, and it definitely shouldn’t be there.

What themes do you like to explore in your writing?

I like to explore the themes of good and evil and the battle within oneself to do the right thing. I try to show that everyone, especially a child, has the capacity to be courageous and powerful even when facing their fears. Many of the creatures in the stories reflect a primal fear in the form of a monster. Many times the child is forced overcome it by themselves because the adults don’t see what they do or refuse to believe it. I feel that in life, there are times when children must face things by themselves. When they do it can be scary, but gaining the ability to stand up to adversity by oneself is a stepping stone to growing up. A child forced to make an adult decision in a sort of “bird out of the nest” moment is also a recurring theme in the stories.

In Spine Chillers: Big Bad Wolf, the battle mostly takes place in the character’s mind. She is being chased by something horrible that wants to devour her spiritually as well as physically. It takes a great deal of strength for her not to give up when she feels physically and mentally weak from its attack.  Some of the themes I think that are recurring in this story are that you are more powerful than you think, you are not alone, and there is no shame in seeking the help of others to help you with your problems.

How long did it take you to complete the novel?

This one took about a month and a half to complete. It was the third book that I wrote, though technically it’s the second in the series. Since I already had extensive notes about the character background, setting, and managed to write a rough outline, writing it didn’t take very long. Writing up specific notes for this story was a work in progress. I did a little research and was inspired by various things and jotted new notes down over the course of about two weeks.

Completing the notes on the entire series of books took longer than I would’ve liked. When I got the idea for this series I was working on my young adult fantasy series, Blood Rain. I intended to work on Spine Chillers, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted it to be an adult story or a story with child characters. It went through a few different versions before it became what it is today.

Are you disciplined? Describe a typical writing day.

When I’m inspired I’m fairly disciplined but I have a lot of responsibilities that have to come first. I have a few cups of coffee with breakfast so that I feel alert. A good rule to follow is never write anything when you’re still groggy in the morning! I also have to do a few things around the house before I can begin writing. I write in the living room on my laptop, but if my house is cluttered I can’t concentrate. So I do some cleaning up before I get started. Also I have two daughters, so I have to write at odd times during the day. When they take their naps, or when they are at school are the best times for me to write.

On a good day I usually can write over two thousand words. On days where I’m not feeling as inspired, I try to at least write something. Sometimes I write up character backgrounds for a role playing game, or I start writing a new short story. If I really can’t think of what to write, then I take a break from it for a few days to a week. One of the things I try not to do is to write on a story that I’m enjoying on a day that I don’t feel like it. Doing that tends to produce something that is at best mediocre, and I strive to make my work as good as it can be. Basically I try not to force it, but on an average day I write for at least two to three hours without a break. If for some reason I have a day where I have no other responsibilities, such as if someone is watching my kids and I’m caught up with my chores, I can write all day long.

What did you find most challenging about writing this book?

I think the most challenging thing about writing this book was balancing the scenes in the real world with the scenes in the dream world. In most stories you are supposed to avoid very detailed dream sequences because it takes away from the action of the story. In this case the action of the story takes place partially in main character’s dream world. This also made many of the scenes a bit abstract. It was a challenge to balance making the scene frightening but also to convey elements of fantasy, all the while allowing  a character to have a bit of control over her dream.

Another challenge was making the story fitting for my intended audience. There are some adult themes in this story, specifically the concept of cannibalism. There is often a fine line that has to be drawn between the grotesque and what is appropriate. Through most of the story Jane is fighting for her life while the cannibal spirit chases her in her dreams. To make this concept creative and different each time was also somewhat difficult. I think in the end I managed to balance things well, but only my readers can tell me for sure.

What do you love most about being an author?

I think what I love most about being an author is being able to exercise my creativity in a way that is meant to be enjoyed by others. I like the fact that I can paint a picture in another person’s mind. Each individual that reads my work will have a similar experience but one that is unique to them personally.

I also like to entertain people. Even though I made these stories as a way for children to cope with a fear in a dangerous world, I like the fact that I can do it in a way they will enjoy. Reading is a great way to escape and to experience something that you’ve never experienced before. I think everyone occasionally wants to experience something supernatural, something amazing but terrifying and to be able to come back to the real world in the end. Sometimes that makes the real world seem a little better.

Did you go with a traditional publisher, small press, or did you self publish? What was the process like and are you happy with your decision?

While I have had some correspondence with a traditional publisher, I am happy with my decision to self-publish. By self publishing I have a great deal of freedom over the process. For one thing, I was able to pick out my artists and have some say in the cover art. When you go through a traditional publisher you usually don’t handle that sort of thing.

Also I have been able to be as creative with my writing as I would like. Sometimes people write better stories when they aren’t told what they “can” and “can’t” do. There are many books now that blur genre lines and the lines of what is acceptable for a certain audience. In my books I try to treat my audience with respect. For the most part I write my stories as though I am writing to adults because I believe children are more capable than we tend to give them credit for. Even though I might tone down the violence and the gore, I don’t sugarcoat the darker elements of the story. I like to think these books would appeal to more than just one age group.

Where can we find you on the web?

I have a facebook page under WriterNancyGray. I also have a website nancygray.net. I have a blog on nancygray.blogspot.com. If anyone would like to contact me the best way is though facebook or through my website. I have plenty of room for comments and I would love to hear from you. If you like the books please leave a review on the store page, and you can expect more Spine Chillers from me in the future.

Thank you so much for having me here today to talk to you about my books! I really appreciate the opportunity.

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