Tell us about the second of your Grace Church Mysteries.
Death in the Old Rectory is set about six months after the events of the first novel, Death in the Memorial Garden. It begins in October and ends the next March. The first novel’s events lasted only one week. I decided to extend the time frame for the second so that I could include more of the big events that the church celebrates. Death in the Old Rectory includes a St. Francis Day Animal Blessing, Christmas, Ash Wednesday and Easter.
Most of the characters from the first novel are present in the second: Father Robert, Molly Fergusen, now his fiancée, Bishop Anthony Adams, Deacon Mary and her husband Joe, Detective (formerly Officer) Joyce, and Officer Raymond Chen. Also making a return appearance are the formerly homeless Lester, who now works for the church, church members Stacy Chase and Lucy Lawrence, Henry the crotchety sexton, and of course, Daniel the organist. I’ve added some new characters: church member and thrift shop manager Adele Evans, Terry Buffett, the Food Bank Director, Arlis Bell, his assistant, Mae, the church’s oldest member and volunteer at the thrift shop, and Ed Grafton, a member of the food bank board. Sadly, church member and thrift shop volunteer Nick Monte does not live to celebrate St. Francis Day.
The action in this novel centers around the rectory located next door to Seattle’s Grace Church, which has been converted into a thrift shop and food bank office. As with the first novel, business interests threaten to destroy one of the city’s meeting places for the haves and have-nots, the churched and the unchurched.
What have you been up to since your first novel was published in 2012?
My husband and I have settled into our retirement home near Santa Barbara. We come back to the Northwest twice a year to visit family and friends, and that’s when I research the settings and community goings-on around the fictional Grace Church.
There’s a lively writer’s community in the Santa Barbara area. I just attended a conference in Ventura and belong to a weekly writer’s group. I also volunteer at our local elementary school and feed my thrift shop habit by volunteering at “Destined for Grace,” which supports a school in Haiti. We’re active at All Saints by the Sea Episcopal Church and love to drive “over the hill” to tour the Santa Ynez wine country.
What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
I don’t think it’s necessary to complete a formal creative writing program, but you need to learn the basics such as plotting, character development, point of view, etc. Most communities offer adult education courses and writer’s conferences. I found that I needed to attend the classes and workshops for about five years before I’d assimilated the content.
I would say that then you need to demonstrate your knowledge in your writing. Present your work to a writer’s group, conference workshops and professional editors for this type of feedback. Then accept the feedback, revise your work and go back for more feedback.
What’s your writing process?
I usually start with notes in my journal and after a while a question presents itself. In Death in the Old Rectory the question was, “Who would stoop so low to steal from a food bank?” As it turned out, the answer was only a minor plot point, but it got me going.
After that, I start writing on the laptop, beginning with the first scene. I don’t plot the whole manuscript ahead of time, but try to keep track of names and time frames in my journal. I tend to do basic editing as I go. After I have the first draft, I go back and write a revised version, from beginning to end. I should do two full revisions, but with this novel I made some major changes suggested by my editor, and also made a change at the end suggested by a writing group member. I write in spurts, not every day, usually in the morning and late afternoon. I’m not a hungry writer, because I have the privilege of a government pension check, but I’m thinking about the novel all the time, especially when I can’t get to sleep.
What are your sources of inspiration?
I’m inspired by what I observe, what I read and the conversations I hear. As an example, a few years ago, when I was living in Seattle, I saw a woman walking down the street near our church pulling a suitcase on rollers. At first I thought she was going to catch a bus or train, or maybe taking her files to work. When I looked more closely at her clothes, hair, and gait, I realized she was probably homeless, and carrying her possessions in the most comfortable way. Then I realized that rolling suitcases were a popular item at the thrift shop where I volunteered. This inspired an essay I wrote for our church.
How do you research?
I use the internet, conduct interviews, and also ask for a formal site tour on occasion. I toured a Seattle food bank for the latest mystery. If I come across a question while writing, I’ll call or email a contact I’ve previously made. In the first novel, I needed a suggestion for a hymn that would calm down the congregation during the climactic scene from Death in the Memorial Garden. My church musician friend Martin offered #333 from the 1982 Hymnal, beginning “Now the Silence now the Peace.” I also ask my writing group members for help. This proved useful when I was writing the murder scene in the current novel. One of our members was working on an international thriller which included big doses of violence and mayhem. This member also declined to answer most questions about his past. I decided I could trust his advice on the subject.
Have your reading tastes changed since you became an author?
I’ve been reading more non-fiction in recent years, especially essay collections dealing with spiritual life and social concerns. I’ve also been reading more cozy-style mysteries, partly to keep an eye on the competition but also because I love their focus on community and human foibles. I’ve also been reading on Kindle more, and cozies fit that format well.
Do you have any insights into book marketing?
In a word, no. I’ve faithfully been reading up on the subject and attending workshops, so I’ve got a handle on what seems to work. This is an area where not being a hungry author is a disadvantage. I’d much rather be touring the wine country than tending my Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads pages. But you know, social media can be very captivating, if you give it sufficient time and effort. So I’m trying hard. I just learned today that one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, doesn’t have a website. She puts everything on Facebook and Twitter. Of course she has a publisher and speaker agency (with their own websites) who are more than willing to accommodate her by posting on Facebook, because she’s a very successful author.
Which authors would you want to emulate?
I very much admire the mystery writers Louise Penny (she’s created the quintessential cozy community in Three Pines, located somewhere in Canada, and one of her recurring characters is a psychologist); MC Beaton, a straight talking writer of Scottish Cozies; and Martha Grimes, a gifted commentator on country life, city life and animal life. I’ve also devoured the mysteries of PD James and Ruth Rendell, to immerse myself in their literary gifts, which I don’t possess.
What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned since you started publishing?
I’ve learned that being published comes with obligations: to your publisher, your readers, and the others who helped along the way. I know it’s common for authors to resent the time they spend away from writing. For most of us, reaching out to readers and promoting book sales don’t come easily. I thought that writing would be a great retirement job, but found out that I now have a new career that takes time, care and feeding.
Any fun, interesting stories from the time after your first book was published?
When Death in the Memorial Garden was published, I signed up for a sponsored blog tour. For those not in the know, a blog tour replaces the expensive nationwide bookstore tour which only the big publishers can afford. My tour “host” chose bloggers and reviewers who specialized in cozy mysteries and mysteries with a religious theme. I was concerned, because most reviewers of religious fiction are on the conservative side, and my mystery focused on an Episcopal Church, which welcomes anyone who can crawl through the door, including members of the LTBQ community. Much to my surprise, the novel received a good review from a blogger who appreciated the lack of bad language and sex scenes, and then said, “I didn’t even mind the gay character.”