Thursday, February 11, 2010

My mystery author guest: Sandra Parshall

Sandra Parshall's recent release is Broken Places, the third book in the veterinarian Rachel Goddard series (and isn't that one of the most beautiful and spooky covers you've ever seen?).

Summer is deadly in the mountain community of Mason County, Virginia. Deputy Sheriff Tom Bridger and veterinarian Rachel Goddard are caught in a maelstrom of lies that stretch far into the past and suspicions that threaten the future. Cam and Meredith Taylor are murdered within hours of one another, and Rachel is dragged into the case because she heard – but didn't see – Cam’s murder. The Taylors arrived in Mason County as volunteers in the 1960s War on Poverty, and they stayed on, making loyal friends and bitter enemies. The victims’ daughter is Tom’s former girlfriend, Lindsay. She returns home to see justice done – and to win Tom back from Rachel. The prime suspect is newcomer Ben Hern, Rachel’s childhood friend, and she is desperate to prove him innocent. Lindsay pushes for Hern's arrest and launches a campaign of intimidation against Rachel. With the killer targeting Rachel and the community clamoring for an arrest, Tom and Rachel must decide who they can trust. And we readers have the pleasure of deciding whodunnit!

Now, here's my interview with Sandra Parshall:

1. Who or what inspired you to start writing and when did you start?

I’ve been creating stories as long as I can remember, and putting them on paper since I learned to write. As a child, I lived in a fantasy world. I have no idea where this tendency came from, and I’ve sometimes considered it more of a curse than a blessing. Occasionally I read about an author who had no interest in writing until adulthood, but I think the majority of us have harbored the desire – the compulsion – to write since childhood. It’s a strange characteristic that only humans have. I don’t think chimpanzees or dogs sit around dreaming of writing a great novel!

2. What tools and process do you use to “get to know” your characters before and while you’re writing the books?

Mostly I just spend a lot of time thinking about them and the way they interact. I keep a notebook for each novel, and I make notes as different aspects of the characters become clear. But if the characters are new to me, I don’t get to know them well until I’ve written a first draft – a getting-acquainted draft. They often surprise me in the way they develop. For example, when I started writing Disturbing the Dead, I envisioned Mrs. Barker, the housekeeper, as an ordinary older woman, short and plump with gray hair. Somehow, during the writing, she turned into a tall, angular black woman with a regal bearing and what mountain people call “the sight” – psychic abilities. Altogether more entertaining!

3. How do you construct your plots? Do you outline or do you write “by the seat of your pants”?

A combination of both. I start with a sketchy outline, but it always changes as I write. I need to know what kind of ending I’m working toward, but how I get there is always uncertain until I actually write it. For me, it’s a mistake to adhere to a rigid outline. That leaves little room for those lightbulb-over-the-head moments when I see a better direction for the story. But other people write great books from detailed outlines. We all have to do what works for us.

4. In the age-old question of character versus plot, which one do you think is most important in a murder mystery and which one do you emphasize in your writing? Why?
The characters create the plot, so I can’t consider them separately. Most mysteries are about the clash of two or more characters’ conflicting needs. Those needs may be purely emotional, such as the need for love or revenge, or practical, such as the need to hide a past deed in order to preserve a good life in the present. Put two characters with conflicting goals together and you have a plot. The best mystery plots are character-driven.

5. What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer and what inspires you and keeps you motivated?

I wrote books for literally decades before I sold one. Many times, I was terribly discouraged and depressed, but being a published writer was a dream I couldn’t give up. Since I became actively involved in writers’ groups, I’ve found great inspiration and encouragement in the experiences of other writers, as well as constant support. Reading a beautiful book by a favorite writer always inspires me and motivates me to make my own writing better.

6. What is a typical workday for you and how many hours a day (or week) do you devote to writing?
When I’m in control of my time, I can write four or five solid hours a day. Too often, I let other things distract me. Having a new book to promote is a huge distraction, but an awfully nice one.

7. What advice do you have to offer to an aspiring author?

Be realistic. Don’t expect quick success. You might get lucky – some people do – but it’s more likely that you’ll struggle for a while and write one, two, or more books before you get one published. Be absolutely certain that this is the way you want to spend your life. Then join a writers’ group that will offer you support, practical advice, and critique partners. You’ll benefit from the camaraderie and you’ll learn what you need to know much faster than you would on your own. The Guppies, an online chapter of Sisters in Crime, is the best group I’ve found. Join national SinC first (men can join too!), then join the Guppies Chapter. You won’t regret it.

8. Now here’s a zinger. Tell us something about yourself that you have not revealed in another interview yet. Something as simple as your favorite TV show or food will do.
I’m a coward. A wuss through-and-through. I have almost as many phobias as Adrian Monk. The only time I was ever on a ferris wheel, I screamed in terror until it stopped and I stumbled off, trembling and whimpering. If someone pointed a gun at me, I would faint dead away. I have none of the courage my protagonists, Rachel and Tom, display. I admire both of them tremendously. If I ever grow up, I hope I am like them.

9. What are you working on now and what are your future writing plans?

I’m writing another Rachel and Tom book set in Mason County, my fictional setting in the mountains of Virginia. I have a fifth book in mind with the same characters, but I would also like to write stand-alone suspense novels.

10. Is there anything else you would like to tell my blog readers?

Readers can visit my website and my blog, Poe’s Deadly Daughters (where I’m the Wednesday Daughter). Anyone who would like me to speak in person to a book club in the Washington, DC, area or by telephone to a group elsewhere can e-mail me through my website. I’m also happy to send autographed bookplates to readers.

Okay, readers, fire away! What do you want to know about Sandra that I didn't cover? What do you think of a coward writing murder mysteries? :) Got anything else to say or ask?


Andrea said...

Thanks! Sitka has an award for you at All Gods Creatures.
Blessings, andrea

JournoMich said...

First of all, you had me at the cover! What beautiful, mysterious cover art. I wish I had more questions, but this was a fantastic interview. As a writer beginning her professional career, I am always interested in the processes of published authors. Now I'm off to get your book!

Oh- I thought of a question! What brought you to make your protagonists a couple? I haven't read any of your books yet, but I'm gussing the 60s hold strong, and that bears on their personalities. Does this come from your past as well? Thanks in advance.


Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks for your question, Michele. What a great one! And thank you, Sandra, for guesting at my blog today. This is going to be fun... :)

Sandra Parshall said...

Thanks for inviting me, Beth. I enjoyed tackling your questions.

Michele, the two murder victims are the ones with the 60s background. I was a very young newspaper reporter living in West Virginia during the late 60s and knew lots of VISTA volunteers who were part of the War on Poverty. They were idealistic and meant well, but they were outsiders, young and brash, and I don't think any of them knew what they were doing. I know a few stayed on in the region after their service ended, and I wondered what these former idealists would be like after four decades. Then I ended up killing them. :-)

I'm so glad you like the cover! The folks at Poisoned Pen Press were wonderfully patient with me when I whined about the earlier versions, and in the end they gave me a WOW cover. I love working with PPP!

Beth Groundwater said...

So, Sandra, since you brought up your publisher, what do you think of Poisoned Pen Press? What do they do well? How do they help you promote and sell your books?
- Beth

Caitlyn Henderson said...

Beth, fantastic interview! Sandra, this is my initiation into your books and I can't wait to start. I too must say the cover art is phenomenal. Do you know who is the artist?

Sandra Parshall said...

Beth, I'm very happy with PPP. They advertise their books, put up displays at conventions like BookExpo and ALA, and send out a *lot* of ARCs to booksellers and libraries as well as reviewers. They do as much as any big publisher does. Rob Rosenwald is constantly looking for new ways to help PPP writers promote their books. Recently he's put a tremendous amount of work into getting our backlist titles into e-book format for the Kindle, Sony Reader, and B&N Nook. And I'm starting to hear from people who have bought my first two books for their Kindles.

What I like is the personal contact with the staff. They actually listen to their writers and try to make them happy. I get the impression that isn't always the case at the big NY publishers.

The artist who did my cover is Patrick Cheung. My only contribution was a vague wish that fire be included somehow. The end result is entirely his work. And I loved it the second I first saw it.

Maryannwrites said...

Wonderful interview and I love that cover. Stunning. Another book to add to my wish list.

Ricky Bush said...

Very strange, very strange indeed. I just finished corresponding with Sandra in regards to her publisher (this morning), and here Beth has interviewed her, adding much more insight. The stars must be aligning or something. Thanks Beth and Sandra.

Sandra Parshall said...

I've heard so many compliments on the cover that I'm going pass them on to Patrick, the artist who designed it. He deserves all the credit.

Beth Groundwater said...

Here's a comment I received on Facebook about your interview:

Anna Hammer:
"I'm been trying to get a copy of her new book. Can't wait to read it as I live in Virginia."