Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Today's Mystery Author Guest: Shannon Baker

As promised yesterday, fellow Midnight Ink mystery author Shannon Baker is visiting my blog today. To read her bio and see her photo, please page down to yesterday's post.

Shannon's latest release, her first with Midnight Ink, is Tainted Mountain. In the book, Nora Abbott, a young ski area owner, is determined to use man-made snow, an energy tycoon has his own reasons for promoting it, enviros and tribes may use any means to stop it. But the spirits of the mountain just might have the last say.

"Baker’s series debut brings Native American culture and big business together into a clash that can be heard across the mountains. Fans of J.A. Jance’s Joanna Brady will see similarities in Nora Abbott."  -- Library Journal

Sounds like my kind of mystery novel! Below are Shannon's answers to my interview questions. Please leave a comment for her, and if you have a question of your own for her, ask it!

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

I was a little late to the party as far as writing goes. My older sister was the sensitive one. She was deep and wrote poetry. I knew I could never be that wise so I wanted to be an actress. But I ended up on an isolated ranch in the Nebraska Sandhills, the middle of nowhere. I was immersed in a patriarchal society and a little natural rebellion made me want to do something that wasn’t for my husband, his family, our business or my children. I’d always been a reader so it seemed natural to write.

I escaped the Sandhills and have lived in some really beautiful places. The writing came with me and, much as I curse it, seems likely to remain a part of me. 

2. Your books seem to emphasize landscapes and place. Why is that?

In a forward to Cheyenne Autumn, Mari Sandoz (who grew up in the Nebraska Sandhills) tries to explain Native American ideas to us white guys. She says that to Native Americans, place is more real than time. While I’m way too steeped in my middle-class white person ways to truly understand this, the statement rolls in my head. Learning to love the Nebraska Sandhills took conscious effort. It is stark and brutal. But I did find incredible beauty there and developed deep appreciation for it, like you would a difficult child.

My first book, out of print now (probably a good thing) was set in the Nebraska Sandhills.

Moving to the Boulder, CO area felt like homecoming. This is the place that resonates with my heart.  I was lucky enough to live in Flagstaff, on the Colorado Plateau and even luckier to work with an environmental trust. The Grand Canyon, the red rocks of Sedona, the San Francisco Peaks of Flagstaff are inspiring—and have, in fact, inspired Tainted Mountain.

Now I’m back up in Boulder. Surprisingly, Nora followed me here. Book two of the series, Broken Trust, is set here. 

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

I’m an accountant by day. I like numbers. If something doesn’t balance, there are logical steps to follow to find the discrepancy. You know when you’re done and you can go have a beer. Writing is nothing like that. Except, you can have beer even if you aren’t sure you’re done. So… I got distracted by the thought of beer, what was the question?

Oh yeah. Plotting. Like any good accountant, I do it on an Excel spreadsheet. Don’t judge me. 

4.  You write characters from different cultures than your own. Is that difficult?

The Nora Abbott series features the Hopi culture. As a writer, that was a really stupid choice for me to make. The Hopi are extremely secretive and with good reason.  This tiny tribe believes it is responsible to maintain the balance of the world. The Whole World. They do this by performing complicated ceremonies and rituals in a precise way at the exact right time. When white people started coming up to their mesas, they messed in the Hopi traditions and even stole some of their sacred items. That is some seriously bad stuff. So now, everything is highly protected.

Good idea to write about them, huh? I can read a bunch and I can talk to Hopi, but they aren’t going to tell me too many secrets. Still, I am fascinated by this tribe and really wanted to write about it. So I don’t write from a Hopi point of view. I can know Nora’s experiences and her culture so I write from her head, looking in on the Hopi culture. 

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

My biggest challenge is my own Mount McKinley-sized insecurities. I mean, what makes me think I can write a novel? I read amazing books with intricate plots. My friends are so smart and funny and such brilliant writers. I can’t possibly measure up. Why would I even try?

I always answer myself with, “Why not?” I don’t knit, I hate crafts, cleaning house is boring, and I can’t play outside all the time. I really love hanging out with writers, so I might as well write. Sometimes, inspiration is me singing Dory’s song from Finding Nemo. “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.” 

6. What is a typical workday for you and how many hours a day (or week) do you devote to writing?

When I’m working on a draft I write from page one to the end without going back and editing. When big changes need to be made or something set up in an earlier chapter, I make notes and keep going. During this phase, I try to do 7000 words a week. It’s not burning up the pavement, but I have a full time job. So I get up at 4:30 or 5:00 most mornings and write before work because I’m toast after work. I try not to have to write a lot on weekends. It’s not very glamorous but few things about writing are. 

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

This is a tough question because everyone says the same things. Writers need to read. They need to write and write and write. I’d recommend reading Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, Larry Brooks’s Story Engineering, Jennifer Morrell’s Between the Lines. And I can’t recommend highly enough attending the Colorado Gold writers’ conference that takes place in Denver in September every year. I guarantee you’ll learn more about fiction writing, publishing and marketing and make a ton of contacts.

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 terrible driver. This isn’t a revelation to anyone who’s ever ridden with me. If you’re given a choice, I wouldn’t recommend getting into a car with me behind the wheel. I don’t even want to ride with me. 

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

I’ve got a couple of short stories out on submission right now. That’s been kind of fun for me. I’ve only ever written one before and it was published in last year’s anthology of the Desert Sleuth’s chapter of Sisters in Crime, SoWest: Desert Justice.

I just turned in book 2 of the Nora Abbott series, Broken Trust. It takes place in Boulder and involves Tesla towers, weather manipulation, a corrupt non-profit, and murder. Book 3 is under construction but it’s set in Canyonlands in Utah and I’ve got some strange twists planned.

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

Please visit me at my website. I’d love to talk to book clubs and am not afraid of Skype. I blog about once a month on Inkspot, the blog for Midnight Ink writers.

Thank you, Beth-The Hardest Working Mystery Writer—for hosting me. I hope you’re getting lots of great skiing in!

I'm trying, Shannon. Thanks for visiting! Now, who has a comment or question for her?


Kathleen Ernst said...

I love mysteries with a strong sense of place, and am looking forward to your new release! Congratulations!

Unknown said...

I'm waiting for my copy to arrive & really looking forward to it, Shannon! Haring this link on Facebook, too :-)

Unknown said...

Sharing - darned iPad!

Shannon Baker said...

Thanks fellow M'Ikers. In case other readers don't know, Kathleen Ernst, Sheila Boneham and Beth are all published by Midnight Ink. It's a great mystery press and you should all read these great writers!

Liz Lipperman said...

Wow! You get up early to wrote before work!! I don't have an outside job and you write way more than me. Crap!

Your book sounds wonderful. I'm a new MI author, so I have yet to meet all the great authors there. I'm hoping to see everyone at Malice.

Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks, everyone, for your comments! Keep them coming, even through tomorrow.

Beth Groundwater said...

Comment from Rob, who had trouble posting to the blog:

I read Tainted Mountain to get ready for our LCC panel. Your characterization of the Hopi, their mesa dwellings, and their dances reminded me so much of Tony Hillerman, James Doss (Utes) and Sandi Ault (Taos Pueblo). Your mystery read like a thriller, since you used multiple veiwpoints to let us in on what the bad guy and everyone else was doing and thinking. Many mysteries are written from one POV, the sleuth. I stole the idea from Margaret Coel to alternate between Kate, my female protagonist, and Monday, my male protagonist. But in my Civil War spy novel, Saving Lincoln, due out the end of this month or in April, I do like you did, Shann, and use four, including two chapters from Lincoln’s POV.

Sounds like you have great work habits consistent with holding down a full-time job. I used to write two hours evenings (Mon-Thurs) when I was working at CIA. Things got easier and I got more prolific after I retired. Be glad you started young. You’ll have a long and distinguished (trust me) career.

Regards to you both.

Beth Groundwater said...

Comment from Margaret:

I went to the interview and am excited about reading her book. It is set in my stomping grounds. Thanks for the link.

Beth Groundwater said...

From Bonnie:

Thanks for posting the interview. I enjoy Shannon's sense of humor.