Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Today's Mystery Author Guest: Sheila Webster Boneham

As promised yesterday, fellow Midnight Ink mystery author Sheila Webster Boneham is visiting my blog today, with answers to my interview questions. To read her bio and see her photo, please page down to yesterday's post. Also, Sheila is running a contest for either a free autographed copy of her latest release, The Money Bird, or a Kindle ebook copy, the cover art for which appears above. Sheila will select the winner tomorrow evening from among those who leave a comment today or tomorrow and will announce the name in a comment on this post.

In the book, for Janet MacPhail, photographing retrievers in training is the perfect way to spend an evening. But a photo session at Twisted Lake takes a peculiar turn as Drake, her friend Tom’s Labrador, fetches a blood-soaked bag holding an exotic feather and a torn one-hundred-dollar bill.
When one of her photography students turns up dead at the lake, Janet investigates a secretive retreat center with help from Australian Shepherd Jay and her quirky neighbor Goldie. Between dog-training classes, photo assignments, and romantic interludes with Tom, Janet is determined to get to the bottom of things before another victim’s wings are clipped for good.

Sounds like a very interesting read to me! Below are Sheila's answers to my interview questions.

1. Your Animals in Focus series obviously involves animals. Are these animal-as-sleuth stories, or something else?

The animals in my books behave like real animal. They are essential characters in that they are companions to Janet MacPhail, my accidental amateur sleuth, and to other people in the books. Janet’s Australian Shepherd, Jay, and her orange tabby cat, Leo, are members of her family, just as my dogs and cats have always been part of my family. So the animals in the books do bring clues to light and play essential roles in the plots, but only because Janet is smart enough to make connections. In The Money Bird, for instance, black Lab Drake retrieves a bag that turns out to be an essential bit of evidence, but he didn’t know that. It smelled interesting, so he brought it to his master, as any self-respecting Labrador Retriever would!

I’ve been involved with animals, particularly dogs, for many years in a variety of roles—rescuer, competitor, shelter volunteer, breeder, obedience instructor, and author of seventeen books about dogs and cats. I feel very strongly that many of the problems people have with their pets, problems that too often lose pets their homes, are partly because some people think of animals as funny little people. So I strive to make the animals in my mysteries realistic, complex, loving and loveable, messy…. Just like the ones who live in my house!

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

When I started writing fiction, I tried creating elaborate background files on my characters, but I discovered pretty quickly that they didn’t work for me. I’d put a lot of time in on them, then forget the details or find that what I created in what amounted to a vacuum didn’t work in the story. So I stopped.

I do much better when I let myself get to know my characters as we get to know other people—bit by bit and in context. As the story unfolds, characters act and react, and slowly reveal themselves and their backstories. I record what they say and do, and I have a spreadsheet that helps me keep track of everyone, especially the series characters who come back book after book.

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

I begin with a sense of where the story is going, who is involved, and what’s at stake. I don’t outline, but I do use a spreadsheet (yes, another spreadsheet!) to plan and then track where the crucial plot turns need to occur to keep things moving. In the first book in the series, Drop Dead on Recall, I did more plotting than I have done since, and I set out knowing who the villain was. I finished the book and put it down for a couple of weeks. Then I woke up one morning and said, “No! That’s not right. She didn’t do it!” So I rewrote most of the book. With The Money Bird, I began with a setting and my characters, and I knew that the plot involved wildlife trafficking. I had no idea when I started who would be killed, or why, or who done it. I just followed along, and the characters did what they needed to do. For me, waiting to see what’s going to happen is half the fun of writing fiction!

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?

I think character is always primary regardless of genre. Plot is intriguing, but what really matters is not the events and other elements in a story, but how the characters respond to them. We know this in our own lives. Put two people into the same situation, the same series of events, and they will not have the same experience, nor do the same things, nor tell the same story later. So characters make the plot work.

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

The biggest challenge for me is deciding what to work on. I always have way more ideas than time to work on them. As for motivation, I’ve never NOT been motivated to write and I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing something. Even as a kid I wrote all the time. I’ve gone through short periods when I just needed to take a break, and I’ve changed direction with my career more than once, but I can’t really imagine not writing, not working on something.

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

I write almost every day, and have done so for many years. When I was teaching at universities and working as an editor, I carved out writing time in the evenings and weekends. Now I write every morning for 3-5 hours, depending on circumstances and the stage of the project, and I often write in the afternoon or evening as well. Every once in a while I take a break, but I find that if I go more than 4 or 5 days without writing, I get itchy.

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

- Read, read, read. Read in your chosen genre(s), and read widely outside your chosen genre(s). Read mostly works that speak to you, that you enjoy. Occasionally read something you don’t like, and read it critically, as a writer, to figure out why it doesn’t work, at least for you.

- Write, write, write. Put your writing sessions in your weekly calendar as you would anything else that matters to you. Show up.

- Go to readings and other book and author events when possible, even if you aren’t very interested in the topic. You will still learn something, even if it’s how not to present yourself when your own time comes.

- Writing is by nature a solitary venture, but there is also a community of writers and readers out there for inspiration and support. Join that community, and give more than you ask for.

- Stay in the world—travel, play, learn new things, volunteer, do things!—so that you have something to write about.

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 ridiculously terrified of heights and falling, and my fear has gotten worse over the past few years. It’s really pretty embarrassing at times. I’ve been known to get down and crawl on trails when I’m hiking. But I still go out.

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

As usual, I have several dogs in the grooming area! First, I’m finishing up the third Animals in Focus mystery, which is scheduled for September 2014. I can’t tell you much about it at present, but Leo, the protagcat, would like you to know that dogs aren’t the only ones who have their days in this series. I’m also working on a stand-alone environmental suspense novel, and some literary nonfiction and a few poems. I love working in different forms—it keeps them all fresher.

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

If you would like to learn more about me and my work, or follow my journey, you can find me at my website, my Facebook page, or my blogs – for writers and readers and for animal-related stuff.

I enjoy visiting book clubs as well as groups for writers, animal fanciers, and more. I am also available to teach workshops and speak at conferences. Although I currently live in North Carolina, I travel a lot, so if you’re interested, please ask! I just might be headed your way.

Thanks, Sheila! Now, who has a comment or question for Sheila Webster Boneham? Good luck in the contest!


Beth Groundwater said...

If anyone is having trouble leaving a comment, contact me on Facebook (), and leave a comment there. I'll post it here for you. Sheila's contest will last until tomorrow evening, so please keep those comments coming until then!

sheri levy said...

Hi Sheila,
I'm also a pantser. I have an idea of where the story is going and the characters help lead the way. I enjoyed your interview. Since we've written to each other for years, but have never met, it's fun to hear about your ideas, your likes and your fears. I agree strongly you must maintain a life outside of writing...Can't wait to read your next story!

Beth Groundwater said...

Sorry, I meant to leave a link to my Facebook page:

Beth Groundwater said...

Comment from Gina on Facebook (she had trouble posting here, so please include her name in the contest, Sheila, and I'll contact her if she wins):

"I am terrified of heights also Shelia I will drive out of my way not to go over an overpass!"

Unknown said...

Hi Sheri! We will no doubt meet one of these days! Gina - oh, me too! My husband has to drive us over big bridges and I close my eyes. It's the on- foot terror that really bothers me, though, because I love hiking. Maybe hypnosis would help. ;-)

ceblain said...

Sheila, this novel sounds so great; any book involving animals is a perfect choice for me. I find these author blogs so interesting as I always learn something new about an author that way and it makes their book seem even more enjoyable to me as I feel that I have a little connection.

Wishing you much luck with your series Sheila and I am looking forward to reading this book soon.


Kaye Killgore said...

This sounds like a good series. Anything involving animals is super.

Anonymous said...

Sheila: I love the concept of including dogs and cats as helpers in solving the mysteries. It's also wonderful that they do it in a natural way, without any supernatural abilities. The series sounds fun and I'd love to read it!

Unknown said...

Thank you, all. I agree, Kaye, that the animals are always great. Unfortunately there are books out there, both fiction and nonfiction, that in my opinion do them no service. But that's why we love variety!

Ceblain, I agree - I learn a lot about other authors, readers, and even myself - responding to smart questions (looking at you, Beth) makes me dig into parts of myself and my work in new ways. All good!

Patricia, I don't think we can improve on the animals (except to optimize their health and other aspects of their lives), so I try to portray them as they are - mud and all!

Clamo88 said...

I've been reading about your Animals in Focus series for a while now, Sheila. As an animal lover, especially dogs and horses, I'm delighted that more authors are including them realistically in their works. Of course, that's adding to my lengthy reading list, but I'm already hooked on getting started with your series.

Unknown said...

Claire, sorry to take so long....I've been off-line most of the day. I hope you enjoy the series!

Unknown said...

Ok, gang! I put all the names in a dog bowl, stirred them well, and had my husband pick one, eyes closed. Congratulations, Claire! Please email me at sheilaboneham at gmail [dot] com and we'll make the arrangements.

Beth, and everyone else - thanks so much for having me!

Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks for guesting, Sheila, and congratulations, Claire!

Nancy Gadzuk a/k/a Natasha Alexander said...

I enjoyed the interview. I'm almost done with The Money Bird. It's a lot of fun!