Two areas that I think are difficult to write well are Place and Humor. Let’s talk about setting first. You had me itching from mosquitoes around a lake in northern Minnesota in Death of an Editor, the first in Cabin by the Lake Mystery Series from Level Best Books. Why rural northern Minnesota and not the Twin Cities?
Actually, the setting for the book came first—before the characters or the plot. In my younger days I used to camp and canoe in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) in the north woods of Minnesota. It’s a magical place for me filled with the good and the challenging of nature. Among the pristine lake waters, the fresh air and the pines are mosquitoes and deerflies and poison ivy. I loved the contrast and wanted to write a mystery in that setting.
I mentioned that I find humor difficult to write because so much could go wrong. In my opinion, there’s always the possibility of offending your reader, and comedy is a matter of pace, timing, and delivery. Do you have a natural funny bone, and what’s your approach to writing humor?
Humor is part of who I am. My Dad was a great punster and my mother had a self-deprecating kind of humor. I think the key for me is keeping it as self-deprecating as possible. My style of humor might be called, “the joke’s on me.” In using humor, I always run the risk of offending someone. I once wrote a piece about my disaster making Jell-O for a Lutheran funeral. I received a letter from a woman who was quite put off because she couldn’t understand what Lutherans had to do with Jell-O. You never know how people are going to respond.
We’re both nurses in our former lives. It’s profession where humor is a defense mechanism, but also one that heightens a writer’s powers of observation. You were a hospice nurse—which I have a tremendous respect for—so the inevitable question is, did your years of clinical experience inform your writing?
My nursing background has definitely informed my writing. The years I worked in hospice and in public health gave me a wealth of human experience. I’ve witnessed the amazing resilience of people in the midst of great trauma and also the other end of the spectrum. I love the way people can laugh in the midst of crisis. I remember a hospice patient who was carefully reading the obituaries. When I asked him about it, he said, “Just checking to see if I’m in there.” I think he was serious, but I’m not sure.
While Jamie isn’t a nurse, I like to write in characters who are nurses, even if they are peripheral to the story. They are so essential to the health care in rural areas. Nurses in the small hospitals have to be ready for anything from a heart attack to a suicidal patient. They are the glue that keeps hospitals running.
Thinking of your literary creation Clarence, an octogenarian, I like how you show that age is a state of mind. Clarence is a quite a treat. I’ve also noticed that you like writing animals (thinking of a certain rescue dog and authors who feature canines in their series, such as Margaret Mizushima and Paul Munier). Can you talk a little about Clarence and the group of friends around your protagonist Jamie Forest?
It’s always amazing to me how as a story develops, the characters show up. I feel like Clarence knocked on my door one day and said, “You need me for my wisdom, experience and humor.” Like the others in the books, I wanted to create a community for my main character. As the Cabin by the Lake series continues, I’m learning more about those relationships and how they support Jamie.
I love pets even though I don’t have any due to allergies in the family. Bronte the dog was based partly on my son’s family dog, lovable and loyal, but still a dog. Not only does Bronte have a role as the companion for Jamie, she has a role for me as a writer. There are times when I want to reveal more about what’s going inside Jamie’s head and having a dialogue (okay a monologue) with her dog helps me get those things out.
Death of a Starling is your latest in the series. Can you set it up and describe it for us?
Death of Starling finds Jamie pursuing a story about it. She wants to know since the victims were all Native American whether this was a hate crime. She finds that no one in town wants to talk about the shooting, the shooter or the victims. The town appears to be covering up a dark history.
Who did you read growing up, and who are you reading now?
I read whatever I could get my hands on. I grew up in a small town in western Minnesota. The public library consisted of two bookcases in the office of the Wheaton Gazette. When school closed for the summer, I was left without much reading material. When I could get books, they ranged from Nancy Drew to the Black Stallion series and anything else I could find.
Currently I usually have at least two books going at a time. I’ve been reading the classics, those books I should have read earlier in life. I just finished Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and George Eliot’s Middlemarch. For guilty pleasure I read mysteries (of course.) I finished the first in Craig Johnson’s Longmire series and the first book in Kerry Greenwood’s Miss Fisher series. I’m now reading your second Shane Cleary mystery, Symphony Road and thoroughly enjoying it. [Thank you]
Cozy mysteries are stereotyped as crime fiction light, although Dame Agatha Christie did write dark stories. Malice Domestic has been hard at work to correct this perception. Any thoughts on lightness and darkness in writing murder and mystery?
When I wrote Death of an Editor, I didn’t even know the definition of a cozy mystery other than the main character was supposed to be an amateur sleuth. I wanted to create a story based on some of the realities of living in an area where the preservation of the wilderness is at odds with economic development. I wanted to stay away from graphic violence and show the humanity of the victim. I see the genre as a way to feature serious topics using a lighter touch.
What do you see in Jamie’s future?
We will see Jamie in adventures through the four seasons in northern Minnesota. Death of an Editor takes place in the summer. Death of a Starling in the fall. The third book tentatively titled Death of a Snow Ghost in the winter and a spring book is in draft stages. As Jamie adapts to the environment, she will begin exploring her own newly discovered Native American roots.