A CONVERSATION WITH MARY kELIIKOA ON HER WORK AND WRITING.
Thanks for introducing yourself and your work to Le Couer’s readers. I enjoyed Hidden Pieces and decided to read Deceived for this interview, too.
THANK YOU SO MUCH, DJ, FOR HAVING ME! I’M DELIGHTED TO BE HERE.
You have been busy. Deceived was released for publication in May and Hidden Pieces in October. How hard is it to keep up with two different series?
At the time I wrote Hidden Pieces, I was only on book 2 of my PI Pruett series, but drafting a new series wasn’t too difficult. One strategy is I never worked on the two series on the same day. Also, having different professions and genders for each series really helped me keep them separate as well. Although they are both investigators in their own right, PI Pruett is just starting out and makes more rookie mistakes. And of course, Sheriff Jax Turner, is more seasoned with deputies to assist. I also made sure to make them logistically different. The Pruett series is set in Portland, Oregon, where Kelly was born and raised. While Jax still has ties to Portland, his series takes place at the Oregon coast, making it more atmospheric and almost a character of its own.
Since I grew up in Oregon, Mary, and am familiar with the Oregon and Washington settings, I enjoyed visiting while reading your books. Both your geography and characters were very relevant. How important do you think having an emotional connection to your setting is to the overall story?
For me, it’s very important. Even in the world of Google Maps, where you can essentially see anything at the click of a button (and believe me, I have used that on occasion!), I personally love to be able to visualize locations when I write. Not only to see what’s in the vicinity, but to experience the smell specific to the location, hear the noises, etc. I think that personal experience adds to the realism for the reader. And as a writer, when I can see myself in a setting, I have an easier time connecting to the various emotions characters might have in the same places.
Hidden Pieces is an investigative police procedural more than the mystery offered in Deceived. I see you have connections to police sources to keep your stories authentic. How did you develop these sources?
I’ve been a long-time member of Sisters in Crime. I met the detective that has become my source for all things legal at a presentation that he gave for our local chapter. But I’m also lucky enough to have an uncle on my husband’s side who was a former homicide detective. So I have a couple of resources close by I can rely on. In addition, I spent 18 years in the legal field as a paralegal/secretary, so I had some working knowledge of law. And the mystery world is full of authors who were in law enforcement. Over time, I’ve built relationships with them so I can always go to other sources for information too.
Both books have drug trafficking as part of the plot, whether major or minor. Having grown up in the area, I am well aware of the drug problems in some of the small towns. Why was this important for you to involve?
Drugs touched my life through my brother’s addictions, and we lived in a small town growing up. I wanted to showcase that the drugs really are everywhere, not just in big cities, and they are in so many places we don’t expect sometimes.
In Deceived, since you are investigating a rehab center, drugs play a more significant role than Hidden Pieces. Do you find that while working on two different series, the information in one can be beneficial in the other without your readers questioning the connection between the two series?
Oh definitely! No research ever goes wasted, if not immediately in another story, always in the backdrop of mind in planning other stories. I do think it’s important not to have two storylines going down the same lane. As you said, Deceived focuses more on a rehab center, and Hidden Pieces with trafficking, but the statistics, who does drugs, how they effect the lives of those around it, were definitely referenced throughout.
I love some of your character descriptions: She’d pulled her red hair into a messy bun that sat on top of her head like a giant tarantula.Deceived has a lighter voice than Hidden Pieces. Is this also another way to differentiate the series when writing two?
It definitely can be! For me, I step into the shoes of my character and try to make the observations relevant to that individual’s world view. I can’t see Sheriff Turner referencing that red hair the same way—but a thirty something woman, who has a little bit snark going, most definitely. I also think gender plays a role as well. Men and women just see their surroundings differently, and that helped in keeping the series separate.
Your female characters, Kelly (Deceived) and Elena (Hidden Pieces), have tremendous character growth. How do you develop your character arcs? Are all your character arcs for major characters designed before the initial writing (first draft) or created during the writing?
Planned is such a strong word, lol. I know what my character’s fatal flaw is most of the time. For Kelly, the need to be as good as her father often has her taking some risks she shouldn’t. For Elena, she believes that she has to care for Steven, even if it destroys her. Before I start though, I do think a lot about how I want the story to end and who I want them to be. Sometimes that’s not always a happy ending, but it’s progress and often times there’s healing.
So, then, let us talk about outlining. Do you? When?
I don’t do a lot of pre-planning. I know the characters, generally, and the crime. But where the characters are going to take me in relation to solving that crime is often up for grabs. I have tried to outline though, on occasion, and it tends to put me into an endless loop and I never get any writing done. So I’ve learned to just start typing and let the story unfold. Once the story gets going, I can often sketch out the next few chapters. But that is about as far as I go most of the time.
Do you use any writing software such as Scrivener or Abacus for Writers, or do you just use Word?
My years in the legal field left me a die-hard Word girl all the way. I find it easy to work with, and I love it.
I saw where you acknowledged your critique group. How important is this group to your work? Do you feel it is best to meet physically with the group, or is a virtual experience just as valuable?
Critique partners are instrumental in the success of a story because they have a distance to the story that as a writer, you just don’t have. For me, it’s wonderful, because they can point out things that don’t work, tell me whether the pacing is off, or if plot is even plausible. Over time, I’ve connected with some wonderful authors that have given me great feedback. We don’t meet as a group and most of us are not interconnected. For example, I might know Dianne, but she doesn’t know Jessica. We’re all busy on deadlines and marketing, but when one of us has a story that needs another set of eyes, we shoot it off to our trusted CPs, asking for help, and turn it around for each other. Over time, we’ve all developed our own groups. I do believe organized critique groups can be a benefit, and virtual works just as well, but for me, I don’t have a lot of time so I just call on people when I need them, and vis a vers.
Do you want to share what upcoming Conferences you plan to attend for those who wish to seek you out? As a writer, do you feel writing conferences are essential? And what can an avid reader get out of a conference where they can connect with favorite authors?
I have a full year next year in conferences. I will be at Left Coast Crime in Tucson in March, Thrillerfest at the end of May, California Crime Writers Conference in June, and Bouchercon in August/September. I do think conferences can be valuable, but I don’t think essential to an author’s success. I go to connect with my readers, and other authors. To network. To sharpen some of my skills when they have craft workshops. But they are expensive. And in this virtual age, I think joining local Sisters in Crime groups, Mystery Writers of America, or if you are writing in another genre, finding those national-type organizations, can be just as beneficial. I do think as a reader though it exposes you to lots of different authors you might not know about. There are often reader-connection opportunities, and lots of fun socializing. So if you’re at all inclined to go, I highly encourage it!
Any secrets to the craft, process, or writing schedule you wish to share with others?
The only magic sauce I believe there is in writing is simply to show up and write. I carve out a few hours every morning. I have a friend who is up at 5am before her daughter is. I have another who works at night after everyone is in bed. When I worked at a law firm, I wrote every morning before I went in. Being creature of habit, I’ve continued that morning routine. Also, just taking classes where you can to improve craft, read books in the genre you love, and connect with other writers. Only another writer truly gets that feeling of the perfect sentence, or the just right twist of a story. They also know when you’re having a really bad writing day and their empathy can help pull you out. But most importantly, just write.
Thank you for the interview, Mary. I look forward to reading more of your work.
First, let me thank you for allowing me to send some questions regarding your latest. I enjoyed it, and I am sure my readers will, too.
Bruno Johnson in your Bruno Johnson Thriller Series is a popular, highly recommended series but such best-selling authors like Michael Connelly and William Bernhardt. Why the slight turning of the corner in writing by bringing Fearsome Moonlight Black to your readers?
Couple of reasons. First, my Bruno Johnson publisher only takes one book per year. I write two books a year. And I have always wanted to write a book that told about my first couple of years as a street cop.
I read that you always wanted to write a memoir about your career, and I found this book a great read. But, I wonder, Part One offers an excited young man eager to learn the business, and Part Two provides an older man slightly jaded—yet still clinging to the profession's honor. You have stated Part One is basically real, and Part Two blends a bit of fiction. Are you making a statement about the police profession with the two parts?
Wasn’t my intention. I wrote the first part exactly as I remembered it. What it was like, the fear the vunerability, the violence people can perpetrate on others. In the second part I just wanted to show the contrast from brand new cop to veteran. How the thought processes are entirely different.
Personally knowing you, I heard "you" in Part One of the book before I read you wrote it as a memoir. However, I find Bruno Johnson in your series also very much like you—passionate about justice. How invaluable is your career to your writing? Can someone without this experience create believable crime or mystery novels? What would be your advice to them?
I loved my job chasing crooks. I still dream about it. Details are an intricate part of creating the “Fictive Dream,” giving the story credibility. Author’s who write police procedural just have to do a little research. There are some great authors out there doing a great job at it. One tip: If a person wants to get the true flavor Most police agencies have Citizens on Patrol that can give a totally submersive experience.
I liked William Kent Krueger's quote about your work: "Reading a novel by David Putnam is almost as good as riding shotgun in a patrol car." I agree. How do you keep your audience in mind while writing? I don’t think about the audience when I’m writing. I write a story I would be interested in. That’s my only criteria. I also follow sixteen precepts of writing that I’ve designed as template which keeps me on track and my structure consistent.
Will you share your writing disciplines? Do you write every day? So many words per day or hours in the chair?
I write everyday. I start by going back twenty pages editing forward to get the same pace, the same cadence and tone. Then I write forward four pages. In this way I go over everything four times before moving on. I only write on draft.
A best selling Bruno Johnson series, now a great read, Fearsome Moonlight Black, will you venture into other genres?
Before I sold my first Bruno Johnson novel I was on my 38th manuscript. I had tried writing in multiple genres and styles. It wasn’t until I shortened the conflict (in conflict, complication, crisis, conclusion) that I started selling books. Moonlight is going to be three novels (min.) in the series. The next one is completed and I its tighter and faster than the first one. I think its even better. I just finished another novel a first in another series (hopefully), its called The Blind Devotion of Imogene. It’s a mystery construct instead of a thriller which is a little more difficult to write than the thriller. I had a lot of fun writing this one.
First, let me thank you for allowing me to send some questions regarding your latest, The Party House. I enjoyed it, and I am sure my readers will, too.
You're a fearless writer. Were you not worried about using the pandemic with its effects on people and communities so fresh? I know that you never named the virus Covid, but it was similar enough in my mind, and it's what I related to while reading. The Party House is set in a small village where outsiders bring in the pandemic from the city. Was this a fear in your small village community that triggered your story idea?
Not really although it gave me a time and setting. The core idea arose from the fact that in the Rhona books you are always on the side of the investigators. I had always wanted to try and tell the story from a suspect’s viewpoint, where you, the reader don’t know whether they’re guilty or not. If your own partner was a suspect in a murder enquiry, would you support them or begin to fear them? Hence the two person POV with Joanne, who doesn’t really know Greg at all. Plus she’s come to Blackrig to hide with her own secrets. When choosing where to set the story, the idea of a small community, where everyone knows everyone else seemed perfect. Also, I always travel to the places that feature in the Rhona books, and that wasn’t possible, so I created Blackrig loosely modelled on my home village, although I moved it westward where there are many villages with only one way in and out. Some of which put up bollards to stop entry during lockdown. There were lots of stories of folk from the south attempting to outrun the virus, heading for the Scottish highlands and islands. It was a problem here. Not helped by Prince Charles and his wife helicoptering in to Balmoral with his entourage knowing they themselves already had the virus. The story is set as life is getting back to ‘normal’. The resilience of the folk of Blackrig and their desire to keep their community safe reflected my own experience of lockdown in the highlands. It also explains the anger when the hated Party House is reopened.
Funny that the theme of the wealthy vs. the poor with the pandemic surfaced recently in England politics. Your story also has this theme. Any relationship to the more current events? And yes, I am hinting about England’s Prime Minister. Yes. They do say fiction tells the truth about life. However, the Partygate scandal hadn’t erupted when I wrote The Party House, although ‘Party Houses’ were already hated in the highlands for some of the reasons that play out in the book.
The setting, the Scottish Highlands, becomes almost a character in this story. By the novel's end, I felt like I had visited Blackrig. Do you think a story's setting has equal importance compared to other elements? How do you catalog your setting, so it mirrors some of your themes? The location, I believe, is always a character in my writing. Things happen often because of the location. Blackrig and its surroundings play as big a role in the story as the humans who inhabit that space.
By the way, I enjoyed the juxtaposition of having a Fairy Glen so close to a murder site. How do you think the magical, mystical Fairy Glen aided your protagonist Joanne's identity awakening? I also found it interesting that your male character, Greg, saw the glen areas as a more sexual experience. Are you staying something here with your setting and characters? There are Fairy names for locations all over the highlands. The isle of Skye in particular. The glen in the book is modelled on my favorite spot in Carrbridge woods which also has carvings although not as many as in Blackrig. Joanne begins to get a true sense of the world of Blackrig here, and of what has happened to its people, especially since the graveyard is also situated in the wood, just as it is in my home village of Carrbridge. For Greg and the young males of the village. This is where they all came to have sex, almost a right of passage.
I am a reader of your Scottish Forensic investigator, the Dr. Rhona MacLeod series. I was surprised with this novel, The Party House. It reads more as a stand-alone. I found it well-ended. Will you carry The Party House characters to another mystery? Or do you hope to write more stand-alone? A few folk have asked me to write more about the folk of Blackrig. I think their story is complete for the moment. As for Rhona, I am currently writing the next one. 2023 will be the twentieth year of Rhona. The first book Driftnet came out in 2003 and is still a best seller as more folk find the series. I probably will write another standalone, not sure when though. I enjoyed creating new characters and a different world, although I find myself very happy to be back with Rhona and her gang. Especially McNab, although he infuriates me as much as ever.
NOW TO THE QUESTIONS, OTHER WRITERS WILL BE INTERESTED IN:
What is your greatest challenge as an author? Probably belief in yourself as a writer. Meeting readers who’ve enjoyed what you wrote is the best cure for that.
How do you find the heart of your story? Or, does the heart of the story come to you after writing the first draft, thus, the need to write a complete second draft? Do you discipline yourself to work so many hours per morning, so many words down on the page? When I was still teaching, I could only write at night. Now I tend to deal with correspondence first thing, go for an hour long walk in the nearby woods and hills, where I can think. Then start writing. This is of course in the earlier part of a book. As it nears the end with a deadline fast approaching, I write all day.
Any tips on the craft that you would like to pass on? When do you outline? I don’t strictly outline. I think one chapter ahead usually, but if I know a certain chapter will have to happen, I jot that down. For example in The Party House, I knew that Greg would take Joanne to the top of the hill from where she might view both the sea to the west and the mountains to the east, which would show her where Blackrig was in the firmament that is Scotland.
I heard you were in lockdown while writing this book. So many of us had trouble keeping to any schedules. What kept you finding your way to the desk? I actually wrote The Killing Tide during strict lockdown and found it difficult to do because I couldn’t go to where it was set. Fortunately I once lived on Orkney so knew the area well. The action of writing the book kept me sane, although it was the first and perhaps will be the only book that I roughly outlined, simply because I found writing the prose very difficult at first. The Party House was written as we were coming out of lockdown while still protecting ourselves and getting vaccinated. That’s why it’s written in that time for Blackrig.
New Rhona coming out in August 2023. Title undecided as yet, but it plays out along the coastal route of the NC500 and in Glasgow of course.
Also the Rhona series is currently being developed for TV with Forge Entertainment, and I am really enjoying my involvement with that.
I will admit, I read your books out of order. But, having thoroughly enjoyed Knife Through the Heart (2022), I immediately ordered Revenge at Sea (2020). I believe: why move from the table while you’re still enjoying the meal? Or at least until the last dish is served. I love dessert! I also wanted to sample the growth of your protagonist, Quint, from book #1 to book #6. I enjoyed the name of your character in the Quint Adler series. It’s hard to forget the shark hunter, Quint, played by Robert Shaw in the movie Jaws-- and the same can now be said of the character in the Quint Adler books. I especially enjoyed the tie-in you gave in Revenge at Sea with the terrifying ending and your character Charles Zane. How do you come up with such great character names?
Jaws has always been my favorite movie, so Quint was an easy name to come up with. I'd thought about it for a few other novels, but it just hadn't fit. With book one of the series ending at sea, it seemed like the perfect time to go with it! And how did your muse lead you to the parallel between Charles Zane and the Quint from Jaws? Or did you start the entire novel with that idea? I had the idea of the first 3/4 being on land and the final 1/4 at sea so I always kind of knew that was coming. Jaws is more like half and half but I just didn't think I could hold the interest of readers if that much was out at sea. Your protagonist moves away from his career as a journalist in book #2: The Bay Area Butcher (2020 ). I like it when characters aren’t stagnant—as we live, thus we evolve. Why did you decide to remodel him as a Private Investigator? Was it for the craft of the story or the marketability? Who do you see as your reading audience? I'd always wanted to have a protagonist who was a private investigator. For Revenge at Sea, he had to be a journalist investigating Charles Zane and the evolving case, but by the time The Bay Area Butcher (and the later Quint books) I didn't think he'd stay a news reporter for long!
Knife Through the Heart surprised me because you moved from a standard detective-type novel to a Law and Order style. A show you also mention in the novel, Quint states: “The courtroom makes good theater.” So the structure was specific to making your ending all the more elusive and suspenseful. I like your twists and turns. Did adding the court trial allow you an advantage in twisting the plot? A Knife Through the Heart started when I rewatched an old 80s movie called Jagged Edge. It was about a husband whose wife was killed and the movie centered around his guilt or innocence. From there, I just rolled with it, and I honestly didn't know if the husband was going to be the killer until a few weeks before publication. People seem to enjoy the direction I finally went in and I know most were quite surprised. And yes, both in the book and the movie, the courtroom played a major role. This will be true of my upcoming novel The Mastermind as well.
NOW TO THE QUESTIONS OTHER WRITERS WILL BE INTERESTED IN:
Did your try at screenwriting trigger you to publish independently? After being unable to sell my screenplays, I knew I wanted to publish novels and try to make some money. When the first two publishing houses rejected me, I just said screw it and decided to self-publish. I think it's been a good decision.
What is your greatest challenge as an independent author? My greatest challenge is all the marketing I have to do myself. Most of the time, I wish I could just spend it writing.
Do you use a publicity company or handle your own marketing? And how does this work in your writing schedule? I do all the marketing myself, but I now have a producer who is trying to pitch The Bartender to some streaming companies.
Do you still have and recommend a “day job” to writers, or have you passed the books-sold mark to write on a full-time basis? Thus, giving us readers the outlook of more books to come. I no longer have a day job, basically because I wouldn't have time for one. The writing - and the marketing - take up probably 12 hours a day. It's not easy.
I read where you write primarily in the mornings. Do you discipline yourself to hours per morning, so many words down on the page? Many authors practice both. Yeah, I'm best at writing in the morning. My goal is 2,500 to 3,000 words a day, but that changes often. And then I can edit in the afternoon or at night when my brain isn't functioning at quite 100%. But editing is easier than coming up with new ideas.
Will you eventually move away from the Quint series/or, at the same time, continue with other genres? Such as your: Psychological Thriller The Bartender (2019) Political Thrillers: The Puppeteer (a Frankie & Evie Book 1, 2017) The Patsy (a Frankie & Evie Book 2, 2018) My novel is going to be a multi-narrative like The Bartender, but I already have an idea for my next Quint book which I'll start up again after that. As of now, I have no plans to stop writing Quint books and even considered writing a novel called Loose Ends where Quint investigates some of the suspected who might have gotten away.
With the great accomplishment of the Quint series, the number of reviews, and the comments by happily satisfied readers, has your life changed? My life hasn't changed much because of the Quint series. I certainly have lots of readers and my Twitter following has certainly changed, but I'm still the same guy day-to-day. Now, if one of my novels is turned into a Netflix series? That could change me, but I'd always remember my readers :)
There was a year or two stretch where I wasn't sure I could make enough to support myself, so I was writing more than you could believe. And once I started going through the editing process, I was already working on my new novel as well. I've cut back a little bit, but I still feel like I work really hard. Let's hope it all pays off :)
Thanks for such a good conversation, Brian, regarding your work and your life as an author. Keep writing...we all want more!!! And thanks so much for this interview, DJ! You asked fantastic questions and I enjoyed it immensely.