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.