Saturday, January 16, 2010

My Life Between Covers

By Pat Browning

Answering the age-old question: What’s a nice girl like me doing in a place like this?

My first mystery started out as FULL CIRCLE in 2001, and became ABSINTHE OF MALICE in 2008. It’s a long, twisted story but here are questions people are most likely to ask.

What is your book about?
The logline: It’s just another Labor Day weekend in the small California town of Pearl, until discovery of a skeleton in a cotton field leads to murder ... and romance. It’s about small town secrets and getting away with murder when you have money and power.

The working title changed as the story changed. The first title was ROOM THIRTEEN. The second was SKELETON CREW. For a long time the title was MURDER IN THE ROUND. In 2001, about a week before I uploaded the manuscript to iUniverse, I changed the title to FULL CIRCLE.

Then Krill Press came along in 2008 and republished it as ABSINTHE OF MALICE, and I ended up doing some tweaking and revising one more time. It’s beginning to feel like my life’s work.

What inspired you to write a mystery?
About 1995, while I was working for The Hanford (California) Sentinel, the managing editor suggested that I write a book column. I went to the library and walked along the shelves pulling out books that looked interesting. Most of them turned out to be mysteries.

After a few weeks I decided to write my own. I actually said, "How hard can it be?" Five years later I could have written a book on just how hard it is. Through it all I was taking online writing classes, asking questions in chat rooms, lurking on listservs, trying to learn everything I could in the shortest possible time.

FULL CIRCLE had more lives than a cat, with different titles, different characters, different plots and subplots. I think I ended up with nine or ten "final drafts," each time thinking that I finally got it right. Eventually I had to say, "Stick a fork in it, it’s done."

After it was published I still couldn't tell people what it was about because I didn't know. After I heard enough questions and did enough presentations I finally figured out what I had written. It all came from real life -- setting, characters, everything except the plot, which was pure fiction.

How long did it take you to publish your novel?
I probably spent a year writing a few query letters and talking to a couple of agents and editors, but I'm too long in the tooth to spare that kind of time. I had been checking out the new print-on-demand technology via the Internet, and iUniverse seemed to be the best game in town. Not only that, I could publish for $99. It was quick, and I liked the idea of total control over my book. I found Ariana Overton on the Internet, and she designed a beautiful cover for $100. Best $100 I ever spent. So, I formatted and uploaded my book about July of 2001, and by the end of August the finished product was in my hands

A major factor in my decision to go that route was my husband's health. I had given up the newspaper job to be at home with him. So there I was, sitting at the computer for hours at a time, days on end. He was patient, interested, supportive. He kept saying, "When are you going to let me read that book?" Once I decided I’d taken it as far as I could, I let him read the manuscript, then I contacted iUniverse.

He was so proud of that book that he told everybody he met about it. I don't know whether he generated any sales, but it gave him such a kick to talk about it. I never regretted publishing it myself. It was a gift to both of us.

When your husband died, prompting your move from California to Oklahoma, how did you cope? Did writing help?
Ed died 7 years ago this month. It's a terrible experience to sit in a hospital room and watch someone you love slip away from you, and know there is nothing you can do to hold them here. I've done that twice, and the second time was worse than the first. You'd think you'd get used to it. You don't. Another piece of your heart breaks. You can fall on the floor, or you can get up and go home.

My second book was off to a good start but it went onto a shelf while I got my life in order. Fortunately, I had a logline and an outline, so it wasn’t a total loss. An odd thing happened. Going through Ed’s files I came across a snapshot taken in 1937. At the time he was a teenager living in rural California, but I would have known him anywhere.

He hadn’t changed at all. He just got older. I realized this is true of real people and just as true of characters in a book. There’s a lot of talk in writerly circles about characters “growing” and changing, but I’m not quite sure what it means. People – or characters – don’t change, except perhaps superficially. They just get older. What binds us to them is their dependability; that is, they usually do what we would expect them to do. It’s who they are, and that doesn’t change much. Sooner or later they come up against a problem that challenges them but their response is true to their character.

The best example I can think of offhand is Scarlett O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND. From the first page to the last she never wavered in two things: her pursuit of Ashley Wilkes and her determination to save the plantation Tara.

What conflicts does your protagonist Penny Mackenzie face in your second book?
Here’s the logline: Small town reporter Penny Mackenzie tracks an offbeat Christmas story and finds herself in the middle of a murder and the mysterious desecration of an old Chinese cemetery.

Penny wants to solve the mystery of a long-dead Chinese man, whose records seem non-existent, and she wants to find out who murdered someone who seemed to have no enemies. On another level, she’s resisting marriage to the man of her dreams (and occasional nightmares) because she doesn’t quite trust him.

Someone who read my first book complained that there were no children in it. True. My characters are the people I know best, baby boomers and their elders. Unless I change the ending, the only character with a speaking part who is younger than 40 is a parrot.

How would you sum up your experience as an author?
Here's a quote from Jonathan Harrington, who wrote the Danny O'Flaherty mystery series. In an online interview with Charlotte Austin, he said:

"When I am gone, all that will be left are the stories I tried to tell in my writing. When the world is no more, all that will be left is a story that begins: Once upon a time a group of people lived on a place called Earth ... We are writing the story of our existence. When everything else is gone, all that will remain is the story of who we were."

Today's writers have computers and word processing software, but in a sense we are still drawing pictures on the walls of the cave, leaving proof of our existence and the way we see the world around us.

What are your future writing plans?
Finshing that second book. Beyond that, I have notes—bits and pieces really, and research notes—for a third and possibly fourth book in the Penny Mackenzie series. There's another possibility, too, for a standalone set in some interesting place I've visited, such as India. Whether it happens remains to be seen. Remains to be seen. Sounds like a good title for a mystery, doesn't it?


jenny milchman said...

Pat, this was such a moving post that I had tears in my eyes as I read, as cliche as that may sound. You must be a genius at this writing thing because with a few swift strokes of the keyboard you evoked the man your husband was, and the nobility if his love for you. I wish you great luck with your next book (and will look for your first)--good luck as you tell another story of who we are and where we've been...


Beth Terrell said...

I love your dedication and determination, Pat. And your husband's pure love and pride in your work touched my heart.

Anonymous said...

Pat: Your learning experiences sound like mine so I could sympathize and I also lost my Darling Companion and his loving support. I know how hard it is to carry on. zi loved Full Circle and am looking forward to the next Pearl adventure, and the next, and the next -
Cyber hugs,
Jackie Griffey

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Thanks for sharing this with all of us.


Jean Henry Mead said...

Beautifully written, Pat. I understand the pain of losing your husband. When I lost my daughter last year, writing saved me from severe depression. I admire your courage and will to go on. . .

Chester Campbell said...

We've traveled a lot of the same territory, Pat. I wrote my first mystery while a reporter for The Knoxville Journal. I, too, had read a book and thought I can do that. My first wife was around for a lot of my writing, but she died before I made it into print. I'm fortunate to have a wife now who goes into the trenches with me to sell those books. I enjoyed reading about your journey. Looking forward to that new tale about Penny Mackenzie.

Anonymous said...

Jenny, Beth, Jackie, Terrie, Jean, Chester -- thanks for your kind comments.

My writing fell off the track a few weeks ago. I've got too many irons in the fire. But I'm trying to get some PR stuff and contest stuff in the mail. It's that time of year.

I keep reminding myself of something Sue Grafton said: "The free world does not hang in the balance. You are only writing a book."

Of course, Sue was talking about her reaction to a rejection, but that little quote fits in other places, too. I'm only amazed that she can remember what a rejection feels like. (-:

Pat Browning