By Pat Browning
Gerrie Ferris Finger is a writer who writes, pointing her pen at anything and everything that interests her and everything required for a job, and she has more than one publisher. That may be unique! Let’s do a quick rundown.
She spent 20 years reporting on everything from soup to nuts at a major newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. After the death of colleague and mentor Lewis Grizzard she compiled his newspaper columns into two books, THE LAST BUS TO ALBUQUERQUE and SOUTHERN BY THE GRACE OF GOD. She compiled her own best columns into Q&A ON THE NEWS. In 2000, she wrote a novel, LOOK AWAY FROM EVIL.
Fast forward now. Desert Breeze is publishing four romantic suspense novels in Finger’s Laura Kate Plantation series. The first, WHEN SERPENTS DIE came out in 2009. Finger signed a contract for two romance e-books with Desert Breeze Publishing AND – she won the Malice Domestic/St. Martin’s Minotaur Best First Traditional Novel Competition. Her entry, THE END GAME, will be out April 27.
Pat: First things first, Gerrie. The editorial review at Amazon.com says: “…The End Game features a strong new heroine in a vivid Southern setting. Gerrie Ferris Finger puts a new spin on the classic mystery novel.” Sounds great! Tell us what the book is about, and where the idea came from.
Before I began The End Game, a sensational case in Atlanta ordained the plot. A preschool child went missing. He'd been in foster care since infancy, passing from foster family to foster family. How could the system lose a child? As far as I know, he was never found. About that same time, Atlanta police began busting massage parlors, finding ten-to-twelve-year-old foreign girls working in the back rooms, giving more than a traditional massage. The two sad cases combined to inspire The End Game.
Pat: I looked up the guidelines for the Malice Domestic Competition. Among other things, they say:
*Murder or another serious crime is at the heart of the story, and emphasis is on the solution rather than the details of the crime.
*Whatever violence is necessarily involved should be neither excessive nor gratuitously detailed, nor is there to be explicit sex.
*The "detective" is an amateur, or, if a professional (private investigator, police officer) is not hardboiled and is as fully developed as the other characters.
*The detective may find him or herself in serious peril, but he or she does not get beaten up to any serious extent.
So squeamish readers won’t have to skip the scary parts?
I'm laughing because skipping the scary parts would be skipping the murder of a human being, a must in most "murder" mysteries. Therefore, I shouldn't be laughing, should I?
My interpretation of the Malice/St. Martin's rules is that violence and sex should not be lurid. The murder should be off book, or if depicted in the pages, no gory details shown. Stab or shoot the guy and move on to solving the crime. If characters in the novel are lovers, the bedroom door should be firmly shut.
The Malice Domestic organization and St. Martin's Minotaur imprint sponsor the Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition. Malice Domestic is a mystery writers and readers convention that celebrates the traditional "cozy" genre. Among the venerated writers are Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. Malice contest winners receive tea pot trophies, the tea pot being a trademark of the cozy mystery.
Cozy is a misunderstood genre. It's more than quirky old ladies and gentlemen – maybe throw in a precocious child as Christie liked to do – sitting around drinking tea and discussing the bizarre neighbors. It's more than talking cats and recipe mysteries. It can cross over and become part of another genre, say the thriller.
The End Game is not cozy. Let me quote Robin Agnew, of the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association, from her recent review: "… it’s (The End Game) hardly a cozy, though it gives a nod to the traditional mystery through the use of an actual locked room murder and some tricky stuff involving train whistles. Dorothy L. Sayers would be proud. But then she wasn’t really a cozy writer, either."
Robin goes on: "Ferris’ ethos …(is) fairly hard boiled, and so is the topic she’s chosen to write about: missing children. Her spare prose and unsentimental writing style get you through some of the hard stuff in the story. Her main character, Moriah Dru, runs an agency called Child Trace, Inc. She’s retired from the police force and often works with her ex-partner, Rick Lake , as she does in this book. Lake is also Dru’s lover, but none of that complicates the story too much. Like a runaway freight train, this novel is all about narrative drive."
The "hard stuff" Robin refers to is the research I did on pedophilia and the callous attitudes in some countries. I don't belabor what I discovered, but some perspective was necessary to the story. I'll say here, there is no overt depiction of child abuse. The girls are gone when the story opens. The point of view is first person so readers know (or should know) there won't be a point of view from the bad guy. It's a chase mystery. Dru and Lake must find the girls before the unknown abductors take them out of the country. There's a murder -- off book, of course -- in the aforementioned locked room.
Pat: I went to your web site and read the excerpt. Loved the voice and conversational style. How much of your book and your style come from your life at the Journal-Constitution? How long did you work on the book before entering it in that famous contest? And why did you decide to enter?
Although I've always been a cut-to-the-chase writer -- wasn't it Elmore Leonard who said to leave out all the parts nobody reads anyway -- my style was honed on news stories. I wrote a lot of travel stories and other features, which allows a little more elaboration, but newspapers give you a "hole" for your story. If your editor says you have twenty inches, you must boil your story down to twenty inches -- and hope editors don't start cutting your story from the bottom.
I worked on The End Game for, gosh, hard to say with all the revisions, maybe four months on the first draft. It's not a long book. It takes place in a twenty-four hour span. The way I work is, after the first draft, I'd get an idea for another book. I'd put the draft aside and draft another story. During this drafting, I'd review older manuscripts, polishing and tinkering. I've never been finished with a manuscript. If I had my published works before me now, I'd fiddle with them.
Pat: After you won and the contract was signed, how much to-ing and fro-ing took place? Were there lots of editing changes or is the book we’ll be reading basically the same book you submitted? How about the cover? It’s a great cover. Did you have any input or approval? Does it reflect the story’s theme or thrust?
I'm delighted to say you'll be reading the book I wrote. There were no plot or theme changes.
Ruth Cavin is my editor. Last fall, her assistant e-mailed to say my book was queued next for Ruth to edit. I braced myself. Even though Ruth read it for the contest, now she was reading it to take it apart. Editors, in my experience, like to put their imprints on a work, but, to my surprise, Ruth's hand-written changes in the margins were few -- a word changed, a better phrase inserted, a typo corrected.
The copy editor made minor changes, too. I'm easy to get along with when it comes to editors. At the AJC, I got used to major changes in my copy. Pat, have you ever walked into your newsroom and saw the lede to your story completely rewritten? You get used to it, or you head out the door.
About the cover. I was asked what my ideas were. I said I loved trains, which I do. Trains have a prominent role in The End Game, but I pictured a different cover than they presented. The graphic designer saw something in the copy that I didn't and conveyed it on the cover. It's wonderful. I can say that with pride, because I didn't design it.
Pat: One more question before we leave the contest. Do you have any advice, warnings or tips for an author planning to enter the 2011 Malice Domestic contest?
Advice: write from your heart and soul; buff the manuscript to perfection and send it off. You enter the contest in October, and, if you haven't heard by March 31, you haven't won. So, while it goes through the process of elimination, don't sit and wait, work on a sequel or another book.
The process starts with readers who receive manuscripts from all over the country. They choose the best in their estimation and send them to St. Martin's. I don't know how many manuscripts Ruth received, but she told me that she'd winnowed it down to four or five to choose from -- all very good -- but mine was the best. Thank you, Ruth.
Tomorrow: We’ll talk about Gerrie’s series with Desert Breeze Publishing, the Laura Kate Plantation Series.
(Photos from Gerrie’s blog and website)