Monday, December 17, 2012

Stephen L. Brayton Talks About Writing

This week I welcome mystery writer Stephen L. Brayton to my blog. Heres a chance to find out more about this interesting author.

Please start by telling us a little about yourself.
If you and your readers promise not to turn me in to the FBI, I'll tell you a little secret. I'm actually the leader of an organized crime family. I run operations in Chicago, New York, Houston, and I'm about to move into Los Angeles in a couple months. Mostly embezzlement, stealing cars, and a huge marijuana farm located in... Well, maybe I shouldn't tell ALL my secrets.

Seriously, I'm a Fifth Degree Black Belt with a club in Oskaloosa, Iowa. I work in hospitality and dabble in graphic design. I drive a 2001 Tracker and my thirteen-pound cat whines every time I'm on the phone. I mean he'll come from a different room to bug me while I'm talking. If you read my Mallory Petersen stories, you'll see many similarities between Mallory and me

Why did you become a writer? Was it a dream of yours since you were younger or did the desire to write happen later in your life?
I thought radio would be the career path I'd take and for a while I was in broadcasting. I realized that unless I received some major lucky breaks, I'd never go anywhere. So I turned to writing and discovered the same thing. Now I'm thinking astronaut and plan on being next up in the space shuttle. What? They canceled that program? Crap!

My parents will tell you that I started writing as a child. I wrote skits and short stories. After college and working my first real job, I had a lot of time to write. My first radio job was boring since the computers did most of the work. If it weren't for some periodic joking around with coworkers, I would have gone crazy. When I moved to Oskaloosa and started martial arts, the writing bug hit me again. Around 2000, I joined my first critique group which really started me learning the craft of writing.

Please tell us a little about your newest release without giving away too much of the plot.
Alpha - Fourth Degree Black Belt and private investigator Mallory Petersen discovers her boyfriend dead in front her Des Moines office. Despite the police ordering her to stay out of the case, she becomes involved. Her subsequent investigations uncover devastating secrets about the man she thought she knew and stirs up a host of troubles from crooked cops to inner city gangs. She has to use her wits and martial arts skills to keep herself out of danger and to bring the killers to justice.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Marketing. I love to write. Writing is easy and fun. I'd rather sit in my room without any connection to the outside world and as long as the cat doesn't bother me, I'll write. It's getting out of the house and promoting. It's contacting people via the Internet and phone calls and emails trying to garner some attention that's the tricky part.

Second hardest is the editing. I never catch all of the mistakes the first time around. Or the seventh or the thirty-first. I was catching errors and writing clunks on Alpha a week before publication.

What comes first: the plot or the characters?
For Night Shadows, my first book, the plot came first, but then the characters were fairly easy to develop. For Beta and Alpha, I created Mallory first and outlined the plots later.

What was the most interesting research you had to do for any of your books?
I like to visit the places I use in my stories to add a better sense of reality. I'll fictionalize some interiors and change the name of the business, especially if there's crime involved. For Alpha, the best memory was when I visited the Val-Air Ballroom for the scene where Mallory is searching for a lost woman. It's a summer Saturday afternoon and I'm wearing shorts and a polo shirt. The parking lot is packed full of cars and I'm wondering what's happening. Walking up to the front door, I notice all these beautifully dressed Mexican women and handsomely dressed men. Inside a circle of women in red are discussing some dance routine. Near the door of the main ballroom, I meet a security guard. We eye each other because we both know I don't belong. The ballroom is filled with hundreds of Mexicans, streamers, balloons, a band, food cooking and dancers on the floor. I discover it's a quinceanera, a birthday party for a teenage girl.

After meeting with the manager and obtaining information about the Val-Air, I leave, knowing I'd put this experience into the story. The original scene called for Mallory to enter an empty building, but that would have been boring. So, I changed it to where she also crashes a quinceanera. Sometimes, the scenes write themselves.

Do you plan all your characters out before you start a story or do they develop as you write?
A little of both. I have the main and secondary characters pretty well profiled. Sometimes, during research I'll meet people who go into the book because of the way they greeted and treated me when I explained what I was after. I met a wonderful woman who ran the office where they deliver the Des Moines Register. Her business and her personality went into Beta. Also included were the rude secretary and the flighty office person I met at other places. So be careful how you treat people, you might end up in a book.

Do you have a ritual when it comes to writing? For example, do you get coffee, blanket, paper, pen, laptop and a comfy place?
After downing a fifth of whiskey and smoking three joints, I strip down to my undershorts and plant myself in the middle of the mall... Wait a minute, that's what happened last Saturday. The cops were sooo nice, though.

Uh, scratch that. Didn't happen. No cops, no mall. Actually, I like it quiet except for some classical music. Since I work the graveyard shift, I usually write in the wee hours after all my duties are completed. When it's warm outside, I'll head down to the river or the local park and write. I write longhand with pen and paper then type it onto the computer as my first edit. I'll write until my hand starts aching, which means I'm in the Zone and writing some good material, or I finish a chapter and ready to shift to something different.

Do your books have a common theme and recurring characters or are they all different?
Night Shadows, my first book dealt with a homicide investigator and a federal agent. I use the homicide cop in Beta and Alpha. Mallory Petersen is my main heroine and I use recurring characters in each book.

How long does it take you to write and then edit a story?
The time varies for each story because I switch to other projects in the middle of one, especially if I'm having problems. I started Alpha back in the middle 90s, let it sit while I wrote Beta and Night Shadows, picked it up again in 2009 and took a year and a half to rewrite and polish it up.

How do you go about naming characters?
For many of the main characters, I've chosen names that sound good to me or reflect the type of person he or she is. For instance, Edward Brougham, the drug king, is sophisticated and suave and devilishly handsome, so he gets an aristocratic name.

However, many of my character names (mostly the surname, but sometimes the full name) are taken from a certain list which nobody has been able to figure out. The agent's last name in Night Shadows was taken from this list along with most of the other names. I've told only a couple people where I get my names, but they keep forgetting. I'm still waiting for someone to guess from which list I take my names. Anybody up for the challenge? I'll give you two hints. There are over 700 names on the list and the list grows longer every year.

What are you working on now?
Planning the next bank heist. I'm running low on grocery money. See, me and the boys got it all figured out. We hit the place on a Friday, take out the guard and disable the security cameras... Uh, I'd better not give all the details. Somebody might decide to play stool pigeon and turn me in.

Oh, you mean writing projects. Well, I'm more than half completed with the next Mallory Petersen mystery, Delta. I'm also struggling with the sequel to Night Shadows and I need to get serious about editing and the rewriting of New Year Gone, which is another mystery involving a world-weary private investigator in the noir style.

What do you like to do when youre not writing?
I date famous celebrities. In the last month I've taken out Kristen Bell, Maggie Lawson, and Elisabeth Harnois.

Oops, actually, that's what I dream I could be doing. In reality I have a pretty boring life (so if Miss Harnois is available for dinner...) Two to three times per week I don my uniform for taekwondo instruction. In the summer I'll do some fishing. I read a lot and have a book review blog. Though I haven't played in years, I enjoy racquetball. See, pretty blasé. No mountain climbing or race car driving or lion taming.
Stephen L. Brayton owns and operates Brayton’s Black Belt Academy in Oskaloosa, Iowa. He is a Fifth Degree Black Belt and certified instructor in The American Taekwondo Association.

He began writing as a child; his first short story concerned a true incident about his reactions to discipline. During high school, he wrote for the school newspaper and was a photographer for the yearbook. For a Mass Media class, he wrote and edited a video project.

In college, he began a personal journal for a writing class; said journal is ongoing. He was also a reporter for the college newspaper.

During his early twenties, while working for a Kewanee, Illinois radio station, he wrote a fantasy based story and a trilogy for a comic book.

He has written numerous short stories both horror and mystery.

His website is:

Monday, December 10, 2012

Mary Montague Sikes

Today I welcome Mary Montague Sikes (Monti) to my blog. She has written a charming new Christmas book called Daddy’s Christmas Angel. I am such a sucker for Christmas stories, and this one is endearing. So I thought I’d give you all a chance to meet the author.
Thanks for having me as a guest, Lorna.

When did you first begin writing?
For as long as I can remember, I've been writing. I think I've always had a scrap of paper in my hand just in case I want to jot down a thought or idea or even scribble a little drawing. Often, inspiring ideas come to me in the middle of the night, and I hope I can recall them when I get up in the morning.

What genres have you written?
Just about everything from poetry to romance and mystery/suspense. Over the years, I've written hundreds of nonfiction news stories, features, and articles for magazines and newspapers.

How many books do you currently have published?
I have eight novels, a coffee table book, and four "Snapshot in Time" little books, with more to come. Also, I have a "how- to" book, Published! Now $ell It!, and I'm in two anthologies. One of those, Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln was a project of the National League of American Pen Women.

Where do you get your characters?
My characters pop into my mind and play out like a movie. I love it when they take over, and I don't know for sure where things are heading!

How do you create your plots?
I usually start with a setting and go from there. For Daddy's Christmas Angel, I began with the idea of a little girl longing for a mother who plots to connect her father with her teacher. I'm not sure from where the idea came, but it's a story that could be set anywhere. I created a fictitious town in Virginia that's based loosely on my own small town. I call it my "Sleepless in Seattle" story because that, too, was heartwarming and sometimes funny.

Who are your favorite authors to read?
I enjoy books by Diane Chamberlain. Years ago, I loved books by Lavyrle Spencer. Interesting that she wrote her first book based on a recurring dream she was having about her grandmother. Her books were quite popular in the 1990s, and several were made into TV movies. She suddenly stopped writing. I keep hoping she'll decide to come back.

What would people who read your books be surprised to find out about you?
That I'm a fitness fanatic and take three classes a week, yoga, tabata and zumba. I'm also a fanatical St. Louis Cardinals baseball fan. Every spring we go to Jupiter, Florida for a week or two of spring training and then I hang onto every moment of each regular season game by way of satellite TV.

Where do you live, and does your locale play a role in your books?
I live in a small town in Tidewater, Virginia. To do anything, including take fitness classes, we have to travel at least 30 minutes. As I mentioned, the area influenced the setting of my latest book, Daddy's Christmas Angel. We live about an hour from Richmond where another book, Dangerous Hearts, takes place. I have another, partly complete, book that features the fictitious small town of Jefferson Point, the setting for Daddy's Christmas Angel.

Do you have a writing routine? If so, what is it?
Yes. I go upstairs to my writing studio right after breakfast. Sometime in early afternoon, we have lunch, and I'm back to either the writing studio or my artist studio on the same floor. Three days a week, my husband and I head to fitness in late afternoon. If I'm still at home, I often continue to work on blogs and other promo work.

Since you wrote a Christmas story, what is your favorite thing about the holiday?
When our three daughters were small, I would love to gather holiday gifts. I also enjoyed creating my own decorations. Now I mostly look forward to having them home for Christmas. Since one of our daughters is an airline pilot, Christmas may be celebrated before or after the real date, depending on her flying schedule.

How do you celebrate?
We open gifts on Christmas Day, or whenever it is for us, then have a festive lunch with turkey usually.

Are there any special and unique traditions in your family?
Interesting question. I don't think so. We just enjoy having time together. When our parents were living, it was special to have all of them come to our house for the opening of gifts. We had friends from Germany who celebrated on Christmas Eve by lighting real candles on their tree. I always envied their tradition a little bit.

You write about a Christmas pageant. I also wrote about one in one of my books. Did you participate as a child?
Yes. Also, when my husband and I were first married, we were Mary and Joseph in the church pageant.

What are you working on now?
Right now, I have some art projects to complete to go along with my book signing events during the month of December.

Mary Montague Sikes is a native Virginian who grew up in the historic city of Fredericksburg in the shadow of Civil War battlefields near the boyhood home of George Washington. Motivated by her surroundings, she started writing and painting at an early age. In high school she developed a fascination for the works of Edgar Allen Poe and was inspired to create short stories. Always intrigued by far-away places, as an adult she began traveling and writing about her journeys to exotic locations. Her first novel, Hearts Across Forever, is set in Jamaica and relates to her interest in the legend of Rose Hall Great House. Using both her writing and her artistic skills, Monti wrote and illustrated a coffee table book, Hotels to Remember. As the Passenger to Paradise, Monti uses travel destinations she has visited as settings for her books. Jungle Jeopardy, the fifth book in the series, starts out in Costa Rica then centers around the Maya ruins of Central America as the story develops. This is a sequel to Secrets by the Sea, continuing the adventures of Dana and Clifton. A Rainbow for Christmas, set in 1869 on a wagon train traveling from Missouri to Denver, is her first western romance. Monti delves into her own teaching background to create her latest book, Daddy’s Christmas Angel, in which seven-year-old Kathleen Ryan connives to have her father meet her second grade teacher.

A professional artist with an MFA in painting, Monti has taught art and been a classroom teacher for children of all ages. Besides her interest in painting, she plays tennis, follows baseball, does step aerobics, and enjoys her family of three adult daughters. Monti and her husband now reside in a little Virginia town situated on three rivers accessed by two beautiful new bridges. - Amazon author link - Barnes and Noble author link

Monday, December 3, 2012

Talking With Marilyn Meredith

I must begin with a disclaimer: Marilyn is a very good friend. Larry and I love her, her husband, and her books. Since we know so much about her, I decided to try some different questions for her this week. Maybe you’ll learn something new, too. And I hope you might want to read some of her books when you’re finished.

When did you first decide to write mysteries?
I wrote a couple years ago but I was easily discouraged by one or two rejections. After I wrote and had two historical family sagas published, I wrote my first mystery, The Astral Gift. Then I went on to the first of the Rocky Bluff P.D. series, Final Respects, though at the time, I had no idea it would become a series.

Who was the first character you created? Why this particular character?
For this series, it was Officer Douglas Milligan. Doug was loosely based on my son-in-law, though the resemblance was mostly with his looks. Because my idea—one that I’ve continued through the series—was to show how what is happening at home affects the officer on the job and what’s happening on the job affects the family—I wanted a hero who was likeable but also had vulnerabilities.

Do you read mysteries other than your own? If so, which writers do you like to read?
Of course I read mysteries other than my own, including Lorna’s and Lorna and Larry’s, and I’m really fond of Radine Nehring Trees series, plus many of the other Oak Tree Press mystery authors. Other mystery writers over the years I’ve enjoyed are Mary Higgins Clark, William Kent Krueger and Jan Burke.

Do you read other genres? If so, which do you enjoy the most?
I seldom read anything but mysteries, but I do read thrillers, cozies and other sub-genres of mystery. I do like Dennis Lehane’s work but are probably classified as literary.

Who are your favorite writers of all time?
Other mystery writers over the years who I’ve enjoyed are Mary Higgins Clark, William Kent Krueger, James Lee Burke, and Jan Burke.

If you could spend a day with any one person, living or dead, who would it be and what would you do?
That’s a question I have a hard time answering. My thoughts often run to those in my family who have passed on, but who would I choose, my mom or dad, my son? Spending a day with Jesus would be awesome. I think I’ll be practical instead—I’d love to spend the day with any of my friends, especially my writing friends. One of our fondest memories is spending the weekend with Lorna and Larry in their gorgeous home in Dana Point. We had a great time talking books, selling books, seeing the sights, and just having a wonderful time. [Lorna’s note: And we celebrated our mutual birthdays. It was a great time with good friends.]

What do you do when you really want to escape and have fun? Why?
If it’s just for a part of the day, Hap and I love to go to the movies and out to eat. We’re both movie buffs so that’s really enjoyable for us. If it’s a trip, we really love going to the coast to Morro Bay. We have a special hotel over there we like and we have lots of friends there so we’d try to meet with them for a delicious sea food dinner.

We know your husband, Hap, is very supportive of your writing. Has he always been? Does he ever feel excluded when you are busy with your writing activities?
Hap has always been supportive. Way back when we had our care home, he remained home and took care of business so I could go off to writers’ conferences and mystery cons. Now, he usually comes with me, though he’s not as fond of flying as he once was. I can tell when he feels excluded—he’ll come sit in the extra chair in my office and I know he needs some attention.

What does he like best about your being a writer?
He loves meeting new people just like I do. Being a writer has given him lots of opportunity to make many new and interesting friends. It has also given us some new places to visit. We’ve been to a lot of cities we’d have never gone to if it hadn’t been writing related. Probably the one he enjoyed most was Maui when I worked at the Maui Writers Retreat and he went sightseeing all day. [Lorna’s note: Hap is one of the great guys of the world. We’re both so fortunate to have been blessed with terrific husbands.]

How can you continue to produce two complete novels (one in each series) each year? And how do you manage to keep them fresh and interesting?
I can tell you that it isn’t easy to write two whole novels in one year. If I didn’t have to promote at the same time it would be a lot easier. Sometimes life interferes too. I have to do all the same things everyone else does and we have a huge family. As for keeping each new book fresh and interesting, I try to find new ways to kill people (in the books, of course), unusual killers, and interesting and logical and sometimes not so logical things to happen to my ongoing characters.

What’s next?
The next Rocky Bluff P.D. mystery is called Dangerous Impulses. It centers around a group of high school kids and designer drugs.

F.M. Meredith, also known as Marilyn Meredith, is the author of over thirty published novels. Her latest in the Rocky Bluff P.D. crime series, from Oak Tree Press, is No Bells.  She also writes the Deputy Tempe Crabtree series. Marilyn is a member of EPIC, Four chapters of Sisters in Crime, including the Internet chapter, Mystery Writers of America, and on the board of the Public Safety Writers of America.

Rocky Bluff Crime series from first to last:

Final Respects, Bad Tidings, Fringe Benefits, Smell of Death, No Sanctuary, An Axe to Grind, Angel Lost, No Bells, and coming soon, Dangerous Impulses.