Monday, January 26, 2009

An Interview with Patricia Sprinkle

M&M: Patricia, let's talk about your writing schedule.
Patricia: It's not as "scheduled" as it used to be. When my sons were home and in school, I generally wrote the whole time they were at school. Now, when I ought to have more free time, I also have two parents nearby who need some attention and assistance, and two grandsons I like to spend time with. Plus a few responsibilities at church and in the community that keep scheduling day-time events. But my ideal schedule, which I follow more or less faithfully, is to get to my desk around ten and write until seven, with a break around two for lunch. I often come back to the desk after dinner, as well, for a couple of hours. Basically, I consider writing a bit like college: it's what I am supposed to be doing any time I'm not doing something else. But let me add that for writers who are just starting out, I feel it is important for you to set aside specific times and be ruthless about not filling them with anything else. Otherwise, those first books do not get written.

M&M: How many mysteries have you written?
My twentieth came out in October '08, exactly twenty years after the first one was published. In that same period I've written two other novels three non-fiction self-help books, and two short books of meditations.

M&M: Why have you ended your 'A Thoroughly Southern Series', I loved Mac and her family.
It's a bit of "quit while you're ahead." I love Mac and her family, too, but when I started the series, I was in my early 50's and she was in her early 60's. Now I've aged ten years and she's aged two. Pretty soon I'll be older than she. And as I aged, more and more often people began to say, "I can just hear you in Mac" or "MacLaren is so much like you." That is a danger signal for a writer. We are not our characters, and they are not supposed to be us. I began to feel like Mac was a sister I'd been with a bit too long, and we both needed space. Also, when I turned 64 and we had to put my mother in a memory care facility, I realized there were books I had been wanting to write that I ought not postpone indefinitely. So Mac and Joe Riddley went off on a cruise and I'm writing a novel I've delayed for the twenty years I've written mysteries.

M&M: Tell us about your latest book in the 'Family Tree Series'?
Daughter of Deceit is about Bara Holcomb Weidenauer, who asked sleuth Katharine Murray to research military medals her father earned during World War II in the 15th Air Corps. Her father had returned a hero but minus one leg, and had become one of Atlanta's movers and shakers. What Katharine finds, however, shocks Bara so much that she has to question who she is and why her parents lied to her all her life. It's grittier than the MacLaren books, but I enjoyed working on it and readers seem to like it.

M&M: What mysteries do you like to read?
Good ones. By that I mean mysteries with a strong plot, characters I can identify with or want to know more about, and good writing. I seldom read blood and guts books, because I read at lunch and before bed, and that combination doesn't work for me. I do, however, read all of Harlan Coben's books even though I cringe and sometimes put one down for a while to recover from the horror. I read at least one new author from Canada a year, and I'll read anybody once, especially an author recommended to me by another constant reader. I won't list "favorites" among women mystery writers because I have too many friends among those writers whose books I enjoy, and I'm afraid I'll leave somebody out.

M&M: What advice do you have for the novice mystery writer, who wants to write a mystery series?
Read, read, read, then write the kind of book you like to read. Settle on a plot and finish the book. Study the craft of writers you especially enoy--how do they do what they do? A writer who can no longer learn from other writers is probably about to become a former writer.

M&M: You've been writing for many years. Would you share with us a thing or two you've learned?
1) I've learned I don't really know how to do this. Every time I start a book I am certain it is not going to work.
2) I have learned to trust my instincts. Before I write a word, I tend to spend a good bit of time getting to know the characters, the setting, and background information I am going to need for that plot. But if I get into a chapter and it feels right to go in another direction, I let it flow for a while until I see if that direction is going to be better than the one I had before.
3) I have learned that no book comes alive for me until a character whom I had not included or whom I had considered minor steps in and becomes a major part of the plot. For instance, in DEATH ON THE FAMILY TREE, Lamar Franklin--a ponytailed hippie amateur genealogist--makes my sleuth nervous and seems like a stalker. In SINS OF THE FATHER, the second book in that series, Lamar appears again in a slightly different but still disturbing role. In DAUGHTER OF DECEIT he surprised Katharine and me--and, I hope, the readers.

M&M: How do you outline your mystery plots, keep track of series characters and background information?
I probably do far too much of that, delaying the moment when I have to face the empty screen. Before I begin a book, I list all my characters and fill out a page of information on them: a brief physical description, but also things like who was their favorite teacher and why, what do they save from the past? what are their hobbies? what do they do with their hands when they are agitated? what do they want in this book and what is going to make it hard for them to get it? things like that. I also have an alphabet chart with first and last names of characters, to be sure I don't wind up with three or four characters whose name starts with the same letter.That can confuse a reader. If I know the characters well before I begin, I don't have any problem confusing them later.
Because I usually have to write a proposal of sorts for the editor ahead of time, I use that proposal to plot the book--where it starts, who the suspects are, and why they each might have a motive for the murder. I don't tell the editor whodunit, but unlike some writers, I do know who the murderer and the victim are before I begin, and also I know whom the police are going to suspect and whom I want the reader to suspect. That lets me plant clues and herrings throughout the book. And I always start by listing a few chapters and what is going to happen in them, plus events that need to happen somewhere along the line. Then I start the book. Somewhere around the middle I break off and write the climax chapter, because I tend to edit more carefully and often chapters I've already written, and I don't want the last chapter to get the least attention. But in spite of all that careful planning, in WHO LET THAT KILLER IN THE HOUSE, I managed to let a girls fastpitch softball team win a game with only two outs in the last inning.

M&M: In 2009 what are you looking forward to doing, writing or in genreal life?
As I already said, I am going in a new direction at the moment, working on a novel that is not a mystery, although it has a small mystery in it. I have no idea whether I can do this or not, but an editor seems to think I can. We shall see!

M&M: Patricia, you've lived many places, tell us about the best places you've lived and travelled to on vacation?
I have enjoyed every single place we have lived, for various reasons. I love the ocean and swimming, so Wilmington, NC and St. Pete and Miami definitely rank high. Mobile was very like Jacksonville, where my family spent happy years, and I loved it for its history and its charm. Chicago was cold, but we made very good friends there. And Atlanta, where we've lived four times now, is both cosmopolitan and Southern, and feels the most like home. But my all-time favorite place was the litle village in Scotland where I spent one winter and to which I return whenever I can. The people I love there and the vast spaces of the mountains soothe my soul.

M&M Would you share with us a little about your family life, your favorite dessert, meal, movie and music?
I've been married 38 years to the same man without killing each other, we have two sons, a daughter-in-law, and two grandsons. Our married son and his family live half an hour away, which is wonderful. The other works in New York and is losing his southern roots. We miss him, but are glad he's happy up there. I don't have favorite anythings, which makes it very hard for internet sites to assign me a question to answer for security purposes. I don't have one favorite color because I love all colors. Leaded crystals wash my office with rainbows on sunny days. I love movies, but don't have a favorite. I love to eat, but don't have a favorite food (maybe peppermint ice cream, in limited quantities?). I don't have favorite authors, although there are a number I read again and again. I am not certain I have a favorite composer, although whenever I hear a piece I cannot identify but really like, it tends to be Saint-Saens or Mendelsson. But while I love most children, I do definitely have two favorites: my grandsons!

M&M: Last but never least, is there anything you would like to say to your readers?
Thank you for making it possible for authors to do what we love most in the whole world, tell stories to people who want to hear them. And if you do have a favorite or several favorite authors, BUY their books. Whether they continue to publish or not depends largely on how many new books they sell, not how many times a book is sold second-hand or how many times it gets read. So pass around your next-favorite authors to aunts, cousins, and sisters, but BUY your favorite author. Nuff said!
Okay I hope it was painless, and thank your Patricia for the interview.

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