Friday, December 18, 2009

An Interview with Cynthia Riggs

Cynthia Riggs Interview
By Pamela James

Cynthia, how many books have you written and published?

My ninth book, "Touch-Me-Not," is scheduled for publication by St. Martin's Minotaur in Fall 2010, and I'm currently working on my tenth book, "The Bee Balm Murders."

Tell us about your writing schedule

I'm not terribly disciplined in my life, but when it comes to my writing, I'm a stickler. I write every day, seven days a week, usually starting at 10 am and keeping at it until 5 pm. I'll take breaks to pick up the mail, make beds, work in the garden, but I get right back to writing. Discipline makes all the difference.

Tell us about the magic of being an author.

The creative process is magical. To think that a mind can conjure up people and places and situations out of no more than the mind's electrical currents, set down those people and places in a form that another mind can interpret with its own electrical currents -- how magical can you get! I think of that a lot. The characters that eventually take shape in my books are not entirely under my control, nor are their actions. I laugh out loud at some of the unexpected twists and turns in personalities and bizarre behavior. When I take my place in front of my keyboard and screen, I have no idea what's likely to emerge. And to think -- nothing but electricity holding it all together. Sheer magic.

Tell us about your latest book and how long it takes you to write your mysteries.

My latest book, the one I'm working on now, is "The Bee Balm Murders." I'm an avid gardener and I run a bed and breakfast. In my garden, I have seven beehives. In my B&B, I have a man who's installing an underground fiber optics cable throughout the Island. I thought, wouldn't it be interesting (and fun) to try to combine those two unusual and timely threads in my book. It's been a challenge, but I think it's working out. It takes me six months to a year to write each book, depending on how much I allow myself to get distracted by life-other-than-writing.

Break down for us how you plot and how you keep your series going from book to book.

Plotting? What's that? Despite the fact that reviewers of my books use terms like "tightly plotted," I don't plot. At all. I come up with the title first and a vague idea of the subject matter. But my books are character driven, and I let my characters decide where the story will go and how it will tangle and then resolve itself. All my books are set on Martha's Vineyard, an interesting setting that will provide me with subject matter for decades. When my agent asked me where I got my sense of the absurd, I told her I attend the selectmen's meetings. Each of the Island's six towns has a board of selectmen, a conservation commission, a planning board, a zoning board of appeals, a shellfish board, its own school, library, fire department, police department, and its own fence viewers. With that many diverse characters striving for power in his/her own small fiefdom, there's a possibility of murder afoot every way you turn. (The last real murder on Martha's Vineyard was in 1940.)

As far as keeping a series going from book to book, I keep in mind that some of my readers are long term fans, some are brand new. I need to identify recurring characters for my new readers without boring my long termers. When I bring a character on stage I make the introduction short and try to spread it out thinly over several chapters.

My protagonist, Victoria Trumbull, is a 92-year-old poet. I had to decide at the beginning how to handle the passage of time. Clearly, I can't afford to let Victoria age much. At the same time, I realized if I froze time in the background, I'd have to research what happened way back in 2009, when we didn't have the forensic tools we have now, in 2029. So Victoria will stay 92 forever, and time will pass in the background allowing me to write about Tasers and fiber optics and touch DNA.

What are your plans for 2010?

My plans for 2010 are to sell a second mystery series I've started involving life on the Washington, DC waterfront. I lived on a boat in DC for twelve years within sight of the Jefferson Memorial. In spring, cherry blossoms would drift into the channel from the Tidal Basin and form a fragrant pink carpet around the hulls of our boats. I'll continue my Martha's Vineyard mystery series featuring Victoria Trumbull. The next book may involve the restoration of a China Trade painting that's been hanging on Victoria's parlor wall for 150 years, mostly unnoticed. I'm trying to think of a plant name to use in the title -- Indian paintbrush or painted daisy or painted tongue or...?

Is there something you would like to say to your readers?

Yes -- a very big thank you to readers for reading my books, whether you borrow them from the library or buy them at your local independent bookstore, many thanks from me and all the other authors whose books you read.

Do you have a favorite book in your series or a favorite book cover?

My books are like my five children. All are different and I love them all for different reasons. My favorite cover is probably for "The Cemetery Yew." It's by Ken Joudrey, who's done all of my covers. "The Cemetery Yew" cover shows an open grave, a lichen-covered tombstone, and an overhanging yew branch with a toucan ornament (the time of year is November) hanging from the branch.

What can we find you doing when you're not writing mysteries?

When I'm not writing mysteries, I'm probably out in the garden or turning the compost heaps. Or I'm involved in one of my writers' groups, making beds, teaching writing, doing laundry, or fomenting political trouble in my town.

What mystery writing advice can you give to the novice mystery writer?

Sit down at a regular time and write. Set a goal, even if it's only to produce one paragraph. Writing is a job, so go to your writing place whether you feel like it or not and write.

What conferences, or conventions will you be attending this year?

Probably Left Coast Crime, Malice Domestic, and New England Crime Bake. There are so many wonderful conferences, it's all too easy to attend conferences and forget entirely about writing.

Give us a little background on you the woman, the author and the reader.

I live on Martha's Vineyard, where I was born, and run a bed and breakfast catering to poets and writers in the old family homestead. I have a degree in geology from Antioch College and an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College. My first book was published in 2001. Before that, I was a boat captain on the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. I held a US Coast Guard Masters License (100 ton vessels) for 20 years.

Leave us with some mysterious words of wisdom that only your character would tell us.

Stop thinking about yourself. Worry about others.

What is your website addy?

The address is: My daughter, Ann Ricchiazzi, designed the website and is my webmaster, and I'm proud ot it. The website is clean, easy to navigate, informative, up-to-date, and has no weird dancing stuff to give one migraines.

Cynthia, thank you so much for answering my questions and thank you for all the wonderful books you've written.

Happy Holidays,
Pamela James


  1. Cynthia! So lovely to see you here. Your advice is so perfect. Thank you.

    I snagged Death and Honesty this summer..and it is wonderful and charming. Highly recommended.

    (If any of you ever get to meet Cynthia in person, you are in for a treat! Her stories about the Vineyarders are hilarious.)

    And hey Cynthia--you're about to get hit with a big snowstorm, I hear! So lay in some provisions..

  2. Cynthia,
    Thank you doing the interview and your answers were dead on and I am so happy that I will have more books to enjoy written by you. Martha's Vineyard is the perfect setting for a mystery.

    Happy Holidays,

  3. Delightful interview. I love your sense of absurd and especially how you acquired it. Thank you for a much needed smile today.


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