MM2: Sheila, what was the first book you had published?
As Sheila or Sarah? My first series was a work-for-hire for Berkley Prime Crime about a glassblower in Arizona, and I wrote that series under the name Sarah Atwell. The first book was Through a Glass, Deadly. As Sheila, my first book was One Bad Apple, the first of the Orchard Mysteries, in 2008,
MM2: What the moment when you realized... "This is really happening. I am an author?"
I’m still not sure I believe it. Every time I tell someone new, “I’m a mystery writer,” I have to squash a giggle. I keep thinking someone is going to change their mind about it and take it all back.
MM2: How many books and series have you written?
Do you know, I have to check my cheat sheet to make sure. Four series: the Glassblowing Mysteries (three books), followed by the Orchard Mysteries (seven so far), the Museum Mysteries (four, with the fifth coming out in June), then the County Cork Mysteries (two, and more to come). That’s, uh, sixteen in print. Then there are the ebooks, which are not part of any series: Once She Knew, Relatively Dead, and Reunion with Death. Does that make 19? And there are more in the pipeline.
MM2: Do you have an author whose books you reread?
Not recently, although years ago I reread a lot of books, particularly Dorothy Sayers and a lot of the golden age mysteries—Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh. But back then it wasn’t all mystery for me—I used to reread Tolkein once a year, and science fiction, what was then called women’s fiction, and a real grab bag of other books.
MM2: Tell us about your writing schedule?
I’m usually planted at my desk with my second cup of coffee by eight o’clock in the morning. I take a short break for lunch, then back to the desk again. Over time I’ve found that I can write more freely in the morning, so before lunch it’s creative, and after lunch it’s administrative (blog posts, promotion and so on). When my creative brain shuts down altogether by late afternoon, I read. Yes, I watch television, although I’m more analytical about plot and structure than I used to be. And I usually read before I go to sleep.
But the writer brain is always busy, no matter what I’m doing. When I start a new book, I figure out one pivotal theme or image, which may be no more than a phrase or a picture, and then I let my subconscious go to work on it. Sometimes a plot point will suddenly pop up when I’m doing laundry or driving somewhere, and I file that away. As a result, when I sit down to actually start writing, I have a lot of material accumulated in my head, and most of it fits together. You never know when and where you’ll find something interesting that you want to use somewhere.
MM2: What advice do you have for aspiring mystery authors who want to write a series?
I’m speaking primarily about cozies. First, choose characters you like, because you’re going to be spending a lot of time with them. Make sure they have room to grow and learn as individuals. Then surround them with interesting people, whether or not one (or two) of them is a love interest. Then drop this crowd into a place that’s not too big but not too small, so that many people know each other and may have histories with each other. Then sit down in front of your keyboard and see who shows up and starts talking. Sometimes they may surprise you.
Oh, and never give up. Rejections are part of the process. When you get one, wallow in misery for a day or two, then suck it up and keep moving forward. You get better at writing, even if you can’t see it.
MM2: Where is your favorite place to vacation or visit? Do you have a wish list of places you would like to vacation?
These days, Ireland, where my father’s parents were born, although I never visited the country before 1998. That’s why I wanted to set a series there, so I’d have a reason to go back regularly. But in general I love to travel—I’ve lived for short periods in France and England, and I’ve visited Australia and Mexico, and a lot of different states in the US. I went to Italy last year for the second time after many years, and I’d like to get to know it better. In the past I would have said I wanted to see Egypt and Greece, but things there are too politically unstable now to make travel appealing. New Zealand? I may have relatives there.
But I want to see and do things, not sit on a beach (my fair Irish complexion doesn’t handle sun well!).
MM2: Pretend this is Oscars and you have won top honors. Who would you like to thank?
In kind of reverse order:
--My parents, mainly because they always kept books around and set an example by reading a lot.
--My husband, because he provided the salary that gave me the luxury of writing full time when I started out.
--My agent and editors, who trusted that I could turn out not one but many books that people would want to read.
--But maybe I need to thank a series of employers who “let me go” (and a few who outright fired me), because they inspired me to say “I’ll show you, you jerks” when I started writing. And I think I have.
MM2: As far as your books and deadlines. What can we expect next and when will it be released?
Razing the Dead (Museum Mystery #5), June 2014
Picked to Die (Orchard Mystery #8), October 2014
Something we haven’t named yet (County Cork Mystery #3), February 2015
And maybe a standalone ebook or two
MM2: When you are writing does it have to be completely quiet? Do you write by music or television in the background?
I used to listen to classical music, but not lately. I can’t listen to anything with words because I sing along, which is a little distracting, so I save that for the car. I can read with television on, but not write.
MM2: What would your main characters say is your best ability?
Persistence? Which could also be called stubbornness. In the face of the multiple rejections that any writer faces, I just kept trying. I think that’s a good quality in a protagonist—life throws things at them (like dead bodies), and they keep muddling along.
MM2: Leave us with a writing quote or maybe some words of wisdom by one of your characters?
Wow, that’s a hard one. What I finally decided on is something from One Bad Apple, the first Orchard Mystery and the first book published under my name. It’s from near the end of the book, where the two main characters, Meg and Seth, have identified the murderer. I think it sums up the heart of a cozy mystery: why people set out to solve the crime.
"Meg, I know how hard the past couple of months have been for you, what with losing your job, and the house, even before...Chandler's death. You put yourself in a difficult position, moving here, with nobody to lean on."
Meg nodded. "Maybe you're right. I didn't plan things very well, did I?"
"I've got to say it took guts to stand up in front of a room full of strangers and do what you did."
"Even if I was wrong?"
"You got some pieces right. Look, a lot of people would have said 'it's not my business' and walked away. But that would have been wrong."
"That's what I thought," Meg answered.