Yes. Or none of the above. In fact, I often start with the setting, or even a particular part of the setting. One book came about because I was wandering through an orchard and found a ruined springhouse in the middle of it. My first thought was, what a great place to put a body! I ended up creating a whole book around that, starting with, why would there be a body in the springhouse? Who was it? How could you sneak a body in there without anyone noticing?
- Do you outline the plot or some variation of that (a little/a lot of detail, a strict 3 act structure etc) before sitting down and writing?
Once I have the basic idea, I usually let it stew in my head for a while. When I'm ready to start writing the book, I sit down with a pad and pencil and write something between a general outline and a letter to myself, including questions I need to resolve. I may never look at it again, and a lot of elements will change, but the process of laying it out the first time is important to me.
After that I kind of let things flow. I keep a running outline, which lets me see how much time has elapsed in the story, which character has been absent for too long, and where I am in the page count in case I need to pick up the pace.
- What is your process for developing a character? Do you use pictures, a worksheet or just let the character(s) tell you about him/herself as you write?
For a couple of years I have been collecting old photos of what I call "interesting faces" and use them for inspiration for people from the past who sneak into my books. The contemporary characters I let do the talking. Very few of them are based on people I know (and I'm still waiting for the people who I did "borrow" to recognize themselves).
- How do you find time for writing, what works for you - and do you have anything special you do before writing, particular music or a special room/location that helps you get in the zone and write?
One of those things you don't know about before you're published is how much time you'll have to devote to various kinds of promotion. That makes the writing time all the more precious. I find my creative mind works best in the morning, so that's when I try to actually write. The afternoon is for the business side, and when my mind really slows down, I read.
A few years ago we moved into a Victorian house. When I first went through it with the realtor (at which point it was filled with the treasures of an elderly couple who could easily be called hoarders) I took one look at the landing over the stairs and said, that's where the desk goes. I write at my father's old kneehole desk, with my grandmother's filing cabinet and my great-grandmother's Art Nouveau lamp. I have a window overlooking our fairly quiet street, and all my current reference materials are within arm's reach. There's a 3'x4' corkboard over the desk, with all sorts of odd pictures that either relate to the work in progress or that I find entertaining—plus the things I absolutely, positively can't lose in the piles on my desk.
- What is your work schedule like when you're writing and how long does it take you to write a book?
I write every day, including weekends. I get up, throw on sweats, fill the coffee mug, and sit down in front of the laptop. I take a short break for lunch and keep going until the words run out. At night I turn into a couch potato.
I write quickly (and find myself apologizing to a lot of writer friends who seem to agonize over each and every word). That's been true from the start, when I had no idea what was expected—I just did it. I can complete a draft in two to three months. Then I like to put it aside and gain some distance before I try to edit. Sometimes there's only a week or two for that, but I have an editor I trust, thank goodness. (And if she's reading this, the book that's due in February is in good shape. Really.)
- What in your background prepared you to write mystery novels?
I've been a real gypsy in my career: at various times I've been an academic art historian, an investment banker, a non-profit fundraiser, and a professional genealogist. And I've managed to use all of those experiences in one way or another in my books, believe it or not.
I also started reading at an early age and have never stopped. When my husband and I were first married, we started collecting mysteries (and this was in the Dark Ages before the Internet!). We focused on mystery writers and tried to assemble full series by each of them. If you're wondering, yes, I read them all. As a result, I have a pretty full collection of classic mysteries. But I realized a few years ago that I had a definite bias toward traditional mysteries or cozies—there were relatively few thrillers or suspense novels mixed in.
I started out trying to write romantic suspense, but I don't think I was very good at it. Things really clicked when I started writing cozies.
- How did you get your first break toward getting published? Was it at a writer's conference or mailing a query letter etc?
The usual, slogging through endless query letters to various agents. I landed one bad agent, but it took me a couple of years to realize he was useless. I started all over again, but at least I think my writing had improved.
I ended up with my current agency when one of my query letters to them (my third or fourth—did I mention I'm persistent?) came back minus the enclosure, or even a return address. But I figured out who had sent it, and emailed asking for the response. It was, predictably, a rejection, but the agent was so apologetic about the mistake that she asked if I'd be interested in "trying out" for a work-for-hire for Berkley Prime Crime. I said yes, BPC loved it, and I was launched with the Glassblowing Mysteries, written under the pen name Sarah Atwell.
So, short answer: because somebody didn't seal an envelope, I've ended up with eight books published in under three years.
- What are you currently reading?
I read my friends' books, and I try to find time to read non-fiction and other things that sound interesting, whether or not they're related to my own books. But I'm way behind on best-sellers, and the to-be-read piles are reaching frightening heights.
- What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I keep odd talismans on my desk, like pieces chipped off tombstones (I spend a lot of time in cemeteries, for genealogy purposes), a pencil sharpener in the form of a cannon, from Valley Forge, and an elephant eraser based on Lucy, and an eraser modeled on Lucy, the Victorian elephant in Margate, New Jersey, that's big enough to walk through. Mostly they're things that make me smile.
- Do you participate in a critique group (or have you in the past?) What are the pros and cons of critique groups?
I have in the past. I was part of a group put together through the Guppies, a Sisters in Crime on-line chapter, several years ago. We kind of drifted apart after a year or two, but I'm still in touch with two of the members. I learned a lot, reading the work of other people and getting their feedback. I think that most writers are too close to their own work to be objective, and it's a good idea to test your writing on others—particularly those who are willing to be honest with you—before sending it out into the wider world. The biggest problem I found was that I was usually writing more quickly than the others, so when they were commenting on Chapter 7, I was working on Chapter 15. I think I would have preferred a group that read the whole book at once and could comment on pacing, character development, and the holes in the plot. I've had some first readers since, but not consistently.