Usually a plot idea or a storyline comes to me first since my main objective has always been to tell a good story. The characters then seem to fall into place.
- 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?
I make a loose outline of the storyline to help get things straight in my mind. However I’ve discovered that if I write a very detailed outline, the characters end up taking over and changing it dramatically before I finish the manuscript. I have to remain flexible.
- I enjoyed Sadie's character (Lance and Red too). 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?
My characters are made up from a combination of my imagination and people I’ve met in the past. I see their faces and hear their voices in my mind, and allow them to expand their personalities as I write until I know their innermost thoughts.
Sadie’s personality evolved into a person I truly liked in the first book, grew in the second, and continues to do so in the manuscript I am currently working on.
- Native American mysteries often introduce some of the tribe's mysticism as an element to the story. Is there a possibility that the series may feature more Cherokee spiritual elements in future installments?
It’s hard to know where my characters will end up taking the story, so we will see. Some Cherokees believe hearing a hoot owl is a warning of impending death. An event in THE AMERICAN CAFÉ definitely puts Lance on edge because of that belief.
I like to include cultural tidbits in my books such as traditional Cherokee foods and games. I have also included a few Native words, phrases, and songs.
- 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?
I’m a creature of habit. I like to write in the morning after I take a walk and have a light breakfast. If there’s something that needs my attention, I try to take care of it before I start writing, otherwise it will creep into the back of my mind and distract me. We converted the guest bedroom into an office where I enjoy quiet meditative music while I write. I don’t like barking dogs and noisy lawnmowers trespassing in my writing space. I recently kicked out several pages while sitting in a coffee shop, but that’s unusual for me.
- What is your work schedule like when you're writing and how long does it take you to write a book?
When I am working on a project, I try to write something every day. Sometimes that's a lot; sometimes it is not. There are days when other things simply comes first, but when I'm writing I shoot for four to five hours a day. Since THE AMERICAN CAFE was released a few months ago, I have had to divide my time between marketing and writing. I am unable to write much while traveling, but the story never leaves my mind. If I don't have time to write, I take notes. Ideas can be fleeting.
My first book took over two years to write and I finished the second book in about the same amount of time. Of course, once a book is submitted for publication, the process can take between eighteen and twenty months. The huge gap between the publication dates of my first two books had a lot to do with rejections, rewrites, resubmissions, my husband's retirement, quite a bit of traveling, and a couple of long-distance moves. I expect to have my current manuscript finished and ready to submit by the end of the year.
- What in your background prepared you to write mystery novels?
I spent over twenty years in the banking business which translated into Sadie’s career as a banker in my first book, DECEPTION ON ALL ACCOUNTS. It should be no surprise that the book begins with a bank robbery.
I can’t say I was prepared at all to become a writer other than my heart’s desire. My favorite quote is: “Since I have no training, I have no limits,” a statement made about the art of sculpting by Seminole artist, state senator and tribal leader, Enoch Kelly Haney. The only thing I had, and still have, is the desire to tell a good story. My dad was a fiddle player, a fisherman, and the best storyteller I ever knew. He’s passed now, but I think he would like my stories as much as I did his.
- Who is your favorite Mystery character?
Jim Chee. Hillerman’s mysteries took off when he added Chee to his other main character, Leaphorn. The addition of Chee added another dimension, the conflict between performing duties as a tribal police officer and a desire to become a traditional medicine man. Since Hillerman passed a few years ago, I miss both Chee and Leaphorn and wonder what they are up to.
- Which author has influenced or inspired you the most?
My husband introduced me to Tony Hillerman’s mysteries and they have had a huge influence on me as a writer. I gobbled up each one of Hillerman’s mysteries as soon as they were released. I loved his books because they were easy to read and focused on “why” more than “how” which made his mysteries special to me. I always felt like I had learned something when I finished one of his books.
- How did you get your first break to getting published? Was it at a writer's conference or mailing a query letter?
I have never had good experiences talking with agents and editors at writer’s conferences, and perhaps that is due to my own inability to communicate a good sales pitch. It was at a gathering of Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers in Norman, Oklahoma, that gave me my first break. I made contact with another author who won that year’s Writer of the Year Award. He graciously shared the name of his editor at the University of Arizona Press and suggested I contact her. They had published his fiction book and he thought they might be interested in mine. As it turned out, they liked my book because it reflected current day Native life, included realistic characters, and was void of stereotypes that are prevalent in today's stories about American Indians. It was a good fit. They have been wonderful to work with on both of my books.
- What are you currently reading?
I recently finished The Spider’s Web by Margaret Coel. I love her books. She writes about the Arapaho on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. She has a new release coming out in September, Watching Eagles Soar: Stories from the Wind River and Beyond, and I can’t wait to get it.
I’m getting ready to start reading To Fetch a Thief, A Chet and Bernie Mystery by Spencer Quinn. I really enjoy these mysteries written from the dog’s point of view.
Another book I’ve acquired to read is Broken, a non-fiction book by Lisa Jones. It is her personal story about an Arapaho medicine man, a quadriplegic and gifted horse trainer and his effect on animals.
- What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
When I was working on my first manuscript, I read about a fire that destroyed a couple’s home while they were away on vacation. The homeowners were writers, and both lost all of the work they had stored on their home computer. Since then, I backup my current work-in-progress on memory sticks and rotate them one at a time to the bank safe deposit box on a regular basis. It's a little overkill, but it gives me peace of mind.
- If your Sadie Walela Mysteries were to be made into a movie, who would you cast in your character's roles?
Cherokee actress DeLanna Studi would make an excellent Sadie. I think Lance should be played by Adam Beach.
- Do you have anything you would like to share about your next book in the series? We hope we don't have to wait as long as the break between book one and two.
I’m currently working on the third book in the series. Sadie has to find a missing elderly Cherokee neighbor, Buck Skinner, who has become the main suspect in the murder of an identity thief. To sort out the details of Buck’s dilemma and clear his name, Sadie and Lance have to reach into the past to another place and time to uncover the truth. Working title is Giggle Hill.
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Thank you so very much Sara for that great interview! I am eagerly awaiting Sadie's next adventure. I agree with you on Jim Chee, he is my favorite of the series too.