Last week I reviewed the debut novel in the new Rock Shop mysteries (click here). Publishers Weekly
calls her novel Stone Cold Dead – A Rock Shop Mystery, an “enjoyable
debut,” and that “readers will look forward to seeing more of this
endearing and strong protagonist.”
This week we feature an interview with the author, Catherine Dilts. To Ms. Dilts, rock shops are like geodes – both contain amazing treasures hidden inside their plain-as-dirt exteriors. Catherine works as an environmental scientist, and plays at heirloom vegetable gardening, camping, and fishing. She has published short fiction in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, but this is her first mystery series. Please welcome Ms. Catherine Dilts to M&MM.
I have been writing stories since I was old enough to hold a pencil. The process of getting that first rough draft down is difficult, yet exciting. During the writing process, I sometimes experience what other writers call being in the zone. I’m completely immersed in my story, and the words seem to flow effortlessly. The feeling is similar to runner’s high. Of course, like running, writing is most often hard work. One my favorite moments is typing “the end,” not because I’m finished, but for the sense of accomplishment. I definitely like the writing. The end product is a bonus.
Part of my motivation is the desire to write the stories I want to read. Another is that I have always loved to read, and writing justifies spending more time in the world of books. There is also the dream that I can eventually quit my day job to write full time.
What is your routine when you're facing your next novel? Do you start your next mystery with the killer, the victim, or a plot idea?
A story or novel begins to form when a snippet of a scene pops into my head. Stone Cold Dead was inspired by a visit to a rock shop, but the scene that got the story rolling came to mind while I was hiking. I felt very alone that day. Having once seen a dog on that trail that strongly resembled a bear, the dangers of hiking went through my mind. I played with several “what if” scenarios, arriving at an encounter with a body. I tried to capture that feeling of vulnerability in my novel.
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 need a road map before I get started. I create a combination outline and timeline. Once I get into the story, I toss my map aside and head cross country. I need to know where I’m going before I can start writing, but at some point the characters take over. What makes sense in the skeletal form of the outline doesn’t work when fleshed out with characters who have their own histories and motivations.
What do you and Morgan Iverson have in common? How are you different?
There are several things I share with my novel’s protagonist. Both Morgan and I experienced dramatic midlife changes, and ended up in places we did not expect. Like Morgan, my children are grown. The transition from mother to a woman free of parenting responsibilities left us both with a case of empty nest syndrome. Also like Morgan, I was wrangled into participating in 5K races in my forties.
Where we differ is that Morgan finds her new life in a rock shop. I threw myself into my writing. I had been writing, on and off, but now I had the time to get serious about getting published. Morgan Iverson is unique character, and the rest of the crew is great as well.
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? How do you handle minor characters?
I have tried creating character biographies in the past, and that just didn’t work for me. I learn who my characters are by putting them in situations and watching what happens. I do keep a spreadsheet with names, ages, occupations, defining physical features, that sort of thing, in an attempt at consistency. I usually develop that as I go.
I have to be careful not to let minor characters run away with the story. They can be fun. Like Del, the old cowboy who hangs around the rock shop. He began as a minor character. By the end of the story, he had grown into a secondary character. Writing short stories has helped me unleash some quirky characters in their own brief tales. If someone demands too much attention, I might move him or her to a short story, like Trudy in my short story Tweens. She was too strong to remain in the background of someone else’s story.
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 work full time. One thing I learned about three years ago is that I cannot afford to place limitations on myself. If I have fifteen minutes to write, I have to use that time whether I am feeling creative or not. If I have to write in the car or in the lunchroom at work, so be it. My happiest writing time was in a tent in the mountains. (see tent photo) In nice weather, I like to sit on the deck with my laptop. Other writers may wait patiently for their muse to inspire them. I have to lasso and hogtie mine.
What is your work schedule like when you're writing and how long does it take you to write a book?
I try to get up early enough on work days to write for a few minutes before heading off to my day job. When I get home, I might work from thirty minutes to two hours or more. Sundays are my best chance for a writing marathon, when I can go for a five or six hour stretch. I keep a writing log, so if I am not spending enough time writing, I will see it. Kind of like the jar idea in your January 3 blog, Ariel. We need to keep track of our goals in concrete ways. Of course, there are interruptions in my schedule. Holidays, family events, home improvement projects. But I try to get back on track as quickly as possible.
What in your background prepared you to write mysteries?
Other than a curious mind, not much. To make up for that lack of training, I attended our county DA’s Citizen’s Academy, and I read writer’s forensics and police procedure books. There are resources galore on the internet, including blogs and loops, from which to learn. And of course writing groups like Mystery Writers of America and Sisters In Crime (SinC).
In literature (not your own) who is your favorite mystery/suspense character?
Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax series was the first to capture my heart. I like characters who are much more than they appear to be on the surface.
Which author has influenced or inspired you the most?
That is impossible to say. I have an English degree with an emphasis on literature. Every author I have read influenced me in some way. I particularly like American authors. I read Moby Dick twice, once for a class, and again for fun. I love the modern Western mystery authors like Margaret Coel, James Doss, and Craig Johnson. There are so many people writing good mysteries set in the American West, I won’t try to start naming them all.
Tell us about your next book in the series - or next project? What is your biggest challenge with it?
I am working on the next book in my rock shop mystery series. Staying true to the tone of book one is my biggest challenge so far. I’m also coming up with enough ideas for three or four books, so I have to stay focused on the main plot, and save some stuff for future books.
My next short story “Tweens” appears in the May issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, which will be available starting February 25.
Do you have a newsletter or blog for readers to stay informed of your news?
My blog is on my website at http://www.catherinedilts.com/
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Thank you Ms. Catherine Dilts for the interview. I too am a Mrs. Pollifax fan and agree on there being so many worthy American West mystery authors!