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Monday, July 11, 2011

Author Interview: Toni Kelner

Today we have award winning author Toni Kelner joining us for an interview.  Ms. Kelner gives us a peek into her writing world and big news concerning her mystery series.  Please welcome Toni Kelner.

- Do you start your next mystery with the killer, the victim or a plot idea?

None of the above.  I start with the characters, usually the main character, and the milieu.  For Blast from the Past, I already had Tilda Harper from the previous books in the series, and I added in a movie production and comic books.  And a bit about kids' TV shows.

- 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 outline only to order, which is to say if the editor requires one.  What I prefer to do is make a bunch of notes, and then as snippets of dialog and scenes come to me, I start putting them down.  When I've got enough snippets, I put them into a new file, order them appropriately, and start filling in the gaps.  It's not very strict organization, obviously.

- I enjoyed Tilda's character.  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 lot of the details, I just develop the character as I write, but I have to "hear" the character's voice before a story or novel comes to life for me.  I'll give an example.  I've just started work on a new series. I was intending to use a young woman character, possibly still in grad school.  So early twenties.  But I just couldn't hear her.  Then my editor suggested an older character, perhaps with a young teenaged daughter, and within a few hours, I could hear them both talking.  Then I came up with a background that fit that voice, using some of the bits I'd been trying to use before, only now they worked.  I don't know how tall she is or what color eyes she has or anything physical, but I'm not worried about that stuff.  It's the voice I need.

-  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 very rarely listen to music while I write.  Blame it on poor hearing combined with too many other people around.  I do have an office with a big desk to work at.  (My husband shares the office, but not the desk.  And definitely not the computer!)

About the only pre-work rituals I have are playing a game or three, either on the game site or on Facebook, and checking e-mail.  But it's hard to say if those are rituals or procrastination.

-  I found the topic of Comic Books and the culture around them fascinating.  What was your inspiration to use Comic books in the story?  What research did you do?

Why comic books?  I just like them.  I read comics as a kid, then picked them up again in college.  (One of my best friends and my then boyfriend were comics readers.)  My husband, daughters, and I like nothing better than a visit to one of our local comic book stores.  The store Tilda goes to--Million Year Picnic in Cambridge, MA--really exists, and the guy Tilda spoke to is the real owner.  (Which reminds me.  I should tell him he's in that book...) 

For research, I did some internet stuff and knew a bit already, but I got the nitty-gritty of indie comics publishing from my long-time friend Jerry Frazee, who published a comic called Nazrat back in the eighties.  (Jerry gets a shout-out in the book, too.)  He told me about the way pages were produced and how the contracts and such worked.

- What is your work schedule like when you're writing and how long does it take you to write a book?

At the beginning of a project, I have a prewriting period where I'm doing research, jotting down notes for scenes and dialog and such, and just getting that all-important voice clear in my head.  The length of prewriting time depends on whether it's a novel or a story, but I do need that time even for the shortest of stories.  Then when I get into first draft mode, I have a word goal per day to meet.  Usually it's around 1000 words a day, but that varies on how late I am on my deadline.  Once the first draft is done, I take a month or more for edits, and to get my beta readers' input.  All in all, it usually takes about 9 months for a novel, though this varies pretty widely.

You see, I'm the stay-at-home parent for two girls with a husband who travels a fair amount for business, and they keep my schedule in a constant state of flux.  As in, "Didn't I tell you I need that book for English tomorrow?" and "Can I have a play date with Liam at our house today?" and "You'll need to take the girls to school next week because I have to go to Berlin."

- What in your background prepared you to write mystery novels?

I guess it was being a technical writer, writing software documentation.  You start out with a mystery:  "What is this product and what does it do?"  You go around to the programmers and question them, just as if you were talking to suspects and witnesses.  Those programmers lie or omit things, just like suspects and witnesses would:  This feature will work by Tuesday, and we aren't going to change any of the field names.  Trust me."  And when it's all done, the result is a piece of fiction.

Otherwise, it's just a matter of loving to read mysteries.

-  Who is your favorite Mystery character? 

Oh, you ask the tough ones!  I'll go with Sherlock Holmes, though Archie Goodwin/Nero Wolfe, Amelia Peabody, and Lord Peter Wimsey are in there, too.

-  Which author has influenced or inspired you the most?

Another toughie, and one that's hard to answer.  Probably Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton.  Not so much in what or how I write, but they were the ones who introduced me to science fiction, which took up the greater part of my reading life for many years.  That lead to wanting to write.  Throw Isaac Asimov in there, too.  His introductory essays in The Early Asimov were the first things I read about writing.  Asimov gave the impression that he thought that if he could learn to write, anybody could.  I figured I was somebody...

The most visible influence those guys have on my writing is probably world-building.  I like writing about worlds-within-worlds:  comic books, movie making, carnivals, and so on.  That translates to my urban fantasy stuff, too.

In mysteries, I pay homage to Dorothy Sayers and Elizabeth Peters and Charlaine Harris and Barbara Paul and Margaret Maron and a never-ending cast of writers who give me inspiration and something to shoot for. 

- How did you get your first break to getting published?  Was it at a writer's conference or mailing a query letter?

The ubiquitous query letter.  I wrote the manuscript that evolved into Down Home Murder, and shopped it around for about a year.  Around the time I was about to give up and stick it in a trunk, the amazingly generous author Sarah Smith offered to read it for me and gave me twelve pages of suggestions.  I didn't take them all, but I did totally rewrite the manuscript.  Then I hit the query trail again, and got an agent with the sixteenth query letter.  (Though if you count the first round, she was actually number sixty.)

Though to be honest, I did publish poetry before that.  I had a dozen limericks published in DRAGON Magazine.

- What are you currently reading?

The Mother Hunt by Rex Stout.  I've read and reread all the Nero Wolfe books many times--they are so much fun.

- What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

I don't write chronologically.  This confounds a lot of other mystery writers, who don't understand how I keep the plot straight in my head.  I think it comes from working with programmers who never developed a product in order.  I had to document what was working first, not what came first.  Similarly, I write what is working for me that day.

-  If your "Where Are They Now?" Mysteries were to be made into a movie, who would you cast in your character's roles?

As it happens, there is an option on the books for a series, and when I met with the producer holding that option, she asked me the same question.  And it was kind of embarrassing to admit that I have no clear idea.

My former agent once suggested Pauley Perrette, who plays Abby Sciuto on NCIS as a good Tilda, and I think she would do a fabulous job.

-  Do you have anything you would like to share about your next book in the series?

Actually, Blast from the Past will be the last in the "Where are they now?" series.  This is both bad and good. 

I really enjoyed writing about Tilda and there are so many more milieus I would like to have explored--I was thinking about voice actors for cartoon series and maybe a cult movie like Rocky Horror Picture Show next, and was hoping to go to Comic-Con and write it all off as research.  But the sales on the books weren't great, so...

The good news is that Berkley Prime Crime and I have just made a deal for "The Family Skeleton" series, in which itinerant college instructor Ruby returns to her family's home and has to confront the family skeleton.  Whose name is Sid.  Unlike most family skeletons, Sid is ambulatory and lives in the attic.  Ruby and Sid team up to solve Sid's murder.

This is all very early and preliminary--up until earlier this week, Ruby was named Georgia and worked as a locksmith--but I can definitely hear Sid talking to me!

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Thank you Ms. Kelner. Great interview.

Oh my gosh - Blast from the Past is the last of the "Where Are They Now" mysteries!  I just got into the series and there are no more to look forward to. But, I will definitely be checking out the new series.

Great news on the option for a TV series - I am looking forward to it. I think Tilda would be great as a TV character.

I found this video featuring Toni as a back up singer along with Charlaine Harris.   Toni is the one with the yellow scarf.  They are called Blue Muse and The Boomettes seen here performing "My Babe" at Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi at the release party for Delta Blues, a short story collection edited by Carolyn Haines.  What a hoot.  I had to share this gem!


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