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Monday, December 17, 2012

Author Interview - Juliet Blackwell

Juliet Blackwell is one of my favorite cozy mystery authors, and she was one of the first to give me an interview when I first started my blog (click here)!  She is the NYT bestselling author of the Haunted Home Renovation mystery series (If Walls Could Talk (click here), Dead Bolt (click here), Murder on the House (I will be reviewing soon)) and the Witchcraft mystery series (Secondhand Spirits (click here), A Cast-off Coven (click here), Hexes and Hemlines (click here), In a Witch’s Wardrobe (click here)).  As Hailey Lind, Juliet penned the Art Lover’s Mystery series (click here), including Agatha-nominated Feint of Art. 

A former anthropologist and social worker, Juliet has worked and studied in Mexico, Spain, Cuba, Italy, the Philippines, and France. She now lives in a happily haunted house in Oakland, California, where she is a muralist and portrait painter. She was a two-term president of Northern California Sisters in Crime.

Why do you write? Do you love it or love having done it? What motivates you?

Well, I certainly love “having done it”!  There’s nothing quite like the feeling of holding one’s own published book in one’s hand…it’s an amazing sense of accomplishment.  As an avid reader myself, it’s such a thrill to see my book on the shelf, next to my favorite authors!

But I also love the process of writing.  If I didn’t, I wouldn’t continue with this job– it’s not the easiest way to make a living.  Most of writing is hard work. It can be difficult – nearly impossible—to be creative-on-demand, but deadlines must be met.  The pay is low, the hours long, and we develop carpal-tunnel syndrome and neck-aches and backaches…and YET it’s the best job in the world! I adore spending so much time in my own head, with my characters, spinning tales, setting different scenes, and fashioning distinct scenarios. For months at a time, it’s just me and the world I’ve built…it’s addicting! 

And the absolute BEST part is when the story seems to take off without me.  It can feel as though I’m channeling my characters; in fact, the whole invented world.  Hours can fly by without my realizing it, because I’m so caught up in the story.  I am also a painter, so I recognize the feeling as that of tapping into my creativity without constraint…and boy, is that addictive!  It’s like a writer’s high

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?

I don’t actually have a routine; it’s different for each book. I get a lot of ideas when I read the news, or while I’m researching ghost stories and the like.  For instance, recently I was noticing how often bodies are found, naturally mummified, in buildings that have been foreclosed upon.  Disturbing…and yet strangely fascinating for someone who writes about haunted homes! 

But one of the great things about writing series fiction is that the characters are set up in the first novel of the series, and then develop from there.  They often inform the plot, since they react in specific manners to the challenges they’ll be facing.  And every once in a while I’ll run into someone who makes me think: “He would make a great victim” or “She would make a great villain”.  I love incorporating bits and pieces of daily life into my stories.

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’m more a “seat of my pants” author, because I love to let the story flow and develop organically.  That said, I usually have a good synopsis of the book ahead of time, including the main crime, the victim, and the killer.  This doesn’t mean that all of that –especially the killer!—might not change as I write, but I like to start with some set ideas. 

My newest writing technique is that after the first rough draft I write a sort of backwards outline, working from the finished story.  As I look at that skeleton I can more clearly see where the story might need more action, or where to insert clues, that sort of thing.  It has been working well for me!

Mel Turner (Haunted Home Renovation Mysteries) and Lily Ivory (Witchcraft Mysteries)  are each unique and interesting characters, 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’m all about developing characters – they are, by far, my most favorite part of any story. My main characters almost always just come to me as I write, and yes, they do “tell me about themselves” as I am progressing in the story!  In writing workshops I tell students that if they’ve reached a point in their novel where action just stops, it’s often because they are trying to force a character to do something s/he wouldn’t do.  It’s amazing how characters can come alive, and put on the brakes when they’re not comfortable! 

It’s crucial to have a developed backstory for one’s characters.  They need to be rounded and three-dimensional, and real humans base much of their perspective on the world and their actions on their past experiences.  So whether or not that backstory comes out in the novel, it makes a difference in how they react to the situations at hand.  I think about own life, and people I’ve known, good friends and family…and I extract my characters from all of those real-life personages.

For the minor and secondary characters I often cut pictures from magazines and make a collage to refer to as I write.  That way I can remember each one of them visually, as one might see minor characters walking on and off the screen in a movie.  I think that makes the descriptions richer, even when they’re concise.

What do you and Mel Turner (Haunted Home Renovation Mysteries) and Lily Ivory (Witchcraft Mysteries) have in common? How are you different?

Mel and I have a good deal in common-- I have to remind my friends and family often that “she’s not ME!”  But it’s true that Mel’s dad is based on mine, her stepson is inspired by my son, and the dog is basically my dog.  Also, I worked on construction sites for many years as a decorative painter, so the situations Mel finds herself in are usually based on houses I worked on, and the clients are often taken from true experiences.

Lily (from the Witchcraft series) and I have less in common, yet ultimately I have no doubt that ALL characters share something with their authors.  Obviously, I am reaching into part of me to develop Lily, even though she is a natural-born witch, whereas I am not.  But she is from West Texas, from a town inspired by my grandfather’s home town (my mother’s huge family is Texan to the core!)  And I’ve given her many attributes of powerful, magical women I met over the years when I was working as an anthropologist.  I was able to meet healers of all types when I studied and taught medical anthropology, and Lily has a bit of many of them folded in to her.  Finally, my favorite aunt used to read cards and tea leaves, and my mother-in-law is from a small village in Mexico and is a font of great knowledge regarding botanicals, and has a magical view of the world.  So they’re all part of Lily!

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 used to be much pickier about my writing surroundings, and my favorite place to write is still an alcove off my bedroom, which is on the second story and overlooks a huge oak tree. I feel far from the world there, safe to go on my creative journeys!  But I travel so much these days that I’ve gotten better at writing no matter where I am: on airplanes, at conferences, when I’m visiting my dad, while on book tours…it really is my job, so I sit down and write every day, pretty much no matter what.

What is your work schedule like when you're writing and how long does it take you to write a book?  How has writing two mystery series simultaneously impacted your schedule?

My books come out once a year, each series every six months.  So I write Lily for six months, and Mel for the next six.  As I mentioned above, I write pretty much every day, a minimum of two thousand words when I’m writing the rough draft.  And then there’s editing, of course, and re-writing, and research, and thinking through plot, and finessing the language and style… Writing two books a year -- along with conferences and teaching and appearances and social media and other promotions-- means that I have to be sure not to fall behind, because I’d never catch up!  I think some people are surprised to see how businesslike I am about getting my words done, but my fellow authors know the feeling, I’m sure. 

How did you pick your setting and how do you like to interject a sense of place? 

I stick to San Francisco because I know it well – and also because it is such a quirky, interesting, diverse city!  It really does become like a character in its own right.  I like to introduce people to the parts of the city tourists don’t often see:  the rundown areas, the ethnic enclaves and distinct neighborhoods that make San Francisco so interesting.  In the case of the Haunted Home Renovation books, the architecture of the city is front and center, which I thoroughly enjoy.

What in your background prepared you to write mysteries?

I read!  Like a fiend. As a girl I read all the time, favoring Trixie Beldon and the Three Investigators– both are mystery series written for young people.  As I grew, I kept reading, and no matter what I was doing through the years –anthropology or social work or painting –I always had a book in my bag.  Finally, I thought I’d try my hand at it – and I didn’t give up until I had a full manuscript, which became my first book, FEINT OF ART under the name Hailey Lind.

In literature (not your own) who is your favorite mystery/suspense character?

Vicky Bliss, of the Vicky Bliss mysteries by Elizabeth Peters.  Right after I graduated from Young Adult fiction to grown-up mysteries, I stumbled up on Elizabeth Peters, who also writes paranormal mysteries under the name Barbara Michaels.  Vicky Bliss is educated, sassy, smart, strong, and funny.  She was a wonderful role model.

Which author has influenced or inspired you the most?

Ha!  Given what I just wrote above, I guess I have to say Elizabeth Peters!  Seriously, since I read (and loved) her so early in life, she was a huge influence on me.  She has a wonderful way of telling a story, and her plots are smart and adventurous, and usually center around items of historical value.

What's the one thing a reader has said that you've never forgotten and perhaps found startling?

Several readers have told me my books are their “sick” read –they read them while in bed with a cold, in the hospital, or recovering from surgery.  I’m not absolutely sure what that says about my writing, but I’ve decided to take it as a compliment!

Tell us your thoughts on the growing genre of paranormal mysteries and its popularity (i.e. is it here to stay or a fad, is it pushing the mystery genre envelope etc?)

I mentioned Barbara Michaels earlier, and I’d like to bring her up again, because she was writing paranormal mysteries in the 1970s and 80s.  Though there weren’t a lot of other authors writing in the genre at the time, I’m sure she’s not the only example from the era.  The fascination with paranormal themes is not new – in fact, we could look back at the tales of Dracula and Frankenstein to show that interest has run deep for a long time.  In the mystery genre, I think it’s only natural authors would start incorporating paranormal themes since they are, almost by definition, cloaked in mystery!  Whether or not you really believe in ghosts or the supernatural, they lend themselves to murder mysteries because they bring in that extra element of surprise and the unknown.

Tell us about your next book in the series - or next project?  What is your biggest challenge with it? 

At the moment I’m writing the fourth in the Haunted Home series, called Home for the Haunting (to be released December, 2013).  I’m enjoying the story because it is based on a volunteer renovation project for the elderly and disabled I participated in for many years – I often base my novels in stories from my past, and it’s fun to visit those memories and incorporate some of the funny experiences into Mel’s world. My biggest challenge at the moment is finishing it during the holidays! 

The next book to be released after Murder on the House will be Tarnished and Torn, the fifth in the Witchcraft Mystery series, which comes out July 3, 2013. In it, Lily is on the trail of a magical fire opal talisman…the story was great fun to write because I got to learn all about opals!

Do you have a newsletter or blog for readers to stay informed of your news? 

I do!  Visit me at;; and Twitter @JulietBlackwell.  Also, if readers put their name on my mailing list (on the contact page of my website), I send out  

newsletters from time to time.


Thank you Ms. Blackwell for that great interview.  I think the people turning to your book when they are sick is definitely a compliment.  It is comfort reading that gets their mind off being sick - like comfort food.  I have not read any Barbara Michaels, so I have a new author to check out.  They do sound great.

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