Interview with

MLC: What did you do for a living before writing mysteries?

AUTHOR: I wrote biography articles for national magazines – pieces on people like English Writers Malcolm Muggeridge and Nikolai Tolstoy, as well as Bob Woodson (Founder of The National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise), and many inventors and business people.

Before that, after having studied literature, speech and history at a lot of colleges, I did whatever work I could find on Cape Cod to put my husband through graduate school in marine biology. I was just about to take a job in a gourmet cheese store (which I was actually looking forward to) when we moved back to Ohio.

I raised kids while I wrote articles, and my first three books – none were mysteries, and none were published (though the non-fiction work, Overcoming Fate: Sagas of Self-Determination, about successful self-employed writers, inventors and entrepreneurs who’d overcome severe adversity, should be, once I have time to revise it).

MLC: What's your average day like?

AUTHOR: Monday through Friday I get up about 6:30, eat breakfast and read books that start me off well for the day, thinking about something besides myself. I often lie down again for half an hour and read something fun, then get dressed, clean up the kitchen, and go to work between 8:00 and 8:30.

I eat lunch, then read for the rest of my lunch hour in the winter, or work in the garden in the summer. I sometimes work in the garden after breakfast for a few minutes in the summer too. I write till 4:30 or so (unless I’m turning something around fast for an editor, when I’ll work a lot longer). I go see my horse, on a good day, or ride on an even better one.

(If anybody had told me when I was 20, I’d ever have anything like a schedule I wouldn’t have believed it . . . but then I didn’t get much done then, not like I do now.)

My 97 year old mother lives next to me, and she, and her care givers, take time as well.

MLC: Do you have pets?

AUTHOR: We have an outside cat who was born here and is very gentle and fun. (Her house is in the garage, and she’s got a heated bed in the winter. Our son’s allergic to cats, so she can’t live inside.) We had Maggie, the boxer, for 11 years, and she was the best dog we ever had. She’s been dead two years, and we’ll be getting a boxer puppy in the fall. We’ve had lots of rescue dogs, but this one will be from a litter with a mother we think is related to Maggie who had the perfect temperament for us.

Last summer, I had to put Max down, my 31-year-old one-eyed horse. I then got Holly (whom I didn’t name) who was then a 5-year-old mare. Sally, who may be too old for this, is having to learn how to deal with a 1200 pound teenaged redhead who definitely has moods. Buying Holly may not be the smartest move I’ve ever made . . . though . . . still . . . she usually means well.

MLC: Are you a morning person or a night owl?

AUTHOR: By nature I’m a night owl, but I couldn’t raise kids and stay that way. There’s too much work I want to get done during the day now too for me to revert. If I did what comes naturally, I’d never see my husband awake either, for he really is a morning person, and I’d rather talk to him than sleep. (Though I suppose that if that went on long enough, I might have to reconsider.)

MLC: What groups are you a member of that you feel are important for you as a writer?

AUTHOR: I’m not much of a joiner. I belong to Mystery Writers of America, Sisters In Crime, and the Murder Must Advertise e-mail group. I’m sure there’ve been benefits from all of them, but I probably don’t get what I could out of any since I’m a natural born loner who tends not to get too involved in groups.

MLC: When did you start writing?

AUTHOR: When I was six. I had to go to the office with my mom at my parents’ ma and pa business. I was very lucky to have a family that read to me, and I’d started writing tacky little stories in long hand. My mom then gave me the portable typewriter (when she wasn’t using it) and a touch typing chart, and I taught myself to type. Necessity really can be the mother of invention. My first mystery, written as a play, The Case of the White Buddha, was produced in the 5th grade by the one great elementary school teacher I was fortunate enough to have.

MLC: Have you taught writing classes?

AUTHOR: No, but I’m about to. I’m going to be teaching several topics, primarily mystery writing, at the Midwest Writers Workshop in Muncie, Indiana the last week in July.

MLC: Have you taken writing classes?

AUTHOR: I took a creative writing class at Northwestern University in 1969 with a well- known elderly writing professor named Hungerford who was said to have been instrumental in Saul Bellow’s development. I was in my intensely Dylanesque phase, and Dr. Hungerford kept telling me not to mix metaphors. I kept telling him that I was doing that deliberately to get at a new way of seeing something when two opposing descriptions are juxtaposed. I wasn’t disciplined then either, and I don’t think we appreciated each other the way we might have if I’d been older.

MLC: What are your views on critique groups?

AUTHOR: I think they work well for lots of people. They might work well for me, but I’ve never joined one. I write the way it seems reasonable to me to do whatever it is, then expect my agent and editors to tell me what I don’t want to hear.

MLC: What is your favorite subgenre of mysteries?

AUTHOR: British traditional mysteries.

MLC: What has been your biggest challenge in being published?

AUTHOR: Well . . . it took 17 years – three agents, and two other contracts that went nowhere, before I was actually published. Then there was getting a mass market publisher, and getting reviewed too (both of which happened more easily than they could have by a lot). Next, there was finding a new publisher for the Ben Reese books when my editors at my trade paper and mass market publishers both left, and the other NY houses wanted a new series, not books in a series they didn’t own. It’s not a typical industry. There are many business policies that developed over the years that are quite unlike the way most businesses make decisions. I’m fortunate to be able to write what I want to write and still get published.

MLC: Why did you decide to write the mysteries you're writing?

AUTHOR: I knew a real life university archivist who eventually told me he’d been a behind-the-line scout in WWII. I immediately knew that if I ever wrote a mystery novel, that would be the character for me – a citizen soldier, a man of intellect, who became a man of action and did what he thought was right in a war he believed was justified, but came home severely wounded and made a new life for himself that builds and contributes and creates.

Using an archivist as a character, I can study and write about more or less anything, since archivists learn about whatever’s in their archives, or what donors give their schools. He can travel anywhere while he works - keeping me from being stuck in one college setting with one set of people, which would’ve bored me to tears. I don’t do well with boredom in general, and since I find almost everything interesting, research is fun for me.

MLC: How did you choose the setting for your mysteries?

AUTHOR: There are several settings, depending on the book. I love Scotland and England, and the first three books take place in one or both (though the first, Publish And Perish, is more here in a fictional Ohio town than there). Pride And Predator takes place in the highlands of Scotland and on Holy Island off the coast of England. Pursuit And Persuasion is set in several parts of Scotland, as well as in Oxford, England. I love lots of places in the US too, and Out Of The Ruins is set on our Southern Atlantic coast – Cumberland Island, Savannah, Charleston, Beaufort, South Carolina. I love the area around Lexington, Kentucky, and I wanted to write about Tuscany some time too, so I placed Watches Of The Night in both, as well as Ohio and Woodstock, New York. I came up with a story that was partly placed in Tuscany, then went there to learn what I needed to tie-up the plot. Settings are a huge part of the books for me. They influence the story and the characters. And since I want the books to be fun for the readers, while they learn and think and feel something that I hope may be useful, the settings allow readers to go somewhere interesting they may not have been.

MLC: What was the inspiration for your mysteries?

AUTHOR: The real life archivist/scout, as I mentioned before. And Dick Francis’ mysteries, in the sense that they’ve always got horses in them the way mine do, and also talk about careers or professions in some detail. The traditional British mystery has been very influential too - Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, P.D. James, Agatha Christie, and Ngaio Marsh - those six in particular. Jane Austen’s influenced me, certainly, as has C.S. Lewis - perhaps above all. He showed me I could talk about something that’s of real ultimate importance for us as human beings in genre fiction the way he did it in The Chronicles of Narnia, and his science fiction trilogy. He made me think it could be done in mystery novels as well, when you’re already talking about death and justice and the choices we have about how we act and react.

MLC: What writers have inspired you?

AUTHOR: Plenty. All the ones I mention above, plus Tolstoy, for sure, and Samuel Johnson and a whole lot of others. Shakespeare. Bob Dylan. Daphne du Maurier. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. See my website, for deeper discussions of my books and other writers.

MLC: How do you come up with your plot ideas for your mysteries?

AUTHOR: Lots of ways. They often grow out of questions. “If there was someone alone on an island, how could you kill him?” (Pride And Predator). “What would actually lead to murder in a real academic community?” (Sally’s answer, “Pride and ego and concern with reputation,” as in Publish And Perish.) “What kind of plot would allow me to get taught stone sculpting and work with falcons, and have its denouement in the ruins of Donnottar Castle in Scotland?” (Pursuit And Persuasion). Out Of The Ruins came from asking, “How could I talk about the wonderful wildness of the privately owned Cumberland Island, which was then threatened by both developers and the federal government’s plan to condemn the land and make it a park, and look at human nature too, as it deals with serious illness like MS?” In Watches Of The Night I wanted to study the American Tech Teams we sent into German territory to look for Nazi science, and also study battle fatigue, and let Ben get to know Kate better, while showing him during the war, and introducing the woman he’d married and mourned in the first four books. In Code Of Silence (the sixth book, which will come out in Britain this fall and in the US in early December), once I’d learned about the findings of our Soviet Venona Code decyptions, there wasn’t much else I wanted to write about. I also wanted to do a prequel to the series so readers would get to know Ben’s wife for themselves, instead of simply his memories of her (while I got to write about Richard West again, who was only in Publish And Perish).

MLC: How do you research for your mysteries? How long does it take?

AUTHOR: It usually takes a year. I read a whole lot of stuff – site related material, time frame material (the early 60s when the books take place, and the times and locations from earlier ages, which the plots have always grown out of), what the books and food and fads and politics and movies (and whatever else) were important at that time in those locations. I interview all kinds of people about their areas of expertise, get lots of help from librarians and archivists – then do plenty of hands-on on-site research and interviewing (which changes the characters, the story and me).

MLC: Is the setting of your mysteries imaginary or real? Why?

AUTHOR: There’re lots of real locations (as you’ll have seen from earlier answers), as well as fictional locations. The reasons depend on the specific books and their requirements. Ben’s house in fictional Hillsdale, Ohio in books 1-5 is virtually the house of long-dead, husband and wife college professors I knew as a child. That house was very important to me, and it was visually very interesting, and it’s imprinted in my memory in such a way that I wanted it to become Ben’s. I like using both real and imaginary settings. It depends on what’s most suitable for what. The real locations give me ideas I wouldn’t have on my own . . . but then the imaginary places give me ideas too. I’ve put my own first two horses in my books as well. My rescue horse, Cooper, became Ben’s horse Journey. My favorite horse, Max, whose eye had to be removed, was mine for 17 years. His physical vicissitudes are an important part of Watches Of The Night. I guess I did that in order to honor Max. He was a great example of horse - and human - nature in dealing with pain and suffering and the people trying to help.

MLC: Do you live where you set your mysteries?

AUTHOR: No. But I often wish I did.

MLC: Tell us about your latest mystery.

AUTHOR: Well, Watches Of The Night is the first Ben Reese mystery to have direct scenes from World War II. They’re shown as flashbacks from the rest of the plot, which takes place in late 1961 and early 1962. The plot is driven by two events that are based on real history. The US and Britain sometimes sent scientific tech teams after the front line troops in Europe to search for Nazi science. They less frequently had behind-the-lines scouts lead tech teams into German occupied territory in front of our own troops. Ben Reese takes such a team into Germany just after the Battle of the Bulge in Watches. What occurred during that raid has bothered Ben since the war.

Real life US Dead Letter post offices also play their part in the plot. Postal workers are not allowed to open damaged or improperly addressed letters or packages, and there have been occasions when workers have been so driven to deliver something they’ve been working on for years, that they keep on tirelessly after they retire. I have one such worker deliver a package to Kate Lindsay, a nurse Ben met in Wales during the war, when he’d been the best man at her wedding. Her Scottish husband had been killed at the Battle of Arnhem, and a grisly damaged package related to him, was delivered to her parents home at the end of Out Of The Ruins (Ben Reese #4). The contents of the package, and questions about who could have sent it, lead Kate and Ben in Watches to search for a WWII medic in Scotland in 1962 –just after his death.

The book ends in Tuscany where only Ben can keep Kate alive and stop the American scientist who’s haunted Ben since the war.


E-mail address:

Blog: I’ve written two essays for, three essays for Mystery Readers Journal, and a piece on Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, for Mystery Muses: 100 Classics That Inspire Today’s Writers