Congratulations on publishing your fourth mystery novel. Tell us about HILLTOP SUNSET?
HILLTOP SUNSET introduces the attractive, smart Brynn Bancroft as a protagonist who faces a stalker, a recent divorce, murder, and an unsettling new love affair, while transitioning from financial executive to winemaker. She appeared in my previous three mysteries as a minor character in the role of chief financial officer, secret lover of the chief executive officer, and the boss of Jillian Hillcrest. As her stalker accelerates her efforts to reach Brynn, her new lover embroils her in his own unclear and troubled life. This is the first of three mysteries to feature Brynn. I hasten to add for my Jillian Hillcrest fans, that Jillian hovers in this book; she’s just not the star.
What was the inspiration behind the book?
As with all my mysteries, I drew the crime plot from a real California case, suggested to me by a retired FBI agent who actually helped solve it. I don’t want to tell you too much about it, for fear of “spoiling” the mystery, but it involved an embezzlement at a major company in the San Francisco Bay Area and a murder in the 1980s. As for the characters, such as Jillian Hillcrest and Brynn Bancroft, I created them out of composites of colleagues I knew as a public relations professional for more than 25 years at several biotech and high tech companies in Silicon Valley.
What inspires/motivates you to write?
For me, writing is fun! Writing satisfies me and makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something. When I create characters and envision surroundings and mischief to thwart their progress—out of thin air—well, how could I get more fulfilled! I’m in control. I manipulate their backgrounds, hand out shortcomings, and plot their rescue. And, the more I write fiction, the more stories I visualize. I see them everywhere! As for the discipline of completing a book, well, I’ve worked at writing throughout my career, so I guess it’s just part of my background.
Has your writing process changed from when you first started?
Yes and no. I still base my mysteries on a real case, which I track down before I begin writing. And I still know the opening and concluding scenes before I write. However, in my more recent books I reveal character traits much more slowly, allowing my characters to develop over the pages, and using those traits to move the plot forward. I also enjoy experimenting with various character-driven vs plot-driven approaches, and delight in mixing the two approaches. For example, HILLTOP SUNSET drives the development and transition of Brynn’s character while simultaneously presenting clues and situations to solve a mystery.
Are you a plotter who outlines or a “pantser” who prefers to see where an idea leads you?
For my mysteries, I am mostly a pantser. Before I start writing, I know the crime to be committed and my opening and closing chapters. Often, I will also create a few scenes to help connect the two. But mostly I let my characters take the lead. I do develop fairly lengthy biographies for my characters before beginning to write, so my characters can direct their reactions to situations. Further, the mysteries are set in a world I know, making backstory easier to visualize.
However, I’ve just written the first draft of a new story set in 1939 Ventura, California. Because of the time period, I researched the history and discovered a need to develop a fairly detailed outline of scenes and background to create the period atmosphere. I allowed characters some latitude but had to reign in my narrator who wanted to control the entire story, which is not about her at all, but about the Judge.
Do you ever get writer’s block and how do you get through it?
Sometimes I can’t figure out how to get from one part of a story to another, and I’ll just go ahead and write another part of the book and worry about bridging it later. I find writing any scene helps to trigger ideas for other parts of the book. I also have a rule when in writing mode that I will write a minimum of 3000 words a day, no matter what. It might be trash, which I’ll discard the next day, but that doesn’t matter. It keeps me in the mode, and again often prompts ideas. Finally, when writing, I usually don’t quite finish a scene that I know how it will end. So when I come back to it the next day, I have something to start on without having to think too hard about it, which draws me into the story.
Is there a message in your work that you want to convey to your readers?
I do not start a book with a message in mind. However, my characters often produce statements on values. In HILLTOP SUNSET, Brynn evolves from an emotion-challenged, promiscuous woman to someone who embraces feelings and eventually family and friend relationships. In FAIR DISCLOSURE, one of the characters realizes that to be true to his own code, he has to confess his “unfair” disclosures. The Judge in my next story espouses the value of rehabilitation over punishment of juveniles. But the messages come from the characters, not from me. Well, OK, maybe I do shape them a little!
What books and/or authors have most influenced your life?
Reflecting on this question, I am surprised to discover which books influenced me versus which books I most enjoyed reading. Although I am an avid mystery reader, other than Grisham, they have not influenced my life. I read them purely for entertainment and the pleasure of solving a puzzle. I recall those that influenced me the most when I was in my teens. For example, I read Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, which describes the plight of the few dozen people alive following the devastation of a nuclear war. It made me painfully aware of the threat of nuclear warfare and influenced my career decisions that led to my PhD in international relations. I also wanted to be an attorney based on the many Erle Stanely Garner books about Perry Mason. Studying a law case book for five minutes cured me of that career goal. In more recent years, John Grisham’s The Appeal, about a verdict against a chemical company in Mississippi, caused me to begin to more carefully research the background of judges up for elections.
As for which books influenced my own writing, I’d place To Kill a Mocking Bird at the top of the list. I love the point of view, the hero Atticus Finch, and the way the story is told. James Clavell’s Shogun is my favorite novel largely because of his clever and intricate storylines in medieval Japan that he integrates into a well-played and fascinating fictional chess game.
Now for a little fun, which character (if any) would you most like to invite over to dinner?
I’m assuming you want to know which of my own characters would I invite for dinner. I would enjoy talking with Brynn Bancroft. She overcame a difficult childhood to become a successful executive. She reaches conclusions and takes action based on openness and analysis, not on political or emotional bias. Her focus on sex as a solution to avoid emotions makes her fallible, but intriguing. And her realization of the shortcomings of that approach make her likeable. We would have frank discussions without concern for propriety—and that would be fun!
Can you tell us what is coming up for you and where can we find you online?
I plan to publish two books in 2015—in June/July “The Judge’s Story” set in 1939 Ventura, California and in November, the next Brynn Bancroft mystery. “The Judge’s Story” is the first of a series of books about “Unheralded Heroes.” Although fiction, they will be based on real people who have made a positive difference in our world. The next Brynn Bancroft mystery will start where HILLTOP SUNSET ends, although like all books in the Jillian Hillcrest series, it will be standalone and drawn from a real crime.