KEITH FINNEY – Trained as a carpenter, ran his own furniture-making business by age twenty-two, and later became a college lecturer. His career highlight (to date) involved travelling the world on ocean liners, teaching supervisory staff, and being seasick on every voyage – Following further promotions, Keith retired from his post as an assistant principal of a large college several years ago and is now an author and proud grandad to five adorable kids.
A Deadly Mistake: Vicar’s daughter Anna Grix and American Lieutenant Eddie Elsner investigate a suspicious death. Before they’re done, others will die, changing Anna and Eddie’s life forever.
There’s something about writing that I find incredibly motivating. To start the day with a blank computer screen, create stuff that didn’t exist before. Then a few months later, push the ‘publish’ button on a distribution platform and see readers buying your creation. How cool is that?
I wrote my first book over thirty-five years ago. Handwritten, it’s still in the (much faded) blue folder I placed it in around 1985. I’ll occasionally peek at it, although my handwriting has changed so much over the years, I can hardly read it now! The thing is, I hadn’t a clue what to do with it at the time and soon went into teaching. It’s languished in a variety of cupboards over the years as I moved around England, building my college career.
In 2013, I discovered Amazon KDP and decided to have another go. I wrote a series of short stories under a pen name (I wasn’t brave enough to use my own!). One of those books immediately became a best seller in its category and remained so for eighteen months. ‘This is easy,’ I thought. Of course, that was nonsense, and repeating my early success proved elusive, to say the least.
Move forward a year or so, and I published a trilogy of books in a different genre under a new pen name (see, still not confident to use my real name) – and paid the price of not getting a development editor to look over the manuscripts. I also made a crucial error in tinkering with the text after my chosen proofreader corrected the original manuscript. As all authors know, Amazon reviewers can be a ruthless lot. Disheartened, I unpublished the series and stopped writing for a couple of years.
In 2017, I decided to make a final attempt, but this time be better prepared. I spent time reverse engineering the books of several best-sellers in my chosen genre, then subscribed to a training programme put together by a UK/US best-selling author and trainer (he still is) and basically learned how to put an engaging book together.
The result? The creation of my ‘Norfolk Cozy Mystery’ series, with six published to date and more planned this year. The success of that series (in the UK at least!) led to an email from London publishing house, Lume Books. They commissioned me to write a three-book series of cozy mysteries set in WWII, England, which features vicar’s daughter, Anna Grix, and American Lieutenant Eddie Elsner. And so, the ‘Lipton St Faith’ mysteries were born, the final title, ‘A Deadly Mistake,’ is published this very day (20th Jan 2022).
My new self-published series, ‘Rex and the Dowager, is now live with the first book, ‘A Posh Murder‘ remaining popular and second title, ‘A Spiffing Murder,’ slated for publication in early April. Set in 1920’s England, the cozy crime novels revolve around the interaction of the three lead protagonists, the Dowager Duchess of Drakeford (esteemed amateur sleuth in aristocratic circles), her young ward, Rex Sutherland, and wily old Detective Inspector Whipple of Scotland Yard. I adore the historical aspect of the tales and using a form of language that has mostly disappeared from everyday usage.
Tell us about your writing process. I’m very much a morning person, so I aim to get my word count in by lunch. When I’m in full flow, I aim for around 3,000 words a day, although I don’t beat myself up if it’s less.
Do you outline, or are you a punster? In the main, I prefer to outline. The issue is that I tend to put too much detail into the plotting. While this makes writing each chapter relatively quick, the downside is that plotting a new novel can go on for weeks and weeks, which drives me nuts. So, I generally start by plotting the first few chapters in detail but then allow the characters to drive the mystery – now we’re in the tricky realm of plotting and pansterism running side by side! However, I make sure to pin down who the main antagonist is, the red-herring characters, and the means by which the bodies are ‘bumped off’ so that I don’t drift too much and can resolve all the story lines by the time I type ‘END.’
What obstacles do you face when writing about historical figures? It’s not just the people. I like to include real locations/events. I use these to ‘anchor’ the mystery in terms of time and place. I love doing the research but have to be disciplined in not turning a light-hearted cozy mystery into a treatise on English history! There’s also a real danger that my readers know more about the subject than I do. For example, I outlined a train journey in my first ‘Rex and the Dowager’ book, only for a reader to inform me that in 1922 the train route did not exist… and told me how to correct the passage!
Looking to the future, what’s in store for you? I’ve just commissioned a narrator for ‘A Posh Murder’ and am excited by what I’ve heard so far. If it goes well, there will be more audiobooks as the year progresses. My other focus for 2022 is to write at least one additional title in my ‘Norfolk Cozy Mysteries’ series and books two and three featuring Rex, the Dowager, and Whipple of the Yard!
Do you have any advice for new writers? I’m hesitant to give advice to budding authors, so what follows is simply borne from my own experience.
Don’t spend money on every ‘new shiny object.’ If you need help with self-publishing, jump in and invest in Mark Dawson’s 101training (not an affiliate link!). It’s expensive, but you can pay monthly. The modules teach you all you need to know – and hopefully stop you from making the expensive mistakes I’ve made over the years.
Self-publishing does not offer ‘the cheap option’ in getting yourself ‘out there,’ but it is the most democratic. Write about something you like, use a pen name if you’re nervous about revealing yourself to the world, and upload to Amazon KDP or one of the other platforms. The learning curve is steep but to use an old cliche (which, of course, we never employ in our writing!) ‘You can’t start until you start.’
Spirits and Sourdough is tenth in the Magical Bakery Mystery series. When hedgewitch Katie Lightfoot takes a ghost tour in Savannah, Georgia, the psychic tour guide tells her that she’s being followed by the spirit of a recently murdered woman. Katie knew the victim and understands she must bring the killer to justice.
Bailey Cates writes the New York Times bestselling Magical Bakery Mysteries. As Bailey Cattrell, she also writes the Enchanted Garden Mysteries featuring aromatherapist Elliana Allbright. Bailey writes, gardens, cooks, and hikes in northern Colorado, where she lives with her guy and Cheesecat the Orange.
Don’t Do What I Do: Confessions of an Outlining Pantster – Sort of.
Thank you for inviting me to your blog, George!
One of the most asked questions authors receive is about writing process. We are always seeking that perfect process to plug our creativity into, and heaven knows there are plenty of books offering the right way to do it.
This is not the right way to do it.
After twenty books, I’ve honed my writing process into a weird jumble of techniques that I don’t recommend to anyone. I honestly wish I could make one of the many logical methods out there work for me. But: nope. Mine goes like this.
First, I either already know or develop the main character. In the series, I write I know her and her cohort pretty well by now. So next, I play around with the circumstances around the murder, the reason the protagonist will get involved, who the victim is, and who the suspects might be. Usually, I don’t have names at this point, except for the recurring characters, but occasionally I know the victim’s name right off. That’s usually a good sign because it tells me more of the story than usual is lurking around in the back of my brain.
Then, I stew a bit. I take walks and clean the house and garden … and stew. What theme might distill out of this situation? What subplots might fit, and how could they connect to the main plot? How can the protagonist grow in this story? And perhaps most importantly, what are the characters’ secrets – victim, killer, and suspects. I take a bunch of notes at this stage, and there is a blizzard of post-its around my desk, so at some point, I collate everything and map out the first third of the book on index cards stuck to a twelve-foot length of craft paper tacked on my office wall. Higher tension scenes are physically higher on this storyboard, so I can judge pacing. I keep track of each day in the book on this storyboard, color code subplots, and plug in things I know about later in the book – like if I know where the climax will take place, or what the subclimax will involve – and at the edge of the board, I keep a running list of loose ends that must be resolved by the end of the book. By this time, I’ve figured out how to start the book, usually during a nice long walk. I start writing, even though I only have the first third of the book worked out in any detail.
As I write, I mark places where I need to research with xxx. On days when the writing feels like throwing bricks at the computer screen, I’ll take a break and peruse books, make calls, and search the Internet to fill in all those details.
As I approach the end of the first third of the book, what comes next, or things that need follow up, make their way into the gradually fleshed-out second act on the storyboard. That act usually ends a bit more than two-thirds through the book. It culminates with some kind of excitement/threat/revelation that serves as a sub-climax before a brief rest in the pace before ramping up for the final climax and capture of the murderer.
By the time I get to the climax, I’m not even bothering to put more index cards on the storyboard – my tidy storyboard just kind of trails off as I get toward the end. I know what’s coming, at least in a general sense, and ride that momentum.
Sometimes I know who the killer is right off, in the very first stages of putting the story elements together in my mind. However, there are times when I don’t know for sure who did it, only that there are some very good suspects to sift through. As I get to know them better – and their secrets – I figure out who the killer is.
As unorganized and random as that method sounds, I approach scenes in a similar way. Only, perhaps a bit more organized. I cluster, or mind map, each scene before I write it. The scene concept goes in the middle, and I start adding bubbles around it. I note the setting, any descriptions, cause, and effect, working it all out in a nonlinear way. Then, I make it linear by taking a highlighter and connecting the bubbles in the order I want to use them in the scene. So, it’s kind of a scene outline, albeit a weird one, and I do it for nearly all scenes after I get the first twenty pages of the book down.
Finally, I have a few rules I try to stick by for each book.
- At least two subplots.
- Each subplot has at least three scenes (those scenes might involve the main plot as well).
- If a character has a name, they have to appear, or be referenced, at least three times.
- The baking/cooking and magic are sprinkled liberally and deliberately throughout each book. I keep track of their regularity on the storyboard, adding wherever those elements seem light.
- I try not to have character names that start with the same letter, especially if they are going to be in several scenes together because it can be confusing to the reader.
- Of course, you can only have so many Zoes or Zacks or Yvonnes, so I sometimes mine unusual names that will stick in the reader’s mind as distinct. My best source is old movie credits.
- At least one recipe at the back of the book reflects the pastry in the title of the book.
However, as I write this, I realize I didn’t put a recipe for sourdough in the back of Spirits and Sourdough! The blood-orange thyme cake is to die for, though.
You can find out more about me, my books, and the recipes in the back of them at www.baileycates.com.
Harini Nagendra is a Professor of Sustainability at Azim Premji University, Bangalore, India, and has written several non-fiction books, including the award-winning Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities. The Bangalore Detectives Club, the first book in the Detective Kaveri mysteries, is her first novel. She lives in Bangalore with her family.
The Bangalore Detectives Club is the first in a charming, joyful, cozy crime series set in 1920s Bangalore, featuring sari-wearing detective Kaveri and her husband, Ramu. Solving crimes isn’t easy. Add a new marriage and a jealous mother-in-law into the mix, and you’ve got a problem. But Kaveri finds nothing is too difficult – not when you have a talent for math, a head for logic, and a doctor for a husband.
Do you write in more than one genre? Yes, I have written several popular non-fiction books on nature and the environment – part of my day job as an ecologist and university professor. I also write a regular monthly Sunday newspaper column. Writing non-fiction is a very different process – I write tight, to a specified word count, and need to make every word count. I need to switch off my non-fiction voice very firmly in order to write fiction, or else I can never get going!
What brought you to writing? From when I can remember, I’ve always written – at first, short stories for school newsletters, then a small ‘book’ for my father when he was living in a different city for a while. Writing is a huge stress-buster for me and one of the things I love doing the most.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? I write anywhere and everywhere, but my favourite writing spot is on an old couch in my bedroom. I drink copious amounts of tea as I write – Indian masala tea, or chai, with milk and many spoons of sugar. When I’m especially stuck, I ask Alexa to play old Indian movie songs – period music, for inspiration.
Has an association membership helped you or your writing? Sisters in Crime, and Mystery Writers of America, have been of huge help. I’m beginning a career in fiction writing late in life – my first book will be published in the same month I turn fifty. I’m also based in India, thousands of miles from where my books are being published in the US and UK. Thanks to SinC and MWA, I have met so many incredibly supportive authors, attended virtual happy hours, and made some good friends – and lucked out on blog opportunities such as this one!
How long did it take you to write your first book? The Bangalore Detectives Club is my first fiction book. I wrote a number of short stories when I was younger. And I have written non-fiction books, but that’s always been easy, as they are largely based on my research as a career academic. I never thought I could write a full-length novel.
Sometime in 2007, the main protagonist, Kaveri, apparated into my mind and demanded that I write about her. In my innocence, I thought it would take me a few months at most – I was then pregnant with my daughter. I believed I could churn out the book in the few months that I planned to take slow with my new baby, rocking her with one hand while typing with the other. Boy, was I naïve. It took me fourteen years to complete the book and bring it to publication. The best part of the long journey is that my daughter, now a teen, is one of my best beta-readers (the other is my husband)! With a three-book series in hand, I can’t afford to take fourteen years for each new book. I need to write a new book every year and shift gear into a different mode. My day job is hectic – I teach, lead a research centre, and do quite a bit of research administration, so finding time to write is not easy. But thanks to my long experience with writing non-fiction, I’m used to squeezing time out to write in brief chunks – it all adds up.
How long to get it published? I was very fortunate. My agent, Priya Doraswamy of Lotus Lane Literary, is an old school friend from Bangalore. She really ‘got’ the book from the start and was a great help in pushing me to the finish line and helping me edit and revise the book into shape. That took about six months. Then things moved very quickly. Within a few weeks, Priya found a terrific publisher in Little Brown UK’s Constable and Robinson imprint, which specializes in crime fiction. Later, Pegasus Books acquired the US rights.
How do you come up with character names? That’s relatively easy. I look for common Indian names of the era I’m writing, which are specific to the community I’m writing about – I try and make sure they’re relatively easy for a foreign audience to pronounce, but that’s about it. I did make a blooper when I realized (just before the book was going into copy-editing) that one of my main characters, who had a very common name – think Mike or Anne in the US – shared her name with at least two close family members, and one friend, any of whom might take offence. I quickly changed her name to a less common one. Now I try to make sure that I select names of people that I do not know personally.
We hear of strong-willed characters. Do yours behave, or do they run the show? My characters certainly run the show. Two new characters – Inspector Ismail and a woman in trouble, Mala – were not part of my original plot. Still, they turned up one day, inserted themselves onto the page, and insisted on taking the story in a different direction. They’re terrific, and I have enjoyed getting to know them – I guess I just need to get comfortable with giving up control.
What kind of research do you do? My series is set in 1920s Bangalore, during the British colonial era, and I need to get the setting right. I’m fortunate to have a large amount of archival material on Bangalore history, which I’ve collected over the years as part of my work on Bangalore’s ecological history, but I do need to re-read to gather details on the architecture, weather, traffic conditions, and other important aspects that determine the setting. I read old newspapers to get the little details, such as a notice of a flower exhibition or a workers’ strike. And to understand the social milieu, I talk to my mom, who is in her 80s. Her grandmothers came of age in the same era that my protagonists did. The stories my mom tells, passed on from her grandmothers, give me an intimate glimpse into women’s domestic lives in 1920s Bangalore and help me to understand their daily joys and obstacles in a way that historical documents simply cannot match.
How do our readers contact you?
I’m a native Californian living in the San Francisco Bay Area. My life path has included Catholic ministry, marriage, children, and a grandchild. The writing bug bit me somewhere along that path, and I’ve published 16 books ranging from spirituality to romantic drama to a trilogy based on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.
Please tell us about your book and blurb and any comments about any other of your books:
Inspector Javert: at the Gates of Hell (Book 3 of the Wisdom of Les Misérables Trilogy)
Inspector Javert’s central theme: “What happens in the next instant after the heart beats for the last time.” Javert gazes into the River Seine. What future has he after freeing his enemy Jean Valjean? Rather than face his options, he leaps into the river.
- Book 1… Lessons From the Heart of Jean Valjean (nonfiction)
- Book 2… Bishop Myriel: In His Own Words
Do you write in more than one genre? I write both fiction and nonfiction. Topics range from romance/action to the arts and spiritual themes.
What brought you to writing? After a 20-year career in Catholic ministry, the writing bug bit.
Tell us about your writing process: I am gifted with (a) a love for the craft and (b) the ability to focus on the task at hand and stay with it for long stretches of the day. I don’t set goals about page count; I just stay with the process.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process? Most challenging is never allowing myself to fall in love with the draft I’m working on. Writing Inspector Javert brought that lesson home. At draft 10, I said, “Done!” The final book took 20+ drafts.
Has an association membership helped you or your writing? Without a doubt, my most important association throughout my career has been with the California Writers Club (Mount Diablo Branch). I tell people, “As a writer, it’s the only place I can go where people know what I’m talking about.”
Who’s your favorite author? If I have to pick one, it is Victor Hugo. He was such a complex human being in his personal life. That very complexity fed his mammoth ability to create the most varied and unforgettable characters.
How long did it take you to write your first book? My first three books came out as a series under the name Adult-to-Adult (Christ in Our Lives, Christians and Prayer, and Christians Reconciling, Winston Press). I drew upon material I developed during my ministry years.
How do you come up with character names? When writing fiction, names just seem to come to me. This may sound sappy, but the characters tell me their names.
We hear of strong-willed characters. Do yours behave, or do they run the show? My characters run the show, whether they behave themselves or misbehave. To me, a novel is boring if everyone “does the right thing” all the time. Characters must behave like real people. They can sin and repent—or not. There must always be a measure of growth as the story arcs to the end.
What’s the most challenging thing when writing characters of the opposite sex? As a male writer, it’s always a challenge to climb inside the mind and body of a woman character. In my trilogy (A Love Forbidden, Finding Isabella, and I’ll Paint a Sun), all the main characters are women. As is the protagonist in The Saint of Florenville. I’ve never heard a complaint from female readers that I “didn’t get it right.”
Do you ever kill a popular character? A protagonist, no. Supporting characters might need to die. Hugo modeled this in Les Misérables. At the barricade, the boy Gavroche dies first. Then his sister, Eponine, dies in Marius’s arms. Enjolras, the rebel leader, dies. Everyone dies except Jean Valjean and Marius.
How do you raise the stakes for your protagonist—for the antagonist? Inspector Javert: at the Gates of Hell offers a good example. Javert’s ordered life turns upside down when he allows doubt to creep into his soul. Could a lifelong criminal be capable of goodness? That crack in Javert’s armor demands recognition. He might have gotten it wrong all his life. In an instant, the entire structure of his life falls apart.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? A hybrid “pantser.” I begin a novel with an idea arc. I don’t create an outline. I count on the characters to surprise me by doing something I didn’t see coming. In my Les Mis trilogy, I had to follow the plotline set by Hugo. E.g., Javert can’t be a warm-hearted, fun-loving cop. Nor could Jean Valjean act out of character. I worked within the parameters of Hugo’s storyline. After Javert’s death, I had complete freedom to do anything I wanted.
What kind of research do you do? Primarily, I focus on getting the historical time, place, weather, etc., as accurate as possible. It helps if I’ve actually visited the places where I set my story. For example, I’ve been to Paris four times over the years and have a feel for the local environment as I experienced it.
Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? It depends on the story. Inspector Javert bound me to get the time and place right. In another novel, I built my own world. Whether setting a story in San Francisco (I’ll Paint a Sun) or Peru (Circles of Stone and Down a Narrow Alley), I needed to get it as right as possible, though I’ve never been to Peru.
What is the best book you have ever read? Les Misérables. All 1,200 pages of it.
Do you have any advice for new writers? First, stop talking about writing and just do it. Don’t let your first draft be your last draft. Have faith in yourself and do the work.
Second, find a compatible writing community for moral support and learning the craft of writing. Third, have fun. Writing doesn’t have to be torture—if it is, don’t do it
If none of this appeals to you, find something else you like to do.
How do our readers contact you?
Confessions of a Middle-Aged Runaway is an RV travel adventure about how Heidi sold her house, quit her job, bought a motorhome, and hit the road with her dog for five years. It was a journey that transformed her life.
Heidi Eliason is a freelance writer and an editor for Runaway Publishing. Her past work includes writing for an RV adventure company, producing more than fifty RV travel articles for an online news source, and developing training courses and manuals. Confessions of a Middle-Aged Runaway is her first book. It has been translated into Korean and is selling in six countries. Heidi lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find out more about Heidi’s travel and writing adventures at www.HeidiEliason.com.
Do you write in more than one genre? I write in multiple genres. Confessions is a memoir, and I’m currently working on a novel, a thriller. Although many readers have asked for a sequel to my memoir, the thriller is clamoring to be written now. I also have some ideas for a cozy mystery series, so that could be next.
What brought you to writing? I was a robust reader from an early age, but when I took a creative writing class in high school, I discovered I loved to write. I just didn’t think I could make a living at it, so I never seriously pursued it. I always figured I’d write on the side for pleasure. Oddly enough, I did end up making a good living as a writer, but I wrote training courses and manuals, not books.
During my motorhome adventure, I kept a blog to keep my family and friends informed about my journey. I also wrote RV travel articles and web content for an RV touring company. After my motorhome adventure ended, I wrote short pieces about my experience in a writing critique group, some of which were based on my blog posts. The members of that group encouraged me to turn the stories into a book. I never wanted to write a memoir, but it was such an incredible and life-changing experience, I just had to write about it.
How long did it take you to write your first book? It took six years of on and off writing to complete my memoir because there were months at a time when I didn’t work on it at all. I tried writing it as a novel for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), but it was awful!
The memoir started in disconnected five-page increments in my writing group, and I organized it into a book at some point along the way. Four years ago, I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference and submitted a chapter to their writing contest. It won runner-up for nonfiction (under my previous name, Heidi Young). That gave me the nudge I needed to complete the book, and it was published in 2019.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process? Finishing something is the most challenging part for me. I get so many ideas for things I want to write that I’m great at starting things, but I struggle to finish the current project I’m working on. I get distracted or want to give up when the writing gets tough and instead work on the shiny new idea that just occurred to me. I’m a pantser, not a plotter, so I don’t always know how I’m going to get to the end of the story or how I’ll keep the reader’s interest along the way. That can cause my writing to stall out sometimes. Most people call that writer’s block, but to me, it feels like a loss of interest. That tells me something needs fixing.
I decided to try writing an outline with my current book to see if that makes the writing faster and easier. I created a rough outline of about eight chapters, and then I couldn’t stand it any longer and had to start writing. The pantser in me took over. I wanted to see what my characters would do and how they would shape the story. I believe what some authors say about how their characters sometimes lead them in unexpected directions because I’ve experienced that feeling when characters take over. It’s a wonderful thing.
Has an association membership helped you or your writing? The California Writers Club Mt. Diablo Branch has been incredibly helpful to me and my writing. I’ve learned so much from the speakers and writers there, found writing critique partners, and made friendships. I also found out about the San Francisco Writers Conference during one of the meetings, and attending that was incredibly educational and inspiring.
I’m also a member of the Nonfiction Authors Association (NFAA), which provides a ton of helpful resources, some of which also apply to fiction writing. The founder of NFAA, Stephanie Chandler, has written some exceptional books about self-publishing and marketing that guided me through the publication of my book.
Looking to the future, what’s in store for you? I retired from my full-time technical writing job this year, but I’ll continue to do book editing through my company, Runaway Publishing. I hope to finish my current novel in 2022, now that I have more time for writing. After that, I’ll get going on one of the many other book ideas I have waiting in the wings. Since I was born with wanderlust and my husband retired at the beginning of this year, we want to do a lot of traveling. Hopefully, the Covid-19 situation will allow us to do international travel again.
Do you have any advice for new writers? Persistence is one of the most important qualities a writer can have. You need to keep going when the rejection letters come, self-doubt settles in, you wonder what the point of it all is, or you just don’t feel like writing. Keep writing, learning your craft, and reading. If you do those things, your work will improve, and you’ll get something published. Make writing one of your first priorities, and avoid the temptation to let other tasks and responsibilities have more importance than your writing. In other words, don’t do what I did! You’ll get something published much faster.
How do our readers find you and your books?