DEBRA BOKUR – Award Winning Author Takes Her Readers Into Hawaiian Mystery

Frequently accused of drinking too much tea and getting lost deliberately, award-winning writer Debra Bokur is the author of the Dark Paradise Mysteries series (Kensington Books). She’s also a contributing author to Spreading the Word: Editors on Poetry (The Bench Press, 2001) and the former poetry editor at Many Mountains Moving literary journal. Bokur is an award-winning journalist and longtime contributor to national publications, including Global Traveler Magazine. She divides her time between Colorado and coastal Maine.

The Lava WitchIn a remote, mountainous area of a Maui forest near Haleakalā volcano, the naked body of a young woman is found hanging from a tree. The devil is in the details: the woman’s nostrils, mouth, and lungs are packed with lava sand. Her hands are bound in twine, and her feet are charred and blackened, suggesting a firewalking ceremony. Detective Kali Māhoe’s suspicions are immediately aroused. It has all the signs of ritual torture and murder.

But Kali’s investigation soon leads her down a winding trail of seemingly unconnected clues and diverging paths—from the hanging tree itself, a rare rainbow eucalyptus, to rumors of a witch haunting the high areas of the forest, to the legend of the ancient Hawaiian sorceress Pahulu, goddess of nightmares. Casting a shadow over it all—the possibility of a Sitting God, a spirit said to invade and possess the soul.

Aided by her uncle, Police Captain Walter Alaka’i, Officer David Hara, and the victim’s brother, Kali embarks down the darkest road of all. One that leads to the truth of the mountain’s deadly core and a dark side of the island for which even Kali is unprepared.

Recent Reviews:

“This procedural keeps readers guessing all the way to the gratifying solution. Fans of Tony Hillerman will be enthralled.” —Publishers Weekly STARRED REVIEW on The Lava Witch

“A cool police procedural with engaging characters and fascinating components.” —Kirkus Reviews on The Lava Witch

Controlling the Weather – Thanks for inviting me to post on your site today, George. As I prepare for the launch of The Lava Witch, I’ve been mulling over a few concepts that I suspect may be common among both readers and writers of mystery/crime fiction, all of which have coalesced into the notion of controlling the weather.

Consider this: Nearly everything in the world operates according to forces that are out of our control — day and night, tidal waves, tornadoes, disease outbreaks, growing old, watching the neighbors paint their house the wrong color. That’s plenty to dwell on, even on a sunny day, while we can still bolt up and down staircases with ease. When you add in the forces of malevolence, things take a much darker turn.

Like most people, I’ve encountered evil firsthand. Sometimes it’s shiny or dressed up with beguiling surface beauty meant to mislead and confuse; sometimes, it doesn’t bother to pretend to be anything but what it is —cruelty, malice, and deliberate mayhem unleashed to disrupt or destroy the lives and equilibrium of others.

While I’ve never actually talked to other mystery writers or readers about this, I’m sure I’m not alone when I say how satisfying and fulfilling it is to see darkness overcome by goodness and light. I believe it’s one of the reasons we love to read mysteries and thrillers. I know it’s one of the reasons I find it gratifying to write them. Sure, remedying all the ills of the real world and conquering evil in its multitude of forms is beyond my powers as a single human being; but as an author, I can control storms and decide when the sun comes out, and make certain that those who deliberately bring about pain, grief, and misery — at least within the pages of my books — are made fully accountable for their actions. And, I get to bring readers along for the ride, setting off with them on difficult journeys that I know will lead, at last, to a moment of resolution and healing.

How do our readers contact you?

Groups I belong to:

  • Sisters In Crime (National, Colorado, and New England chapters)
  • Mystery Writers of America
  • Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers
  • Colorado Authors League
  • International Thriller Writers
  • Society of American Travel Writers

14 Comments

  1. Donnell Ann Bell

    Yay, Kali Māhoe is back. I so enjoyed her in The Bone Field. The plot sounds amazing, Debra! Congratulations on your release and a starred review!

    Reply
  2. Margaret Mizushima

    Our heroes and heroines are always battling weather, terrain, and evil, which makes for a thrilling story. Thanks for this post, Debra and George. And like you, Debra, this mystery writer enjoys watching darkness succumb to the light.

    Reply
    • Debra Bokur

      Thank you, Margaret. Here’s to Team Light 🙂

      Reply
  3. Barbara Nickless

    We must never give up the battle against evil–in the real world as well as in our fictional ones. Thanks for a great post!

    Reply
    • Debra Bokur

      Much appreciated, Barbara. The quest is everything.

      Reply
  4. Debra Bokur

    Thanks, Michael! It’s nice to be able to escape to the Islands, even if only in my imagination — especially on Rocky Mountain days like this when there are snow flurries blowing through my newly planted spring garden.

    Reply
  5. Joseph HAGGERTY

    I love inventing a little super natural even when it’s manufactured. The mystery of the investigation is one thing but when something comes along that can’t be explained, it adds to the mystery and since it’s fiction who can say if it’s real. Loved this post.

    Reply
    • Debra Bokur

      Thanks, Joseph – a little mystery keeps things interesting, I think.

      Reply
  6. Michael A. Black

    Your summary sounds like a fascinating novel, Debra. You’re totally right about being able to control things as an author. We need more books set in Hawaii. Best of luck to you.

    Reply
  7. Peg Brantley

    Justice being served while we’re alive to see it is one of the reasons crime fiction is so fabulous! Great post, thank you!

    Reply
    • Debra Bokur

      You’re very welcome. Agreed about crime fiction — and instant karma isn’t so bad, either!

      Reply
  8. Mare Sutro

    Overcoming the darkness is what it is all about. Thanks for sharing these wonderful insights!

    Reply
    • Debra Bokur

      It’s important not to let the darkness win, whatever form it takes.

      Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

KATHLEEN DONNELLY – Chasing Justice with a K-9

Award-winning author Kathleen Donnelly is a K-9 handler for Sherlock Hounds Detection Canines—a private narcotics dog company. She enjoys using her K-9 experience to craft realism into her fictional stories. Along with working dogs, Kathleen loves horses. She owns two horses and a bossy yet adorable pony. Kathleen’s love of the mountains inspired her setting for Chasing Justice. She enjoys escaping to the high country to hike and photograph the scenery and wildlife. Kathleen has a B.A. in Journalism from Colorado State University and formerly wrote for The Berthoud Weekly Surveyor, where she won a Colorado Press Award. Kathleen lives in Colorado with her husband and all their four-legged friends.

Please tell us about your upcoming release: Chasing Justice

After losing her military K-9, Marine Maya Thompson swears she’ll never work with dogs again. But when she returns home to Colorado and accepts a job with US Forest Service law enforcement, fate brings K-9 Juniper into her life just as another tragedy unfolds.

Chasing Justice is a must-read for dog lovers and crime fiction lovers alike.” ~Margaret Mizushima, author of the award-winning Timber Creek K-9 Mysteries, including Hanging Falls

Thanks so much for having me on your blog today, George! I enjoyed answering questions about my path to publication and inspiration for Chasing Justice, my debut novel and the first in a series. Stay tuned to my social media channels and newsletter for more information about future books.

How long to get it published? I started writing Chasing Justice in 2016. However, the idea had been rattling around in my brain for a couple of years. I knew I wanted a female protagonist who would be a K-9 handler. Once I had the concept figured out, I started writing. In 2017, Chasing Justice (then titled Free Base) was a finalist for the Claymore awards, but I hadn’t completed the book yet. However, being a Claymore finalist gave me a confidence boost, and I finished the book over the next few months.

I then entered the book into the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Contest, where it took second place. I thought this would lead to immediate publication, but it received rejections when I sent the book out. I decided to send the manuscript to an editor who had just started freelancing. She’d previously worked at St. Martin’s Press, and the genres she specialized in included mystery and romance. Her edits showed me that while I had the possibility of a good book, I still had a lot to learn. I knew I had to start over except for the first three chapters.

I did just that and continued to study other books along with reverse engineering books that I liked. I started to understand what the editor was telling me. I went back to doing an outline, and I rewrote the entire book finishing it in the spring of 2020. I started querying my novel, and by July of 2020, I had a request to read the full manuscript from my agent Ella Marie Shupe who’s part of the Belcastro Agency. After reading the full manuscript, we talked on the phone, and soon after, Ella Marie offered me representation. We spent the fall of 2020 editing, and in January of 2021, Ella Marie started submitting to publishers. By spring, we had an offer from Carina Press, and I signed the contract a few months later. The rest, as they say, is history.

 We hear of strong-willed characters. Do yours behave, or do they run the show? I would love to say that my characters behave, but they just don’t! They seem to have a mind of their own. I do an outline, and we have long talks during that process where I tell my characters to speak now or forever hold their peace. Most of the time, they listen. I have one character in Chasing Justice (I won’t say who because that would be a spoiler.) that started out completely different in previous drafts. I wanted this character to be responsible for certain actions, but in the end, that character won out and got their way.

Maya, my main character, is quite strong-willed and stubborn. We have had many discussions, but what I love about her is how honest she is and how much she wants to do the right thing. She has been a fun character to work with.

Then there’s my fictional K-9, Juniper. While Juniper’s character developed from K-9s that I’ve worked, she can definitely change course and do her own thing—especially if it involves ripping up her dog bed. When you read Chasing Justice, you will see Juniper loves to get her way and keeps Maya on her toes.

Do you have subplots? If so, how do you weave them into the novel’s arc? Chasing Justice has a subplot that I left somewhat open for future stories. There are some small subplots within the novel as well. I used my outline to make sure the subplots made sense in the storyline and blended well with the entire arc of the novel. The freelance editor was very helpful in teaching me about weaving in subplots. The biggest lesson I learned was that you need to have a strong core of the story—one that can be put into a sentence. Once you have that core, you can develop subplots that go with that storyline. For example, Maya comes home to Colorado after being in the military but isn’t speaking to her grandfather. This plays into the main story, but the reason she and her grandfather aren’t speaking is a subplot.

My editor with Carina Press, Mackenzie Walton, also helped me figure out how to weave in and refine the subplots. Mackenzie’s edits on Chasing Justice were fantastic, and she did a great job of pushing me to become a better writer.

How do you raise the stakes for your protagonist—for the antagonist? I love the “what if” game. I spend time brainstorming and mind mapping ideas. I was lucky enough to take some classes from best-selling author Grant Blackwood. He showed us how mind mapping can help tweak the stakes for your character.

I considered ideas such as how a drug-running militia living in the mountains might work. I asked, who are they? Why are they doing this? What type of drug should they be making and trafficking? For most of us, meth and marijuana are the first drugs that come to mind. I wanted something different. I started googling and mind mapping different ideas for drug production. (So far, neither the DEA nor FBI have shown up at my door, after all, my googling. Phew!) I found out about a drug called Krokodil. It’s not common here in the United States. Having an unusual drug upped the stakes for my characters and their investigation.

One thing I learned along the way is to not raise the stakes by adding another plotline. That may sound simple, but I think that happens a lot with new fiction writers. Keep the main plot, and then figure out how you can make things more difficult for your characters. Even with the dog work, I thought, okay, if I’m working a dog in the mountains, what makes things more difficult? Often, in real life, it’s the environment, so I raised the stakes by adding weather issues such as wind and dangers in the forest like trees with broken branches called widowmakers. The “what if” game is a ton of fun!

Where do you place your settings—real or fictional? I created a fictional National Forest for my book. It’s loosely based on the location of the Roosevelt and Arapaho National Forests. I did this because many Coloradoans know the national forests well, and I didn’t want to worry about whether or not there really was a lake near a trailhead. I also thought that by creating a fictional national forest and towns, I would have more fictional leeway for the story.

 Do you have any advice for new writers? If you love writing, just stick with it! Learn all you can. Attend conferences and be open to feedback. Conferences allow writers to receive critiques from best-selling authors and editors with extensive backgrounds. Take notes, ask questions, and learn everything you can from them. I have so many published authors to thank for their help as I worked towards publication. I met most of them at conferences. Writing a novel and getting it published is a lengthy process with a big learning curve. Most importantly, enjoy the journey.

How do our readers contact you?

Readers are welcome to reach out anytime via email at: kathleen@kathleendonnelly.com

Here are more ways to connect with me:

Website: www.kathleendonnelly.com

Newsletter Sign-up: https://kathleendonnelly.com/#newsletter

Social Media:

 

Facebook@AuthorKathleenDonnelly 

Twitter–@KatK9writer

Instagram–@authorkathleendonne lly

Goodreadshttps://www.goodreads.com/author/show/22280955.Kathleen_Donnelly

Where to Purchase Chasing Justice: https://kathleendonnelly.com/chasing-justice/

 

 

20 Comments

  1. Rhonda

    Great interview, Kathleen! Looking forward to the great read!

    Reply
  2. Madeline Gornell

    Great meeting you, Kathleen, and LOVE your LOVE for animals. All the best!

    Reply
    • Kathleen Donnelly

      Nice to meet you too, Madeline! I definitely do love all animals! They are just amazing! Thanks for reading my guest post and wishing you all the best! 🙂

      Reply
  3. Barbara Nickless

    Thanks for a terrific interview! Kathleen, I love reading about your journey. And–just a thought–maybe you could teach a class on how to reverse engineer a novel as part of the ongoing learning-to-write process. 🙂

    Reply
    • Kathleen Donnelly

      Thanks so much for stopping by and reading the post, Barbara! That’s a great idea for a class…I’ll definitely think about it! I have to give credit to Grant Blackwood for teaching it in the class I took from him, but it would be fun to dig deeper and do a longer course on reverse engineering. Thank you! 🙂

      Reply
    • George Cramer

      Barbara, I second your suggestion that Kathleen teaches a class about reverse engineering a novel.

      Reply
      • Kathleen Donnelly

        Thanks, George! I’ll definitely consider it. Reverse engineering would be fun to teach. I know it really helped me out and I still plan on doing it as I write more books. 🙂

        Reply
  4. Lisa Towles

    What a wonderful interview. Kathleen’s background and book sound so intriguing, can’t wait to read it!

    Reply
    • Kathleen Donnelly

      Thanks so much, Lisa! I hope you enjoy Chasing Justice! 🙂

      Reply
  5. Peg Brantey

    This interview is fantastic! I love the questions, George. Kathleen, I appreciate your candor, and wish you every success. You deserve it!

    Reply
    • Kathleen Donnelly

      Thanks so much, Peg! I really appreciate all you’ve done to help me and all the encouragement along the way! 🙂

      Reply
  6. Margaret Mizushima

    Wonderful interview, Kathleen and George. I appreciate the hard work you’ve done to get this debut ready for the world, Kathleen. Loved reading about your journey!

    Reply
    • Kathleen Donnelly

      Thank you so much, Margaret! And thank you for your help along the way!

      Reply
  7. Michael A. Black

    Great interview, Kathleen. It sounds like you’ve worked really hard to perfect your writing and now you’re reaping the results. Congratulations on your success and best of luck with Chasing Justice.

    Reply
    • Kathleen Donnelly

      Thanks so much, Michael! It’s been a lot of hard work, but a lot of fun along the way. 🙂

      Reply
  8. Donnell Ann Bell

    Terrific interview! Love that you added the weather as a potential antagonist. Colorado certainly perfect… beautiful one moment, two feet of snow the next, dry one second, fire season the next. Can’t wait to dig into Chasing Justice, Kathleen. Thanks, George!

    Reply
    • Kathleen Donnelly

      Thanks so much, Donnell! And thank you for all your support in this journey. I do love the mountains as an antagonist. I remember driving up Hwy 34 to Estes the year after the floods as this story was starting to develop in my mind. There was a combo of devastation and beauty. This juxtaposition really stuck with me and made me think about how the mountains can be their own character. Hope you enjoy Chasing Justice!

      Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

FRANK SCALISE – His Most Important Book Yet

Frank Scalise (Frank Zafiro) served with the Spokane Police Department from 1993 to 2013, holding many different positions and ranks. He retired as a captain. He writes gritty crime fiction from both sides of the badge. He is the author of over thirty-five novels, including the River City series of police procedurals and his hardboiled SpoCompton series. In addition to writing, Frank hosts the crime fiction podcast Wrong Place, Write Crime. He is an avid hockey fan and a tortured guitarist. He currently lives in Redmond, Oregon.

I spent twenty years and a day as a police officer. Along the way, I had a lot of the experiences that many police officers encounter, from the mundane to the extraordinary, from the sad to the scary, from the frustrating to the satisfying.

As a lifelong writer, I saw these experiences through that additional artistic lens. So when I started publishing short stories in 2004, it was no surprise that most of them were crime fiction. By the time I retired in 2013, I’d written dozens of stories and ten or so novels. Since then, I’ve added to that catalog, putting my novel count at around thirty-five.

But the latest one, The Ride-Along, may be my most important one yet.

Before you think that is an ego-driven, self-promoting bit of hyperbole, let me add that I don’t think everything I have to say is important. Most of it is just like the things we all say—in other words, the stuff of daily life. My books are meant to entertain and make readers feel and occasionally think a little—this one is different.

As police-involved deaths gained more and more public attention and this subject became a consistent (and loud) part of public discourse, I found myself in an uncommon position.

On the one hand, I’d done the job of law enforcement for two decades. My roles were many and varied, including the heavy lifting of patrol and investigations and leadership. Almost immediately after retiring, I embarked on a four-year mini-career teaching police leadership all over the US and Canada. As a result, I knew the profession well.

So I was frustrated by the lack of understanding shown by much of the public when it came to the job. By this, I mean everything from the ludicrous “shoot ’em in the leg after you kick the knife from his hand” crowd to those with more grounded criticisms. It wasn’t necessarily that they didn’t sometimes have valid points. It was that they were uninformed when it came to the realities of actual police work, and this lack of understanding often resulted in a wide swath of cops being seen in a bad light. Since I’ve known, and sometimes worked closely with, hundreds of men and women in the profession, I knew the high quality of dedicated people doing this difficult job. So that frustrated me.

At the same time, as I got a little distance from the day-to-day workings of the job—and, frankly, outside of the echo chamber of the profession—I saw places where we didn’t do things well. A fair chunk of this revolved around poor communication, or the lack of, with the public. In other words, we don’t do ourselves any favors with the attitude of “we don’t need to explain this to you.”

Some of the prevailing attitudes in the profession seemed wrong to me, too. Same with some of the overarching strategies that have been in place for decades. It seemed clear to me that law enforcement needed to change.

To be fair, we ask a lot of our cops. Some of those tasks would be better done by other professionals, with the result being a) better service delivery to the citizen and b) better use of our law enforcement resources elsewhere.

These two competing frustrations combined to create the most significant frustration of all. That was, I saw hardly anyone actually discussing the issue with the goal of understanding and problem-solving. Instead, things devolved into entrenched political positions. People debated with sound bites and chanted slogans. The best you could hope for was that they’d wait until the other party had finished speaking before launching into a diatribe… but most people sought to drown out the other instead. This tendency existed all across the opinion spectrum.

That wasn’t merely frustrating. It was maddening.

No one was listening.

So I wrote a book that forced people to listen to each other. I put two characters—a police officer and a police reformer—into the same patrol car for an entire graveyard shift. Due to their opposing views, sparks fly… and not the romantic kind.

Make no mistake; this is still a procedural. The officer and the ride-along go on calls for service. But they also talk. They get angry. They are challenged. But… they also listen a little bit.

Imagine that.

My goal in writing this book was to fairly present the ideas of both characters. Both are good people with strong convictions. Neither is a straw man for the other to beat up on and then convince of his/her views. Both get the opportunity throughout the book to tell their own truths.

It’s a bit of a spoiler here, but both also have moments in which they pause and actually consider what the other has said.

his isn’t a Pollyanna, Kum-bay-yah novel. There are ragged edges. After all, it is a Charlie-316 novel, and anyone reading the first four containing the Tyler Garrett arc will know better than to expect something utopian. But it does represent two people doing something I wish more of us would do, myself included.

Have an honest, hard conversation that includes listening as much as—or more than—speaking.

I’ve outlined the premise of The Ride-Along already, but for the sake of clarity, here’s the description:

The Tyler Garrett scandal rocked the Spokane Police Department two years ago. Now, a consent decree governs the agency, with Washington D.C. directing its reform. It’s a tumultuous time in the city, and public outcry over local and national events is high.

Change is in the air.

Officer Lee Salter is a third-generation cop who bleeds blue. Amid the departmental chaos, he does the only thing he can—be a good officer. That means showing up for every shift, responding to calls for service, and always doing the right thing. All the while, the Department of Justice and its local supporters hope to catch another officer in its net of reform.

Salter refuses to be that officer.

Melody Weaver is a teacher and activist who believes in a better way. Despite her demanding profession, she dedicates herself to the cause of reshaping policing in her city so that the terrible events—both local and national—can stop. To understand what needs to change, she needs to see the reality of the job up close.

That means a ride-along on the graveyard shift.

        • One night
        • Two people
        • And a nation's problems

As you can imagine, it’s a big night for both of them.

If you are looking for a police procedural, it’s in here. If you’re looking for something to make you think. No matter where you are on the opinion spectrum, there will be times you’ll pump your fist in agreement and others where you’ll shake your fist in disagreement. And I suspect there’ll be a few times where you might drop that fist entirely, cock your head, and consider something in a way you hadn’t before.

And that’s why I think this might be the most important book I’ve ever written.

 

9 Comments

  1. Sally Kimball

    Frank, I was with the Santa Clara County S/O for 5 years, and what an education. I was 21 when I applied and the experiential education of a lifetime. I cherish those days and look forward to reading your book.

    Reply
  2. Frank Zafiro

    @Madeline, hope you see your old hometown whenever you read my work.

    @Ellen, I’ll look forward to meeting you, too! I don’t know anything about Sokolove but I’ll check it out.

    @Marilyn, I remember that! My first-ever conference (LCC), and it was a great experience. I hope you enjoy the book, and I look forward to catching up with you again!

    @Michael, looking forward to meeting you as well. Hope you enjoy the read!

    Reply
  3. julie K royce

    Fabulous. I now have a new author to check out. I’m excited. It sounds like it’s the exact kind of novel I’d love.

    Reply
  4. Madeline Gornell

    Glad to meet you, Frank! Husband and I lived in Spokane for several years way back 70s. Fantastic career, congratulations! Continued success.

    Reply
    • Frank Zafiro

      Thanks, Madeline — hope you recognize your old hometown when you read my work!

      Reply
  5. Ellen Kirschman

    Hi Frank: I am a police psychologist. Yeah, the person you hope never to have to see. I’ve got 3 non-fiction books under my best and a series featuring police psychologist Dr. Dot Meyerhoff. I look forward to meeting you in person at PSWA sometime in the future (Not this year, unfortunately). I’m sending a copy of this blog to Coach Bruce Sokolove. Do you know him? If you don’t, you should.

    Reply
    • Frank Zafiro

      Hi Ellen — I’ll look forward to meeting you as well! I haven’t heard of Sokolove but I’ll check him out.

      Reply
  6. Marilyn Meredith

    I had the privilege of meeting Frank years ago at a mystery con in Seattle, and several attendees, including me and my husband, spent some time visiting with Frank. I am looking forward to reading the book also.

    Reply
  7. Michael A. Black

    Sounds like quite a boo, Frank. i can’t wait to check it out. Congratulations on your outstanding career in law enforcement and in your writing. I look forward to meeting you at the PSWA conference.

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

SHELLEY RILEY – From the Kentucky Derby to Fantasy

Shelley Riley had a deep love for horses from an early age, and this love took her from humble beginnings at the Alameda County Fairgrounds to the storied barn area of Churchill Downs.

 

The story of Casual Lies began on a snowy January day in Lexington, Kentucky. While attending a thoroughbred sale, Shelley glanced up and made eye contact with a tiny, fuzzy eight-month-old foal that nobody else seemed to want. And the rest is the stuff of fairytales.

That nondescript colt went on to take Shelley and her husband Jim, an accomplished horseman in his own right, on an adventure of a lifetime. They went on to compete in all three Triple Crown Races—another first at the time. By finishing second in the 118th running of the Kentucky Derby in 1992, Casual Lies rewarded Shelley with the highest finish for a horse trained by a woman in the history of the Kentucky Derby. A record that still stands thirty years later.

In Casual Lies – A Triple Crown Adventure, Shelley gives the reader a fun look behind the scenes of what that adventure was like for her and Jim.

Why did you wait two decades to write your memoir about Casual Lies? It would have been far different if I had written the memoir right after the Triple Crown. I had a lot of material, mainly since I’d been writing a Daily Diary for both the Daily Racing Form as well as one for a San Francisco Bay Area newspaper. By waiting, the book became less a purge and more of a cathartic remembrance of a remarkable horse who electrified my world for far too short a time.

In 2012, I joined the Tri-Valley Branch of the California Writer’s Club. My thought was to go from writing special feature articles for local newspapers and get an idea of how to finish a middle-grade novel that I’d started many years before. Instead, I was encouraged to write a memoir. It was the best advice I’d received since Charlie Whittingham had encouraged me to run Casual Lies in the Kentucky Derby.

Two things happened by sitting down and rereading the daily diaries I’d written. I reconnected with the things that made my horse special. I remembered all the fantastic things that we experienced because of Casual Lies. Truthfully, it’s still hard to believe it really happened.

Using the equity in our house, I’d bought a tiny colt that nobody else wanted. I shared how he grew into a headstrong, charismatic horse that took us on a journey you couldn’t have replicated if you had all the money in the world.

Fans from all over the world have read Casual Lies – A Triple Crown Adventure. You’ll laugh, you might cry a little, and trust me when I say I had no trouble poking fun at myself.

Although Casual Lies didn’t win the Kentucky Derby, he still holds a place in history. But for me, he was my bright-eyed and mischievous Stanley.

So how did you go from writing a memoir to penning Sword and Sorcery Fantasy novels? When I was a kid, I was an avid reader. But each book always had to have something to do with horses. As I grew older, my taste in literature became increasingly eclectic. Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Wilbur Smith, Larry McMurtry, Steven King, Dean Kootz, etc. the list would be endless. But my all-time favorite, as it turns out, is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, with Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove a close second.

A perfect book doesn’t come with enough pages. A good story involves a fellowship that you can feel a part of. For me, a good story is one where you find yourself invested in the fellowship’s success, you’re a part of the team, and when the story comes to an end, you’re loath to say goodbye to your new friends.

I love writing short stories. I find that a thought or an image often triggers my inspiration. The idea for Into Madness – The Born from Stone Saga came from pictures I took of gargoyles situated atop a gothic cathedral when I was touring Europe.

It was one of these shots that brought about Mystislav, a dragon made of stone, who comes to life under a full moon. He flies across the city and lands on the donjon tower of Carolingian castle. Mystislav hears the cries of a newborn babe and . . .

It wasn’t a short story, but it was a strong beginning for a YA Fantasy. As it turned out, the beginning was the easy part. Now I had to write a story. It took over four years.

Tell us about Into Madness, your first book in the Born From Stone series. The marketing blurb goes like this; After a decade in hiding, captured, and imprisoned, Ravin Carolingian is left to question everything she thought she knew about herself.
Still, as the line between ally and enemy blurs, one thing becomes clear. If Ravin’s going to help the Carolingian people, she must first escape the evil that walks the halls of the place she once called home.

As a reader, I like strong characters, adventure, and scenes that engage the reader’s senses. So that is how I chose to write this story. It never ceases to amaze me how the characters occasionally grab the bit and runoff—going in an entirely different direction than I had first imagined.

So what is the title of the second book, and when is the release date? The second book is Hearts Divided, and the third is The Reckoning. Hearts Divided is nearing completion. I have been receiving good-natured demands for the release date. Words in bold type like; NOW! and TOMORROW? have been hitting my inbox. Those types of demands tend to light a fire. Every writer knows that you don’t want to piss off the reader.

16 Comments

  1. Violet Moore

    Hello Shelley, I am pleased to see you featured on George’s blog. It’s one of my favorites for meeting new writers and refreshing friendships with others.

    I enjoyed reading Casual Lies but being an advanced reader for Into Madness was an adventure into a new world.

    Reply
    • Shelley Lee Riley

      Hi Vi, It’s been a minute, for sure. We need to get together on the phone and compare notes. Your comments on Into Madness were invaluable and greatly appreciated.

      Reply
  2. Rhonda Lane

    Had to refresh my memory, so I watched a video of the ’92 Derby. Casual Lies almost had the Derby winner Lil E. Tee. So close.

    They both shot out in front of the rest of the pack, including the hotshot favorite Arazi.

    Here’s the video: https://youtu.be/5mBQxqtsyTc

    I can’t wait to read the book about it.

    Both Casual Lies and Into Madness are on my Kindle.

    Reply
    • Shelley Lee Riley

      Thank you, Rhonda. I must confess that whenever I watch the replay of the race, I still hold my breath. So close and yet . . .

      Still, first or second on the day, I was a winner for having the uncommon good fortune of having horses in my life and Casual Lies in particular.

      I’m thrilled that you’re going to read my books. I hope you enjoy them both.

      Reply
  3. Vinnie Hansen

    It was fun to read this and get to know you better, Shelley. You gave your horse a great name. Who knew that it would become a book title?

    You are the third person I know who has taken inspiration from gargoyles. The other two are Gigi Pandian and Kirsten Weiss, both of whom have gargoyle characters in one of their series.

    Reply
    • Shelley Lee Riley

      Thank you, Vinnie. As a prolific writer yourself, whose excellent work I’ve become familiar with, you understand how important a title can be to our finished story. A superb runner tends to make for a great name in horse racing. A few come to mind; Secretariat, California Chrome, and Seattle Slew, to name just a few. But all horses have to be named before they run their first race. I dedicated an entire chapter in the memoir to naming thoroughbreds, and I gathered a few fun stories about how some of the better-known horses came by their names. Also, thanks for the heads-up; I will check out Gigi and Kirsten’s books.

      Reply
  4. Marie Sutro

    Congrats on a wonderful story, and on making Derby history!

    Reply
    • Shelley Lee Riley

      Thank you, Marie. I wish I could say that it was a dream come true, but in reality, I never even imagined that in over two decades of racing, I would one day saddle a horse in the Kentucky Derby, let alone all three legs of the Triple Crown. And then along came a horse that wouldn’t be denied. That was a miracle.

      Reply
  5. CINDY SAMPLE

    Your story is so fascinating, Shelley. I’ve just downloaded CASUAL LIES. I can’t wait to read it.

    Reply
    • Shelley Lee Riley

      Thank you, Cindy. I do hope you enjoy reading Stanley’s story. Around the barn, Casual Lies was called Stanley. I’ve often said I should have named the memoir The Horse With Two Names. I tried to give the reader a look at all the things you don’t get to see on the day of race telecasts. Which means I had no problem poking fun at myself.

      Reply
  6. Linda

    I am among those readers patiently waiting for the release of Hearts Divided.

    Reply
    • Shelley Lee Riley

      Oh, Linda, how you pile on the guilt and bless you for it, for I need both the carrot and a liberal amount of the stick.

      Reply
  7. Michael A. Black

    Shelley, your personal life sounds like an adventure. It’s interesting how you gravitated to fantasy. Good luck with your writing and your horses.

    Reply
    • Shelley Lee Riley

      Thank you so much for your comment, Michael. Adventure is the perfect word to describe my life. I’ve often thought about how different it might have been if my father hadn’t bought me my first horse for $250. To go from riding a mixed breed mare near Moffatt Field in the 1960s to saddling a horse in the Kentucky Derby, even I find that hard to believe.

      Reply
  8. Donnell Ann Bell

    Fascinating interview, George and Shelley! That’s some serious love for horses to use the equity in your house. Thanks for introducing us to Shelley, George! Best wishes on Casual Lies!

    Reply
    • Shelley Lee Riley

      Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment, Donnell. And yes, buying horses with borrowed money is not something I would do now. Still, at the time, and with many years ahead of us, it didn’t seem like such a risk. When we first started training horses, many years before Casual Lies came along, we would buy horses on what was called a run-out. By way of explanation, with a run-out, a set price is set for the horse in question, and then they were paid for through their future earnings. If there were no earnings, the breeder received nothing. We only did that one time, and we didn’t make any money, nor did the breeder. Usually, the horses you could buy on a run-out weren’t very well-bred. But it was a start, and we learned a lot from that experience. I treated every horse that came into my barn the same, no matter the pedigree. A good horse can come from anywhere. Look at this year’s Kentucky Derby winner. He was claimed for $30,000 and went on to win the Run for the Roses.

      Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

SEELEY JAMES – Tough Background – Prolific Author

Seeley James is the author of the highly acclaimed Sabel Security Series featuring veteran Jacob Stearne and athlete Pia Sabel who must work together to bring the rich and powerful to justice. I’ve just released the twelfth book in the series, a moving psychological mystery, The Rembrandt Decision.

 

 

Let me tell you about, The Rembrandt Decision: Hours after a man discovers a secret destined to tear his family apart, Pia Sabel discovers his corpse in this psychological mystery reminiscent of both Agatha Christie and Taylor Jenkins Reid.

What brought you to writing? As soon as I finished Treasure Island on a rainy day in my childhood, I knew I wanted to be a writer. But my life turned unpredictable when I was kicked out of my family at fifteen. By seventeen, I was homeless. And at nineteen, I was adopted by a three-year-old girl (details at Adopted). I quickly learned kids require money, especially for a single father, which led me to a career in tech. Many years later, after getting married and having two biological children, I retired early and pursued what I really love: writing.

Tell us about your writing process: Much is said about writing from the heart or letting the characters speak to you. I’m much more like Vladimir Nabokov. When asked what he thought of EM Forster’s proclamation that his characters take over and dictate his works, Nabokov remarked how sorry he felt for Forster’s characters. Nabokov added, “My characters are galley slaves.”

I pave each character’s dark and scary road with broken glass. Their ideas for escape are guillotined without remorse. Would we prefer to watch Serena Williams blindly toss a ball across the court, hoping for a magical point? Or do we expect her to explode a finely aimed shot at the far corner forcing her opponent to attempt an impossibly skillful feat of athleticism?

I write with intention. I’d love to believe in magic, but for me, writing is a lot of hard work. I start with something I feel needs to be expressed. For example, after being shocked to read the CEO of Glaxo referred to a $3 billion fine for criminal sales practices as “… the cost of doing business,” I decided to expand on the next inevitable step for such a moral journey. In 2014, I wrote Element 42, in which a drug company engineers a deadly virus to unleash a global pandemic only its patented drug can cure. Today, fans ask me if the novel is non-fiction.

In my most recent release, The Rembrandt Decision, I addressed an issue from my soul: adoption. As an adopted father, I often heard people say, “They’re not the same as real kids.” I know better. To illustrate family dynamics, I had to create allegorical scenes and sequences to draw out multifaceted sentiments of abandonment, rejection, and inclusion. Which led to the exploration of parenting and what constitutes a mother or father figure. Naturally, that subject raises yet another question: how far should any parent go for their children? How far is too far?

To make it work, I jotted a framework of about five hundred words highlighting the fifteen tenets of Joseph Campbell’s theory of the monomyth. It gave me a flexible platform from which to design each chapter and scene to fit within the archetypal structure. At that point, I had a great plan. Of course, the best thing about great plans is watching them disintegrate on impact. But the original framework allowed me to fix and adjust as I went, knowing that at a certain point, the hero/heroine must meet with the goddess, just as certainly as they will find atonement with the father figure.

When done right, a work based on monomyth becomes a reflection of the universal arc of human life. One day we find ourselves relying on the seemingly supernatural aid of a benefactor, just as we eventually reconcile our rebellious youth with the sober expectations of our upbringing. So must our characters resolve themselves to overcome adversity in the story. That doesn’t happen by accident.

Do you ever kill a popular character? There is a right way and a wrong way to kill a character. Experience through trial and error has taught me the difference between the two. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ned Stark were executed to set their respective stories on fire. A death that does not ignite action is gratuitous. Don’t get me wrong, a gratuitous death can have an emotional impact, but it feels manipulative to the reader.

In my fifth book in the Sabel Security series, Death and Secrets, I needed co-lead Pia Sabel to step out from her father’s shadow. I wrote his death with the intention to set her in motion. It worked well. Pia’s impetuous nature brought about her father’s demise. At the same time, his own impatience was the direct cause. Recently, I realized I should have done more to draw out the parallels in their stories. In her next book (still in the thinking stages), she will be forced to resolve her guilt with her complicity.

What kind of research do you do? My stories are the result of my research rather than the other way around. As an avid reader of history, economics, geo-politics, and current events, my fiction is an outlet for my studies. (I also read fiction extensively and always carry a book.) In 2019, the horrific mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, was followed five months later by the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. My morbid interest led me to investigate what these terrorists were thinking. Researching the racism that both extremists believed in, I discovered the existence of a worldwide network of loosely affiliated neo-Nazis and radicalized nationalists. That horrifying concept spurred me to write Death and Conspiracy, a novel about what these fanatics were capable of doing should they get together. It remains one of my most ominous works.

Do you have any advice for new writers? Anyone can tell stories their friends are willing to sit through. Getting people to spend ten hours listening to you is quite a trick. Success is when you tell a story, so fascinating strangers will pay money to hear it. And that’s not easy. Read a lot, write a lot, study the craft, and work hard.

Link to books: http://shop.seeleyjames.com
Link about adoption story: http://seeleyjames.com/adopted

Seeley James (@seeleyjamesauth) • Instagram photos and videos

Seeley James | Facebook

1 Comment

  1. Michael A. Black

    It sounds as though you’ve led a very interesting life that has given you a great background for writing. Best of luck to you with your new book.

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.