Claire M. Johnson worked as a pastry chef in San Francisco Bay Area for a number of years. Ms. Johnson’s first novel, Beat Until Stiff, was set in the restaurant world and was nominated for the Agatha Award for Best First Novel and was a Booksense pick. Her second book in this series, Roux Morgue, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. She has written two Jane Austen pastiches and has recently finished a first-person POV historical memoir of Pauline Pfeiffer (Ernest Hemingways’s second wife) and a mystery set in San Francisco in 1930. She is currently President of MWA NorCal.
In 1930 San Francisco, the Moore Detective Agency is two months away from closing its doors. When the wife of one of the most prestigious bankers knocks on their office door asking them to look for her wayward stepson, secretary Maggie Laurent takes the case. The aftermath of the stock market crash nine months earlier is now being realized in soup kitchens and bread lines. She needs this job to help support her widowed mother. Maggie soon finds herself up to her neck in murder, arson, and the lies and double lives of San Francisco’s wealthy elite. Will she be the next victim?
Do you write in more than one genre? I’ve written two mysteries, two Jane Austen pastiches, a standalone YA thriller, a first-person POV biography of Pauline Pfeiffer, and my latest book is a historical noir mystery set in 1930 San Francisco.
What brought you to writing? I moved to the suburbs! I found myself without a name, essentially. I was someone’s wife or mother. I felt my identity slipping away and was terrified that one day I’d walk up, look in the mirror, and there wouldn’t be anyone there. Writing is about as personal as it comes.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? For the first time in my life, I have a real office—no more laptop on the dining room table—with an old-fashioned oak desk that I got from UC surplus. I overlook my garden and am occasionally distracted by the antics of the squirrels chasing each other from tree to tree. Does this make me more productive? No, but it’s lovely to have all my books, my piano, and pictures of my family around me.
What are you currently working on? I’m working on the second in the series set in San Francisco in 1930, right after the stock market crash. In the first book, my heroine Maggie Laurent is the secretary to a detective. When a “dame’ does him wrong, he goes on a months-long bender, and she takes over a simple missing person’s case. Which, naturally, turns out to not be that simple.
Has an association membership helped you with your writing? Yes. I think that belonging to writers’ groups helps you establish a tribe that speaks the same language you do. You can share knowledge, frustrations, successes, and information on agents, what publishers will consider books without an agent, etc. Writing is a business, and I think that networking is critical. Plus, writers are a great group of people.
Who’s your favorite author? I have many favorite authors, but I would say that in this genre that John Le Carre is the master. The genius of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is that this book is 90% backstory, which is usually the death knell of any book. And yet… His book The Constant Gardener left me stunned for weeks.
How long did it take you to write your first book and get it published? Oh years. I was lucky that Poisoned Pen Press was just opening its doors, and they were open to writers without agents at that time. Unfortunately, it was difficult then, and twenty years later, it’s even more difficult.
Do you have subplots? If so, how do you weave them into the novel’s arc? I think you must have subplots because otherwise, it becomes too formulaic. Subplots are an excellent vehicle for exposing characters that enriches what happens in the main plot arc. I think this is a tricky road to walk because you don’t want to detract from your main storyline too much. Otherwise, it only serves as a distraction rather as an element that is complimentary. That is the key function of a subplot. It should compliment and enhance some aspect of the main plot line, whether it be an expansion of a character study or even the secret key to solving the puzzle of whodunit.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? I’m basically a pantser. For me, part of the joy of writing a book is discovering who my characters are. Even though I’m writing this, I’m also acting as the first reader. What are they going to do next? What are they going to say? I’ve heard many writers say that at some point, the characters take over. I have experienced that as well. Your id is firing overtime, and you can’t type fast enough. Even if you don’t use much or any of the additional material, it gives you insight into their character. I’m a character-driven writer, so this is the cream in my coffee. I will say that I always know the ending. First, this tells me why I want to write a book. The “why” a story needs to be told. Second, it gives me a goal post to write to.
Otherwise, I can get distracted by the shiny. I also have a fair idea of what the middle is. Sometimes that gets delayed a bit, but I think if you have a firm grasp on the middle of a book, say around 40,000–45,000 words, then you can race toward that end with the knowledge that much of the book’s character arcs are developed enough that you can concentrate on the action in the last half of the book. Not that you abandon your character arcs because you need them to respond to the plot arcs, but it does give you the freedom to go hell-bent for leather in the last half of the book. I also have a firm beginning in mind, but beginnings are hard for me. I always end up rewriting any beginning to my books a minimum of six times. Grabbing the reader in the first fifteen pages is hard, which these days is a mandatory requirement. The days when you are allowed to mosey into the plot are over.
What kind of research do you do? For my Pauline Pfeiffer historical novel, I delved into the world of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the ex-pat world of Paris after World War I. I have more biographies on this period lining my bookshelf than any sane woman should admit to. Also, that period saw an explosion of photographic documentation of history with magazines such as Life.
I’ve just written my first historical mystery novel, which is set in 1930 San Francisco. I’m old enough to remember much of older San Francisco, so I wasn’t faced with trying to capture what San Francisco looked like before the Summer of Love, at which point everything changed. Newspapers are a great source for photographs. The SFGate archive is amazing.
Looking to the future, what’s in store for you? I hope it’s published! I have three finished novels I’m currently shopping. I have self-published before, and while I don’t relish the amount of work that self-publishing entails, I think all these books are good reads and deserve an audience, so I never say never.
Links for Books:
Beat Until Stiff
Pen and Prejudice
Marie Sutro is an award-winning and bestselling crime fiction author. In 2018, she won the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award for the Best New Voice in Fiction for her debut novel, Dark Associations. She is a member of Sisters in Crime and a volunteer with California Library Literacy Services.
Her great-grandfather, grandfather, and father served in the San Francisco Police Department, collectively inspiring her writing. She resides in Northern California and is currently working on the next Kate Barnes story.
April 26, 2022, is the release date for Dark Obsessions – The darkest woods hide the darkest of obsessions. SFPD Detective Kate Barnes heads to Washington and finds herself embroiled in a complex case of ever-increasing horrors.
Available for preorder at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, as well as independent bookstores
What brought you to writing? My love of writing burgeoned from an early love of reading. As an ardent bibliophile, the only thing I enjoy more than reading a book is writing one for the enjoyment of others.
In addition, I have always been a huge fan of mysteries and puzzles. Add to that a family legacy wherein my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all served in the San Francisco Police Department, and crime writing was a natural choice.
What kind of research do you do? Given the nature of my writing, my research is extremely broad. In one sitting, I may go from perusing sales listings for boats (used for the Foul Rudder in Dark Obsessions) to reviewing autopsy photos. While I appreciate the accessibility of online research, I am a big proponent of visiting places and people whenever possible. I am willing to go wherever the answers can be found, including crimes labs, shooting ranges, nature preserves, police departments, and a variety of diverse locales.
Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? One of my favorite things about reading is the ability to visit places I have never been to and may never get the chance to see. I always try to incorporate as many real locations in my stories as possible to give others the same opportunity. Fictional settings are reserved for places where a specific plot point or subplot point requires attributes I cannot get from real locations (ex. Aaru in Dark Obsessions). I spend a substantial amount of time on research to ensure fictional, and real places fit together seamlessly.
Has an association membership helped you with your writing? Being a member of Sisters in Crime has been an important part of my writing journey. One of the greatest benefits of membership has been the wonderful support of the Sisters in Crime writing community. They offer an ongoing wealth of informational programs ranging from technical writing assistance to research references and marketing tips.
Do you have subplots? If so, how do you weave them into the novel’s arc? Subplots are a great way to add different types of suspense into the story while enriching the characters. They can also be great ways to strengthen the threads between books in a series. While I always start with a story outline, many of my subplots seem to pop up on their own as I write. Those moments when a new subplot takes off on its own are always magical.
Do you have any advice for new writers? The best advice I can give is to be open and enjoy the journey. While the path is fraught with challenges, it is also full of sources of inspiration and joy. New ideas and feedback are like sunlight. Be willing to pull the drapes wide open!
Mark Coggins was born in the Four Corners region of New Mexico and is an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation. His work has been nominated for the Shamus and the Barry crime fiction awards and selected for best of the year lists compiled by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Detroit Free Press, and Amazon.com.
THE DEAD BEAT SCROLL – Private investigator August Riordan’s quest to avenge the death of his old partner drops him in the missing person case his partner was working when he died. An alluring young woman named Angelina is looking for her half-sister, but what Riordan finds instead is a murderous polyamorous family intent on claiming a previously unknown manuscript from dead Beat writer Jack Kerouac.
What brought you to writing? I composed my first published short story, “There’s No Such Thing as Private Eyes,” in the late ’70s for a creative writing class at Stanford University taught by Ron Hansen. This was shortly after I’d learned about Raymond Chandler and his distinctive writing style in another class, that one taught by Tobias Wolff. I was all of 19 years old when I typed out the original draft on my Smith-Corona portable, but it was eventually published in the mid-1980s in a revival of the famous Black Mask magazine, where Hammett and Chandler got their start.
In addition to being my first appearance in print, the tale also introduces my series character, San Francisco private eye August Riordan.
Tell us about your writing process: I maintain a research folder on my computer for each novel I write. In it goes digital photographs, Word and PDF files, links to web pages, etc.—anything that can be stored on disk. I also have a small notebook in which I write a variety of things, including location descriptions, snatches of dialog, plot ideas, and similes. The dialog can be imagined or something I’ve overheard.
Of course, the reason I have the notebook is to draw upon the entries when I’m writing. If I decide to use an item from the notebook, I put a tick mark beside it, so I know I’ve already put it in a novel. But even when I don’t select something I can use directly, I find thumbing through the notebook can be helpful, especially when I’m suffering from writer’s block. Somehow, just reading through everything I’ve jotted down can be inspirational, and I usually come up with an idea to get me back on track again.
Do you ever kill a popular character? If so, what happens to your story? Yes, in The Dead Beat Scroll, I killed a character named Chris Duckworth. (This isn’t a spoiler since the book begins with news of Duckworth’s death.) Duckworth was Riordan’s sidekick for five of the seven books. Many readers found his personality and the byplay between Riordan and him to be one of the most entertaining aspects of the novels. Although Riordan and Duckworth are estranged at the time of Duckworth’s death, I hope Riordan’s regard for Duckworth and the real grief he experiences come across in the book. I found the process of writing the final scene in the novel—which is a celebration of life for Duckworth—to be particularly poignant. I hope some of that poignancy is transmitted in the text.
What kind of research do you do? The first research I do is on Bay Area locations, where most of my books take place. I usually walk around a neighborhood I’m going to set a scene in, taking both pictures and notes that I use to jog my memory when I get to the actual writing.
I also do research about the theme or social issue I’m using to drive the plot. For instance, in my novel Runoff, I researched electronic voting and the possibility of defeating the security of voting machines to rig an election. To do that research, I interviewed computer science experts on the topic and talked with poll workers who had an “on the ground” understanding of how the machines are used in a precinct.
For my novel Candy from Strangers, which was about cam girls, I interviewed a young woman who has a website where she solicits anonymous gifts.
Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? My settings can probably best be described as hyper-real. I try very hard to set every scene in a real location—often in San Francisco—and many of my books feature black and white photographs of those locales.
Do you have any advice for new writers? I can’t emphasize enough the importance of critique groups. In addition to providing camaraderie and support, they give you feedback, encourage you to write to deadlines. Reading other writers’ work with an eye towards making suggestions for improvement helps me better understand what does and doesn’t work in fiction. Good writers read a lot, and even better writers read a lot and analyze what they are reading.
The Dead Beat Scroll – https://www.amazon.com/Dead-Beat-Scroll-August-Riordan/dp/1643960318
Podcast (where I do serial readings of some of my books) – https://riordansdesk.buzzsprout.com/
Fiction writer Deven Greene lives in the San Francisco Bay area. Ever since childhood, Deven has been interested in science. After working as a biochemist, she went back to school and became a pathologist. When writing fiction, she usually incorporates elements of medicine or science. Deven has penned several short stories. Unnatural, Erica Rosen MD Trilogy Book 1 is the first novel the author has published. Her recently completed novel, Unwitting, is the second novel in the trilogy.
After a suicide bomber explodes at a baseball game, Erica takes in a young autistic man who has been trained to be a suicide bomber, hoping to find the perpetrator behind the operation and prevent further bombings.
Any comments about any other of your books: Unwitting is the second novel in the Erica Rosen MD Trilogy. It can be read as a stand-alone, although I think the reader might enjoy knowing the protagonist’s background and others in her sphere, which would be learned in the first book of the trilogy, Unnatural.
Tell us about your writing process. My writing is generally plot-driven. I start with a concept or idea I find interesting, often something in popular culture or the news. After I research the topic, I come up with a suspenseful plot centered around that idea. Then it’s time to conjure up characters who can pull it off. Lastly, after spending a fair amount of time thinking about it, I come face to face with my computer screen and type.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process? I find that every time I re-read something I’ve written, I notice things to change. I suspect I often toggle the wording back and forth in some passages each time I see them. It is also difficult for me to decide when I’m done. Maybe I could improve the wording here or there, but at some point, I need to move on.
What are you currently working on? I am, of course, working on the last and final installment of my Erica Rosen MD Trilogy. The working title is Unforeseen. Again, Erica and those close to her will be involved.
Do you base any of your characters on real people? I absolutely do base my characters on real people. This is most true in Unwitting, where Erica becomes the caretaker for a young man inspired by one of my children. Other characters often have smaller similarities to people I have known. Some people may see themselves in particular individuals living in my books, but that is purely coincidental. Or is it?
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? I’m in between. I learned early on that if I have a detailed blueprint, it’s bound to run into insurmountable obstacles as I write. I definitely have a plan, who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, some things that happen along the way, and how it will end. But as I am writing, ideas, details, and even inconsistencies pop up unexpectedly, so I need to be flexible and allow myself to make changes as I go along.
What kind of research do you do? I do enough research to feel comfortable with what I’m writing about if I don’t already know the subject sufficiently. I read books, do internet searches, and talk to experts that I know. I’m not writing fantasy, so I try to be accurate.
Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? For the most part, I use real locations. In the trilogy I’m writing, my protagonist, Erica Rosen, lives in San Francisco. I describe real places, such as Oracle Park baseball stadium. However, I often fabricate places such as homes, small stores, and towns.
Advice for new writers. Edit like crazy, and seek the opinion of others. It may be painful to hear criticism of your work, but it will help you in the end. There’s nothing worse than a rejection of your work without an explanation. Learn to appreciate whatever input others are willing to give you. You may not agree with it, and you don’t have to act on it, but you should at least listen with an open mind. One person may think your writing sucks, but if five out of five think it sucks, it probably does. Never fear, though. You can improve. It takes time to hone your writing skills.
Glenda Carroll writes the Trisha Carson mysteries that take place in the San Francisco Bay area, from Oracle Park, home of the San Francisco Giants to the beautiful lakes in the East Bay to the tree-lined streets of Marin County.
Her mysteries are set in the world of open water swimming. The third book of the series Dead Code will be published by Indies United Publishing House. The launch date is October 27, 2021. Books one and two, Dead in the Water and Drop Dead Red, introduced Trisha Carson, a 40-something woman trying to find her way in the world, and her family to the mystery reading community.
When not writing, she tutors high school and college students for Canal Alliance, San Rafael, in English and occasionally History. These are first-generation teens who understand that education is the way out of poverty.
What brought you into writing? Good question. I never, ever thought I would write fiction. For almost twenty years, I was a sportswriter for the Marin Independent Journal. I covered mostly water sports: sailing and sailboat racing, boating (in general), surfing, some swimming. I remember someone once asked me, “Do you have a novel in there?” I was miffed. “How can you write about something that isn’t true?” I huffed and puffed. But I found that not only could I use my imagination and find dead bodies in all types of strange locations. But I liked doing it!
What is your writing process? Several years back, I entered a NaNoWriMo 6-word contest about writing. “Write like a hurricane. Edit later,” was my prize-winning entry. That seems to be what I do. I blast through the first draft. After that, it’s torture. I write draft after draft. I often take out big chunks of copy and put them in a special deleted file. I’m not sure why I keep them. I have never used anything that I’ve buried in that file. For Dead Code, three people volunteered to be my Beta readers. It was the first time I was that organized to ask for help. They were great…excellent suggestions that made the manuscript better.
Have you ever had writer’s block? Oh yes. When I was writing the first book in the series Dead in the Water, I reached a point where I didn’t know what to say and what to type. At those times, I would go out and cut the grass. I had an old-fashioned push mower, and it was in the middle of summer. Maybe it was the dripping sweat that kickstarted my brain, but when I came back inside to my cool house, my mind was working again.
How do you come up with characters’ names? For the protagonist of the series, Trisha Carson, I knew her age and researched the popular girls’ names the year she was born. After that, I began to use the names of family members. In all the books, there is a character I called Inspector Carolina Burrell, San Francisco Police Department. That moniker contains my granddaughter’s name and the name of a former San Francisco Giants outfielder, Pat Burrell. I used my sons’ first names for ballplayers on the Giants. My grandson Caden’s name was used for a secret swimming spot, Caden’s Corner. If you’re related to me or even someone I admire, your name will be usurped at some point.
Do you have subplots? There is definitely a subplot in Dead Code. As I mentioned earlier, the first two books of the series are firmly set in the world of open water swimming, and the plots are water-oriented. Dead Code moves away from being totally involved with water into the world of hacking. (There are swimming scenes for those who can’t get enough of H2O.) Just as I finished the first draft, I had my identity stolen. My hacker found his way into my bank accounts, health care, phone, and email. I tore my hair out for about a week, trying to understand what was going on and how to stop it. I knew I had to add that to the manuscript. I rewrote the whole thing so Trisha could share my pain. She hated it as much as I did.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? Honestly, I seem to start in the middle and work toward the beginning and the end. I usually don’t know ‘who did it’ until I write it. However, I tried to become more organized with book two. For Drop Dead Red, I carefully worked out an outline. Then I started writing. I didn’t make it through the first chapter before I strayed from the outline. I’m not sure why I can’t stick to an outline. I just can’t. I wish I could.
“(Trisha Carson is)…a smart, steadfast gumshoe who, in her second book, continues to flourish…Carroll’s writing bounces off the page.” Kirkus Reviews
What are you currently working on? As I mentioned, I am approaching the finish line with Dead Code. This is a different subject for me, involving hackers and ransomware. I only had a cursory knowledge of the computer crime world. I needed to read everything I could on the subject, and I even lurked on a few hacker bulletin boards. My sister’s sweetheart started his own computer security firm ages ago, and he was happy to answer all my questions, from the simplest to the most complex. He even made a few plot suggestions.
Advice to new writers?
First, keep reading—everything you can. But be critical (in a good way) of the text. How does the author use verbs? What are transitions like? What makes you say, “I wish I wrote that sentence, paragraph, chapter?” Does the ending work?
Second. Do your best to keep that inner voice that tells you. You don’t know what you’re doing at bay. Half the time, I never know where the story is going until I write it. However, I am beginning to have confidence that something, maybe even something worth reading, will come out of the process.
Third. Write. Even when you don’t want to.
Looking to the future, what is in store for you? As you might guess, I write about open water swimming, because I swim in open water (as well as a pool). I swim in rivers, lakes, the ocean, and over the past year in the chilly San Francisco Bay. I’ve raced in more than 150 open water events in Northern California and Hawaii, and Perth, Australia. Currently, I am training for an Alcatraz swim in early September. I was swimming along the other day in the choppy Bay, putting in the distance, and the idea came to me for the next book. A swimmer is making their way across the Bay, and she is being escorted by a pilot boat. The swimmer gets a bit off course, and when she turns to look back at the boat, something is strange. She swims over to it, and the pilot (the captain or driver of the boat) has disappeared. The swimmer and the empty boat are in the middle of the Bay, alone. Sound interesting?
How can our readers contact you?
FB: Author page: https://www.facebook.com/Carrollandfriends
Personal FB page: https://www.facebook.com/glenda.carroll
Amazon author page: https://www.amazon.com/Ms.-Glenda-Carroll/e/B00CIJ7HJ8/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0