Hi, Rick and Ann! Welcome to Susan Finlay Writes blog site. Can you tell us a bit about your background as writers?
Thank you for having us.
Chronicle Books published our non-fiction book, Save Oregon, that focused on regional environmental issues. We’ve also published a variety of humorous, gardening, and environmental articles for local magazines and newspapers. Rick has received several awards from the American Academy of Poets. Ann was one of five finalists in a $50,000 contest for best first mystery from Mysterious Press.
Rick – I didn’t set out to become a writer. Until my last year in high school I intended to become an astrophysicist, but then discovered two things: an intense dislike for calculus and a crazy passion for poetry. But it wasn’t until I met Ann that I realized that fiction could be so much fun.
Ann – I discovered mysteries while in my twenties and decided to try writing a few. I was a finalist in some contests. During the day, I taught literature and later went on to teach jazz and tap dance in Portland’s performing arts program at Jefferson High School. Tapping six hours a day wreaked havoc on my spine. I stopped writing through the surgery and recovery, but once I learned to live with chronic pain, I returned to mysteries and writing.
Your novel, The Killing Jar, is the first book in your Georgia Lamb mystery series, and it is scheduled for publication in early 2014 by Grey Cells Press. Can you tell us about the book? What inspired you to write it?
In The Killing Jar, a hybrid of family drama and wry mystery, PI Georgia Lamb tracks a killer through a maze of sadistic pranks and accidents. But people are never what they seem, and attempted murders are dismissed as random accidents. When honey bees swarm her living room, Theda Kovac dies, and her crusade to save Sauvie Island from toxic waste is left in limbo.
Allergic to bees, those puny insects have always held a special terror for Ann. When a friend told the story of waking to a swarm inside her house, we knew we had our opening scene.
In our early drafts Emily Quist, a lovely girl you could take home to mama, was the detective. She was as exciting as the lost-kitten posters she stapled to telephone poles. One morning at four AM an epiphany woke Ann: the energy and wit in the book came from our murderer, Georgia Lamb. We fired Emily and replaced her, keeping Georgia with her edge and sauciness, but added empathy, her own brand of ethics, and a history to explain her jaundiced view of the world. We never tire of writing in Georgia’s voice, and Emily still hasn’t found her poor kitten.
How many books do you have planned for the series? Are you working on one now?
Absolutely. The next book in the series opens with a knifing at Oktoberfest in Oaks Amusement Park. And we have notes for other mysteries in the series. Because we use multiple viewpoints, each book will have a distinctive flavor, and this series won’t feel as repetitious as others can. Georgia is a work in progress whose troubled past provides secondary plots. Who is her father? What happened to the man she blames for her mother’s suicide? Can Georgia handle a monogamous relationship, or any long term relationship?
You two are married and you write novels together. What is it like to write with a partner? How does that work? Do you ever disagree about something in a story?
The mystery genre has a long history of collaborative writing. Ellery Queen was written by cousins from Brooklyn. By the very nature of using “what if” questions in developing plot, adding a second opinion can kickstart the imagination. We divvy up the scenes and write independently for the first draft. After that, the gloves are off until we reach agreement. We’ve perfected the art of constructive argument.
Working together as writers has actually made our marriage stronger. Honesty and trust are necessary for both. Ann knows that when trying on a new pair of jeans, she shouldn’t ask Rick, “Does this make my ass look big?” Not unless she wants the truth.
Between the two of you, you’ve worked at a lot of varied jobs—tap dancer, magician’s assistant, teacher, carpenter, etc. Do you use any of your past work experience in your books?
Sure. First, in small ways, we have a wide-ranging inventory of details that we can use to make the story more realistic. More importantly, we’ve become familiar with disparate types of people and life situations.
How do you feel about the “rules” of contemporary writing: no adverbs, no dialogue tags, show don’t tell, etc. In your opinion, how important are they to writing? Are there any that you particularly adhere to?
We do follow the current conventions, first, because we believe they make sense aesthetically, and second, it makes writing together easier.
Elaborate tags distract from the dialogue and can make you lazy as a writer. Instead of explaining the emotion to the reader with tags, create dialogue that conveys the emotion. An author shouldn’t interrupt the character. If you need to explain, the dialogue must be weak. When Ann writes and reads dialogue, she hears the characters’ voices, and extravagant tags break the fictional dream—the author nudging with an elbow, “Get it? Get it?” as if they don’t trust their own skill or the reader’s intelligence.
The same theory applies to adverbs and adjectives, they indicate weak nouns or verbs. Finding the right word, especially unique and strong verbs, has become a game for us. Rules are made to be broken, but you must have a good reason for doing so. Here’s an example of an adjective we didn’t delete because it was exactly right for our character. …Billy’s palsied, pale blue signature…
In your interview with Elizabeth Lyons, she gave a wonderful answer to this question.
What is your favorite or least favorite part of writing?
Rick – Least favorite, marketing.
Ann – Favorite, writing a first draft that doesn’t need to be wrestled to the ground. You merge with the characters and almost disappear into story. Before I started writing seriously, I’d hear authors go on about this and think, what BS. But they’re right, and it does happen once in a while. The ultimate test is facing the blank page on those days when there’s no magic in the air and writing each sentence feels like delivering a ten-pound baby.
What do you like about writing mysteries?
Both of us are fascinated by appearance versus reality, a theme that’s at the heart of every mystery. Our books aren’t about madmen out to destroy the world, but instead about the harm that secrets and lies can cause a family. More like a Mike Leigh film than a Quentin Tarantino movie.
And mysteries help us explore one of the great puzzles of life: the cause of evil.
Are you an outliner or do you use some other method?
We first began plotting by the “seat of the pants” method, always asking, “What feels good today?” and “What kind of twist can we throw in?” That might work in some fiction, but mysteries involve an intellectual puzzle. If the writer doesn’t discover the goal until the end of the first draft then rewriting, with all the restructuring of clues etc, becomes a real chore. We are becoming more comfortable with outlining, but leave things open-ended to allow for “inspiration.”
Related to outlining, we’ve found that we write more efficiently if we don’t dawdle through the first draft. Once upon a time, we’d tinker and tinker and tinker; a new word from Roget’s here, a comma deleted there. Of course, all the messing around didn’t matter since we had rewriting ahead. A waste of time. Gag your internal editor, and get the draft done. You really can’t see your story until you get to the end.
Who are your favorite authors? Did any of them inspire you to write?
Of course Chandler for his lush imagery. He has had a great influence on US detective novels, but what writers emulate most is the first person voice and the unique metaphors. This style, because it’s been copied so often, can sound like satire. If you want to be inspired, take a look at the early hot house scene in The Big Sleep or the opening paragraph of his short story, Red Wind:
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Ana’s that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ neck.
The early Lew Griffin novels by James Sallis are full of rich language with his evocative portrayal of New Orleans. And Ross Macdonald unravels family secrets in his wonderfully elaborate plots.
Lately we’ve discovered Gillian Flynn. We also admire Kate Atkinson and Minette Walters. Looking at the last three writers, one thing stands out—their skills match their wicked sense of humor.
Please list any websites or social media links for yourself or your book. Thanks!