Every now and then, a book has the rare ability to resonate with most every person who reads it. NEARLY DEPARTED IN DEADWOOD, written by debut author Ann Charles, is such a novel. In 2010, Ann entered her manuscript in the Mainstream category of RWA's Kiss of Death Chapter's annual contest, the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense. Not only did NEARLY DEPARTED IN DEADWOOD win its genre, Ann's entry rose to the highest honor in the entire unpublished competition, earning her the Overall Daphne Award. What's more, her manuscript was requested by both the editor and agent who judged it in the final round. But Ann had other plans. Today, I'm hoping she'll share what those plans entail. Please welcome Ann Charles to the Five Scribes.
D.B.: Hi, Ann, welcome! First of all, I can't decide if you're a writer or a chef. As I read NEARLY DEPARTED IN DEADWOOD, I pictured you over your keyboard, 1) having too much fun, and, 2) stirring in a potful of subgenres to make this an incredible read! NEARLY DEPARTED IN DEADWOOD has everything--it's laugh out loud funny, it has a great mystery, it tugs at your heart strings, has a lovely romance and even borders on paranormal. So my first question is, if you had to pigeonhole yourself as an author, what category would you put yourself in?
A.C.: Ugh, that's a tough question. As you mentioned, I specialize in being all over the place when it comes to subgenres. This need to mix my genres and subgenres has been a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing in that it makes my stories slightly different from many and a blast to write. But it's a curse when it comes to selling them to a New York publisher. Where do I fit on the bookstore shelf? In which section? Mystery? Romance? Paranormal? Mainstream? My answer has always been, "Just put my books(s) in all of these sections and let's sell even more!" Ha!
Seriously, when asked to fit into a category, I often describe myself as a Romantic Mystery author who includes a bit of paranormal to spice it up. When I plot my stories, I map out a mystery plot and a romance plot. The way I have designed NEARLY DEPARTED IN DEADWOOD, the romance plot is integral to the mystery plot. There are some other underlying tricks I use to make the different plots blend smoothly, but like most chefs, I just mix everything to taste--my taste.
D.B.: You have a great introduction in the book that explains how the plot came to be. I would call this a "gift" book in that the characters just hitched a ride with you on your way to Deadwood. You mentioned you brainstormed the book with your husband and critique partners. Tell us what sparked the idea in the first place and how has this story evolved from draft to finish?
A.C.: Three things came together to spark the idea for this story. First, I've been spending summers in Deadwood since I was 12, and over the years I have accumulated a lot of knowledge of the area and its history, and I have some wonderful memories of people, places and hilarious events. A few years back, while pregnant with our second (and last!) child, we were in Deadwood visiting my mom and step dad. On the way into town I had this idea hit me: a single mom with two kids--twins--struggling to make ends meet while trying out a new career in a new town. That's when Violet was born.
Second, about that time, we were working with a Realtor here in Washington state to buy some land in beautiful northeastern Washington. The Realtor we hooked up with went by the name "Doc," even though that wasn't his first name. I thought it was clever of his friends to use his D.R. initials and give him such a nickname. Now you know where Doc got his name.
Third, this Realtor of ours drove us around in a four-wheel drive Jeep to see properties, because many of the pieces of land we were looking at were way out in the boonies on old mountain roads. Hearing him talk about his job while riding around with him got me daydreaming about what it would be like to be a Realtor where a four-wheel drive vehicle was often required. This is where I came up with Violet being a Realtor. So, these three things, combined with my knowledge and love of Deadwood's past and present, sparked the fire for this story.
As I plotted out the mystery and romance, my husband would listen (the poor man had no choice), and then he would push me to tweak things a little in order to make the book stronger, yet different. While I wrote the first draft, he and several close friends (some authors, some not) read the book, chapter by chapter, as fast as my fingers could put out pages. I was constantly testing my ideas, listening to their feedback, tweaking as I wrote. It took about eight months to write and polish it had have it ready for public consumption (I'm not a fast writer, and I have two kids and a full-time day job). Caffeine kept me up late into the night repeatedly as I wrote.
When my agent first read it, she called yelling, "You're brilliant! I love it!" (You can see why I have stayed with her through thick and thin--ha!) Unfortunately, while many editors have liked the story (we even made it into acquisitions at Mira), the consensus has been rejection due to its not being marketable enough, not "big" enough. My job now is to show what I know--there is a definite market for this mixed up, wild ride of a story, and I am having a lot of fun doing just that.
D.B.: Your protagonist, Violet Parker is a down-and-out single mom of adolescent fraternal twins, a boy, Layne, and a girl Adelynn "Addy" Renee. I think I fell in love with the twins more than anything. And I love Violet's relationships with her children. Soon after the story opens, Layne, no doubt a future archeologist, is digging up his great aunt's back yard, while Addy's goal is to become a veterinarian--but not before she finds her mother a husband. Those two kids were priceless. You have younger children, don't you? How did you manage to create such terrific, three-dimensional nine-year-olds?
A.C.: My kids are a bit younger than Addy and Layne, but I have lots of nieces and nephews whom I have hung out with over the years, so I pull nuggets of fun stuff from those experiences and memories as I write the scenes with the kids. I also imagine what my two kids will be like when they get older and I inject some of those daydreams into the mix. While I'm not a single mother like Violet, I have watched both of my sisters and several good friends experience being single parents at different times. As a parent myself, I am continually amazed at how single parents keep going day in and day out. Without my husband around to help raise our kids, I'd be sitting in a corner chanting and drooling most days. I felt that with Violet, I could pay a tribute to all of the single parents out there who struggle to pay bills and raise healthy, happy kids.
D.B.: Forced to move in with her Aunt Zoe, Violet goes to work at Calamity Jane Realty as a Realtor. From the very start, there's conflict as Violet has a limited time to sell a house before another Realtor, Ray Underhill, convinces the owner to let Violet go and replace her with Ray's nephew. In addition to Violet struggling to support her family, little girls are going missing. What's more, they bear a striking resemblance to Addy.
As the mother of two grown children, I think this story would be tough to write. But you do so beautifully, in a compassionate manner and even incorporate humor. How difficult was this story to write based on the subject matter? And when you were submitting, what kind of obstacles did you face?
A.C.: There is nothing funny at all about children being abducted. As a parent, just the thought of my child disappearing can keep me up at night. Unfortunately, abductions happen repeatedly, as we all know. I've often wondered how parents find a way to go on with their lives after such a heartbreaking and horrific event, and how the people surrounding them go on, too. Violet is an example of how I imagine I might handle such a frightening situation in my own life. As much as I often want to lock my kids up tight in our house, I can't do that. I have to let them experience life and take risks, just like I did. As parents, it's our job to both protect our children and yet expose them to life--the fun stuff and the not-so-fun stuff. We have to prepare them for adulthood, which is full of pitfalls and tragedy. Violet tackles this with a sense of humor. It's in her nature to be optimistic and witty, and my goal was to make this personality trait shine through on the page, even in the darkest moments.
As for obstacles, the only one related to child abductions was that some publishers will not purchase books in which children are endangered. Other publishers had guidelines about the amount of sex in a mystery, so that removed a few other options. Many romance publishers also had guidelines that the story didn't fit. From the beginning, I knew that I would hit roadblocks with this story. I'm not coloring within the lines. But my hope was that enough people would read the story and say, "Wow!" and not care that I didn't stay inside those lines.
D.B.: You do a great job of introducing a cast of quirky characters who are still well formed in my mind after a couple weeks of finishing the book. Harvey and his shotgun, Wolfgang trying to unload his mother's property which turns out is listed on the Historic Register, Doc Nyce and his tendency to sniff every time he enters a house. Do your characters just come to you, or does it take some time to get to know them? And who in your mind was the most fun to create?
A.C.: Most of my characters just come to me, as if they are stepping on to the stage ready for the show, lines already practiced. I will admit, though, that in the first draft of a book and the first scene with a new character, there is often a lot of typing, backspacing, and typing something else. I used to do interviews of characters (I have an early interview with Violet on my website that I wrote prior to starting to write the story), but the more I practiced improving my craft, the less I felt I needed to do the interviews outside of my head.
Harvey was probably the most fun to create, but he really kind of created himself. When I first created my usual high-level, rough sketch of the characters and plot, he was not in the mix at all. He didn't show up until that first line, "The first time I came to Deadwood I got shot in the ass," popped into my head. At that moment, I saw Violet standing there with a double-barrel shotgun pointed at her kisser, and I asked myself, "Who's holding the shotgun?" In walked Old Man Harvey (who looks a little like Jack Elam in my mind) and he was there to stay. As I wrote each scene, those first draft readers who read chapter by chapter, kept demanding more screen time for him, so I kept delivering. Before I knew it, Violet had a sidekick who was a dirty old man with a heart of gold. Time after time, I hear from readers who love Harvey and how he takes care of Violet.
D.B.: The city of Deadwood itself is almost a character in your book. I read you were on your way to Deadwood when the story idea hit. But had you never thought of placing a story there before? And what kind of reaction have you gotten from the citizens of Deadwood and South Dakota?
A.C.: Oddly enough, no. I hadn't thought of setting a book in Deadwood prior to this story. I don't know why not, but I have a feeling it's because I was waiting for the right story and character to come to me. I had spent my summers in Deadwood during my teen years after my mom moved there from Ohio. My stepfather, brothers, mother, and I explored back roads, ghost towns, old abandoned mines, and gulches constantly. The history of the place entranced us, and there was always a road we hadn't traveled that needed to be checked out.
My guess is that because Deadwood is near and dear to me I hadn't really stepped back and thought of it as a setting for one of my stories. But then the whole Violet Parker concept hit me out of the blue on my way down into Deadwood that day, and I just knew in my gut that this was meant to be. Authors are often told to write what they know, and I bucked at that time and again, setting a book in the Yucatan Peninsula (which was a finalist entry in the RWA Golden Heart contest), and then setting a whole series in Southeastern Arizona right next to a big mining town (the first in this series was a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest). Those stories took a lot of research, but Deadwood just poured out of me. The years of exploring the town and surrounding hills paid off, and when I write the story, I am able to slip in and out of the setting by just closing my eyes. I can feel the summer sun, smell the pine trees, hear the sounds of Main Street. That really has made a difference in my comfort level in this series, and I think that comes across on the page.
As for what kind of reaction I've received from the citizens of Deadwood (and Lead,) the neighboring town that plays a bigger role in book 2 of the series, due out as an ebook in April), they have been absolutely wonderful in their support. The Chamber of Commerce is working with my publicist to set up several book signing events for the ten days I'm there in early August, including venues that are the fodder of my dreams. The city of Lead is also being extremely supportive, setting up mixers and signings for me that involve the local citizens and tourists. On top of that several businesses have already been helping me to promote the book, plus sharing word-of-mouth advertising with friends and family in the vicinity as well as across the state and even overseas. The people of the Black Hills and surrounding area are such a great group of folks, but this is something I've known about for years. Their friendship and generosity are things I try to capture a little in the stories. Almost every day I am surprised by another person or business in the area who is willing to help me get word out about the book/series. From the owner of a vacation home management business to a local dentist, from bank employees to a state senator, I have been received with open arms and offered all sorts of help in spreading word about my book. It's incredible and I can't thank them all enough.
D.B.: The pacing, the mystery and the humor come together in the book seamlessly. Are you an intrinsically funny writer? Did you start out the book with humor in mind or more as a mystery/suspense? What authors have inspired you?
A.C.: I don't think of myself as a comedian, but I do love to laugh at life, and I find that I screw up often and end up laughing at myself more often than not. When I step into Violet's head and tell her story, I take some of the thoughts that I have been taught by my parents to keep to myself and let them spill onto the page. Do I swear as much as Violet does in her head? Don't tell my mother, but, yes, I definitely do. Probably a lot more, but I try to keep most of it in my head (except when I'm in the company of bikers and sailors).
I started out thinking Violet would have a sense of humor that comes with trying to raise two kids in a tough world--a witty sarcasm that comes from calluses on the heart. She actually came out a little more sassy than I'd intended, and within no time she was making me laugh with her reactions. That might sound a little crazy, but I am, so it fits. There have been so many times that I write a line or scene and stop and read it again out loud and chuckle for a bit. For example, when I wrote this bit, I had to go find my husband and read it to him because it tickled me so much.
Brief setup: Violet is at work with her hated coworker, Ray. He's on the phone happily telling his nephew about how lousy a Realtor Vi is, and how she's going to lose her job due to a lack of sales. The nephew asks if Ray thinks Violet might pull off a homerun yet and get to keep her job.
Ray's laughter echoed off the plaster-covered walls. "The Queen of Strikeouts? No way."
My molars grinding, I glared at Ray.
He blew me a kiss.
I flipped him off.
It was one of those warm, fuzzy moments they wrote about on Hallmark cards.
Authors who have inspired me? To name a few of the well-known ones: Stephen King for his horror elements, Dean Koontz for his ability to infuse setting into a story, Rachel Gibson for her steamy and addictive love scenes, Susan Andersen for her blending of mystery and comedy, Katie MacAlister for her way of using 1st Person Point-of-View so seamlessly, Jane Porter for her ability to yank on heartstrings, and Vicki Lewis Thompson for her fun paranormal and romance mix.
D.B.: You've mentioned that book two is coming out in April. Will you give us a blurb?
A.C.: Yes, I am far from finished with the Deadwood Mystery Series. Currently I have twelve in mind, but that could change depending on the reception the series receives, and if it becomes popular enough to go out that far or more. I have a lot planned for Violet as she grows as a character and woman/mom.
The second book in the series, titled, OPTICAL DELUSIONS IN DEADWOOD, is currently scheduled for ebook release in mid-April 2011 and for print book release in late June 2011. (I am currently writing the third book in the series titled, DEAD CASE IN DEADWOOD," which will be out in late 2011 or early 2012, depending on how fast I can get it written.)
The second book picks up about two weeks after the last scene in NEARLY DEPARTED IN DEADWOOD, with many of the same characters and several new ones. It takes place during the famous Sturgis biker rally and has bikers all over the place. The house that acts as the main centerpiece in this book is in the city of Lead, Deadwood's blue-collar twin. The house actually sits right on the edge of the huge open-pit mine in the middle of Lead, separated from the pit by a razor-wire fence. Violet quickly allows herself to get mired in another mystery and has to solve her way out of the mess, much to Harvey, Doc and Cooper the detective's frustration. This second book fleshes out the characters in more depth along with the area's history. It's the same mix of genres all over again.
~~~Word has it single mom, Violet Parker--Deadwood's most notorious Realtor--likes to chitchat with ghosts. With her reputation damaged, her bank account on the verge of extinction, and her career threatening to go up in flames, Violet is desperate to make a sale. When the opportunity to sell another vintage home materializes, she grabs it, even though this "haunted" house was recently the stage for a two-act, murder-suicide tragedy. Ghost or no ghost, Violet knows this can't be as bad as the last house of horrors she tried to sell, but charmingly irresistible Doc Nyce isn't so sure. Her only hope of hanging on to her job is to prove that the so-called, ghostly sightings are merely the eccentric owner's optical delusions. Unfortunately someone--or something--in the house wants her stopped...dead. ~~~
D.B.: Can't wait. The cover on your book is extraordinary. Who did your cover art?
A.C.: The artist is C.S. Kunkle, who happens to be my brother. He also drew the graphics that are inside the printed version of the book--I think seven in all. He's been drawing since we were kids, and he's also one of the main sources for my wild imagination. His art is a little twisted and wild, and his love of monsters has kept me afraid of the dark since we were kids on the farm in Ohio. He would often tell me stories of vampires or werewolves living out behind the barn--the same barn in which I had to do chores on dark winter nights all alone. I grew up watching scary movies with him, and I'm pretty sure he's warped part of my brain. We have wanted to work on a joint project for years, and when I couldn't hook a New York publisher with this book, I turned to him and asked if he would be willing to work with me on this project and represent the books in the art form. He never even hesitated. Now, if you check out my Deadwood website, (www.anncharles.com/deadwood), as well as my main Ann Charles website, you will see his art all over the pages. I'm extremely fortunate that my parents put my crib in his room when he was four, because we've stuck together through thick and thin ever since. Having such a talented artist so willing to work with me is an incredible boost to my career. And I can always tell on him to our parents if he's mean to me ;)
D.B.: You've had a long road to hoe with this book. NEARLY DEPARTED IN DEADWOOD came close to being accepted by a major publisher. You're agented. But even with the prestige of a Daphne win behind your name, where you might have gone to a major house, you elected to do something different. Would you talk about that decision, what it's doing for your writing career and what are your future plans?
A.C.: Time and again, this book was rejected by major publishers. The editors were wonderfully kind, always saying good things about my writing style and the story, but time and again they weren't sure there was a market for the story. Months of teeth grinding left me pretty frustrated, so when a small, brand new publisher approached me and not only offered to publish my book, but also asked if I'd like to partner in the business with them, I jumped in with both feet. This meant that I could use my brother's art for the cover and the inside drawings, that I would get to play general contractor with the book and learn more about the publishing side of the business, and I would have more say on marketing and promoting the book to the audience I knew was out there for it. In exchange for more work, I'd get more pay for every book sold.
While I don't think this route to publication is the best way for everyone, it works for me because I've spent almost five years learning all about marketing and promotion in addition to improving my writing skills. I am a technical writer by day, so I knew I could format according to print-company guidelines. I know many great editors (both line and content), so I was confident in my ability to produce a clean story. My weak areas are accounting and taxes, but that is where my partner steps in and takes care of business. This decision to partner with a publisher and go through the process of producing an ebook and a print book (via Lightning Source) has taught me a lot about publishing a book and all of the work that goes into it. I have much more respect for publishers now, and understand why they do some of the things I often thought seemed odd or wrong. I have had stressful lows that have chewed on my gut and dizzying highs that leave me feeling drunk for days. By the end of 2011, I'll have a better idea of what it's done for my career, but so far, it's given me much more self-confidence than I had just a year ago. I've created a product from start to finish and this product is selling well out of the gate. I've never felt more in charge of my writing career than I have since taking on this new role and partnering with Corvallis Press.
Future plans? Write and sell more books. Ha! Seriously, this fall, we're planning to put out the first of my Arizona mystery series while the third book in the Deadwood series is finished and run through the editing gauntlet. The second in the Arizona series will come out after the third in the Deadwood series. Corvallis Press also will be taking submissions in the near future. The plan is to test and experiment on a couple of my books, because the author couldn't get mad at us and yell a lot about something we might have screwed up (well, she could, but I'd look pretty darn stupid, yelling in the mirror). After we have a groove down using my books, we will open the window to other authors who are interested in having a more hands-on role in their careers. Stay tuned.
D.B: I appreciate your forthright honesty. One last question: With the publishing industry changing right before our eyes, what advice, if any, would you give to aspiring authors?
A.C.: If writing to get published and sell books is what you really want to do, realize that winning contests, finding a publisher (or agent), and becoming a bestseller doesn't happen overnight. It takes years, sometimes decades. I have been working to be published for about 14 years now. (Yeah, ouch, right?) Many authors do it in less time than I have, others take longer. Patience is necessary, as is being open to continually learning. Perseverance and practice are also essential. Most important--this is an entrepreneurial business. Entrepreneurs are known for living, breathing, and sleeping businesses. Writing is the same. If your family doesn't periodically consider staging an intervention to break you from your writing-related addiction, you aren't working hard enough to succeed.
Thank you, Donnell, for having me over to chat about NEARLY DEPARTED IN DEADWOOD. Your questions were excellent. You asked questions that made me stop and ponder, really digging deep. Barbara Walters should take lessons from you ;)
D.B.: Absolutely my pleasure, Ann. I put Ms. Walters on speed dial, but so far she hasn't returned my calls. ;) Readers, I let this interview run long, because, as you can see, Ann doesn't just wear her trademark cowboy hat, she wears multiple headdresses these days. Ann will be giving away NEARLY DEPARTED IN DEADWOOD, either in a ebook format or print form, one lucky reader's preference. Since it's the weekend, we'll draw a winner Monday evening.
To learn more about Ann or view her brother's artwork, check out www.anncharles.com
So there you have it. Questions? Comments? Anyone care to talk about this crazy industry we love?