Sunday, October 7, 2018

Interview with Laurel Heidtman

     This month I interview Kentucky author Laurel Heidtman. Laurel writes cozy mystery and romance novels from her home in the Daniel Boone National Forest.

15) Believe it or not, purely by coincidence, you’re the second consecutive female ex police officer I’ve made my Author of the Month (the last was Christine Lyden, aka CA Asbrey, who was a UK cop). Between your law enforcement experience, stint as a bartender, nursing training and two English degrees, you’re very admirably and enviably weighted for a crime writing career. How much does your experience as a cop inform your fiction?

Quite a bit. Since most of my books are mysteries in which some of the characters are police officers, it helps to have knowledge of how the police work and think, as well as what’s believable in the description of the crime. I often yell “you gotta be kidding!” at some of the things I see on TV crime shows. My third Eden mystery, A Convenient Death, is even loosely based on an unsolved double murder that occurred in a convenience store in the city where I was a police officer. Of course, my fictitious cops solved it. Hah!

14) I’d like to first talk to you about your Eden series. First off, it’s not a series in the traditional sense. Each of the three Eden books features an interesting new protagonist (except for insurance investigator Cal Becker) and only the locale is retained, almost as if it’s a character in its own right. In a way, it resembles the Mundy’s Landing series by bestselling novelist Wendy Corsi Staub. What made you choose to write your series like that?

Actually most of the characters are retained throughout the series, but different ones step forward to share center stage. Cal Becker is introduced in the first one, takes center stage in the second, and has a supporting role in the third. Eden police detective Jo Valentine is a major character in all three, and Eden University police officer (and later chief) Lou Pelfrey has a supporting role in all three. Edna and Ann Hill are in all three, and Ann has a bigger role in the third. Many of the other characters have minor roles in all three.

As far as why I did it that way? Honestly, I’m not sure I thought it out. It just seemed right because it’s the way it would be in real life. The police officers in a given town remain more or less the same for years, but the crimes happen to and are committed by different people. But many of those people live in the town for years.

13) So, looking at your thriller canon, strictly speaking, all four of your books are standalones. Any plans to bring back any of your MCs to make them series characters?

I think I might have answered some of this in the previous question. I do plan on continuing the Eden series, but I’ll do it the same way I’ve been doing it—continuing with most of the same characters but bringing a different one forward to share center stage with Jo Valentine.

As for Whiteout, it will always remain a true standalone. However, I am toying with the idea of doing other thrillers set against the backdrop of a natural threat. I can honestly say I’ve never been truly afraid of another person—wary of them, certainly, but not afraid. I always figure I’ve got a chance of either reasoning with them or beating them. But Mother Nature? She can throw some serious shit at you, and there’s no reasoning with or beating her. Earthquakes, fire, flood, blizzards, tornados—I’d rather face a serial killer any day! :-)

12) Is the fictional town of Eden based on any place you know of either within or outside your home in the Daniel Boone National Forest?

I live a little less than an hour away from Morehead, Kentucky, which is a small college town. But it being a small town with a university and close to Daniel Boone are the only things that resemble Eden. There are no gorgeous bed and breakfasts like Holly House, no steel mill, and no river. And I didn’t base any of my characters on people who live there. I don’t even know any of the police officers and only one or two people who live there.

11) Have any real life anecdotes from your stints as a cop, bartender or a nurse made their way into your fiction?

As I mentioned, the idea for the double murder in A Convenient Death can be attributed to the unsolved crime that occurred while I was on the police department. But nothing matches that crime other than it occurring in a convenience store at night with both the clerk and a customer the victims. It’s more that I try to use my experience in various professional environments to add a realistic feel to the stories and the characters.

10) It’s been said that writers are not made they’re born, while others say the exact opposite. You seem to be the former. On your website, you relay an anecdote handed down from your mother who said you wrote stories based on the pictures in books when you were too young to read. Has the stimulation of your visual sense continued to inspire your fiction?

Gee, I dunno. Probably. And I didn’t “write” the stories based on the pictures when I was a kid. I was too young to read and too young to write, so I made up stories and told them to her. Kept up the oral tradition, I guess, like my distant ancestors would have done around the campfire. In truth, I think most people are probably born storytellers. Most young children are, but somewhere along the way, their imagination gets crushed.

9) You also write romantic suspense as Lolli Powell. Who are your favorite authors in that subgenre?

I really enjoy J.D. Robb’s books featuring Eve Dallas. Those are a wonderful mix of romance and crime set in a future world.

8) As you may know, all my Authors of the Month are indie novelists. Are you happy being an indie or do you yearn for a Big Five publishing contract obtained through a literary agent?

I’m happy being indie. If I were younger, I might be knocking at the doors of agents/publishers, but at my age, I’d probably be on my deathbed by the time I landed a contract. Back in the early nineties when I was working twelve-hour nursing shifts, I submitted a couple of romantic suspense books to Silhouette. They were rejected, but I got long, personalized letters telling me what they liked and didn’t like rather than form rejections. From what I read at the time, that was encouraging. There was no option of self-publishing at the time, of course. Then I took a technical writing job and stopped writing fiction. After spending all day writing online help and manuals, I couldn’t face sitting at the computer any longer.

A couple of years ago I attended the Killer Nashville mystery writers conference. They have roundtables with a couple of agents and eight or ten writers. Each participant prints ten pages of a novel. They are read out loud, then the agents make comments and fill out a short form they give to the writer. If they like it, they tell the writer they’d like to see more and how many pages more. I decided to participate in one just to see how I would do. I took the first ten pages of A Convenient Death, and both agents said they wanted to see more. I didn’t pursue it with them and never intended to, but I think I needed that positive feedback that told me I was doing okay.

Besides, indies can do quite well. I recently purchased a K-Lytics report on cozy mysteries. Out of the top ten bestselling cozy mystery authors, six were indies—as were numbers eleven and twelve. I edit for a couple of indie authors who now make a very good living at it. I’m nowhere close to that yet, but I turn a small profit every month.

I’m also a bit of a control freak when it comes to my own life. I like being in charge of what I write, when I write, the cover, the advertising—all of it. And even if the money isn’t much, I only have to share a little with Amazon.

7) Describe your typical writing day. Do you use a spiral loose leaf notebook for drafts, strictly a laptop or both? How many hours a day do you devote to writing? And despite the breadth of your experience, do you still need to do intensive research into your mysteries?

I’m strictly computer—laptop or desktop. As for how many hours a day I devote to writing—not enough. It would be more accurate to say I average 2,000 words a day on a writing day. Some days those 2,000 take several hours; other days I get them done quickly. I know I’m not producing books as fast as I’d like, and I want to work on that.

As far as research, I wouldn’t say I do intensive research, but I usually do some. For example, even though I was a police officer, I was one from 1977 to 1988. A lot has changed since then, especially in terms of how the police use technology. And police departments in a small town are different from departments in mid-size cities and they’re both different from big city departments. Federal law enforcement is different from city, county, or state. New weapons and new problems have appeared on the scene. So it is necessary for me to do some research.

6) Plotter or pantser?

Pantser for the most part. I know the start of a story and I generally know the end, but the part in between comes to me as I write. I always compare it to driving from New York to California. You know where you’re starting and where you want to end up, but there are a lot of ways to get there.

Sometimes I think I know what I’m going to write, but it changes as I go along. I often say I feel like I’m channeling the characters. They tell me what to write, and they do things I’m not expecting. It’s a little creepy. A lot of writers I talk to have the same experience.

5) You and your husband have a sizable menagerie consisting of three dogs and two cats. Have any of them made their way into your fiction or at least have given you ideas?

The Top Shelf mysteries are the only books I’ve written that have an animal in them (Jasper, Ricki’s cat). I do plan on doing another cozy mystery series that will have more animal characters. I love animals of all kinds—and like them a lot more than I like most people.

Living in the woods like we do, we also have a lot of wild visitors. Our latest and most surprising was about a month ago. A black bear decided the can of bird seed and corn on our front porch was just too tempting to pass up. We heard the noise about eleven one night, opened the front door expecting to see a raccoon—boy, were we surprised! It’s not something we see every day in our part of Kentucky, but it’s getting more common. Who knows? Maybe a bear will show up in one of my books one day.

4) Assuming you’re still an omnivorous reader (you once told me you have over 300 titles on your Kindle), what are the trends you welcome in indie fiction and which ones don’t you welcome?

I don’t know if you’d call it a trend, but I really hate that so many indie authors put out work that has not been copyedited. Often the story is really good and the author does a great job of telling it and creates characters that are believable, but the sheer number of grammar and punctuation errors, missing words, etc. distract a reader from what would be a good book. Because the eye sees what it expects to see, anyone can have one or two mistakes—I find them even in books that come from the big publishers—but too many indie books are filled with them. That hurts all of us. I know many writers can’t afford to pay an editor, but I think most people know someone who aced their English classes. If nothing else, ask them to look it over. They might not catch everything, but they’ll catch a lot.

A trend I like is the growing popularity and acceptance of indie books. When I see things like the K-Lytic report that shows six of the ten top-selling authors in cozy mysteries are indie, it’s encouraging. What one considers a good book is subjective. Readers, not the gatekeepers of traditional publishing, should be allowed to decide what they want to read.

3) WHITEOUT is the only thriller you’ve written and published that isn’t part of the Eden series. I have to admit, I’m irresistibly drawn to domestic thrillers that devolve on a cabin during a blizzard. What inspired you to write WHITEOUT?

In March of 1993 I was in my last year of nursing school in Ohio. We’d already bought the Kentucky house, but we only came on weekends and vacations since my husband was still working and I was still in school. During spring break, we headed down for a week in our house in the woods, and a freak snowstorm struck while we were here.

Some areas of Kentucky got thirty inches of snow. We got twenty-two where we are, and the blizzard-force winds resulted in hip-high drifts—very rare for our area. Our house is a third of a mile back a gravel lane that leads to a paved forest service road. That, in turn, goes for ten miles in one direction until it intersects with a county road and two miles in the other direction to the end of the peninsula we’re on. We lost power, and that was before we had a Generac. We couldn’t get out our lane, but even if we had been able to, we couldn’t have driven on the road. The county snow plows would probably have gotten to the road eventually, but as you can imagine, three inhabited houses (that’s all there were at the time) were not high on their list of priorities. About three days into it, one of our neighbors got his backhoe out and plowed us out himself. Whiteout grew out of that experience, but at least we didn’t have any escaped killers show up at our door.

2) When you retired and began writing fiction full time, who were and are your biggest influences?

I don’t think anyone influenced me in the beginning, but now the global community of other indie authors are a big support. As an undergraduate English major with a creative writing emphasis, I’d known other students who aspired to be writers, but I’d lost touch with them by the time I started writing Catch A Falling Star. My husband mentioned that I was writing to a man at a restaurant where he often goes for coffee, and that man said his nephew had also written a book. The man went on to tell the local librarian about both of us, and she set up a book event with us and two more local authors. One of the people who came to see us turned out to have written a book that she hadn’t even told her mother about. She’s now outpaced me in the number of books she’s written, and she’s one of my editing clients.

Besides the local community of indie authors that I didn’t know existed, there’s the global community. I regularly edit for a British author who now lives in Spain and a Kosovo author who writes in English and sets her stories in the U.S. I occasionally edit for a writer who lives in Washington state. I “talk” with others around the world on Facebook and Goodreads and sometimes in emails. There are a lot of us out there, and for the most part, we’re all supportive of one another.

1)   What’s next for Laurel Heidtman?

I’m working on the third Top Shelf mystery now. It’s been slow going this summer (that seems to hit me every summer), but now that fall is here, I hope to devote more time to it. My cozy mysteries seem to be the most popular of my books, so for a while, I plan on focusing on them.

Most of all, I want to become more disciplined as far as treating my writing more like a “real” job, i.e., putting in regular hours on a specified number of days. Eight full-length books and one novella in five years isn’t bad, but that’s still slightly less than an average of two a year. I can and should do much better than that.

     This is where you can find Laurel's Facebook page and this is where you can find her Lolli Powell website.

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