When you are an avid reader you are not only always watching for new books by favorite authors, or books in your preferred genre, you're also always looking for new authors to discover. One of the best discoveries to make is not only an author you had not read before, but someone who writes the sort of stories you love to read! That was my joyous discovery in the past couple of weeks as I became acquainted with author Jo Hiestand, who writes in the mystery genre. Her works were very appealing and naturally I had lots of questions I wanted to ask her!
Jo, how did you become a writer. Have you always wanted to write fiction?
First, thank you for having me as your guest today, Rebecca. I’m honored to be here. Now, to your question…
I’ve lived most of my life in St. Louis, Missouri, where I was born. I wanted to be a writer since I was in grade school but I didn’t do anything about it until I was in my fifties—I took a continuing education class through the local community college. That writing teacher ignited my desire and I started writing in earnest. My first novel, A Staged Murder, was published in August 2004.
Part of the trouble with deciding to write seriously, why it took me so long to get going, is that I have too many interests. It was difficult to narrow it down. I love music—I play guitar and the harpsichord—so I thought about being a professional folksinger or a concert pianist. Photography, drawing, quilting and baking also take up large parts of my life—could I do something with that? A hobby at one point was writing a script on some topic, like autumn or the day in the life of a pond, then go out and take illustrating photographs, record the narration (tape recorders were the medium back then) and plop it all together with music as a multi-media show with the projected slides, recorded narration and music. That was so cool! Could I professionally sell those to school districts for their curriculum? I also toyed with the idea of setting up a tearoom, baking and selling cheesecakes, creating my own recipes and putting them in a cookbook…. Clearly, I was destined to use all this in my writing, ha ha!
I grew up reading The Three Musketeers, Rebecca, Jane Eyre, Kidnapped… I loved authors such as Walter de la Mare, Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart, and Charles Dickens. Then, in my adult pre-published years, I devoured every book of the Golden Age mysteries of Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey. I loved the mood of the writing as well as the locations. Without thinking about it, this atmospheric feel has crept into my writing in the form of my scene descriptions and location choices-–dilapidated stone barns, thunderstorm in the forest, midnight on the moors….
I’m a nature lover—trees, the land, birds, wildlife. These elements crop up in my writing as descriptive scene writing and as character traits.
I first tried my hand at writing when I was a teenager. I didn’t know a thing about plotting or editing or that certain publishers accepted certain genres. I didn’t know how to develop characters or describe a scene. Needless to say, that first book was awful, and I still cringe when I think about it. I can’t remember the title of the thing, but the first lines are engraved on my memory, unfortunately. “You’re an ungrateful nephew, that’s what you are!” yelled the aunt. “But auntie…” “Quiet,” snapped the aunt. “You’re not getting any more money. I’m cutting you out of my will.” “But auntie…” Thankfully, the rest of this scintillating dialogue has been lost to the flames decades ago. Through reading authors I admire I’ve learned about plot and pacing and characters. I’ve learned how to write in a more compact style and let the reader draw assumptions. I ‘show’, now that I can write descriptively, so I think that brings the reader into the story. Thankfully (to me, if not to readers), I kept trying, and it paid off when the first novel of my Peak District British mystery series was accepted by a publisher.
How did you get started in your writing career?
I’d been writing and submitting and getting rejections. But some of the rejections came with a few handwritten notes, which I learned was a “good sign” that I was close to producing acceptable stuff. I’d founded the Greater St. Louis chapter of Sisters in Crime (the international mystery writers/readers organization). One of our members was Shirley Kennett, a published mystery author. After some back-and-forth debate with myself, I asked her if she’d read my first Peak District mystery and tell me what was wrong with it, since I just couldn’t get it to an acceptable stage for publication. She read it, and wrote a five-page report on its strengths and weaknesses. But the three best pieces of advice were to change one of the male police detectives to a female, change the 3rd person POV to the woman’s 1st person POV, and to give her a female friend in whom she could confide. I bristled at the suggestions: I loved my book and characters, I didn’t want to change them. But the book was not publishable, so after a few days I decided to follow her suggestions. I changed what needed changing, submitted it, and the first publisher I submitted it to took it. It pays to listen to advice! When ten books in that series were out, I began another series. The McLaren Mystery series saw the light of day in 2011; it features ex-police detective Michael McLaren who now investigates cold cases on his own.
What are you working on right now?
At the moment, I’m polishing the second draft of the ninth book of the McLaren mysteries, Photo Shoot. If all goes well, it will come out August 2018. I’m racing against the clock on this one so I can take it to a 30,000-attendee Scottish highland games festival this fall and sell it and my other books at my booth. (The story’s based in Scotland instead of his more usual locale in Derbyshire, England) I have another “Scottish” McLaren book, An Unfolding Trap, which is book five. I figured if I wanted more book sales at the Games I should have more than one book set in Scotland. So I came up with Photo Shoot. It’s a bit more personal than most of the books, in that this deals with his family in Auchtubh, Scotland—his grandfather, uncle and the uncle’s new wife. The uncle asks McLaren to investigate the year-old unsolved murder of his first fiancée. So I spend about half my writing time researching Scottish things I don’t know, like grade levels/ages of school children, dates for fishing seasons in lochs and which ones allow fishing from boats and which allow fishing from the shore, how many Scottish members of parliament represent each person, how long does the train ride from Edinburgh to Callander take, what Edinburgh neighborhood would a young career person live in, what is the name of a male lamb… Your normal research topics.
Your books are coming out in Audio. How do you like working in that medium, and how do you think it enhances your books?
Yes, the first McLaren mystery, Cold Revenge, came out January 2, 2018. The others are contracted and should be following this year, I assume. Audiobooks are a new experience for me and I have a lot to learn about the process. I’m in awe of the actors who narrate these books. Such talents, not only in reading but also speaking in different accents. James Lyne, who narrates Cold Revenge, even sings the song in the book! (A song is important to either the victim, to McLaren or to the plot in each McLaren book. The lyrics are part of the story.) James Lyne puts such emotion into the scenes that my characters seem to step off the page, fully alive and feeling. The story’s so much richer in the audiobook form; the characters are real people. It’s a humbling experience to listen to such talented narrators, and it reminds me not only how important characterization is but also of my duty to write as well as I can.
How do you come up with characters?
It’s probably no different from most authors. My characters are a mixture of people I know and invented traits I need them to have. Detective-Chief Inspector Geoffrey Graham, in my Peak District series, is a combination of Ngaio Marsh’s Alleyn, a former minister in my church, and my imagination. Police officer Scott Coral is 90% real, based on a friend of mine. Michael McLaren is about half and half. He’s based on a real British police detective but I made up a bit of his personality. I think a fragment of me creeps into some of the characters without my being aware of that. Friends will sometimes say a certain phrase in a book is “pure Jo”, but I don’t catch those when I’m writing.
Characters are the heart of my stories. They drive the plot. So, for each book I create a mind map on a piece of paper. I put my victim in the center of the page, with a circle drawn around that person’s name. From there, lines like the spokes of a wheel radiate outward. These are the characters who are connected to the victim, and this includes the killer. They all must have some relationship to the victim or to each other. For example, if the victim is a photographer, the characters could be his wife, a gallery owner, a rival photographer, a magazine editor who’s used his photos, his brother-in-law, the landlord of his studio, a client… You get the idea. People who are connected to the victim. From these characters I create their personalities. Then I figure out who would have a reason for hating the guy enough to kill him. I think this works better than a plot-driven story because the characters never do anything against their personalities. It’s believable.
I also create a matrix for each character. This is a chart with five columns. The columns are headed: Character, Objectives, Personality Traits, Key Points, and Opponents. The character’s name, age, physical appearance and job go into the first box. Objectives state what each character is trying to attain in the story—fame, marriage, peace, escape from prison, start a business, learn the identity of his birth father… It’s what drives the character to act. Personality traits strengthen or weaken the character’s objective. He could be lazy, which would stand in the way of starting a business. Or he could be determined or shrewd or mentally deranged, etc. Key Points is what might be important to that character, like he lied about his involvement with his former boss. And then Opponents is anything or anyone that stands in the way of the character attaining his objective. This could be a person in the story or it could be the character’s own weakness. Or it could be something out of his control, like his poverty, or perhaps it’s as fundamental as nature/weather. Like Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. So when I have my matrix figured out, I can then write.
For Photo Shoot, the story I’m working on at the moment, McLaren and his grandfather and uncle appeared in book five, so they were established in my mind. I came up with the victim, her ex-husband, the student and his mother, and the local member of Parliament and his wife. Again, these are a mix of people I know or have met, and my imagination. I’ve used co-workers, friends, and even not-so-much friends to fluff out my characters. Every one of the people I meet has a personality trait that might crop up in a story sometime.
What is your next project?
When I complete Photo Shoot I’ll start on book three of my local series. These are the Linn House Mysteries (I write them under the pen name Jessie McAlan). It’s an amateur sleuth series, lighter than the British books. My protagonist, Rona Murray, is the owner of a bakery/events center. She’s in her mid fifties, been divorced for a year from Johnny, and is trying to make a go of her business, which is on the banks of the Mississippi River about thirty miles south of St. Louis. In the first book, The House on Devil’s Bar, a woman disappears from her property and is found the next day…dead and close enough to Rona’s place to start the tongues wagging in the small town of Klim, Missouri. So Rona has to investigate the death in order to keep her business afloat and to clear her name. Second book is A Hasty Grave, which focuses on a body found buried on her property, a cipher harking back to the James Gang days, and an elderly lady. I’m developing the storyline for the third book. It begins on Halloween morning at a garage sale and involves a blood-feud. Haven’t settled on the title yet. That’s something I have to have in place before I can write. A title focuses my mind, for some reason. Early contenders are A Haunting Past, Whispers From the Woods, or Muffled Oars. This is subject to change! After that, it’s The Stone Hex, the next book in the Peak District mysteries. It centers around the English custom of turning the devil’s stone. It’s a real custom in Devon, but I’m letting a fictional village in Derbyshire have their own go at it. Of course a murder happens that night, and my CID team from the Derbyshire Constabulary investigates.
I guess that’s about it.
If anyone feels inclined, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.johiestand.comThanks for interviewing me, Rebecca. This was fun!
Thanks, Jo, for being my guest. I know I'll be reading or listening to your McLaren series. And I'll be looking for the Linn House mystery series too.
Any comments or questions for Jo?