The Scarlet Wench is an English pub – and the title of American writer Marni Graff’s latest novel. Marni and I met on Facebook (where else!) last year, and here she is to answer a few questions about herself.
Did you spend a typical American Christmas season?
Christmas is always a hectic, glorious time of year. I love to wrap presents and since four of our grandchildren live in the Midwest, those have to be sent early to be under their tree. It forces me to shop early and be organized. I had several parties with different writing groups to attend and of course, our local son and his family were at our riverside home for Christmas dinner, along with my mother. We are all dog lovers and at one point there were four at our house, barking and running around and enjoying each other. It’s casual and loud and great fun.
How did you come to write The Scarlet Wench?
The Scarlet Wench is the third Nora Tierney Mystery and it’s set in Cumbria, where Nora is living temporarily with the illustrator of her children’s books and his sister at a lodge they run. It was the natural outgrowth of the other two books and features a theatre troupe arriving at the lodge to stage Noel Coward’s farce, Blithe Spirit. A series of pranks and accidents escalate to murder, and Nora is right on the spot to dive in, as she protects her infant son. All of the chapter epigrams are lines from the play, and Coward’s estate liked it so much they asked for a copy for their archives. Also staying at the lodge is DI Declan Barnes, in a new relationship with Nora. Handy to have a detective on hand when murder occurs!
How do you go about doing research?
Living in North Carolina seems like it should be more of a problem than it is. I plan the general setting way ahead of time and visit those areas when I’m in the UK. For instance, the next Nora Tierney Mystery, The Golden Hour, is set in Bath, which I hadn’t visited in years, so when I was in the UK in 2013 I stayed with friends who live outside Bath and visited the town again, snapping photos and deciding where several key scenes would be set. I also toured a bookshop, Mr. B’s Reading Emporium, which is the draw to the area for Nora to be there in the first place, ostensibly to give a reading of her children’s books. I also knew a future book would be set in Cornwall, and trained there for a few days as I’d never been. Back in NC, my Brit friends are available by email for any questions. I have them sprinkled throughout the UK! There’s always Google, too, for generalities, but having someone on site as a contact is so much better.
Describe your writing routine.
I write mostly in the afternoons, after the minutiae of the house and marketing and other things a writer must attend to are taken care of. I’ve found it frees my mind and lets me get set up for the work to come with less distraction and guilt. Some days I’ll reread what I wrote yesterday and make minor changes but I try not to launch into a real hearty revision until the first draft is complete. I always carry a notebook around with me for jotting down thing like scraps of overhead conversation I can pirate; ideas for a scene; a description or scent or sound. And I find a sure-fire way to get myself to fall asleep on insomniac nights is to work on a plotline.
What’s the best thing about being an author?
Being able to play the “What If?” game with complete abandon: creating characters, situations, defining issues that run as thread across the books. Each book has its own separate theme but the general theme for all of them is: We are who we are by the choices we make. I’m not writing about sociopaths or psychopaths, although I do read those kinds of books. I’m writing about what would make an average person feel it’s reasonable to cross that line and take another person’s life.
The variations on that, the motives and rationale and reasonings, are a subject I find endlessly fascination and carry over to the next book that will be in print. It’s the first in a series set in Manhattan, featuring a nurse, Trudy Genova, who works as a medical consultant for a NY based movie studio, which was my own favorite nursing job in a career that spanned 30 years before I turned to writing full time. Death Unscripted debuts in 2015, when an actor Trudy is working with dies right on camera, but only after pointing his finger at her in blame.
And the worst thing?
The business end, marketing myself. As much as I enjoy connecting with my readers, I’d rather do that in person on tours or at readings. Spending so much time on marketing takes away from the time spent writing, yet is necessary if anyone is to know my books are out there. It’s one reason I write a weekly crime review blog (www.auntiemwrites.co,). I wanted to share great crime books with my readers and knew I didn’t have it in me to do a daily “I ate bologna for lunch” blog, and so I reach out to readers this way.
What do writers need most?
Writing is such a solitary state, staring at the blank sea of daunting white, that I think a supportive community is a must. This can be a collection of local writers, or a larger group spread out across the country that meets via email, but some kind of collaborative group of other writers who ‘get’ what it means to be a writer.
What are your hobbies away from writing?
We live at the end of a dirt road on a river that’s part of the Intracoastal Waterway. It’s serene and nature-filled, and although we are far from any kind of shopping or things like movies, we are surrounded by all kinds of shore birds: Great Blue herons, osprey, deer and bear, too. We had a bald eagle who nests in our pine trees and right now at night trumpet swans from Canada are wintering on our river. At night they bark like dogs! We take walks with our Italian Spinone, Radar, and of course, I love to read. I read at least three books a week, and sometimes more, often just before bed. I enjoy jigsaw puzzles, too!
Your own favourite author/book/genre?
I was fortunate to count P D James as a mentor and friend for the past 14 years. Sadly she died a few weeks ago but has left behind a host of deeply layered mystery novels that explore the psychology of their characters and how it connects to each setting. I’d learned from her writing long before we became acquainted.
Mystery has always been what I read and enjoyed most and why I chose to write them. The puzzle’s the thing for me. I started with Conan Doyle and the Golden Agers: Christie, Sayers, Tey, Marsh, et al, and never looked back. Modern authors I read and enjoy include Louise Penny, Frances Fyfield, Deborah Crombie, Nicola Upson, Michael Robotham, Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, Peter Robertson, Peter Lovesey, Aline Templeton, Ruth Rendell, Peter May, Ann Cleeves, Barry Maitland … you did want a reading list, right?
What advice would you give an aspiring author?
-Don’t fret. Just put your head down and write a good story. Consider it a lump of clay you will refine and shape. Mistakes can be corrected. Give yourself freedom to make them and don’t censor your creativity.
-The real writing gets done in revision. This is where you add texture, cut away the excess and let the story shine through. It all comes down to a darn good story.
-Learn to find a GOOD critique group/person. This is not always easy. Writers can be a jealous lot. You can’t learn from someone who tells you they liked or didn’t like your work. You need to find out what it was they liked or didn’t like. But take all advice with a large grain of salt. Never revise to meet someone else’s expectations. This is YOUR story and you are its owner. So own it.
Marni Graff is the award-winning author of The Nora Tierney Mysteries, set in England. The Blue Virgin introduces Nora, an American writer living in Oxford. The Green Remains and The Scarlet Wench trace Nora’s move to the Lake District where murder follows her. In process is The Golden Hour, set in Bath, and premiering in Spring 2015 will be Graff’s new Manhattan series, Death Unscripted, featuring nurse Trudy Genova, a medical consultant for a New York movie studio. Graff is also co-author of Writing in a Changing World, a primer on writing groups and critique techniques. She writes crime book reviews at auntiemwrites.com and is Managing Editor of Bridle Path Press. A member of Sisters in Crime, Graff runs the NC Writers Read program in Belhaven. All of Graff’s books can be bought at Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk or at bridlepathpress.com and are available as eBooks.