Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Guest Author: S. L. Smith

I'm thrilled to be able to interview author S. L. Smith today. As most of you know, I'm a huge fan of mysteries and suspense and it's a real pleasure to feature a mystery writer on my blog.

S. L. Smith

Why did you decide to write?

I have written forever, even though it doesn’t seem like I’m that old. When I was in college, I wrote snail mail letters almost weekly to both of my grandmothers. I still treasure the letters I received in return. I compiled family memoirs for the families of both of my parents, believing the lives these documents portrayed deserved preserving. (Say that real fast five times.) In my career, technical writing was a primary responsibility. That was, generally, nonfiction.

I love to read, so sharing my thoughts and ideas seemed a logical next step. Mysteries and suspense have been my favorite genres forever. It seemed logical that I expand my interests from reading mysteries to writing them. I believed I could succeed, and that served as a stimulus. I had to find out if I was right. Once I reached that point, writing became an obsession. When I wasn’t working at my paid job, I was writing. On weekends, holidays and vacations I wrote.

In the meantime, the dust motes thrived, emails went unanswered and meals became anything I could prepare and eat with minimal interruption. The good news is that I am single, so I am not subjecting a spouse to what others might define as insanity.

How much research do you do? What’s your favorite method for researching?

Anything I don’t know first-hand I research. Many things I know first-hand I research. I want to get it right. Some readers put a book down the first time they find an inaccuracy and thereafter refuse to look at anything by that author. I work far too hard to risk that type of turnoff.

I spend a lot of time on research throughout the writing process, and the method I prefer depends on the most complete/accurate and time-saving method available. Let me give some examples:

My career required substantial interaction with the state police and local law enforcement agencies. That gave me a starting point for Blinded by the Sight, but it was just the beginning. A friend spent 25-years in law enforcement. He served as my reality check for those aspects. Knowing that I needed a captive audience to fulfill my mission, I’d take him out to lunch when I needed his input and feedback. Then I painted scenarios and with his help insured the way I handled each one was accurate, feasible—you name it.

Blinded by the Sight is set in St. Paul, Ramsey County, Minnesota. An investigator from the Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s Office would handle the crime scene and autopsy, so I found a phone number on the Internet, made a call, and located someone in that office. In cases like this, the luck of the draw can be a factor, but when you tell these professionals what you are doing, they are often willing to help. I found someone who patiently answered all of my questions—twice. Despite the fact I’d kept him on the phone for a half-hour the first time, he answered my second call and follow-up questions. Between the two calls, he explained what the investigator from the medical examiner’s office would do, as well as when, where and how.

It may have been possible to obtain this information on the Internet, but I dread to think the time commitment that would entail. Also, by having a local contact, I was able to insure that the picture I painted was specific to Ramsey County. There’s one other thing I’ve accomplished through this process. I now have a fan in the Ramsey County ME’s office!

There are two kids in the novel. Beginning, again, with the Internet, I found and reached someone in the applicable school district. She gave me the information I requested about the relevant practices and procedures.

I researched homelessness on the Internet. Then I added that information to my experiences working at a soup kitchen.

My bachelor’s degree is in psychology. I used some of the things my coursework taught me about people while creating my characters. To that I added a lifetime of interactions with friends, family, co-workers, you name it. Include a generous dose of the observation time that the day-to-day life of an introvert entails. However, once I created the personalities, what they did with their lives was up to them.

The St. Paul High Bridge, shown on the cover of Blinded by the Sight, plays an important role in my novel. I had driven across this bridge many times, but not in years. After writing the bridge into one chapter, I went there, walked back and forth across the bridge and checked out the surrounding area. Viewing the bridge on foot gave me a much better feel for the possibilities the layout offered. When I got home, I rewrote that chapter, making use of the knowledge I’d gained. The result: what happened on the bridge was much more compelling. The bridge tour qualifies as one of my favorite pieces of research.

Do you have a favorite theme or message for your readers?

I don’t have a single, favorite theme, but both Blinded by the Sight and the sequel, now in the early stages, have a theme. Unfortunately, disclosing the themes will disclose too much about the stories, so …

How do you approach a new book? Outlines? Just an idea?

When I began writing Blinded by the Sight, I had a victim, a homeless man who was wearing an impressive diamond ring. I knew why he was homeless. I had two protagonists—two investigators with the St. Paul Police Department. I knew their personalities. That’s it!

I know there are authors who use outlines, story boards, etc. and swear by these methods. I am not one of them. I start with a skeleton and let the characters develop the story for me. That makes writing the novel an adventure. I am waiting to see what happens along the way. Some readers skip ahead, checking to see “who dun nit.” With this methodology, that isn’t possible. I have to either be patient or work more hours.

Once the first draft is completed, I start at the beginning and add more meat, more description and detail. This part of the process takes more time than the first draft. At the same time, I begin listening to the manuscript, using the language bar in MS Word. I listen to a lot of audio books and forever find myself thinking of a better way to phrase something I’ve heard. When I’m writing, it isn’t possible for me to make that type of assessment. I do a much better job of that by listening to the manuscript once, twice, a dozen times or more. This is my best way of locating problems in the manuscript, including detecting when I’m using the same word repeatedly.

How do you develop your characters?

I seek to know and understand my characters from the outer surface to the core. A person’s physical appearance often influences his or her personality. More often it goes much deeper than that. As a result, I begin with the physical description. Next I do a detailed outline of their lives and personalities. I determine what their childhood was like, how they did in school, their likes and dislikes. I establish their triggers and their vulnerabilities. This applies to all characters who make more than a cameo appearance.

What makes a great book in your opinion?

For me, a great book is one that grabs my interest and doesn’t release its grip until I’ve either read or listened to the last word. It requires characters I like and want to know better, characters with whom I identify, or characters I hate but am given the opportunity to understand.

I like action and suspense. I dislike books that end on a sad note. I love Jodi Picoult’s writing, but I HATE the endings! I should qualify that. I’ve only read a few of her novels and stopped after Sister’s Keeper. Once I’ve grown attached to her characters, I can’t stand the way Jodi ends her novels.

Do you have any tips for aspiring authors?

I have two tips. First, don’t give up. There are more ways than ever to get published. In addition to the major presses, there are all kinds of small presses. Self-publishing is no longer only a last resort. Some highly successful authors are choosing that option. It gives them more control and can be more profitable. With eBooks storming the gates, print books are no longer the only game in town. At the same time, it seems there will always be a niche for print books.

Most important of all, whatever methodology you pursue, get your work professionally edited BEFORE you look for an agent or a publisher, self-publish, whatever. Make your work as perfect as possible. People will notice.

Born in St. Cloud, I’m a lifelong resident of Minnesota. I obtained a bachelor’s degree from St. Catherine University in St. Paul, majoring in psychology. A died-in-the-wool introvert, I found the coursework engrossing. The things I learned in those classes have been invaluable to me in writing fiction. Writing nonfiction, however, was one of my major responsibilities during the 32-years I worked for the State of Minnesota, Department of Public Safety.

I’ve never been married. Although I have no children, eleven nieces and nephews do a wonderful job of filling the void. Among my other loves are reading and travel.

In the early days of the new millennium, I completed a different version of my debut novel. Realizing time was fleeting, that manuscript took a backseat to family memoirs. I spent four and a half years gathering information and finding anyone and everyone with a link to my family. In the process, I discovered a treasure trove of stories and pictures. Many date back into the 1800s.

Once I’d compiled and published those books, I returned to fiction. By then, the motive for murder was passé. The rewrite was huge, but I don’t regret prioritizing the memoirs. I believe they will accomplish what I’d hoped, i.e., preserving the memory of these integral parts of my family for future generations.

Although Blinded by the Sight is my debut novel, this isn’t the first time I was published. In the mid 1990s, three articles I co-authored were published in public administration journals. Even so, the memoirs and Blinded by the Sight feel more like they’re my babies. I have more of a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction from them, perhaps due to the relative time commitments each project entailed.

by S. L. Smith
ISBN 0-87839-439-7
Mystery set in St. Paul, MN
North Star Press of St. Cloud, Inc. • September 1, 2011

Police investigators Pete Culnane and Martin Tierney are as different as parchment and newsprint, and Martin s insecurities are fed by Pete s expertise and finesse. A homeless man wearing an eye-popping diamond ring is as inexplicable to both of them as the disappearance of the two boys who reported his body on St. Paul s Upper Landing.

Blinded by the Sight demonstrates how good intentions can go awry, resulting in unintended, life-altering predicaments.

* * * * *
Thank you for joining me!


Marja McGraw said...

Great interview! I've read Blinded by the Sight and it's a terrific book. Your research really paid off. And best of all, I enjoyed the characters.

Amy said...

Thanks for stopping by and leaving that comment! I'm glad you liked the book--I'm getting ready to buy a copy, myself. :)

Hosting other authors is the best way to find new reading material, bar none!