Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest Donna Huston Murray author of seven Ginger Barnes Main Line Mysteries (originally with St. Martin's Press). They feature a woman much like herself, a headmaster's wife transplanted to an upscale neighborhood by her husband's job.
Final Arrangements, set at Philadelphia’s renowned International Flower Show, simultaneously achieved #1 on the Kindle-store Mystery list and #1 for Female Sleuths. The Main Line is Murder attained #2 for Female Sleuths. The first in her new mystery/suspense series, What Doesn't Kill You, garnered an Honorable Mention in the 2015 Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. Next up is Guilt Trip, The Mystery, second in the Lauren Beck Crime Novel series, pub date 2/1/16.
Norm: Good day Donna and thanks for participating in our interview.
What did you find most useful in learning to write? What was least useful or most destructive?
Donna: My pleasure, Norm. Actually, my answer is the same for both questions. For a few years I attended a monthly 4-hour writing workshop led by a published author. Reading to the group was like a mental shell game. Out of 4 or 5 comments, usually only one or two addressed my mistakes. I finally realized that creative people tend to filter ideas through their own imaginations while an editor will only tell you where the problems are. Sorting out which advice was which went a long way toward teaching me to self-edit. I’m still grateful for that workshop experience.
Norm: Who are some of your favorite authors that you feel were influential in your work? What impact have they had on your writing?
Donna: Early on, Rex Stout’s books made me think it would be fun to write mysteries, and I never changed my mind. Also, his characters and Gregory McDonald’s struck me as both smart and fun. Part of an international crime writer’s convention I attended was a sail around Manhattan at sunset, and Gregory McDonald was alone at the rail—until I sidled up. I asked how he made people laugh on page 2 and cry on page 20. Staring up at the Statue of Liberty, he answered, “Character.” That taught me a lot.
Norm: How do you feel about ebooks vs. print books and alternative vs. conventional publishing?
Donna: Fans are still divided about paperbacks and ebooks, but I think e-books will soon dominate publishing. My first 7 cozy mysteries were brought out by a major publisher, and I’d describe the experience as mixed. I’ve always had an interest in business, which factored into my decision to go independent; and just as the workshop taught me how to make my own decisions, being entirely responsible for my product keeps me focused on quality.
Norm; What helps you focus when you write? Do you find it easy reading back your own work?
Donna: It’s more a matter of escape than focus. I step through Alice-in-Wonderland’s looking-glass every time I’m at the computer, and what I’m really up to is making bad problems come out how I think reality should.
When I first started, I thought my hoped-for occupation was pretty frivolous, but readers taught me otherwise. “Good, a new mystery! I’m going to take this to the hospital with me next week.” Or “My sister’s a shut-in, and she loves mysteries. I’m going to get this for her.” Now I understand that a break from reality can be something people actually need.
Norm: How did you become involved with the subjects or themes of your books?
Donna: I try to pick topics that intrigue me but that I don’t know enough about, for example the Philadelphia International Flower Show (FINAL ARRANGEMENTS). I’d been attending since I was a little girl, loved it, and as an adult became intrigued by the passion the participants bring to the competition. There is no cap on what they can spend, and I remember one rare flower had been hand-picked on a Hawaiian mountain. Another special specimen was driven 400 miles across Africa on the top of a bus before being flown to Philadelphia. Learning this during my research amazed and excited me, and I believe my enthusiasm came through in my descriptions because it was fresh. So you might say I’m only half in agreement with the “Write what you know” advice.
Another time I latched onto the idea of a divorcing couple getting joint custody of a show dog and ran with that (NO BONES ABOUT IT). Then for WHAT DOESN’T KILL YOU I told a friend, who happened to be a physician, that I needed a crime, and he suggested what is probably my favorite plot.
Norm: Can you share some stories about people you met while researching your books?
Donna: When I interviewed a man who led climbs up Mt. Everest, I pretty much asked why anybody would want to do that. He very patiently explained that when confronted with a wall of rock some people are motivated to become more intimate with it. In other words, he cemented my opinion that rock climbers are crazy.
Early on I interviewed about 40 people involved in every aspect of thoroughbred horse racing. I stood on the starter’s box, watched from the patrol tower (horses look like bullets from up there), and learned everything except how to pick a winner. My favorite tidbit—very good for cocktail conversation—came from a Czechoslovakian breeding-farm foreman. “How many breaths does a thoroughbred racehorse take in 6 furlongs?” (3/4 mi.) The amazing answer is two. The horses have huge lungs and take a deep breath at the start like a diver. About halfway through a race, they take their second, which can be observed on film as a very slight slowing in their progress. If the jockey whips his ride while it’s taking a breath, it will tire the horse and affect its chance of winning. That’s a little known fact that some jockeys aren’t even aware of.
I also got stuck interviewing an oyster grower—for five hours—and the only interesting thing I learned was that oysters change sex at random.
Norm: What are some of the references that you used while researching your books?
Donna: Mostly Writer’s Market.
Norm: What do you think most characterizes your writing?
Donna: I’m happiest when readers say they’d like to be friends with Ginger Barnes, because whenever Gin spoke it was basically me talking. Who wouldn’t love to have more friends? Or if they say Lauren Beck is a worthy role model, I privately think, “Great! She’s my role model, too.”
Norm: Which of your characters was the easiest to write and which was the most difficult? Why?
Donna: All sorts of people have always interested me, especially those with different backgrounds from mine, and I seem to collect them in my head. Now when I need to dream up a paperboy, up jumps a redheaded kid with a bicycle who says, “I’ll do it.” For me, it’s that easy. Plots are like sledding uphill. Ask any writer and there will be at least one facet of the work that takes an extra effort. Of course, if we didn’t like the all the challenges, we would be doing something else.
Norm: Could you tell us a little about your most recent novel, What Doesn't Kill You?
Donna: While I was
planning my new series, I met a woman at a football game over a
pumpkin-pecan pie recipe. My pie effort was a disaster, but I should
frame the recipe because it introduced me to my new main character.
Turns out my fellow spectator had sky-dived 43 times, fed sharks
underwater, and learned to fly retired air force planes—all after
recovering from a major illness.
In the spirit of this amazing woman, I made Lauren Beck a former cop and cancer survivor, the former to give her skills, the latter because I personally regard cancer survivors as heroic. In WHAT DOESN’T KILL YOU, while Lauren is feeling her way back into the world her resources begin to disappear one by one, orchestrated by an enemy intent on framing her for murder.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your books?
Donna: My WEBSITE , and anybody can join my mailing list or write to me from there. I’m also on Author Central (Amazon, Goodreads). There’s the Donna Huston Murray, Author page on Facebook and also @DonnaHustonMurr on twitter.
Norm: What is next for Donna Huston Murray?
Donna: The second Lauren Beck Crime Novel, GUILT TRIP, The Mystery is now on pre-order with Amazon—half price until its release 2/1/16. Replacing her sister-in-law, Lauren travels to the Caribbean to scatter the ashes of a questionable suicide.
Meanwhile, I’ve got some hints of Lauren’s next challenge bouncing around in my head, and a cozy mystery waiting for a quick fix. Not that fond of reality, in case you haven’t noticed.
Norm: As this interview comes to an end, what question do you wish that someone would ask about your book, but nobody has?
Donna: I don’t know, Norm. All these questions have been great. How about, “Can I please answer your e-mail so you can daydream all day?”
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors
Donna: Thank you, Norm!