Interview with Virginia Smith
1. Murder by Mushroom, your new book releasing this month, sounds intriguing. Tell us a bit about this story from Love Inspired Suspense.
Kitchen klutz Jackie Hoffner decides to bring something other than potato chips to the church potluck. When someone plants poisonous mushrooms in her casserole to kill a gossipy old lady, Jackie determines to find the killer and clear her name. She makes a complete pest of herself with the police, especially the handsome officer who is hoping this investigation will launch him into a detective position on the force. But when the killer strikes again, it seems Jackie is more than just a pest. She might even be a target. Murder by Mushroom is a cozy mystery – a la Agatha Christie style – set in a small Kentucky town not far from my hometown. Steeple Hill started releasing cozy mysteries along with their typical suspense stories in June, so this is only the third one!
2. How did you come up with the idea for Murder by Mushroom? Did you start with a situation, a crime, a character?
Actually, I was sitting at dinner at a conference beside Krista Stroever, a senior editor at Steeple Hill. She mentioned that she had just given a contract to someone for a cozy mystery series, and was interested in seeing more. Well, several years before, I’d considered writing a mystery set in a small church but hadn’t done much beyond thinking about the setting and a couple of characters. As I ate dinner, I wracked my brain and came up with the idea of using a potluck casserole to kill someone. And it just so happens I was eating chicken in mushroom sauce. One of my friends is a wild mushroom hunter, and a couple of weeks before had been called to the hospital ER to consult when someone had gotten hold of poisonous mushrooms. By the time dinner was over, I had the crime pretty much sketched out. I pitched it to Krista right then and received an invitation to send her a query.
3. Do you plan to write more suspense books? What’s coming up next?
Oh, yes. I just finished proofing the galleys of Bluegrass Peril, which will be out in December. It’s set in the thoroughbred industry. Here’s a teaser:
When the director of a retirement farm for thoroughbred champions is murdered, Becky Dennison teams up with the handsome manager of a neighboring horse farm to find her boss's killer. The amateur sleuths uncover a trail of clues that lead them into the intricate society of Kentucky's elite thoroughbred breeding industry. They soon find themselves surrounded by the mint julep set - jealous southern belles and intensely competitive horse breeders - in a high-stakes game of danger, money, and that famous southern pride.
That one isn’t cozy. My editor says it reads like a Christian Dick Francis novel. Hey, I can live with that!
4. You started out writing sci-fi and fantasy. Tell us a little about that interest of yours.
Oh, I just love sci-fi and fantasy! I’m a Trekker from way back, and I have paintings of fairies and dragons all over the walls of my office! C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia played a big part in my developing love for books as a child, and I never lost my love for stories in fantastic settings. For several years in my early adulthood I read sci-fi/fantasy exclusively – nothing else. So naturally when I decided I wanted to become a writer, that’s what I wrote. Not successfully, I’m afraid. But I do still hold out hopes that one day the Lord will let me play in that genre.
5. Your chick lit books have also been successful. How does a person with talent and interests in so many areas choose a genre? And do you think that writing in several genres has hurt you or helped you as a writer?
I write what I like to read, and that includes several different genres. I love mysteries and suspense and chick lit and women’s fiction and fantasy and science fiction. Sure, there are people who only like to read mysteries, or only like to read romance, or only like to read science fiction (as I once did), and that’s okay. But there are others with eclectic tastes, like mine. I don’t really worry about whether writing in different genres helps me or hurts me. I love every story I write, and I trust my books will find their way onto the bookshelves of readers who will also love them.
My books do all have something in common, though. They all have an element of humor in them. And they all have a female main character who is quirky or funny or wacky in some way. So maybe my “brand” isn’t necessarily related to a genre. Maybe my brand is all about my writing style and my characters.
6. How is the experience of writing suspense different from writing your other books? Do you have to shift into a different mental gear?
Absolutely. I approach the different genres in a totally different way. Not the actual writing, but the preparation for writing. When I write mysteries, I lay out the whole plot before I write the book. I know the crime, the perpetrator, the suspects, their alibis, and the clues I’ll drop along the way. I’m not sure I could write a mystery without knowing all those things in advance!
When I write chick lit or humorous women’s fiction (which is the genre of my upcoming series from Revell) I am a seat-of-the-pants writer for most of the book. I sit down at the computer each morning with only a vague idea of what happens next. But then when I pass the half-way mark, I tend to sketch out a scene-by-scene list from that point forward, so I don’t forget important points that I need to address later in the book.
7. How do you sustain the suspense in your books?
Murder by Mushroom really isn’t suspenseful, since it’s a cozy. But it does have a couple of pretty tense scenes. Bluegrass Peril is more suspenseful, and the one I’m working on right now (not contracted yet) is even more suspenseful. I’m still learning, but I’ve picked up a few things along the way. First, don’t let your main character get comfortable. Keep her worried, and if you’ve done a good job of characterization, your readers will stay worried, too. Second, end chapters with tension that makes the reader want to turn the page and keep reading. Third, during suspenseful scenes, keep the sentences short and almost chopped. That relays tension. And finally, kill people the reader doesn’t expect. I heard a piece of advice once that I’ve taken to heart – if your book starts losing its tension, kill off the main suspect.
8. While writing, what system do you use to keep the clues and story organized?
Spreadsheets. I’m the Queen of Excel, and my plot outline spreadsheets are a work of art. (I’m humble, too!) I have several different sheets in it. The first is a scene-by-scene outline that records the chapter, the action taking place in the scene, clues dropped (hidden or open clues), and the timeline. Viewpoint characters are denoted by color, so since Murder by Mushroom has four viewpoint characters, that spreadsheet is quite colorful! At the end of every day I record how many words I’ve written in each scene, so I keep track of how long the scenes are. And then I also have formulae set up to track total word count, daily progress, and percent complete.
Another sheet contains the first and last names of all the characters, along with a 1-sentence description of their role. When a new character comes on the scene, I do a quick alphabetic sort and make sure the name I give that character doesn’t begin with the same letter as any others. In Murder by Mushroom, though, I have two characters whose names begin with S. I did that on purpose, because I wanted to indicate to the reader that they look alike, that it would be easy to confuse them. (Oooh, and there’s an important hint for something that happens later in the book!)
9. Do you work with critique partners? If so, how do they help you?
Oh, yes, I’m a confirmed critique groupie. I have never turned in any piece of fiction that hasn’t been critiqued. I moderate CWFI’s critique group, so they read a lot for me (and I for them). And over the years I’ve developed a small group of people with whom I exchange manuscripts irregularly, whenever one of us needs something. Jill Elizabeth Nelson is one of them, and she’s an incredible critiquer. Another lady is a fantasy writer I met almost15 years ago, and she’s also extremely talented at pinpointing exactly what needs to be changed.
10. How do you weave the spiritual thread into your suspense and fantasy stories?
My contemporary books are about Christian people living in today’s world, so they have a Christian perspective. The spiritual thread seems to come naturally as I put myself into their heads and look at the world through their eyes. And actually, they tend to look at the world through my eyes, as well. The spiritual growth of my characters is always based – at least in part – on spiritual growth in my own life. So I pray, and I ask the Lord to show me how I learned that particular lesson. Then it sort of flows naturally into the story.
My fantasy isn’t any different than the rest of my stories. (And yes, I do have a couple of unpublished sf/f stories written! I have hopes!) Though the setting is fantastic, God is the ruler of my universe. I don’t think you have to spout Bible verses in order to have a spiritual message. Jesus’ parables weren’t about religious people. They were about everyday people doing everyday things – a woman sweeping the floor, a man planting a vineyard, and investor buying a piece of property. To me, the most powerful lessons are also the most subtle ones.
11. In a short book, say 60,000 words or less, how do you deepen your characters and make them come alive?
I do detailed character sketches, character interviews, personality profiles, and questionnaires on all the main characters. I know way more about my characters than my readers ever will. As the story progresses I might drop a detail that tells the reader about this character’s rich history. For instance, Jackie Hoffner in Murder by Mushroom had a really traumatic experience as a child when her parents were killed. The details of that trauma weren’t necessary for the reader to know, but it helped to shape her personality. It’s part of the reason she has trouble relating to people her own age. I can’t go into details in a short book, but I can tell them that Jackie moved in with her aunt when she was a child, and spent most of her time being a caretaker instead of enjoying time with her friends. And that’s enough. The reader then trusts that Jackie is a real person with a real history, and they believe her character.
12. Any upcoming books or events you’d like to tell us about?
I’ve got a cool event planned for August. I’m giving away a $250 iPod! To qualify, just post a positive review for Murder by Mushroom on Amazon.com, BN.com, or ChristianBook.com, and then send me the link. I’ll draw a name at the end of August. Details are on my website.
As for books - I’ve mentioned Bluegrass Peril, my next mystery that comes out in December. But I also recently received a contract for the sequel to my first book, Just As I Am. I don’t have the finalized title yet, but I think it will be called Sincerely, Mayla. That book is edgy chick lit – funny, but deals with some pretty harsh realities of today’s world. It’ll be released in March.
And I’m totally jazzed about my new series from Revell, the Sister-to-Sister Series. These books are funny and lively and touching and moving. The first book, Stuck in the Middle, will be released in February 2008, followed by Age before Beauty in February 2009, and finally Last but Not Least in 2010. Check out the “Books and Articles” page on my website to read about them. www.VirginiaSmith.org
13. What advice can you share with aspiring writers who would like to break in and get published?
Don’t give up. I wrote for almost two decades and collected almost 150 rejection letters before my first professional sale. Many times I wanted to quit, but I knew the Lord had placed the desire to write in my heart. I had to trust that He was in control. And those years were not wasted. I worked on my skill, I learned how to give and receive feedback, how to edit my own work, how to work toward a deadline, how to approach editors and agents. And I matured as a person as well as a writer. I can honestly say that I could not have written my debut novel back when I first started trying to write, and I’m thankful some of those earlier works will never see the light of day! So my advice to aspiring writers is this: keep working toward your goal. If God can do it in my life, He can do it in yours!
Thanks, Virginia for the great interview. Don't forget to visit our contest page for a chance to win a copy of Murder by Mushroom!