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Monday, December 03, 2007

Interview with Virginia Smith

LISA: Today, I'm thrilled to welcome back author Virginia Smith. Let's jump right into the interview.

Virginia, tell us about your latest release, Bluegrass Peril.

VIRGINIA: Oh, I love this book! My husband says it’s his favorite so far. Here’s the teaser:

When the director of a retirement farm for thoroughbred champions is murdered, Kathy Dorsey 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.

When my editor gave me the contract for Bluegrass Peril, she told me it read like a Christian Dick Francis novel. Since I think his stories are terrific, I’ll take it!

LISA: You called this story a modern mystery. Could you define that for our readers?

VIRGINIA: I don’t know if this is the dictionary definition or not, but in my mind a modern mystery is somewhere between a cozy and a true suspense. It has less humor than a cozy, though it may still have some. There are more moments where the heroine feels personally threatened than in a cozy. Unlike a suspense story, though, the emphasis is more on finding clues and solving the mystery rather than getting out of danger. Though again, there can be moments of intense danger and suspense. Detective stories are one form of modern mystery.

LISA: How did you come up with the plot line?

VIRGINIA: Not far from my home in Kentucky is a farm for retired thoroughbred stallions. Old Friends is the only retirement farm in the country that takes stallions because they’re so difficult to deal with. When I visited that farm I became extremely interested in the fate of these multi million-dollar athletes who have outlived their usefulness. You wouldn’t believe the horrendous conditions some of them are forced to live in, or under which they die. The director of Old Friends has a true passion for making sure these horses enjoy their final years.

As we talked during my first visit, he made a comment that sparked a thought—one of the horses there, a million-dollar champion, is still physically able to be bred. In fact, the director has received offers of large sums of money to breed him, but he signed an agreement with the previous owner that the stallion would retire. I started thinking, “What if someone wanted to breed a champion really badly?” And then I read an unrelated article that tied in with that thought—and which I can’t tell you about, or it will give away a critical part of the plot—and the story became real in my mind.

LISA: With the background for this story being the thoroughbred breeding industry, what kind of research did you have to do for this book?

VIRGINIA: Let me tell you, I had so much fun researching this book! My husband really got into the research, too. We went to the Breeder’s Cup, a prestigious horse race held at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, and also to Keeneland, a race track in Lexington, Kentucky about 20 miles from our home there. My aunt breeds thoroughbreds, and we spent a lot of time on her farm, and also listening to her patiently explaining the breeding and registration process.

I interviewed a man who works for the Jockey Club, the organization that registers thoroughbreds (sort of like AKC for dogs), and spent hours studying their rules and procedures. I interviewed a state police trooper to find out about murder investigation procedures. I went to a horse racing library and learned how to read a racing form. I interviewed someone who frequently places illegal bets with bookies. (That was interesting!)

I spent lots of time at Old Friends. I attended a thoroughbred auction, and got so caught up in the bidding I almost bought a cute little filly! And I did quite a bit of scientific research and interviews—but again, I can’t tell you the details of that. (Is your interest piqued? I hope so!)

LISA: It's definitely piqued, Virginia! What about your writing process. Are you a seat of the pants plotter? Or do you go by a more rigid outline?

VIRGINIA: I write in two genres – mystery and contemporary. When I’m working on a contemporary story I start out seat of the pants, and when I’m a third to half-way through the book I sketch out an outline to work with from there. But with mysteries I create a detailed plot before I begin writing. I lay out all the suspects and their alibis, and I create a list of scenes color-coded to indicate the viewpoint character. I do all this in a spreadsheet and by the time I finish it’s a real work of art, if I do say so myself.

LISA: How do you go about placing a trail of clues and those pesky red herrings in a cozy?

VIRGINIA: I lay them all out in my outline document. For each scene, I have a column that identifies all the clues I’m going to reveal and whether they’re open clues or “hidden” (i.e. an important clue that is given in an off-handed manner so the reader doesn’t recognize it as a clue). Red herrings, too. When I finish, I can look at that column on my spreadsheet and if no clue has been discovered or revealed in a particular scene, I know I’d better either remove that scene or figure out how it moves the plot forward in another way.

LISA: What’s your favorite part of the writing process?

VIRGINIA: I like the last quarter of the first draft. That’s where the story is rolling along at full speed, and the writing just seems to fly. That last part of a mystery includes the confrontation scene, and I love writing those. And I also like wrapping up all the open points, tying everything up and snipping off the dangling ends.

LISA: Your least favorite part?

VIRGINIA: About two-thirds through the book, even with an outline, I get nervous. Around that time I always decide the story is dull and the heroine is boring and I don’t like her so how can I expect anyone else to like her? I examine the scenes I have left to write and become convinced that I am going to run out of story too early, that the finished product won’t be long enough to be a full book. I have felt this way with every one of my books so far. In fact, a couple of books ago I was complaining to my critique partner and she said, “You always say this. It’ll be fine. Just keep going.” And she was right.

LISA: That's great advice! I think all authors have moments like this. What is your advice for someone wanting to break into the suspense/mystery genre?

VIRGINIA: Read a lot of suspense/mysteries. Pay attention to how the author lays out the story. Take notes as you read. At the end of every scene or chapter, make a note about the important things that happened and what clues you noticed. Also note how high the suspense level is at that time, and if it’s high, try to identify how the author did it. Then when you finish the book go back through your notes and trace the mystery to see the pace in which the clues were revealed. And get Barbara Norville’s book Writing the Modern Mystery.

LISA: Thanks so much for joining us today, Virginia. Be sure and visit her website and our contest page for a chance to win a copy of her latest book!


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