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Monday, January 28, 2008

Interview with Nancy Mehl

Greetings, KMIS readers! I'm pleased to present an interview with author Nancy Mehl. Her cozy mystery, In The Dead of Winter, releases this month through Heartsong Presents Mysteries book club.

How did your interest in writing originate?

Actually, it began with reading. I read voraciously as a child. I’d check out five or six books from the school library and stay up all night, reading every one with a flashlight under the sheets. I guess I thought my mother would never think it odd that there was an upright, glowing lump in the middle of my bed! I started writing stories when I was around seven. I also wrote poetry. When I got older, my prose took the inevitable turn toward teenage angst and unrequited love. I don’t have those poems anymore, thanks goodness! The only kind of novel writing I was interested in were mysteries. I’d always wanted to try one, but I waited until I was forty-five to actually do it.

What do you see as the influences on your writing?

First of all, I want to tell you about a very negative influence I encountered in high school. My English teacher asked our class to write three poems. I loved poetry and flew through the assignment. After we handed our poems in, she read them to the class. When she read mine, she accused me of plagiarism in front of everyone. That brought my writing to a screeching halt. What a shame that as a teacher she couldn’t see that I had a talent that could be nurtured and encouraged. I realize now that it was because the poems were good that she assumed I’d copied them. I tell this story because I hope that educators and people in places of influence over young people will think twice about ever doing the same thing. Now, enough of the negative. On to the positive! As with many who write mysteries, Nancy Drew was a big influence. As I said, I’ve had an interest in writing mystery novels as long as I can remember, but (and this may sound horribly corny) it was watching Murder, She Wrote that actually brought the desire out of the shadows and into the light. It was seeing Jessica Fletcher that made me wonder if I could be like her. I’d never really seen such a concrete portrayal of a mystery author before. One day, I thought, “Wait a minute. That’s what I want to be!” The final “nail in the proverbial coffin” came from a teaching I heard about finding out what God has called you to do. The speaker asked the question: “What did you do naturally as a child?” The answer was obvious, and my attraction to the life lived by J.B. Fletcher gave me the courage to start tapping out my first novel. Which, but the way, will never see the light of day!

Tell us about your book series.

The Ivy Towers Mystery Series centers around Ivy Towers, a college student who leaves the big city during her Christmas vacation to travel to the little town of Winter Break, Kansas. Her Great-Aunt Bitty has fallen off the library ladder inside her old, rare bookstore and died. When Ivy arrives in Winter Break, she becomes suspicious about the so-called “accident.” A mysterious message is left for her, informing her that her aunt was murdered. She decides to stay in Winter Break only long enough to discover the truth and then return to school. Complicating her plans is the fact that her aunt left her Miss Bitty’s Bygone Bookstore, expecting her to run it. And then there’s Deputy Amos Parker, an old boyfriend who seems to still have feelings for her. Ivy will not only have to come face to face with her aunt’s killer, she will have to confront God’s will for her life.

How did you get to know your hero and heroine?

I had a good idea of who they were when I started, but I always learn more about them as the story progresses. It’s important to let them evolve. It’s also imperative to keep them consistent, not allowing them to do things that don’t match their personalities. And of course, I know them because in essence, they’re a part of me.

What process do you use to write your novel? Are you a strict plotter, or do you allow for some surprises?

Nancy: I have tried so hard to plot my novels ahead of time, but to no avail. I’m a big fan of Sol Stein. He recommends writing your important scenes on note cards and then putting them in order of occurrence. Supposedly, this will give you your plot. Maybe that works for some, but all I end up with is a confusing mess!
[Note from Lynette: I adore note cards as a plotting tool. I think it's a great hands-on way to shuffle scenes around. This just shows how every writer needs to find a method that works for him, or her! Now, more from Nancy...]
It has been the same for me with every book. I write the first few chapters, then I sketch out several chapters ahead. At that point, I may follow some of my notes, but if the story starts to go another way, I follow along. Towards the end, I definitely make chapter outlines. I have to make certain all the clues are pulled together and everything is wrapped up at the end. I also make notes in the body of the manuscript in red. These are notes to myself so that when I skim back through or when I begin to edit, I will remember to follow up with these important clues or scenes. These notes are vital to me. I also find myself plotting in my head before I fall asleep at night. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve jumped up from my bed and quickly written down some plot twist that popped into my mind!

What was the hardest part of writing your book?

Hmmm. I would say that the toughest time is during editing. I have to watch word repetition and using the same physical descriptions too often. I had characters “touching each other’s arms” so often in one novel, it was not only distracting, it was somewhat disturbing! Of course, one of the worst parts of writing a novel comes when in the middle of the night you wake up knowing that you wrote something that could never have happened in a million years. I hate those nocturnal surprises! When that happens, it’s time to do some rewriting. And rewriting is never fun.

How did you come up with the title?

The title for In the Dead of Winter was in my mind from the beginning. It wasn’t hard at all for me. The really tough title came with the second book in the series, Bye, Bye Bertie. My original title was A Bird in the Hand. Since the story revolves around a character named Bert Bird who has disappeared, I thought the title made perfect sense. But when both my editors didn’t get it, I knew it wasn’t going to work. Thus, it became Bye, Bye Bertie, which was suggested by my main editor, Susan Downs. We had quite a time throwing possible titles around. Eventually, it just got silly. (Honestly, it was a lot of fun!) One odd thing that happened with Bertie was the slow realization that the title was vaguely familiar. A little research revealed that I had reviewed a novel with the same title several years earlier – and it was by one of my favorite authors! I contacted him to see if he minded if I used it. Since his book was going out of print, there wasn’t any problem. I always check Amazon first before using a title. I wouldn’t want to use the same thing another author had just come out with.

What book are you reading now?

Actually, I am reading The Sovereign’s Daughter by Susan May Warren and Susan K. Downs. And I’m not just saying that so I can earn brownie points with my editor! I’ve just started it, but so far it’s really grabbed my interest. The writing is strong and paints a very vivid picture.

What are your current projects?

I’ve finished three books in the Ivy Towers series, In the Dead of Winter, Bye, Bye Bertie, and For Whom the Wedding Bell Tolls. Right now, I am doing a follow-up Christmas novel titled There Goes Santa Claus. It occurred to me that my protagonist is a woman who loves Christmas, and Winter Break, Kansas is a town that attracts more snow than anywhere else in Kansas. It’s the perfect place for a story about Christmas. (I actually created the town I’d like to live in. I adore snow!) For some reason, in all three of Ivy’s stories, I never wrote about Christmas. So I pitched the idea to Susan, and she liked it.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

A lot of authors don’t feel the way I do about their books, so what I’m about to say may not agree with everyone, but that’s okay. I am so grateful that God has allowed me to do the one thing I’ve wanted to do more than anything else career-wise. (Being a wife and mother comes first for me.) I’ve asked Him to put a “word in due season” in my novels – something that will minister to my readers. Although I love writing and I strive to tell a story that will keep readers interested and give them characters they will enjoy, I want to use this opportunity to touch people for God. I pray before every book that He will use it to speak to specific people He wants to touch with whatever He wants to say to them. I think the most challenging thing is to push my own ideas out of the way and listen to Him. In For Whom the Wedding Bell Tolls, He gave me a specific plot line that had never occurred to me. I inserted it, and the story ended up revolving around it. Being an author is wonderful. God has given me the desire of my heart. But someday I will stand in front of Him. I don’t think He will reward me because I used active words instead of passive ones. I don’t think my metaphors and similes will earn me any stars in my crown. I believe He has given me a talent for a reason. It’s my job to not bury it in the ground. I want to give Him back His investment with lots, and lots of interest.

Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?

I have several, so picking one is impossible. I’ll name a few. John Robinson is at the top of the list. His writing is so powerful and electrifying. I read everything he writes. Rick Dewhurst is another author I love. He is the author who wrote the first Bye, Bye Bertie. His writing is sharp, and extremely funny. I laughed out loud all the way through his book. He has a way of peeling back religious layers and exposing Christians in a way that makes us laugh at ourselves. Laurel Johnson is an author who is exceptionally talented. She uses words to paint the most beautiful, touching pictures. I’ve devoured everything she’s written, too. Her book The Grass Dance causes me to weep every time I read it. Susan Vreeland paints masterpieces with her words. I also have to mention Deb Raney, Judith Miller, Ron and Janet Benrey, Frank Peretti, and Ted Dekker. Oh, and a real favorite: Max Yoho. He’s a Kansas author who writes the most wonderful, entertaining books. Everything he writes is an adventure. After looking through this list, I realize that my favorite authors are those who can create real, vivid images through their writing. That kind of writing touches your heart and mind, bringing a real sense of empathy to a reader.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

My friend, Marshall Thomas, who writes Sci-fi, gave me the most important piece of advice I’ve ever received. Don’t give up! I can’t tell you how many writers I know who couldn’t make it past the rejections. Rejections are only signposts for change! They can make you better or they can destroy you. The only writers who succeed are the ones who decide they will keep going no matter what. Along with that comes humility. Be willing to learn! The more you learn, the more equipped you are. It’s the criticisms that have helped me more than the praises. Every single one turned into another stone in my foundation. In almost ten years, I can only think of a couple of instances when I received criticism I couldn’t use.

Another important piece of advice: Find a strong writing community and get involved. It was in public and private forums where I learned to strengthen my writing skills. I still have a lot to learn, but at least I’m farther along than I used to be!

Read, read, read! Watch other writers’ styles. Find out what you like and what you don’t. This will help to shape your own writing. I spent eight years reviewing books. I can’t even begin to express how much this helped me. Unfortunately, right now I’m lagging behind in this area. When I quit reviewing, I wasn’t eager to start reading again. But now that I’m writing cozy mysteries, what do you think I will be reading the most of? That’s right! Cozies!

And the most important advice I can give? Turn your desire over to God and allow Him to use it. If you really are called to write, He will give you everything you need as long as you put Him first. It wasn’t until I truly put my writing on the altar and gave it to Him that my career began to take off.

Thanks, Lynette, for allowing me to be a part of this wonderful blog. God bless you!

~Thank you, Nancy, for being our guest!


Blogger CHickey said...

Great interview! I can't wait to read your book and to see my own come out in May.

10:06 AM  
Blogger Mary Connealy said...

Nancy, this is a great interview. Writing these cozies, for me, was so much fun. But like you said with outlines, figuring out if you've dropped threads or left questions, I found mysteries to be the most complex writing I've ever done.
I also did my very best to make my quirky characters so off the wall that, well, the whole thing was extremely entertaining to me.
I'm so excited for this book club to launch. I hope the books will show up in the mail in the next couple of weeks!!!!!!!!!!
I can't wait.

10:06 AM  
Anonymous John Robinson said...

Thanks for the plug, Nance! God bless you.

John Robinson

11:11 AM  
Blogger Susan Downs said...

You done us proud, Nancy! Thanks for sharing your heart for God and how that is expressed through your writing. You are ever and always a blessing. SKD

1:58 PM  
Blogger kc said...

What a wonderful interview! Whether you meant to or not, you encouraged me so much in the writing life. It's so easy to get overwhelmed instead of continually laying everything down before God.
May he continue to bless you richly.

4:56 PM  
Blogger Lynette Sowell said...

Thanks for stopping by, everyone! Happy writing!

10:18 AM  
Blogger Patricia's scribbles said...

Wonderful interview, I enjoyed it very much. I was moved by the 'comment to turn your desire to God and let him help you.'
I have always had the desire to write, and felt that is what I'm suppose to do. Something keeps pushing me to write a novel that was a short story. Thank you.


6:59 PM  

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