Award-winning author Terry Shames writes the best-selling Samuel Craddock traditional mystery series. The fourth in the series, A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge, was released this month. Learn more about Terry and her books at her website and her two blog, Terry Shames Books and Subject to Change.
When did you realize you wanted to write novels?
First of all, thanks so much, Lois, not just for having me as your guest, but for all that you do for other writers. It seems like you never stop thinking of ways to celebrate authors.
Now to your thoughtful questions:
It must have been before I started college that I realized I wanted to write novels, because I remember my freshman English teacher telling me that if I wanted to write books, I should major in something other than English Literature so I could have some experiences to write about. I ended up majoring in Political Science. I can’t tell you whether he was right or wrong. All I know is I love politics and am glad I have a strong background in the American political system. I doubt it helped me with my writing, but it’s possible English lit wouldn’t have either.
How long did it take you to realize your dream of publication?
It took a long time. One of my fellow writers said that the average number of books someone writes before they get published is seven. I’m not sure where that number came from, but if that’s the case, I’m the poster child for that. My first effort was a science fiction book and screenplay (imagine that!) basically for fun back in the ‘80s. I never tried to sell either one, because by the time they were written, I felt like I had learned a tremendous amount and moved on.
Then I wrote a mystery and quickly got an agent who couldn’t sell it. I kept getting very encouraging rejections—that is to say, no one said, “Please don’t ever write another book. You’re terrible at it.” But also no one gave me a contract. I repeated this process several times until the early ‘90s. Then for about 10 years I did a lot of parenting and although I kept writing, didn’t work to get published. Finally in 2005 I decided it was time to either get serious or quit. Happily, I didn’t quit and finally realized the dream.
Are you traditionally published, indie published, or a hybrid author?
I’m traditionally published by a small publisher, Seventh Street Books. I love the books they publish. I think the acquiring editor has fine taste in mysteries. I have also written a couple of books that I may end up going the indie route on. At present they are not being shopped. We’ll see.
Where do you write?
Anywhere. I’m writing this sitting in my husband’s easy chair because he’s away. I have a perfectly good office and I often write there. But honestly, I can write anywhere—in cafes, in bed, at the beach…
Is silence golden, or do you need music to write by? What kind?
I don’t really write to music, but not because I need quiet. It’s just that I never think of it. If there’s music playing, I don’t care. It doesn’t inspire me or distract me, unless it’s a song a really love and then I might stop to listen to it. I would have trouble writing to the Beethoven or Bruch violin concertos because the music is so visceral to me that I would have to stop and experience it.
How much of your plots and characters are drawn from real life? From your life in particular?
Often my plots and characters begin with something or someone from real life, and it’s hard to say where the real life moment ends and the fantasy begins. I’m very lucky to have been brought up with an extended family that told stories. The only problem was I realized as I got older that some of the stories were quite suspect. Maybe that’s where I got my storytelling genes from. When I need a character, one from real life often crops up. But that doesn’t mean the character is actually that person; it just means the real person has a trait that seems to fit a character I need for the story.
However, sometimes people think they recognize a character, and that’s not who I had in mind at all. At times that can be really funny. In my first Craddock novel, A Killing at Cotton Hill, my sister gleefully said that she knew whom I had in mind for one of the characters. I had to break the news to her that I had never even considered the similarity between the two.
Describe your process for naming your character?
Names were always a problem for me with characters until I started the Samuel Craddock series. For some reason every character in the stories arrives in my head complete with a name. Even if the name is made up, it fits the character. I don’t know how this happens, but I’m very grateful for it.
Real settings or fictional towns?
Oh, fictional! I like to be able to move places around at will within a town, and move the town around a bit geographically to serve the story. But that doesn’t mean the town of Jarrett Creek isn’t grounded in reality, as are some of the places in the town. The real town that Jarrett Creek is based on, smack dab in the middle of central Texas, has a café very much like Town Café, and has a railroad track and a state highway running through town. It also has a real lake with a dam road and a Dairy Queen and a cemetery north of town. And it also has an art gallery/studio where the owners give art lessons. And it has the very football stadium described in The Last Death of Jack Harbin. But alas, the Two Dog Bar is a figment of my imagination—although I’m convinced it could show up there next time I visit.
What’s the quirkiest quirk one of your characters has?
I don’t know if it’s a quirk that Samuel likes modern art. He gained an appreciation of it from his wife Jeanne. He’s a little snobbish about art, too. He doesn’t like what he thinks of as the 3 C’s—cactus, cows and countryside. He also doesn’t like horses, although in the latest book, A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge, he gains an appreciation for them.
What’s your quirkiest quirk?
I think I’d have to ask one of my friends that, and I’m afraid to, because I might not like the answer. One little quirk I have is that I’ll talk to anybody. I’ll strike up conversations anywhere. I don’t push it. If someone seems uninterested, I shut up fast. But I have had some amazing conversations with people standing in line or sitting by myself in a café. I basically like people—maybe that’s quirky for a writer!
If you could have written any book (one that someone else has already written,) which one would it be? Why?
Too many to count. I was talking about Cloud Atlas last night with someone. I think it’s brilliant. I would like to have written it, but that means I would have to have the kind of mind David Mitchell has. I think my head would explode, so I have to leave it to him. Thank goodness he writers books, because that means I get to read them.
Everyone at some point wishes for a do-over. What’s yours?
I wish I could go back and take writing more seriously early on. For some reason, I thought writing mysteries should be easy and that “good enough” should be good enough to get published. Now I know that you have to write the best book you can write—every time.
What’s your biggest pet peeve?
You know that the word “pet” in that sentence is only two letters away from “petty.” I have some real doozies. I don’t even know what would be my biggest one. They are almost all language peeves, and unfortunately, I think some of them are now settled into the standard way people talk. I can’t stand it when someone starts a sentence with the word, “myself.” I think it sounds ignorant. Dates me, doesn’t it? Even worse, I can’t stand the way so many younger people have adopted the affection of ending a sentence as if it’s a question. Instead of saying, “We thought we could get there in three hours,” they say, “We thought we could get there in three hours?” As if somehow the listener is not going to grasp what is being said. It makes people sound anxious and unsure of themselves. There are others: “Besides myself” instead of “beside myself,” “often” said with the “t” sounded. “A WAYS to go instead of a way to go.” (Terry Gross does this for heaven’s sake!)
Lois, look what you started with that question. Sorry. Soapbox is put away now.
You’re stranded on a deserted island. What are your three must-haves?
A boat, drinking water and a rod and reel. Yeah, I know, I’m too practical. Where’s the magic in that?
What was the worst job you’ve ever held?
I’ve had jobs that I suppose some people would think are awful, but I’m always open to new experiences and usually find something to enjoy. I was a maid in Yellowstone Park one summer—could be a bad job, but I’ve always had a lot of energy, so it was highly entertaining. Worked as a waitress a few times to get myself through college—loved it. Worked in an office for a guy no one could stand. I laughed at him, teased him unmercifully, and he straightened right up. Maybe it’s the writer in me, always finding something interesting in the process.
What’s the best book you’ve ever read?
Best in terms of what? Literary value? Value to my life? Value to the world? It’s impossible to pinpoint. It depends on the age I was when I read things. I’ve read One Hundred Years of Solitude four times, so it probably is right up there. But I have also read Jane Austen’s books numerous times. I don’t care how often I read Pride and Prejudice, something new and wonderful always strikes me. The above-mentioned Cloud Atlas. In terms of my craft in mystery writing, I’d have to say Judgment in Stone by Ruth Rendell made a huge impression because it taught me that rules could be broken and a book could still be great. Character was everything in that book.
Ocean or mountains?
Ocean. I love the mountains, and happily living in California I can have both within a very short drive.
City girl/guy or country girl/guy?
Twenty years ago my family lived near Florence, Italy for 18 months. We lived in the country, but could easily reach the city. It was bliss. I had always had the fantasy of going back and living in the city itself. So one year we rented an apartment in the city for a few weeks and I realized that being in the country worked better for me, as long as I could visit the city as often as I liked.
What’s on the horizon for you?
I’m working on Craddock Book 5, which is due May 1. And I’m also working on a thriller. Much harder book to write because the plot is intricate. In a thriller villains are very different from the ones in traditional mysteries. In traditional mysteries they usually commit crimes because they are trapped one way or another. (Yes, I realize there are exceptions, but I think that describes many “normal” criminals). But in a thriller, a villain is larger than life. He or she is someone who has a big vision that s/he wants to achieve and will stop at nothing to get. For me that means getting to know how someone like that thinks, which is harder than just imagining someone who is desperate.
Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself and/or your books?
I’m deeply grateful for my readers. I have been surprised and gratified by the number of people who write to me to tell me how much Samuel Craddock means to them. The fact that they have to find my email address (and in one case my actual address to write a real letter) and then compose an email and send it off blows me away. Never expected that. I feel a real sense of responsibility to readers to write a good book. I don’t want to disappoint!
A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge
In the course of their developing friendship, Samuel Craddock has learned to accept that his neighbor Jenny Sandstone’s personal life is strictly secret. But when her dying mother tells Craddock that Jenny is in danger, he is confronted with a dilemma. He wants to respect Jenny's privacy, but he is haunted by the urgency in the dying woman's voice.
When Jenny is the victim of a suspicious car accident, Craddock has no choice but to get involved. He demands that she tell him what he needs to know to protect her and to solve the mysteries surrounding the strange events that began taking place as soon as Jenny’s mother passed away.
Forced to confront the past, Jenny plunges into a downward spiral of rage and despair. She is drinking heavily and seems bent on self-destruction. Craddock must tread lightly as he tries to find out who is behind the threats to her. But only by getting to the bottom of the secrets buried in Jenny’s past can he hope to save her both from herself and from whoever is out to harm her.