Maggie Toussaint is a multi-published, award-winning author. Her upcoming releases include MUDDY WATERS, a romantic suspense due out October 2010, and ON THE NICKEL, book two of the Cleopatra Jones cozy mystery series which releases March 2011. Her books blend mystery and romance with a splash of the deep South. She shares a little of her journey as a writer, why she loves creating characters and stories and what advice she offers aspiring authors. Toussaint will be attending Killer Nashville this weekend.
PC: You’ve said, “As I grew up, there was always a part of me that whispered “I want to write,” but the practicalities of life took precedent.” Was there anything (besides a writer, and creator of worlds) that you wanted to be when you grew up?
MT: As a kid, I was fascinated by the stars and flying, and in fact, I truly believed I could run so fast my feet left the ground. I would sit in treetops and imagine myself to be a hawk or an eagle soaring through the endless blue sky. During that time, the space race was beginning, and rocket launches into outer space were televised. Taking flight into outer space was a natural extension of my childhood flying fantasies, so I trained to be an astronaut by jumping off the carport roof with umbrellas. As you might imagine, my parents were not happy with my actions. Gradually, my thoughts turned from taking physical flight to soaring in books.
PC: You had a Dickens start to sharing your novel – publishing one chapter at a time in a weekly newspaper. How do you think that beginning helped shape your career?
MT: I believe all writers struggle with validation. We write for ourselves, but there’s a sense of guilt that we’re taking time away from family and friends. Receiving approval from the newspaper and local residents boosted my confidence tremendously. When I sought publication for subsequent works, that sense of achievement cushioned the blows from the initial rejection letters.
PC: What do you think makes a good story?
MT: A good story is one I can’t put down. I have to know what happens next, and I keep turning pages, so much so that I won’t get up to eat or anything. My personal preferences for a good story include action, adventure, romance, and mystery rolled into the plot. I’m also partial to stories with paranormal, sci-fi, and futuristic elements.
PC: What do you look for in a mystery/thriller/suspense novel?
MT: I look for a first page that draws me straight into the story world. I read bestselling authors, but I also read mid-list and small press books. I’m drawn to quirky characters and solving the mystery because I want to figure the ending out before the protagonist does.
PC: Are your characters real to you?
MT: Absolutely. Before writing, I flesh them out with character charts and images. As I write, my characters often behave like children, insisting on turning right when I would have them turn left. I listen to them, but I’m careful to maintain the upper hand.
PC: Would you share some of the influences on your writing?
MT: As a kid, I lived a long way from a grocery store, but I enjoyed going with Mama to grocery shop because I’d be treated to a Little Golden Book at the store. I read all the children’s books in our small library, and in my pre-teen years, the librarian hand-selected books for me to read from the adult section. Some of my early influences were Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart, and Madeleine L’Engle.
PC: How do you develop your plots and characters? Do you use any set formula – flying by the seat of your pants, or outlining?
MT: I came to fiction writing from a technical writing background, so my initial efforts involved detailed outlines. I soon found that most of the fun came in the shaping of the story, which meant it was a drudgery of sorts to flesh the minor details of the story out from the outline. I tried the seat-of-your-pants approach, and it was terrifying and thrilling in equal measure, and ultimately too much stress for me to handle long-term. My present-day story construction method is a hybrid. I know how a book starts and how it ends before I begin, and I have several intermediate events that I write to, the rest I pull from the ether along the way. This satisfies my need for structure and keeps the story and character fresh throughout the first draft.
PC: What dreams have been realized as a result of your writing? Where do you hope to take your writing in the future?
MT: There’s nothing like a publishing contract to shoot you over the moon. Holding that book in your hands is wonderful beyond belief. It took me more than a decade to “break in.” After that, I hoped to keep publishing, which I’ve been lucky enough to do. As for the future, I take it one book at a time, falling in love with each set of characters, living in those fictional worlds for a season or two.
PC: What advice would you share for aspiring writers? What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?
MT: Though writing is a solitary sport, it is my firm belief that you do yourself an injustice by writing in a vacuum. Stocking your bookshelf with writing reference books is a start at reaching out, but joining a writer’s group and meeting regularly with other writers really made a difference for me. In the early days, I hesitated to share my plots with others, thinking that someone might steal them, but that wasn’t the case at all. Writers’ heads are already crowded with their own stories. As for writing tools that are must-haves my list is filled with intangibles. You must have commitment, integrity, passion, heart, humor, tunnel vision, creativity, dedication, courage, self-assurance, and a thick skin.
PC: What are you reading now?
MT: I just finished Suzanne Brockmann’s Infamous, and I’ve started reading Fantasy in Death by J.D. Robb
PC: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in any of your books?
MT: I wouldn’t change my earlier books. Each book was written to the best of my abilities at the time I wrote it. Sure, I could rewrite them, but to what end? I’d much rather work on a new story.
PC: You’re attending Killer Nashville this year, what do you believe sets it apart from other conferences?
MT: This is my third year at Killer Nashville, and I love the size of the conference and the big time talent they draw. Clay Stafford and his conference team go all out to put on an event that appeals to published and unpublished authors. Two years ago I found myself eating dinner beside Dr. Bill Bass of Body Farm fame. It was a thrill of a lifetime.
PC: What aspect of the conference are you most looking forward to attending?
MT: I’m very much looking forward to my panel, Southern Fried Sleuths, which is Friday at 1 p.m. In addition, you’ll find me following the law enforcement track of programming. They’ve got an ATF agent, a TBI agent, a psychology professor from Vanderbilt University, a marine sniper, and a private detective to lead sessions in their fields. I can’t wait!