Marion Moore Hill writes the Deadly Past Mysteries, in which history buff Millie Kirchner solves contemporary crimes relating to Founding Fathers Benjamin Franklin (Deadly Will) and Thomas Jefferson (Deadly Design), also the Scrappy Librarian Mysteries (Bookmarked for Murder and Death Books a Return), about small-town Oklahoma librarian Juanita Wills. She is currently at work on her stand alone novel, NANNETTE. Hill shares why character is the most important element of story, how she develops plot and character, and what influences her. She is attending Killer Nashville 2010 this weekend.
PC: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
MH: I actually had the goal of becoming a mystery novelist from childhood. I devoured the Nancy Drew books, and it occurred to me one day that someone had written the stories I loved so much. The dream of writing mysteries was born that day, probably when I was nine or ten.
PC: What do you think makes a good story? A good mystery?
MH: For me, the characters are what make any story memorable. They don’t necessarily have to be likable, but they have to be interesting (somehow different from all other characters one meets). They also have to follow their own code of what’s right, and I have to care what happens to them. For a mystery, there also has to be an interesting puzzle to solve. As I read a mystery, I always try to solve the case ahead of the sleuth, but whether I do or not, if the puzzle is well done, I can admire the book.
PC: You have two series of mystery novels: The Scrappy Librarian Mysteries and Deadly Past Mysteries. Are your characters real to you?
MH: Yes, one of the pleasures of writing both series is to spend time with my characters and to see them develop from book to book. Even though they come out of my own head, the characters can still surprise me. When I write a scene, I will sometimes have the reaction, “Oh, I didn’t know that about her before.”
PC: Are there messages in your novels that you want readers to grasp?
MH: I suppose there are, though I don’t set out to “preach” with any of the books. It’s only after writing a novel that I can step back from it enough to see that it has a theme. I realized after writing my two librarian books that both have a theme of bigotry and the need to confront that. In BOOKMARKED FOR MURDER, someone tries to intimidate a Vietnamese family. In DEATH BOOKS A RETURN, the librarian solves the 50-year-old racist murder of a young black man. The theme obviously was there in my head subconsciously, but I hadn’t consciously thought of it as a theme until later. While writing, I was just thinking of elements that would make a good story.
PC: What do you see as the influences on your writing?
MH: There are so many that I’m sure I can’t mention all. But Charles Dickens is an influence on character creation. P. G. Wodehouse and Charlotte McLeod influenced my use of humor, especially in the librarian books. Marcia Muller, Lawrence Block, Ellis Peters, Dick Francis, and Elizabeth Peters are all influences in terms of creating a mystery.
PC: How do you develop your plots and characters? Do you use any set formula (outlining or flying by the seat of your pants)?
MH: I wish I could outline in exhaustive detail before I begin a book, as P. D. James, Julie Smith, and others I admire can do. But my brain doesn’t seem to work that way. I begin a novel knowing the beginning, ending, and a few scenes in between, and having a few characters in mind. But it’s only when I put characters into scenes and hear them talking to each other that I fully understand them and the ways they relate to each other, and see possibilities for their actions. This is a scary way to write, and I occasionally do have to discard a scene that doesn’t work after the book takes an unexpected turn. But I discard surprisingly little, and I’ve learned to trust the process now, so I know a book really will develop for me. It’s actually a fun way to write, since I get to discover the story as I go along!
PC: What dreams have been realized as a result of your writing?
MH: The best thing is discovering how much I love to write—on each writing day, I get to go into this alternate world I’ve created and spend time with my characters. In addition, I’ve found it’s great fun to go out and “talk books” with others who love reading. Also, my husband and I both enjoy traveling, so book promotion, including going to conferences, is a great excuse to do this.
PC: Where do you hope to take your writing in the future?
MH: I’ve just completed the manuscript of a standalone mainstream novel, a real departure for me since I’m basically a writer of series mysteries. I hope that book will find a publisher, since the title character (NANETTE) is one I love and would like readers to have a chance to love. But I have several more plots in mind for each of my two series and am eager to get back to writing them. The next book will be a librarian one, and the plot will have to do with my librarian character getting involved in the life of an adult literacy student she tutors. Then will come the third Deadly Past Mystery, DEADLY KIN (featuring John, Abigail, and Samuel Adams).
PC: Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
MH: I’m not deluged with fan mail, but I do occasionally get e-mails and snail-mail notes from people who have bought one of my books and loved it. Best of all, of course, are those who say, “I’m going to buy every one of your books, because I love the way you write.” Occasionally, too, someone will mention specifics they either like or that didn’t work for them, and these comments are very helpful as I plan other books.
PC: What advice would you share for aspiring writers? What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?
MH: The best things an aspiring writer can do are (1) read; and (2) write. That sounds obvious, but I sometimes talk to people whose ambition is to be a writer of fiction but who say (sometimes proudly, though I can’t figure that out) that they don’t read fiction! You have to read a lot to find examples of what works in fiction and what doesn’t, and you have to write a lot because most of us have to learn the craft by trial and error. At least I did. Needed tools include: a good thesaurus, humility enough to ask questions in your research and not just assume you know answers, and a ton of persistence and determination (because most writers encounter heaps of rejection along the way).
PC: Will you share a little about your stand alone novel that you are currently working on?
MH: My standalone novel is titled NANETTE, and it’s about a middle-aged woman in Dallas who suddenly finds herself nearly penniless in a bad divorce. From living in a mansion with servants, she goes to homelessness and sleeping in her Mercedes. Since she had gone from her parents’ home to her husband’s home, she’s ill prepared to make a living or do many of the things she suddenly must cope with. (This idea comes from a story on “60 Minutes” several years ago, about women in Beverly Hills who had lost almost all their money and were living in their expensive autos (Rolls Royce, etc.), but who keep up appearances by always appearing expensively dressed and beautifully coiffed.) Nanette’s problems are complicated by the fact that she’s painfully shy and finds many situations involving other people difficult. The idea of going to a homeless shelter, for example (with its lack of privacy and potentially frightening encounters with other residents) terrifies her.
PC: You’re attending Killer Nashville this year, what sets it apart from other conferences?
MH: This is my first time to attend Killer Nashville. From what I can tell, it’s a well run conference and the people involved seem helpful and friendly.
Visit Marion Hill at: http://www.marionmoorehill.com/