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Sunday, July 10, 2011

Interview with Author M.M. Gornell, the Queen of Standalone Mysteries

Those who read my blog regularly know that I have favorite authors who I would interview every day if I could without causing them to cross the street if they saw me coming. Many of them should be (in my opinion) household names. Authors such as Marilyn Meredith, J. Michael Orenduff, Kate Carlisle, Mark Schweizer, Hannah Dennison and Jeri Westerson. Then there are my new loves such as L.C. Tyler, sisters K.J. Larsen  . Another favorite is M.M. Gornell, the author of several standalone mysteries, and a master at storytelling and setting. Madeline has agreed to spend some time with me today. (Yipee!)

She is a lifetime lover of mysteries of all types, and her favorite novelist is P. D. James. Besides reading and writing, she is an avid gardener--with a fondness for roses and fruit trees, and a potter particularly interested in the high-fire reduction process. She now lives with her husband and assorted canines in California’s high-desert.

Don't forget to read my review of "Reticence of Ravens" at the end of the interview.

Welcome, Madaline!

In your standalone novels--more than any other novels I've read--it feels as if I've dropped into the middle of someone's world on the first page. I'm certain that these people have a history, just as I'm certain their story will go on as soon as I step out of the picture. How do you pull this off?

Oh Jackie, what kind words! Especially since I think you’re partly talking about character identification. Having characters that “ring true” and quickly take you into their world is one of my major writing goals. There’s probably also a little bit of plot development involved in the “dropped into” experience.

So far, the stories I like to tell involve ordinary people, presented with some extraordinary circumstances or events. Of course, one of those events is a murder! But besides the murder mystery aspect—and I’m not sure on this—but possibly some of what you’re describing is that I like to have a lot of “things” going on. Just like in real life. So, besides the murder, my characters are involved in life-stuff before the murder mystery, and will continue to be involved in that life-stuff once the book is closed.

Could also be I spend a lot of time trying to take the reader inside my characters’ heads. Which is something I really like doing but must struggle to balance with plot movement and action. Fortunately, I have several extremely good editors who help me with pacing. Without them, nothing I’ve ever written would be published.

I also learned from a very good writing coach about POV. Since I use third-person, with multiple POV characters, it took me awhile to figure out how it should go for me. But once I understood how it could apply to my writing style and voice, it has become a big driver. I think seeing the world through character’s eyes, and occasionally letting the reader into their actual thoughts, lets you “know” them better, and transports you into their world quickly. There’s an irony there, in that I’m rather fond of reading novels that have a more omniscient point of view than what I’m striving for.

Location always plays such a large part in your books. In "Reticence of Ravens", it's a portion of the historical Route 66. Do you build your stories around the location? How do you decide on a location for your stories? How much research do you do?

The first excitement and kernel of an idea for each of my books has come from a location that has reached out, grabbed me, and wouldn’t let go. That sounds a bit silly, and it’s not the whole story, but yes, so far, my novels have started because a location said, “Me! Me! Write about me.” From the location, I’ve then wondered who would have lived there, or come that way. What is their story? Or in the case of my first, Uncle Si’s Secret—it was “What a perfect spot for a murder!”

Another key writing goal/challenge for me is to make that location also come alive for the reader. Have them see, taste, smell, etc. what’s unique about this particular spot on earth. Sometimes that’s very hard. On all levels, rewriting is when my story comes together, and finding just the right word, in particular for sensory experiences is very important. I have yet to reread my published novels—I know I’ll want to rewrite, and nitpick at my word choices—especially when it comes to description. And it’s far too late for that!

I can say with certainty, Route 66 has become a huge source of inspiration with “locations” galore begging to be written about. Unfortunately, I’m a slow writer, and there’s a long queue!

You write standalone novels, which means you have to populate each book with new characters. Where do all of these people come from?! And how do you keep from duplicating characters? "Death of a Perfect Man" and "Reticence of Ravens" each have a unique cast.

To say my characters come from the “jumble” in my head is not being flippant. My life experience has been that “stuff” goes in, but doesn’t remain as specific facts (i.e. terrible memory for historical facts, names of books I’ve read, etc.). The best way I can explain it is, bits and pieces out of that conglomerate in my brain, reappear when I write as characters, events, locations, situations, snapshots… All different from what “went in,” but for sure tied-to and based upon my life experiences and events. Currently, there are still many such characters and ideas jostling around in my head, waiting for their moment on paper, so to speak.

On the duplication, I haven’t thought about that, but I’m guessing there probably is some, in that I think everyone is unique, having lived specific lives, but in some ways we’re all the same, and faced with similar challenges—though maybe not as dramatic as in my stories.

And on a not so philosophical level, I really like creating new characters. For me, that’s part of the fun of writing. I can create new worlds, new people, new towns, fit names to characters, and more—every time I start a new book. It’s exciting just thinking about a new book. What great fun!

Do you have a special approach to marketing? I imagine it's more difficult when you don't have a series, but is that true?

I have yet to come up with a marketing-silver-bullet. After two-plus years at this, I’m still trying whatever sounds like a good idea.

I think not having a series—a set of characters readers want more of—might be a hindrance, but I honestly don’t yet know. But in that line of thinking, my imagination has been captured by Route 66, and “Lies of Convenience”—the first in what I’m hoping might be a trilogy, and now in final edits and rewriting—is again in a fictional town on Route 66 in California’s Mojave. So Route 66 is a “branding” of sorts, and might bridge the “series” issue. For me, marketing is still a big challenge—and the path very uncertain. There’s plenty of advice out there, finding what works for me is the trick.

Oddly, I love reading series—P.D. James and Adam Dagliesh are my ideal and inspiration—but what I keep writing are standalones. Even in my current trilogy work-in-progress, though the protagonist remains the same and there is one underlying mystery tying the trilogy together, in each book most of the other characters will be new, with a new mystery to solve.

Do you have any tips or tricks for writers that might make the rewrite process easier?

I love to rewrite, everything comes together then. I’ve come to anticipate with pleasure thoughts and suggestions from my editors. So far me, rewriting is now one of the good parts of writing. But it’s been a “process” getting to that point. I do think every author is different in their writing journey, but for me, some key things are:

I try to forget how it sounds in my mind now that it’s on paper, and try to imagine from outside of me—the picture my words are presenting in the mind of someone who doesn’t know me or my characters. I think editors, critique groups, etc. are good judges of that—better than myself.

I keep looking for the right word, even if it feels like it’s taking forever. And if I can’t find the right word, or phrase—I delete. At first, deleting was hard—easy now—and in retrospect, what I’ve left out has always been for the better.

Rewriting is one of the few times in life I can “take back” what I’ve said. Too many times in my real-world I’ve wished for that “erase” capability.

Let it sit. Then come back.

Thank you, Madeline!

Please visit Madeline on her website and on her blog . Be sure to check out her books, available in both trade paperback form and as e-books on Amazon, B&N, and Smashwords. Better still, get a signed copy from the author by emailing her at mmgornell@earthlink.net . I noticed that she also offers a deal to book clubs--buy two, get the third free!

Reticence of Ravens

By M.M. Gornell

Hubert James Champion III has a problem, and it’s staring him in the face through blank eyes surrounded by a cherubic face. A former psychologist hiding a dark secret, he thought he could exchange the pressures of helping people for a slow stint as the owner of Joey’s, a small convenience store located in the Mojave Desert. But now a slow-witted woman named LoraLee is sitting on his living room couch, soaked in blood, having allegedly just killed her abusive father.

Though his instincts tell him to stay out of it, Champion is drawn to help solve the crime by more than a desire to protect LoraLee. He’s attracted to Police Chief Audrey Boyes—Mojave County’s Assistant Sherriff. And as the mystery becomes more complex, Champion will have more at stake than just simple curiosity.
Gornell excels at creating worlds that are both believable and enticing. She draws you into the lives of her characters, an admirable feat for an author of standalone mysteries. Yet her character’s stories feel vaguely familiar, as if you already knew them and had been part of the community for years.

You’ll feel the sweat trickling down your back from the hot desert sun and breathe in dust kicked up by an infrequent breeze, because Gornell’s locations are as important to the story as any human character. By the time the mystery is solved, you’ll hate closing the book, because her character’s lives don’t end with the last page.


  1. Jackie, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me! As usual, you ask thought provoking and interesting questions. I still remember my first author panel--you were the moderator--and so kindly and gently initiated me into the world of talking about my work--a big step for me! It was a pleasure talking with you once again!

  2. I loved Reticence of Ravens, and Madeline has become a good friend mainly because of meeting at writer's conferences and doing book festival events together. Some of them great and some not so. But who cares when you can hang out with a fun author like Madeline. And Jackie, thank you for you kind words about me!


  3. MM, I agree. PD James is my fave/heroine; when I interviewed her years ago she insisted I never forgot this line: The real writing gets done in the revision. I'm just about to start revising my newest novel, and I've got that plastered in my brain! Yours looks grand and I'll be ordering it.

    Jackie, if you give me your snail mail address, I'll send you a copy of The Blue Virgin, set in Oxford, England, with an American protagonist. Love to hear what you think of it~ Marni Graff

  4. Great interview, Jackie. And Marilyn, I'm having fun following your journey down Route 66. You make writing mysteries sound so easy and fun! (That's a talent too.) Keep them coming.

  5. Madeline, I have heard you speak about locations in your books and you show how important it is. You almost make the location a character, which is marvelous. All the best writing new adventures as you travel down the road.

  6. Marilyn, Marni, Jackie, and GB, thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy lives to leave a comment! For me, the comments make the interview even more special and are very much appreciated. Looking forward to up coming conferences so I can actually "see" all of you!

  7. I loved the book as it put me on the Mother Road that I miss like a long lost child. I make the journey every three years from Revere home of the oldest public beach in America.

  8. Hey, Marni. I'd love it. I can't connect on your name, so send me an email at jvickwriter@gmail.com and I'll send you my address. Look forward to it.

  9. Thanks for leaving a comment, Michael. Route 66 has really captured my imagination -- I just can't comprehend the fortitude necessary to "head west" in the early days. Amazing people, amazing places. Next year the Route 66 Festival is supposed to be in Rancho Cucamango (sp) CA. Hope you can make it.

  10. I have known Madeline for a very long time. She is an outstanding author and brings passion to the art of writing. Best wishes for your continued success and thank you for sharing your amazing talents. Sig & Marjorie

  11. Oh Sig & Marjorie, your kind words have warmed my heart. Just what I needed this afternoon. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. So good to have friends like you...