Here’s a little Q&A that was originally supposed to be included in the back of my first novel, Dead of Wynter. By the time it was due to be published, however, I’d already sold my second book, Lovesick, to the same publisher, so we decided to scrap the Q&A and publish an excerpt from Lovesick instead. Here’s what would have been included in the original Dead of Wynter:
Where do you come up with your ideas?
It’s hard to know exactly, but in the case of Dead of Wynter, the idea came from my family history.
For decades, there had been a persistent rumor about a murder and cover up among my mother’s cousins on a Michigan campsite. My mother and I got to talking about this one rainy day on Cape Cod, and she told me that my grandmother had admitted this to her in a moment of dementia. Creepy stuff.
I usually start by wanting to write about a specific character or dynamic between characters. In Dead of Wynter, that dynamic was between a daughter and mother and son and father. In my new manuscript, Lovesick, I started out by wondering what would ruin a close-knit relationship among three teenagers.
That’s the way it usually goes for me.
Where do your characters originate from?
In Dead of Wynter, the characters are very loosely based on members of my own family. I then ramped up all the personality quirks and flaws to make things more dramatic. Other characters, like Don the detective and Alice’s love interest, Michael, are just made up whole-cloth, although I’m sure I’ve met people like them in real life at one point or another.
I’m no different than any other writer. I hoard characters and pull them out as needed. I have many that have yet to make it into a novel. There’s James, the wounded ex-homicide detective who loves jazz; there’s Gerald, the teenage psychotic; and then there’s Dana, the kindly psychiatric nurse sensitive enough to notice something peculiar about one of her elderly patients. They’re all side stage at the moment, not-so-patiently waiting for their moment in the spotlight.
Why did you choose Maine for your setting?
I have an unusual affinity for Maine that I can’t quite explain. Of all the places I’ve lived in or visited, none but Maine seemed quite right for Dead of Wynter. Rural Maine seemed perfect somehow.
You didn’t originally come from Maine, so what did you do to get to know it well enough to be able to ground your reader in your setting?
I’m quite sensitive to this, actually. Mainers are notoriously distrustful of folks “from away” who write about Maine. And for them, I’d like to say that Dead of Wynter is not about Maine. It’s about characters who happen to live in Maine because the author of their story loves Maine, spring, summer, fall, and yes, even winter.
I’ve been coming to Maine for years since I was a kid. When I was eighteen, my father and I took a cruise out of Rockland on a schooner named Nathaniel Bowditch, which changed my life in many ways. At the time, I was struggling with the fact that I wasn’t really interested in going to college and dreamed of joining the crew and sailing across the Atlantic. I didn’t do that, unfortunately, but I became enamored of the town, its people, the crew, and that lifestyle. I knew then that somehow my future was going to be intertwined with Maine.
A few years ago, after a divorce and what seemed like a few hundred visits to Portland, I had the opportunity to move there and jumped at it, hoping to make a fresh start. I spent a year wandering the streets and writing and trying to carve out a niche for myself. As the saying goes about the best laid plans, life intervened, and I was offered a job I couldn’t refuse. In New Jersey!
I don’t claim to know Maine any better than any other tourist, but I did make some wonderful friends there and grew to love and identify with the people. I don’t know when it will happen, but I do plan to move there again, even if I can only mange part-time in a tiny little camp or a one-bedroom apartment in Portland.
When and how did you start writing?
I began writing at about age six shortly after reading two books: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl and The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. I asked my mother if I could use her old red college typewriter to write a novel. It was to be about a boy who discovers a fantasy world after crawling into a hollowed-out tree trunk. I didn’t get far, but the seed was planted at that early age.
I then became interested in music and put aside writing (not entirely, just mostly). I studied music off and on for years until I was in my early twenties and could manage a decent impersonation of my guitar idol, Eddie Van Halen. Then, while studying other things in college, I rediscovered my love of writing through lab reports and an honor’s thesis, of all things.
Not long after, I started writing short stories and began thinking about writing novels again.
What kinds of books and authors have been inspirational to you?
Well, certainly Roald Dahl and Norton Juster were very inspirational early on. And I hate to sound like a cliché, but Stephen King was probably my biggest inspiration as a writer and still is to some degree. Some other inspirational writers for me are: Jack Ketchum, Peter Straub, Bentley Little, Joe Hill, Ken Follett, Dean Koontz, John Grisham, and Michael Crichton.
But that isn’t all by a long shot. Some writers may appeal to me more than others and some stories more than others, but every book I read influences me in a positive way.
Your book almost feels like a horror novel at some points (like when Alice thinks she is seeing ghosts). Do you think you might write something horrific in the future or will you stick to suspense?
Funny you should ask this. Horror writers are in fact my main influences. I read a lot of horror and have for years. In fact, my first attempt at a novel as an adult was a horror novel. I moved into suspense not only because I love the genre but because I became fascinated with using the psychology and motivations of my characters to generate plot as opposed to having my characters react to some external condition, which sometimes drives plot in horror. And this isn’t to judge. I love the horror genre dearly; I’ve just so far found more personal satisfaction from writing suspense.
That being said, I do have a horror novel in the works, but it’ll probably take a back seat until I really get up the nerve to try something different. There’s always a risk in getting away from your brand as a writer.
Do you work in a specific writing environment? Do you only write at night or do you need loud music playing?
I find that having a regular routine is the only way to keep the momentum going, particularly because I’m so prone to self-doubt. This means the same place and time, as often as I can manage. I write on a laptop early in the morning–6 AM or thereabouts–for about two hours with my coffee.
And I must write to a movie soundtrack. Dead of Wynter was written almost entirely to the Frost/Nixon soundtrack by Hans Zimmer. He’s a favorite. My next novel, Lovesick, was written to the Inception soundtrack, also by Hans Zimmer.
I really dig the immersive quality of movie soundtracks. I find that listening to the same writing music every day puts me in the right headspace for getting back into my characters’ lives and the story.
What was your favorite part in the process of creating this book?
For me, some of the writing process is torture in the way excruciating pain can sometimes be almost ticklish, like when you bang your knee or elbow. I constantly doubt myself, particularly in the planning stages of a novel. And don’t even get me started on the in-between-novel phases. Those are just awful because no idea is good enough, and I feel like I’m wasting time.
However, there is a time, at least there has been so far, when I let my novel take root and just be what it is, even before it’s finished. I know it’s not perfect, but I have a good feeling about it as a whole.
That magic happens when I’m far enough into a second or third draft that I know is working. In this stage, it’s just about getting into the groove every day and keeping my ass parked in the chair long enough to finish.
With Dead of Wynter, I’d gotten through about half of the first draft before I scrapped it entirely in favor of a new direction that I really liked. Then it was a joy to write every day thereafter, right up until I finished.