Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Conversation with Mystery Author Elizabeth Buhmann

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Elizabeth Buhmann
with Elizabeth Buhmann

We are delighted to welcome mystery author Elizabeth Buhmann to Omnimystery News today, courtesy of Red Adept Publishing, which is coordinating her current book tour. We encourage you to visit all of the participating host sites; you can find her schedule here. Red Adept Publishing is also giving our readers a chance to win one of four prizes; details and entry form, below.

Elizabeth's debut mystery is Lay Death at Her Door (Red Adept Publishing; May 2013 trade paperback and ebook formats), and we recently had the opportunity to talk to Elizabeth about her new book.

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Omnimystery News: Is Lay Death at Her Door a stand-alone or the first in a series?

Elizabeth Buhmann
Photo provided courtesy of
Elizabeth Buhmann

Elizabeth Buhmann: When I set out to write Lay Death at Her Door, I was captivated by the underlying story — a drama that resulted in a man being shot and a woman being raped. The woman — her name is Kate — accuses an innocent man of this crime and testifies against him at trial, sending him to prison for life.

I found I wanted to tell the story from the inside — from the point of view of the main player in the underlying drama, and that had to be Kate, the victim who lies on the stand to protect herself and then spends the next twenty years living with that awful secret.

Apart from the killer who attacked her, Kate is the only one who knows everything that happened, and why, and who can fully appreciate what's going on when the truth inevitably starts to find its way out.

My dark protagonist was not a candidate for a recurring character, so from the start, I was thinking of this as a stand-alone. I am not giving anything away when I say that, the way her story ends, it will not have a sequel!

That said, there is a detective in Lay Death at Her Door. Actually there are two detectives, but one in particular is a candidate for a second book. A homicide detective who worked the original murder investigation, Lt. Elsa Gabriel is Kate's nemesis. I have to say, it came as a complete surprise to me when someone pointed out that she could appear in another book. I like that idea. She might!

OMN: Tell us something about the book that isn't mentioned in the synopsis.

EB: My main character Kate was born in Africa to ex-patriate American parents. She came to the states as a teenager. This was the aspect of the book that required the most research, and I enjoyed reading about Kenya so much that I put a little too much detail about Kenyan politics and history in the early drafts of the book. (Don't worry — my editor took it back out.)

Kenya is still an important aspect of the book. Kate's childhood friend from Kenya, Merit, is important — he's still in there. Some of her father's background in Kenya is essential, and so on. But I figured out and wrote a lot more than I needed to about Kate's childhood and family history.

OMN: Did you include any of your own past experiences into the book?

EB: I worked for the Texas Attorney General for twenty years, and during that time, cases like the one in the book were big news. Since the 1990s, literally hundreds of people convicted on eyewitness testimony have been exonerated by advances in forensic science.

My book is not a police procedural or a legal drama, and I didn't start writing Lay Death at Her Door until long after I left the AG's office. But the influence is certainly there.

It was also while I was at the AG's office that I became aware of numerous victim issues that are touched on in the book. I knew victim advocates like the character I call Diane.

On a lighter note, the book is set in Virginia, where I was born, and where most of my family lives. Like Kate, I'm an avid gardener. And like Kate, I lived in other countries several years when I was growing up. I know what it's like to reenter American culture from abroad.

OMN: Describe your writing process.

EB: I begin with a core idea, which I write out in summary, first as briefly as possible. Then I expand, inserting the major scenes that I can already picture: the climax, opening, and turning points.

I don't worry about the first draft — I just get it down on paper, very roughly, but complete with beginning, middle and end. My primary concern in the early going is the spine of the story.

As the manuscript grows in length and complexity, I make a chapter outline with a one-paragraph summary of each chapter. This is mainly for my own quick reference, so I can keep track of what happens when, sort out the days and times, and know where all the characters are at all times.

I edit up to a certain standard as I go, but I don't spend too much time on editing until I think I have the content and structure right. My feeling is that you can waste a lot of time polishing a scene only to realize later that you really should cut it or change it.

And a beautifully polished scene is emotionally difficult to cut!

When the manuscript is as good as I can make it, I start passing it around to get feedback. I am so grateful to all the readers who offered comments on early drafts of Lay Death at Her Door!

OMN: You mentioned that the book is set in Virginia. Why did you choose that for your setting?

EB: I don't live in Virginia, but I was born there and my family is there, so I have visited frequently all my life. In broad terms, to me the setting is true to the places I know. Once I was deep into the writing of Lay Death at Her Door, I made a trip that was specifically devoted to fine-tuning my setting.

That said, I invent most of the specific places. I don't want readers to be distracted by my settings. I don't want them worrying about whether St. Mary's Church is accurately described, and I don't want them complaining that apple trees don't bloom in April in central Virginia.
Setting should be firmly subordinate to story.

But I do like a setting that feels real and substantial. Anita Blore's plantation house is based on Weston Manor, the town of Sedgewick on Hopewell. Kate's apartment in Richmond is in Church Hill — which is a real place — and is based on a house my brother lived in.

The house in Lynchburg is a little more fanciful, but I did find an old house in just the right location. And there's another house or two in other parts of rural western and central Virginia that I had in mind when picturing Kate's primary residence. I've looked at real estate and also hunted out a couple of historic houses that interested me.

The country club where Kate spends an evening and meets Harvey Grant is a figment of my imagination. It's just one scene. The settings near VCU are also made up, though I've been thereabouts. The various restaurants are pure fiction.

OMN: What kinds of books did you read when you were young? And what about now?

EB: I read murder mysteries of all kinds — always have. I started with Nancy Drew as a child and moved on to Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner as a teenager. Over the years I have devoured everything ever written by (to name just a few) PD James, Dorothy Sayers, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, and Ruth Rendell — especially those last two, who have influenced me more than I can say. I buy Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone books in advance so they ship as soon as possible!

Of course, I read other stuff. I have a very solid reading background on world literature, and I read a certain amount of general fiction, plus some narrative non-fiction and biography. I love Paul Theroux's travel books, recently loved Katherine Boo's book set in Mumbai. But I'd say more than half the books I've ever read were mysteries.

And since I've been writing about crime, I have reread Crime and Punishment more than once. It's a tough read, but Dostoevsky is the foundation sire, in my opinion!

In hand right now: I am really enjoying the mysteries of Arnaldur Indridason and Malla Nunn.

OMN: Where might we find you when you're not writing?

EB: I am an outdoorsy person who enjoys solitude and nature. I spend a lot of time in my yard, digging, weeding, and planting. I have a husband, a dog and chickens. I have a black sash in Tai Chi — I'm learning Chen style right now, working on my second degree. I love to cook. That's about it! I guess I'm a bit of a hermit. I laughed when I read that Ruth Rendell says, "Some say life is the thing. I prefer reading." I think that might be me.

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Elizabeth Buhmann is originally from Virginia, where her first novel is set, and like her main character, she lived several years abroad while growing up. She graduated magna cum laude from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh. For twenty years, she worked for the Texas Attorney General as a researcher and writer on criminal justice and crime victim issues. Elizabeth now lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, dog, and two chickens. She is an avid gardener, loves murder mysteries, and has a black sash in Tai Chi.

To learn more about the author, you can visit with her on Facebook.

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Lay Death at Her Door by Elizabeth Buhmann

Lay Death at Her Door
Elizabeth Buhmann

The price of truth is murder …

Twenty years ago, Kate Cranbrook's eyewitness testimony sent the wrong man to prison for rape and murder. When new evidence exonerates him, Kate says that in the darkness and confusion, she must have mistaken her attacker's identity.

She is lying.

Kate would like nothing better than to turn her back on the past, but she is trapped in a stand-off with the real killer. When a body turns up on her doorstep, she resorts to desperate measures to free herself once and for all from a secret that is ruining her life.

Amazon.com Print/Kindle Format(s)  BN.com Print/Nook Format(s)  iTunes iBook Format  Kobo eBook Format

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Lance Wright owns and manages Omnimystery, a Family of Mystery Websites, which had its origin as Hidden Staircase Mystery Books in 1986. As the scope of the business expanded, first into book reviews — Mysterious Reviews — and later into information for and reviews of mystery and suspense television and film, all sites were consolidated under the Omnimystery brand in 2006.

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