Monday, October 06, 2014

A Conversation with Mystery Author Bernadette Pajer

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Bernadette Pajer
with Bernadette Pajer

We are delighted to welcome author Bernadette Pajer to Omnimystery News today.

Bernadette's fourth mystery to feature Professor Benjamin Bradshaw is The Edison Effect (Poisoned Pen Press; September 2014 hardcover, trade paperback, audiobook and ebook formats). A professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Washington, Bradshaw's electrical forensic and investigative skills, combined with a keen understanding of human nature, bring the Seattle Police, and murder, often to his doorstep during the social and scientific turmoil of the early twentieth century.

We recently had the opportunity to talk with Bernadette a little more about her new book and the series as a whole.

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Omnimystery News: What is it about this historical series that appeals to you as a writer?

Bernadette Pajer
Photo provided courtesy of
Bernadette Pajer; Photo credit Alex Rae Photography

Bernadette Pajer: As a reader, I love discovering a series that says howdy to me because it means multiple opportunities to escape into a familiar world. As a writer, it's much the same. I love spending time with Professor Bradshaw, who is dour and plodding at times, but also brilliant (far wiser than I) and kind, deeply moral, struggling to hold onto the safety of routine and tradition while discovering ideas that are exciting and new, yet threaten to undermine his understanding of the world. It's because of that struggle that I chose to develop Professor Bradshaw over time.

I couldn't leave him where he was in the first book, A Spark of Death, newly awakened to life yet so fearful of change. His journey, small steps in each book, sometimes forward, sometimes back, is what drives me to sit and write and present him new puzzles to solve that also provide him with opportunities for personal growth.

OMN: How difficult is it for you to find the proper voice for Professor Bradshaw?

BP: Character voice is one of those craft skills that can sometimes be elusive, and other times it emerges from the writer as if the character truly existed. That's how it feels to me when I write as Professor Bradshaw, who is a male in is mid-thirties, solving crimes in the early 1900s. Years ago, when I first began writing about the Professor, I showed a chapter to a male coworker. His response was, "How did you know?" I asked, "Know what?" And he said, "That's how men feel." That's still one of my favorite reader-remarks. Men and women often do think and react differently, at times, but deep down, the human-emotion is the same. It's the presentation of those reactions that denote gender. In general, a man will word a request with directness, while a woman softens the request, or adds explanations. I don't think it matters to readers if the writer is of a gender opposite the main character. What matters is if the character is portrayed realistically in dialogue, thought, and action.

OMN: It's sometimes hard to classify mysteries into just one category. Into which subgenre would you place this series?

BP: I usually call my books Traditional Whodunits, because that reflects the style — puzzle mysteries with no graphic sex or violence. Labels can be useful in helping readers sort through the myriad of choices, but of course they can also potentially turn a reader away, if the label is perceived as "not for me." As a reader, my most reliable way of choosing a new book is to open it up and begin to read. I know almost instantly if the style and characters speak to me.

OMN: Give us a summary of The Edison Effect in a tweet.

BP: Professor Bradshaw knows a dangerous game is afoot when Seattle's Bon Marché electrician is found dead clutching Edison's holiday lights.

OMN: How do you go about researching the plot points of your books?

BP: The Internet is an historical writer's best friend. Google has undertaken the Herculean task of having every piece of printed matter on the planet scanned, digitized, and available online. At Google Books Advanced Search, I can find primary research material — journals, magazines, books — all published prior to 1923 and so out of copyright and available in full. Through various local library systems at which I am a cardholder, I have online access to newspaper archives and numerous historical archives. The University of Washington Special Collections is a treasure trove, as is Seattle's MOHAI (Museum of History and Industry) and Bellingham's SPARK Museum of Electrical Invention. Once I have a rough plot and a fair grasp of whodunit, whydunit, and howdunit, I reach out to experts. By then, I know enough about an electrical invention or aspect of history to have questions specific to my needs. I have a few go-to folks who generously share their expertise on science and electrical invention, and with each book, I discover new experts in various fields. With the Edison Effect, I met some wonderful collectors of early electric holiday lights, as well as several historical diving experts who amazed me with their bravery. Can you hear my enthusiasm? I love research. It's like treasure hunting.

OMN: How true are you to the settings of your series?

BP: I do my best to be as accurate as possible — within reason — to the historic detail of the University of Washington, Seattle, and the Pacific Northwest. It's important for me, as the writer, to know the details so that I can fully immerse myself in the time and setting. I'm a minimalist writer — I don't include long descriptions of scenery or clothing unless they are key to the plot — but what I do include I strive to make historically accurate, mining from mountains of research. I do take liberties because of course it's impossible to actually visit a setting more than a hundred years in the past, but when I add a detail of my own, I strive to make it one that could have existed.

OMN: What's the best advice you've received as an author?

BP: The best advice was the first advice, many years ago, from Richard Bach (author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull). In a chance encounter, I told him I was "thinking of writing" and he said, "Don't think, do. Writers write." It's simple advice but absolutely true. It's very easy to get distracted by the dreams of writing, with writing classes, with books on craft, with talking about writing. But the best way to learn to write is to write. The best way to discover what it is you truly want to say is to write. A couple years ago, William Kenower interviewed Richard Bach and passed on my thanks for that advice, and Richard said he'd been "passing it forward." He'd been given the same advice by his very good friend Ray Bradbury many years ago. Now, I'm passing it forward again.

OMN: And what else might you say to aspiring writers?

BP: Besides "Writers Write," I love to share my writing mantra: "Write to Express, Not to Impress." It's great for all aspects of writing. It's especially good at freeing you from the nagging editor on your shoulder telling you that you must write something good. When you write to express what it is what you really want to say, what you want your characters to say, what you want to say through your story, you are writing from your belly, not your ego. Your first draft doesn't have to be good, but if you've written honestly, from that place of passion, your draft will have heart and soul. You then edit and revise and polish, of course, but try to keep the heart intact. If you want to learn more about how "Write to Express" can help, see this Writer's Digest post.

OMN: What's next for you?

BP: Before I turn to the next Professor Bradshaw mystery, which will jump to 1909 and the AYP — the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, I'm writing a contemporary suspense novel. It's a story I've toyed with for years but never felt fully ready to write. Some stories require patience as you wait for life experience to show you the way, the characters, the reasons. Now, I'm ready. I think. I shall write. Writers write. And write to express, not to impress. And see what happens.

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Bernadette Pajer is a graduate of the University of Washington and a proud member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Northwest Science Writers, and the Seattle7Writers.org. Research is Pajer's favorite activity, and she happily delves into Seattle's past and the early days of electrical invention as she plots Professor Bradshaw's investigations. Pajer lives in the Seattle area with her husband and son.

For more information about the author, please visit her website at BernadettePajer.com and her author page on Goodreads, or find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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The Edison Effect by Bernadette Pajer

The Edison Effect
Bernadette Pajer
A Benjamin Bradshaw Mystery

Inventor Thomas Alva Edison is also a ruthless businessman, intent on furthering his patents and General Electric and beating rivals like Nikola Tesla and Westinghouse. Edison has agents in place in Seattle but he's come himself in pursuit of a mysterious invention lost in 1901 in Elliott Bay. When Edison asks for information, few refuse. But not University of Washington Professor Benjamin Bradshaw who's earned a reputation as a private investigator where science — electricity — is concerned. Bradshaw hopes that the lost device, one conceived in anger by an anarchist and harnessed for murder, will elude Edison's hired divers.

Soon, one December morning, 1903, the Bon Marché's Department Store electrician is found dead in the Men's Wear window clutching a festoon of Edison's new holiday lights. Bradshaw believes Edison has set a dangerous game in motion. Motives multiply as the dead man's secrets surface alongside rivalries at the Bon Marché. Bradshaw, his sleuthing partner Henry Pratt, and the Seattle PD's Detective O'Brien pursue leads, but none spark Bradshaw's intuition. His heart is not in the investigation but in a courtship that will force him to defy his Catholic faith or lose his beloved, Missouri. Then a crossroads in the case forces him to face his personal fears and his first professional failure. Whatever the outcomes, his life is about to change …

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