Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Conversation with Mystery Author Nancy G. West

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Nancy G. West
with Nancy G. West

We are delighted to welcome author Nancy G. West to Omnimystery News today, courtesy of Great Escapes Book Tours, which is coordinating her current book tour. We encourage you to visit all of the participating host sites; you can find her schedule here.

Nancy's second mystery to feature amateur sleuth Aggie Mundeen is Dang Near Dead (Henery Press; September 2014 trade paperback and ebook formats) and we recently had the chance to catch up with her to talk more about the series.

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Omnimystery News: Introduce us to Aggie Mundeen.

Nancy G. West
Photo provided courtesy of
Nancy G. West

Nancy G. West: Aggie Mundeen, single and pushing forty, is financially secure and on her own. Her parents died in a plane crash when she was young, and the aunt and uncle who raised her died when she was nineteen. Smart and determined, she worked her way through college and rose to vice president of a Chicago bank. At age nineteen, she fell in love with a scoundrel who deserted her, a scar that left her ashamed of her past and distrustful of men, except for her best friend's husband, whom she grew to love. Still curious and determined, she moves to Texas to start over.

Her secret love, after losing his family in a tragic accident, has previously moved to Texas.

Afraid of nothing but middle-age decrepitude, she writes the column "Stay Young with Aggie" and probes every avenue to stay youthful.

With her wry sense of humor, her belief that justice must prevail, and her determination to right wrongs, she plunges headlong into dangerous situations. Like murder.

OMN: How do you expect Aggie to evolve over the course of the series?

NGW: My characters' basic personalities don't change: Aggie will always be curious, determined and meddlesome when she sees people commit wrongs, which causes her to jump in where she shouldn't.

Detective Sam will always have a penchant for justice and loyalty to family and friends, producing conflict with loyalty to the memory of his deceased family versus his attraction to Aggie.

Aggie's friend Meredith, despite suffering disillusionment in her past (or perhaps because of it) will always be careful and thoughtful with attention to detail. But her flare for adventure entices her to join Aggie in misadventures.

All three, while maintaining basic personality traits, adjust and change with the situations in each book and learn from experience. Aggie realizes that her headstrong determination to investigate crimes not only frustrates and worries Sam, but may also doom their relationship. She has to decide how far she can go without losing him.

OMN: How do you go about finding the right voice for your characters?

NGW: As a female, I find it easy to write Aggie and Meredith. I think they represent my opposing sides. Aggie is curious, carefree, humorous and takes a wry view of people and life. Meredith is more serious, takes the longer view and is not as compulsive. When they approach the same problem differently, it's fun, like having them sitting on my shoulders arguing with each other.

I love writing Sam. He's a good man, always trying to do the right thing. He struggles with Aggie's antics because he understands her penchant for righting wrongs. Yet with his investigative background, he's appalled by her methods and fears for her safety. I enjoy his conundrum. My friend says she wants to marry him. I could marry him, too (except I'm already married.)

OMN: Into which mystery subgenre would you place your books?

NGW: I guess they're cross-overs. They're traditional and cozy because there's no graphic violence and sex, and Aggie is an amateur sleuth. Her reaction to crime (and everything else), while serious, is also humorous. Other characters in the books are also humorous.

But Aggie has a serious side and is always thinking. One of my favorite reviews read "Nancy West does such a good job of making Aggie humorous, but with a brain." Aggie is always learning. In Fit to Be Dead, Aggie Mundeen Mystery #1, several scenes take place at the fictional San Antonio university where ever-curious Aggie has returned to graduate school. In Smart, But Dead #3 (2015), Aggie returns to the university, determined to learn how genes affect aging. So these two books could be considered academic mysteries. Learning in Aggie's world, however, is always mixed with chaos and humor.

Another reviewer said this: "West's main characters suggest they could fill a series. I hope so. I love this book!" This tells me my characters and stories have substance … that there's more than humor for humor's sake.

OMN: Give us a summary of Dang Near Dead in a tweet.

NGW: When Nancy G. West puts Aggie Mundeen and friends at a dude ranch in Dang Near Dead, what could go wrong? Humorous mishaps? Murder?

OMN: How much of your own personal or professional experience have you included in your books?

NGW: Each one of my characters reflects parts of me and parts of people I know. Events in Dang Near Dead came from my spending a month as a teenager at a working ranch camp in New Mexico. Either I or somebody there experienced everything that happens in the book. Scary, yes?

OMN: Tell us more about your writing process.

NGW: I love my main characters, Aggie, Sam and Meredith and will not let them go. Where can I put them so their foibles are accentuated, where a crime can be committed, and where I can imagine a slew of quirky supporting characters? First, I decide on the setting and how the murder is committed. I outline my cast of characters based on where they live and work. This leads me to think about who the victim and murderer are and what motivates them. Then I research this place and the people who live or work there. What I learn will add to or change my characters, even the killer and victim. I'll make a general outline of what happens and when, but the story will change and develop as I write. I may have more or fewer characters and a different victim or killer. At some point in the process, the ending and beginning of the story come into focus. Mine is an organized approach that turns messy the more I learn and regains order as I pull the pieces together.

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

NGW: I use the internet and consult with scads of experts. For Dang Near Dead, I consulted thirteen experts ranging from police sergeants, crime lab scientists, and EMS responders to attorneys, Hill Country naturalists, wire experts, and former U.S. Army men and National Guard helicopter pilots. I also had personal experience from my month-long stint at the working ranch camp in New Mexico.

My most exciting and challenging topic to research has been to learn how our genes affect aging. In Smart, But Dead #3, to be released 2015, Aggie, still single, pushing forty and approaching desperation, returns to college to learn all she can about the subject,, before she gets old and Sam loses interest.

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

NGW: Setting is vital to my stories and to how the characters react. Settings are based on real places familiar to me. I try to accurately depict geography and environment but take liberties with the area to authenticate the story.

OMN: If we could send you anywhere in the world, all expenses paid, to research the setting for a story, where would it be?

NGW: Hawaii would be nice. Beautiful and balmy, it has a distinctive aura and mindset. A crime committed there would be violent, energized, and passionate, in sharp contrast to the lanquid beauty of the islands.

OMN: What are some of your outside interests? And have any of these found their way into your stories?

NGW: I love music, reading, gallery hopping, being with family and friends. Music will probably crowd its way into one of my books. I tile table tops (a supporting character does this) and design tables and house plans. I'm not crazy about exercising, but I struggle through it 3-4 days a week. The health club setting made the perfect backdrop for Fit to Be Dead.

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

NGW: To persevere despite rejection or criticism. Remember that reaction to a story or character is subjective. One person will like it; another won't. One person told me they loved my plot but couldn't identify with my character; another person said they loved the main character but didn't like the plot. They were talking about the same book.

If you get the same criticism from several readers, it's time to rethink. But make changes to fit your style — your view of the story and what you want the book to accomplish.

We have to improve our craft. Books on writing are listed on my website with descriptions of why they're valuable. I continue to read articles and books on techniques used to write fiction. I think most writers do this. After all, we visualize scenes and feelings in our heads. Then we try to put them into precise words that will cause a reader to experience identical feelings or views of the same scene. This is not an easy task. It takes work, practice, and ever-expanding comprehension of the tools we have available.

OMN: Complete this sentence for us: "I am a mystery author and thus I am also …".

NGW: I am a mystery author and thus I am also insatiably curious, have more ideas than time or energy, and am incurably fascinated with people's (often humorous) foibles. I'm stubborn, driven to have people enjoy my work, and obsessively destined to write what I see and feel whether anybody ever publishes it or not, as long as a reader responds to my vision. As a writer, I am blessed, cursed, and supremely grateful.

OMN: How did Dang Near Dead come to be titled?

NGW: I chose the title Dang Near Dead because ranch mishaps can cause a person to end up in that condition. Besides dealing with dudes, wranglers, sharpshooters, snakes and poison ivy, what could go wrong? Henery Press designed the cover to fit with the Aggie Mundeen mystery series, bright and happy with an undercurrent of mischief, mayhem and images that suggest death.

OMN: What kinds of feedback have you received from readers?

NGW: I like to hear or read reactions to specific characters or plot points. I can tell how carefully they read the book, and what I may have done, right or wrong. Let's face it, though. If they like the book, I'm happy — no matter what they say.

OMN: Suppose your series were to be adapted for television or film. Who do you see playing the key roles?

NGW: I see Sandra Bullock or Tina Fey as Aggie Mundeen. I see her friend Meredith Laughlin played by one of the smart, lovely statuesque blondes now playing on film and TV. Detective Sam is a cross between Lieutenant Columbo (less scruffy) and Police Commissioner Frank Reagan on Blue Bloods (less commanding and more vulnerable).

OMN: What kinds of books did you read when you were young?

NGW: I read Nancy Drew books but not the Hardy Boys; I didn't much care what the boys were doing. (That changed.) I didn't like fantasy and wanted to make good grades, so I concentrated on textbooks, even though most of them were boring. Publishers should hire writers who use fictional techniques for their textbooks.

My mother and I wrote poems to each other starting when I was seven. I think that influenced me to become an author. She had to stop what she was doing to read them, so I thought that people gave credence to what you wrote.

I chose to write mysteries because I knew that would force me to learn how to plot.

Now, I read literary fiction and genre fiction (sometimes they are interchangeable) and occasionally non-fiction, like Unbroken, and other biographies/autobiographies.

OMN: Have any particular authors influenced how and what you write today?

NGW: Shakespeare is unparalleled for the way he draws character and uses language. I need to study his plays more and hope they influence my writing.

I like humor in my fiction. Jodi Picoult uses it so well in House Rules that she is able to depict the difficulties of autism without being scientific or preachy.

I love the way William Kent Kruger meshed a mystery into sweet family dynamics in Ordinary Grace.

I look for how a book opens, how characters are developed, how the book is paced.

OMN: What do you look for when selecting a book to read for pleasure?

NGW: I like books that bridge the gap between mystery and literary fiction. I love beautiful language, like dew on your tongue. But a book has to create mystery to hold my attention; it need not be a so-called genre mystery, but rather an intriguing story about what might happen. I have to be invested in the main character to care what happens.

OMN: Create a Top 5 list for us on any topic.

NGW: How about my Top Classics Authors and Top Contemporary Authors …

1. Classics:

Shakespeare (must be studied in class with an expert);

Anton Chekhov & James Joyce (for short stories);

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

2. Contemporary authors:

Ken Follett (suspense & historical fiction);

Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey TV series);

Jodi Picoult (contemporary issues and characters' psychology);

Donna Tartt (exquisite language and character development);

Anne Lamott (precise, moving language and honest feelings);

Carlos Ruiz Zafón for Shadow of the Wind (beautiful language and characterization, even translated).

OMN: What's next for you?

NGW: Polishing Smart, But Dead, Aggie Mundeen Mystery #3, for 2015 release. Starting to plot #4.

And a trip with my family!

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Nancy G. West Book Tour

Nancy G. West and her mother wrote poems to each other on special occasions, and in high school, Library Journal Pegasus published one of them. At eighteen, she learned journalists were underpaid and English majors sold lingerie. So she studied General Business at the University of Texas, Austin and Houston, and earned a BBA.

A few years later, married, with two daughters, she realized she had to study English literature and write. She wrote articles, poetry, the biography of artist Jose Vives-Atsara, and edited the trade journal of Book Publishers of Texas for seven years. Her poem, "Time to Lie", featured by "Theme and Variations", was broadcast on NPR.While studying English literature, she wrote Nine Days To Evil, Meredith Laughlin's story of psychological suspense, Shakespeare, and nonstop-action — winner of the Blether Gold Award. As Nancy finished the book, a funny thing happened. Meredith's graduate school friend, Aggie Mundeen, with her wry sense of humor, demanded that Nancy write a book about her. Or maybe a series. Nancy wrote book reviews and articles for various publications, but Aggie won her over.

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

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Dang Near Dead by Nancy G. West

Dang Near Dead
Nancy G. West
An Aggie Mundeen Mystery

Aggie vacations with Sam and Meredith at a Texas Hill Country dude ranch with plans to advise her column readers how to stay young and fresh in summer. Except for wranglers, dudes, heat, snakes and poison ivy, what could go wrong?

When an expert rider is thrown from a horse and lies in a coma, Aggie is convinced somebody caused the fall. Despite Sam's warnings, Aggie is determined to expose the assailant. She concocts ingenious sleuthing methods that strain their dicey relationship as she probes secrets of the ranch and its inhabitants. After she scatters a hornet's nest of cowboys, she discovers more than one hombre in the bunch would like to slit her throat.

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