Wednesday, January 06, 2016

A Conversation with Mystery Author Donna Huston Murray

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Donna Huston Murray

We are delighted to welcome author Donna Huston Murray to Omnimystery News today.

Donna's second mystery to feature ex-cop Lauren Beck, Guilt Trip (February 2016 trade paperback and ebook formats), is scheduled to be published next month and can be ordered for Kindle at special pre-release pricing!

We recently had the opportunity to spend some time with Donna to talk more about her books.

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Omnimystery News: Lauren Beck is your second series character after Ginger Barnes. Tell us a little more about them.

Donna Huston Murray
Photo provided courtesy of
Donna Huston Murray

Donna Huston Murray: Ginger Barnes, my original character (The Main Line Mysteries published by St. Martin's Press) was pretty much me, except taller, braver, and with red hair. One of my goals back then was not to embarrass my husband, who was head of a small private school, or my kids, who were in junior high. In other words, ten-year-olds could (and did) safely read those books. But as much fun as they were, after the seventh I was ready to be somebody else for a while.

Enter Lauren Beck. It was my good fortune to meet her inspiration at a football game, an amazing woman who had sky dived 43 times, fed sharks underwater, and learned to fly retired air force planes — all after recovering from a major illness. Thanks to my new acquaintance, Lauren became a young former cop with a quirky sense of humor, almost no priorities, and the acute appreciation for each day of someone who has survived a near-death experience.

OMN: How do you expect Lauren to develop over the course of a series?

DHM: I'm afraid Lauren's lot is pretty much fixed. Because of her circumstances, she feels apart from the mainstream, which frees me to move her around and give her a hard time. Ginger Barnes, on the other hand, absolutely had to get older. If my kids graduated junior high, hers should, too.

OMN: Is it challenging to find the right voice for your characters?

DHM: I tried a male protagonist once and was told he wasn't very convincing. Won't be doing that again. As for developing a voice, both Gin's and Lauren's voices took ages for me to get down. No plans to change main characters anytime soon either.

OMN: Into which genre would you place your books?

DHM: The first seven were 100% cozy — amateur detective, nothing nasty onstage, a mental puzzle. I think of the Lauren Beck Crime Novels as mystery/suspense but not quite "thriller." I call them crime novels because, well, you'll see …

OMN: Give us a summary of your new mystery in a tweet.

DHM: GUILT TRIP, The Mystery: The next time the Roitmans go to the Caribbean they'll think twice about who they take with them.

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

DHM: At a school, any school, disturbing things happen that only the principal or head might know about, and vicariously his or her spouse. Although my first series had that background, I never knowingly described anyone's real-life problem in a book. The pivotal crime in What Doesn't Kill You has happened, but not in the way I described. And I did set School of Hard Knocks on a street much like mine, but since I hadn't met my neighbors yet, that seemed safe enough. Later I heard they were trying to guess which of them was which character anyway.

OMN: Describe your writing process.

DHM: I tried winging it at first, but when I got to the middle of the book I couldn't remember what I'd done with the gun. That caused a lot of rewriting and made me realize I'd better plan ahead. Until Guilt Trip, my newest, I put ideas on file cards — white for regular action, pink for the exciting parts. Then I'd banish the dog and arrange the cards on the living room floor. That showed me where the story needed transition, more research, more plot, or more action. Tension is supposed to flow in a wave, which the pink cards allowed me to monitor. My notes became paragraphs, the paragraphs got divided into chapters, and voila. I knew where to begin every day. Unfortunately, the Guilt Trip characters didn't care to be told what to do, and in the end they made me write a better book.

OMN: Tell us about some of your more interesting interviews while researching plot points for your stories.

DHM: When I interviewed a man who led climbs up Mt. Everest, I pretty much asked why anybody would want to do that. He very patiently explained that when confronted with a wall of rock some people are motivated to become more intimate with it. In other words, he cemented my opinion that rock climbers are crazy.

Early on I interviewed about 40 people involved in every aspect of thoroughbred horseracing. I stood on the starter's box, watched from the patrol tower (horses look like bullets from up there), and learned everything except how to pick a winner. My favorite tidbit came from a Czechoslovakian breeding-farm foreman. "How many breaths does a thoroughbred racehorse take in 6 furlongs?" (3/4 mi.) The amazing answer is two. That's a fairly obscure fact that some jockeys don't even know. (FYI If you're looking for that book, it's in my garage.)

Interviewing a mechanic, I asked what would happen if somebody put sugar in the gas tank of a school bus. "Oh, please don't use that!" he begged. He was afraid somebody would act on the idea, and he'd have to fix it.

OMN: What are some of your outside interests?

DHM: My father had about 15 hobbies, and as an only child I watched him in his darkroom developing film, gardening, woodworking, combining a car crashed on the left with a car crashed on the right, etc. It gave me the impression that you'll never know whether you can do something unless you try. As a result, I've changed the oil in my car (not recently), hung chandeliers, installed garbage disposals (3 times), painted many a room and copied some of the Impressionists, made a room divider out of trash-picked doors, and landscaped our front yard. I sew, read, and love photography. I'm partial to dogs, birds, and flying squirrels. I cannot sing or do plumbing, and would rather not cook.

OMN: What is the best advice you've received as an author? And what might you say to aspiring writers?

DHM: When Stephen Cannell spoke at a writing conference, he suggested that we ask ourselves how the antagonist will react to whatever the main character is doing, something that didn't cross my mind when I was doing cozy mysteries, but certainly came in handy when I switched to suspense.

My own advice? I recommend that writers develop the habit of listening to their own thoughts. Not every thought all day long, just stay alert for the interesting impressions that pop into your mind. It's all material.

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

DHM:  … stubborn, both introverted and extroverted, and not especially fond of real life. I will attempt to solve any problem I encounter and am welcome at cocktails parties because when I ask a question, I actually listen to the answer. I love quirky factoids, playing with words, and forcing bad things to come out the way I think they should.

OMN: How do you come up with titles for your books? And how involved are you with your cover designs?

DHM: What Doesn't Kill You was originally titled Cured … But Not Out of Danger, and the cover the first I commissioned from an artist. I can't imagine why the Writer's Digest judge who said, "This book should be picked up and savored!" didn't care for the title, which popped up among books about smoked ham, or the cover, which featured a syringe and blood spatters! Both replaced, the book recently won an Honorable Mention from Writer's Digest, receiving 5s out of 5 in all 6 of their judging categories. Good editorial advice is the very best way to learn this business.

Re mystery covers: I've commissioned several now and found that stock photos are usually too pretty for a mystery. Personally, I am hoping to see a suggestion of something about to happen that also relates to the plot, which is almost impossible to find in a photo archive. We've used my photographs for five covers now, and that seems to work pretty well.

OMN: What inspired you to become an author?

DHM: At age ten Rex Stout's books made me think it would be fun to write mysteries, and I never changed my mind. Also, his characters and Gregory McDonald's struck me as both smart and funny. Part of an international crime writer's convention I attended was a sail around Manhattan at sunset, and Gregory McDonald was alone at the rail — until I sidled up. I asked how he made people laugh on page 2 and cry on page 20. Staring up at the Statue of Liberty, he answered, "Character." That taught me a lot.

OMN: What kinds of films do you enjoy watching?

DHM: My favorite films are Charade for the dialog and the mystery, of course, and The Full Monty, strictly for the plot. Of course.

OMN: What's next for your?

DHM: With Guilt Trip launching February 1st, I'll be wearing my marketing hat for a while. I've also got a Gin Barnes book patiently waiting for a tuneup. I may tinker with that while I'm plotting Lauren Beck's next challenge.

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At home, Donna Huston Murray assumes she can fix anything until proven wrong, calls trash-picking recycling, and claims that she and her Irish setter Kelsey share a similar sense of humor. Donna and husband live in the greater Philadelphia, PA area. They have two adult children.

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

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Guilt Trip by Donna Huston Murray

Guilt Trip by Donna Huston Murray

A Lauren Beck Crime Novel

Publisher: Donna Huston Murray

Amazon.com Print/Kindle Format(s)

Stockholders send you death threats, and your son-in-law/Chief Financial Officer just committed suicide. Now something is off about the blonde hanging onto the deceased's remaining brother. Should you allow her to attend the Caribbean funeral your daughter planned?

Friends close/enemies closer. You nod once, and ex-cop Lauren Beck is in. Big mistake.

Guilt Trip by Donna Huston Murray

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