Thursday, September 05, 2013

A Conversation with Mystery Author Sheila Webster Boneham

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Sheila Webster Boneham
with Sheila Webster Boneham

We are delighted to welcome mystery author Sheila Webster Boneham 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.

Sheila's second "Animals in Focus" mystery featuring photographer Janet MacPhail is The Money Bird (Midnight Ink; September 2013 trade paperback and ebook formats) and we recently had a chance to chat with the author about her new book.

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Omnimystery News: Introduce us to your series character.

Sheila Webster Boneham
Photo provided courtesy of
Sheila Webster Boneham

Sheila Webster Boneham: Janet MacPhail, the 50-something protagonist of my Animals in Focus series, is a professional photographer whose primary subjects are animals, and she competes with her Australian Shepherd in a variety of canine sports. She also has an orange tabby named Leo who is an important part of her life, and a vital character in the books. Each of the books is centered on an animal sport or activity, and the titles are taken from those contexts, but also tied into whatever issue has inspired murder and the mystery.

The Money Bird, the second book in the series, finds Janet and her beau Tom at a series of retriever training sessions — Tom has a Labrador Retriever. "Money bird" is a field trial term, but the mystery in this book hinges on illegal trafficking in endangered tropical birds that sell for big bucks, so the title ties them together. The first book begins at a canine obedience trial, and Drop Dead on Recall is a play on an obedience exercise called the "drop on recall." I'm at work now on the third book and although the title isn't fixed and I can't say much, Janet's Leo suggests you think "cat agility."

OMN: Describe your writing process for us.

SWB: Like most writers, I have some goofy rituals. I write away from home, in coffee shops (my current hangout is my local Panera Bread), in the mornings. I have always worked best in the midst of chaos. Writing is essentially a lonely pursuit, so being in a public place makes me feel connected but free of obligations other than my work. Once I'm tucked into my little booth, I perform my rituals. One is to open my spread sheet of daily goals. It's amazingly complex, with columns for daily and total word counts. Yes, multiple columns — minimum, better, ideal, spectacular. Silly, but it gives me a sense of control, which is reassuring, because I have no control over the story as it unfolds. I have tried plotting, but it doesn't work for me. So I begin with an idea and usually an opening scene, and the source of a conflict, and then I follow the story.

I spent many years writing nonfiction, and I used to scoff at fiction writers who talked about their characters taking over and surprising them. Well, guess what? That's one of the things I love best about writing fiction — I've created these characters and yet once they're on the page, they do have minds of their own. And sometimes somebody shows up unexpectedly, someone I didn't invite, but there she is, so I have to make room in the story. That goes for the animals in my books, too, by the way. I have a long history as a serious fancier, competitor, rescuer, dog-show judge, and dog-and-cat writer, and my animal characters are "real" in the sense that they are true to the behaviors and traits of their species, and, like the animals with whom many of us share our lives, they surprise me sometimes.

I should mention that in the evenings, I write at home, sitting on my bed with my laptop on my "bed desk" and my Labrador Retriever, Lily, beside me. Sunny, our Golden Retriever, is usually in the other room with Roger, but Lily likes to snooze while I write. She's on the bed beside me, belly up, as I write this!

OMN: How much do you and Janet have in common with each other?

SWB: The characters in this series do share many of my interests. I wanted my protagonist to be involved in a creative career that involved animals, but she isn't me and I didn't want her to be a writer. I do take a lot of photos, though, so I decided to make her a professional photographer. She may have taken some of the photos that illustrate my nonfiction books and articles! Her Australian Shepherd, Jay, is based on my own Aussie Jay, whom we lost last summer at nearly fourteen. We used to breed competitive Aussies, and Jay is a pup who actually came back to us when his owners decided they didn't want him anymore at four years old. I used that basic story for fictional Jay, with some changes, of course. Janet and Jay do a lot of walking and hiking, which I do with my dogs.

Goldie, Janet's friend and neighbor, is an avid gardener, as I was for many years, although I'm afraid my thumb was never as green as Goldie's. Tom Saunders, who shares Janet's love of dogs and canine sports, is an anthropologist and college professor. My background is in folklore and cultural anthropology, and I taught at universities for years. I also paint, and I expect one of the characters will have to pick up a brush one of these days!

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

SWB: Several years ago I was struggling to decide which of two creative paths I should pursue. I had been straddling both for a few years, but to do either well I really needed to let go of the other. My husband Roger asked me a brilliant question that I hold as advice of the best sort, meaning advice that makes me discover, and rediscover, for myself what I need to do. The question is this: What do you want to be remembered for creating? I have returned to that deceptively simple question many times over the years, and it has helped me focus on what matters to me.

Thoughtful criticism based on a piece of work has never bothered me. Well, okay, it doesn't bother me once I get past the initial resistance. What bothers me is criticism that has nothing to do with the work at hand, or that is based in ignorance of the genre or subject. For instance, I read a reader review of Drop Dead on Recall in which "critic" complained that the book "isn't noir enough" and "doesn't have enough sex." Okay, so it wasn't the book she wanted, but that's not a basis from which to pan the book.

I write and I paint, and I know how hard it is to be told that a piece of creative work needs more work, or perhaps needs to be abandoned. My advice to aspiring writers is the following:

• Write [almost] every day. If possible, write for at least an hour at a stretch at least as often as you can, because that's when the magic happens. Turn off the internet, your phone, hide if you have to, and go deep. If you can't take the time for that, write for a few minutes. If you can't do that, maybe you don't want to be a writer.

• Don't expect to keep everything you write. So many beginning (and even a few more experienced) writers seem to think that if they throw out a sentence, a page, a story, they've failed. That's a bit like saying that if an aspiring ball player doesn't hit it out of the park on every pitch, she's failed. Make mistakes and learn from them. Just don't make the mistake of hanging onto them.

• Read good writing every day. Read outside your genre, read fiction and nonfiction, read foreign literature in translation. Read writers who make dazzle you with their brilliance, and reread them as a writer. Learn from them.

• Decide what your dreams are for your writing. Your dreams. Not your writing teacher's, your agent's, your editor's, your spouse's. Not even your readers'. It's very easy these days to get caught up in all the advice, especially online. Use what works for you, but protect your dream.

OMN: What's next for you?

SWB: As I mentioned, I'm finishing up the third book in the series right now. I am also working on a more serious environmental thriller, and I expect to dive into that when the mystery is finished. I'm one of those odd ducks who resist being branded as this or that kind of writer. I have two nonfiction books in the works, one about traveling the country by train, and the other focused on — surprise! — dogs. We writers are often warned not to stray from one or two genres, the argument being that we'll confuse or offend our readers. I put more faith than that in my readers.

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Sheila Webster Boneham is the author of 17 nonfiction books, six of which have won major awards from the Dog Writers Association of America and the Cat Writers Association. For the past two decades Boneham has been showing her Australian Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers in various canine sports. She has also bred top-winning Aussies, and founded rescue groups for Aussies and Labs.

Boneham holds a doctorate in folklore from Indiana University and resides outside of Wilmington, N.C. For more information about the author and her work, please visit her website at or find her on Facebook.

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The Money Bird by Sheila Webster Boneham

The Money Bird
Sheila Webster Boneham
A Janet MacPhail, Animals in Focus Mystery (2nd in series)

For Janet MacPhail, photographing retrievers in training is the perfect way to spend an evening. But a photo session at Twisted Lake takes a peculiar turn as Drake, her friend Tom's Labrador, fetches a blood-soaked bag holding an exotic feather and a torn one-hundred-dollar bill.

When one of her photography students turns up dead at the lake, Janet investigates a secretive retreat center with help from Australian Shepherd Jay and her quirky neighbor Goldie. Between dog-training classes, photo assignments, and romantic interludes with Tom, Janet is determined to get to the bottom of things before another victim's wings are clipped for good. Print/Kindle Format(s)  Kobo eBook Format


  1. Great advice for writers. I also find your use of spreadsheets interesting. Thanks! (Just deleted several lines of cat-on-keyboard garbage.)

    1. Thanks, Nancy. Ah, my spread sheets - illusion of control. :-)

      (Maybe your cat was trying to tell us something!)

  2. It was so good "getting to know you," Sheila, and learning about your writing process. Mine is almost exactly the opposite but our goal is the same: write something that you want to be remembered for writing. I'm a plotter BIG TIME. I do write every morning (almost) but I prefer total solitude and I'm definitely a genre writer. The first two novels in my Malone mystery series, "Mixed Messages" and "Unfinished Business" were published by Post Mortem Press. And, like you, I'm finishing up the third book for my series. "Desperate Deeds" will be released early next year, God and my publisher willing. :)

  3. Patricia, it's always interesting to me how different creative people are in our approaches to the work. Thanks for commenting - and I'll be watching for your new book next year!

  4. Sheila, great advice to writers here, especially the part about writing every. I talk to so many people who are "going to write" as soon as their schedule allows, but, of course, the schedule never makes room for writing. It has to be wrestled to the ground, and forced to make room, a thousand-word session at a time.:)

    I use spreadsheets, but, whoa--you take it to a new level!! Interesting!

    Thanks for your insight!

    Susan Kroupa
    Author of The Doodlebugged Mysteries

    1. That was supposed to read writing every DAY. Sheesh. And I previewed it 3 times! (sigh)

  5. Ha ha, Susan - you know how good I am at typos! And yes, time and the muse do not come looking for us. We have to catch them and bring them home. My spreadsheets are a little silly, but as the Buddha said, All is Illusion." They give me the illusion that I am in control. :-)

    1. And I SWEAR I put in a leading quotation mark!!!


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