Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Conversation with Mystery Author Merry Jones

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Merry Jones
with Merry Jones

We are delighted to welcome back mystery author Merry Jones to Omnimystery News.

Merry has a new thriller coming out next month, Elective Procedures (Oceanview Publishing; July 2014 hardcover and ebook formats), the second in her Elle Harrison series.

We recently had the opportunity to catch up with Merry to talk about her work.

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Omnimystery News: You have written several mystery series. What is it about recurring characters that appeals to you as a writer? And how do you see them changing over the course of a series?

Merry Jones
Photo provided courtesy of
Merry Jones

Merry Jones: Part of the reason that I create a recurring character (in this case Elle Harrison) is purely practical: to appeal to readers. If readers like a character, they'll want to see more of her, which means they'll want to read more books. But there's also a personal reason: I become attached to my characters. I miss them after I finish writing them into a book. Often, I feel like I want to get to know them better, to hang out more with them. The only way to do that is to keep them alive by bringing them back in new books.

As to whether or not my characters change: In general, their life situations may change (in that they'll get married or have a child or get divorced or quit their jobs, etc.). But who they are — the essence of their characters remains the same. Elle Harrison, for example, will have her dissociative mental wanderings forever. Harper Jennings will live with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. That's not to say they won't develop — Each book brings out new situations, relationships, challenges, room for growth, and reveals new aspects of the characters, showing them from new angles, putting them to more tests.

OMN: How to you classify your books?

MJ: Some of my books (the Harper Jennings novels) are thrillers/suspense. The Zoe Hayes series are mystery/suspense. The Elle Harrison books are a crossover of suspense and paranormal. I think there are both advantages and disadvantages to these kinds of labels. As a reader looking for, say, a hard-boiled crime novel, I'd find it helpful to find a shelf full of titles in that category. And labels help stores and libraries to organize their stock. However, as a writer, I find it can be difficult to have my books labeled. For example, if Elective Procedures is labeled "suspense," "paranormal" readers might not find it. And fans of traditional "cozies" might not even take a peek at it. So the labels can be limiting and frustrating.

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

MJ: This is one of those questions that make me want to fabricate some fantastic secret or dramatic past event so I can say my fascinating experiences have fed my fiction. The truth, though, is that my life has been luckily fairly crime free, at least so far. So specific plot events and situations? Totally made up.

However, I believe that the specific crimes and villains in suspense books are less important than the suspense itself. These books work because the characters seem real and appealing, because readers care about them and fear for them and identify with them so that they vicariously experience a genuine sense of danger, evil, and threat.

In that way, all my books are based on my own real experiences. In fact, I began writing suspense when my husband was ill with cancer. I couldn't control his disease, but looking back, I see that I coped by creating a fictional world that I could control. Instead of cancer, I wrote about a scary evil serial killer, and I defeated him on the pages of a novel. So the fear, the sense of darkness and ominous danger — Those were and continue to be real, from my own life — Even years after my husband survived and recovered. Some of my characters reflect quirks of people I've known or observed, and I always dot the plot with humor, but the heart of the novels, the moodiness and shadows — those are true to my own sense of life.

OMN: Describe your writing process for us.

MJ: I always write a detailed synopsis, and I have pages of notes from my research. I follow the structure of the synopsis closely. But sometimes the characters rebel and refuse to perform actions I've planned. In those cases, I listen to them and consider whose ideas are better — theirs or mine. I try to be fair about it. Sometimes I overrule them and stick with the original plan. But more often, they are right. The guy I thought was the "bad guy" has more than once turned out to be innocent — even a victim. In Elective Procedures, this happened. I was surprised at the identity — and the motive of the killer.

OMN: How do you go about researching the plot points of your stories? What are some of the more interesting topics you've had to learn more about?

MJ: For sure, I fact-check. But not just that. Before I begin writing a new book, I do tons of research. I use the internet, interviews, first hand experience — whatever it takes.

The process of writing has led me to study up on dozens of fascinating topics. Each book has led me in new directions. For example, in creating Elle Harrison, I researched dissociative disorders. (She wanders mentally, separating from "reality," particularly when under stress.) In writing Elective Procedures, I had to learn about body dysmorphic disorder, a condition which causes people to have distorted perceptions of their physical beings. With each book, I want to learn something new — I want my work to provide not just gripping suspense, but also provoking thoughts and broadened knowledge. I think readers want that as well.
The research is always fun because I get to pick the topics. For Outside Eden (a Harper Jennings thriller about archeology), I traveled to digs in Israel. For Elective Procedures, I spent time in Mexico, studying location and observing the celebration of the festival of the Virgin of Guadeloupe.

OMN: You mention spending time in Mexico doing background research for Elective Procedures. If you could travel anywhere in the world, all expenses paid, to study a particular location, where would it be?

MJ: I think Africa. I'm an animal lover, would be thrilled to go on safari, see wildlife — especially elephants. Or maybe I'd go to a gorilla habitat. In either case, I'd like to investigate a setting that's beyond my experience, someplace that takes me places I haven't yet imagined. Someplace where I have to start over, figuring out how things work, how to survive, how to succeed. And I'd like to be able to create a plot that furthers awareness of, caring for, and responsibility toward wild animals.

OMN: What are some of your other outside interests?

MJ: I'm an avid sculler. I row out of Vesper Boat Club on the Schuylkill River.

OMN: What is the harshest criticism you've received as an author?

MJ: Here's harsh criticism: My first literary agent told me that I would never be able to write fiction. "You don't think like a fiction writer," she said. "You don't have the mind for it."

Ouch, right?

Obviously, this comment devastated me. I'd ALWAYS wanted to write fiction. But I respected her. I thought she knew everything about writing and the business of publishing, and I thought she had my career and best interests at heart.

But a dozen fiction novels and fifteen-ish years later, I realize that her comment had little to do with my best interests, my writing ability or my mind. It had more to do with the fact that she didn't represent fiction and wanted to keep me as a non-fiction/humor writer in her agency.

So my advice to aspiring authors is: Write what's in your heart. Listen to others, but develop your own voice and choices. Work with people who support your career dreams and don't let others — even agents or editors define your goals. Clearly, there are no guarantees of success, but you alone can decide what variety of "success" to aim for. So be passionate about it. Relentlessly passionate.

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Merry Jones has been writing since she was old enough to hold a pencil. "If I don't write," she says, "over time, I get agitated and irritable, as if energy is building up inside and I have to let it out."

A regular contributor to Glamour, her work has been printed in seven languages and numerous magazines.

For the last fifteen years, she has taught writing courses at a variety of institutions, including Temple University and Delaware County Community College. She has appeared on radio and television (local and national), and participates in panel discussions and workshops regularly.

To learn more about the author and her work, please visit her website at MerryJones.com or find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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Elective Procedures by Merry Jones

Elective Procedures
Merry Jones
An Elle Harrison Thriller

Elle Harrison and her pals Jen, Becky, and Susan travel to Mexico where Jen has arranged cosmetic surgery, after which she will recover in a plush hotel suite. But more is going on at the hotel than tummy tucks. Soon after they arrive, Elle sees the woman in the suite next door fall from her sixth floor balcony. When the room is later occupied by another patient, Elle finds her brutally mutilated body on that same balcony. Police question Elle as the last person to see these women alive.

Their doctor also takes an interest in Elle; a woman staying at the hotel asks Elle to help her fend off a creepy stalker; a veiled woman sneaks into Elle's suite at night, and her late husband, Charlie, reappears (or Elle imagines that he does) when Elle gets pushed under water in the ocean and nearly drowns.

As dangers swirl and intensify, Elle is forced to face her unresolved issues with Charlie, even as she races to find the connections between killings before more patients — including Jen — can be murdered. And before she herself becomes prey.

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