Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A Conversation with Mystery Author Carolyn Mulford

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Carolyn Mulford

We are delighted to welcome back author Carolyn Mulford to Omnimystery News.

Last year Carolyn visited with us to share her thoughts on choosing on-going series characters, and today we're pleased that she's agreed to spend some time talking with us about her own series. The next mystery in her "Show Me" series is Show Me the Ashes (Five Star; March 2016 hardcover and ebook formats), which will be published later this Spring.

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Omnimystery News: Introduce us to your series characters.

Carolyn Mulford
Photo provided courtesy of
Carolyn Mulford

Carolyn Mulford: News and personal experience coalesced to create Phoenix Smith, a former CIA covert operative based in Vienna, as the protagonist in Show Me the Murder and later books in the series. The news concerned the Bush administration's illegal outing of operative Valerie Plame, endangering her and people she had worked with or merely knew. The personal experience occurred in Vienna during the Cold War. I discovered that a friend led a double life and realized that he and his friends, including me, would suffer if he were caught.

Empathizing with those two courageous operatives, I was struck by the dedication and deception leading double lives required and intrigued by the moral ambiguity involved in being a spy. I wanted to get inside the head of such a person. Gradually I came to know Phoenix, a brilliant, arrogant, tough, skeptical, action-oriented woman who values loyalty, fairness, and compassion. She views much of life as a competition, and the end justifies the means. I enjoy the internal and external actions that spring from her contradictory traits.

I had lived in the Washington, D.C., area for years but was planning to move back to Missouri, my native state. I decided to exile Phoenix, wounded during a mission, to her hometown and force her to adapt her CIA skills to solving crimes there. That led naturally to the development of two other characters, both her childhood friends. Phoenix's best friend, Annalynn Carr Keyser, is a newly widowed civic leader who stayed in the small pond. Phoenix never cared much for Connie Diamante, a singer who lived around the country and returned to the hometown after her marriage and career dreams ended.

Needless to say, the women face their personal crises and the crimes they must solve with different personalities and conflicting views. Phoenix drives the action, and the interactions between Phoenix and Connie yield much of the humor.

And I must mention one of my readers' favorite ongoing characters, a Belgian Malinois called Achilles. A K-9 dropout, he came into Show Me the Murder as a plot point (a witness who couldn't talk) and refused to leave.

Reviewers call the books a character-driven series.

OMN: Show Me the Ashes is the fourth book in this series. How have your characters developed over time?

CM: The three women remain true to their cores, but they and their relationships evolve within each book and from book to book. In the first book, Show Me the Murder, Phoenix leads the investigation even though Annalynn has gone against her inclination and training to wangle the appointment as acting sheriff. Phoenix and Connie tolerate each other for Annalynn's sake, but their attitudes soften subtly when Phoenix must go undercover with Connie to break the case.

In the second book, Show Me the Deadly Deer, Phoenix and Annalynn function as equals, each using her own methods to investigate the death of a hunter found with an antler in his back. Connie intrudes into the investigation, using her improv talent to coax suspects to chat with her. Phoenix gives Connie grudging respect, and Connie sees unexpected kindness in Phoenix's support of victims' families.

In the third book, Show Me the Gold, Annalynn has overcome grief and gained confidence both in her work as sheriff and in her ability to steer Phoenix's love life. They clash as they sometimes did in high school. Connie has figured out how to use Phoenix's weaknesses to trick her into helping with a college musical. The two still spar, but they have developed enough trust in each other to collaborate in keeping an explosive secret from Annalynn and the FBI.

In the fourth book, Show Me the Ashes, Phoenix is bored running a foundation that she created to give Annalynn a job when her appointment as sheriff expires. Phoenix can't resist an appeal to prove that Annalynn's late husband prompted a young mother, now in prison, to falsely confess to manslaughter and arson. Phoenix hides her investigation from Annalynn and works with Connie. Annalynn enlists Phoenix's help — and secretly excludes Connie — in investigating a series of dangerous burglaries. Phoenix dislikes being caught in the middle.

OMN: Describe your writing process for us.

CM: I began the series with a good (but incomplete) knowledge of my three main characters and a vague idea of character development over five books. I had the plot idea only for the first book and the intention to deal with a real issue in each book.

Ideas for plots and themes tend to bounce around in my brain for a long time before I put anything on paper. Often I start by sharpening pencils and jotting down possible murder weapons, killers, and suspects. When concrete plot points and major characters emerge amid the scratch-outs and arrows and circles, I go to the computer and write and rewrite and rewrite a general two-page synopsis. I also list the major characters, naming key ones and describing them and their roles in a few phrases. Both the story line and the cast change considerably as I write. I like to know the basic plot but encounter surprises.

I'm ready to decide where and when the story will start and write a summary paragraph or two of each of the opening three to five chapters. I never follow this partial narrative outline exactly, but those paragraphs direct me.

The first chapter is always the most difficult. I rewrite it two to four times before I go on to the second chapter and tinker with it at various times throughout the book. The last thing I polish before submitting a manuscript is the first chapter.

I modify and amplify — at least in my head — my vague synopsis as the characters and plot develop at the keyboard. I usually write summary paragraphs for the next three or four chapters as I finish major points. When only five or six chapters remain, I skip the summaries and write like mad.

When I complete the first draft, I edit in stages. First I deal with content. I delete clues or characters that the story doesn't require and insert any information readers need. Then I check the pace by going through the updated chapter summaries. Time to print a copy and read through the whole thing in two or three sittings. During this overview, I correct only such things as typos and make notes about any needed changes, such as the endings of chapters or missing transitions. I make the changes over a few days.

Then I send the manuscript out for comments from beta readers and occupy my mind with something else for a couple of weeks. I study their comments, make the necessary revisions, and work on the final polish. At this stage, my goal is to function as an editor, not the writer.

OMN: How true are you to the settings in the books?

CM: I created a county in northern Missouri that resembles the one where I grew up. In a fictional place, no one can complain that a business was portrayed as a crime scene or a street runs the wrong direction. In made-up Vandiver County, real regional expressions and attitudes reveal the subculture. The setting functions as a character.

Rural areas offer several advantages for mystery writers. Sheriff departments lack resources for the relatively rare homicide investigations. People know their neighbors, and legwork rather than forensics or surveillance footage usually breaks a case. Cell phone service is spotty, so victims and sleuths don't have instant access to help.

OMN: What's next for you?

CM: Show Me the Ashes comes out in hardback and e-book March 16th, and I've finished writing book five, Show Me the Sinister Snowman.

I've always liked variety. Currently I'm rewriting the first book of another series and writing blogs in anticipation of the release of Thunder Beneath My Feet, a middle grade/young adult novel set during the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812. Both have strong female protagonists.

With two new books coming out in this winter (and a paperback edition of Show Me the Deadly Deer in June), promotion will cut into my writing time this spring.

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Carolyn Mulford decided to become a writer in grade school. After earning degrees in English and journalism, she received a different kind of education as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia. She worked as a magazine editor in Vienna, Austria, and Washington, D.C., and then became a freelance writer and editor. She changed her focus to fiction with her return to Missouri.

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

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Show Me the Ashes by Carolyn Mulford

Show Me the Ashes by Carolyn Mulford

A Phoenix Smith/Annalynn Keyser Mystery

Publisher: Five Star Print/Kindle Format(s) Print/Nook Format(s)

A young barmaid confessed to killing an attacker and setting a fire to conceal that. Months later her dying mother begs ex-spy Phoenix Smith to prove Sheriff Annalynn Keyser's late husband prompted a false confession. Only identifying the real killer will free the daughter to care for her fatherless child.

Phoenix and singer Connie Diamante investigate but don't tell Annalynn, their lifelong friend. The investigation takes the women to the burnt-out bar and introduces them to families crippled by guilt and bigotry.

Annalynn recruits Phoenix and her dog, Achilles, to help capture a serial burglar. When someone tries to kill Phoenix and Achilles, she doesn't know which case puts her in danger. Phoenix must smoke out the killer to save her own and others' lives.

Show Me the Ashes by Carolyn Mulford


  1. Great interview! I appreciate how Carolyn shared the details of her writing process and how her characters have developed throughout her series. Thanks for the info.

    1. Thanks, Donna. Letting characters grow is part of the fun.

  2. Great interview with wonderful insights into the writing process that every author can use.

    1. We all work a little differently, but I hope some find it useful.


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