An Interview with Author Laura Belgrave
Why did you decide to write murder mysteries?
I suppose one of the most influencing factors was my stint as a police reporter for a major Florida daily newspaper. It was the last job I wanted, but the one the paper had open. What an eye opener! Every day I’d make the rounds of many police stations — or cop shops, as I call them — and learn what crimes had occurred. I’d follow up on those if necessary. (Petty thefts or larcenies didn’t really call for follow up, so those I blew off.) Mostly, though, I learned of major crimes because the editor listened constantly to a police scanner. If there was a murder, I’d be sent on my way.
Once, I even arrived at a crime scene involving a murdered man before any authorities arrived. Kind of freaked me out. Anyway, I spent 17 years working the “hard news end” at major daily newspapers in Florida and when I decided to start writing books, it was a natural genre for me. (I love mainstream books, too, and wrote many that almost made it with publishers, but those are tough sells because publishers are never quite certain how best to categorize them.)
Are your mysteries cozies or hard-boiled?
Well, my books — especially those that are part of the Claudia Hershey Mystery Series — are definitely not cozies. But neither are they hard-boiled novels. Yes, they have some vivid scenes, such as when Claudia becomes involved with suspects in a murder investigation. Now and then, she has to get tough, or even engage in a situation where she must physically fight back. But I avoid gratuitous violence and I keep profanity to a minimum. (ALL real police officers use profanity, so I include some to give the stories authenticity. It’s just that I don’t believe I need to go crazy with swear words.) I also include some humor and light romance. Why? Because again, real characters display those traits and I’m persuaded that including them makes the novels more believable.
What is most important to you in writing a novel?
In a word? Character. The character is everything. Claudia Hershey, my lieutenant detective in a small Central Florida town, drives the story based on who she is and how she thinks. But she’s also a single mother of a teen-aged daughter, so of course that influences what she does as well. In short, my characters can’t be caricatures. They must feel like someone I would identify with. The mystery, though critically important, wouldn’t work for me if it weren’t driven by the character and how she reacts as a real person. (Actually, I “eat, sleep, and dream Claudia” when I’m in the writing zone.
Your first Claudia Hershey mystery, IN THE SPIRIT OF MURDER, involves psychics and mediums. Why?
Given that so much of my career was based on newspaper journalism and that my college training was in journalism, it’s not a surprise that generally I’m a skeptic by nature. So really? I have trouble believing in psychics and mediums. However, I had one incredibly unique situation with a psychic, a little old lady in an old-fashioned clapboard house. My mother pestered me visit her. Good daughter that I was, I reluctantly followed through.
Well, this woman — the Reverend Marvel Muir — worked by handing me a sheet of paper to write down anything I wanted to know. I avoided generic questions that anyone might guess, and jotted down 20 questions. While I was doing this, she tended to a wounded sparrow on her screened porch. Then, I sealed the paper in an envelope and she sat down with me. All she did was feel the envelope and while we chatted about inconsequential things, she’d occasionally stop and answer a question. She nailed 19 of those 20 questions, including where I would live next — something I wasn’t even thinking of, but had put as a question.
She honestly blew me away. But the truth? Although I’ve had readings with other psychics, those I always perceived as frauds; good at perception, but vague and far off the target. It was only Marvel Muir, now passed, who left open the question about how psychics and mediums operate. You can see why I’d create a story involving them.
Incidentally, the Reverend Marvel Muir never advertised. Her business, which I learned drew many important people and politicians, was all by word of mouth.
Do you outline your books before writing them?
Well . . . no, although heaven knows I’ve tried. Generally, though, I get some image in my mind and let the character lead me. There have been times when I’ve started a book and literally had no clue myself who the killer was. Just how it works best for me.
Let me give you an example of an image that could launch a novel: In my third Claudia Hershey mystery, DEADLY ASSOCIATIONS, you’ll notice that the book begins with Claudia eyeballing a murky fish tank. That’s an image that was in my head because my husband and I had a big fish tank, mostly filled with fancy goldfish. If you’ve read that particular novel, you already know Claudia had been taken hostage, banged on the head and was coming to. The fish tank was one of the first things she noticed. Anyway, our own experience with the fish tank was short of a disaster. In Claudia’s case, I had no idea where that story was coming from (nor where it was going) but the odd recollection is what propelled it. Well, that and the fact that at the time I lived in a new development with a homeowners association, and that HOA was quite short of perfect.
You mentioned being in the “writing zone.” What’s that?
We all go about our days doing a variety of tasks, whether those tasks involve a traditional job with well-defined elements, taking care of children or aging parents, dealing with our pets, fretting over household expenses, unexpected illnesses, and on and on. You know them well. They mostly require scheduling, logic in thinking, organizing and more.
Being in the “writing zone” is something altogether different and kind of, well, weird. Im my case I have to divorce myself from the real, everyday world, and enter an imaginative zone I’ve created, but that becomes very, very real to me. It takes intense concentration, no distraction, a lot of research (at least for my police procedurals), and devotion when you have no idea whether anyone will ever even read what you’ve sweated over. In fact, the writing zone can be so acute that it literally blocks out everything else. Honestly, it’s like living a dual life: the real one, and an imaginative but seemingly real one. NOT fun, but it is the way it works, at least for me. When I write, I have to be the character (and characters), feel what they’re feeling, and respond as only their nature would allow.
What motivated you to become an indie author?
Most of my novels were originally introduced through a trade publisher called Silver Dagger, an imprint of the Overmountain Press. It was a small publisher trying to reach a new market with mysteries. Unfortunately, after a number of years trying to compete with the large trade publishers, they ended that mystery imprint. The rights reverted to me. I decided to forgo writing anymore, because it’s tough and generally, not a very well paying business. Indeed, I took probably 10 years “off,” working again in traditional jobs.
However, years later, I was approached my an indie publisher who wanted my books. He’d heard of me and read my original editions, then explained to me that with the the explosion of ebooks, there was an entirely new market to reach. However, I handle all my own marketing, which can be pricier than I can sometimes really afford, but writing is in my blood and so I continue to continue. And I enjoy the flexibility of being an indie author, because I can get books out faster and reach new readers who otherwise may never have heard of me.
What other kinds of books do you like to read?
Hmm. Good question, and perhaps you imagine that I read nothing but mysteries. That’s not the case, though it’s true I read a lot of them. Still, I favor nearly any kind of suspense, good legal thrillers, some horror, mainstream (such as The Life of Pi,) and every now and then, even romance and sci-fi. Hey, a good book is a good book. All of them contribute to a broader perspective on life. So I’m all in.
What do your fans mean to you?
Fans keep me going. Sales are nice, but nothing is richer than someone taking the time to actually write a review, or even better, drop me an email or otherwise personally get in touch. I can be having a really miserable day, but when one of those floats in? The bad, whatever it is, vanishes and I live off the high from a real reader communicating with me because it personalizes the relationship in what is often a lonely business.
Florida, A Writer’s Paradise
The truth? I’m a lucky writer. I get to do what I do in one of the most dynamic, controversial and diverse states in America. No, I didn’t grow up here. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. Bolted two days out of high school into the Air Force, where for four years I spent most of my time in Germany and England. Got in a little trouble here and there, but nothing serious. And once? The Air Force kind of lost me. I had the luxury of ambling happily along without consequence for about a month before anyone realized records for me had been screwed up.
All of that makes good fodder for writing mysteries, or nearly anything, for that matter. But my story begins a lot sooner, way back in elementary school when I penned “The Day the Gravity Left the Earth.” It . . . well, it pretty much sucked. On the other hand, my teacher hung onto that story in my childish scrawl and some 25 years later presented it to me. I thought, “How embarrassing.” Then I thought, well, maybe not. There was promise in the creativity.
Fast forward: On the GI bill I managed a bachelor’s degree in mass communications through the University of South Florida, where I’d moved to join my family. I dove into journalism and did a bunch of newspaper reporting and editing stints for major daily newspapers. Along the line I got married to a pretty terrific guy and we’re still together after some 35 years.
Anyway, this was back when newspapers weren’t all online. They were just in print. You ordered it or you didn’t. Nearly everyone did. And at least then, newspapers were a great way to learn how to craft words quickly, logically, engagingly, and fast and furiously. Deadlines were everything.
But always, always, one way or another, I was a writer with a craving to create books. I always think of “In the Spirit of Murder,” my first published novel, as “Novel No. 5.” Sound familiar? If you’ve ever tried to write a book, you probably already know that your first isn’t likely to go anywhere. That’s where that age-old adage of “practice makes perfect” apparently comes into play.
Still, I persevered because that’s what people who want to be published authors must do. After cranking out “Spirit,” I quickly moved on to “Quietly Dead” (perhaps my favorite) and then “Deadly Associations.” They were tough sells for the publisher who put them out in both hardcover and trade paperback, but hadn’t yet had the experience of knowing how best to promote them.
Nevertheless, I managed to get good reviews over time and when the rights finally reverted to me I took the three Claudia Hershey mysteries to eBook format with new covers. (A nod here to Ray Hoy (and his Fiction Works), one of the pioneer eBook publishers and known for being ahead of his time. That worked well for him sometimes; sometimes, less well.)
Now? Well, to maintain an actual living, I bounced back and forth between freelance gigs and regular employment. During the height of my freelance gigs I got to work with Olympic Gold Medalist Mary Lou Retton. I got to edit not-yet-published novels for best-selling authors who needed abridged books on tape to accompany release in hardcover of their books. (Any idea how intimidating it is to cut someone like Nora Roberts’ novels by at least a third?) Yes. Had some good and most certainly challenging jobs.
Well, if you’re still with me, all I can say that I wish you all lived in Florida and for those of you who don’t, boy, I’d sure love to see you head south to see something beyond Disney World. You see, the state actually does have seasons. We call them beautiful winter, rainy and muggy summer, and hurricane season. You don’t see brilliantly colored leaves changing color, but you see subtle changes and get to encounter basically prehistoric creatures like alligators. I’m into cheap thrills, and nothing beats kissing an alligator.
It’s into this kind of setting that I plunked Claudia Hershey. Tough homicide detective. (No, she’s nothing at all like me. I’m basically pretty boring. She isn’t.) Those who have read my three books tend to remember her name before they remember mine. I’ve decided I’m okay with that. For me? It’s the story. I’ve written tightly-woven, character-driven mysteries in one of the finest settings on the planet. At least that’s what I’m told.
I hope you’ll check out my BOOKS page if you haven’t yet. Learn a little about each of the three books.
Talk to me. Let me know if you enjoy my stories. Write reviews. Share your gut. And if you’re someone who wants to do your own novels? Get going. Desensitize yourself to criticism and rejection, and just get going. It’s what worked for me.
Author Laura Belgrave
"Extraordinary author of extraordinary novels." —D. L. Keur
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