Annie’s Book Stop of Worcester is happy to shine our Friday spotlight on humorous mystery writer Donna Andrews. I asked Donna to tell me a little about herself and her writing, and her answer is below:
I write humorous traditional mysteries. (At least I hope people find them funny!) Toward the cozier end of the genre, but I don’t think they fit neatly into the current definition of cozy. My heroine, Meg Langslow, is an ornamental blacksmith, and occasionally you’ll find a brief passage during which she finds time to put hammer to anvil, but usually she gets sidetracked into sleuthing when some friend or relative is in jeopardy. Murder, autopsies, and other unfunny things happen—but off-stage. Most of the books take place in my fictional Virginia town of Caerphilly, which is loosely inspired by Yorktown, where I grew up, and Charlottesville, where I went to school.
Where can people find your work? (Besides Annie’s Book Stop of Worcester –though they should totally check here first!)
They should absolutely check at Annie’s Book Stop! I like to say my books are available at fine bookstores everywhere, and if anyone asks for my definition of a fine bookstore . . . one that carries my books, of course, or is at least willing to order them. If readers want to try before they buy, most libraries carry them, and all the Meg books are available as ebooks from the major ebook retailers—including Kobo for those who want to support independent bookstores through their ebook buying–as audiobooks, and as large print editions. The Turing books are out of print, but findable through used book stores and sites—though I hope to change that soon.
How can we follow your work and share your awesomeness?
I try to keep my website not TOO out of date—donnaandrews.com, and here’s hoping I get the latest covers up by the time you’re reading this. And I blog a few times a month at the Femmes Fatales: https://femmesfatales.typepad.com/ You can also find me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/donna.andrews.752 — on Twitter: @DonnaAndrews13 – and on Instagram: donnaandrews13. (Fair warning: at least half of my Instagram posts are pictures of my brother’s family’s insanely cute dogs, so if you’re looking for serious literary Instagramming, sorry!)
For readers unfamiliar with your work, how would you describe what you write? What can readers expect from Terns of Endearment?
I hope they’ll find a mix of humor and heart. In Terns of Endearment (August 2019), Meg’s grandfather, a world-famous naturalist and environmentalist, is lecturing the passengers on an education-oriented cruise to Bermuda, and thanks to the cruise line carelessly not putting a limit on the number of friends, family, and staff he can bring along at a discount, they’re a party of sixteen. But well before they get to their destination, the ship breaks down, stranding them in the Bermuda Triangle, and a passenger who is not well liked commits suicide by jumping overboard—or was it murder?
What kind of research went into writing this book? What is your favorite research story? What cool facts and findings didn’t make it into the book, but you loved discovering?
Since the book features a cruise to Bermuda, I did quite a bit of research about Bermuda—even taking a cruise there myself. And in particular, I was researching the flora and fauna, so Meg’s grandfather the naturalist could become righteously indignant about the species that were being driven into extinction. But . . . most of the endangered species in and around Bermuda are marine invertebrates, which means they rank pretty low on any sane person’s cuteness scale . . .and then I realized that I was going to maroon the boat before they even got to Bermuda. So not much Bermuda lore made it into the book. Except for the Bermuda skink. They’re not all that high on the cuteness scale themselves, but I discovered one fascinating fact: they’re endangered for a variety of reasons, including both loss of habitat from development and being eaten by introduced species like cats and rats. But they’re also endangered due to litter. Unlike other skinks, they don’t have little suction cups on their feet—they have tiny claws instead. Which is fine when they’re climbing trees or scuttling around the beach, but then an enticing smell can lure them into a beer bottle or a soda can and they can’t get out. So if I’m ever in Bermuda again, I plan to pick up as many discarded cans and bottles as I can and shake out any skinks before recycling.
What was the biggest challenge in writing and putting out Terns of Endearment? How did you overcome that challenge?
The biggest challenge to writing Terns of Endearment was that I’d never taken a cruise before. And I was so busy finishing up the previous book (Lark! The Herald Angels Sing, which came out in time for the 2018 Christmas season) that I suddenly realized that I had to find a cruise, quick. So I contacted a friend who has taken quite a few cruises and asked her for some advice. She ended up doing all the travel research and coming along with me. If I’d planned better, we could have taken a small educational cruise of the kind that happens in the book, but unfortunately all we could find was a cruise on one of the major cruise lines, an enormous floating city. But we still had fun, and I got enough research done to write my book.
What piece of advice would you want to share with other writers?
People are always asking if after so many books (28 published, with two more in the pipeline) it gets easier. Well, yes and no. It gets easier because I know I can do it. I can finish a draft and polish it into a publishable final version. But still, every time, at some point between 50% and 75% of the way through the draft, doubt creeps in. It’s garbage, all of it, every word I write. And not only is it garbage, but there’s not enough of it—I’m going to run out of plot way short of the minimum possible length for a novel. The suspects aren’t suspicious enough. The killer is too obvious. The humorous sections aren’t. The one thing that keeps me going is the fact that I go through the same miserable phase with every previous book, including ones that have won awards, hit bestseller lists, or received highly positive reviews. Apparently this phase of acute self-doubt is a normal stage of my creative process—and of many other writers’ creative process, as I learned from Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path (by Lynn Lott and Nancy Pickard). So I keep going, and eventually I come out the other end of the doubt with a good manuscript.
What does your writing space look like? What do you need to have around you while writing or editing?
I’m most comfortable writing in my office, at my desktop computer. I need peace and quiet—no mood music for me. And a beverage—Diet Coke or iced tea. Optimally I should have internet access, so I can look up useful facts as I go along, and I’m always happier when I have a long, uninterrupted space of time to write in. But I can write on my laptop in a noisy place if I have to; something about a looming deadline makes it doable.
Writers very often have furry or feathered or otherwise non-human companions to “help” them through their work. Do you? What do you have? How do they “help” (or, “not-help”) with your writing?
I’m probably a disappointment, because I don’t have any pets. Although I grew up in a household that almost always had cats—as many as a dozen in those unenlightened days before we figured out the whole spaying and neutering thing—I discovered as an adult that I’m allergic to cats. I do have what I refer to as “loaner dogs”—dogs belonging to friends whom I visit frequently, and who sometimes stay with me when their families are traveling. My brother’s family’s dogs—Ginger, the ladylike middle-aged Shi-Tzu, and Maple, the two-year-old Pomeranian/Bichon terror—are the most frequent visitors. They’d be good writing companions if they didn’t want to be in my lap. I once wrote most of an entire chapter with my thumbs, on my phone, because the dogs were visiting and I couldn’t keep them happy with sitting in a chair by my desk chair.
Are there any groups, clubs, or organizations that you would recommend to other writers that have helped you in your career?
I recommend joining both Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America—especially if you’re close enough to take advantage of their meetings, although both organizations are trying to find ways to help writers who aren’t lucky enough to be near the meetings. And it’s worth looking until you find a good writers’ group. There’s nothing like hanging out with other writers to make you come home fired up to tackle your writing project with new energy.
What else can we expect from you in the near future?
If later this year counts as near future, Owl Be Home for Christmas will be out in late October. In it, Meg’s grandfather is holding an ornithological conference that focuses on owls, and has disregarded Meg’s advice not to hold it on the weekend before Christmas. So now he and around 200 owl experts are snowbound in the Caerphilly Inn, wondering if the record-setting snow storm paralyzing the entire East Coast will end in time for them to get home for Christmas. Meg and many of her family members are helping out with the conference, so they’re snowbound as well, and everyone has quite enough to worry about even before one of the attending ornithologist keels over, an apparent poisoning victim.
Thanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to be with us, Donna!