Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Silver Rush Strike: Interview with Mystery Writer Ann Parker

What was a pretty run-of-the-mill Tuesday morning turned into a wonderful afternoon when I opened my email to find that my friend Ann Parker had sent back the interview questions I had sent her a while back. Ann, as some of you probably know, is a wonderful mystery writer. Her Silver Rush mystery series is now three books strong with the third book, Leaden Skies, just being released last month by Poisoned Pen Press.

All of the Leadville books (Silver Lies, published in 2003; Iron Ties, released in 2006, and now Leaden Skies) are set in the city of Leadville, Colorado in the late 1870s and early 1880s, when the town was in the middle of the wild Silver Rush. Ann's great protagonist, Inez Stannert, is a female saloon owner trying to deal with various town characters, murderers, celebrities, millionaires, prostitutes and politicians and businessmen with their own particular agendas.

The book jacket copy for Leaden Skies definitely locked me in:
As part owner of the Silver Queen Saloon, Inez Stannert has often observed the ruination that comes from yielding to temptation.Still, that hasn’t stopped her from taking Reverend Justice Sands as her lover. Nor does it stop her from striking a backroom deal with upscale brothel madam Frisco Flo, a deal that Inez gambles will make her financially independent.

But when the body of Lizzie, one of Flo’s women, is discovered and Inez learns that Flo has another silent business partner whose identity she will not divulge, Inez begins to have second thoughts. In a race to untangle the dealings of the high and the low during Grant’s visit, Inez finds herself facing demons from her past, even as she fights to save her reputation and her life.

Ann and I met while we were both working in the Livermore, California area, and I always like to think that it was somewhat serendipitous that we ended up in the same department as writers, because she was a invaluable mentor to me during my struggles in getting Pulp Writer published. So I'm very happy to present this interview with who is becoming one of the most popular and highly regarded women writing of the West. At the end of the interview is a short list of Ann's upcoming appearances in the southern California area starting this week, and also the link to her website with more upcoming appearances listed.

1. How did you come to start the Silver Rush series? What gave you the inspiration?

I was inspired to start writing the series by none other than my Uncle Walt, my father’s brother! At a family reunion in 1997, Uncle Walt, while summarizing our genealogical family history, mentioned that my Granny Parker had been raised in Leadville. My first reaction was: WHAT?? Granny (who had died back in the 1980s) had never mentioned Leadville to me, although she’d often talked about what it was like being a young woman in Denver. I had no idea she’d ever lived anywhere else. So, I asked Uncle Walt, “What the heck is Leadville?”

He gave me a brief, but enthusiastic overview of Leadville and its history, ending up with: “Ann, I know you’ve been thinking of writing a novel. I think you should research Leadville and set a story there.”

Well, I was intrigued by what my uncle had said, so I started doing a little research. It wasn’t long before I was hooked on Leadville’s history. Too, this initial exploratory research phase coincided with the dot-com boom, right where I was living. What I read about the silver rush resonated with what was going on around me at the time: Everyone was throwing caution to the wind in hopes of “getting rich quick.” History was repeating itself—different place, different era, but similar dynamics. I found the parallels between times present and past fascinating.

2. You didn't draw the town of Leadville out of a hat. Apparently you have some extensive family history entrenched in that town. Tell us more about that.

I’m still searching out my granny’s past. She came from a working-class family, and there just isn’t that much information to glean. I know she was the oldest daughter of a blacksmith, Lawrence Stannert (who himself apparently came from a fairly long line of blacksmiths; at least, as far back as I could trace: three generations or so). He came out from Pennsylvania to Leadville, probably, I'm guessing, to better his lot. Soon thereafter, he brought his wife Mary and young daughter Inez Stannert (yes, I gave my protagonist Granny’s name with the family's blessings). From city directories of Leadville, I can see he worked at the Arkansas Valley Smelter as a farrier, then worked at a smaller blacksmithing operation in town, then went back to the smelter. I know that Granny didn’t graduate from high school - something she always regretted. Education must have been very important to her: She raised three children who became an engineer, a doctor, and a legal secretary.

3. How much research do you do for each book? As in months? Do you find research gets a little easier with each book or not?

It’s hard for me to even guesstimate, as I do my research in bits and pieces as I have the time. A few hours here or there, sometimes in stretches as long as a couple of days (when I go to Colorado specifically to research whatever book I’m working on). Generally, as time goes on, the “flavor” of the research changes. I usually am focusing on different topics for each book (long-term repercussions of the Civil War for Iron Ties, for instance, vs. the “politics of the day” for Leaden Skies), so I always have something new to run down and thrash through. But I think I've become a little more savvy with each book. For instance, I more quickly ask for help from an ever-growing list of contacts and experts when I get stuck on something, and, if searching out the answer to a very specific question becomes a big “time sink,” I’m now more likely to search out a “write-around” solution … This is fiction, after all, and if the answer isn’t forthcoming, well, the writing must get done.

4. I know sometimes in the past I've gotten frantic emails from you a couple of times asking if I know of any experts on obscure subjects, such as women's divorce rights in Colorado, or how many miles a horse could travel on a winter day carrying a specific number of pounds. I know mystery writers can be sticklers for detail.

So true, so true. That’s why, whenever I travel or get out and around on the internet, I’m not shy about letting people know if there’s something I’m having trouble finding out about. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

5. Who are some of your mystery gurus, and what did you read early on? When did you start writing mysteries, did you just jump in and write the first Silver Rush book, or were there other projects before then?

Well, I read all over the map. As a kid, I liked the Sherlock Holmes stories (I wasn’t a big Nancy Drew fan). I read a lot of sci-fi/fantasy, and loved Ursula LeGuin (Wizard of Earthsea, anyone?), as well as “spy/thriller” types of books and general fiction. Mysteries were just part of the stack I would regularly carry home from the library. I’ve always been a “hired gun” as a writer -- I’ve worked 30+ years now as a tech writer/science writer/corporate communications specialist/anything-to-do-with-words type of person. So, when I turned to writing fiction in my late 40s, I had plenty of well-used writing tools in my toolbox. When I became fascinated by Leadville, I took a course in “How to Write a Mystery” by local mystery author Penny Warner and jumped right in with Silver Lies.

6. Why mysteries?

Mysteries provide a built-in structure: There must be a plot (obviously), there’s a crime, a villain, clues, suspects, story and character arcs, a resolution, etc. etc. It’s like having a building framed and ready to go. I add paint and landscape/decorate as I wish!

7. What is it about the 19th century that you find the most fascinating to write about?

I find I’m often drawn to historical events that “resonate” with the current times in which I’m writing. I was researching the silver rush boom times for Silver Lies while the dot.com craziness was going on all around me in California. The behavior I witnessed matched what I was reading about regarding Leadville a century and a half ago! In Leaden Skies, I became fascinated by politics (gee, I wonder why… ).

8. In the first Silver Rush mystery, Silver Lies, Inez Stannert deals with having a son that has been sent back east to live with relatives, rather than with his saloon-running mother, and Inez's pain over that situation runs through the book. Was there something in your research that led you to add this sub-plot? How prevelant was this in the pioneering days?

It apparently was not uncommon for young children to stay “back East” with relatives while the parents headed into more unsettled territory. Once things calmed down (if they did), then sometimes the parents would bring the children out, in one way or another. For instance, writer/artist Mary Hallock Foote (the women which Wallace Stegner used for inspiration for Angle of Repose) and her mining engineer husband Arthur Foote often left their children with Eastern relatives when his job took him off into “frontier” territory.

9. Tell us about your writing day. You have a full time job and a family. Plus you do extensive marketing for your books that are currently out. So give us some tips on how to manage it all!

Everyone does the writing gig differently, and I would not recommend my (non)schedule. I don’t write every day. Nor every week. I thrash around with my research for a while, get a flash of insight as to the start of the book, write the opening scene, write the synopsis for the editor’s review, get the okay to proceed, and charge forward. Then, life usually interrupts at some level, and rather than charge, I lurch along for a while. Something usually pops up that drives the fiction-writing to the top of my to-do list (usually it’s a deadline-related thing) and I am “propelled by panic” to pick up the pace and race to the end.

How to manage it all? My tip: Do what works for you. If that’s writing a bit every day or on the weekends, do that. If it’s more a “NaNoWriMo” thing (rough draft all at once), do that. There’s no right or wrong way.

10. You have been a science writer for many years, including being a feature article writer for our former employer's monthly magazine. Those articles were not easy to research nor write, and yet you did it, month after month, AND wrote your first two books while working there. Did you ever find the demands of scientific and/or journalism writing conflicted with the creative free-thinking that fiction writers depend on? How did you manage to turn on off in order to do the other?

Actually, I find it a relief to turn from one form of writing to another. Must have to do with the way my brain is wired: I double-majored at Berkeley in Physics and English Literature, way back when, and it was the same for me at that time. And, I love to research - whether the topic is particle physics or women’s rights (circa 1880), the research techniques and the thrill of the hunt are the same!

11. You were a tremendous help to me when I was struggling with Pulp Writer. Do you have any words of wisdom for new writers who might want to break into writing mysteries?

Persist. Don’t give up. Find other writers who are supportive and encouraging.
The mystery community is, in general, very welcoming and supportive of those just starting out. I’d suggest checking out Sisters in Crime, particularly the on-line “Guppies” (for pre-published/just-getting-started writers) chapter. You can read more about it here: http://www.sinc-guppies.org/index.html . Note: Guppies (and SinC) welcome both women AND men!

12. And finally, in a homage to one of my favorite blog The Tainted Archive and its interviews, my final question: If you were stranded on a desert island, what would be your one mystery of choice to have, and what mystery movie?

My mystery book of choice would be the next one I have to write! (Having uninterrupted time to do so sounds heavenly.) Of course, that means I’d need a computer that can withstand beach sand.
I think I’d pass on the mystery movie so I could focus on the writing I have to do…
Onward with Book #4!

Here's Ann's schedule for the next week:

Thursday, August 20, 7 p.m.
Burbank Buena Vista Branch Library
300 North Buena Vista Street
Burbank, California

Friday, August 21, 7 p.m.
Mysterious Galaxy Books
7051 Clairemont Mesa Blvd.
San Diego, California

Saturday, August 22, noon
Mysteries to Die For
2940 Thousand Oaks Boulevard
Thousand Oaks, California

Saturday, August 22, 3 p.m.
Mystery Bookstore
1036-C Broxton Avenue
Los Angeles, California

Sunday, August 23, 12:30 p.m.
Book 'Em Mysteries
1118 Mission Street
South Pasadena, California

And for more information on Ann,all of her books, and a complete list of appearances scheduled, go here. And if you're a history buff, check out her Links page - it's fantastic!

Thank you, Ann. And may there be many more Lead-full mysteries in your future!



Well I'll be checking Ann out - great interview, Laurie

Heidiwriter said...

Yes, Ann,you are a wonderful mystery writer! Fascinating how stories flow from family history. We have the grandmother angle in common! I wonder how many of us have started out that way?

Looking forward to reading the new book!


Ann Parker said...

Thanks, Laurie, for the interview... I had a lot of fun with it!
And thank you, Archavist, for taking a chance on the Silver Rush series.
Heidi, you're right about the grandmother business... kinda makes me wonder what future generations will make of us!