Monday, July 12, 2010
Interview with author Terri Main
Today my guest is MuseItUp author, Terri Main. Ms. Main's book, Dark Side of the Moon, will be available in February, 2011. Ms. Main has agreed to discuss her book and her writing life.
Terri, tell me a little about your book.
This is a cozy murder mystery that happens to take place at the end of the twenty-first century in a habitat on the moon. Carolyn Masters is a professor of history and a former FBI profiler. After the death of her mother, whom she had cared for over a period of years, she is feeling a need for a change. When she is offered a position at the newly formed Armstrong University on the moon, she accepts. However, she is not there long before a colleague is murdered and she along with Michael Cheravik, criminology professor and former Dallas PD homicide detective, find themselves caught up in a journey to discover the murderer, stop a terrorist plot against earth, exorcise their own demons and maybe find love in the second half of their lives.
What gave you the idea for this particular story?
Oddly enough it was a dream I had in high school. I dreamed of living in a colony on the moon. A golden eyed (and incredibly handsome) alien shows up. He somehow is accused of murder, and I have to find the real killer and defend him before a jury. I had just seen "To Kill a Mockingbird," and my summation sounded a lot like that in the movie.
Over the years I'd played around with the idea, later settling on a matronly school teacher as my main character. By this time I wasn't quite so interested in golden eyed aliens. So, I started thinking about cozy mysteries. Cozies are mysteries in which the puzzle is at the center of the mystery. They usually take place in small towns among the genteel sort, and usually have an amateur sleuth pressed into service to solve the crime. She isn't quite an amateur, but she has been trying to escape her past with the FBI. From there I crafted the story which began with a dream entirely unlike the final story.
Are you a full-time writer or part-time, and how do you organize your writing time?
My first best destiny is teaching. I teach communication at a local community college. Now, that involves a good deal of writing. This is especially true since I teach online classes. But when it comes to fiction, I am definitely part time. This is my first novel.
I don't think you ever "have" the time to write. You always have to make it. I tend to write in 15-20 minute segments. I write while waiting for the doctor or between classes. I will have a few minutes, and I'll go to Dr.Wicked's "Write or Die" and write furiously for 15 minutes and get 300-400 words written. I also tend to be a night owl. Right now it's almost 2 a.m., and I'm answering these questions. Fortunately, I don't have to get up early. Writing when you are at your peak also helps with productivity. But I am writing off and on all day.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
During the summer between grade school and seventh grade, I decided to write a novel. It was a science fiction novel about a guy living in the 21st century (which seemed like the distant future at the time) who has a visit from a scientist ancestor and a scientist descendent at the same time. He's an accountant. Good premise, but the story went nowhere. From that time on I wrote. Just out of high school, I published my first piece. A poem. I got two dollars. Since then I've written over a hundred magazine articles, a dozen video scripts and more radio commercials and newspaper articles than I can count.
What do you hope readers will take from your writing?
With this one, I hope they will have an enjoyable few hours. If they escape from the trials of life for a little bit of time, that's a big deal. If they find some other meaning in what I write all the better. "Meaning" in writing is always a collaborative function between writer, reader and context. I may have a certain type of meaning that I get from my writing. I wrote this shortly after my own mother passed away. It really helped me work through a few things. I don't, however, expect this to be a grief therapy book. The reader brings his or her own background to the reading as well. She or he may find meanings that I never intended. Like an ink blot test, what you see is driven by who you are. And the context affects you as well. I remember reading Frost's The Road not Taken in high school faced with seemingly infinite choices and the responsibility of choosing wisely. Today, I am nearing the end of some of those roads. My "meaning" found in that poem is quite different than it was 40 years ago.
So, I'm not trying to send any messages here. I'm trying to tell a good story. What my reader gets from it really depends on that reader.
Which genres do you write, which do you prefer, and why?
I find myself writing hard science fiction, soft science fiction and mysteries. I am also working on a fantasy novel, but it is really kind of a science fiction thing by the time we get to the end of the book. I guess in my youth, things weren't always that great. We struggled for money. My mother lost most of her eyesight when I was fourteen. I had to assume a lot of responsibility. Being intellectually inclined basically kept my ostracized from my peers. But I could escape in my novels. I could work out the puzzles in the mysteries or fly through space in the science fiction stories. For fifty cents I could get a book and escape the trials of life for a few moments. I guess I like these genres because of that.
I'm afraid I don't write "significant" stuff or "serious" literature like so many of my colleagues at the college. My writing will never win prizes, but it may help someone get enough of an escape that they can return to the work of daily living a bit refreshed and like my dad would say, "That ain't nothin'."
What is the toughest part about being a writer and how do you get past it?
Fear of being presumptuous. I remember going to a news stand and looking both ways before buying a copy of Writer's Digest as a teenager. I was always afraid someone would see and think I was pretending to be something I wasn't. Taking journalism in college helped a lot. I learned basic writing skills and the discipline to write whether I felt like it or not. As I got better, the less presumptuous I felt.
Is there anything in your story based upon a real life event? If so, tell me about it.
Like I say, my Mom died about five months before I started writing this story. Many of the emotions of the main character are similar to my own as I, too, had to re-examine my own life as a 50 something career woman who had devoted much of her adult life to caregiving.
I also found myself inserting small things like a story about getting stranded at a Stuckies outside of Albuquerque during a rainstorm when we were on vacation. It was a warm memory of being with family, riding out the storm and drinking pecan milkshakes.
How much is your protagonist like you? How different?
Well she is 55, a college professor, one of her degrees is in psychology and another in English literature. Those sorts of things are very much like me. However, I was never with the BAU. I am not quite as controlled in my speech as she is. I have not lived as much in urban areas as she has.
Ultimately, every character a writer creates is a part of them. We tear off pieces of ourselves. We exaggerate some qualities, eliminate others, explore those sides we keep hidden or try to deny. But every character good, bad or neutral contains some kernel of the author. If it didn't we could think up that character. It would be purely derivative from outside sources and, thus, would not be natural or believable.
What kind of research did you do for this type of story?
This is "hard" science fiction. What that means is that this is a story that is based on a reasonable extrapolation from our current understanding of science. There are no Faster-than-Light vehicles or transporter beams. I love those things, but I took a different path. Most everything in this book is something that is in the pipeline of current research. Now, that can be a problem sometimes. One of my whiz-bang gadgets that I created three years ago was a book printing and binding machine. I had read something about a prototype some lab had built. Well, the Espresso book machines are now actually being deployed. So, it's not so whiz-bang.
I did a lot of my research in Gerald K. O'Neill's book High Frontier published in the late 70's about a space based habitat which was based on 1970's technology. This was an actual proposal by a NASA scientist. The space habitat in my book is actually called The O'Neill Habitat.
I also read a lot of things in The New Scientist. I try to keep up with the very earliest stages of research. I also found odd ball things that I could incorporate into the story. There was just a brief note about certain types of nanobots that could be built into fabrics to create self cleaning ones. I just added that as a bit of color. I saw a bit on a science channel special on balloons about a plan to use balloons to loft satellites to a high altitude where they would be launched into orbit. I used that idea for my Lighter Than Air launch vehicle that Carolyn rides into orbit.
This is the first in a series and I scan the RSS feeds from a number of science sites daily for ideas.
Do writing violent or highly sexual scenes bother you? Why or why not?
I really don't like writing them for different reasons. Let's start with sexually explicit scenes. It's kind of like Friday night at my house growing up. About 1 or 2 a.m., I might wake up and find the door to my parents room closed. Okay, by the time I was in high school, I knew what was going on. However, did I need to see it? No. You don’t need explicit depiction of the sex act to acknowledge its existence. Let them walk up stairs in each other's arms and shut the door. Anything more than that nine times out of ten is being done primarily to titillate. I'm not in that business.
Violence is a different thing. Sometimes it is essential to show a specific violent act in order to move the story ahead and having it happen off screen just won't work. Now, I only rarely write violent scenes. The body is discovered by someone and that's it. I may mention the blood pool if that is a relevant clue otherwise, I give a few details and let the reader fill in the rest. That actually works well with cozies since the reader is not an "action" reader but a character and "puzzle" reader.
I'm not sure I really add much to the story by drawing a word picture of blood spurting out of a cut artery. I remember Hitchcock's Psycho. That was scarier than any Freddie or Jason movie and yet there was little explicit violence. Think about the shower scene. You see the knife rise, hear that music and then see the knife fall and you see blood circle the drain. Much scarier than if you saw everything.
I have one scene though in the current book where overt and somewhat explicit violence is necessary. But I agonized over it, writing it where the violent act is stopped before it happens, but part of Carolyn's character arc required this to occur. If you want to know more you have to read the book. But I think with both of these, if you can write the story without the explicit stuff, then why use it? If it is necessary, then keep it short and get back to the characters. That's my philosophy.
What about your book makes it special?
Well, it's a science fiction mystery. That is pretty unusual. Additionally, it's a cozy mystey. Most of the science-fiction mysteries I've seen have been more of the hardboiled PI or police procedural types. Also, I think it is a bit hopeful. Sure there's a murder and a plot against earth but the bad guy is caught, the earth is saved, the main characters, damaged as they are, begin a process of renewal and repair. This is not a dark future. This is one that still has some hope. In modern science fiction, that's kind of rare.
What is your marketing plan?
Well, doing blog interviews. Seriously, I'm going to be reaching out online direct to readers. I'll be providing promotional materials for bloggers, columnists, newspapers and all sorts of media. Also, I have a fun Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/darksidenovel . There are fun things there. Stories based on the characters, information about the world of Armstrong City, status reports from the characters.
I also have a blog at http://darksidenovel.blog.com where Carolyn will make periodic blog entries. I will be having a website for the book up late this summer at http:.//www.darksidenovel.com
Where can people learn more about you and your work?
Best place right now is the Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/darksidenovel
Any tips for new writers hoping to write in the genre of your book?
Read, read, read, read and when you have read, read some more. Don't just read the current stuff either. Read the classics. We may not approach these genres in exactly the same way now, but that's the foundation. If you reject that approach, then you need to at least know it. You can download the classics of just about any genre from http://www.gutenberg.org The Gutenberg Project. Then read the current work.
Read with a pen. Mark passages that work and ask yourself, why do they work? I would say it is also good to read about your craft. Writer's Digest Books has guides to writing just about every type of genre around. Take some basic creative writing and journalism courses. You will learn different things from each, but both will help.
Also join email lists or discussion boards with other authors. You can find many of these at http://groups.yahoo.com . I belong to CozyWriters, Museconferenceboard, Fellowship of Christian Writers, and The Lost Genre Guild. You can learn from each other. By the way, there is a wonderful free online writing conference in October. I'll be teaching there, so will lots of other writers, editors and publishers. It's the Muse Online Writer's Conference. http:// www.themuseonlinewritersconference.com You will learn from the presenters and from the other participants.
Terri, thank you for being my guest today and sharing your thoughts and useful information.