USA Today HEA interview

In spring of 2016, I had the good fortune to be featured on USA Today’s HEA blog in an article on historical mystery series with strong romantic elements! Since there were eight authors referenced in the article, everyone’s interview had to be abbreviated due to space constraints. I’ve included my entire interview below; if you’d like to read the HEA blog entry (I’ve been told it was one of the most popular they’ve ever done, and was shared more than 1,400 times!), you can read it here

1) Did you plan from the start to include the romantic element in your book or series, or did it evolve in the writing of the stories? If the former, why? If the latter, at what point did you realize this element would be significant to the book/series?
Yes, the romance was a big part of the series from the very beginning. I’d had success with “across the tracks” romance in my self-published Regency romance The Weaver Takes a Wife, so when I got ready to develop a mystery series, I decided to go back to that particular well, in this case pairing a young and inexperienced (in more ways than one) Bow Street Runner with the widowed viscountess who is his chief suspect in the murder of her husband (Book 1, In Milady’s Chamber). I knew from the first that I was asking readers to suspend a great deal of disbelief in accepting that a Bow Street Runner, even a young and handsome one, might become romantically involved with an aristocratic lady. In fact, I felt this scenario was well-suited for a series, as it would allow for the gradual development of a relationship that might be difficult to pull off in a single title.

2) Does the romantic element develop over several books or is it strong from the start?
It seems a bit sacrilegious to mention my own books in the same sentence as Dorothy L. Sayers, but at the risk of sounding presumptuous, the relationship between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane was my model, as far as developing the romance goes. In the first book, the attraction is all on John Pickett’s side. Julia, Lady Fieldhurst is far more concerned with saving her neck from the gallows, but even aside from that, a woman of her class would never think of a man of his station in those terms. It was interesting to see reviewers’ response to this one-sided attachment. One reviewer said, “If you’re looking for a romance, you won’t find it here,” while another said, “The romantic tension crackles, because absolutely nothing happens”!

3) What is the relationship between the protagonist and the significant other, and the role of the significant other in the story? (Are they partner sleuths, or is the “other”, while involved in the story, not one of the primary investigators? If you are writing a series, does your protagonist have only one significant other, or are there a series of them?)
In the first book, he was investigating her husband’s murder, and she was the primary suspect. In the later books, they keep running into each other—sometimes coincidentally, other times not. Because of her social position, she can go places that he can’t, and ferret out information from people who might refuse to talk to him. The most recent book, Dinner Most Deadly, found them at cross purposes for the first time, with Julia reluctantly agreeing to protect her best friend’s estranged husband, who is a suspect in the case Pickett is investigating. And it makes her miserable, which goes a long way toward making her realize just how important he has become in her life.

4) If you are writing/have written a series, how is the romantic element maintained after the couple marry or otherwise have a meeting of the minds on their relationship?
I don’t want to give away too much detail here, because the book that resolves the relationship has not yet been published. Suffice it to say that I’d expected the series to end once that resolution came, but after writing that book, I realized that the daily challenges of making such an unequal match work offered plenty of opportunity for conflict—and comedy—that deserved to be explored.

5) Do you think the romantic element is important to the marketing of your books? Is it featured, by either you or your publisher, in the marketing materials? If not, do you know why?
I think it’s very important—in fact, I doubt if there’s a single person who reads my books strictly for the mystery! While my publisher markets the John Pickett series as part of its mystery line, I write my own copy for the cover flap, and I make sure to mention the issues within the developing relationship as well as the mystery. I also promote it on romance review websites, and next month I’ll be attending the Romantic Times conference for the first time.

6) There are historical romances with strong suspense of mystery plots. How are those different from the books that you write?
The most obvious difference is the fact that my series follows the same couple over a number of books—and that, four books into the series, the romance is still unresolved and unconsummated. I also think my books contain more humor than the historical romances with mystery or suspense elements, which seem to deal with darker themes and/or tortured characters. I don’t do tortured characters; John Pickett is rather like a Regency “Chuck” (from the titular character of the TV series, portrayed by Zachary Levi) in that he’s brilliant but utterly lacking in self-confidence.

I hate blogging!

I have a confession to make. I hate blogging. (You’d probably already figured that out, given that my blog hasn’t been updated since last July.) But blogging seems to be expected of writers these days, along with a lot of other things that didn’t even exist back when my first novel, Wrong-Way Romance, was published in 1991. But while I don’t mind Facebook, for instance—in fact, it’s fun to share book covers, reviews, etc. with readers—I begrudge every minute I spend writing blog entries, including this one. For one thing, I don’t think my life is so thrilling that people would want to read about it every week. (I’m reminded of the cell phone commercial from years ago, in which a man “tweets” such thrilling tidbits as “I’m sitting on the porch,” much to the chagrin of his mortified teenaged children.)

More than that, though, if I’m writing, I want to be WRITING. There are only so many hours a day that I can devote to it, and I’d much rather spend those hours writing a book than a blog. In other words, I’d rather be living the writing life than waxing philosophical about it.

In fact, lately I’ve been so consumed with my characters that when I’m not writing about them, I’ve started drawing them. I haven’t done any freehand sketching in years, but for some reason I decided to give it a whirl. I used to draw a lot when I was younger, but to my frustration, I couldn’t draw anything realistically; everything I drew had a cartoony look to it. With the rise of manga, however, I decided that cartooniness might actually be a good thing. And so I drew this sketch of John Pickett and his Lady Fieldhurst, from the mystery series.

And it was FUN! So much fun, in fact, that I drew another, this one considerably . . . warmer. (When I texted it to my younger sister, she promptly texted back, “Oh, get a room!”)

So, I’ve fulfilled my writerly duty and updated my blog. Now it’s your turn: do you blog? If so, what do you find to write about? Do you read blogs? Obviously you’re reading this one, but why? What do you think of authors on social media—do you enjoy getting an inside look at what their lives are like, or would you rather they spent that time working on their next book? Do my sketches look anything like you imagined John Pickett and Lady Fieldhurst, or do you think I should put the colored pencils down and stick to writing? Inquiring minds want to know!

Living in the Shadow of WRONG-WAY ROMANCE

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As I write these words, I’m packing my bags (okay, I ought to be packing my bags) for a trip to Denver for RomCon, a 3-day conference for readers and fans of romance. Although I’ve been to writers’ conferences galore, this is my first experience with a fan-centric function. I’m not quite sure what to expect, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if, at some point during the weekend, someone comes up to me and says, “I know who you are! You wrote Wrong-Way Romance!”

 
And they would be right. Way back in 1990, I sold my first novel, and a year later, in February 1991, Wrong-Way Romance was published by Bantam Books as part of its popular teen romance series, Sweet Dreams.

I went on the write four more Sweet Dreams titles—which have since then been translated into Polish, Chinese, Dutch, and French—but that first novel must have struck a chord that none of the others were able to match. If you look them up on Amazon or Bookfinder.com, you’ll find that used copies of most of them can be had for mere pennies—except for Wrong-Way Romance, which as of this writing can’t be found for less than $270. Yep, a 136-page paperback that originally sold for $2.95 is now listed for almost 100 times that amount–an increase of over 9000%. Not only that, but scarcely a month goes by that I don’t get an email from someone in their 30s who remembers reading that book as a teenager, and wonders if I have old copies to sell. (The answer is “no”; this was, after all, my first novel, and I didn’t know that I should buy up as many copies with my author discount as I could afford. Then again, who knew that it would be commanding those prices more than twenty years later?)

But wait; there’s more. I’ve been to more than one writer’s conference where another attendee, upon seeing my name badge, exclaimed, “You’re the one who wrote Wrong-Way Romance! That’s the book that made me want to read, and then write, romance!” At the close of the 2012 conference of Romance Writer’s of America, I met a finalist in the Golden Heart Awards for Best Young Adult Novel on the van taking a load of conference attendees back to the Los Angeles airport. When she learned who I was, she told me that was the book that led her to write for teenagers. After she got off the van, another woman told me, “That gave me goosebumps!”

It gives me goosebumps, too. And yet . . . sometimes it’s frustrating, living in the shadow of my first published novel. Some part of me wants to say, “Have you tried reading what I’m writing now?”

Don’t get me wrong. I am genuinely humbled to think that something I wrote more than twenty years ago is still being read, much less influencing people’s lives, today. It’s the sort of thing most of us as writers dream of.

But at the same time, I would hate to think that I peaked with my very first novel, and that it’s all downhill from there. I know that my writing is more finely crafted today than it was then, and my current novels, set in Regency England, are much more demanding, as they require more research and are over 2½ times as long in terms of word count.

I suspect part of the problem, if it can be called a problem, is simply the fact that Wrong-way Romance was a book written for, and read by, 12- to 14-year-olds—in other words, readers at an age where their tastes, preferences, and life goals are still being formed. I can still remember quite plainly books that made an impact on me at that age—or even younger—and my discovery of Georgette Heyer at age sixteen was certainly a watershed moment. But although I’ve discovered authors as an adult that I read (and re-read) faithfully, I can’t think of any who have had a truly life-changing impact on me. This is not to say anything against those writers; it’s simply that I have more of a backstory of my own, so to speak, and each individual book I read is a smaller percentage of the whole than it would have been when I was, say, thirteen years old, reading voraciously for a glimpse of what life “ought” to be like.

And, in all fairness, I’m not the same person I was twenty-five years ago, when I wrote Wrong-Way Romance. Ironically, I quit writing for teenagers about the same time my daughter and her friends began reading in the genre; suddenly I was looking at those high school years as someone’s mother, instead of writing from the perspective of the insecure teenager I once was. Maybe that’s why most successful young adult authors are still young themselves.

And so I’ll keep plugging away at Regency England, aware that lightning of the sort that was Wrong-Way Romance probably won’t strike twice. In the meantime, Ethan Brundy of The Weaver Takes a Wife has a devoted contingent of fans, and John Pickett of the mystery series got me noticed by both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews.

And maybe that, added to the early success of Wrong-Way Romance, is all any writer has any right to hope for.


When fan mail . . . isn’t.

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Looking back, I should have known what was coming when I saw the subject heading “Incorrect Word” in my email inbox. But like a fool, I opened it anyway. This is what I saw, reproduced here exactly as it appeared on my computer, complete with lack of salutation:

 “On page 11 of ‘A Dead Bore’ the correct word should be eminently in the sentence: ‘Although imminently suitable, …’.

 ”Also, in the same sentence you wrote ‘…was so daunting …’ As daunting means intimidating, why would Lady Fieldhurst accept the invitation that very day? Wouldn’t she hesitate to accept if she was intimidated? 

“I gave up reading at this point.”

I have to admit, the writer (I can hardly call him a “fan,” except, perhaps, in the worst sense of “fanatic,” and given that he quit reading on page 11, “reader” would hardly seem to fit, either) is correct in the first instance. The “eminent/imminent” distinction is one of those subtleties of language that I have to be constantly aware of, and in this case it managed to slip by not only me, but my critique partner and my editor at Five Star as well.

In the second example, however—and I admit to going back to look, secure in my understanding of the word “daunting”—he completely misread the sentence. Apparently he was so offended by the “eminent/imminent” issue that his reading comprehension skills were affected. Poor guy.

Now, I’ll admit, I hate it when I make this sort of error—most every writer I know does—but these things happen, and will happen as long as writers are human. That same typo (or “mindo” in this case, as it was my mind taking a brief hiatus, not my fingers hitting a wrong key, that was responsible) that jumps out at a reader is surprisingly difficult to spot when the words are my own. I knew what I “meant” to say, and that’s what I read. Every writer I know has this same dilemma.

Don’t get me wrong. Every reader has the right to put aside a book that isn’t working for them. I’m sure we’ve all done it; I know I have. And everyone has their hot buttons, things are deal breakers when it comes to finishing a book or not. Maybe it’s because I was the target here, but I thought this one gaffe was pretty small, compared to some I’ve seen. Ironically, just before I received this email I’d finished a book in which the author cited “The Lady or the Tiger?” a full eighty years before the short story of that name was published. While it did pull me briefly out of the story, I didn’t throw the book down in disgust. In fact, I kept on reading, and would have cheated myself out of a very enjoyable read if I had done otherwise. While as for contacting the author to point out her error and inform her that I was casting the book aside, and why—well, such a thing would never cross my mind. Who does that, anyway?

Seriously, I’d really like to know. What did the writer of the email hope to accomplish? Given that the edition he was reading was published in 2008, there was nothing I could do about it at this late date. (I might also add that this book earned me my first-ever review in Publishers Weekly, who called it “delightful,” so apparently it had some redeeming qualities.) What did the writer get out of this, except perhaps a brief feeling of superiority? Perhaps more important to me personally was the question: what was I to do about it? How should I respond?

I wrestled with that one all afternoon. Maybe I could send a very polite and charming email, acknowledging my own error in the first instance, and pointing out his in the second. Then I could offer an exchange: if he would give the book another try, I would promise to be more careful with my eminent/imminents in the future. But no, polite and charming or not, wasn’t my real goal to say “I’m right and you’re wrong?” Wasn’t that exactly what he’d done to me? And, that being the case, would I really change his mind, even if he agreed to such a bargain? Or would he be that much more determined to catch me in some new error?

So what did I do? Nothing. I decided not to engage with him in any way. Was it satisfying? Of course not. Part of me still wants to point out his error, as a gentle reminder to “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” But unsatisfying as it is, I know silence is not only the best policy, but the only real option. I’ll have to be content with imagining his frustration as he wonders if I’ve received his email yet, or if its arrival is still imminent. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Better yet, I can stay busy preparing for the release of the next book in the series, coming out in November.

Because as they say, success is the best revenge.


On Discipline and Inspiration

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I have a confession to make: I’ve never been a very disciplined writer. After all, I’m an Artist. As everyone knows, Artists work when—and only when—they are inspired by their muse. And if my muse decides to take a pet and not show up for a few days—or weeks, or months—well, that’s not my fault, is it? My muse will return when it’s Time.

 All that changed when I had coffee with Connie Willis, winner of multiple Hugo awards and perhaps the premier science fiction writer in the country. My daughter is a major Connie Willis fan girl, so shortly after moving to Colorado, I contacted Connie Willis and asked if she would be willing to autograph a book for my daughter’s birthday. She agreed, and we met at a Starbucks in Greeley, where she is apparently a regular fixture.

 We talked for an hour, and during the course of our conversation, she told me she does all her writing at Starbucks; when she tries to write at home, she said, she looks around the house and sees all the other things she “ought” to be doing instead.

 Hmm, I thought, that sounds familiar. So the next morning, I took my laptop and went to Starbucks (not the same one; I don’t stalk Connie Willis). I discovered that the internet connection there, while okay for the occasional bit of research, is too slow for efficiently posting status updates to Facebook, reading and replying to email, playing Candy Crush, and all the other things that tend to distract me when I’m on the computer. By the time I left Starbucks an hour later, I’d written a thousand words—and all without a peep from that fickle muse.

 Since that first visit to Starbucks, I’ve written three novels of 65,000 words each, sold two of them, and started a fourth, which at the time of this writing is about 20% complete.

 Thanks, Connie. I needed that.


The Rape of the Lock, Part Deux

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When I was finishing up my English degree at the University of South Alabama, I took a class in 17th and 18th century English literature. One of the things we had to read for that class was Alexander Pope’s mock-epic poem, THE RAPE OF THE LOCK. I found it absolutely charming! For those unfamiliar with the poem, the “rape” in question is the unauthorized cutting of a lock of the fair Belinda’s hair by the Baron, without the lady’s knowledge or permission, while her attention is engaged in playing cards. Believe it or not, it was based on an actual event, which apparently caused quite a rift between the families of the lady and gentleman involved! Pope was requested to write the poem as a way of telling the parties to “get over it, already.” Anyway, the class was instructed to write a paper on the poem. We could choose our own topic, as long as we cleared it with the professor beforehand. So after class, I approached Dr. Patricia Stevens and said, “I want to write a sequel!” She asked for clarification, and I promised her a sequel written in iambic pentameter with rhymed couplets, just like the original. She gave me her permission, and soon returned the paper to me with the following comments: “This is excellent, Sheri. You’ve captured both the style and the spirit of the poem. A+.” More than that, she made a copy of my poem and kept it on her bulletin board for years afterwards.

Since many of my readers are history/literature buffs, I thought you might like to read it as well. You may share it if you wish, as long as you give me (and Pope!) author credit, as below.


THE RAPE OF THE LOCK, Part Deux
by Sheri Cobb South
(with apologies to Alexander Pope)

Since Pope did on the fair Belinda dwell,
And offered not the Baron’s side to tell,
I here allow the Rapist equal chance
To speak his case and plead his own defense.
“My lady, he begins, “I must object,
My character and honor here protect.
It seems to me appropriate to claim
That I a victim more than villain am.”
“A victim? You?” outraged Belinda cries,
“You ought to blush with shame to tell such lies!
Behold, where once two sable locks were worn,
My neck, now bare: both of its ringlets shorn.
The first was cut by your deceitful hand;
Its twin, alas, cut at my own command.
Now, having seen my poor, ravaged locks,
Can you deny your guilt, oh cunning fox?”
“I don’t deny,” said he. “I must confess
‘Twas my own hand that stole the shining tress.
But, fair nymph, if malice here there be,
‘Twas but to avenge that which you stole from me.”
“What stole I e’er from you?” the nymph shot back,
“Save but a game of cards of red and black?”
With forcefulness that made Belinda start,
The Baron cried, “Fair maid, you stole my heart!
Come, my lady, come, let us be fair:
You have my heart, so why not I your hair?
Yet now I find (though much to my disgrace)
A thousand locks cannot one heart replace.
Though I the lock have claimed, my heart’s yours still,
And though hairs grow again, hearts never will.”
The Baron wooed Belinda with such charms,
At last she smiled, and laid aside her arms.
“Dear sir,” she said, “if you had asked of me,
I might have given the lock most willingly.”
“Alas, ’tis now too late,” the Baron said,
“But might I hope to have your hand instead?”
Belinda offers him her fingertips;
The grateful Baron lifts them to his lips.
For thus it is with lovers the world around:
For each thing lost, a better thing is found.
If one should lose, they never lose alone;
But when one wins, then both the vict’ry own.”

Writing a Novel as an Act of Faith

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I started writing a book this week. When it’s complete (notice I didn’t say “if”!), this will be the fourth book in the John Pickett series of Regency mysteries. And as eager as I am to be writing it (I’m impatient to get to Book 5!), I find the process more than a little bit daunting.

It’s always this way. I look at my book-to-be—at this point, nothing more than a handful of color-coded sticky notes on a tri-fold foam board—and think, “I’ve got to get an entire book out of this?” It doesn’t look like I have
nearly enough plot to fill up 15,000 words, much less 65,000. Maybe I should take more notes, do more research, try a new plotting method I saw on the internet. And sometimes I do those things. But at some point, I have stop
jotting in notebooks and on sticky notes, get off the internet, open a document file, and write.

I never feel ready. I’m always terrified that I’ll get all the way to “The End,” then run a word count and discover that the whole thing is only 40 pages long. It always happens this way, and yet the feeling that the task is too big, too overwhelming, always feels new.

To me, writing a book is an act of faith. Just as God told Abraham to leave his home and travel to a strange land, basically saying, “You’ll know it when you get there,” I set out with a keyboard and a blank Word document, certain in my mind of what will happen in the first couple of chapters, a major scene or two in the middle, and, of course, the ending. But then there’s that vast unknown Middle. That’s the part that always scares me.

After sixteen published novels, though, I’ve learned one thing: if I wait until I have the whole thing plotted out in my head, I’ll never write at all. I must plow ahead with the little bit I have, following the light I’ve got, trusting that when I need it, that scene will be in my imagination, waiting for me to catch up. This, to me, is the miracle of creating. It’s happened too many
times for me to doubt it: in the violin that magically appeared among James Weatherly’s belongings in Of Paupers and Peers; in the gypsy lad who turned up at the vicar’s funeral in A Dead Bore; in the fishing boat on which poor John Pickett gets seasick in my upcoming mystery, Family Plot. None of these things were in my original vision of the book; all were things that came to me along the way, and each one took the book in new and unexpected
directions. That, for me, is the joy of the journey that is writing fiction.
 
And so I’ll celebrate the Easter season this weekend, and then on Monday morning I’ll take my laptop to Starbuck’s, order a nonfat mocha frappuccino, and plug in my flash drive. And I’ll write.