Thursday, April 13, 2017

Interview: Talking Craft with Mystery Author Margaret Fenton

Margaret Fenton grew up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and moved to Birmingham in 1996. She received her B.A. in English from the Newcomb College of Tulane University, and her Master of Social Work from Tulane. She spent nearly ten years as a child and family therapist for the Department of Human Resources before focusing on her writing. Hence, her work tends to reflect her interest in social causes and mental health, especially where kids are concerned.  She is the planning coordinator of Murder in the Magic City, a one-day, one-track annual mystery fan conference in Homewood, Alabama. She is President of the Birmingham Chapter of Sisters in Crime and a member of the Mystery Writers of America. Margaret lives in the Birmingham suburb of Hoover with her husband, a software developer.

Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Little Girl Gone. To begin with, can you gives us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it? 

A:  Claire Conover is back in the sequel to Little Lamb Lost.  She has taken into custody a 13-year-old girl found sleeping behind a grocery store.  The girl’s murdered mother is found at a construction site owned by a family friend, then the girl disappears.   Her mother worked in an illegal gambling industry in Birmingham.  Things only get more complicated from there.  Is it possible the girl pulled the trigger?  She doesn’t have a lot of street smarts, so where could she have run? Claire has to find the answers, and the girl, fast. 

I knew when I started writing that I wanted to write a series, so this is the second book in the Claire Conover series.  It continues to tell the story of her life, and her relationships and struggles.  I got the idea for the plot from a newspaper article about teens and sexting.

Q: What do you think makes a good amateur sleuth mystery? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?

A:
  1.  Characters.  The book has to have likeable characters that a reader can relate to.  Claire and her crew have to be people that you want to spend time with, and be friends with.
  2. Realistic plot.  One of my pet peeves is an amateur sleuth mystery where the protagonist has no good reason to be involved in the plot.  Claire is a social worker, so she comes in contact with evil people and innocent children, so I think that’s a good reason to get involved.
  3. Conflict.  It’s important to maintain tension in the novel.

Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?

A: I get the ideas for my novels from everyday sources.  Newspapers, magazines.  I come up with one “what if?” question and then it goes from there.  I don’t outline the whole book, but I do jot down ideas for the next couple of chapters so I know where I’m going.

Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?

A:  My protagonist is based on many of the child welfare social workers I worked with when I was a mental health consultant for the Jefferson County Department of Human Resources.  I was around them every day and got a good idea about what their lives were like.  My parents were avid readers of all genres, and made sure I read early and often.  I owe my love of mysteries to them.  Claire was my late mother’s middle name, and Conover is my father’s middle name, so she is named after them to honor them.  My first novel, Little Lamb Lost, is dedicated to my father, who was also a social worker.

Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?

A: My books are first person, so the antagonist in each book reveals him or herself as Claire investigates the mystery.  The antagonist is revealed piece by piece until the end of the novel.

Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?

A:  Dialogue is the main key.  Realistic snappy dialogue moves the plot along and reveals the characters.  In addition, I’ve read many books where the author feels they have to describe absolutely every little thing.  Don’t.  Just please don’t.  Leave some to the reader’s imagination.

Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?

A:  Birmingham is an incredibly diverse, complex city with a sometimes shameful history, especially when it comes to race relations.  I use that in the books to increase conflict. 

Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?

A:  Well, Claire is a child welfare social worker, so the theme tends to be children and teens in danger.  All of the violence is off-screen though.  So I guess justice for children is the theme, and I knew that when I started the series.

Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?

A:  No, editing just makes things better.

Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?

A:
1.  Write a lot
2. Stick to it.
3.  Don’t give up.

Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?

A:  I like homework, so that’s ok.

Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?

A:  Killer Nashville is a great writer’s conference.  Highly recommend that one.  If you are just starting out, talk to other writers, published and unpublished.  Read Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird.  There’s a great chapter in there titled “Shitty First Drafts” that is very encouraging.  Remember a lot of this comes from the soul, so I don’t think reading 800 books on writing is going to be helpful.  Trust yourself. 

Q:  Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?

A:  Don’t give up.  This is hard, but you can do it. One of the funniest things I’ve ever read is:  Read Fifty Shades of Gray.  When you are feeling discouraged, remember that piece of sh** got published and made a lot of money.  You can do this.