NANCY: First, I want to thank Underground Book Reviews and Candi Sari for this opportunity. And Candi, thank you so much for reading my book!
CANDI: How did you come up with the idea for Saving Gracie? And how long did it take to write?
NANCY: I wish I could come up with ideas! The only time ideas come to me is when I'm actively writing. So, when I sit down to start a new story, I never know what it will be about or who will be in it.
I wanted to write a murder mystery, and I wanted non-standard characters—no manly men with chiseled jaws and washboard abs and a tortured past that has them closed off emotionally. I like characters who are ordinary, but who have to step up and deal with extraordinary circumstances.
I started with an older woman named Gracie, and I followed her down Sandpit Road, hoping something would happen to her. Lucky for me, she turned out to be quirkier than most, and she got into all kinds of trouble. Other characters popped in. They took off running, and it was all I could do to keep up with them. I felt as if I was reading someone else's book, and I wondered how all the pieces would fit together. I had to remind myself that it was my job to make that happen.
The first draft took about nine months to write. I revised and edited for another eight months, shelved it for six months, revised again, and then I started running it past beta readers. In all, from writing the first paragraph to publication, it took about three years.
CANDI: The small town feel of the book was really authentic. How did you create the Coyne Falls community so well? Is it based on a real place?
NANCY: Coyne Falls is based on the town of Mason, New Hampshire, where I've lived for the past dozen years. I love it here. We have community suppers followed by concerts on the little patch of green outside the library. There's a coffee house with an open mic in the church rectory on Saturday evenings. The police force is small and friendly and unlikely to bother anyone for small infractions, like driving our unregistered tractors up the road or diving off the rock walls into the abandoned quarry. Neighbors check on each other and pull together during storms and power outages. It's the sort of community where residents are fiercely independent, but generous by nature and always willing to lend a hand.
CANDI: The Blue Horizons residents, Gracie, Walter and Jillian, were especially entertaining. Tell us about your inspiration to write these characters.
NANCY: My sister loves slapstick comedy, things like The Three Stooges. When I started the book, she had just been diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. I was her chemo buddy, and I wrote a couple chapters a week so I'd have something funny to read to her during the chemo infusions. The Blue Horizons residents started out as over-the-top, zany, ridiculous characters. Caricatures, really.
It took me a while to dial back the silliness and make these people real. While they aren't based on anyone in particular, I see bits of myself in every one of them. And there is a woman in one of my writers' groups who is Gracie's size and age, and who hikes all over town. Even in winter, with snow on the ground and temperatures in the teens, she's out walking in shorts and rubber boots. I adore her. I didn't have her in mind when I created Gracie, but I suspect she was hiding in my subconscious, guiding my fingers.
And, since I brought it up, my sister is doing fabulously. Her inner strength and unshakable belief in her ability to overcome are, of course, the reasons for her miraculous recovery. But I hope Gracie helped, just a bit.
CANDI: What kind of research did you do to keep your murder investigation accurate and believable?
NANCY: I love research! My local police are wonderful resources and always willing to answer any questions I might have. I also attend Writers' Police Academy every year. It's an amazing conference for people who write crime fiction, packed with classes on everything from underwater evidence recovery to serial killer psychology to crime scene processing to knife fighting to felony traffic stops. I was able to do a ride-along with a police officer with the High Point Police Department of Greensboro, North Carolina, and I got to use the Meggitt Firearms Training Simulator, where we're put through multiple shoot/don't shoot scenarios. I died a lot, and I put a few cyber-bullets through the ceiling.
The best part was being able to talk to lifelong law enforcement officers about mistakes that might be made. I could ask whether it's believable that a young police officer might not use handcuffs when asked to arrest someone he knows and trusts. Yup. It happens.
CANDI: There’s lots of witty dialogue throughout the book. Did you find yourself laughing while you were writing it? How does the use of humor work in this murder mystery?
NANCY: I never felt that I was writing the dialogue. The characters talked in my head, and I couldn't stop laughing. There were many chapters that started off as conversations with nothing else around them.
When Gracie's ghost told her to follow the beagle, I about fell off my chair. I think my favorite line is still, "Solar flares. Shouldn't mix with fruit." Walter said that. I didn't.
I think the juxtaposition of humor and pathos is very effective in creating an emotional response in the reader. When you're laughing, the little gut punches are felt more keenly. If a scene is working the way I want it to, I'll feel warm and fuzzy while my heart is breaking.
CANDI: Tell us about your publishing experience.
NANCY: My first book was published by a small press, and I was unhappy with the relationship. Turns out I'm a control freak, and I hate handing my work over to other people. I love criticism, but I want control of the final product.
So my publisher and I parted company, and I decided to self publish, at least for a few more years. I love the freedom of self publishing. My books don't have to fit neatly within a specific genre, and new stories don't have to be similar to previous works. I realize this is not the best way to build a fan base, because people who read one of my books may not have any interest in the next. But it allows me to experiment and to set my own schedule. I can work with editors and designers of my choosing, and I can put out a product that I believe in, and that I'm not embarrassed of. Best of all, there's no one investing in me, so if I choose to spend a lot of time writing and very little time marketing, I won't hurt anyone but myself.
The one thing I would love to have: access to a great developmental editor. I hope to someday establish a close working relationship with a writing-and-publishing professional, someone who sees plot and thematic opportunities I might otherwise miss, and who can help me to bring my writing to the next level. In a few years, I may look into becoming a hybrid author, with one foot in traditional publishing and the other right where it is.
CANDI: Are you working on another novel? If so, can you tell us what it’s about? If not, what’s next for you?
NANCY: I just completed the first draft of The Girl with Green Hair. It's loosely based on an experience I had when I was thirteen, and my quasi-atheist parents accidentally sent me to a fundamentalist Christian summer camp. I was a shy kid, very sheltered and very naive.
For those two weeks at camp, I was scared out of my little mind. What a great setting for a murder!
The challenge for me has been using religion as character and setting, something that's always present, but not the story's focus. Differing beliefs act as a catalyst for tension between characters, and this causes great inner turmoil for my heroine. But the tension is about human relationships, and not about religious beliefs.
There are no villains, just people viewing the world through their own personal lens of bias. Writing this book has been a stretch for me. I hope it's making me a better writer.
And, I have started work on Amazing Gracie, a sequel to Saving Gracie, and I think there may even be a series. I love Coyne Falls and its characters too much to let them slip away. And while I long to create works that are, perhaps, more literary in nature, I can't resist a good belly laugh.
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Candi Sary, author of Black Crow White Lie, has made the finals in several writing competitions, including the William Faulkner William Wisdom Writing Competition and the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. She lives in coastal Southern California with her husband (while her 2 kids are off at college), and can often be found surfing the waters of Newport Beach. You can find her at www.candisary.com.