Sunday, January 12, 2014

Interview with Mystery Writer Carolyn Mulford


Show Me the Deadly Deer (hardback, $25.95) is just out (Dec 2013) from Five Star.  ISBN: 978-1-4328-2752-6.  Carolyn's website is:

1. When did you begin writing?  Why?

I began telling stories to myself to relieve boredom at about age three. I started telling them to equally bored friends in grade school, but I wrote down little (lack of paper, fear of humiliation) until my ninth grade English teacher encouraged me to write essays, poetry, stories, whatever. My teacher in a one-room school taught me grammar, but the English teacher revealed the craft of writing. In my senior year, I was co-editor of the school paper, loved getting the inside story, and decided to become a journalist until I could afford to write novels.

2.  When and why did you begin writing mysteries?

I wrote a couple of bad mysteries in the 1970s when I was between magazine jobs and hadn’t mastered the business of freelancing. In 1982 I became a full-time freelancer. For years I had little time to write anything that didn’t pay a bill. In the late 1980s I began to read mysteries by such women as Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, Elizabeth Peters, Anne Perry, Carolyn Hart, Margaret Maron, and Sue Grafton. In these books women solved the crimes rather than being victims or playthings. I cared about the people they wrote about. In the 1990s my list of mystery writers grew and grew. Finally, in the new century, my workload lightened, Social Security approached, and the thing I wanted to do most was write mysteries. 

3. Explain your basic idea for your series.

In the first book, Show Me the Murder, wounded former CIA covert operative Phoenix Smith returns to her childhood home to recuperate and reshape her future as she relaxes with her best friend, civic leader Annalynn Carr Keyser. Instead Phoenix must adapt her tradecraft to help Annalynn find out the truth behind her husband’s violent death—and to survive. A third old friend, a frustrated singer who has moved back to the hometown, insists on taking part in the investigation.

In each book (I’m now writing the fourth), the three very different women must find a way to work together to deal with a crime and their personal crises. 

4.  Tell us about your journey to publication with this book.

In the first book, I was learning about my characters and the setting. I wrote it in third person, the point of view familiar from my nonfiction writing, and threw in everything. The first draft ran 123,000 words, about 35,000 words more than my final (tenth?) draft. I queried agents as I started the second book. Show Me the Deadly Deer. About the third chapter, I knew the voice would be stronger if I switched to first person. By the time I finished Deadly Deer, I’d received many “like it but don’t love it” and “not in this tough market” responses from agents on Murder. Agents gave much the same response to Deadly Deer.

By then I’d worked (part time) on the two books about four years. I considered giving up, but I really liked my characters and setting. So did members of my critique group and some other objective readers. I rewrote Murder in first person and pitched it to a Five Star editor at Killer Nashville. She asked to read it, sent it on up the line for a final decision, and I received a contract. From submission to publication took eighteen months.

I began thinking about the protagonist in late 2003. Show Me the Murder came out in early 2013. You could say the gestation took nine years.

5.  Why did you choose to set your scene in a rural part of Missouri?  Why did you make your sleuth a former CIA operative?

I chose rural Missouri because that’s where I grew up and my family lived. I’d worked in cities in other countries and states for most of my adult life but planned to move back. (I made the move in 2007.) The research on farm life for Show Me the Deadly Deer helped reacquaint me with my home state.

Why use an ex-spy as a sleuth? As a writer, I’m an observer rather than a doer. I wanted to write about an action-oriented protagonist, a woman who would do the things I wouldn’t/couldn’t. Then the Bush administration infuriated me by illegally revealing the name of CIA covert operative Valerie Plame. I’d accidentally discovered that a friend of mine in Vienna was an operative, and I’d thought of the consequences for him, and for me (then a United Nations employee), if that came out. 

So current events and my experience led me create an ex-spy forced to come home again and afraid of being exposed. I was also intrigued by the price someone pays to live a double life.

6.  How have you found it to be published?  Share that experience.

I had published several other books before this series, and each brought a different experience. The nonfiction books gave credibility and a boost to my freelance career. In D.C., the biography of a politician evoked more interest than my books on travel and fundraising. 

Nothing I’ve ever written has produced such as emotional reaction as my historical novel, The Feedsack Dress. Officially this story of the only girl in ninth grade wearing a feedsack dress is for middle grade students, but the people who love it—really love it—are the former farm kids from my own generation.


Readers, including reviewers, have reacted positively to Show Me the Murder, particularly to the main characters. That’s gratifying and affirming. What I hadn’t anticipated was the amount of work and the psychic energy required to promote a mystery. I’ve sent out review copies, written blogs for my own and others’ sites, given talks to different audiences, done workshops for writers, served on and moderated panels at conferences, and carried the books in the trunk of my car just in case someone wants one. While I enjoy these activities, they take time from writing the next book.

7.  Do you have comments from readers or reviewers you’d like to share?

Several Murder readers have said to me, “I can’t wait to read the next one.” That sends me back to the keyboard on a down day. One friend said, “I’m always sad when I finish a book I like a lot, but this time I knew I’d meet the characters again soon in the next one.”

My most exciting moment in 2013 was opening on my screen the Kirkus review of Show Me the Murder. It was the first one to come out, and one of the most important in persuading people, especially librarians, to buy the book. The concluding line, “The first in Mulford's planned series explores the unsettling rise of crime in rural areas and provides an amusing and touching look at the reunited gal pals.” Some other favorite snippets: Library Journal: “a tightly woven tale”; Gumshoe Review: “appealing characters” and “compelling story”; “One of the best books I have read in a long time.”

Kirkus also gave the first review to Show Me the Deadly Deer. Its summary: “Small-town Missouri again proves almost as dangerous to a former CIA agent as European back alleys. Mulford’s second provides plenty of excitement as readers wend their ways through a slew of suspects.” 

Suspense Magazine’s David Ingram began his review with, “A mark of a good mystery series is when you can pick up any volume as a starting place and not feel lost. That test is passed by ‘Show Me the Deadly Deer,’ the second entry in Carolyn Mulford’s enjoyable Show Me series, set in rural Missouri.”

8.  What other books have you published, titles, publishers, and dates?

All of my nonfiction books have gone out of print. Promoting Show Me the Murder has had the fringe benefit of reviving sales of The Feedsack Dress (Cave Hollow Press, 2007, $7.95 paperback; $2.99 Nook). The Missouri Center for the Book chose it as the state’s Great Read at the 2009 National Book Festival in Washington, D.C.

9.  How is your next book in the series coming along?

The third book in the series, Show Me the Gold, is beginning the long, slow publishing process. It’s tentatively scheduled for release in January 2015. 

I’m a little more than two-thirds of the way through the first draft of book four, Show Me the Ashes. Barring interruptions from work on the first three books, I’ll finish the first draft in February, revise the content (correcting errors and inconsistencies, putting in and deleting clues, etc.) in March, take a mental break from Ashes by polishing a historical novel, and go back to work on the last two or three drafts of Ashes in April and May and maybe June.

Meanwhile I’m wondering how each of my three main characters can move on to the next chapter in her life in book five. I put them each in a personal crisis with no obvious way out.

10.  How has belonging to Sisters in Crime and to the Guppies (great unpublished) been helpful?  

SinC keeps members updated on what’s happening in mystery publishing and provides resources—human, online, written—not available anywhere else. It also gives those of us not yet established a place to meet the veterans and introduce ourselves. Members share.

The Guppies chapter of SinC has been a priceless show-to resource. Members ask questions and share what’s happening—good and bad—on the main listserve and in subgroups. I studied structure and techniques with the Mystery Analysis group early on. The Agent Quest group gives valuable feedback on queries and synopses and tips on how agents react (many use the same polite and ultimately meaningless wording in their responses) and what they’re looking for. The Small Press Quest group maintains a list of small presses, gives tips on promotion and marketing, and shares experiences in self-publishing, 

The Guppies also sponsor online courses and partial and full manuscript exchanges. I’ve taken several great courses—including body language, setting, and synopses—from Mary Buckham.

Many of us are now published writers but continue to participate in the group, sharing the expertise we’ve gained and continuing to learn. The Guppies I’ve come to know online, and sometimes in person, over the years aren’t just resources. They’re friends.

11.  What benefit to you has it been to go to mystery conferences like Malice Domestic?

I have to confess that one reason I go to Malice, a fan conference, every year is that it’s great fun. Before I started writing mysteries, I enjoyed listening to both favorite and unknown writers on panels and talking to them in the hospitality room, the halls, at meals, etc. Malice is a place to see and make friends who share an enthusiasm for mysteries.

For either a fan or a writer, Malice acquaints you with what’s being published by whom and gives you a long reading list. 

As a published mystery writer, Malice is a prime place to introduce your work to new readers by serving on a panel, taking part in the Author-Go-Round, and handing out your bookmarks everywhere. Promotion there, and at other conferences, forces me to draw on the recessive extrovert part of my personality. 

Each mystery conference has its own emphasis. One of my favorites is Killer Nashville. It offers a fan stream, but it’s a writers’ conference. You can pitch to editors and publishers, attend excellent sessions on police procedures, and take part in skills panels on writing, editing, and marketing. I’m sure most of the people who attended the two panels I served on had never heard of me before. I hope a few of them bought the book or requested it at their local library. One tangible thing: I gave an ARC of Show Me the Deadly Deer to the Suspense Magazine reviewer quoted above. Plus you meet other writers and have a good time.

To earn your tax deduction for any mystery conference, you need to be on a panel or in some other memorable event, listed in the conference program, and sign books sold in the bookstore.

12.  What else would like to say about your books, including those in the works?

Writing novels yields more pleasure than profit, at least for me. That’s fine at this stage in my life—as long as other people get pleasure from reading what I’ve written. I love creating characters based on a lifetime of observation and figuring out how they’ll respond to uncomfortable and life-threatening situations. I like to bring attention to problems (e.g., the destruction of meth in Murder and the subtlety of elder abuse in Gold), but my special delight comes from telling a compelling story in sentences that speed people through it.

13.  I’m interested in the psychic mixture in Phoenix Smith, your sleuth.  At times she’s extremely tough to go with an image of a sharp shooter, which she is, but other times she’s so compassionate.  It puzzles me, and I wonder how you think about it?

Phoenix struggles to balance the idealism of her childhood in a small town and the darkness of her adulthood in Cold War Vienna. She grew up with a loving family believing in service and hard work. Her drive, diligence, and intelligence led her to succeed in a harsh world, one in which she lived the double life of an economist dealing with money-obsessed entrepreneurs and bankers in her day job and traitors in her covert work for the CIA. When the cynical adult returns to her hometown, her love for and loyalty to her childhood friend conflict with her cynicism and distrust, and she finds evil as common in Laycock, Missouri, as she has in Eastern Europe. She also sees goodness and generosity of spirit, sometimes where she least expects to find it.

Her duality is a theme in the series. In Show Me the Murder, Phoenix must learn to trust in order to identify the killer. In Show Me the Deadly Deer, she initially regards the investigation as a game, a contest with the killer. (I’ve observed that some police officers work that way.) Then she meets suspects and witnesses affected by the death and becomes, in some instances, a protector. Which was part of her motivation in becoming a covert operative. In the third book, Connie, who isn’t Phoenix’s biggest fan, comments that she has a black walnut shell with a marshmallow interior. Phoenix certainly values justice more than the law.

I see duality in people every day: the volunteer at the food bank who opposes food stamps; the CEO who donates many thousands to a charity but refuses to pay employees more than a minimum wage; the Christian who never misses church but cheats on his taxes.

People are complex. Life is rarely simple.

14.  I love the dog Achilles and the part he plays and the qualities he brings out in Phoenix.  It’s this compassionate, sensitive dog-owner part of Phoenix that draws me to her especially.  Any comments on that?  Have other readers liked that part of her, too?

Her initial concern when she finds him wounded stems partly from a dog she loved as a child. Besides, she and Achilles share the bond of surviving being shot. He adopts her, and she can’t resist his unqualified devotion. This sweet, smart, orphaned dog banishes her cynicism and becomes a companion and a sounding board for her. He brings out the best in her, and that is part of his function in the books. And in her life.

In Show Me the Deadly Deer and later books, he serves as her backup and uses—with great pride—his K-9 skills to help her discover clues. 

And yes, most readers tell me they love Achilles. He’s our dream dog.


I grew up on a farm near Kirksville, Missouri, the fictionalized setting of my first middle grade/young adult novel, The Feedsack Dress. During the summer I worked in the fields and garden, pumped water for the milk cows, and read books that carried me far away.

About the fifth grade the urge to write stories overtook me. A few years later I learned that few writers earn a living writing novels. That knowledge and experience on my high school and college papers  prompted me to earn a Master’s degree in journalism at the University of Missouri.

Before taking my first job as a magazine editor in Washington, D.C., I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia, teaching English and helping build a school for lepers. On my way back to the States, I traveled for six months in the Middle East and Europe.

One intriguing city I visited was Vienna, Austria. I returned there to work for the United Nations until the bureaucratic writing drove me to quit. Again I spent six months returning to the States, traveling through Asia and Australia.

Settling in Washington, D.C., I edited a national magazine on service-learning and then became a freelance writer and editor. I wrote hundreds of articles, four nonfiction books, and a variety of other nonfiction materials. I edited several national newsletters, most notably Writing That Works. From 1990 to 2011, it served as a monthly “desktop seminar” for corporate writers and editors.

A few years ago I revived my childhood dreams of creating my own worlds. I moved back to Columbia, Missouri, to focus on historical fiction for young readers and, my current emphasis, contemporary mysteries for adults. My mystery series begins with Show Me the Murder (February 2013) and Show Me the Deadly Deer (January  2014).

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting and intriguing background you have, Carolyn. Your books sound like ones I would love, and since I always like to start with #1, I'm putting Show Me the Murder on my to buy list.