Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Charlotte Hinger's Mysterious Kansas

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Charlotte Hinger grew up on a farm in Lone Elm, Kansas, and recalls a childhood spent “listening to the world-class story-tellers and natural born liars who populated this tiny community.” She began writing mystery short stories in fifth grade and has since published a number of stories in mystery magazines and anthologies. Her first published novel, Come Spring, was mainstream historical fiction, and she has published nonfiction books and numerous articles on the history of Kansas. Her Lottie Albright mystery series began in 2009 with Deadly Descent. The second in the series, Lethal Lineage, has just been published. After lifetime in Kansas, Charlotte now makes her home in Colorado. Visit her website at

SP: Would you tell us a bit about Lethal Lineage?

CH: I’m relieved that Lethal Lineage has gotten excellent reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal and Booklist because this is basically a locked room mystery. This sub-genre is particularly difficult to pull off. It begins with the first service in a newly built Episcopal church in Western Kansas when a sinister bishop shows up to confirm the niece of Undersheriff Lottie Albright and shocks the congregation with his vicious fire and brimstone sermon. The “locked room” aspect begins when the Rev. Mary Farnsworth drops the chalice during the Eucharist and her body is found in the ante-room immediately following the service. I consulted four priests to get the historical and contemporary Catholic and Episcopal Church usage right. 

Family stories and buried secrets are at the heart of the Western Kansas series as Lottie is a historian and in charge of the county history books. Her twin, Josie Albright, is a psychologist, who invariably gets entangled in the investigations. As with the first book in the series, Deadly Descent, Lethal Lineage is both a whodunit and suspense.

SP: Which came first for you, your protagonist or the concept for the series?

CH: The concept came first. The creation of Lottie Albright evolved from the necessity of having a very conflicted character whose own family struggles would contribute to the tension. Lottie walks a tightrope professionally and personally.

SP: Are your protagonist and setting entirely fictional? Does Lottie share some of your personal traits?

CH: Lottie is fictional and so are Gateway City and Carlton County, Kansas. I contributed to several county history books and edited the Sheridan County, Kansas books, which gave me the idea for the series. People would give me their submissions for the book, and then pull me aside to tell me stories that never made it into print. They were mesmerizing and often contained dark secrets. My husband was once undersheriff in Anderson County, Kansas, so I understand the limitations of law enforcement resources in sparsely populated areas. The trait I “own” is the Albright sisters’ love of music. It’s a family obsession.

SP: What draws you to the crime fiction genre? What does a mystery offer to a writer that mainstream fiction doesn’t?

CH: It’s an old cliché but I honestly was addicted to Nancy Drew, then Wonder Woman, as a child. My attraction to crime fiction is due to the incredible diversity of the genre. The very best mysteries and the finest mainstream novels should have similar components. In a nutshell, however, memorable characters are identified with mainstream and suspenseful stories with mysteries. If mysteries contain both elements, they often become classics. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a mystery. So are Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Contemporary mystery writers must master structure and mainstream authors should!

SP: What is appealing about Kansas and its people that makes it a great setting for crime fiction?

CH: Sandy, you walked right into this one. I have a flaming state loyalty and could fill pages with my observations about Kansas. We’re a state of extremes and amazingly resilient people. It’s a state with a bloody beginning because of the role it played in the debate over slavery before the Civil War. Before that time, the western part of the state was dissed by early explorers as being uninhabitable. During the border wars, the New York magazine Harpers Weekly became intrigued with “Bleeding Kansas.” It’s still a state of contrasts—an extremely high literacy rate, low unemployment, and persons who put a high premium on individualism coupled with contempt for fools and slackers.

SP: Kansas is such an integral part of all your writing. Why did you leave to live in Colorado? Does the distance from your setting make the writing easier or more difficult?

CH: My husband died in 2007 and I have three daughters scattered along the Front Range of Colorado. I hated leaving Kansas, but knew I would be happier living closer to my family. A friend pointed out that Colorado used to be part of Kansas and I didn’t need a passport to go back. In some ways, it’s more difficult to write from here because I adore the Kansas State Historical Society. Forsyth Library at Fort Hays is a government document depository and I like to prowl around the archives of various historical societies.

SP: Do you write nonfiction at the same time you’re working on a novel? If so, do you think this helps or hinders your mystery writing?

CH: Yes! And it both helps and hinders. Timewise, this is all a mess. But non-fiction tidbits inevitably find their way into the mystery. This greatly enriches plots and complications. For instance, in Lethal Lineage, earlier work I did on the frontier Catholic Church, and my fascination with the picture of a severe pioneer bishop helped with the characterization of the book’s bishop, The Right Reverend Ignatius P. Talesbury.

SP: How would you compare the experiences of being published by a major NY house and a smaller independent press?

CH: When Simon and Schuster published Come Spring as hardcover mainstream I was absolutely floored and so extremely thrilled. I’m still floored and thrilled when a book is published. New York publishers have a long arm and the money for types of distribution that aren’t possible for smaller publishers. Since then, the market has changed so dramatically that I’m not in a position to evaluate the differences. A common denominator of both right now is the expectation that writers will actively promote through social networking.

SP: What writers – of any genre – have influenced you? Who are some of your favorite crime fiction authors?

CH: I have always read anything and everything; F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Elizabeth Goudge, Taylor Caldwell, Walter Stegner, Paul Horgan, and a fabulous Kansas historical novelist, Paul Wellman. Please note that all these persons write books with solid plots! As to contemporary crime fiction: Tana French, Anne-Marie McDonald, John Hart, Louise Penny, Craig Johnson, Elizabeth George, and Jeffery Deaver.

SP: What are you working on now?

CH: This sounds like fantasy, but I’m working with five editors. This is an incredible situation. I have an academic article titled “The Harlem Renaissance in Helena, MT and Laramie, WY” coming out this fall in an anthology published by Routledge, a historical novel on the 1980’s bank failures in Kansas for a university press, an academic book on 19th century African American politicians in Kansas and their effect on the settlement of the west, three articles for, and a new mystery, Hidden Heritage. It’s a walk on the wild side and my goal is to complete my obligations and stay sane. After I work my way out of this, I want to focus on mysteries.


Diane said...

My youngest daughter went to Wichita State U for her masters in the early 1990s. Got to admit other than that, my only experience with Kansas was driving through when the girls were only 3 and 5 yrs old. I made the mistake of mentioning that Kansas was where Dorothy (Wizard of Oz) was from. So every few miles the squeeky voice of my youngest would pipe up 'is THIS where Dorothy lived?'. Regreted that comment of mine. Makes for a very long drive.

Your books sound interesting, so I'm going off to find copies. Thanks for the blog.

Sandra Parshall said...

Thanks for being my guest today, Charlotte, and thanks for a great interview.

Peg Nichols said...

In Deadly Descent, I loved Lottie's sense of independence, which allowed her to stick up for her principles. I was sort of charmed by the practicality of the sheriff character, and wonder if the reader will see him agaim in the second book.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Thank you Sandy--It was great to participate in this wonderful site.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Peg, I think you'll be pleased with Lethal Lineage. The whole cast showed up for the book. I think the reviewers comment I appreciated the most is that Lethal is a real page turner.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Diane, having raised three daughters, I have a host of stories about driving in Kansas. The worst was when Mary Beth totaled our car and she wasn't even driving it. Don't ask!

Shirley Popp said...

I really enjoyed your interview! I love what you said about our dear Kansas. So very true. I'm anxious to get a hold of Lethal Lineage. Deadly Descent was so thrilling. I kept seeing so many places here in town, especially the Historical Society where Mom also liked to dig around. You are a very gifted writer and human being! Keep going, keep going!

Steve Moore said...

Hi everyone!
My parents grew up in Kansas and some of the first stories I ever heard were lies about twisters and the length of the catfish that was caught. My father was once a dispatcher for the Tulare county Sheriff's department (California), which had the same problem of covering vast areas of land with a small (average) population. I spent a whole summer with my grandfather in Kansas as a kid and enjoyed myself completely. Isn't nostalgia great?