Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A New Voice: Meredith Cole

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Meredith Cole directed feature films and wrote screenplays before writing mysteries. She won the St. Martin’s/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery competition in 2007, and her debut novel, Posed for Murder, was published yesterday, February 17, by St. Martin’s Minotaur. She blogs at

Q. Tell us about Posed for Murder.

A. Posed for Murder is about a photographer named Lydia McKenzie who has a fascination with murder scenes. She recreates historic cases for the camera, using her friends as models, and shoots in a film noir style. But when she finally interests a gallery in her work, a killer starts murdering her models and posing them just like her pictures.

Q. Your education prepared you for a career in film. Why did you decide to write books? What can you do in a book that you can't do on film, and vice versa? Do you plan to continue doing both?

A. I wanted to be a writer since before I could even read. I would dictate stories to my mother. In high school I became fascinated by film, and pursued a film career through graduate school. I directed two feature films, "Floating" and "Achilles' Love." I wrote a lot of screenplays, but I got tired of putting them in a drawer. Film is an expensive medium, and it’s difficult to get films made (even if you win Academy Awards) without big names attached and lots of cash. I realized that I'd always read more books than watched films, and storytelling was storytelling. So I set out to write a book.

Q. Why did you choose to write in the mystery genre?

A. I've always loved mysteries. When I first tried to write novels, I attempted what I thought of as serious fiction. But I ended up stuck in someone's head for pages and pages, and the plot went nowhere. I found the mystery genre very freeing, because I had somewhere to go and something to do there. I let the plot pull me through my first draft, and really enjoyed the ride.

Q. What was the inspiration for Posed for Murder?

A. I love photography, and I've always been interested in the "artist's eye." As a writer, I walk down the street and notice all sorts of weird details that I store away. And then someone will mention some shop moving away or some building going up, and I'll realize that I was so enthralled by something else that I never even saw it. I wanted to see a story though the eye of a photographer, and use her special skills to solve it.

Q. Why did you choose Brooklyn as a setting rather than other places you lived, such as the Charlottesville, VA, area where you grew up?

Williamsburg, Brooklyn is both a fascinating and frustrating place. It's a hip artsy neighborhood filled with young people, art galleries and boutiques. People come here from all over the world to try to make it as artists. I've lived here for almost 10 years, but didn't grow up here--so it's both familiar and fascinating to me. It's also a place in flux, unlike Charlottesville, so I think I found that appealing. But I don't rule out writing something set in Charlottesville, Northern Virginia or Washington, DC--all places that I've lived.

Q. Was this the first novel you'd written, or do you have others stuck in a drawer somewhere?

A. This was my second Lydia McKenzie book. The first was mostly backstory, but has a plot I might try to recycle someday!

Q. What made you decide to enter the St. Martin’s Press/Malice Domestic contest? Had you tried to sell the book before entering the contest?

A. I tried to get an agent for awhile, and was told by a couple of agents that there wasn't a market for my book. This probably means they didn't know where they could sell it, or thought it would be too hard to do so. So I took a chance after learning about the contest from Robin Hathaway, a winner from years ago, and entered the contest.

Q. What was it like to get the call from St. Martin’s telling you that you'd won? How long did you have to keep it a secret before you could tell people about it?

A. I knew I was a finalist, but I had pretty much convinced myself there was no way I'd win. I saw I had a voice mail on my phone, and I was quite shocked to hear Ruth Cavin asking me to call her. Instead of calling her right back, I went over to the sink and started washing dishes. I think I was in shock. Then I told myself to snap out of it--she wouldn't be calling with bad news--and called her back.
I kept winning a secret from almost everyone for awhile (except from family). But then I started letting it leak to friends. I had to spill it to the Guppies (an online SinC chapter of unpublished writers) because it would have been like keeping something amazing from your biggest support group. The Guppies all knew I was a finalist, and they were good about keeping it quiet. I think I was supposed to keep it quiet up until Malice Domestic, but Sarah Weinman got to blow my cover on her blog after we met at the Edgars right before Malice.

Q. You've had to wait quite a while between winning the contest and seeing the book published. Have you filled that time with writing the second book? Has it been difficult to concentrate on writing while you've been in the limbo between selling and publishing?

A. Looking back, having almost two years between winning and getting published has turned out to be really great. I've had a chance to network and meet so many people in the mystery community. I've also been able to learn from the experiences of friends, and get lots of advice on touring and marketing. I've also written another Lydia McKenzie book which is almost done. But it is challenging to switch between marketing and writing all the time, and it's sometimes hard to figure out what the priority should be.

Q. Have you learned anything about the publishing business that has surprised you, or has it all been just as you expected?

A. I didn't know what to expect, so it's all been very eye-opening. I've been most surprised by how long everything seems to take. There's a procedure for proofreading, putting out catalogs, etc., that the companies have been following for years, and every step seemed to take months and months.

Q. Do you work with a critique group or individual friends who give you feedback on your manuscripts, or do you go it alone?

A. I have a wonderful critique group I meet with every two weeks (when we can manage it), and who both reads my book as I write it and reads the final draft. I also have a few readers that help me out by reading the final draft cold and telling me if I've made any glaring errors.

Q. What is your writing routine? How do you fit it in when you’re also working at a job outside the home?

A. I freelance, so every day is different. It also depends on where I am in the writing process. I write best in the morning, and I've been experimenting with getting up very early (before my husband and son) and writing. All the marketing has sort of taken over the rest of the day.

Q. Do you outline before you write? If so, do you follow the outline faithfully, or do your characters do things you didn't expect and change the direction of the story?

A. I start with notes on the computer that morph into a rough outline. I divide the outline into chapters, still keeping it rough, and try to get most of the way through the book. Then I use that document to begin writing the book. I find it very helpful to have some place to go because I pick up and put down the book a lot on my way to finishing a draft. Within that structure, my characters end up going different directions, new ideas occur to me and I jot them down, and the plot takes new twists and turns. I have even tossed out two thirds of a book after a rough draft and rewritten it, so the outline is never set in stone. But I don't consider any of the steps wasted--they're just necessary to the finished book.

Q. What do you believe are your greatest strengths as a writer? What aspects of craft are you still trying to master?

A. I think I'm pretty good at character, plot and dialogue--probably from my screenwriting background. But I often forget to describe everything. It's in my head, but screenwriting teaches you to write very sparsely, so I try not to waste any words. Often a few things get left out until the final draft, or when one of my readers comments that they'd like "more".

Q. Do you ever have writer’s block? How do you get through it?

A. There's usually a specific problem that's keeping me from writing (whether it's a plot, work or family issue). But occasionally I just get burned out and need to sit around reading something that someone else has written for a few days. I used to panic when this happened, but then I realized that everyone needs to take a break every once in awhile. I'm also a big believer in deadlines. If someone else doesn't give me one, I make one up for myself.

Q. What writers have inspired you and taught you by example? Whose
books are must-reads for you?

A. I really like Ruth Rendell's complex character portraits, and I think Agatha Christie is a terrific plotter. But I think I've been most inspired by the hard working mystery writers I've met personally who have been so generous with their time and advice --like Julia Spencer- Fleming, Donna Andrews, Elizabeth Zelvin, Rosemary Harris, Jane Cleland, Cynthia Baxter and Chris Grabenstein, to name just a few. Reading their work and seeing how they manage their careers has been very inspiring.

Q. Have you found writers' groups such as Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America helpful? In what ways?

A. I can't praise SinC and MWA enough. I found my writer's group, the Guppies, and got information about the Malice Domestic contest through SinC. MWA put me on three author panels last spring before my book even came out, and I'm now planning to do joint events with authors I met at the meetings. I have really met wonderful people through both organizations. They're terrific for networking, but also for finding out about opportunities. They've both been invaluable.

Q. What’s in the future for you? Will you continue writing this series indefinitely, or would you like to try different things?

A. I have a second Lydia McKenzie book written, and at least one idea for a third. But I also have a great idea for a thriller. I would like to continue the series and do other books. Hopefully I'll learn to write faster!

Q. In parting, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

A. If you enjoy writing, then keep doing it. Don't let anyone tell you that it's impossible, but do realize it's hard work. And you have to be realistic about the business. Very few writers become rich, and not too many more can make a living at it.

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Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Ah, Meredith! You're hilarious. The image of you receiving the wonderful phone message. and the going to wash dishes. It's perfect. It's so touching and human.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Congratulations, Meredith! And thanks for mentioning me in such great company. It was delightful celebrating with you at your launch yesterday and hearing a bit of the book--can't wait to read the rest.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for having me on Poe's Deadly Daughters, Sandy.

I'm still a little giddy from my launch party last night, but holding up. It was so great to see you, Liz, although I feel like I got to talk to everyone for only about 3 seconds...

Hank--I know, I think I was in shock or something. I ordinarily do what I can to avoid washing dishes!

Anonymous said...

Meredith, how nice to hear your story. And I can't wait to get a copy of your book! Sounds terrific!

Kenna Coltman said...

Congratulations, Meredith. You are an inspiration to those of us still struggling to learn the craft!

Beth Groundwater said...

You're an inspiration, Meredith, and it's not just you who has been waiting anxiously for this book release, but all your fellow Guppies pals have been, too!

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