By Amber Bell
How do you answer the question, “Oh, you’re an author? What do you write?”
I say that I write mysteries set in the 1940s with the atmosphere and plot twists of film noir. My main character is a smart-talking gal, in the mode of Rosalind Russell or Joan Bennett, sassy and clever. If they love the mysteries of the ‘40s, they’ll get a kick out of my writing, with its humor and suspense – and of course there’s a cat.
How would you describe your writing to someone not familiar with your work?
Well, I guess my answer above pretty much combines questions 1 & 2.
Which of your characters would you like to have as a best friend and why?
I really like Jessica, my main character. However, there’s an awful lot of me in her, so it seems a bit egocentric to say I’d choose myself as a best buddy. Her sister Liz would be fun, but a little of her would go a long way. Now Dusty the cat, based on a cat I actually had (or who had me), is a real sweetheart, albeit mischievous one, so maybe I’ll go with her. Interesting question.
If you had to switch places with one of your characters for a week who would you
choose and why?
I wouldn’t switch places with Dusty. I know cats have it easy, but chasing mice is not my idea of a good time. Maybe I’d go with Jessica. We like the same movies. She gets to ride horses. I love her creative work as an actress, especially when she starts a career on the radio. She has a neat boyfriend – though not as neat as my husband. However, the threats from Nazis and criminals is NOT my cup of tea!
Which character has been the most difficult to write and why?
I don’t have a good answer here.
Would you say your writing style is more character driven or plot driven?
My writing is a combination of both, with an edge toward character. I have a certain set of events that I want to set up in my novels, but I have to look to what my characters would do in order to figure out how to make them happen. And sometimes the characters insist I adjust the plot to suit their actual personalities.
Which of your books did you have to do the most research for? What does your
research process look like?
I would say that since my books take place in the past, I have to do about an equal amount of research for all of them. My research follows a few different paths. I had family and family friends to whom I could talk to about the war years. I also have always been fascinated by books on history of the period, especially on the homefront. Since I aim to capture the feel of 1940s mysteries, I enjoy watching films and reading mysteries from the era not only to capture the rhythms and atmosphere of the genre but to hear how people talk and what everyday life was like for them. I also find it fun to go to the library, get onto the microfiche machine and read weeks worth of 1940s New York Times. I see what’s in the news; what’s at the movies, on the stage, or on the radio; what’s on sale; what apartments cost – all kinds of daily-life information. Call me a history nerd!
Do you have any set rules for yourself about how or when to write?
I’ve been doing my writing while being a full-time professor at a university, so there is absolutely no time during the regular school year. However, in the summer, I’m on my own and writing is a refreshing break from teaching. Then, when the summer ends, I’m tired from writing, so I’m ready to switch back to teaching.
What helps spark your imagination when writer’s block hits or you’re just looking for a new idea?
My imagination is constantly sparked by all kinds of input. I’m just driven to create a story. I see intriguing settings like the Isles of Shoals or the lions outside the New York Public Library (see the cover of Letter from a Dead Man), a walk in the woods or on the beach – and I have to come up with a story to incorporate them. Or I might listen to some exciting, mystical, or romantic music like Debussy, Mussgorsky, or Holst – and there goes my imagination creating a story. Then I may watch a film and its plot twists or atmosphere or characters may set me thinking about how I could write something to create a similar reaction.
What have you learned about yourself from your writing?
I don’t have a good answer to this question.
You obviously have extensive knowledge of the 1940s. Is there anything you
learned about that era that surprised you? And is there anything you changed the
accuracy of to fit your book?
One bit about the era that I found fascinating was the landing of German saboteurs on Amagansett Beach in Long Island in June, 1942. I never knew we had actually been invaded. Fortunately, these guys weren’t very good at their jobs and actually two of their leaders turned themselves in. Depending on what story you hear, they either had always planned to sabotage the sabotage plots or once they landed, they decided the U.S. was a much better place than Nazi Germany and gave up their plans. This event became an important plot point in Bait and Switch – real fifth columnists to match my fictional ones. The more research I did on fifth columnists, the more surprised I was by their presence, which I was able to draw on to strengthen the veracity of my tale. I did have to shift the date of the Amagansett event for artistic license to 1943, though.
I read that you had written the first draft of your first book, Bait And Switch, in 1980 but didn’t publish it until 2015. Therefore, did the process for getting the second book out feel like a whirlwind after that?
Well, I had always been writing no matter what, so I always felt as if I were in a continuum of writing in some form. However, I was delighted and surprised that I didn’t have to go through vetting for my second novel, but Sherri told me to send it straight to the editorial department for editing. She had enough faith in my first effort to trust my second one. That made me extremely happy. I would also say that it was a relief to be able to move so fast.
What advice would you give an aspiring writer?
Practice, practice, practice! Always keep honing your talents – and don’t be discouraged! Always keep plugging to get published, but plug smart. Find out what publishers or agents are interested in the specific kind of work you do or are open to new authors. Pay attention to critiques if you don’t get accepted, but still stay true to your own vision. If you are a good writer with talent that you’ve worked hard to perfect and you work smart to get published, you will get there. For mystery or thriller writers, I highly recommend joining Sister in Crime. Not only does the organization provide great information for writing, publishing, and promoting your work, but it’s a great place to make connections with other writers who are decent people with good advice.
When did you decide you wanted to be a writer and how different is the reality from what you had expected?
I actually decided to be a writer when I was eight-years-old and saw that my big brother was a writer. I wanted to be just like him, but whereas he moved on to other things, I kept writing: all through high school and college. I finished the first version of Bait and Switch while also working on my master’s thesis at Clark University. Because mysteries set in the first half of the twentieth century were not yet in vogue and I still needed to hone my writing skills, I wasn’t able to get published back then. However, since I love weaving tales, I never stopped writing, though working on a Ph.D. and other aspects of life made me put my work on the back burner at times.
With self publishing being an option, what made you choose to publish with
When you self-publish, you often get taken less seriously, though not always, by booksellers. Plus, a regular publisher can give you more logistical support. Nevertheless, you still have to do a lot of legwork in arranging signings/readings, getting your book sold on consignment in independent bookstores, creating publicity materials (bookmarks, postcards, creating a QR, etc.). It’s also nice to be part of a community of writers.
What are you currently working on?
I have a third novel in the Jessica Minton series completed, Always Play the Dark Horse. It’s in the revisions stage, but it’s close to being ready. I want to work on a fourth novel for the series, which I’ll call Shadows of Dark Memories, in the fall of 2019. Dark Horse finds Jessica married, moving deeper into radio work, and caught up in disappearances, intrigue, and murder on a campus during summer sessions at an all-girls college on the coast of Connecticut off Long Island sound. I really enjoyed creating a dreamy, eerie seaside atmosphere. Dusty catches mice. Shadows will find Jessica and her sister Liz at an isolated mansion on the Maine coastline where Jess’s radio program is broadcasting remote for the Halloween season on a theme based on an old unsolved murder that took place there. Needless to say, some fresh corpses join the old.
When can we expect your next release?
I’m hoping to turn in Dark Horse in either the fall of 2019 or the spring of 2020. We’ll see how long it takes to get Shadows ready for the races.
What amazes you the most about your life?
I guess that I’ve been so lucky. There has been a lot of hard work involved in getting where I am, but I’m so happy that I could “follow my bliss,” as Joseph Campbell calls it, to teach and write and be married to a great guy
Tell me a random fact about yourself.
I bake great scones by varying the recipe in The Joy of Cooking.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
That’s about it.
Books by Sharon Healy-Yang