HOW I CAME TO WRITE THIS BOOK: RUNNING ON EMPTY
by Sandra Balzo
How did I come to write RUNNING ON EMPTY, the first novel in my new series, you ask?
Well, it's a funny story.
No, really--it is.
The year is 2005, and UNCOMMON GROUNDS, the debut book in what has become my Maggy Thorsen coffeehouse mysteries, has just been published. My literary agent is submitting the second book in the series, HASTA BARISTA, BABY, which was later published as GROUNDS FOR MURDER. Note: I like my title better.
Anyway, an editor who rejected that book loved the "cleverness, humor and irreverence" of my narrative voice. She thought I might be the perfect person to write a new series she had in mind. These mystery novels would be set in "small-town America," with a rotating cast of characters. Would I work up a synopsis and three sample chapters?
Given HASTA/GROUNDS hadn't as yet had a nibble, I thought this new project might be a very good thing to develop.
Starting point, the setting. In my mind, the perfect location could be summed up as "Cabot Cove meets Desperate Housewives, with maybe a splash of Jan Karon's Mitford."
Since I didn't think such a place existed in real life--at least without my being sued--I created a fictional lakeside town in Wisconsin and made it a tourist destination.
Because my destination angle solved the "fresh-meat" problem. For any mystery series within a contained setting, you need a logical reason that newcomers are drawn to town. Some decide to stay and become part of your continuing cast of characters. Others leave--be it vertically or horizontally. And sometimes take one or more of your regulars with them. But without this infusion of fresh blood (literally), sooner or later you run out of victims. Or, worse, tip your readers to the killer's target. Or worst, to the killer himself or herself.
The other reason I built in the regular influx of visitors was that I was--and remain--fascinated by the idea of a tiny town that swells to epic proportions during tourist season. I'd visited Laguna, California, a few months earlier to see clumps of people literally dancing in the streets. And in restaurants, art galleries, even on the beaches.
It was late in the year and not a holiday, so I asked one clump what was going on. They shouted--in unison, now, mind you--"The tourists are gone, the tourists are gone," the way the Munchkins sang "Ding-dong, the Wicked Witch is Dead."
I realized the locals were quite sincerely "reclaiming" their town, if only for a while. And, by the way they started eyeing me, I figured this outsider had best get out of Dodge while she still could.
When it came to the fictional blocks of my own mysterious "Main Street," I filled them with people and places that could have been there forever. Then I introduced a prodigal daughter into the mix. AnnaLise Griggs left town for college and had never returned. Instead, she became a police reporter in a big, Midwestern city.
Of course, in that first book, the prodigal daughter would be forced to return:
AnnaLise Griggs stood in a Wisconsin courthouse when she picked up, on the first ring of her cellphone, the call every adult child dreads.
“AnnaLise, this is Mama,” her mother’s oldest friend and owner of Mama Philomena's restaurant said. “You must come home. Your mother Daisy, she went and siphoned all the blood out of poor Mrs. Bradenham.”
Well, maybe not every adult child.
AnnaLise eventually learns that Daisy, a regular volunteer at the town's blood drive, properly clamped off the tube running from "poor" Mrs. Bradenham's arm after the woman had donated her pint. Unfortunately, Daisy then cut the tube above the clamp, resulting in an inadvertent bonus donation on Mrs. Murphy’s part.
When AnnaLise does arrive home, she finds the family's former food market has been turned into a club with a '50s beatnik vibe. Jazz, bongos, poetry. All night. And Daisy still lives in the owner's apartment above it.
AnnaLise also finds that “Mrs. Murphys’s bloodletting,” as the accident has been dubbed, has been accepted--like “mother blinded by wiffle-ball” and “fisherman squashed like nightcrawler,” before it--into the annals of local lore.
Until people start dying, and in even greater numbers than usual for this quirky little town.
In future books, Annalise will start a class in "Journaling and Memoirs" and thus be treated to a literary bird’s-eye-view of the goings-on (and associated "offings") through the journals of nearly everybody in town.
I sure thought so. The aforementioned editor, though, was less enchanted: "Love the characters, love the voice. Hate the concept."
Okay, I could have been petulant and pointed out it was her concept, at least at the core. Or, to be fair, maybe the seed. The book was set in small-town America, after all.
But I took the literary high road. I threw the synopsis and three sample chapters into a deep drawer, then slammed it shut.
And I didn't look at it again.
Until . . .
Fast-forward four years. I now had five Maggy Thorsen books published, and I'm meeting with the editor who eventually bought that series. I mention the "Main Street" concept, and she bites. "Send me a synopsis and sample chapters."
Hey, I just happen to have those. Somewhere.
But yours truly is no longer living in Wisconsin. I'm now divorced and living in South Florida. My life has changed completely, and there's a whole lot of it still in boxes stuffed toward the back of a public-storage unit. Finding the particular one I dumped that drawer into is not going to be easy.
I never did unearth the paper hard-copy, but I did find the 3.25" floppy disk (remember those?) and a computer that--miraculously--still had a slot to insert the relic.
Since I already had a series set in Wisconsin, I decided to shift Main Street to "High Country," the mountains of western North Carolina. It was an area I'd visited and come to love, so I took a lake there, shoved it up against a mountain a few miles away and, voila, the fictional town of Sutherton, North Carolina, was born.
Scenic mountains, clear skies, fresh air and now twice as many fictional people to kill and be killed.
You see, High Country has two tourist seasons: Late spring through early autumn, when people like me flee the sweltering south for the coolness of higher elevations. And winter, when skiers arrive by the droves to ski down those elevations.
Which leaves just the month of November--unless, of course, the snows come early--for locals to enjoy their town in peace. When you get down to it, Suthertonians are not so different from their dancing counterparts in Laguna Beach. If, perhaps, more lethal.
I'll be returning to the real High Country in a few months, but, meanwhile, I hope you'll join me there for the first of the Main Street Mysteries, RUNNING ON EMPTY.
For now, though, I wish everybody a welcomed spring and a wonderful summer.
PS: The first three books in my Maggy Thorsen coffeehouse series have just been released on Kindle. I've also "put up" there a new, original novel entitled HEAVEN’S FIRE, about a fireworks family and the explosion that nearly destroys it. Hope those of you who also "e-book" will try them out!
Sandra Balzo turned to mystery writing after twenty years in corporate public relations, event management and publicity. A CUP of JO, her sixth Maggy Thorsen coffeehouse mystery came out this past fall, and Sandy's second series, Main Street Mysteries, debuted in April with RUNNING ON EMPTY. The books, set in the popular vacation destination of North Carolina's High Country, will alternate with the Maggy Thorsen mysteries. HEAVEN'S FIRE, about a fireworks show gone badly wrong, was just released directly to Kindle.
Balzo's novels have been nominated for both the Anthony and Macavity awards and received starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist. In addition to her books about coffee-maven Maggy Thorsen, Balzo writes short stories, two of which have been published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, winning the Macavity, Derringer and Robert L. Fish awards.
Balzo has handled publicity for three Bouchercons (World Mystery Conventions), as well as the International Association of Crime Writers, and has served as a national board member of Mystery Writers of America.