Denise Swanson is a character out of one of her books. A small town girl, intelligent, kind, and successful. Very successful. Her Scumble River soft boiled mystery series has been running for many years now, with appearances on the New York Time Bestseller‘s list and slews of award nominations, including a Best First Novel Agatha, from the Malice Domestic convention. Not too shabby. And with her second entry with protagonist Devereaux Sinclair she’s well on the way to having not one, but two hugely popular series. I met Ms. Swanson at one of those Malice conventions, and I remember standing in the back of an auction with her, marveling at all the other authors, and some of their rather high schooly ways. (schooly should also be a word). Ms. Swanson is a genuine individual who enjoys her success, but doesn’t need to remind the world of it every single second of the day, as some newbie or established authors tend to do. As a matter of fact, she used to underplay her milestones. I’m happy to report that practice is over, and she happily answered my usual author 10 questions, with aplomb, and a swiftness only rivaled by Superman. My kind of author!
Q 1. On your webpage bio, the impetus for your wanting to write mysteries says it was after you met evil in real life. Can you expand on that curious statement and explain what the ‘evil’ was and why it would cause you to write about murder?
A. As a school psychologist, I came across a conspiracy in one of the small-towns I was working in. Although, due to confidentiality I can’t give any details, I can say it had spread throughout the school system, and the adults involved were truly evil. After getting little or no help from the police and the Department of Children and Family Services, I was threatened with bodily harm and ended up quitting that job. My original intent was to write a fictionalized version of those incidents, but found that my writer’s voice was more humorous than noir, and humor did not work for that story so I’ve never written it.
Q 2. Your Scumble River mysteries with protagonist Skye Denison have been nominated for various awards, been critically praised, and debuted on the New York Times Bestseller lists. You have fifteen entries in that series. How do you keep it fresh, and do you run into the so-called Cabot Cove syndrome of too many murders in too small of a community to be believable?
A. It is a challenge to keep the series fresh. I try to do so by emphasizing different secondary characters in each story. As to the dreaded Cabot Cove syndrome, I think readers who enjoy small-town mysteries just have to suspend belief regarding how many people can be murdered in a tiny community. I do tend to bring in my victims from out of town so as not to deplete the population, too quickly.
Q 3. I notice that in both series, the female protagonist has two love interests. I’m curious why that is? I found this trend after Janet Evanovich’s series, and have noted other series with a similar love interest theme. As a writer, are you concerned the audience will be bored if only one romantic subplot exists?
A. Since I read a lot of romances, as well as mysteries, science fiction, horror, and fantasy, I just like having two men in my sleuths’ lives. It provides drama and adds complications to the plot. I don’t
know if readers would be bored with only one love interest, but I think that I would be.
Q 4. You mention that getting published was difficult. How many years before your manuscript was finally accepted, and if starting today, would you consider self-publishing e-books? Yes or no–could you explain why?
A I complete my first manuscript in 1997, and wasn’t published until 2000. During that time, I collected 270 rejection letters from agents, and was extremely close to giving up. Unlike today, not many of my type of small-town, humorous, romantic mystery was being published, and the ones that were, were set in the South, not the Midwest.
Truthfully, I’m not sure whether I would have self-published had the option been as available as it is now. I do know that without a large publisher behind you, it’s very difficult to get noticed in today’s crowded marketplace. Most of the writers that I know that are making a living out of self-published books were originally traditionally published so already had a loyal readership.
Q 5. The second book in a new series starring Devereaux Sinclair as a small town old fashioned store owner has just been released. How does this series differ from Scumble River?
A One of my biggest fears in writing a second series was that readers and reviewers would find my two sleuths overly similar, so I was careful to make Dev everything Skye wasn’t. Dev embraces all modern electronic gadgets, while Skye can barely work her cell phone. Dev never wanted to leave her hometown, while Skye fled Scumble River at eighteen and only came back when she was broke. Dev was an investment consultant before buying the dime store and she wouldn’t dream of working in a “helping” profession, while Skye is a school psychologist who always wants to do the right thing. Yes, Dev and Skye both live in a small-town, are curvy women, and tend to find dead bodies but that’s where the resemblance ends.
Q 6. What guidelines do you give yourself for choosing names for characters? I find both Skye and Devereaux to be charming yet unusual first names. Are these names you’ve encountered, or snatch from the air and inspiration?
A I love choosing names. When I’m getting ready to write a new story, I sit down with all my gazillion baby naming books and read through until one of the names calls to me. I’d never known a Skye or a Devereaux before choosing those names, but once the books came out I have been contacted by readers with those names.
Q 7. What is an ‘old fashioned store’? The description is a curious one for those of us not yet familiar with your new critically praised series.
A By an old-fashioned store, I mean one that has retained most of it’s architecture and furnishings from when it was originally built. It also sells vintage and nostalgic items. Basically, it’s similar to a store your mother or grandmother might have patronized before WalMart and the dollar stores took over.
Q 8. I’ve often marveled at writers who manage to maintain a schedule that includes two series –which means at least one of each a year is published. How do you keep on deadline? Do your ever find yourself wandering into the other character’s world when working on one series or the other?
A I have to admit, writing two books a year is a challenge for me, but there are authors out there who, under several pseudonyms, write three, four, and even five, so I try not too complain. I have a fairly strict writing schedule. I usually write seven days a week for at least five or six hours a day, then I do the business side of writing
in the evenings.
I think because I write Skye in third person and Devereaux in first person, I “hear” them talk to me differently, which means so far I haven’t had any problems staying in the series I’m supposed to be writing.
Q 9. I’m assuming that you hadn’t a writing background when you first began, but did your take classes, or instruction in the art form? Or did natural talent and sheer determination find you your niche in the difficult world of published crime fiction?
A I’m embarrassed to admit that I never took a writing class before I was published. I attended a couple of workshops, but that was after I had completed my first manuscript. I do have a minor in English, but I don’t think that helped much. So I guess, it was Midwest stubbornness that spurred me to write, find an agent, and get published. I have a saying over my desk–It’s not how good you are. It’s how bad you want it.
Q 10. For those of us not familiar with Devereaux, give us an idea of her personality and life in her home state and small town.
A Devereaux is a very modern woman who has been taking care of herself since she was in her early teens. She isn’t sentimental and since she worked as a financial consultant for many years, she doesn’t always play fair or do the nice thing. She has an edge that Skye doesn’t have. Her loyalty is to her grandmother and friends.
She loves her hometown–Shadow Bend, MO–but the people there have not always been kind to her or her family, and she keeps that in mind when she needs to make a decision about how to act.
Dev has had several men betray her, starting with her father, then her high school sweetheart, then her mentor and boss at the financial firm where she was employed. She is slow to trust and has built a thick wall around her heart.
This series is about the way she changes as she experiences new people and new circumstances in her life.