I’m calling this the lost interview. It was conducted in May of 2016 and was published on September 14, 2016. I didn’t know of its publication until last week. Here it is …
A Conversation with Mystery Author Terri Nolan
By Lance Wright, Omnimystery News
Omnimystery News: Introduce us to Birdie Keane. What is it about her that appeals to you as a writer?
Terri Nolan: My protagonist is Birdie Elizabeth Keane. Her allure for me as a writer is her complexity. Birdie is a young investigative journalist who is borderline obsessive about a famous cold case she wants to solve. When the worst case scenario happens, and Birdie’s world falls apart, the professional becomes personal and we are drawn into her painful evolutional journey. We readers get to lay witness to the whole life of Birdie as she struggles to reconcile her world—as it is, from what it was—in a forced transition. She fights back with grit and a no-bullshit ethos.
Birdie is very much a study of human nature. One moment she can entice conflicts and in the next surrender to her desires. She’s also tender, compassionate, and loyal with a Middle America sensibility that is real, flawed, and genuine. But don’t mess with her because she will mess back. That’s what makes her fun to write.
OMH: Into which genre would you place these books?
TN: I write crime dramas. When forced to be more specific, I say the first book is straight up suspense; the second, police procedural/thriller; the third, romantic thriller. To put my novels—or any author’s—into a sub-genre box does a disservice to the artistic nature of our work. And the cross-over box still requires clarification.
Ever notice how streaming services put a movie in several categories? They do that because the movie has elements of each and the service is trying to capture a viewer by presenting the product in multiple ways. Publishers and booksellers don’t do this. You won’t find a novel on multiple stacks in a bookstore or library. While I appreciate the theory behind sub-genres, I find the practicality to be limiting and feel that readers are disadvantaged when searching for new stories because they may avoid certain sub-genres. They are missing out on varied worlds of storytelling.
This reminds me of a conversation I had with a man whom I had just met prior to a concert. After initial pleasantries, the usual what do you do? question came up.
Me: I’m a writer.
Him: Oh? What do you write?
Him: What kind of fiction?
Him: I don’t read mysteries.
Me: That’s cool. What do you read?
Him: Right now I’m reading The Maltese Falcon. Know it?
Me: Dashiell Hammett.
Him: That’s right.
Me: You know that’s a mystery?
Him: No it’s not.
Me: What is it then?
Him: Detective Fiction.
OMN: How much of your own personal or professional experience have you included in your books?
TN: So far I’ve avoided compositing friends or family into my characters. It might be fun so I’ll reserve the right to do it in the future. I did loosely borrow stories and mannerisms from my own family in regards to how cops talk. Also, I was raised Catholic so I drew upon my personal experience in the Church to accurately convey the Keane family’s faith.
There is an inciting incident that I plucked directly from real life. San Diego, early 90s, a sheriff’s deputy is called to service via a radio call. He responds to a home invasion robbery. Upon arrival, a masked man opens fire. The deputy returns fire and kills the villain. Later when the villain is unmasked the investigative team is shocked to see that he was also a deputy with the same division and he was killed by his partner!
The first thing that came to my mind was why. What was going on in that deputy’s life to make him commit armed robbery? And what about the deputy shooter? How did he feel about killing his own partner? Taking a life is no simple thing regardless of circumstance. How did he deal with the aftermath? And then the mystery writer part of my brain kicked in. What if it was a set-up to kill the responding deputy? Maybe the partner was banging his wife. Maybe he was being blackmailed. It always comes back to what motivates people.
I scoured the news for follow up, but never got enough information to slake my curiosity. So I wrote my own resolution and put it into my book.
OMN: Tell us a little more about your writing process.
TN: My process is different for the form. For short stories, the plot usually comes first then I audition characters to serve the story. I don’t outline novels, but I do have a vague sense of story before beginning. For me, it’s all about character. I write extensive biographies for main characters. The supporting cast gets bios of various depths depending upon their importance to the story. Then they are set free to play and create the plot. I’m along for the ride in the role of moderator. When a new character is introduced I stop writing and take the time to get to know this new person. It may sound frenetic, but the process works for me.
For the establishing first novel, Burden of Truth, I created two entire families: the Keanes and the Whelans. Even after I knew Matt Whelan was going to die in the first chapter I continued with his biography because he is still a major character (we get to know him through his family and friends). Another character, Ron Hughes, was supposed to be a passing fling and foil for Birdie. As I wrote, he continually inserted himself into Birdie’s life. Recently, I pulled out the biographies from a box and discovered that Ron’s bio was just as long as Matt’s. Apparently, my subconscious was at work.
OMN: Where do you most often find yourself writing?
TN: I consider myself lucky to have a writing room of my own. When I began writing my first novel I worked on a clunky desktop computer on a tiny flip-down desk inside a closet. The chair I sat on was in the hallway in view of my front door.
After my daughter left for college I bought a second-hand laptop and worked on the desk in her room. The space creep occurred slowly and consistently. During semester breaks and summer vacations I cleared off the desk and retreated back to the closet. When she moved from the dormitory to an apartment she said she wasn’t moving back home and I could have her room. I didn’t waste time with the conversion. Less than a month later I had all her stuff packed up. I painted walls, got custom-sized furniture and built-in bookcases, hung artwork. I bought a leather daybed for napping and reading. The only remaining remnant of her old room is a Hawaiian girl switch plate.
I envy people who are mobile and adaptable and can work on laptops or tablets in cafes, coffee shops, or park benches. I wish. My writing room—called the office—is also a retreat that happens to be the only place I work. When I enter my office it is for work. When it’s done I close the door.
OMN: How do you go about researching the plot points of your stories?
TN: When approaching a new topic I usually begin with the Internet to get a basic understanding. It’s a helpful place to start when I know nothing. If I’m lucky I’ll find some tidbit that sparks a fire. For example, I once searched for key making information. Then I landed on some cool stuff about how locks are made and how to pick them. Even if I feel like I’ve found a trusted and reliable Internet site I will still verify with a trip to the library or an expert. Of course, suspension of disbelief is the fiction business. I’ll stretch the facts but won’t break them.
After electronic and literature-based printed research I expand my field of knowledge by speaking with and meeting experts. I am a traditionally trained reporter used to flat foot research, fact checking and verification from real-life sources. I gave Birdie those skills. But she is also an investigator where I am not. So I hung out with investigative journalists to learn how they do what they do. For the broad cop stuff I drew from my own relatives who were retired LAPD. For the procedural, I relied on cops still working with the department. When in doubt I always seek a professional to hang out with. Most of them are welcoming because they want you to get it right.
OMN: How true are you to the settings of your books?
TN: My novels are set in Los Angeles. They could take place in any metropolitan city with a large police department. I chose L.A. because it’s what I know. Five generations of my family going back to the 1800s have called it home. I root the story in reality, but may make minor changes. Birdie’s house is a real house in Hancock Park that I moved to another street. Magnolia Manor is a real house on a real street that was owned by a relative. A restaurant may be real, but I’ll give it a new name. I won’t move landmarks or change street names. In my second novel, Glass Houses, there is a chase scene. I drove the exact route over and over until I was certain the details were faithful. Southern California weather follows typical patterns, which I often use as plot devices. In other cities distance is measured by miles. In L.A. we measure distance in minutes—and that benchmark varies by the day of the week and time of day. Accuracy is important to me. Also, I want enough real places in the novels that readers will know. It’s a connection to their reality as well.
OMN: How did the books in the series come to be titled?
TN: I don’t have a good track record with novel titles. All of them have had numerous renditions. Blue Bird is the first one I picked that stuck. The previous titles didn’t represent the emotion inside. After some reflection and doodling I sent emails to my agent and publisher: How about Blue Bird? It contains the blue/melancholy/heavy hearted trope Birdie is experiencing. Blue is the color of her eyes. Bird is her nickname. A blue bird is tattooed on Ron’s chest. Blue is also slang for objectionable sex … as in the disturbing sex scene. Also it is a two-word title that will match the first two. They loved it.
OMN: What kind of books did you read when you were young?
TN: Ah! One of my favorite questions. I grew up devouring books. As an only child I learned to amuse myself. Setting up camp on the couch and getting lost in great storytelling was never a wasted day. The kid favorites: Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, A Wrinkle in Time was a read over-and-over favorite, Charlotte’s Web, Black and Blue Magic, Black Beauty.
I began reading adult titles around 10. The book that rocked my world was The New Centurions by Joseph Wambaugh. As soon as I finished it I decided that I wanted to be a novelist when I grew up. I was going to be the female Wambaugh. I mowed through thrillers: The Day of the Jackal, The Andromeda Strain, The Bourne Identity, The Boys from Brazil, The Exorcist (I was nearly suspended from high school for reading this one in English class), Red Dragon. Somewhere in there I discovered James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Loved it! Edgar Allen Poe, Patricia Highsmith, Sherlock Holmes, George Orwell, Agatha Christie, H.G. Wells, J.R.R. Tolkien.
In college English I read all the masters. To this day, Emile Zola is a favorite author. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve read Germinal. I love to read all types of genres. One summer I read every romance novel in my grandmother’s vast collection. Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction. I worship the succinctness of poets. My tastes are varied. And all the contemporary authors? Don’t get me started. There is so much great storytelling and never enough time. I’m inspired by all of it.
~ Interview originally published 9/14/16 in Omnimystery News