Author Interview: T.E.Woods
The Justice Novels: Fixed in Blood
- Can you tell your readers something about why you chose this particular topic to write about? What appealed to you about it? Why do you think it is different and your approach is unique?
I’ve been interested in the notion of justice for a long time. When you think about it, is there really such a thing? If someone has wronged you, can you ever really be made whole? Surely you can be compensated or you can learn to forgive and forget. And certainly you can punish. But once someone has harmed you, you can never go back to that pre-harm moment, can you? You are forever changed.
My curiosity about the notion of justice led me to develop this series. I like the idea of a female avenger. We don’t see much of that…well, there’s Xena, Warrior Princess. I also liked the idea that Lydia is finding her own healing by providing whatever justice she can to others when no one was there for her when she needed it most. I also like the relationship between Mort and Lydia. There’s genuine love there…without the typical romantic side of it. Theirs is a different kind of love…but a love nonetheless.
I think my years as a clinical psychologist give me a unique perspective through which to view my characters. I’ve been told by many that they seem more fully developed than most characters in the murder mystery genre. It’s probably my trained-in tendency to go for the deep, underlying motives of behaviour that allows me to write my characters in what some view as a rich and layered way. Anyway, I hope the readers find it unique.
- How long do you think about a topic before deciding to write about it? Do you have a set of notes or a note book where you write down topics that appeal before making a decision as to which topic this time?
I don’t think about things very long at all, actually. If I think something’s a good idea, or if I have a thought as to how to move the plot along, I’ll start writing. I’ll let it develop as I write. There’s an organic side to writing that sounds odd, but really does happen. Once I start writing, the story and the characters lead me along to what should happen next. Now, this style of operation means a lot of words get edited out, but I’d rather capture my ramblings as they’re popping in my head than to overthink and self-edit before my fingers touch the keyboard. Besides, lots of things I’ve edited out wind up finding a place in another story, so the words aren’t really wasted.
Sometimes (often?) I get stuck. For that I use a whiteboard I have mounted to my office wall. I’ll diagram the scene and sit back and look at it…always hoping there’ll be some magical glowing arrow that will appear and tell me where to take the scene. So far, no luck with the magic neon. But if I stare at something long enough, the way out will emerge for me.
- How long does it take to research a topic before you write? And for this book?
I research as I go. If I get to a point where, say, I need an untraceable poison for my murderer to use, I’ll not research it beforehand. I’ll wait til I’m at the point in the scene and then I’ll look for the answer. Sometimes I’m researching when I’m not even planning to. I might walk into a restaurant or drive by a particularly steep cliff, and realize this would be great to use in a story. I’ll whip out my phone or my tablet, take a few pictures, jot a few notes, and file them away until my writing seems to find a place for them.
My day job (I’m a shrink, remember?) allows me work with incredibly brave people who are working hard to change their lives. I hear stories of abuse and abandonment; urges and obsessions; secrets and shames. It’s hard to un-ring that bell once their experiences have made their way into my awareness. While I would never duplicate a patient’s story in one of my books, I guess you could call my daily exposure to the glories and the darkness of the human condition a sort of research. I’m always amazed when a reader tells me “Oh, that was so entertaining, but of course something like that could never happen in real life”. I want to tell them that I’ve heard countless stories of experiences much more bizarre than the scene I wrote. But, of course, I can’t. But wait, didn’t I just?
- What resources do you use? In general and for the last book that you wrote?
I use the internet incessantly. I tell my husband he’s only allowed to die of natural causes after a well-documented and easily explained illness. Should he perish suddenly and detectives pull the searches from my laptop? Let’s just say the cuffs would be on my wrists faster than butter on popcorn and I’d have some explaining to do. I also use my colleagues. My job has me interacting with social workers, physicians, police, crisis workers…any number of professionals one might imagine would be involved should there be murders or mayhem afoot. They’re quite generous in answering questions like “How does a regular person get in to see someone in prison?” or “Where would a person need to be cut so that they could bleed out in less than thirty seconds?” I also use Google Maps a lot. It’s amazing that I can be sitting in my home office in Madison, Wisconsin, decide Lydia is going to have dinner in some bistro on Whidbey Island, and with a few strokes of the keys learn not only the names of the streets she’d take to get there, but also how long it would take and how many miles she’d travel. The last two books I’ve written have characters in the Russian Mob. I’m learning all about translator apps. I can type what I want my character to say using English, press “enter”, et voila, the Russian translation instantly appears.
- How helpful do you find authority figures such as the police when you say you want to write about them? Is there a good way to approach them in your experience?
Like I said, I use my buddies. I’m lucky in that regard. The old cliché is true. Ask someone to start talking about themselves, especially if they love their work, and all you have to do is sit back and listen. I think professionals want authors to get it right, so they’re eager to help if you convince them you’re going to treat their profession respectfully. Sometimes they’ll ask that I use their name for one of my characters. I have no problem doing that. It’s interesting, though. I’ve not encountered one person who wanted me to use their name who asked that I use it for a character in their same profession! Everybody wants their name to be either the powerful millionaire or the bad guy. What’s that tell you about the kind of people I hang with?
- How many times have you been rejected before your first novel was accepted or before this book was accepted?
You know how people use grains of sand or stars in the sky to denote big numbers? Let me tell you, a new, probably more accurate, metaphor for gigantic numbers is how many times a writer gets rejected. My agent shopped the first book I wrote to every agent around…big, small, independent, corporate…you name it, she pitched it. So many houses “loved” it. Yet not one of them bought it. Fortunately, I have a bull dog of an agent. She told me to go write another book. I did. She started shopping it around. It took nearly two years and dozens of rejections before Random House bought it. So, if you’re a writer who’s reading this…don’t stop. Don’t give up. A “no” means nothing more than “Not this house, Not this time”. If your writing is strong and your story is good, (and if your agent is a bull dog) you’ll find a home for it.
- Did you need to self-publish on e-books before a publisher took you up?
Yes. I think that’s a strategy more and more houses are using. Self-publishing has, in my opinion, become somewhat like the minor leagues for the major baseball franchises. If you self-publish and demonstrate you can build an audience and bring in the sales, a major house will be much more inclined to invest in you. But you’ll need to sell big numbers. I’m talking several tens of thousands of self-published books.
- Would you recommend self-publishing and building an audience before approaching a publisher? If so, what benefits do you see that it might have for the aspiring novelist?
I think first and foremost any writer should get an agent. Let your agent guide you. Let your agent become your champion. He/she knows the business, has the contacts, and knows who’s buying what. If, after your agent has tried his/her damnedest to sell your book and your agent tells you it’s a good book, then go ahead and self-publish. Build those numbers. Give your agent the ammunition he/she needs to go back to the houses that rejected you and convince them they missed an opportunity. Let your agent guide you. Let your agent guide you. Let your agent guide you. Then trust your agent. (In case you haven’t noticed, I’m crazed about my agent.)
- Does writing provide sufficient income to live on? And how long did it take before this happened?
Depends on how you want to live. This is my first series. I’ve got four books out now. That means I’ve got five units on the market: the four books and a boxed trilogy of the first three books. Random House pays me quarterly. I make enough money now to live a VERY simple existence. Did you notice the VERY was in capital letters? I’m hoping, of course, those royalty checks grow and someday I’ll be able to write full time. Nothing would please me more. I love the time I spend writing. I love the marketing. I love hearing from the readers. Alas, at this age and stage of my life, I’m not interested in living a VERY simple existence. I keep my day job. Blissfully, it’s a day job I love. I’m a very lucky woman.
- What is the funniest thing that happened to you on a book tour?
I enjoy book tours so much. It’s great to meet the readers and hear what they liked/disliked about the book. There are always funny stories, too. I guess two pop into mind as I think about your question. One is a woman at a signing. You could tell she was a serious reader…and she took her critique of what she reads very seriously. During the Q and A she stood up, nodded to me, and promptly turned to face the audience. She started off on the character of my detective. She went on and on about the symbolism and metaphor he represented. She equated him to various characters in other works ranging from Shakespeare to Voltaire to Hemmingway. At one point she dramatically announced “Even his name…Mort…speaks to the death that surrounds him.” Finally she sat down. I thanked her for her kindness and called on the next person. I simply didn’t have the heart to tell her I’m not that deep. Mort was named when, as I was conceptualizing the book, I sat my husband down and told him I needed a name for my detective. “It should be one syllable,” I said. “Strong and clean.” Without thinking he said “Mort”. And that was that. Of course, he was drinking a can of soda just before he answered. My Mort could have been nothing more than a simple belch.
Another funny thing that occurs to me happened at a book club. One of those “meet the author” kind of things. The group had read my first book (The Fixer) and invited me to come to their meeting. Now, I don’t write cozy mysteries. At the book club this sweet lady, older by several decades than the other members of the group, waited patiently while the others asked me their questions or shared their comments. Finally this lovely lady raised her hand and said, “You use the fuck word a lot in that opening chapter. I’m not that used to reading the fuck word. I was happy to see the fuck word wasn’t used much throughout the rest of the book, but I was wondering why you felt the need to use the fuck word so often in that first chapter. Aren’t you afraid of turning people like me off?” As she was speaking I had to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing. I respectfully apologized for any offense she felt and explained that my bad guys talk like bad guys. Like with the first story I told you, I didn’t have the heart to tell her most folks say “the f-word”. I mean, once you say “the fuck word”, you’ve pretty much let the cat out of the bag.