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Tuesday, April 26, 2022

The Mystery of Writing and Publishing: Author Interview with Pepper Frost

Your bio says that you've always been an avid reader and love mystery stories. But what made you decide that you could write one of them?
I always had a secret dream (maybe better called a secret fantasy!) of writing mysteries. This was mainly because I was such an addicted reader of mystery series from my 20s on. I read authors like Robert B. Parker, Dick Francis… plus older series like Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. I added Carl Hiaasen and Janet Evanovich (among many others) later on.

These authors, whose work I adored, seemed like magicians to me. Though I’d always enjoyed putting words together, fiction writing, especially my beloved twisty mysteries, seemed impossibly hard—and I knew I lacked the creative writing education of others who were contemplating novel writing. Basically, I had all the fears and insecurities that hold back so many would-be writers.

A couple of things helped me move past my fears and give mystery writing a try. One was having written non-fiction. Now, my non-fiction writing is in a professional/technical field, so that process didn’t convince me I had the creativity to try fiction. But it taught me that I could wrestle enough coherent thoughts together to fill a couple hundred pages. I now knew, at least, that I could tackle a writing project of that size.

But it was a friend of mine who writes romance novels and cozy mysteries whose gentle pushing ultimately gave me the courage to give mystery writing a try. First, she convinced me that I had little to lose. And she was kind and generous enough to read my first mystery as I went along—a priceless gift to someone starting out. My goal at first was simply to see if I could entertain my friend with my story—that was my first hurdle, my proof of concept.

Did you start with the idea of doing a series? Or did that come after the first book?
As far as writing a series goes, I always hoped to accomplish that. I know first-hand the enjoyment that comes from finding a new series to race through, the fun of hanging out again and again with favorite characters. But I started out just hoping I’d be able to entertain my friend with a single novel.

What made you decide to write a series based on “a crackling old lady” named Bea Sickles, aka Betty Snickerdoodle?
I’ve always been intrigued by the assumptions we make about people, and how easy it is to be quite incorrect.

This may be at least partly because like Bea, I’m a poker player. For the record, I’m just an occasional player and nowhere near as skilled as Bea is! But I’ve played enough that I know how advantageous it can be to be underestimated and misunderstood. It happens a lot at a poker table.

When I started to think about a cozy mystery character, I gravitated toward this perennial fascination of mine, this idea that we inevitably misread people a lot of the time. I started wondering what kind of assumptions readers make about my lovely friend, the romance author. My friend actually is quite sweet herself, so perhaps readers’ guesses of what she’s like aren’t too far off the mark. 

But what if a bestselling author of sweet Christmas stories were nothing like you’d expect? What if she was salty and grumpy and hard-edged? And what if her writing career came late in life, after a lot of rough-and-tumble experiences? I thought this was an idea that could have some humor potential.

Your books are independently published. What’s the hardest part for you in publishing and marketing your own books?
The publishing part is relatively easy for me. Early in my business career, I worked for a large magazine and internet publisher. I later went on to own a periodical publishing business. So the operational nuts-and-bolts, plus the basics of advertising, were already in my toolkit. The process of formatting files and setting things up for print is also immensely easier and cheaper than it was when I owned my business. I can easily understand, though, why it’s so confusing to many new authors, and I feel very glad to have had all that past experience to build on.

Cover design is one thing that’s still very hard for me. I’ve had a very long learning curve with that. It’s essential that the cover clearly communicate genre and speak to the readers you’re hoping to reach. If I’d had a clearer idea of how to market the Betty Snickerdoodle series or where I was going with it when I started out, I would have hired a professional cover designer.

What is the hardest part of writing for you? 
Starting a new book—by far! It feels like I rewrite the first chapter of each book forty or fifty times. (This is probably an exaggeration… but I bet not by much!) I find writing dialogue challenging, too, but it’s also really fun, so I don’t stress about that as much.

What’s the best encouragement you’ve had in your writing?
Aside from the encouragement I received from my dear romance-author friend before I even started, I have received a few comments from readers that I’ve absolutely cherished. They help keep me going when I feel stuck or just hit a rough writing patch.

What do you know now about writing /publishing you wished you had known sooner?
I wish I’d been braver sooner. I was worried my book would be panned or that I would look foolish, but readers are kinder, for the most part, than you fear. 
If you’re reading this and you think you’ve got a book in you, go for it.

It’s important to keep in mind, also, that you’re not writing for everyone—you’re writing for people who have an interest in your type of book. Trying to please everyone is a losing proposition. I’ve learned to keep the focus on my own audience.

What is the best writing advice you’ve received or could give?
“Kill your darlings,” i.e., be ruthless about chopping things that don’t add to the reader’s experience, even if they’re sections or characters you love or that you’ve relished writing.

It gets much easier to do this as you gain more experience! When you realize you really can write thousands of words (even if it takes a while), cutting things seems less painful. I also create extra files to track all the stuff I’ve cut, just in case I want to add anything back in. (I have never added back something I thought needed to be cut, not once. But it’s always reassuring to know that I could.)

Are there any other points about writing you would like to add?
I found Janet Evanovich’s book How I Write surprisingly valuable. It wasn’t because she offered detailed craft tips (I’m not sure she even did). What opened my eyes was her point that the mystery writer’s job is to entertain. She also shared that she puts a lot of effort into making her books flow easily and require little effort to read. In writing my Betty Snickerdoodle series, I remind myself constantly that it’s all about the reader and what will make their experience light and fun.

Also, I’ve found it invaluable to recruit a few people who will give me honest, reliable feedback (“beta readers”). These early readers should be people who are in your corner, but still willing to be honest and able to be objective. It’s very important, also, that they’re readers of the genre you’re writing in. Otherwise, they may dislike your book simply because the genre isn’t for them, making their advice irrelevant and potentially confusing or needlessly discouraging. (You also end up wasting their generously donated time.)

What is the next book coming out?  Can you give me a short synopsis?

I’m about seventy-five percent done with my sixth book. I hope it will be out early this summer.

The new story involves a community theater production of a famous murder-mystery play at the inn—and, naturally, this provides the backdrop for actual murder. I’m excited because it includes colorful characters and situations I haven’t explored in my other books, and because all of the action takes place at the inn—creating a locked-in mystery.

That's all for today's interview. If you'd like to learn more about her books, here are some links to get you started.

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