Welcome Carolyn to my Summer on the Water blog - and your dogs look so lovely there with you!
Tell us about your newest mystery.
The Devil’s Tombstone follows the previously published mysteries Hemlock Lake and Through a Yellow Wood. It’s set in the Catskill Mountains of New York, mountains rich in folklore, legends, and ghost stories. A tale I created for the book involves a rock near the shores of Hemlock Lake. Known as the Devil’s Tombstone, it marks the spot where, two centuries earlier, a man murdered his young wife and then vanished in a storm.
As a part-time investigator assigned to cold cases, Dan Stone, the protagonist of the trilogy, is troubled by far more recent deaths and disappearances. Reviewing files dating back two decades, he sets out to discover new leads. But it’s slow going. A massive snowstorm socks the mountains. Dan’s infant son disrupts his sleep. And dynamic preacher Wesley Falton pitches his revival tent, challenging Hemlock Lake traditions and the spiritual leadership of Reverend James Balforth.
As Dan digs deeper into the past, he suspects his cold cases are linked to a fresh murder. When hard evidence eludes him, he appeals for help from beyond the grave. As he does, he wonders whether ghosts make their presence felt because we believe in them, or because they believe in us.
Tell us how water figures into your story, Carolyn.
There is at least one Hemlock Lake in New York, but “my” lake, set deep in the Catskills, is fictional. (By the way, there is also a rock called Devil’s Tombstone in the Catskills, not far from where I grew up. The rock created for the book, however, is far larger.) I chose the name Hemlock Lake for two reasons. First, I wanted a symbolic link to the story of Socrates who was sentenced to drink poison hemlock for corrupting youth and failing to acknowledge the gods. Second, hemlock trees crowd the slopes of the Catskills. The bark was used for tanning leather by early settlers and the trees create dense shade.Dan Stone faced a dark future when he returned to Hemlock Lake a year after his wife drowned in the lake and his brother committed suicide. And he faced the poisonous attitude of some of the town’s residents because he moved away when he was younger, leading some to claim he thought he was above them.
Why set a book near water? What significance does water have for you?
I grew up leaping across a brook on the path that led to the school bus stop, splashing in the Sawkill Creek in the summer, riding my bicycle around Cooper Lake, and fishing at Yankeetown Pond on humid evenings thick with mosquitoes. I loved the gush of snowmelt and heavy spring rains that made the Sawkill run high and fast and red with clay ripped from its banks. I loved that glimpse of water through the trees at the end of a hike. I loved the sound of bullfrogs and peepers and loons.
Tell the readers about your journey as a writer.
In 2010, I took stock of myself as an author and decided it was time to stop asking publishers to like me and go straight to readers. I’d had some experience with e-books because my contract for Hemlock Lake hadn’t included digital rights so I’d put it up in that format on my own. I had no budget for advertising and promotion and none for travel and conferences. My strategy, therefore, was to “open the door” by pricing some of my books at 99 cents and hoping that would attract readers to the rest of them.
The first two years went well. No Substitute for Murder even became a Nook Pick of the Week. But the market has expanded, competition is fierce, and many independent authors I know are feeling a pinch. I haven’t made my books free in the hope of increased sell-through sales. And I haven’t taken advantage of exclusive programs because I have strong Kobo sales in Canada and Australia and don’t want to disappoint potential readers in those countries.
Will I keep on? Sure. There’s nothing I’d rather do than write stories and connect with readers.
I so agree with you Carolyn! What is your best writing advice?
Write the best story you can and think less about making money and more about connecting with readers. Promotion and advertising can move a lot of books, but word of mouth gives a book “legs” and keeps those ripples spreading once you’ve blown your budget
Okay, now to my fun question. If someone asked you to give a TED talk, what would it be about?
Hmmm. I guess my theme would be “it’s almost never too late to dust off that dream and run with it—after making a few modifications.”
I longed to write when I was young, and I did. I wrote anguished journal entries detailing the “crimes” against me by parents, teachers, classmates, and life in general. I read those entries journal now and I squirm. I thought I had “something deep and meaningful to say,” but all I had was a collection of whinings and wishings.
Then, thank goodness, my life expanded. I went to college, joined VISTA, and found my way to a series of TV newsrooms as a writer, a producer, and an assignment editor. I got a lesson in the insignificance of my problems when compared to events around the world. I learned a lot about human nature and the many foibles and flaws that are part of the human condition. I saw the dark side of life. And I experienced many lighter and warmer moments.
Along the way I realized that what I wanted to write wasn’t deep and serious and message-heavy, but rather what I enjoyed reading—mysteries. And so, when I could finally cut back on the hours spent at work, I did. And I wrote. I’ve been a happier person ever since.
Where can readers find you and your books?