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Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Interview: Jeanne Burrows-Johnson

Today, the author Jeanne Burrows-Johnson has stopped by the blog for a nice long chat about everything bookish. So grab a drink, make sure you're sitting comfortably, and read on!

Firstly, tell me a little about yourself and your background.

I was born in California and raised in Oregon. As a child, I studied Scottish Highland Dancing and theatre arts. In high school, I was active in the performing arts and worked as an assistant to the drama instructor in my senior year. After a couple of years as a performer in the Portland, Oregon, arts community, I moved to Hawai`i where I helped run Highland Games. In addition to teaching performing arts classes, I became a member of the British Association of Teachers of Dancing, Highland Division, and served as the coordinator of volunteer actors for the Honolulu Police Department’s final phase of recruit training for a short while. When I returned to college, I obtained a Bachelor of Arts Degree in History from the University of Hawai`i with Distinction and was accepted for membership in Phi Beta Kappa. I subsequently became a teaching assistant in the University’s World Civilisation and a member of Phi Alpha Theta.

Throughout my years of working in the performing arts, I produced print, audio, and sometimes visual program and event promotional materials. When my husband John (a naval officer) was transferred to Newport, Rhode Island, I began working as a freelance writer and promotional consultant. After a short return to Hawai`i, John accepted a final assignment in Phoenix, while I moved both our home and my business to Tucson, Arizona. In 2012 I served as artistic director and a co-author of the print and audio anthology Under Sonoran Skies, Prose and Poetry From the High Desert, which was recognised by Southwest Books of the Year as one of the year’s top 50 picks. Since that time, I have built upon the prologue to Prospect For Murder which appeared in USS. While slowly seeking a literary agent and publisher, I have completed three books in the Natalie Seachrist mystery series. I am a member of Arizona Mystery Writers and Sisters in Crime.

How did you first become interested in writing?

As with many writers, my love of writing lies in my love of reading. Equally significant was my enrolment in what today would be called “advanced placement” classes in English and Social Studies during high school. In those courses, I was required to spend part of my days in creative writing exercises, which I came to anticipate with great joy. Since I also participated in community and high school theatre programs, I was regularly exposed to and inspired by dramatists such as William Shakespeare, Edward Albee, and Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière.

What draws you to writing mysteries?

Mysterious people and events are key elements in most of the books I read and many of the movies I watch. In recent years I’ve been disappointed in the violence of many of the thrillers and police procedurals that dominate the overall mystery genre. At the same time, I have found many works in the sub-genre of “cosies” lacking in substance and detail. Eventually, I decided to dip my quill into the realm of modern mysteries that I would enjoy reading myself. I knew that I would include numerous historical and multi-cultural references, plus meaningful relationships that could be enriched throughout the Natalie Seachrist series. I hope that my readers will feel I have accomplished my own goals. In my second book, Murder on Mokulua Drive, the protagonist has moved into a serious relationship with Keoni Hewitt as they enter life in an ocean-side cottage. In the third, Murders of Conveyance, the couple participates in a scavenger hunt across the island of O`ahu, while exploring two deaths separated by sixty years. In the fourth, Yen for Murder (which I’m now completing), Keoni revisits an unsolved case from his career with the Honolulu Police Department.

Tell me about Prospect for Murder.

Set in the sensory rich environs of Hawai`i, Prospect for Murder offers a variety of readers and listeners a mystery filled with multicultural and historical references. This is the debut print, audio, and ebook in a continuing series. In it, journalist Natalie Seachrist and Miss Una (her silent but fleet-footed feline companion) explore the inexplicable death of Natalie’s grandniece. Spurred by evocative visions and the cautionary help of retired homicide detective Keoni Hewitt, the protagonist moves to the Honolulu foothills apartment where she envisioned Ariel’s body draped over a vintage Mustang. There she discovers the fascinating Shànghăi origins of the elderly Wong Sisters who own the complex…and more than a little discord between the family and staff. Will Natalie be able to solve the puzzle of the girl’s death before the police close their investigation without an arrest? Or has she put herself in the way of a murderer who’s willing to kill again to hide their secret? To hear the audio version of the Prologue to this mystery, please visit my website and for a sampling of the text, drop in at Book Daily.

How do you get inspiration?

I realise many authors consciously select the settings for their work. In my case, since the majority of my academic life and many of my professional activities have taken place in Hawai`i, there was no question of where I would centre my mystery series. Additionally, part of the inspiration for the first book came from an unusual dream I had that occurred in the type and location of the apartment building I have used for Natalie Seachrist’s exploration of her grandniece’s death. As to inspiration in general, I find it everywhere—visits with friends and strangers; books, television, movies, the Internet; on shopping trips; in obituaries, as well as news stories. Whenever I have an idea for an article, blog, book, etc., I open a file and input my ideas. I then date and name it and place it in an appropriate folder.



What’s your writing process?

Accompanied by Miss Satin (a lovely black and white cat), much of my writing is simply done at my computer - morning, noon, or night - overlooking a sago palm and a paloverde tree in my bricked courtyard. Often my best writing occurs late at night, seated in a recliner while applying my pen to the backside of old printouts. Concurrently, I may be watching whodunit television shows which provide exotic details of mayhem, death, and autopsies. In terms of the elements of my writing, I usually write my blogs and book chapters consecutively. While I work from a rough outline, I must confess that most of my work is simply written as I feel inspired. Nevertheless, there are a few organisational techniques and materials I employ.

  • I keep comprehensive folders of each book’s research. If the potential for reusing the material is limited, it remains in that book’s general folder. But, since much of the information on Hawai`i is likely to prove useful in the future, it may be moved to a Natalie Seachrist series research folder.
  • Once I have written a chapter, I use a spreadsheet program to record details of time frame, characters, and the main points of action.
  • I write chapter summaries, sometimes right after completing the writing. But more often, when I’m shifting material from one chapter to another due to errors I’ve caught, or to harmonise the length of them. This is the basis for writing an extensive book summary, and subsequently shorter summaries that will be used in numerous ways.
  • I keep a file with images and descriptions of elements I wish to see included in each book’s cover art and audio CDs. It’s interesting to compare early ideas with the final art.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

For me, the most difficult aspect of writing is filtering, prioritising and addressing feedback from colleagues and proof readers. The key is to contemplate the taste of my target market of well-educated, history and multi-culture loving readers who enjoy an unfolding cast of characters, unusual food, and detailed description. In short, I have to consider whether the feedback I receive is pertinent to the international audience I am seeking. Sometimes how a person expresses their response to a work in progress is not as important as the individual kernels of the content of their remarks. For instance, because some readers are not interested in menus, I am going to use my website as a place for readers to find recipes, rather than embed them in the books. And, knowing that readers may or may not wish to explore the specialised and non-English vocabulary I use, I have placed a short description for pronouncing Hawaiian words, as well as a detailed glossary, at the back of each book.

What do you love most about writing?

Writing allows me to weave snippets from my own life experiences into aspects of the many chapters of my education…hopefully yielding stories that may delight, haunt, or inspire a readership that may not otherwise partake of them.

Which authors inspire you?

I have no single favourite book. I am fond of: the melodious sonnets of Shakespeare; the deviousness of Agatha Christie; the complexities of classics from James Lee Burcke, Richard North Patterson, Scott Turow, and Irving Wallace; newer works by historically-oriented authors like Sarah R. Shaber; the inspirational thoughts of Maya Angelou and Wayne Dyer; and, of course, the surprising work of members of my writers’ salon.

Image: Jeanne Burrows-Johnson
Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?

Study and write unceasingly. Many people do not realise they can audit continuing education and college courses, which means that they don’t have the pressure of fulfilling course requirements for credit. As to the writing…YOU CAN ALWAYS HIRE AN EDITOR! WHAT YOU MUST DO IS TO CAPTURE YOUR CREATIVE THOUGHTS AS THEY ARISE! In short, don’t let your ideas go unrecorded. That means keeping a notebook near you whenever possible, including on your bedside table. When you reach a point of non-inspiration, turn your attention to the nuts and bolts of your projects and your future as an author. Consider writing a summary of each project in advance of completing it. Have you written descriptions of each character and the physical elements of each scene? And what about you? Do you have a strong bio and resume? Have you considered how you will structure your author’s website? Finally, what about those hardcopy and electronic files and folders that may have confusing names and overlapping contents? Putting a date in their names can alleviate the stress of the sorting and disposing process! 

What are your ambitions for your writing career?

I would be very pleased to see the next three Natalie Seachrist Novels published as a trilogy. And, of course, it would be lovely to find my protagonist’s adventures presented in movies for the small if not the large screen.

If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you’d be doing?

I’ve been a writer for decades, but usually my work has focused on polishing the work of others and structuring promotional materials for executives and their profit and non-profit organisations. If I weren’t creating my own works, I’d be exploring the ever-expanding shelves of others’ publications.

What are you currently working on?

I’m nearing the seventy-five percent mark in Yen For Murder. For the most part, I’ve completed researching Japanese Buddhist sects and the offerings and operations of international auction houses. I’m now steering Natalie, Keoni, Miss Una and HPD Lieutenant John Dias and other expanded characters through the final phases of determining who murdered a Buddhist priestess while stealing a priceless golden statue of the Buddha from a temple in the hills of Honolulu.

Do you prefer e-books or traditional books?

Definitely traditional books—preferably hardcover, with margins wide enough to facilitate comfortable reading.

Do you prefer self-publishing or traditional publishing?

Having worked with both methods of bringing fiction and non-fiction to the public, I remain neutral on this issue. Would I like to work with a large publishing house? Yes, most definitely! But I am competing in a publishing world crowded with unsophisticated writers and publishers focused on their bottom line financially. Success, now more than ever before, rests on sheer luck…

What are you reading at the moment?

Recently I’ve been perusing books I’ve won in drawings at meetings of Arizona Mystery Writers and the Tucson chapter of Sisters in Crime. As usual, most fall into the categories of police procedurals and thrillers, which I don’t find so thrilling. But I’ve just started John Connolly’s The Lovers, and am enjoying the elegance of his use of language and the flow of his character studies.

Where can my readers go to find out more about you and your work?

I invite those seeking more information about my work and the Natalie Seachrist mysteries to visit my author website. Prospect for Murder is available to buy now.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below!

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