Welcome to our September First Friday Breakfast with … me! Since I recently finished the Abishag quartet by publishing An Eggshell Present early September, I thought it would be fun to talk about the making of the Abishag mysteries over a croissant.
First a little bit about me: Although I worked as an engineer for many years on programs like the Space Shuttle or commercial satellite bandwidth and large military networks, I’ve known since I was six that I wanted to be a writer. I have graduate degrees in Engineering and English. While living part-time in upstate New York and later in Seattle, I wrote short stories and published them in traditional magazines and anthologies under my own name, Michelle Knowlden. I was privileged to work with terrific editors like Cathleen Jordan, Dr. Kim Mohan, and Linda Landrigan.
I very much enjoyed co-authoring with Neal Shusterman a YA X-Files novel based on a television episode featuring Tony Shaloub. More recently, we worked together on UnStrung, a novella set in his NY Times best-selling UNWIND series (published by Simon & Schuster).
In December 2013, I jumped into indie publishing and over the past ten months released five books: The Abishag Quartet (beginning with Sinking Ships) and Jack Fell Down, the first novella in a series about finding missing children.
My breakfast today?
This morning I’m enjoying a small croissant with orange marmalade, an egg poached-in-shell, and a salad topped with fresh peach, blueberries and banana then drizzled with lemon infused olive oil and sprinkled with pecans. I was up too late last night, so I treated myself to caffeinated blueberry coffee.
Why a mystery series about a college student marrying wealthy, comatose men?
My long-running series with Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine featured a hypochondriac detective bullied by her Aunt Helena into solving crimes. She brilliantly deducted the solution in every story, seemingly from thin air, while her aunt, cousin and others went off in other directions. I loved writing these stories from the viewpoint of someone wallowing in cholera or consumption and still observing the critical clues. My last story published by AHMM followed an older policeman who, while grieving his wife’s passing, still detects criminal behavior where others don’t.
In the Abishag series, I wanted to go in a different direction. Leslie Greene is peculiarly inept in understanding people but surrounded by those that are. She doesn’t have the skills to solve mysteries, but finds herself in situations where she must. For financial reasons, she contracts her first two husbands. Both come with complicated histories and dangerous secrets. She knows husbands three and four prior to the incidents that put them in hospice, and that changes her dynamic in caring for them.
Marrying these dying men presented an opportunity for a young detective and her clever college friends to uncover old secrets in interesting and dangerous settings.
The second story, Indelible Beats, while still connected to the first book and integral in continuing the larger story arc, is the one that stands more easily alone than the rest. It was a good opportunity to tell more about the side characters and delve into how the Abishag agency works. Leslie must pick her second comatose husband while keeping it secret from her difficult boyfriend. The scene where she goes through the files with the agency director was fun to write.
Why structure it into a quartet?
I’m sure there’s no statistics to back this up, but in long series, the fourth one is often my favorite. I decided to write four novellas in the Abishag series because I wanted to end strong. That meant Leslie’s emotional arc and maturation were spread over four books. In the first Abishag mystery, Sinking Ships, Leslie’s issues in dealing with people had to be shown but not leave the reader un-engaged with the character. She makes bad choices which could be frustrating to the reader, but I didn’t want to drive readers into throwing their Kindles out the window. Facing death not only draws on physical courage but also in being willing to lay down a life for another. In Indelible Beats, she dates a lawyer but re-connects with her first husband’s grandson. Her romantic life changes and alters over the next three books. In the third book, Riddle in Bones, she’s a summer intern and her boss becomes another Abishag contract. The fourth, final and longest book, An Eggshell Present, takes Leslie on a journey both heartbreaking and heart-healing. She and her friends have graduated, and begin to disperse from their university house. We see the future for many of the main and secondary characters introduced in the quartet. Her dreadful parents finally appear. Threads began in other books are resolved in the fourth.
While some say my mysteries are incidental to the characters, murder drives our cast to odd, analytical, and dangerous actions. The cases are also fearsomely complicated. Not only must Leslie trace a murder to a 50-year-old shipwreck in Sinking Ships, but she does a spot of forensic accounting to uncover a blackmail scheme. In Indelible Beats, she and her friends investigate attempted murder in a maze of adultery, drugs, and art forgery. I reverted to my love of physical anthropology in Riddle in Bones which also included French cuisine, academic politics, and more adultery. The mystery in An Eggshell Present included financial irregularities in a local campaign, an old mob hit, witness protection, and revenge.
Each of the books are set in Southern California locations. I lived in Palos Verdes for six years, and it was fun revisiting it in Sinking Ships and using a relic from my childhood, the sinking of the Greek Frigate Dominator, as a plot point. I spend much time San Diego and loved the idea of placing Leslie’s infamous artist husband in La Jolla, especially at Christmas time, in Indelible Beats. I often do a summer writing retreat in the Palm Springs area. Its heat, landscape, and rich history were key to Riddle in Bones. I was born in Santa Monica so it seemed somehow fitting to end the quartet there in An Eggshell Present.
My writing process for this series?
After co-writing UnStrung in 2012, I decided a quartet of reasonably priced novellas would be a fun collection. I started the project in an August 2012 Save the Cat novel workshop taught by author Jessica Brody (in Santa Monica!), and wrote a beat sheet for it. I generated beat sheets for the other three as well. The final books diverged only slightly from their original beat sheets.
Before publishing the series, I intended to write all four first and then release in one month increments. Ha! I did get deep enough into the fourth one to know how it would end before starting to publish the Abishags in December 2013.
I usually write a discovery draft, do several revisions, send a mature manuscript out to beta readers, do more revisions based on the comments, and publish. During the process, I also had the first two books professionally edited, hired a graphic artist to do the four covers and a formatter for Sinking Ships.
Discovery drafts were written in and out of NaNoWriMo venues.
The first book came out in December 2013 and the second in January. I completed their final revisions about the same time so the releases weren’t too far apart. In April, I published the third one. Administrative issues slowed me down some. It was a longer book. The last Abishag took more time to write and is considered by some in the industry a short novel rather than a novella. I’d also been writing the first novella in another mystery series that came together faster than Eggshell, so I decided to release Jack Fell Down in July, before An Eggshell Present. The final Abishag book was released last month.
What did I discover about indie publishing this series?
About the time I was nominated for a Shamus award, I considered quitting writing altogether. The highs of acceptance and lows of rejection (not to mention upheavals in the industry) can be wearing. Cathleen Jordan, editor of AHMM at the time, gave me a much-needed kick-in-the-pants.
While I had great experiences with traditional publishers and hope to continue to do so often, I also wanted to try indie publishing where stories could be released quicker, live longer, and where I could be more involved in other aspects of the process. Including pricing. All five novellas are currently at 99 cents or $1.99. Sinking Ships will be sold at 99 cents for part of December. In 2015, I’m considering leaving the first Abishag at 99 cents and raising the fourth and longest one to $2.99.
While I love doing more, I am more appreciative of traditional publishers after releasing five books! Fine-tuning a manuscript, formatting, envisioning a cover, making publication decisions, creating & executing a marketing plan, and tracking metrics can be both creative and onerous.
My next project?
I’m working full-bore to complete the novel, Olive Tomorrow: Shepherd’s Staff Mysteries Book One. It’s still a week or two away from going to beta readers. I’m estimating release day to be in November.
After publishing Jack Fell Down in July, I’ve had several queries when the next in the missing children series would be released. Good question. I’m still in the very early days, definitely embryonic, of developing the second story. I’m planning to write a discovery draft early next year.
I have a second Shepherd’s Staff mystery, Oyster Lover, in the works. Release of that may not be till 2016.
I’m currently writing the discovery draft of a sweet historical romance. I’d like to publish the first in another quartet, before April 2015. These books will probably be under a pen name.
Next month, I’ll be writing a draft of a YA dystopia novel, the first in a trilogy. I’ve not yet decided whether to indie publish it or seek a traditional publisher.
Besides getting back to a short story or two in 2015, I’m revising other manuscripts in various states of disrepair: Gri Rising–a quest fantasy novel, Roosters in Firelight–a modern romance along the lines of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, The Legend of Hero Constance–a space opera, and two middle grade readers–Rivers in Space and The Butterfly War. I’m hoping to release Gri Rising or The Legend of Hero Constance (or both!) in 2015.
Ambitious? Well sure! I work better spinning many plates.
Thank you for sharing your time with me, not only for this breakfast but for others as well. I sure appreciate you!
Here are a few links:
Sinking Ships: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00H8CLEHG
Indelible Beats: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00I3U9P4G
Riddle In Bones: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00JH9YY5M
An Eggshell Present: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00NH6HGYM
A MISSING CHILD NOVELLA
Jack Fell Down: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00LYNHVTU
Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/Michelle-Knowlden/e/B00H67CV9S/
Before you check out the Abishag books, anyone interested in a cup of blueberry coffee?