I’d like to welcome Betty Webb, author of the Lena Jones mystery series and the Gunn Zoo mystery series. Betty, thank you for being my first guest author! I appreciate the time you’ve taken to answer my questions and the amount of detail you’ve provided in your responses.
1. Your novels bring serious human rights issues to the forefront. Based on the details in the novels, it appears that it could take as long to do the research as it would to complete the first draft. The bibliographies are lengthy. How much time is involved to get the details accurate?
ANSWER: It takes me approximately 14 months to write a Lena Jones “Desert” book, but sometimes three years to research; such as in “Desert Wives: Polygamy Can Be Murder.” In fact, the research always takes longer than the actual writing, because it can mean several trips to the site. For “Desert Wives,” I visited an Arizona polygamy compound several times, and for “Desert Wind,” I visited Snow Canyon, Utah, where the real-life action in the book took place. For the Lena Jones books, accuracy is of utmost importance, and I don’t leave anything to chance. As for the length of the bibliographies, I list only around one-tenth of the books, articles, and reports that I wade through, so the printed bibliography is only the tip of the iceberg.
2. I imagine that your journalism background is helpful in your research. Because of this background, did you already have knowledge of these issues and the depth of some of these atrocities?
ANSWER: Yes, in every case I already knew about the issues, but always learned much, much more during my research.
3. You have two series (Lena Jones and Gunn Zoo). You also teach creative writing, volunteer at the zoo, and belong to several writing related organizations. How do you find the time to write two series?
ANSWER:I get up around 4 or 5 each morning, and I watch very little TV. Most of my life revolves around writing. Yes, I’d love to watch more TV — I’m not one of those anti-TV snobs — and I’d love to bum around more with my friends, but writing as many books as I do requires tough decisions about how I spend my time.
4. What advice can you give new novel writers who’ve chosen to write in the mystery genre?
ANSWER: I’ve learned from teaching creative writing that too many beginning writers aren’t reading contemporary work, and by that, I mean books published within the last three years. Because of that, they are totally unaware of the major changes that have happened in the mystery genre. Their manuscripts have a dull and “dated” feel, thus insuring an avalanche of rejection slips. When I ask these students why they’re not reading contemporary work, they usually say because they “don’t like” the new books, and prefer books like Agatha Christies used to write. To that I answer, “Never try to write in a genre you don’t like.” Here’s another way to look at it: would you go to a doctor who hasn’t learned anything new about medicine in 40 years? Another problem I sometimes find with beginners is that they don’t devote enough time to their writing; they only write when they feel “inspired.” Well, if I only wrote when I felt “inspired,” I probably wouldn’t have finished my first novel yet (and I’ve written 12). One final problem, and this one is fairly new — too many beginning writers are “listening” to downloaded books or books on tape while they drive around, instead of actually READING books. Because of this, I’ve had wannabe writers show up in my classes whose punctuation skills are at grade school level, if that, and who really don’t seem to understand what a paragraph is. As an example, one of my students actually handed in a 20-page short story that had NO paragraphs — it was just one long, unreadable block of unbroken type. And no, she wasn’t being “experimental”; she truly didn’t know what the problem was. When I asked her if she actually read books, she told me she only “listened to them.” That student, and others like her, has no future as a writer.
5. Do you have plans to begin a third series?
ANSWER: Yes, I’m researching it now, and will probably begin the first book in that series in around 4 years. But as far as the protagonist and the setting, I’m keeping it secret.
6. A reader on the Poisoned Pen Press website asked you if Lena will ever find out her identity and you indicated she’ll find out everything in book 10. I’m currently reading book 7 and don’t see anything on the site beyond that. How far in advance do you plan your books? When will the next book be released?
ANSWER: Yes, Lena will eventually find out her identity; in fact, I give hints in each of the books. There was a big one in “Desert Wind.” As for the planning process, my books are planned several years in advance, because of the research required. I’m now writing “Desert Regret,” the 8th Lena Jones book, which will probably come out early next year. And I have outlined the 9th and the 10th Lena books, and have been researching the last book for 4 years now. In between, of course, I’ll be writing another two zoo mysteries, such as “The Puffin of Death” (set in Iceland, where I recently spent two weeks; the research was all kinds of fun on that one!) and “The Otter of Death” (the idea for this one was given to my by one of the brilliant marine biology scientists who works at a big research center near Monterey Bay).
7. Is there anything you’d like to tell us that I haven’t touched upon?
ANSWER: Anyone wanting to be a writer should read (that’s READ, not “listen to”) at least 50 books a year — I read two or three books a week, sometimes more. And anyone wanting to be a writer should write a minimum of two hours every day, preferably four. Writing isn’t just a creative outlet, it’s a job, just like engineering or accounting. The more you do it, the better you get. There are no exceptions to this, no short cuts. Writing novels is long, sustained, continuous WORK.