M.K. Graff is the author of the Trudy Genova Manhattan Mystery series, the award-winning Nora Tierney English Mysteries and is managing editor of Bridle Path Press.
I just finished reading Death at the Dakota , the second in the series featuring nurse and amateur sleuth Trudy Genova, and had to seize the opportunity to ask Ms. Graff some questions about her writing process.
As I was reading Death at the Dakota, I was impressed by your depiction of the details of crime scene investigation, forensics and pathology. How did you research the police procedural aspects of your novel?
M.K. Graff: I have research people I refer to for each category who check my details, whether it’s in the NYPD or other areas. For my English mysteries, I have a contact there who is a retired detective who answers my questions, as their job titles and system are a little different from ours. It does help that our one son was a police officer for a few years, too.
As for the other areas, I was a nurse for thirty years, so most of the medical things I know, and I did Trudy’s job for years for a New York movie studio, so that’s built in. But I always fact check. For Byron, for example, a New York City Medical Examiner answered my questions. For the burn victim scene, I was referred to an expert fire examiner in New Hampshire. I want those details to be as accurate as possible, and feel it adds to the sense of reality. Even Trudy’s apartment is based on one a friend used to own that I visited often. In my Acknowledgements I usually mention what’s fictional, in Dakota, even the layout of the apartment where the movie is being filmed is based on the one once owned by Leonard Bernstein and I reproduce the layout in the front of the book. Of course, in reality, The Dakota doesn’t allow filming in their interior, but in Trudy’s world they do!
In Death at the Dakota, you refer to Wilkie Collins and Sherlock Holmes, amongst others. In what ways has classic crime fiction inspired your writing?
MKG: Heavily. Both of those, along with the Golden Agers like Christie, Sayers, Marsh and Tey were a huge influence on my decision to write mysteries. They were the books I found myself reading all through school, studying, learning from, and on occasion, re-reading even now. I studied Collins and Daphne DuMaurier at Oxford, too. I think the idea of justice prevailing at the end, the puzzle solved, is something I enjoy and feel most readers of mysteries do, too. It’s restoring a sense of order that just feels right to me. I’m also interested in exploring what would push a seemingly everyday person to cross that fine line and feel it’s reasonable to commit murder. In six mysteries, and the seventh I’m writing now, only one has a psychopath in it (The Golden Hour/Nora Tierney English Mysteries).
Trudy Genova is taking night courses at the university to learn mystery writing. How important is it, do you think, for an aspiring writer to take classes in creative writing?
MKG: I think it’s very helpful to a writer to feel they have a background that includes some kind of study in the area they want to focus on. It can only add to their self-confidence, and there’s something to learn from listening to other’s writing attempts, too. There are conventions for each genre that fit the expectations of any reader after choosing that genre, and it’s important to know those up front. Someone wanting to read a mystery, for instance, expects the puzzle solved and resolution at the end. Someone reading romantic suspense looks for a happy ending with for protagonist with a future lover. Taking any kind of general creative writing class can only add to whatever natural talent a person has, as long as the teacher does not follow a proscribed form they insist a writer follow. That sounds like I just said two opposite things, but I’m talking about learning about your specific genre versus having someone tell you what to write.
Having said that, if you are an aspiring writer who can’t find a class nearby, there are two things you can do instead of taking a formal class, and for most writers, this is in addition to a class:
You must be a reader. Read everything you can, in all forms, in and out of your genre. Find out what you like and WHY. Find out what works and what doesn’t. Read classics, too. They are classics we continue to read for their sense of story, even if you find the language a bit antiquated. A good story is a good story, the thrust of every writer.
Find a writing community to be a part of, whether it’s one person you exchange pages with every two weeks over coffee, or a more formal writing critique group. Getting feedback from someone else who is a reader and a writer is enormously helpful. It also gives you the feeling your writing is being taken seriously, and helps you treat yourself as a writer by setting goals and deadlines.
Trudy Genova is a nurse and is working as a medical consultant for a television studio. Why did you choose nursing as your amateur sleuth’s day job? Are there specific qualities that the nursing profession requires that are also an asset in Trudy’s detective work?
MKG: Ah, that’s a great question. My English series came first, and that protagonist, Nora Tierney, is an American journalist who lives in England and now writes children’s books. I chose nursing for Trudy because she does my favorite real nursing job from when I was transitioning from nursing to full time writer, and worked as medical consultant for a movie studio. When studying in Oxford one summer, the magazine I wrote interview articles for at the time, Mystery Review, sent me down to London to interview PD James, my idol in contemporary crime. She became a mentor and friend of mine until her death, and was the one who suggested that when I was ready to start a second series, readers would enjoy a behind-the-scenes look at a profession few knew even existed. She said it was a natural fit and she’s been right. Trudy’s voice is in first person because she feels very authentic to me, and as I started writing the first book, Death Unscripted, I realized that many of a nurse’s instinctual habits made for a good sleuth. Nurses need to be organized and to think outside the box. They need to assemble information and keep track of smaller threads. Death Unscripted is dedicated to James for her inspiration.
If you could give just one piece of advice to writers, about the publishing process, what would it be?
MKG: With the stigma of self-publishing removed in our modern world, today’s writer has many more options to publish. There is still the traditional method of obtaining an agent and hoping one of the big houses (who have become huge conglomerates) will pick up your work. The numbers in terms of books written and contracts signed is miserly. It really is a small percentage of writers who are picked up in the traditional manner. if you are young and have the time and inclination to work through that process, so be it. But looking beyond that route, there is self-publishing on many levels. One that is becoming more and more attractive to writers is a curated indie press, where a board of editors accept your work, perhaps provide editing assistance, guide you through the printing process, but the author pays the bulk of her expenses and therefore, keeps the bulk of her royalties. There is also plain self-publishing where you go through a program such as CreateSpace to produce a book.
This is the method I chose after having a very good NY agent who couldn’t sell my books over a period of years. I kept writing them, and finally brought them out through an author’s cooperative, the kind of curated indie press I mentioned. So while I do have expenses up front, they are usually quickly paid off and the bulk of my royalties are mine to keep, as is the intellectual property I’ve created. Additionally, this means in practical terms that the author retains creative control down to cover art and layout. As an example: when an author signs with a big house, unless they are a household name already,or one of the few in the small percentage to ‘hit it big’ you as the writer received a very small percentage of what your work earns; you pay 15% of that to your agent; you do not have creative control over the cover art or layout, etc. And your royalties only start after your advance is paid off, and at that percentage, it takes a blockbuster hit to make true money.
When I sell a book on Amazon for $12, I only receive $5.40 as they take their cut—and you must be on Amazon to reach audiences. But if I sell a book to anyone through the Bridle Path Press site; at a signing or an author event I go to; at a conference or other—I receive that entire $12. I pay myself back far quicker and start earning money on my books sooner. For me, sharing my stories is where it’s at, not the money that I make. Still, it’s a consideration long term when you are making a decision about how to bring your story out. There are Kindle copies and Audible avenues, too, for that one book to add to the dollars.
We haven’t even talked about publicity and marketing, which most big houses have tiny budgets for these days. Most authors will have to invest their own time into their careers to further their books to reach audiences, no matter which avenue to publishing they choose. Still, there is nothing like the feeling to holding a newly published book in your hand and seeing your name on the cover, knowing it’s your creation!
Thank you for sharing your insights! If you’re curious to find out more about Death at the Dakota, you can read my review HERE.
About Vanessa Westermann
Vanessa is a Canadian crime writer. She is the author of Cover Art and other books. At the heart of all of her stories are strong female protagonists.