First of all, how are you doing these days? The world’s gone to hell the last year and a half, what are you doing to maintain a healthy state of mind?
Even before the chaotic mess of 2020 and 2021, I’ve always maintained my sanity through writing fiction. Fiction is the only place where I can create and control the experiences, outcomes, and people in that world. I like to think of it as fix-tion because I can fix and punish injustices on the page that I certainly couldn’t fix in the real world. As a mystery writer, I explore the dark side of human nature. I do so not to glorify the grim, but to better understand it and use it to navigate my way through both the fictional and real worlds.
(Shameless Plug Alert #1) – In my upcoming novel, On the Queso: The Roquefort Files, which is the first book in my comedy/mystery series, the protagonist Colby Meadows explains: “As a true-crime writer, I have been conditioned to document the horrible side of human nature after the fact. It’s a soul-wrenching struggle to compartmentalize the horrors that human beings exact on one another and still have faith that the world is a just place. The only reason to endure the emotional torture is to seek the validation that goodness and fairness far outshine evil.”
Also, when I’m writing fiction, I remember who I am – my strengths, weaknesses, what brings me joy, what terrifies me, and what I can do to write a ripping good yarn that inspires, entertains, and encourages readers to remember who they are, too.
When writing a short story, novella, or novel, what are some things you think you have to achieve to write something that will stand the test of time?
For me, reader satisfaction is most important. As a life-long, avid reader, I’ve come to understand what, for me anyway, constitutes a satisfying read. Therefore, I try to incorporate into my writing the elements that I’ve identified as a reader as satisfying. These elements include an attention to detail, consistency in tone (which sets expectations), a unique voice, clever crafting (in wording, character, plot, and story), and author integrity. Authors convey integrity when they treat the reader as a peer, not an inferior, and when they only share their work when it is polished and absolutely ready for the reader. Fiction that reads like a first draft, with sub-par characters who fail to engage my attention and half-baked, rushed endings that seek to lamely tie up the raggedly constructed plot points, disappoints. It is an insult to readers to waste their time. It’s the difference between throwing a lavish party with generous amounts of food and beverages tailored to your guests needs as opposed to tossing a bag of busted chips into a bowl, topping them with canned cheese, passing around a half-empty bottle of hooch, and calling it a celebration. If you’re going to write fiction that satisfies, it’s just like throwing a great party; you’ve got to respect the readers/guests enough to put in the effort to make it spectacular and enjoyable.
Who are some contemporary writers every writer today should be reading (and why)?
My favorite genre is mystery so I will share what’s been important to me as a reader and a writer. I have adored Donald E. Westlake, and his dark half Richard Stark, for decades. I admire the quirky characters, snappy dialogue, and excellent plotting of Donald E. Westlake’s novels. On the other hand, I enjoy Richard Stark’s novels for their dark, gritty characters, and treacherous plot twists that represent the twisted characters ensnared in them. It is inspiring how one author can write brilliant fiction in two very distinct worlds.
Sue Grafton’s alphabet series inspired me to write mysteries, so of course I would recommend her work to anyone who is a fan of mysteries. When she spoke at a writer’s conference a few years ago, I learned that she started writing the alphabet series after a limp career in Hollywood where she was told, “You can’t plot.” To prove them wrong, she went out and plotted her way through twenty-five books that continue to entertain millions of readers. I, too, did some time in Hollywood hell and decided to turn from screenwriting to fiction writing. Interestingly, the techniques that I learned in screenwriting translate beautifully into more cinematic fiction writing.
Here’s one that might surprise you: Stephen J. Cannell. His work in television and novels displays his extraordinary talent for crafting characters, dialogue, and plots. Cannell’s work on The Rockford Files, which is a timeless show, inspired me to write my series of comedy/mystery novels. (Shameless Plug Alert #2) – Colby Meadow, the protagonist in my On the Queso series, learned a lot about people and crimes from watching that show. Stephen J. Cannell’s more recent TV series is Castle, which features Richard Castle as the novel-writing, cop ride-along, protagonist. Cannell cleverly wrote a series of novels, spun off from the TV series, under the pen name Richard Castle that featured protagonist Nikki Heat, the cop character from the TV series. On the jacket of the premiere book in the series, Heat Wave, Stephen J. Cannell hilariously writes a recommendation for Castle’s (his) book. It reads in part, “This book is gold. Couldn’t put it down! I’m getting jealous.” This, to me, embodies the spirit and cleverness that permeate Cannell’s work on screen and in print.
If you had to make a list of the three most important rules when it comes to writing, what would those rules be (and why)?
These three principles are important to me:
1. Integrity: Polish It Until It Glows – Respect your audience by presenting your best work. They will, in turn, respect you back by reading and recommending your current and future works.
2. Write What You Want to Read – Sure, everyone has heard that before, but if you try to write some lofty tome that you lose interest in on page five hundred of a one-thousand-page stream-of-consciousness spew, you’ll never finish it and no one will ever read it. On the other hand, if you write something that you’re engaged with, which is inspired by works that have inspired you, chances are your readers will engage with your work, too.
3. Be Original, Yet Familiar – This means, write within the standards and expectations of your genre, but with a unique twist. If you’re writing a mystery, readers will expect that there is actually a mystery that the protagonist will successfully solve by the end. The originality, and most of the fun, comes from determining all the delicious details: who got whacked, how, why, what dangers or risks come from the protagonist’s mission to solve the murder, and in what ways will she be changed through this mission? If she finds true love, or just a missing sock in the back of the dryer, along the way, that’s another bonus.
It’s been said print media is dead. What is your response to those who claim audiences in the future will have no need for books, short stories, etc. (i.e., visual media will take over all modes of storytelling)?
My response to those who suggest that will get me into trouble with the censors, so I’ll just politely respond that I believe that the printed word is here to stay.
Who is an historical figure you’d like to sit down and have a drink and conversation with (and why?)?
If I might change that from historical to deceased, I would love to converse over vodka martinis with my three favorite authors: Donald E. Westlake, Sue Grafton, and Stephen J. Cannell. I would love to hear the stories that they didn’t have time on this planet to write.
What can we expect from you in the near future?
(Shameless Plug Alert #3) – In case you missed the previous shameless plugs, I am launching the On The Queso comedy/mystery series featuring our cheese-loving protagonist Colby Meadows. Titles in the series include: The Roquefort Files, Feta Attraction, Swiss You Were Here, Risking Life and Limburger, etc. If you’re feeling adventurous (or hungry), go to OnTheQueso.com.
If you’re on Instagram, find TheCheeseChick. I’m usually in the deli section inspecting the Brie.
Despite her efforts to leave behind the small town she grew up in, Melody Reams continues to populate her screenplays, short stories, and novels with quirky, homegrown characters and robust rural culture. The landscape of her writing career spans from Illinois to California and features carnivals, serial killers, and the occasional albino squirrel. If you were to look carefully at the page, or under a rock, you are bound to unearth a rich world of weirdness, or at least a very good case for intensive psychotherapy. Visit OnTheQueso.com to journey through Melody’s new comedy/mystery book series featuring amateur sleuth Colby Meadows and her cheese loving family.