This Wednesday, we're joined by debut author Melissa Lenhardt, who's telling us about her new mystery novel, Stillwater.
Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed at Operation Awesome! Your bio on Goodreads mentions that you did not want to be a writer when you were a kid! So what was your dream job?
Honestly, I never had a childhood dream job. I went to college a complete blank slate, got a degree in an industry I hated once I started working in it, and ended up a stay-at-home mom. Writing isn’t my second career, it’s my first.
STILLWATER is a mystery with a former FBI agent-turned-police officer as the protagonist. What kind of research went into writing a character with that background?
There’s a reason Jack is an ex-FBI agent; when I started writing the book, or this version (more on that later), I didn’t have a FBI agent contact to interview about their job. So, I spoke to local police officers about small town policing, read books about police procedures and took a Citizen’s Police Academy class through my local PD, which gave me more contacts. I have a friend in my Writer’s Workshop who’s a retired Secret Service Agent so he gives me general Fed information, such as no way in hell would Jack drink a latte. You know, the important stuff.
Tell us about the fictional town of Stillwater. Were there any towns you had in mind while developing your setting for this story?
I grew up in a small East Texas town so of course everyone will think Stillwater is based on it. It is, to a degree. But, it could also be based on the suburban neighborhood I live in now, which is close-knit and like a small town in many ways.
In the first draft, I had a lot of information about the town. I wanted to make the town a major character and I thought the way to do that was to load the MS down with history and detail. Trouble was, it was boring. I cut almost all of it. Over time, the reader will learn more about the town, but I can tell you Stillwater has a major inferiority complex and competitiveness with Yourkeville, the county seat. No matter how hard the town tries, it just can’t match the success and prosperity of Yourkeville and it chafes the Stillwaterites to no end.
Let's talk about your writing process. How long did it take you to draft this novel? How long from that first draft until publication?
I was looking through some old files on my computer and came across what I think is the first mention of Stillwater, the town, in another story outline. From 2003! I couldn’t believe it was twelve years ago, but that sounds about right. This particular story started as a retelling of Jane Austen’s PERSUASION, with Ellie being the main character. Unfortunately, I never could get the story to work because I wasn’t a good enough writer. I abandoned the PERSUASION plot and changed it to a mystery during NaNoWriMo one year. Of course, I set it aside, unfinished. I came back to it in 2012, after I tried to query my historical fiction without success, thinking a mystery would be more marketable. It changed considerably during that edit. I pitched it to my agent in May 2013, signed with her in July, and the book sold to Skyhorse in July 2014.
Can you tell us about how you got your book deal with Skyhorse and what makes them a good fit for your book?
STILLWATER is a little different from your “typical” mystery. It was gritty but not dark enough to be noir. It’s not a straight crime novel or police procedural. Sex, profanity, grit and multiple POV kept it from being cozy. One publisher liked it but had tried a mystery with a romantic element that didn’t do well so they passed. So much for it being more marketable! Skyhorse publishes all different genres so they aren’t constrained by making sure the mystery “fit their list.” My editor liked it, and they took a chance on it.
What about the title? Was STILLWATER the original title you had in mind? How did it come about?
I’m terrible at titles and, when in doubt, I name it after a location in the book. With STILLWATER it worked because the title brings to mind the saying, “still waters run deep” which I adapted into a tagline to fit the theme of the book: “Big secrets run deep.”
Your cover definitely evokes a feeling of disorientation, things not being quite right. How does the cover line up with what you envisioned for it? How much say did you have in it?
Ha! Covers! I have lots of cover ideas. Most authors do and we rarely get what we want, so it was surprising when my editor asked for my input from the beginning. I scoured the internet for photos, created a Pintrest mood wall, filled a lightbox with every photo I could find for the different ideas I had. The photo on the cover was one I sent her with the comment, “Stillwater is more dilapidated than this, but this is the ballpark.” I was also adamant that I didn’t want water on the cover. How pedestrian would it be to have a cover of still water on the STILLWATER cover? So, when she sent me the cover I was shocked and very happy. They managed to evoke water with the bright blue sky without having water on the cover. They were also able to show how the town isn’t quite what it seems with the upside down photo. We didn’t change a thing.
Tell us about your book launch! What, where, when, and how do you plan on celebrating?
I’m having two! Why? Because I love parties! We’re having one in the suburb where I live at a small bar downtown on October 3. I hope that little bar bursts at the seams from all the people we cram inside it! A few weeks later, I’m having a launch in my hometown at the local Arts Center.
It was recently announced on Publishers Marketplace that Skyhorse has picked up the second Jack McBride mystery — congrats! What's in store for our hero next?
Poor Jack. He thought he was taking an easy job and the bodies just keep piling up. He personal life is in shambles and his twin brother, Eddie, is in town and making his life difficult. Ellie is running for a vacant city council seat and Miner’s trying to redeem himself.
You also have a historical mystery coming in spring from Redhook called SAWBONES. Can you tell us a little bit about that? Which was written first — STILLWATER or SAWBONES? What are you working on next?
This is my chicken and the egg question. I honestly don’t know which one I started first, but I can tell you I finished SAWBONES first. It was the first MS I finished. SAWBONES’s one line is “Outlander meets the American West.” I love this book so much. SO MUCH. Right now, I’m editing the sequel and will start writing the third in the series as soon as I’m done.
Is there any other advice you'd like to pass on to others pursuing publication? Anything you would have done differently?
Two pieces of advice: learn to finish and learn to move on. Finishing isn’t just writing THE END, it’s editing, sending the MS off to beta readers, more editing and revising and polishing. When you send queries off for your polished MS, start working on the next project. You won’t grow as a writer by reworking the same project over and over.
And, just for fun! Which other small-town law enforcement agent do you think your protagonist Jack McBride would most like to sit down and have some coffee and donuts with: Andy Taylor (from The Andy Griffith Show), Rick Grimes (from The Walking Dead), Cordell Walker (from Walker, Texas Ranger), or Nicholas Angel (from Hot Fuzz)?
Rick Grimes, for sure. Jack would probably take him aside and tell him to take a damn shower, put on some clean clothes, and shave his beard.
Thank you so much for your participation in this Wednesday Debut Interview!