A native of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Marta Stephens now lives in Indiana. She's the author of the crime/mystery novels Silenced Cry and The Devil Can Wait, featuring kick-ass detective Sam Harper and published by Bewrite Books. In this interview, Marta talks about her books, writing mysteries, research and her character, Sam Spade.
Thanks for being here today, Marta. Tell us, what got you into writing mysteries?
I’ve loved mysteries and suspense novels since a very early age, so to be honest, I think the genre chose me. Although my writing has been described as hardboiled police procedural that leans toward noir, I grew up loving the cozies of Agatha Christie and the suspense of Alfred Hitchcock. I believe my style has also been influenced as much by film and characters like Sam Spade and Phillip Morrow. I love following the clues and finding the guilty so when I decided to write fiction, genre was never in question.
Your novel, Silenced Cry, has many characters as well as twists and turns. Did you do an outline before writing the book? How long did it take you to write it?
Silenced Cry was originally written as a novella in 2005 and expanded into a novel a year later. It was published by BeWrite Books (UK) in April 2007. As with my second novel, The Devil Can Wait, it has several subplots which needed to be carefully braided together throughout the book. Developing multiple subplots requires a great deal of planning. I begin by writing a brief synopsis of the story line. Just as in real life, the characters have their own motivation governing their thoughts and actions. Those desires can be triggered by any number of reasons and in order for me to understand each character’s purpose or interest in the crime, I write back stories for each of them. It’s only after I understand what drives the characters that I’m able to develop the plot, plant clues, and point Sam Harper onto the crime-solving path.
How do you work? Describe your writing environment and creative process.
Ideas for books come from everyday situations. It’s just a matter of taking and ordinary situation and asking “what if?” What if the next door neighbor hasn’t been seen tending to her roses for a week? What if a normally honest bank teller suddenly finds herself in a financial bind? What crime could possibly be committed in either of these situations? Once I decide on the crime, I develop the characters and then work backwards. As for my writing environment, I have a home office which is where I do all my writing, reading, research, etc. I carry a small notebook to jot down notes, but the serious writing gets done at my desk on my PC.
I found the novel to be very well researched. Did you have help from police officers or did you find all you needed online?
I’m in contact with several police detectives and forensics specialists, but I do a great deal of research on the subject matter first via the Internet and other resources. After reading several sources, I’ll touch base with the professional in the field, write the scene and then check with them again to ensure the accuracy of the information as I’ve written it. Every detail, no matter how insignificant it may seem, needs to be thoroughly examined in order to make the scene(s) believable.
Why did you choose a male protagonist vs. a female one? Is it easy getting inside the mind of a man?
There is a notable difference in the way men and women communicate, so it did take time to learn to write in a male voice. It took even longer to understand the male thought process. I’m sure this is true for any author who writes in the voice of the opposite gender. But I’ve been writing Sam Harper and getting into his head for so long now that his voice is almost second nature to me. Ironically though, when I began to write the series, I had intended for a female character to be the protagonist (the victim in one of the books). I quickly realized the story wasn’t going anywhere and that hers wasn’t the best point of view for this type of book. When I decided to develop homicide detective Sam Harper into the protagonist, the book took off.
Tell us a bit about Detective Sam Harper and what was your inspiration for this character?
Harper is in his early 30s, educated, and is a life-long resident of Chandler, Massachusetts (a fictitious city along the U.S. eastern shoreline north of Boston). His father is a retired homicide detective, his mother was the victim of a hit and run accident. Harper’s younger brother, Paul, never forgave Harper or their father for not finding their mother’s killer so the relationship between brothers is strained. One reviewer described Sam Harper as, “… a well-realized, no-nonsense cop, a streetwise guy who refuses to give up despite the odds … He is the original it ain't over guy.” Harper never takes no for an answer. He can be as cynical as he can be compassionate. He pushes until every bit of evidence has been flipped on its side and checked as many times as it takes to satisfy his gut instinct. He has his flaws—gets hurt, but is hard to keep down. At times, frustration paves the way for anger to obstruct his better judgment, but his sense of justice and love of the badge always reel him in. He’s definitely the guy to root for.
He keeps his own blog, doesn't he? What does he blog about?
Yes, Harper insisted on having his own blog. I told him it would be too time-consuming for him to fight crime and blog at the same time, but he won the argument. Thus far, he’s written some short reports (stories) about some of his cases, posted headline news (reviews), and shared a transcript of a phone conversation he had with another author’s protagonist. Harper likes to keep up with his readers as much as possible too. Right now he’s busy working on an important case that he hopes to blog about soon.
You have two Sam Harper novels out. Are you working on a third?
Yes, the working title for this third book is “Grave Witness.” This story also began life as a novella. It was the shortest of the three so a great deal of work has gone into creating the complex subplots my readers now expect from my writing. I hope to have this novel ready for a 2010 release. A fourth book in the series is also in its first draft.
Have you considered writing outside the mystery genre?
Never say never, but at this point, I’m happy writing mysteries. Once in while, I feel there might be a romance novel waiting to be written, but I’m sure it would end up a romantic suspense with a smoking gun and a few bodies sprinkled around for effect.
Anything else you'd like to say to our readers?
Completing my first novel gave me a true sense of accomplishment. There’s nothing like getting a spark of an idea – no more than a three-second scene that flashed through my mind and then watched it grow into a complex storyline. I find that amazing, but the best part is the readers’ reactions to my work. I appreciate the glowing critical reviews, but the true reward for the months/years of work is when someone takes the time to buy one of my books, read it, and is moved enough to send me an e-mail or post a comment. Their reactions are priceless and I don’t think I’ll ever really get over the awe of it.
Mayra, thank you so much for taking the time to interview me and for giving me the chance to share a bit about my work with your readers.
You're welcome, Marta! Thanks for the interview!
Read my review of Silenced Cry.