Friday, March 16, 2018

Interview with M. Louisa Locke

What is the title of your newest book? How many books have you published?
 My newest book in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series is a novella entitled Kathleen Catches a Killer. I have published five full-length novels, two novellas, and four short stories in this series, and I also have recently published four books in the Paradisi Chronicles science fiction series, including a novella I co-authored with my daughter.

How did you become interested in writing?
Like many future novelists, I was a voracious reader growing up, and as a freshman in high school, I wrote a paper about what I hoped would be my future career, writing historical fiction. Recently, I discovered and re-read this paper and was amused to see that the common theme of the three writers I interviewed was that I should not expect to support myself as a writer but should prepare to have a different career…in short--a day job. I suspect that is why, when I went off to college, I chose to major in history, not literature, with the intention of becoming a college history professor, which I did.

However, I never gave up my dream of writing historical fiction, so thirty years ago between teaching jobs, I wrote the first draft of what would become Maids of Misfortune, the first book in my Victorian San Francisco mystery series. My intention from the start was to take the research I had done for my history doctorate about late 19th century working women in the far west and turn it into a series of mysteries that would entertain while enlightening readers about these wonderful women. I worked on that first novel off and on during my career as a community college professor, and I finally published it when I hit the age of 60 and had cut back on my teaching load. Within two years, I was making enough money selling that book and Uneasy Spirits, the sequel, to retire completely and write full-time.

What is a day in the life of an author like? Do you write a certain number of words, do you write in the morning or evening, etc?
This varies considerably day by day, as well as depending on what stage I am at in the writing and publishing process. While I find that I tend to work seven days a week, fifty-two weeks of the year, because I am theoretically retired, I try to be very flexible with the number of hours of “work” I do each day. This is particularly true when I am in the research and plotting phase of a book (where I am now), or when I have just published a book and I am more involved with the marketing activities that go with launching that book. During the 4 months or so when I am writing the first draft of a book, I tend to be more focused on keeping my schedule free.

For example, this morning I will spend about three hours catching up on my emails with other authors, reading articles about the publishing industry, and doing marketing related-tasks like answering these questions. I also will take the time later in the day to create a book page on the Historical Fiction Authors Cooperative website that I help maintain.

I will devote most of the rest of this day to writing activities. The past few weeks I have been doing intensive research on the University of California Berkeley campus of 1881 (the setting for my next book), but today I will start creating mini-biographies for the new characters that will be introduced in this book, including both victims, villains, and red herrings.

Once I start the writing phase, I will try to put in at least four to six hours of writing—usually with the goal of writing at least 1000-1500 words. As the book progresses, I will put in more hours, with higher word count goals. I will stop at five for dinner, then put in an hour or so more of either marketing activities or writing, before I stop for good and watch tv with my husband.

However, many days the hours I have to devote to writing get interrupted. There are the inevitable chores and acupuncture appointments that seem necessary to keep an aging house and aging body in working order, and then several times a week I have a lunch or a telephone chat scheduled with friends and family. I even will play hooky from writing to go to an occasional movie matinee with my husband. All of this helps me keep a balanced life, so that I can continue to enjoy my second career for as long as possible.

Do you plot the entire book first, then write or plot as you go?
I am an outliner. It helps keep me from having to do too much rewriting. During the research phase, I will have sketched out the main elements of a mystery: What crimes are going to be committed, and who is responsible? Who are the other suspects? How are my main series characters going to be involved in solving these crimes (and what are their relationships to the victims, villains, and suspects?) And how is their involvement with solving the crimes going to change them? Then, I tend to outline the  book in chunks. I see my stories as having three acts, so I will do a scene-by-scene outline for the first act, then write up those chapters, then pause and do some editing of that first chunk, and then repeat the process with the second and third acts. I used to outline the whole book at the start, but I have learned that new twists and turns (and sometimes even new characters) will pop up in the actual writing, so I try to leave flexibility to insert these elements when outlining the next section.

Do you use real people and places as models for your books?
Absolutely. As a professional historian, I am reluctant to make a real historical person be a main actor in any of my stories, having them say or do things that I know they never said or did. However, I have given real life historical figures (like the pioneer California female lawyer, Clara Foltz) walk on parts in a couple of books. I do use real places all the time in my books (like the Cliff House Inn and Woodward’s Gardens) and the San Francisco department store that is featured in my book, Pilfered Promises, was based on the detailed description I found of Macy’s in the 1870s.

All my characters are modeled on the real men and women I discover doing my research. For example, I made Annie, my series protagonist, a part-time clairvoyant because this was the way that a number of real women (who advertised in the San Francisco Chronicle) made their living. And the murder victim in Deadly Proof, my book featuring women in the San Francisco printing trades, was modeled on a man who ran a printing house and was cited by the California state labor commission for his ill-treatment of his female employees.

In the book I am working on right now, my fictional characters will mingle with real professors and students I have learned about in my research, and the events, like the debates held by the student literary societies, the places, like the newly built gymnasium, and the problems they faced (what happens if you get “cinched” or in other words, fail a class) come right from the what I learned about U.C. Berkeley in the spring of 1881.

Who is your favorite author?
My favorite contemporary author is C. J. Cherryh, who does a lovely job of world building and character development. The two authors who inspired me to become a writer were Geogette Heyer, for her clean and thoroughly entertaining romances, and Dorothy Sayers’ Harriet Vane-Peter Whimsy mysteries, for showing me that mysteries could feature strong female protagonists, light romance, and tackle important issues like how to balance career and marriage.

How do you promote your books?
The easiest and most successful promotion tool I use is having the first book in my series be permanently free. I have found that a good proportion of those readers who are wiling to give Maids of Misfortune a chance as a free book are then willing to go on and buy the rest of the books in the series. I see this as very analogous to the way in which I used go to the library to find new authors, and then when I found ones I liked, would start to buy the other books they wrote as they were published. I also encourage people to signup for a newsletter that I put out when I have a new book or sale on my other books, and I try to keep people who have liked my author facebook page engaged by posting interesting historical tidbits and updates on how my writing progress is going.

If you want to learn more about both my historical mysteries and my science fiction series, do check me out at

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