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February 8, 2010

SANDRA PARSHALL is a well-known name among Sisters in Crime, including the Guppies Chapter. Her first book, THE HEAT OF THE MOON, published by Poisoned Pen Press in 2006, won an Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Her latest mystery, BROKEN PLACES, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, who praised it as “Excellent … a suspenseful tale distinguished by its sharp prose.” I am delighted that she has agreed to share some of her writing experiences with BIRTH OF A NOVEL.

SANDY CODY: What prompted you to become a writer?

SANDRA PARSHALL: think it’s a genetic defect, something I was born with. (Unfortunately, no one seems to be searching for a cure.) I can’t recall a time when I didn’t want to create stories. I remember writing on lined pulp-paper tablets when I was very young. I had a vivid imagination, in which I constantly dwelled, and probably half of what came out of my mouth was pure fantasy. I adored books and always knew I wanted to write them. Where this love of books and writing came from is a mystery, because I grew up in a household of non-readers. We couldn’t afford to buy books, in any case. The library saved my life and introduced me to the larger world.

CODY; What part of writing do you find most satisfying?

PARSHALL: Capturing emotion in words on the page, making the reader feel it. For me, fiction is all about feeling. The plot and action – the crimes in a mystery and everything that happens as a result – have to be driven by the characters’ emotional needs.

CODY: What part do you find most difficult?

PARSHALL: Capturing emotion in words! Human emotion is such a complex thing, the end result of a multitude of influences and experiences throughout a person’s life. It’s amazing that anyone is able to convey that complexity, yet the best writers do. I’m still learning and aspiring.

CODY: What comes first for you? Characters? Story? Setting?

PARSHALL: I can’t separate character and story. I imagine a character in the context of his or her story, not as a person who could be slotted into any plot. Characters come with their stories already written. I have to uncover them and write them down. In the same way, characters fit into certain settings and wouldn’t work anywhere else. All these elements come as a package.

CODY: I know you are a great lover of animals. Do you feel that understanding non-humans gives an extra insight into human behavior and, thus, helps with creating believable characters?

PARSHALL: Well, you can certainly learn a lot about manipulating people by observing a cat. I think other mammals feel most of the same emotions people do – love, hate, jealousy, anger – but they’re much more open about it because they don’t have the same constraints on their behavior that we do. The great value of animals in fiction is that they can be used to illuminate the human characters. The way a person relates to animals shows you something about that person that you might never see in his or her dealings with other people.

CODY: Your second novel, DISTURBING THE DEAD, takes a look at the Melungeon culture, something many of us know little about.  Could you tell us something about that?

PARSHALL: The Melungeons are one of several groups of people in Appalachia called “tri-racial isolates” by sociologists. They’re believed to be descended from shipwrecked Portuguese sailors who moved inland and intermarried with Native Americans, white settlers, and in some cases escaped slaves. Because their skin was dark, they were discriminated against, their land was taken away from them, and they were driven far back into the mountains. A hundred years ago distinct Melungeon communities existed, but that’s no longer true. Many Melungeon people remain in the mountains, though, and in recent years the Melungeon Heritage Association has promoted research into their history and fostered pride in their unique cultural background. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject, and I urge anyone who wants to learn more to visit

CODY:. Tell us about your upcoming release.

PARSHALL: I chose the title BROKEN PLACES because it’s a story about people who have been broken by life, people who have watched their dreams vanish. The two murder victims, a husband and wife, came to the mountains as young idealists working in the antipoverty program in the late 1960s. When their term of service was over, they stayed on, convinced they could help the poor people of the area improve their lives. They accomplished little beyond making a lot of enemies with their activism, and Tom has no shortage of suspects to investigate when they’re murdered. The prime suspect is an old friend of Rachel’s, a famous cartoonist (his strip is called Furballs and features his own cat and dog) who recently moved to Mason County to escape the threat of a scandal. Tom and Rachel’s lives and relationship are further complicated by the return home of the murdered couple’s daughter, Lindsay, a former girlfriend of Tom’s who not only wants to see Rachel’s friend arrested but is also determined to reclaim Tom’s affections. Rachel has secrets she will share with no one, including Tom, and her efforts to protect those secrets from Lindsay’s probing lead her directly into the killer’s path.

CODY: What other projects are in the works?

PARSHALL: I’m working on another Rachel Goddard/Tom Bridger book in which murders are committed in a most unusual manner – so unusual that it’s not easy for Tom to convince people the deaths are actually murders. Rachel will be very much involved, of course, and sometimes at cross-purposes with Tom.

CODY: What other authors do you especially admire?

PARSHALL: I love Erin Hart’s writing and I’m eagerly awaiting her third book, FALSE MERMAID, in March. I look for Thomas H. Cook’s new novel every year and would be sorely disappointed if he skipped a year. John Hart, after only three books, has become one of my favorite writers. I love Laura Lippman, Louise Erdrich and Edna O’Brien. My longtime favorites are Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and Isak Dinesen.

CODY: What do you do when you’re not writing?

PARSHALL: I love taking pictures. I’m a long way from being an expert, but my DSLR camera is my favorite toy, and when I have it in my hands no one is safe. I’m a birdwatcher and a gardener. And I watch entirely too much television, mostly crime-related programs like The Closer and Dexter and Durham County. Oh, and I read!

CODY:  Do you have a set schedule for writing or do you squeeze it in whenever you can?

PARSHALL: I come to the computer after breakfast every morning. Like a lot of writers, I can get sidetracked by e-mail and other distractions. But theoretically, writing is my first priority.

CODY: What refreshes you creatively.

PARSHALL: Reading a wonderful book. Sometimes I get so stuck in the sludge of my own words and thoughts that I almost forget good, clear writing is possible. Reading something that’s beautifully crafted gets me back on track and gives me a goal to aim for.

Thanks, Sandra, and good luck with BROKEN PLACES.

You can learn more about Sandra Parshall and her books at:

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