Former newspaper editor and multi-genre author Patricia McLinn lets the muses guide her when she writes her books.
I confess that as a writer I don’t have nearly as much confidence as today’s podcast guest, Patricia McLinn. This interview was fascinating for me because Patricia shares a bit about her writing process, which does not involve outlines and planning – even when she’s writing mysteries!
Patricia also writes romance, but today we’re focused on her Caught Dead In Wyoming series. Book 6 in the series, Back Story, will be published in October 2017, and in the meantime you can start at the beginning of journalist, and amateur sleuth, Elizabeth Danniher’s story with Sign Off, which is free in ebook form right now.
Click on any of the book covers to go to Patricia’s books on Amazon.
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcription of Interview with Patricia McLinn
Alexandra: Hi, mystery readers, I’m Alexandra Amor. This is “It’s A Mystery” podcast and I’m here today with Patricia McLinn. Hi, Patricia.
Patricia: Hello, how are you today?
Alexandra: Very well. How are you?
Patricia: I’m doing great.
Patricia: And it’s a good day.
Alexandra: Excellent. Well, let me introduce you to all of our listeners.
Patricia McLinn is a “USA TODAY” bestselling author of more than 40 novels, mostly romance and mystery. The readers and reviewers cite for their warmth, wit, and strong characters. She has spoken on writing for Melbourne, Australia to Washington DC, including being a guest speaker at The Smithsonian.
She always wanted to write novels but took a detour into practicality with a journalism career that included more than 20 years as an editor in the Washington Post. It was great training, not to mention giving her lots of material for her characters in the “Caught Dead in Wyoming” mystery series which we’re going to talk about today, which features her fish out of water sleuth TV journalist Elizabeth Margaret Danniher.
The sixth book in this series, Back Story is available for preorder now and will be out late October 2017 as long as Patricia keeps her nose to the grindstone.
Today we are gonna talk mostly about the “Caught Dead in Wyoming” series but you have a fantastic story on your website about the first book you ever wrote.
It’s the wallpaper paste story and I wondered if you could tell our listeners about that, please.
Patricia: I would be happy to. I tried previously and always I would start at the beginning and I’d get a couple of chapters in and then I didn’t know what was going on. But this one story really… And I give up. And my sister-in-law said she would never read anything from me again that wasn’t finished because she would get involved in these stories and I’d go, “I don’t know what happened.”
I started this story and I was working at my house, a 1948 Post World War II house, outside of Washington DC. And it had layer upon layer of wallpaper. Layer of paint, then wallpaper, paint, wallpaper, paint, wallpaper, paint. In some rooms, I had six layers.
And the only way to get it off was with a wide-bladed putty knife. So I would go and chip wallpaper and there’s not a lot to think about while you’re chipping wallpaper. So the story would start coming.
I’d put down the wide-bladed putty knife and go write for a while. And then I’d sort of run out of my headlights, you know, I couldn’t see any further with the story so I’d go back to the wide-bladed putty knife and the chipping the wallpaper. And I’d go back and forth and back and forth. And there’s nothing that makes writing seem like more fun than chipping wallpaper.
And that was how I got through this whole initial story which was a mess. I probably didn’t know what I was doing. I think it involved every genre and subgenre except for maybe space opera. And everything else and it was wild.
I sent it off to the wrong people but we won’t get into that whole history if you don’t want to. But yes, I owe my first attempt and my first completed book to wallpaper paste.
Alexandra: Exactly. And did you get house stripped of all that stuff?
Patricia: I did. And you know what? This is horrible. They eventually tore it down. They tore down the house. People spent a million dollars for the lot.
Patricia: This was not the people bought from me, it was the one after. So yeah, it breaks my heart. It’s a really sweet little house but it’s, “Well you can’t go home.”
Alexandra: No. Well, you got a book out of it though, so that’s great.
Patricia: I did, I did. And a career.
Alexandra: Yeah, exactly. So let’s talk about Elizabeth Danniher who I guess people call “E.M.” because she’s Elizabeth Margaret, right?
Patricia: Professionally, she goes by E.M. because Elizabeth Margaret is a mouthful but people call her both.
Alexandra: Right, okay. And so she’s a journalist at the beginning of the series.
The first book is called “Sign Off” and she’s having a bit of a life crisis and so she’s having to kind of reinvent herself. Tell us about that.
I have sometimes kicked myself for making it TV journalism since all my background was in newspapers. But I have a dear friend who’s the consultant and I was whining to him at one point about, “Why did I do this? Why did I put it in a TV newsroom instead of a newspaper newsroom?” And he said, “Because you like to ask questions.”
I was, “Oh yeah, okay. There’s that. Yes.” So, I put it in the TV newsroom and that opened up a lot of things because of the pressure on women in news to be of a certain age and that it’s difficult when they get a little bit older.
And I also wanted her to be facing multiple issues. She’s nearly divorced and part of the reason she gets landed in Wyoming is a vindictive ex. She’s had a real disappointment in him that goes deeper than the divorce that will come out in the course of the stories. And she’s questioning herself in a lot of ways.
What is she gonna do, what is she good at? Has her success been hers, or was it her husband’s? And so she’s got all these questions and then she’s plunked down in the middle of some place that she knows nothing about.
But I like that because she is our entree to Wyoming. She’s asking the questions that we as outsiders, most of us. If there are any Wyomingites out there say hi. What we would ask about it because it’s a fascinating place and area. Did I answer your question or did I go totally off?
Alexandra: No, you totally did. That was amazing.
I love that fish out of water element with characters because they are. They can be our eyes and ears and explore the place like we would were we in their shoes.
Patricia: And they see things that the natives don’t necessarily. That they take for granted to some extent or you know, it’s just not high on their radar. And to an outsider, it’s like, “Wow, look at that.” So I like that.
Alexandra: Oh good. You actually anticipated one of my questions which was about why you had set it in TV journalism? Because you were involved in print journalism for a couple of decades.
It sounds like that was more of an unconscious choice or how did that come about?
Most of my stories start with characters and they just come and they are who they are. And sometimes I have no idea what character’s name or profession or anything else, but I know they wear a brown bomber jacket and have a dog named Shag, you know. And that cannot ever change. That’s what they brought to me.
Alexandra: Is that how Elizabeth came to you? What did you know about her right off the bat? Can you remember?
Patricia: I think one of the first things… Two confessions time. I write out of sequence. I don’t start at the beginning and work through to the end. Scenes usually come and I hear voices. They’re gonna haul me off. But I do. I hear voices and I just start writing what they’re saying.
And the first scene of that was her going out to see Thomas David Burrell at his ranch which happens 40% into the book, maybe, halfway into the book. And I didn’t know her name, didn’t know his name. I just had a sense of this situation and then you start. I write it down, look at it and go, “Well, okay, why is she there? Who is she? Oh, okay, she has to be…” And then I honestly don’t know why it was in TV rather than at print journalist. It just happened.
Alexandra: Right, yeah. And so, well, this is fascinating to me.
Then when that happens, do you then move forward in the plot or did you jump around for the first book.
Patricia: I jumped around.
You know what I’d like in it too like have you ever been in a restaurant and you’re eavesdropping? If you hear this wonderful story and so you’re just seeing a little snippet or hearing that little snippet.
But a writer’s imaginations, we then go, “Okay, well what’s going to happen from here and what got them to here? You know, what brought them up to this little thing?” And you can build a whole story out of hearing this one little bit. And that’s kind of how the story starts for me.
Alexandra: Okay. Oh, wow. That’s amazing.
Would you end having to do a lot of editing or revising, because with mystery stories, of course, we need to know who done it at the end. How does that work for you?
Patricia: I do do a lot of editing because I write this out of sequence so I have to make sure it’s all smooth and makes timeline sense, chronological sense. And with the most recent release in the series which was Look Live, I was cruising on that last Fall and I thought, “I am gonna finish this one early,” which would be astonishing. I live for deadlines. And I was just going along great and lo and behold the person I thought was the murderer ended up dead.
This is the problem. So, you know and I was talking to writer friends and they go, “Well change it.” And I say, “Well, I can’t change it. This is what happened, you know?” It’s a little strange.
And it took a while for me to get myself out of that because I’d already written the end with telling how this guy did the murder and he’s dead. So I had some adjusting to do. So it gets me in trouble sometimes.
I’ve also tried, I’ve tried, I’ve tried, I’ve tried the, you know, outlining. And when I started doing mysteries I thought, “Okay, well with mysteries I’d have to do it, I have to be organized.” And, you know, I basically lost stories because what happens is my little monkey mind says, “Okay, we told that story, done with that one.” You know, one I’ve outlined and I have no desire to write it. And I can’t make myself write it.
Alexandra: I’ve heard other writers say that, too that they if they outline first, then it’s just boring. It’s just like you’re writing a story for a second time and it’s not interesting at all.
If the writer’s bored then the reader is definitely going to be bored.
Patricia: Well, and that’s how it works for some of us. And I have dear friends who outline, you know, 120-page outline and then go back and fill it in and for them that’s the way it works.
A lot of my first efforts are dialogue, a lot of dialogue. And I have a good friend who does the dialogue last. So, you know, it doesn’t really matter how you get there, you gotta do all the parts eventually. So that’s how it comes to me.
Alexandra: Right, yeah. And you mentioned there that you were switching from writing romance to writing mystery.
Patricia: I write both.
Alexandra: You write both now.
Alexandra: When you did that, was that a conscious decision? Did you intend to write a mystery or when Elizabeth showed up were you not sure what it was?
Patricia: I was sure it was a mystery. I was sure, she was a mystery. I’m not quite sure why I was sure, but I was sure. And I wanted to write mysteries because that was… Well, I haven’t really read romance or mystery until I was out of college. I… Sort of the classic background and reading all those…
First time I read a romance, a really good romance, I thought, “Aha! This is why I enjoy the peace part of War and Peace.” The war part was like, “Yeah, they’re in another battle. Let’s get past this stuff.” I wanted to get back to the parties and the relationships. The relationships, really and what made people tick and how they came together.
And then I had a friend who introduced me to mysteries after college and discovered, you know, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy Sayers, and Josephine Tey, and the Georgette Heyer mysteries from the ’30s? I love those.
So I was reading all these mysteries and just loving them. And I… Have you ever read Josephine Tey?
Alexandra: She’s one of my mother’s favorites but I’ve never read her books.
Patricia: Yeah, and I suddenly discovered, I’m reading them, I’m just loving them, and I discovered the woman died after only writing like, eight. I was heartbroken. I was so upset. So then I started trying to read only living mystery readers so they could keep writing. “I’m still living people, you can start my books.”
Alexandra: Yes. And then I also was thinking about the contrast between romance and mystery and that romance has always had a happily ever after, or usually. And with your “Caught Dead in Wyoming” series, you’re taking the same character. Book 6 as we said is about to come out this fall.
What’s that been like for you following somebody over quite a long period of time like that?
Patricia: Well, it maybe not as different as you might think because for a couple of reasons. In my romances, I think of them not so much as happily ever after. As getting the characters, those specific characters in that book to a point where they can have a happy beginning.
They’ve had a situation in their lives or with each other or whatever it is that has prevented them from having a solid connection and romance specifically with each other. And what happens in the course of the book helps that in how they react to it. They have to make the changes themselves. So there’s that.
Also, I tend to write connected books. So I will have the couple from Book 1, they’re showing up again and you can see the progress of their life in Book 3 or Book 6. Right now I’m writing a wedding and lots of people are coming back from the other books. And I’m thinking, “Holy moly, if somebody tries to read this book first, they are gonna be totally lost.” So I may put a warning label on there. “If you haven’t read the other Wyoming Wildflowers books, don’t start with this one.”
So in a way, it’s the same sort of story. It’s structured a little bit differently or divided up a little bit differently.
I see Elizabeth as having an overall arc in the series. I have some ideas of specific things. I was originally thinking 10 books, now I’m thinking 12, 14 books. And that would bring her to her happy beginning of her life, of, you know, putting on these pieces together, family and career, and her relationship with herself, and her relationship with other people. So whether she continues to sleuth after that or not would probably be up to the readers.
Alexandra: Right, yeah.
Speaking of romances, I think there might be a little bit of romantic triangle in the “Caught Dead in Wyoming” books.
Patricia: You think?
Alexandra: So, tell us a little bit about those two fellows.
Patricia: Michael Paycik is a sports reporter, anchor at this teeny tiny station in Wyoming that she has been sent to. He’s from that area originally and then he played NFL football for the Chicago Bears. Go Bears.
He had problems with his knees and so he is one of the smart ones who quit before he was really badly injured. And decided that he would go back to his hometown to get background in sports reporting, rather than going on the big stage and making flubs there. He’s getting his background and he will…he clearly is gonna make it in the big time.
The second guy is a local rancher, Thomas David Burrell, and he’s a little bit older than Mike. And Mike always had sort of hero worship for him growing up because Thomas was a basketball player and big guy around the country.
But there’s very much contrast because Thomas has never really left Cottonwood County. Mike has gone out, succeeded, come back and is clearly gonna go out and succeed again.
Mike is very interested initially in Elizabeth because of her background and he’s, “Whoa, here’s this top-flight TV reporter who’s landed in Cottonwood County. I’m gonna learn all sorts of things from her. She will be a great mentor.”
But there’s also an attraction and he’s nudging her to keep looking into stories and being involved and she’s resisting especially initially. So there’s all that friction and she’s not sure about getting involved with anybody. And then there’s also this attraction with Thomas David Burrell which has difficulties because he is the prime suspect in “Sign Off.”
Alexandra: Oh, okay. It does cause problems.
Patricia: Yes, yes. That could be a little issue. You know, I don’t see Elizabeth as one of the women who hangs around a prison and, you know, says I’m gonna, “I’ll stand by my man no matter what crimes he’s found guilty of,” so.
Alexandra: Do you have a regular writing routine? Do you write in the morning, you know, everything new?
Patricia: No. What? Routine? What? The only routine is really feeding my dog, and I even forgot that yesterday, poor soul but she reminded me.
Alexandra: I bet she did.
Patricia: Yes. Now my routine is procrastinating up until the deadline that I’ve set not just for myself but have promised readers and all that terrifies me and working like crazy. That’s kind of a routine.
Alexandra: Okay. So you don’t write every day, necessarily?
Patricia: I intend to. I’m supposed to write every day. I write most days, but some days fall off the calendar.
Alexandra: As they do.
Patricia: What can I say? Yeah.
Patricia: This really is true confessions.
I once did a workshop with some other writers and we were at a writing class at a junior college. And there was, I don’t know, eight of us I think lined up. And somebody in the audience had asked about our methods. And they came down the line and I was the last one.
I told the truth that I write out a sequence, I don’t write this every day, you know, I don’t write at the same time. I do have some triggers but I’ll tell you about that in a second. And I finished up and the writing instructor who was on my other side, there’s a little pause and she looked at me and she looked at her students and said, “Don’t do that.”
But I also want to tell people that if that’s the way you work, as long as you produce and finish, that’s the way you work. So, yeah.
Alexandra: Yeah. No, it’s true. Don’t squash your own… what would you call it? Impulses or what works for you just because it’s not the way somebody else does it.
I think there’s this razor-sharp line between sort of developing confidence in our writing and good habits in the way and then also having the freedom to explore what works for us.
Patricia: Yes, and because what works for you can change over time or with a specific book. It’s sort of like raising children. You have to get that connection of what works with this book, what works for you, what works for that book and just not kid yourself about it, which is one reason deadlines are so great.
Alexandra: And, yeah, we talked briefly before we came on the air, so to speak, before we started recording, and you mentioned that you had originally been traditionally published. And now you’re completely independently published, and you were hybrid for a while.
Who sets the deadlines for you now? Is that you?
Patricia: I do. And I get grief from my family, saying, “Well how is this really a deadline when you have set the deadline?” But if I told the readers that a book will be delivered at a certain time, to me that is a deadline.
And also if you set it up on preorder of course, there’s an agreement there. I’ve had to push back a couple of books sometimes. One time I had surgery. And that was… I had endometrial cancer. So I had tests and I had, you know, the surgery and that pushed the book back a few months. But other than that, I really try to meet the deadlines because that’s an agreement with the readers and I hate disappointing them.
Alexandra: Yes. Exactly. And you’re right that the way we can set up the books for preorder now, it is kind of a nice way, a self-imposed deadline to keep us honest. And Amazon and the other vendors, Kobo, you know, they make you commit to a certain date to have the manuscript to them, so.
Patricia: Yeah but Amazon’s the only one who’ll send you to preorder jail if you don’t make it.
Alexandra: That’s right.
Patricia: And you can’t do preorders for a year. And the difficult thing too is, well if this preorder now for Back Story, I’ve had a lot of readers go, “You know, it’s up in other places. Isn’t it gonna be available on Amazon?” “So well yeah, it will be available but they only allow 90 days unless you do cartwheels through the middle of Seattle.”
And so I’m so, doing 90 days but it’s been up for a year…no, not quite a year, nine months at the other retailers. “Sorry Amazon folks. Tell Amazon folks to make it earlier or to make it longer because…” Do you do preorders with the other retailers?
Alexandra: I have done, yeah. And I mean I think I’ve heard you don’t even need a cover and you can do it a year in advance I think, if on iTunes and…
Patricia: Yeah, and change the date, you know, push it back or pull it forward. And yeah it’s great because it does allow for, you know, life happening to the authors, so yeah.
Alexandra: As it does. Yeah, that’s right. So one last question before we wind up. Just kind of about your schedule.
Do you switch back and forth between a mystery and a romance, or how do you work that?
Patricia: You mean like on a regular schedule, Alexandra?
No regular schedule now. At the beginning of the year, I will think about which books I’m gonna write. And then I don’t usually get all of the words. Like this year I was aiming for writing 400,000 to 500,000 words? Nah, I’m not gonna make it but… So I’ve had another romance out, another romance. Well, I had some backlist books up earlier in the year. So I rewrote two of them. And then I’ll have a mystery. And then I’m really interested in starting another mystery series.
Alexandra: Can you tell us anything about that or is it too early?
Patricia: It’s probably too early. Except I think it’s gonna be in a small town, I’m not quite sure where the town… I’m beginning to get the shape of the town but I’m not sure exactly where it’s going to be. But I’m picking up little bits and pieces, so.
Alexandra: Nice. Well, I’ll have to just have you back on the show if and when that series appears.
Patricia: That would be lovely. That would be lovely.
Alexandra: Yeah, that would be fun.
Patricia: Thank you for inviting me this time.
Alexandra: Oh, you’re so welcome. Well, why don’t you tell our listeners where they can find out more about you and your books?
Patricia: Okay. My website is patriciamclinn.com and it’s Patricia McLinn at most of the social media: Twitter, Facebook. I have a pretty active page on Facebook.
I’m also on Instagram as patriciamclinnauthor. Although I will warn you it’s mostly gardening and dog pictures. They dominate. I know other people are using it for marketing but I haven’t quite gotten the hang of that. “Oh, here’s a pretty flower in my garden,” or “Look at this silly thing my dog is doing.”
So those are the best ways. And the number 1 way to get in touch with me is through my website. There’s a contact page and there’s also… sign up for my newsletter. It goes out twice a month and one time a month it has a picture of my dog in it, Kelly the Collie. And then the other newsletter in the month we have pets of readers which I’m just having so much fun with. I can’t believe how many cute animals people have. And such characters, they’re wonderful.
Alexandra: Yeah. That’s great.
Patricia: I have the dog Shadow in the “Caught Dead in Wyoming” series who also has a character arc.
Alexandra: Oh my goodness, wow. Okay.
Patricia: Yeah. You gotta have the dog.
Alexandra: That’s right, yeah. And we should mention too that “Sign Off” right now is free in eBook form.
Patricia: Yes, it is.
Alexandra: So if people want to check that out, they can do that. And I’ll put links to everything you’ve mentioned and to the book in the show notes.
Patricia: Thank you. That would be lovely.
Alexandra: You’re welcome, my pleasure. Well, thank you for being with me today Patricia.
Patricia: Again, thank you for inviting me. It’s been lots of fun and I’ve tried to restrain myself from asking you questions.
Alexandra: Well, we’ll stop the recording now and you can ask all the questions you like.
Patricia: Well, thank you.
Alexandra: All right. Take care, buh-bye.