This is what happens when the podcast host becomes a podcast guest. ;-)
Alan and I talk about my cozy mystery novels set in frontier British Columbia. And we also touch on my children’s novels, as well as the first book I wrote a memoir about 10 years I spent in a meditation cult in Vancouver in the 1990s.
This interview was originally posted on Alan Petersen’s podcast, Meet the Thriller author. Many thanks to Alan for letting me share it here as well.
Links and resources mentioned in this episode
- Click on any of the book covers to go to Alexandra’s books
- More about the meditation cult Alexandra was involved in for 10 years in the 1990s
- The Vernon, BC Museum and Archives where Alexandra does some of her research for the Town Called Horse mystery series
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcription of Interview with Alexandra Amor
Alan: Hi everybody. This is Alan with Meet the Thriller Author, and for this episode I’m interviewing Alexandra Amor, and I have her on Skype. How are you doing Alexandra?
Alexandra: Very well, thanks, Alan. How are you?
Alan: I am doing good. Kind of the shoe on the other foot now, because you interviewed me a couple of weeks ago for your podcast.
Alexandra: That’s right, yes, exactly. So we’ve switched roles today.
Alan: Switched roles. Yes, yes. We’re funky like that.
Alan: Could you tell the listeners a little bit about yourself, please.
Alexandra: Certainly, yeah.
I’m an independently published author, and my first book was actually way out of the thriller and mystery genre. It was a memoir about 10 years I spent in a cult in the 1990s. And right now, I’m working on a mystery series.
It’s a historical mystery series, set in British Columbia, in 1890, and it centers around a small town called Horse, a fictional town, I should say. And the protagonist is a young woman, a schoolteacher named Julia Thom who has landed in that little town and runs into all kinds of mysteries that she needs to solve.
Alan: Oh, it sounds fascinating. I was very interested in the historical aspect of your mysteries. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Is there a lot of history then that you have to do research for, or, how does that work out with the history component?
Alexandra: Yeah, the history component certainly does add a layer of complexity, compared to writing in the present day. And I specifically wanted to set it right at the end of the 19th century, like that.
And yeah, and I’ve done research. There’s a museum and archives in a small town there in the Central Okanogan, which is the area that book is set in. The real town is called Vernon, and so I’ve spent time at the museum and archives there, learning about what it was like. They have newspapers going back right to the late 1880s, might even be the mid 1880s. And it’s fascinating, really, to learn about how people lived and it makes me reflect on how easy our lives are right now and how really challenging everything was, basically for the entire history of humanity until like the last 60 or 70 years.
Alan: And then, I was also thinking of the challenges of writing something set in in the 19th century.
Do you find it also challenging to not, like, say, “They picked up the mobile phone,” or “They sent an email.”
Alexandra: Yes, exactly. And it is tricky, I have to say. And not so much with technology because that’s sort of front of my mind, but you know what’s really challenging is expressions and idioms and that kind of things.
I’m trying to think of one right now, something like, you know, somebody, “Their wheels were spinning,” or that’s not a good example, but, you know, “Their pistons weren’t firing.” Well, you think, I can’t use that because, you know, engines have barely started to exist.
And more modern expressions as well, just the way that we speak now is a little bit different than people spoke back then. And readers will even pick up on that, and I’ve had a couple of complaints about how the language is a little bit modern. So it’s something I have to work really hard at. And it’s yes, it’s definitely not easy. It’s a bit of a challenge.
Alan: And readers, they’re pretty vocal when you don’t get the little things right or something?
Alexandra: Absolutely. Yup, they’ll mention it in the reviews, and point out little mistakes, which I actually appreciate because it helps me to learn. But yeah, I have had several bits of feedback about that. So I’m learning.
Alan: And so now, the cozy mystery. Can you tell us a little bit about that genre?
Alexandra: Yeah. The genre harkens back to the Agatha Christie days. And they’re usually set in a very small community, and kind of an enclosed community, and in this case it’s a small town.
There are usually a number of recurring characters that pop up in the town, and then the murder itself always happens off-stage. So the protagonist, the sleuth, will find the dead body but there’s never really any violence on the page. The person is just dead.
And then the sleuth is often an amateur. Sometimes there are police officer or private detective, like we think of Hercule Poirot. He’s a good example. He was a detective.
But Miss Marple wasn’t and she’s kind of the quintessential cozy mystery protagonist, just kind of nosy and a busybody. And I don’t write my mysteries this way, but very often they can be centered around crafts, so knitting shops, so that kind of thing. And also food, there’s a lot of food-related cozy mysteries as well.
Alan: Yeah, it’s a fascinating genre. I’ve seen even like cat sleuths.
Alexandra: Yup. Exactly, animals, yeah.
Alan: Yeah, that’s pretty cool.
Who is the sleuth in your books, what’s their background?
Alexandra: Her name is Julia and she was raised by a judge, closer to the coast in British Columbia. And she’s really smart, and she was an only child and really connected to her dad. He was kind of the center of her world.
Because he was a judge she grew up assuming that she would be able to go to law school and to follow in his footsteps. And then very late in her teens, well, actually into her 20s, it became rudely apparent to her that she couldn’t, women weren’t allowed in law school in Canada at that time.
And so she’s had a bit of a fracture in her family, and she had a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to this. She feels very betrayed by her father because he won’t support her desire to go to law school. So that’s how she ends up in this tiny little town.
She applies for a job as the schoolteacher and gets it, which is a surprise to her. And then, she begins to meet people and make friendships and find her way in the world in that place and meanwhile solving lots of crimes.
Alan: How many books do you have in that series so far?
Alexandra: There are two so far, and I’m working on the third one. The first one is a prequel and it’s available for free on my website.
And then the first full-length novel is also free and it’s available at all the online retailers. It’s called Horse with No Name.
Alan: Your website is alexandraamor.com.
Alan: If people wanna go check that out and get introduced to your writing for free. That’s awesome.
Alexandra: It’s a good way to get people introduced to the series.
Alan: I noticed on your website you also write romantic mysteries. What’s the challenge between those two, and the differences?
Alexandra: I’ve only written one of those and I really enjoyed it. And it’s set in the modern day, or the present time, so a lot less challenging in terms of writing in a historical period.
I just wanted to see what I could do in terms of writing a mystery and at the same time having a little bit of a love story go on. And the thing about a romantic mystery as it were, is that there has to be a happily-ever-after at the end. So the couple has to come together. So that one will be a series, I think, that will be set in the same location but each book will have a different central character, and there will be a love story involved.
The first one is called, “Love and Death at the Inn.” And it’s set in, also on the West Coast of British Columbia, on a small island. And the main character is a woman who is running an inn that she inherited from her parents.
Alan: When you write, do you like focus on one series at a time, or do you like jump around and write two at the same time?
Alexandra: Yeah, great question. I don’t jump around. I do tend to focus.
I think what I would like to do now is get three or four more books written in the Horse series and really get some momentum building with that. And then I might…then I might be able to back and forth, and do one in one series and one in the other. But we’ll just have to see how it goes.
Alan: Yeah, I’m very impressed with you. You write in several different genres too.
You write for kids, right?
Alexandra: That’s right, yeah.
Alan: Yeah. Wow. And so is that…which is your preferred, or you can’t choose one?
Alexandra: Exactly, yeah.
Alan: Put you on the spot.
Alexandra: Yeah, I can’t choose one.
The children’s books really came from a very heart-felt place when I was first starting to write fiction. And as so many authors are, I was a big reader when I was a kid. And lots of my favorite books had animal characters, you know, Charlotte’s Web, and that kind of thing, Stuart Little.
I wanted to write a series with animals as the main characters. So it’s the Sugar and Clive series of books. There’s four novels and they’re for middle-grade readers, so sort of the nine to 12 year-old age group. And the main character is a dog named Sugar, and her best friend is a barn swallow, named Clive.
Alan: Yeah, I love that. And on your website, I’m looking at that picture. That’s a really good drawing of them too.
Alexandra: Isn’t that amazing? My friend Tony, who lives in Seattle, did that, and he just captured them so beautifully.
Alan: Wow. That’s amazing, the artistic talents of those people that can do that.
Alexandra: I know right. Yeah.
Alan: So whether you’re writing historical cozy mysteries or romantic mysteries, I mean, the mystery component is there.
Is that a genre that you’d like to read before you started to write, decided to write a fiction?
Alexandra: Yeah, absolutely. It’s almost the only genre I read. I do like to read memoirs and self-help books a little bit. And I will read the occasional literary fiction, but definitely I’m like 90% mystery novels.
And the funny thing is, though, I don’t read that many cozies. I tend to like police procedurals and more like sort of private investigator, like the Lawrence Block, Matt Scudder series, that kind of thing.
Alan: Oh, yeah. I love them.
Alexandra: So I’m not quite sure how I wound up writing cozy historical mysteries but that’s just kind of what came out at that time.
Alan: And so you said you did a lot of research, you actually go to the actual library, the local library there.
When you’re getting your story prepared, do you like have an outline ready, or do you just sort of like gather information and then you start to write, what’s your process?
Alexandra: It’s a bit of both. Yeah, I would say that I often find inspiration in a local story that I’ve read. I have books about that area and the time period as well, and so some little nugget of information will kind of spark an idea in me.
And then I’ll start writing an outline. For sure, I’m an outliner, not a pantser. And in fact, I have a spreadsheet, and have each chapter kind of outlined in the spreadsheet, so I know where I’m going when I begin each chapter.
Very often the story does change, though. I mean, it never is this way that I think it’s going to be quite be. And the last couple of times I’ve written a book, a mystery novel, the bad guy actually turned out to be someone different than I had originally decided he would be. So that was really interesting.
When I got right to the very end of the book and thought, “Oh, Geez, it’s not that guy, it’s this other guy.” So that was really cool. Then I figured, well, if it’s a surprise to me then hopefully it will be a surprise to the reader.
Alan: Yeah, that is an important component of those mysteries, right? Is kind of like a whodunnit toward the end?
Alexandra: Yeah, you don’t want it to be obvious all the way through, who the bad guy is.
Alan: Is any of your personality, in any of your characters, the good or the bad?
Alexandra: Great question. You know, I think Julia is a bit like me in that she’s quite determined and fiercely independent. She’s a little more adventurous, I would say, than I am. And perhaps a little more, I don’t know if the right word is brusque, but sort of direct. I guess she’s a little more direct than I am, yeah.
I definitely see shades of myself in her. And then I was interviewing someone on my own show several weeks ago and she said, you know, “Each character probably is a reflection of some part of my personality.” And I think I agree with her on that.
I think characters are like aspects of ourselves, and I find it really interesting to explore their different characteristics through my lens, as it were.
Alan: And what about the events in your stories?
I know there’s a historical component but are they based on things that actually happened, or where do you get your ideas when you start, for your stories?
Alexandra: Yeah, it’s a great question. Some of the things that happen in the books are things that happened in real life, things that I found in news stories.
There’s one thing I actually I can’t talk about because it gives away the plot point for Horse with No Name, but I’ll talk about something else.
This small town called Vernon on Okanagan Lake in British Columbia, there was a fellow who ran a little ship that would take people down the lake in the good weather before the lake froze over, and it was one of the best ways to move through that part of the world.
In those days, and this was actually something that I learned, it was much easier to move by water than it was by land. And so the easiest way for people to get places was up and down lakes and rivers and that kind of thing.
So for years, for a few years, this old fellow had a rowboat, if you can believe it, and it would take him three days, and he could only take one passenger at a time because this lake is really long. And he would take them down from the place where my books are set to another town called Kelowna.
And then, later he was able to get a little steam engine, and I was able to see this steam engine. They still have it in the museum in the town in Vernon, and so that fellow has become quite a big part of the books.
In my books he’s quite a character. He’s sort of a town drunk and he has to get dried out in order to take his passengers up and down the lake. But he’s a good guy at heart. He just likes his drink a little too much.
So things like that do come from real-life events that I’ve read about or circumstances or people, and then I embellish them, make them my own.
Alan: That’s fascinating. Yeah, I don’t think you’d want the town drunk boating you around…
Alexandra: No. Yeah, exactly.
Alan: …the river.
Alan: So now, when you start, what’s your process when you’re writing?
Do you like write in a specific place all the time, like in a home office, or do you go to the coffee shop? What’s your preference when you’re in the zone?
Alexandra: I definitely cannot write in public places at all, and I know lots of writers do that and even wear headphones like you’re wearing so there’s sort of noise canceling, but I can’t do that. So I’m always at home.
For years, I would sit on my couch with my laptop and that’s where I would write. I lived in an apartment building and sometimes there could be a bit of noise outside, either in the summer from the street or from the hallways, occasionally. So I would sometimes wear earbuds with, like the sounds of waves or thunderstorms or that kind of thing, just to block that out.
But now I’ve switched to dictation, so I have the Dragon Dictation software, and I wear a set of headsets with a microphone, and I tend to stand up when I do that and I pace around.
The headset is plugged into my laptop and it’s recording my voice and then transcribing what I’m saying. And yeah, I just tend to walk around. The cord’s not that long but it’s a little long enough for me to go for a little walk. And that’s how I write the first draft of my books now.
Alan: Yeah, wow. That’s cool. You can’t do that in a coffee shop.
Alexandra: No, that’s right.
Alan: Well how is the process, because I have a couple friends who have tried it and they found it challenging. What do they call it, “Training the Dragon?”
Alexandra: Yup. Training your Dragon.
Alan: How was that adjustment for you when you first started to use that?
Alexandra: Yeah, you know, I’ve heard people complain about what you have to do is, you have to say the punctuation. So if you’re saying the sentence, “Bob walks down the street, period” you have to say it like that.
And when you’re doing a dialog you have to say, “Open quotation. Bob said I’m going to the store. Period. Close quotation.” You know, and all that kind of stuff.
That I think is what throws people out of their creative flow. But what I found, and that’s where people meet resistance and they have trouble with it. But what I found is that just like with typing.
I don’t know if you took typing in grade 10 like I did. You know, it’s really awkward at the beginning and you have to look at the keyboard, and you make tons of mistakes, and it just feels like you’re driving on square wheels. And so, when I was feeling that way I just really kept going, essentially, and knew that my brain would build new neural pathways essentially.
Eventually, just like now, when you’re typing and you type a period and then a space at the end of a sentence, we don’t think about that anymore when we do it. It just happens automatically.
So it’s almost the same with Dragon, is that now I can say the periods, insert the punctuation and the quotation marks, and it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the story that I’m telling. And the cool thing is that it increased my first draft word count. I used to be able to do about 1200 words an hour typing, and now I do three or four times that in a good hour.
Alexandra: So, you know, 4000 words an hour. And my philosophy is that you just get the first draft out as quickly as you possibly can, because then you’ve got all the time in the world to go back and fix it and change it, and that’s where the book begins to emerge, is in the revision.
But if you don’t have anything in the first place, you know, you can’t, as the saying goes, “You can’t fix a blank page.” So my aim is just to get the first draft out as quickly as I possibly can, and dictation really facilitates that.
Alan: I like that saying. I haven’t heard that before, “You can’t fix a blank page.” I should write that down.
Alexandra: Yeah, I think Nora Roberts said that. She’s a Romance author.
Alan: Yeah. And so, you try to get through the first draft out.
You don’t go back and self-edit? You wait until afterwards?
Alexandra: That’s right. I think when people have troubles with Dragon, and I know it’s not as good on a Mac as it is on a PC. I think the other problem they were often run into is that they’re editing at the same time as they’re writing.
So if they’re watching the screen and when there’s an error they say to Dragon, “Go back,” which you can do, “And change that word to this word,” you know, “Delete, blah-blah.” And I don’t do any of that. I just turn it on and go.
When it’s finished, it’s a bit of a mess, but so it is when I type. So I just have to spend a little bit of time tidying up. It’s really not that big a deal, and I find that I just can’t edit at the same time as I write because it breaks up, it just ruins the flow of the story. So I just deal with the mess once it’s out on the page.
Alan: Yeah, I’m the same way with, I don’t dictate bad, I just write it, and then I don’t go back until I’m done. And then, yeah, it’s messy and can be frustrating, but that’s part…that’s most of the process.
Alexandra: Exactly, yeah. And it’s a much bigger job to do that revision I find than it is to do the actual first draft. I think it takes much longer for me to revise the book than it does to write at the first time.
Alan: Yeah. Yeah, I wish it would come out nice and clean but maybe with more practice.
Alexandra: Exactly, yeah.
Alan: What’s your writing day like? Do you write every day, or do you have a specific goal in mind, like you said, X amount of words per day?
Alexandra: I always do my creative stuff first thing in the morning. So, I have a little morning routine, you know, shower, breakfast, I journal every day, and I meditate. So little stuff, all that stuff takes about an hour and a half or two hours sometimes.
And then I always have my creative time immediately after that, whether it’s writing or revising. When I’m in first-draft mode I have a word count goal, so 5000 words, and like I said the first hour is usually quite productive. You know, I can do 3500 or 4000, and then after that I start to slow down. It gets harder because your brain gets tired. So it might take me an hour and a half or two hours to reach that word count.
Alan: And then when you’re in revising mode do you just focus on that one manuscript until you’re done then, and then move on to the next project?
Alexandra: Yup. Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah, if I tried to…at that point to switch to something else I get completely confused and I’ve got characters that are appearing that aren’t in that book, they’re in a different books. So, yeah, I can’t do it that way.
Alan: I just wanted to ask you about your memoir because I haven’t talked to anybody that’s written a memoir.
Alan: I’m just curious. It must be very difficult. I mean, it’s something so personal.
How did that all come about? I mean, it’s a fascinating, I’m reading the blurb or whatever on it, the description, and wow, you’ve been through a lot.
This was a meditation cult in Vancouver, British Columbia, and I left in 2000. And then I spent the next eight years doing lots of therapy, lots of healing work, figuring out what had happened. Because when you’re in a cult you don’t call it that. Nobody who’s in a cult thinks it’s a cult.
When you’re in a cult you think it’s the answer to the world’s problems, and you think it’s something good and a force for good and all that kind of thing.
In 2008 I just got the idea that I wanted to write the book to help other people because when I was doing my own healing work and therapy and all that kind of stuff, I wanted to read someone’s personal story about what had happened them, and how it had happened, and for them to sort of explain to me what the path looked like, both for getting into the cult and then for getting out. And I never could find that book. There are more nowadays than there were back then.
So essentially I wrote the book that I wanted to read. And it was a fantastic process, it was really vulnerable, yeah, and it’s a weird feeling to have your dirty laundry out there in the world, or some of it anyway.
But it was a really great experience and the nice sort of gratifying thing is it’s actually helped people. I get emails from people semi regularly saying, “Thank you very much. You know, you helped me to understand maybe what my spouse is going through, or my child, or what I went through personally.” So that’s been a great experience.
Alan: Yeah, that’s gotta be. One thing is touching people on fiction but when you’re actually touching someone’s life like that, that’s gotta be really rewarding.
Alexandra: Yeah, yeah. It’s been a great experience.
Alan: Back to your fiction stuff, what are you working on now? What series are you working on?
Alexandra: I’m working on “A Town Called Horse,” the third book in the series, well I guess it’s the second really, after the… It’s called “Horse of a Different Color.” No! “The Horse You Rode in On.” Sorry.
And the interesting thing is the first draft is completely finished and I got all the way through it, and there’s something wrong. And so I’ve been mulling that over and realizing I actually need to go back and change quite a bit of it because it just… and this is a feeling you can’t really explain, it’s just somewhere in my gut, that things weren’t working.
I’m going to go back and do quite a bit of revision on that before I release it. I was hoping it would be out by now but it’s going to be a few more months.
Alan: I like your covers too. Do you do those yourself or do you have a pro do them?
Alexandra: No, I have a pro do them. Her name is Keri Knutson and her website is Alchemy Book Covers. And she’s amazing. She mostly does cozy mystery novels, but these ones because they’re historical they have a bit of an edge, and yeah, I think she’s done an amazing job.
Alan: Oh, okay. So, yeah, because usually the cozy mysteries are like, they’re a little more like, I don’t want to say cartoonish but they’re more illustrated.
Alan: But I see because there is a historical component there is a little bit more edge to them. Yeah, okay.
Alexandra: That’s right.
Alan: A lot of stuff goes into putting these books out, aren’t they?
Alexandra: Exactly. Yeah, I mean the reader has to kind of get an instant understanding of what it is they’re getting.
You had a blog post on your website about one of your covers and how it could’ve been misinterpreted that it was more like a romantic suspense, and so you added an element so that people knew right away that’s a thriller. There’s no question at all. And I thought that was so smart.
When an author’s working with a cover designer you have to be really clear about your genre and the look that you’re going for.
Alan: Right. Yeah. Especially when we’re starting out too, you know, we only have seconds to catch someone’s attention as they’re perusing Amazon or whatever, or Kobo or wherever. Are you exclusive with Amazon or are you wide?
Alexandra: No, I’m wide.
Alan: I’m curious, do you still find time to read, and if you do are you still reading mysteries?
Alexandra: Yes and yes. I still read mysteries. I just this week actually, one of my favorite authors released a new book. His name is Keith McCafferty, and he writes mysteries set in Montana. And it’s always such a thrill to get a favorite author’s new book. And yeah, mostly mysteries but also now stuff about running an author business. Oh, I read a lot of books about that.
Alan: Yes, we need that don’t we? We’re doing it all ourselves.
Alexandra: That’s right. Yeah, exactly.
Alan: Yeah. And so are you pretty active then on social media? You’ve got Facebook and Twitter and all those spots?
Alexandra: Yup. All those regular places, mostly around my podcast I would say. Well on Twitter I’m @ArtConnectsUs, and I do tweet about lots of mystery novel stuff, so reviews and information and all that kind of thing, just about the world of mysteries all across the genre.
Alan: What got you your idea to start a podcast? Have you done a podcast before?
Alexandra: I had. I had taken a couple of stabs at it. And so I did one, a short-lived one of talking to other kids’ authors, and then that wasn’t quite right so I gave that up. And then I think I was gonna have one too around cult recovery, but that one never really got off the ground. And so it had been kind of on my mind for a while.
I’m a very introverted person. I don’t like networking and that kind of thing in person. Like I’m not someone who would go to a writer’s conference or a mystery conference or anything like that, but I thought a podcast would be a great way to meet other authors and connect, and it really has been. I’m sure you find the same thing.
Alan: Yeah, it’s been great. Yeah. It’s a good way, especially between releases, to kind of still stay, have your pulse in the genre, right? You meet other people and you learn so much too.
Alexandra: Yes, yeah exactly. I feel like now I have a community of people like you and other writers. It’s amazing.
Alan: That is one beautiful thing about this…obvious…that they’re so supportive even like within like the thriller genre. I’m sure you find this, you know, people want to help. They want to, you know, let their subscribers and their mailing lists or whatever know about you, about your books coming out. So it’s kind of nice how everyone helps each other out even really we’re competitors.
Alexandra: Yes, yeah exactly. I love that about people. It’s been a really great experience and yeah I find everyone to be so supportive and helpful, it’s amazing.
Alan: And okay. So well I’m not gonna take too much more of your time here, but what, anything else you would like to let our listeners know? I’ll just kind of open up the mic to you.
Alexandra: Oh, thanks, Alan. Well, I would say that if your listeners, obviously they like mystery, thriller, or novels so they can come over to itsamysterypodcasts.com as well where I interview mystery authors just like you do. And my episodes are posted every Monday.
Alan: And obviously I’ll have links to that on the website if people want to navigate to that, but that’s pretty easy to find, so…
Alexandra: Yes, yeah.
Alan: All right. Well, thanks so much for being on this show, and it was nice talking to you again.
Alexandra: Nice talking to you too, Alan. Thank you so much.
Alan: All right. That turned out awesome.
Alexandra: Yeah. Well, good. I’m glad.