Shannon Baker has written two very different female sleuths for her mystery novels.
We touch on the way that the landscape around a character can be a metaphor for their state of mind, and also on history and geography in this wide-ranging conversation.
The day I spoke to Shannon, she had just arrived back home from the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ conference where, for the second time (!), she received the writer of the year award. If you’re looking for strong, confident female heroines in your mystery novels, you’ve come to the right place when you sit down with a Shannon Baker book. ;-)
Links and resources mentioned in this episode
- Click on any of the book covers to go to Shannon’s books on Amazon
- Wikipedia page about the Nebraska Sand Hills, where Shannon’s character Kate Fox lives
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcription of Interview with Shannon Baker
Alexandra: Hello, mystery readers. I’m Alexandra Amor. This is “It’s a Mystery” podcast and I’m here today with Shannon Baker. Hi, Shannon.
Shannon Baker: Hi. How are you?
Alexandra: Very well, thank you. How are you?
Shannon: I’m great. I’m down in sunny Tucson. It’s beautiful here.
Alexandra: No rain today?
Shannon: No. Yeah, we have rain like five days a year.
Alexandra: So, today isn’t one of them?
Alexandra: Okay, good. So, you’re staying dry while Irma is trying to destroy other parts of the country.
Shannon: That’s so sad.
Alexandra: It’s terrible, yeah. So, let me introduce our listeners to you.
Shannon Baker is the author of the Kate Fox Mystery Series set in the isolated cattle country of the Nebraska Sandhills. Kirkus says that, “Baker serves up a ballsy heroine, a colorful backdrop, and a surprising ending.” She also writes the Nora Abbott Mystery Series featuring Hopi Indian mysticism and environmental issues.
Shannon makes her home in Tucson where she enjoys cocktails by the pool, breathtaking sunsets, a crazy Weimaraner, and killing people in the pages of her books, of course. She was voted Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ 2014 and 2017 Writer of the Year, which is very exciting,
Shannon, I understand you just got back today from that conference.
Shannon: I did. Just this flew in this morning. It was so much fun. If there are any writers out there and you’re looking around for a writers’ conference, Colorado Gold is always in Denver in September and it’s a fabulous conference. You should go.
Alexandra: Excellent. Oh, good. Okay. Well, thanks for that plug.
Let’s start by talking about Kate Fox. Tell us a little bit about her background.
Shannon: Kate Fox is a 30-something. She lives in the Nebraska Sandhills and that’s a place I lived for 20 years. So, it has a population density of 0.95 people per square mile and it’s…the Sandhills cover about 30,000 square miles. It’s, you know, takes up a quarter of the state of Nebraska.
Shannon: So, it’s a huge empty place and Kate lives there. She’s related to everybody in the community. She’s one of nine kids and she’s related to everybody. She’s fourth generation so she’s a total insider.
And when Book One opens, she’s just living the exact life she’s always wanted. She’s living on a cattle ranch. She’s managing her husband’s cattle ranch and he’s the sheriff. And she’s taken in her niece. Loves her niece, her high school age niece.
And then all hell breaks loose, of course, as it does in mystery books. And she get’s a call late at night and her husband’s been shot and a local rancher’s been murdered and her niece has gone missing. So, she has to solve the crime.
Alexandra: Nice. Oh, that’s fantastic. I love it.
You mentioned it here, but I read somewhere, too, that she’s living this life that’s perfect for her, that she loves, and then it feels like a big wrench gets thrown in the works and she’s tossed in at the deep end.
I thought that must have been such an interesting thing to do to a character.
Shannon: You know, you always want to put your characters through the crucible and see what happens to the character. It’s like real people. If you just see them in everyday life without any stress, everybody’s lovely, but put a little stress on them and then you get to find out what they’re really made of. So, that’s always a lot of fun.
Alexandra: Yes, it is for writers, isn’t it? Exactly. And the Nebraska Sandhills were something I had never heard of before and so when I was reading that description I went and looked them up, it’s a fascinating bit of geography.
Maybe could you tell our listeners a little bit about it?
Shannon: Sure. It is actually, it’s like the Sahara Desert in topography, so it’s just dunes on dunes, but they’re all grass covered. So, the only thing really you can do with that, because the land is so unstable, is grow grass.
In the Sandhills their main crop is grass and what eats grass is cattle. So, the cattle to people ratio out there is about 50 to 1. There’s a lot of cows out there.
But it also sits on the top of the world’s largest aquifer. It sits on the deepest part of the world’s largest aquifer, which is Ogallala Aquifer. So, there’s ample, ample groundwater and it’s very, very close to the surface and in a lot of places it actually touches the surface, so you have lots and lots of very shallow surface lakes everywhere. So, there’s a surprising amount of birds out there, a lot of birds.
Shannon: It’s a really interesting place.
Alexandra: Yeah, when I started reading about it, I was just fascinated. And one of the things, I don’t know if it was a Wikipedia listing I was reading or whatever, it said that because the ground is so unstable, it’s just the dunes, really the only crop or thing that has ever grown there is grass.
Alexandra: And so, it’s sort of one of the most unaltered places, you know, landscape wise, in the United States because of that. It’s never been industrialized and our kind of more traditional crops have never been grown there because they won’t grow, and I thought that was really fascinating, too.
Shannon: Yeah. So, actually, when it was first settled, it was settled very late…so, in the 1880s was the first time people first started coming out there. And they had the Kinkaiders came out and they plowed up wide swaths of land, and you can still see it now because it doesn’t grow back quickly and when it did grow back, it was invasive weeds. So, you can still see places out there where they plowed it all up.
But a really interesting thing, maybe not to everybody, but I found it really interesting.
When I was living out there, I interviewed this old guy. He was 100 years old, had been there, had come to the Sandhills when he was three, I think, with his parents and so he was…he knew everything about it and he told me. This was Albert and he talked really slowly.
And he told me that when he was young, the hills were actually really sandy. There wasn’t much grass out there. And he said you could track a… The way he talked he was so great, “You could track a gray wolf across the sand in the hills.”
Alexandra: Oh, amazing.
Shannon: Yeah. So, when the ranchers got out there, they actually were really good stewards and they took care of the land. And now, it’s really grass covered and if you, you know, it depends on your sensibilities, but to most of us, they actually improved the land. It isn’t exactly the same as it was, but now it’s more stable and grass covered.
Alexandra: You mentioned the population density or lack thereof. And when I was reading about Kate, you used words in your description like isolated and solitude.
I wondered about that landscape being a metaphor for her personal space, if that’s the right way to ask the question. Can you talk a bit about that?
Shannon: Yeah. Kate loves her solitude. She loves being alone. But she has a fierce, fierce loyalty and she’s not always allowed to be alone because she’s got this giant family and they keep dragging her in. And they keep interfering in her life so that it’s very much this push/pull she’s got where she really loves her family but she just wishes they would just leave her alone. So, that’s always fine.
And then, of course, you know, the loss. She just loses everything. Everything she thinks that she values she loses and has to start all over again.
There’s more in it. It’s not all bad.
Alexandra: Oh, okay. Yeah, it’s not all dark and gloomy.
Alexandra: I gather that she really kind of picks herself up because she starts taking a sheriff’s course, the Sheriff’s Academy course.
Shannon: Well, that. And that’s actually a…that’s a bridging…not in Book One. Not in Book One.
Alexandra: Okay, yeah.
Shannon: But not in Book One.
Alexandra: Okay, great.
And then I read, too, it was in an article you wrote or an interview with you about your genre finding you. It may have been on your blog actually, and you talked about how the story started.
You had written a story about Greek Gods meddling with a divorcee in the Nebraska Sandhills and that you really had…it was kind of all over the place and all different kind of genres mixed in and that you really had to narrow your focus to drill down to have the book be a mystery.
Can you talk about that process a little bit?
Shannon: Writing books and you know this…writing books is so hard. And there’s so much you need to know. And when I started out, one of the things I didn’t know was about genre. I didn’t know that readers expected certain things from different things.
So, for me, starting out when I did, which was well over 20 years ago, for me not having that option to indie pub was a really good thing because I probably would have taken that book that was just all over the place and self-published it and it wouldn’t…it wouldn’t have…and then just have been…written the next one without having to learn all this other stuff.
By having to face all this rejection for so many years, I learned how to hone it down. And, yes, it isn’t formulated. You know, there are romance and mystery and thrillers. You know, they have a kind of a [structure]; you need to do this, you need to do that and it sounds so formulaic but it’s not. It really makes sense and it makes a story come together, and especially when you add readers’ expectations to what’s going to happen. So, yeah, that’s what I think.
And I did actually fall into mystery writing. I didn’t read a lot of mysteries when I was growing up. I know this is sacrilege but I have never read Nancy Drew and I’ve only listened to Agatha Christie, and only that after I sold this book.
So, I thought bouncing all over like that finally settled in and I looked at the market, and this was a long time ago. And I looked at the market and I thought thrillers are selling, that’s what’s selling, I’m going to write a thriller, and so I did.
That was published, but not published well. Yeah, I call it a nano press. And then I wrote another thriller and I sold that one to Midnight Ink. I think that was the first Nora book. And when it was accepted, my editor said, “So, is this… First of all, this isn’t a thriller. It’s a mystery.”
Shannon: And I said, “Okay. Cool.” And she said, “Is it a series or a standalone?” And I thought, “Well, how stupid do I look? It’s a series.”
Shannon: So then, not ever having read series at all, I kind of threw myself into this trial by fire.
So now I read a lot of mysteries, mostly contemporary mystery writers. I don’t have that cannon behind me, but I do read a lot of mysteries now.
Alexandra: And one of the things we should mention, too, is that there are two new Kate Fox stories coming out soon, in October, 2017. You have a short story called Close Enough and a novel, Dark Signal right?
Alexandra: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about both of those?
Shannon: Okay. So, Close Enough – Tor/Forge, my publisher, is calling it the gateway drug.
But it really, I think, gives a flavor for what Kate is and how my voice, Kate’s voice. So, that’s the bridging between Book One and Book Two. And then Book Two, Dark Signal is coming out October 17th. It’s coming out two days after Bouchercon stops. So, sadly it won’t be there for Bouchercon.
Alexandra: I know.
Shannon: But they said, “Oh, we might give some away.” So, yeah. There’s that.
Kate is newly sworn in and there’s a death on the railroad at night. It’s cold. It’s January. I had to really make that up because I haven’t been in Nebraska for years. So, it’s really nice to have to pretend I remembered the cold.
Shannon: There’s a death on the railroad on the train and she is the only one that believes it’s murder. So, she needs to solve that.
And, of course, her personal life is still in chaos, everybody trying to figure out what she ought to do, and letting her know, and interfering and things.
Alexandra: Oh, goodness. Yeah, big families, they’re great at giving advice, aren’t they?
Shannon: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Alexandra: Do you have plans for more Kate Fox books?
Shannon: I do. The third book is turned in to my editor. I don’t have a contract for it yet but she’s looking it over so if anybody has good thoughts, send good thoughts that way.
It deals a lot with the Lakota Reservation and the border towns, the Edge of the Rez type of thing. So, it’s a little bit more serious, but not terribly. I mean, there’s still humor in it, but it really deals with some serious issues that you can’t really laugh about.
Alexandra: Yeah. Right. Okay. Well, let’s segue way now and talk about Nora Abbott.
They are three books in that series. They’re set in Arizona where you are, correct?
Shannon: Well, one is.
Shannon: The first one, Tainted Mountain is set in Flagstaff, which is not where I’m at. Completely different spot.
We moved to Flagstaff and when we moved there…it’s 7,000 feet and it’s a mountain range and so, when we moved in there was this big controversy about manmade snow on the… It’s one of the oldest ski resorts, is right outside of Flagstaff, and climate change and things have made it so it’s not getting a reliable snow pack. So, the Chamber of Commerce types decided that it would be good to pump water up there. Treated waste water is what they’re using. Pump it up there and spray it all over the slopes.
You know, those slopes are sacred to 12 separate tribes.
Shannon: And so, I thought, “Huh, if no one really dies in real life over this I can sure make it up.” So, that’s how that book started.
And again, I thought it was going to be a standalone. And then we moved right away up to Boulder, Colorado and so I set the second book in Boulder, Colorado.
And when I turned that in, my editor sent it back and she said, “Oh no, you don’t have Hopi in here. You have to have Hopi in this book.” And I thought, “Hopi don’t go to the Rocky Mountains.” But they did this time.
Shannon: And then the third book is set in Moab, Utah.
Alexandra: Nora gets around.
Shannon: She does because, you know what? I’ve moved 7 times in 10 years.
Alexandra: Oh, wow.
Shannon: So, you know, I kind of made her a rolling stone as well.
Alexandra: How are Kate and Nora different?
Shannon: They’re very different. Kate is very confident. She’s self-contained. She knows what she wants. She’s really competent. She can take care of things. She doesn’t ask for a lot of help.
Nora is a little bit less secure. She’s a little insecure, at the beginning. She has an arc and she actually comes around.
Nora is an environmentalist. Kate lives on the land. Coming at it from two different ways. They both love the land but in different ways.
Alexandra: Oh, interesting. I think I read somewhere, too, that Nora has a Kachina guide. Is that right?
Shannon: Yeah. Yeah. Something like that, yeah. She sees visions and she’s never sure whether they’re real or not.
Alexandra: Really? What got you to fold that kind of thing into a mystery?
They’re one of the smallest, poorest tribes, one of the oldest cultures in the whole world. And I read somewhere that if you draw a line straight across the globe from the Hopi reservation to the Tibetan reservation that…or it’ll go from the Hopi reservation through the globe to Tibet. And the Tibetan word for moon is the Hopi word for sun and the Hopi word for moon is the Tibetan word for sun.
Shannon: So, there’s weird stuff going on there.
Shannon: And so the Hopi think, yeah, they think they’re responsible for the balance of the whole world. So, how can I not write about them? When you start researching about it, they’re…a lot of things in their cultures, their Kachinas are sometimes ancestors and sometimes they make appearances so that’s where that came from.
Alexandra: Oh, wow.
Shannon: And then in Book Two…Yeah. In “Broken Trust,” we find out why he’s targeted Nora.
Alexandra: Oh, okay.
Shannon: Yeah, they actually have a connection.
Alexandra: You said you just handed in the third Kate Fox book to your editor. What are you working on right now?
Shannon: I’m really excited about this. It’s a book that is completely different than anything I’ve ever written.
I always write with a fair amount of humor. And I don’t know why, but this book that I’m writing is suspense and it’s very dark. It’s got a whole different voice, a whole different rhythm. It’s completely a departure from anything I’ve ever tried before and I’m really excited.
I finished the first draft and I think I actually might be able to pull it off, at some point. I wasn’t sure. Yeah.
Alexandra: Wow. That’s very cool. We’ll have to look out for that once it comes out. And just getting back to Nora for a minute, I had another question, too, about the Hopi tribes.
Shannon: They’re really very secretive.
Alexandra: They’re very secretive?
Shannon Yeah, and rightfully so because when they first…the white people first came here and the Kachinas, their religion and culture is just deeply ingrained in their lives and they would have these ceremonies with their Kachinas and with the Kachina masks and the whole bit.
And for them, they’re not masks, they’re actually the living being Kachinas, and the white people came up there and stole the masks, and just, you know, within the last five years they were having auctions in France of these relics, which are their ancestors basically. So, they got very closed off.
If you go up to the reservation, it’s on three mesas. two of the mesas are closed. They have a sign that says, “No white people allowed.” And the other one is welcoming and they’ll welcome you and take you to their museum and things, but you aren’t allowed to just wonder willy nilly on the reservation. So it’s, of course, a difficult tribe I chose. I could have done the Navajo. They’re happy to talk to you.
Alexandra: You mentioned that you didn’t read a lot of mysteries as a younger person and so I wondered if you were influenced by Tony Hillerman at all with the Nora Abbott mysteries.
Shannon: I wasn’t. You know, I didn’t read any Tony Hillerman until after I published the books and then I picked up Tony Hillerman. And now, I read Anne Hillerman. I love her. In fact, she blurbed my last book.
Alexandra: Oh, fantastic. And she’s Tony’s daughter, correct?
Shannon: Right, yes, and she’s picked up his series and now is featuring Bernie, the young woman, which was always in his books but now she gets her own voice.
Alexandra: Okay. Right, I remember seeing reference to that.
Just before we go, you mentioned Bouchercon which is in Toronto in October and I had Jess Lourey on the show yesterday.
Shannon: Really? Did you know Jess and I are doing the Lourey/Baker Double-booked Blog Tour this month? She didn’t say she was going to be on this. That’s so funny because we’re touring together. In fact, we’re on “Wicked Cozies” today.
Alexandra: Oh, fantastic, yeah. It was a bit of a coincidence the way I met you both, but, yeah, it’s been really fun, and her episode came out yesterday, September 11th. And yours will be out in a couple of weeks.
Alexandra: Yeah. So, you guys are doing a blog tour, so I’ll put some links to that in the show notes.
Shannon: Okay, that’ll be great, yeah.
Alexandra: Yes, yeah. And so, you’ll be at Bouchercon and it’s October 12th to 15th. Is that right?
Shannon: Yeah, I think that’s right, something like that.
Alexander: In Toronto. I won’t be there, unfortunately.
Shannon: You know, it’ll be my first trip to Canada.
Alexandra: Oh, wow, that’s great.
Shannon: Oh, Canada.
Alexandra: Well, I hope you enjoy it. The weather should be nice. Yeah.
Shannon: Yeah, good.
Alexandra: It won’t be as warm as Tucson, but you know.
Shannon: I’ll bring a sweater.
Alexandra: Yeah. Yeah, good idea. So, just before we go, why don’t you let our listeners know where they can find out more about you and your books?
Shannon: Okay. You can go to my website. It’s at Shannon-Baker.com and if you sign up for my newsletter you’ll get a free short story.
Alexandra: Awesome. And that’s different than the one we mentioned, right? “Close Enough.”
Shannon: “Close Enough,” yes. Yeah, it’s a different short story. Yeah.
Alexandra: In addition to that. Okay, cool. So, I’ll put…
Shannon: I’m not sure if it’s an occasional story. I’m not even sure what short story I’m giving away.
Alexandra: Well, I’ll put a link to it in the show notes and people can find out.
Shannon: Okay. Thank you.
Alexandra: Great. Well, thank you so much, Shannon. This has been awesome. It’s been great chatting with you.
Shannon: It’s been great. Thanks so much.
Alexandra: You’re welcome. Take care. Bye bye.
Shannon: Okay. Bye bye.