Author Judy K. Walker tells us how she found her main character Sydney Brennan, and coined the term ‘Thrillergy’, in this interview.
Stories come from many different places and Judy lets us in on parts of her process for writing her books. Since we recorded the interview, she has published the first book in the ‘Thrillergy’ she mentions – it is called Prodigal is separate from the Sydney Brennan Mysteries.
1890. Frontier British Columbia. When one of her students is accused of a crime, will new schoolteacher Julia Thom be able to prove his innocence?
For a limited time you can click here, or on the cover image at right to get your free copy.
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcription of Interview with Judy Walker
Alexandra: Hi, mystery readers, I’m Alexandra Amor. This is “It’s a Mystery” podcast, and I’m here today with Judy Walker. Hi, Judy.
Judy: Hi Alexandra, how are you?
Alexandra: Very well, how are you?
Judy: I’m doing well, thank you.
Alexandra: Good. It’s great to have you here today. So, let me give you an introduction to our listeners.
Author Judy K. Walker drew upon her own experiences as a Florida criminal appellate attorney in creating her fictional private investigator, Sydney Brennan. She’s currently taking a break before book six in the series to return to her Appalachian roots in a thriller trilogy project, but don’t worry there are many more Sydney Brennan adventures to come. Judy writes from her home in rainy East Hawaii, which has been very rainy lately as you were saying.
Judy: Indeed it has. Five inches yesterday.
Alexandra: Holy moly. Yeah, that’s wet. That’s wet even by Vancouver standards.
Judy: That’s Wednesday here.
Alexandra: Yeah, it’s way the it goes.
Tell us a bit about Sydney Brennan. I liked it that you called her your hair alter ego somewhere on the website, but tell us more about her.
Judy: Yes. Well, you know, with that introduction, I have to start with her hair. And I think it’s in my…it might be in my Amazon thing that I said people talk about their characters as being their alter egos, and you know, doing all the things they wanna do, but for me I really just want her hair.
I had always envisioned Sydney with this, you know, these fantastic ringlets of red curls, which of course, you have short, apparently straight hair, so you probably know what I mean. But people with curly hair never like their curly hair, they’re always complaining about it.
And they say the same thing to me, they’re like, “Oh, I love you straight hair.” Well, none of us are ever happy that way. But when I was a child I had red ringlets of curls, and my mother still just cries when she talks about cutting them off, because they never came back.
So this character I saw her with this fantastic hair that I lost so many years ago. And when I was working with my cover designer the first time, I didn’t think I would put a person on the front cover. And as I was going through stock photos I saw her, and this woman looked so much like her, that I just, “That’s Sydney. I have to put her on the cover.” So yeah, she does get to put that front and center. But she’s just not only about the hair, although the hair is wonderful.
But so Sydney is a private investigator in Tallahassee, Florida, and that’s where I lived when I was doing death penalty appeals. I took a lot of my experience in that area and shifted it sideways for her.
I have her growing up in Florida, but eventually she goes all over the place, ends up back in Florida and she works at a public defender’s office. And that was something that I felt like I could relate to, because it’s sort of close to my own experience working for a state agency, and then eventually she goes out and becomes a private investigator. So that was my way of trying to make her experience as authentic as I could, basing it on the experiences I had and the experiences my friends who are investigators have.
The state agency that I worked for, it was sort of controversial. So the few years that I worked there, they were always talking about shutting us down, and they finally did. And it was abrupt, so you were left with all of these attorneys and investigators who were trying to figure out what to do.
I did see a lot of my friends who became investigators, coming from that criminal defense background, who were then going out to become private investigators. I felt like I could get in her head that way, thinking about how she would approach cases and sort of what her take on things would be.
Alexandra: That must bring such a layer of authenticity to the stories that you’re telling.
Judy: I hope so, yeah.
Alexandra: She worked in an attorney’s office.
Does she have a legal background? Did she go to law school at all?
Judy: Yeah, she did. And I always forget we’re so global now that this is something that probably doesn’t translate as well for Canadians, and, you know, everyone else.
In the United States, if you’re charged with a serious crime, then you’re entitled to a lawyer, and if you can’t afford a lawyer then the state will appoint one for you. So this is an office that’s set up specifically for people who can’t afford to have a lawyer.
It works different in different places, but the basic idea is that they would have lawyers and they would also have investigators who help them work on the case.
I envision it as her working with these attorneys investigating criminal cases. And so she wouldn’t actually have done any sort of formal training, but you learn a lot, you know, sort of osmosis from working in that system.
Alexandra: Yes, yeah.
And did she did have family members in law enforcement, or how did she get pulled into this work?
Judy: No, not at all. Very much not, and her mother has passed away, but I imagine she would not have been happy, and her family is sort of…
I try in Sydney to make a character who’s not as dark and broken as a lot of private investigators that you read about, because that gets a little too much sometimes, although I love reading them. But I don’t want to be stuck writing them all the time. So that is one of her broken areas, though, so when the series opens, she’s been estranged from her family for a long time.
Through the course of the series, she has a brother that died when she was a teenager, and a sister and her father are the only ones that are left. So through the course of the series, she’s gradually growing back with them. She hasn’t spoken to them for years.
And then really a lot of what’s happening in these cases that she takes on sort of snaps her out of her way of being in the world, you know, just sort of same old, same old status quo, “I don’t need to think about my family or, you know, how I fit in the world or whatever.”
By the fourth book, she actually goes to visit her sister who she hasn’t seen for years and years. So it’s that sort of that sort of progression. But they’re definitely not law enforcement.
She definitely has an arc, then, over the series of the books?
Judy: Yes, very much so. Yes, she does and actually several of the characters do too. And it’s something that I have to keep in mind, because I am…generally, I’m a pantser, so I write by the seat of my pants. I just sort of…I might know something. I’m changing that a little bit. I’m trying to reform, but it’s not the most efficient way to write.
But I do start out with a scene or two somewhere in the future, and I write toward that. So it’s a little bit hard. I have a lot of files of notes to remind myself of all of these larger character arcs, and I sort of have in mind, “Okay, around book eight or nine, these really big things are gonna happen that change everything. And so in order to do that, and to have this happen in three, and this happen in four, and this happen in five.”
Alexandra: Wow. Did you have that kind of a long-term plan right from the outset?
Judy: I did not. I didn’t even really have an idea of writing a series. And the first book in the series, “Back to Lazarus,” I wrote…I can’t even do the math now, but it’s been over 10 years. I mentioned that the agency that I was working for was shut down, so I had to find another job, and I ended up working for a private attorney who also only did death penalty cases. But he did death penalty cases from all over the country, so it was very interesting and I learned so much from him. But he didn’t need somebody super full-time; it wasn’t like crazy lawyer hours.
So when I had all this spare time, I would go to the coffee shop, and I started writing this book. It’s been interesting for me to go back and look at it because that’s when the first draft was written. I did do some things to it over the years, but I think a lot of my own transitions are kind of in her transition.
When you look back at who you were 10 years ago and then where you are now, you hope that you can make that transition for the character as seamless as possible. But yeah, it’s been an interesting journey.
And I didn’t even start with her actually. The first character I had in mind was someone you never meet, and it was the man who has committed suicide that she’s going to investigate his suicide for his daughter. And it was a scene in my head from 20 years before, and then eventually I found Sydney. And then once I found Sydney, I found the rest of it.
Alexandra: And was that the point at which you decided to make into a series? When did that happen?
Judy: I don’t know if I really had that in my mind or not. At some point I did, because I started the next book. But then over the years I did other things and I stopped doing that, and I would go back to it. I might start the rounds of agents or contests or whatever.
And then it wasn’t until a few years ago that I really got serious about it. So I guess in 2014, you know, I just decided, “Why not?” And once you start writing…I feel like, at least, the more you write the more they speak to you. So the more you want to tell. As I’m writing the things I wnat to tell the readers, I’m like, “You’ll never guess what’s gonna happen in the next book with this character. I love this character.”
Alexandra: Exactly. I find exactly the same thing that creativity begets creativity. The more we write, the more we’re able to write, it’s really interesting. You mentioned the scene that you had in your head and the felon who has committed suicide, and then one of the things that intrigued me about the first book is that it’s about a case that happened quite a long time ago.
Tell us a little bit about that, and you don’t have to spoil anything, but give us a little bit about the first book.
A woman comes to Sydney and says that her father has committed suicide, but she didn’t know him. She hadn’t seen him since she was a young girl, and eventually it’s sort of like pulling teeth to get a story out of this woman. You can tell that she’s conflicted about being there, but on some level, she really wants to know and she says that she wants to know why he committed suicide.
It turns out that he had committed suicide in prison, because he had murdered his wife, who is this young woman’s mother, and she was raised by relatives. So she wants to know why he waited over 20 years to kill himself in prison.
Alexandra: That is a puzzle.
Judy: Yeah. And, you know, so it’s sort of like, well, how do you figure that out? But, that does pique Sydney’s curiosity, too, and that’s something that carries through with her that, like any good fictional PI, once you’ve piqued her curiosity, it’s hard to get her to stop.
Alexandra: Right, yes, exactly. And one of the other things that intrigued me about your writing, and I noticed that on your website, you have a section – well, a category – for your blog called Magpie Moments, which I really liked, and I started reading a few of them.
Tell our listeners a little bit about that.
Judy: I came up with the phrase “Magpie Moments” because Magpies are always stealing shiny bits, the best parts. That’s what a Magpie wants, the shiniest stuff. So they’ll take those shiny bits and then incorporate them into their nests or wherever, and that’s what I feel like a lot of us do as writers.
Sometimes someone will read your books, and I’m sure you’ve had this happen, where they try to figure out, “Who’s this character?” And you say, “No, it’s not a person you know. It may have bits from different people you know, but it’s not a person you know.”
So this is that same kind of thing, where I’ve taken a little bit that I know, that I recognize because I don’t always know what I’m incorporating in there comes from my own experience. But there are things that have happened that I’ve put into the books, so it might be – let me think of one – a favorite doughnut shop that you used to stop at on the way to visit inmates, you know, or something like that.
Or it could be just some really bizarre experience that people would not think actually happens, like getting mooned by inmates at jail, and it does. I think it’s just fun sometimes to share those things, because we all have those things in our lives that we think, “Oh, that’s such a great story. And, you know, if I ever write a book, that’s going in the book.” And, you know, so those things do make it into dark books, and I kind of wanted to share that with the readers.
Alexandra: Yeah, I like that, that bit of transparency, you know, in those magpie moments on your site. And I think it does… I often get asked by readers about what’s real and what isn’t, what’s made up. And as writers, we’re often weaving stuff together that’s real and that isn’t all the time. And sometimes the lines are a bit fuzzy.
It’s nice that you’re able to show people, you know, specific examples of what you’re pulling from.
Judy: That’s true. Sometimes I don’t know until later. There have been times when I’ve had conversations with my husband or with my mom, and I’ll realize that was something from real life, and I don’t even know it, you know, until I put it in there, or it was inspired by something, you know. So these are things that, you know, they’re just fun and it’s not like it’s anything that’s gonna embarrass anyone, except possibly me. So yeah, I love doing those.
Alexandra: Oh, that’s great.
Tell us a little bit about the thriller trilogy that I mentioned in the introduction. I don’t think any of those are published yet, is that right?
Alexandra: Okay, so yeah, tell us a little or what you can about them.
Judy: Sure. Yeah, I’m thinking about using the word ‘Thrillergy,’ if that would make it easier for you.
Alexandra: Yeah, that’s great. That’s a great word.
Judy: We were talking a little bit about my process earlier, and I confess that I am a pantser. So with this project, this is something that I’m doing a little differently. And I’m trying to, you know, try something different with my process.
I’m spending a lot more time up front on the characters, on the locations and even something that I hesitate to call an outline, because that makes it sound more organized than it is. But, you know, mapping things out, and also because this is a trilogy. So three books is it, and it is, you know, each one will have a beginning and an end, you know, there will be a resolution. But it is a larger story arc over those three books and if you want the whole arc, you know, you’re gonna have to read the whole three books.
So to make sure kind of with the series with 10 books or 15 books, with 3 books, to make sure I put everything in, I’m kind of mapping out things ahead of time and trying to figure out, “Okay, when can I let the reader know this? And when do they have to know that?” So it’s been really fun, it’s a really interesting process.
And the idea, though, as you said in the introduction…I’m actually going back to my roots. I grew up in West Virginia, and it’s going to be the story of someone who goes back to his hometown, which he hasn’t been to in a very long time, in the mountains because something is happening that happened before.
I love all these time things apparently. And once you asked me about that, I realized, “Oh, yeah. I do like to go back and forth in time.” So yeah, a child has been kidnapped, and he thinks that he might be able to do something about it. So he goes back to his hometown.
Alexandra: The central character is male in this one?
Judy: Well, he…yes, he is male, the pronoun. But I’m going to have a couple of point of view characters. So there’s also a woman who was his best friend when they were kids, and I’m going to alternate between their viewpoints, so that’ll be interesting too.
The Sydney Brennan books are all in first person, so that’s one of the things that I think a lot of the readers really like. They like being in her head, you know, and she’s got a little bit of a snarky sense of humor, so I can’t imagine where she got that. But, they like that and they like hearing what she’s thinking even when she doesn’t say it. So this will be interesting to have these different point-of-view characters and when to play with something new.
Alexandra: Have you started writing it?
Judy: I am about to start. I was just finishing up an outline last night in, so I’m very excited.
[Note: Prodigal, the book Judy is referring to has now been published. Click on the book cover above to learn more.]
Alexandra: Yeah, it’s always fun at the beginning.
Judy: Yes. And as part of this, I’m actually doing this sort of as part of a program or with a group of people, and we’re pushing each other as part of this program to do things we wouldn’t otherwise have done. So in that vein, I’ve actually gotten my covers already for the three books, and that’s something that I never do.
I’m always last-minute, I don’t know what the title it is. I’ve even had…on one of the books, one of my readers picked the title for me. I had a contest and I said, “Okay, signed paperback. Who can come up with a title for me?,” because it’s one of those things that I have palpitations about. But for this one, I did a little brainstorming with my martyred husband and it’s going really well, it’s a very different process. So I’m excited.
Alexandra: Yeah. Oh, that’s very cool.
Are you going to release them all at once?
Judy: I’m going to release them pretty close together, but not all at once. So I’m hoping the first one will be released in February, and then probably every six weeks after that.
Alexandra: Oh, very cool, okay. Well, I might have to come back and ask you how that goes sometime in the future.
Judy: Sure, sure. And I’ve stuck with Sydney’s stories that I started, too, so those are, you know, hanging.
Alexandra: Yes, yeah, and then I guess you’ll get back to her once the trilogy is out.
Judy: Yes, yes, or while I’m editing or something.
Alexandra: Yeah, exactly. Well, it’s been great talking to you today, Judy. This has been amazing. So why don’t tell everyone where they can find your books?
Judy: Sure. You can go to my website, it’s www.judyk – just the initial – walker, W-A-L-K-E-R – like “Texas Ranger” – .com…which I never watched, but everyone always loved to say to me. “Walker Texas Ranger.” It’s a Chuck Norris thing, so be glad you’re in Canada. JudyKWalker.com
There are links to all my books on my website, and I am on all platforms, I think except Google Play, but I’m pretty much on all the major platforms, so you can find all that there. And I do, you know, post to the blog every week. And also, my first and series is free everywhere, and Sydney Brennan series, which is “Back to Lazarus.” And the second book in the series, if you sign up for my email list, you can get that for free as well.
Alexandra: Very cool. Oh, that’s great. All right. Well, thank you so much again for being the with us here today.
Judy: Thank you, Alexandra.
Alexandra: My pleasure. Talk to you soon.