Have you ever wondered what it would take to disappear from your life entirely?
Laura’s detective in her debut mystery novel, Daughters of Bad Men, is a skip tracer; she finds people who don’t necessarily want to be found. In our wired world it must be increasingly difficult for those who want to disappear to do so. Toward this end of this interview, you’ll hear Laura touch on the idea for her next book featuring skip-tracer Jamie Rush, which asks the question, what if it’s better for one of Jamie’s targets to remain unfound?
Links and resources mentioned in this episode
- Click on any of the book covers to go to Laura’s books on Amazon
- Laura belongs to a group called the Austin Mystery Writers. Click here to learn more.
- Book People bookstore in Austin, Texas
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcription of Interview with Laura Oles
Alexandra: Hi, Mystery Readers, I’m Alexandra Amor. This is “It’s A Mystery Podcast” and I’m here today with Laura Oles. Hi, Laura. How are you?
Laura: Hi, how are you?
Alexandra: I’m good, thanks. Let me introduce you to our listeners.
Daughters of Bad Men, her debut novel was named The Killer Nashville Claymore Award Finalist in 2016. This is the first book in a new series which introduces skip tracer Jamie Rush and her partner Cookie Hinojosa.
Laura’s short stories have appeared in several anthologies, including Murder on Wheels which won the Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award in 2016. She’s also a Writer’s League of Texas Award Finalist. Her short story, “Island Time,” has been selected to appear in the “Malice Domestic 13 Anthology: Murder Most Geographical” to be published next year. Laura lives on the edge of Texas Hill Country with her husband, daughter, and twin sons.
Just before we started to air the show today, we both mentioned that as we’re recording this, it’s Friday, December 29th, 2017. And the world is just finding out that our beloved Sue Grafton has passed away.
I asked Laura if she would be comfortable just talking a little bit about Sue’s influence.
Why don’t we start there, Laura, and you can just tell us a little bit about her work and what it meant to you?
Laura: Well, you know, Sue, obviously anybody who loves mysteries and storytelling knows Sue Grafton and her work. And it’s just very sad to read. I didn’t expect it at all. So, I’m still, quite frankly, I’m still digesting it because I think it’s just been out in the news less than an hour or so.
Alexandra: Yeah, me too, absolutely. And I think a couple of things occurred to me.
One was that I didn’t realized she was sick. And I know that today, in the announcements that they’ve made, they said she’s been battling cancer for a couple of years. But I don’t think that was sort of made generally aware, which makes sense. You know, she probably wanted to protect her privacy. Anyway, it’s a great loss.
And as we said, her last book, what turned out to be her last book is “Y is for Yesterday”. And so, people are saying that, yeah, now the alphabet ends at Y which is a very nice tribute to her I think. So, we tip our deerstalker hats to Sue Grafton today.
Laura: Yes. She’ll be missed by so many people.
Alexandra: She really will be.
Let’s change topics slightly then and talk about Jamie. Jamie is a skip tracer and I love this kind of spin on the mystery genre, having somebody do something slightly different than being a private investigator or a police detective.
Tell us a little bit about her and her background. And I want to ask you some specific questions in a minute too about her sort of sketchy background.
She had an interesting upbringing in that her parents were small time con artists. She had a life that was on the move, and I was kind of drawn to that.
I’m an Air Force brat so I grew up in the military, moving around quite a bit. So, I understood a little bit of that moving and never quite feeling centered but for different reasons. So, that was a little bit fun to tap into and just flip it on its head and make it something more nefarious than every day of just, oh, you’re just moving for your dad’s job.
But she’s a skip tracer, and it’s a fictionalized version of Port Aransas, Texas. It’s called Port Arlene. And I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Port Aransas, it’s a Texas coastal town. It was actually recently hit very hard by hurricane Harvey.
The majority of the businesses have been heavily impacted. Most of the homes there…it’s been really difficult rebuilding. But that’s a place that’s close to our family’s heart because we would spend… It’s only a couple of hours drive for us so we would take off; our family holidays there. And it’s a wonderful coastal town, and so that kind of surges the inspiration for the location a bit.
Jamie is a skip tracer. She usually just works on small time missing person’s cases. Usually people that are skipping because they either owe money for certain things, a lot of small time things.
She’s asked by her half-brother to find her niece who goes missing. She’s always kept her family at a distance for quite a while, and so this was a difficult case for her to take on. Because her niece tends to disappear and come back every so often, and this time, she’s not responding to any outreach, she’s not coming back. So, she decides to take the case even though she’s concerned about what she might find.
Alexandra: I noticed in the description of the book that it describes her parents, that they were the people who taught her how to disappear. And this is one way that she can be a successful skip tracer because she knows how people do that.
Did her parents teach her that because of their sort of “careers”?
Laura: Well, usually what would happen is that they would have a certain job that would run for a while, and then they would need to leave. And so, they got used to relocating very quickly.
One of the things that gets people in trouble when they’re trying not to be found is because people are creatures of habit.
It’s amazing how many people will not stay off Facebook and Instagram, I would say, that are trying to remain hidden. I was talking to different skip tracers and people that do this kind of work. And the technology actually really helps them quite a bit.
I intentionally don’t rely on it as much for this book because the information is viable but how you get people to talk to you about that information is what’s going to lead you to the next step. And so, I really want to focus on that aspect of kind of finding people as opposed to just searching different databases and cross referencing accident reports and other documents where you might be able to find people, which is actually how a lot of things are done.
I want to play more with the relationship aspect of how you reach out to somebody and get them to talk to you when they don’t want to talk to you. So, she relies on that behavior.
And that’s also something she learned from her parents, because her parents were very good at getting people to trust them. Now, in their instance they should not be trusted, but they were very good at winning that trust. Whereas, she’s trying to earn that trust for good for other people in her work.
Alexandra: You mentioned talking to other skip tracers there. I’m always fascinated by how mystery authors go about doing something like that.
How did you establish those relationships?
Laura: People are really pretty helpful. Some prefer not to talk about the details. We have a fantastic skip tracer here in Texas who is in her market. I didn’t speak with her personally in her market, though she knows everything. From what I understand, just a legend. And she’s been focused, covered in other magazines.
But people are usually pretty helpful and wanting to tell me, you know, the basics of what they’re doing, showing me some different databases that they might use, how that information is connected. Again, that was one of the funniest things as I had interviewed one skip tracer.
You’d be amazed at how much people put on Facebook. They just…they do. I know, and you can’t write it in the book because people won’t believe it because it seems so easy. But people are creatures of habit and they might drop off for a while but they want to reach out to people they’re close to.
If you’ve done any homework on what it really takes to stay off the grid entirely, it’s really difficult and it’s exhausting. It’s emotionally exhausting because you have to change every single thing you do all the time. And that’s a tough way to live for any period of time, even for a little bit.
Alexandra: Yeah. And I’ve read that in other, I think mostly sort of non-fiction books, that after a while it’s exhausting, and that’s exactly the right word to use.
The tension builds up, and not being yourself, and doing that for an extended period of time is really, really hard.
Laura: Yes, yes. Because at first, the adrenaline and the concern kicks in and you’re off and you’re doing something completely different. But after a while, you tend to slip back into your old patterns.
And they might be very small things. It might be a certain store that you frequented for a certain thing. Or very minor things that people are looking at your habits, if they’re studying you, it only takes one. That’s the thing, it’s always one small thing.
Alexandra: Exactly. And I think, I mean you mentioned technology too and in how in the book you don’t rely on it too much. I’m really conscious these days of how observed we are.
And just a little tiny example, I live in a small town on the West Coast of Vancouver Island and I’m wanting to go further inland tomorrow to do some shopping. And one of the things I can do is check the webcams for the different mountain passes between here and where I wanted to go, which is a great thing because now I can check and see what the weather is like.
However, what I realized is that those cameras are taking photographs of everybody who’s going by, right?
Laura: That’s right.
Alexandra: So, right away my mystery author mind kicked in and I thought, “If I wanted to leave without anybody knowing, how would I do that?” Because there’s one road in and one road out, and the cameras are taking pictures.
Laura: No, that’s great. No, that’s how your mystery mind works. It’s always like, “How would I do that?” I know I’m… Now I’m gonna think about them. I’m like, “How would she go down if she ended up…?” Yeah, no, I understand. Yep.
Alexandra: Yeah. The only thing I’ve come up so far is stealing a pair of license plates. But your vehicle is very recognizable sometimes, so anyway.
Laura: Or maybe have a friend pick you up and put you in the trunk. Pick an option.
Alexandra: Yes. I guess that’s an option.
One of the other things I wanted to ask you too was about Cookie. Cookie is Jamie’s sidekick. So, tell us a little bit about him.
Laura: The book has only been out about six weeks, so it’s pretty new release. But some of the reviews and some people who had emailed me who had read the book talked about how much they love Cookie which I really enjoyed because he’s a great character.
He’s a very protective partner. They’re equals in terms of the work but he’s actually more technologically savvy than she is. She doesn’t wanna mess with it. He tends to do more of that.
He’s a big guy with a ferocious level of Hawaiian shirts. He just can’t fake it. So, I’ve had a few people like asked me about, “Where would I find some Hawaiian shirts?” And I said I know, I know where you can get some.
But he’s kind of that emotional balanced. There are very few people that Jamie trusts in her life, and that’s one of the things, the family dynamic with her.
One of the things I want to explore is what does your life look like when you can’t trust your family? So, that’s a very powerful question. It’s one that I tend to keep returning to because you need…you feel that you need them in your life for certain things and yet you can’t trust them in a way that they’re not your safe place to fall.
Cookie has been her safe place to fall. He has her back unflinchingly. He has a solid family that is good to her and so she gets that through their relationship. So, he’s the comic relief. I think they banter with each other really well. They understand each other really well. So, he’s been a lot of fun to write. He’s pretty easy to write for me.
Alexandra: And he’s a skip tracer, too?
Laura: Yes. They work together in partnership. Jamie used to talk herself in and out of situations. She’s not going to be somebody that if she gets into a difficult situation, she’s not going to get into a fist fight very often or a big, physical battle given her stature.
Whereas, Cookie, his stature is gonna make people think twice. They tend to play off each other’s strengths, but she’s very good at talking her way into and out of certain situations. So, it works out pretty well for them.
Alexandra: You said he has a good, strong family, and you mentioned this theme of exploring what if your family are the people that you can’t trust. I have two questions.
How did she meet Cookie? Where does their relationship go back to? And then do you think that his family is a group that can teach her what that feels like, to trust your own family?
Laura: I think so. When she moved to Port Arlene, she had not intended to stay there. She was going to be there for a while and she’s been separate from her family for a while. And just the town really grew on her. She started to develop relationships.
And usually, when you move into a town, one of the first things you wanna do is be friendly but forgettable. Like you don’t want to develop relationships with people, you don’t reattach people, you don’t want to give them too much information.
I haven’t written about this too much in this book but in future, some of the back…just the work I’ve done, just kinda getting to know her well, is that these people over time became her relationships.
And she also is drawn there because she has a good friend, Erin who is a small-town bookie in Port Arlene, who tends to service the Winter Texan market.
I don’t know if you anything about our Winter Texans but we have all these wonderful people who come downhill from the north for the winter months because it’s warmer, and they live here on the coast for a few months. And so, she’s got that relationship through Erin. And so, she came to Port Arlene and said, “Well, I’ll be here for a little bit.” Definitely, she’s one of the few people that she trusts.
Alexandra: You think Cookie’s family will be an influence on her in future books?
Laura: I do. Because his mother, I love his mother. She doesn’t get a lot of play in this book. She’s mentioned a few times but I have plans for his mother. She’s wonderful and his whole family. So, yeah, I do think that she’s going to get that.
I don’t know that it would be enough to convince her that she will have her own family that way. Like I think she will feel connected to them. I don’t know emotionally if she’s capable of recreating that in her own way at some point in the future. I think she’s very guarded.
Alexandra: And are you working on the second book now? We mentioned this is the first in the series.
Laura: I know, yes. I am. It’s been during the holidays. I’m always impressed with people who continue to get their word count in during the holidays, because our house is just loosely managed chaos for the last couple of weeks. And working at home you can juggle some things but I am epic fail right now.
What I’ve been doing is not so much…I’ve been little things but I’m just doing more outlining, and I’m doing more… I’m not like real strict outliner but I’m kind of working through some different details. So, if something comes up, I’m like I need to figure out why would she do this, or I don’t know if this works.
More of those notes as I’m working on chapters but not, yeah, the last. This Christmas has been tough. I know people do this and I’m always so impressed. I’m like how did you hit 2,000 words? Like, I don’t know how you did it. My shoes don’t even match right now. I don’t know how you did that way.
Alexandra: When your kids go back to school, it must be a big relief. You can get your word count in.
Laura: Yeah. It’s tough because I have three teenagers and I like all of them very much. Actually, they’re really great kids. Sometimes when people go, “Oh, teenagers.” But I…they’re great and I love their great friends.
I have one who’s a senior and my twins are freshmen. They’re so busy now with their own school, and sports, and were running quite a bit. This is that season in our lives where we’re just in the car all the time going to things. So, I love the time we’re getting to spend together.
I’m willing to try to make it up later. But yeah, it just feel like it’s going really quickly. I think especially my oldest one. I’m just like, ugh, not ready yet. Yeah.
Alexandra: No, no, she’ll be flying the coop soon.
Laura: Will be, yeah. And I’m excited for all the things she’s going to get to experience. But it’s hard. And so, yeah, I’m happy to keep them. They can make all the noise and whatever they want right now. They bring all their friends, it’s good. It’s all good. It all cleans up, albeit later. It’s fine.
Alexandra: Excellent. Well, we mentioned in the introduction that you have had a few short stories in some anthologies. And I’m kind of assuming that you were sort of getting your feet wet writing mysteries in that way.
Tell us about that journey for you.
Laura: And I’ve written a few other books kind of as practice. This is my first published novel, but it’s my fourth novel, so my fourth mystery. I’m just learning different things about story structure, trying to get a feel for how to do different things. So, for me, that’s been really valuable.
They will never see the light of day, they’re not good. But they taught me. It’s important for me I think to learn through that way.
Short stories, I kind of fell into. I’m part of a group called Austin Mystery Writers. It’s a small critique group, and we’d get together so that we could critique one another’s work and kind of help each other or help one another move things forward.
And from that point, we started working on an anthology just for fun. Wildside Press picked it up and was wonderful. It did really well. And it was great because it gave me a chance to play with structure.
And sometimes you have an idea, like I have a couple of ideas right now and I’m not sure if they have the legs to be a full-scale novel. So, you can play with it in a short story and decide whether or not that’s going to work.
Actually, “Island Time,” the story that’s gonna be in the Malice Domestic Anthology next spring, is also based in Port Arlene. It’s a different group of people but in the same town, and so all these things tie together overtime. So, that was fun to do.
And then the one that just came out, Lone Star Lawless, has some wonderful short stories. So, we have some great contributors like Janice Hamrick, Terry Shames, Mark Pryor, Alexandra Burt, Scott Montgomery, some wonderful authors. That just came out last month also, so it’s been a lot of fun.
Alexandra: And great to have that community of other writers, I imagine.
Laura: It really is because it’s a very solitary experience. So, I think being around other writers and kind of bouncing ideas off of them, and just, you know, what are you struggling with, does this work, does this not work? And it’s been really helpful.
Alexandra: Oh, that’s amazing. I’ll put some links in the show notes at itsamysterypodcast.com to those books and so people can check them out as well if they like short mysteries.
I’m working on some short mysteries myself, and I always find it even a little trickier actually than writing a full-length novel to just be that condensed and to get the same, you know, important elements in there, the same twists, the same surprises in a shorter period of time.
Did you find it that way as well?
Laura: I do. I think one of the most difficult challenges is getting the emotional connection of the characters in that short space. For me, it was like how do you develop that with the reader in, you know, 5,000 or 10,000 words.
It’s difficult when you have multiple people that you’re bringing in and you’re trying to create that anticipation for the reader. On top of all the other structural things you’re talking about like the proper twists, and did I handle this correctly, and can I tie this up without it being too quick or too pat.
I write it long and cut it. I mean I just…for me, that seems to be better. But yeah, I think that’s the character development that’s hard for me because I don’t have the room to play with that as much as I would like to.
Alexandra: Yes, yeah, exactly. Great point. And the other thing we mentioned was that you were a photo journalist in the past life.
Do you find any parallels between photo journalism and writing? I’m just curious. They’re both art forms.
Laura: They’re both storytelling. I was in the photo industry, so I was writing about the photo industry which is a little bit different. But both of my in-laws are professional photographers, like master craftsmen, professional photographers.
I wrote for different consumer and trade magazines. I did a lot of photo shows. Photography is definitely an art form.
It’s interesting because you can tell the truth and you can also lie with pictures, the same way with words. You can tell the truth and also lie with the right lead in. People would say, “A photo always tells you the truth.” And no, it doesn’t.
Because you can create whatever you want in the same instance which I actually love about it. There’s so many ways, when you’re behind the lens to tell a story.
I love to do candids. I would like to be the distance from people and capture conversations. Or, just those authentic smiles. Like my family, we’re the worst at family photos which is sad because we are a group of photographers who do not like to have their pictures taken in a group. We’re terrible. We don’t all sit together. We wiggle a lot. We make those like really awkward smile, the whole thing. So, I tend to like more of the candid photos, I’m drawn to that.
I think a lot of it is also listening and patience. Like when you take a photo, a lot of times you want to just let people be together for a little bit before you start snapping right away. You want to get people comfortable.
And I think in a story, a lot of the times you don’t made me so I want to hit them completely at the beginning. You want to bring them in to the world. Let them get a little bit comfortable. So, I think there’s some parallels that way, too.
But I also covered a lot of the different technologies over that time. That was before digital photography, or digital photography was really popular. And I enjoyed that because there were so many big industry leaps happening in a short period of time. So, that was a lot of fun to cover.
Alexandra: Oh, it must have been. Yeah, amazing.
Laura: Hard to believe it but we use to not be able to take prints from digital cameras.
Alexandra: Yeah, crazy.
Laura: Photo op was not a verb a long time ago. Like, it’s all different now.
Alexandra: And it’s changed so fast. Incredible.
Laura: It really has. So, it’s been fun to be on the other side of it.
Alexandra: Oh, that’s great.
Laura: I still have some things I do a little bit here and there in the photo business by just kind of keeping connected with people. And I’m not as current on it as I used to be, but I’m just now I’m enjoying it as a consumer.
Alexandra: One last question before we go.
Can you tell us anything about the next book in the series? Any plot points that you kind of got nailed down or anything?
Laura: I’m still so in it. So, I’m trying to articulate it well. It’s essentially about a woman who goes missing. And so, Jamie has to find this missing person and she realizes that maybe she shouldn’t have been found.
Alexandra: Oh, I like it, wow.
Laura: I’ve been working through that, so it’s been really interesting to deal with. Just to deal with the dynamics of what do you do if this person should have stayed hidden, and why.
Alexandra: Oh, amazing.
And any idea when that might be out?
Laura: I don’t have any firm deadlines yet. I’m hoping I’ll know more in a few months. We’ll do that and then we have another, you know, we have the anthology coming out and, you know, maybe another short story project.
Alexandra: Right, yeah.
Laura: Yep, then we’ll see.
Alexandra: Yeah. And right now, people can pick up Daughters of Bad Men which is available on all the online retailers, and I’ll put links.
Laura: Yes. You got, yep, all those. And if you’re in the Austin area, you can go to Book People. We’re close by there so that’s my favorite place to be, close to Austin. And also, we have a lot of great community in the area. Right in between Austin and San Antonio.
Alexandra: Well, this has been amazing, Laura. Why don’t you let our listeners know a little bit about where they can find out more about you and your books?
Laura: Okay. Yes. You can find me online at lauraoles.com. It’s O-L-E-S .com, Laura Oles. Also, I’m on Twitter. And I’m very sporadic on Twitter, I apologize. I’m just…I’m on and off, can’t make it stick. So, it’s @lauraoles. And on Facebook, also Laura Oles on Facebook, so that’s… And then also my author page is Laura Oles Author. So, you can find me two ways on Facebook. And then on Instagram, I am also LauraOles1.
Alexandra: Okay, great. Awesome. Well, this has been fantastic. Thanks very much for being with me today. And try to stay warm there in Texas Hill Country.
Laura: Yeah, and thanks. It’s with the 40-degree weather that we’re just terrified of.
Alexandra: Hope you survive.
Laura: Yes, thanks so much.
Alexandra: Thanks, Laura. Bye-bye.
Laura: Bye-bye. Thank you.