Amazon mystery bestselling author Mary Castillo finds a fine balance in her novels between the paranormal, historical fiction and mystery.
After a hiatus that lasted longer than I anticipated (and included a move across the country, a very bad cold, and a couple of weeks of couch surfing with some very dear -and very patient – friends), I am thrilled to be back to broadcasting It’s a Mystery Podcast. Thank you for joining me again.
I’ve got lots of great mystery author guests lined up and I’m very excited to bring you the first of these, Mary Castillo.
Mary and I share a love of history and in this interview she talks about some of the inspiration for her Dori O paranormal mysteries, including growing up in a haunted house (!), San Diego gangsters from the prohibition era, and a nurse from WWII.
This episode of It’s a Mystery Podcast is sponsored by the free novella, Charlie Horse. This is the first book in the Town Called Horse mystery series that fans are calling witty, colourful, engaging and suspenseful.
Charlie Horse is a historical mystery with a modern twist.
This is a book that’s not available at any of the online retailers where the rest of my books are sold. But, for a limited time, it’s easy to get your free copy.
Click here or on the book cover at right and it will be very obvious where to click to grab the free ebook.
Links and resources mentioned in this episode
- Click on any of the book covers to go to Mary’s books on Amazon
- Mary mentions being inspired by Mary Stuart, who is one of my favorites from my teenage years as well. Ms. Stewart passed away in 2014 but you can still find her books online.
- Mary also mentions the influence of Daphne Du Maurier on her work. Here’s Ms. Du Maurier’s website.
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcription of Interview with Mary Castillo
Alexandra: Hi, mystery readers. I’m Alexandra Amor. This is It’s a Mystery podcast. I’m here today with Mary Castillo. Hi, Mary.
Mary: Hi. How are you?
Alexandra: Very well. How are you?
Mary: Doing good. I’m in Southern California and we’re getting a heat wave for Thanksgiving. So I was really excited. I have my scarves out now. I got to pull out this summer stuff.
Alexandra: Once again. Well, that’s a nice problem to have.
Mary: It is.
Alexandra: Yes. So let me introduce our listeners to you.
Amazon mystery bestselling author, Mary Castillo, loves a great startle story even though she makes her husband get up with her in the middle of the night after watching a scary movie. When she’s not gardening, hiking or knitting, she’s engrossed in a book. She writes books she loves, chilling, paranormal mysteries mixed with heartwarming romance and compelling characters who keep you turning the pages long past your bedtime.
Mary grew up in a haunted house in National City California that inspired the “Dori O” paranormal mystery series which is what we’re going to talk about here today.
Mary, why don’t you just give us a little overview of the series itself?
Mary: The “Dori O” paranormal mystery series started as a novella. It was a chick lit novella back in 2005 to 2008.
I wrote romantic comedies, chick lit, and I put together anthology called Names I Call My Sister. I started the story about this family wedding gone awry. Dori and her grammy, and her sister were the central characters in the story.
Afterwards, Dori stayed in my mind. She’s a robbery detective with San Diego PD. She’s the white sheep in a family of black sheep. And so her felonious grandparents were just these wild people and here she is, a cop. And she just never really let me go after I finished her story.
At the time, that was the time of the recension, a lot of us authors were, unfortunately, let go by our publishers and I was…suddenly have the freedom to do whatever I wanted. And I decided to finally write the book I was so afraid to write.
I didn’t think I had the chops for it. I wanted to write like a gothic Victoria whole, Mary Stewart, Daphne du Maurier type of book as those were the books that I read from middle school on. They were my guilty pleasures.
And so Lost in the Light evolved from this moment of just having complete creative freedom and then also putting her in a paranormal world, so Lost in the Light is the first official book in the series it. And she has been involved in an officer shooting. She was shot and injured on leave, and suddenly, she can see and speak to ghosts. My thing with her, she does not like the word psychic even though she is.
Alexandra: Okay. Well, that’s great because that was one of my questions.
I wanted to ask if she had always had her abilities to communicate with ghosts, but they’ve come about because of this injury that she’s sustained on the job?
Mary: I think that to an extent, we’re all very intuitive. Some of us can do more than others. So she was always an intuitive person and…but yeah, I think sometimes I use the excuse of having a traumatic injury that it awoke this ability in her. And that’s something that she grapples with because as the series has continued, she, in the new book, lost to whispers. She has a not quite husband fiancée and his eight-year-old daughter.
She is juggling career and family, and dealing with ghosts. Her boyfriend comes to the realization maybe you came back for a reason and it’s to help people who have not crossed over. So it’s been an interesting dilemma to give to somebody who is a very practical, very un-woo-woo to talk to dead people like I’m talking to you.
Alexandra: Right. And it must have been…I mean in the first book, Lost in the Light, it must have been a bit of a shock to her to have this happen, so she…tell us a little bit about the story. You don’t have to spoil anything.
She moves into a house, correct? She’s on leave?
Mary: Yeah. A lot of books just came from my real life. I’m not a cop. I’m not a psychic. But I did grow up in a haunted house and the house that she has purchased, her dream home, is based on a real home in my hometown of National City.
I got to live in this home vicariously through her book. So yes, it is shocking. She thinks she’s going crazy because she is dealing with PTSD. And one of my parent’s friends from…they went to high school with him. He was a National City PD officer. So he gave me a lot of insight into the PTSD and some of the issues that he has dealt with. He’s now retired.
He was very frank. He said, “Very few cops are ever gonna tell you that this is something we all deal with.” And the aspect of her being shot on the job, that came from a story that I did when I was with the LA Times. I wrote for their community newspaper, the Laguna Beach coastline.
While I was a reporter there, was an officer involved shooting. And one of the officers, he was a young guy, had a situation where he was shot. He was injured. And because I was on the inside, I knew a lot of the detectives and the police officers in the department and they talked about how he questioned whether he wanted to come back. So that gave me just a lot of rich emotional material to work with.
And so I take it as a form of flattery. There have been a few police officers…Oh, my gosh. Sorry about that. That’s my alarm that I have to stop writing. Sorry about that.
Alexandra: That’s okay.
Mary: That’s when you…”You stop writing. Get back to work.”
Mary: Though some police officers have actually said, “Oh that’s a bunch of baloney” and I’m like, “Yeah, its fiction.” I mean if I wanted to write real life, it’d be a training manual and nobody would read it. Others have said, “Yeah. Actually, some of that stuff has rang true for them. So I take that as, you know, that that’s the highest form of flattery that an author can get.
Alexandra: Yes, yeah, absolutely. And so she’s grappling with this new sort of skill that’s come to her and is dealing with a ghost in this house that she’s moved into, correct?
Alexandra: The thing that I thought was really interesting is that the mystery that she’s going to be working on with the ghost isn’t in the present even though she is. The mystery is actually in the Prohibition era.
Tell us a little bit about what drew you to that era.
Mary: Well, I’ve always loved the 1920s. My mom’s mother was a flapper. My mom’s mother was a much older mom. She was almost 50 when she had my mom. So she lived quite the life. And I was always fascinated by that period.
I loved the movies, The Untouchables, and loved James Cagney movies, Humphrey Bogart movies. I grew up watching a lot of black and white movies. So I wanted to write about that period and the first draft of that book, he did not play Vicente, the bootlegger in her house, did not play a big, big role. He was kind of like one of those ghosts who just…she kind of sees out of the corner of, right? It was really boring.
The book came alive when I started writing from his point of view. And I was also a little frustrated because I grew up in San Diego. I grew up in National City where the book takes place. And we’re right on the border between Mexico and it was like the Wild West during Prohibition.
When you think of Prohibition, it’s always told from the point of view of Chicago, New York, the Italian gangsters. Believe me, there was plenty going on down here in Southern California because the convenience of having Mexico and a lot of ways the bootleggers were the pioneers, you might say, of some of the activity that happens even today.
So I researched a lot of LA Times articles and found a kingpin like Vicente’s boss. And really quickly, once the book came out I got a Facebook message from the real kingpin, from his…I believe she was like a great, great niece. And she was so excited because she says, “I thought that sounded really familiar that, you know, to my great, great, great uncle. And what else do you know about him?”
And I was like, “Well, I made up the rest, you know. I don’t know if he killed anybody. I mean…” I was like, “Don’t sue me, please.” But she was actually very excited because they were doing some research and it was, like, he was, like, the dark secret of the family and…but, you know, I found his intake record in prison and that was a little…but that was kind of fun.
Alexandra: It’s amazing.
Mary: You don’t always get that.
Alexandra: No. That’s incredible, yeah. What an amazing connection across time, just incredible. I think that’s amazing. Good for you.
And so in the second book, Lost in Whispers, which just came out…we should say by the time this podcast comes out, the book will have been out about a month. And it’s set in a different era.
Tell us a little bit about the historical part of that one as well.
Mary: Yes. So Lost in Whispers is the second novel. It’s actually the third book. There’s a novella. It’s only an e-book form called Girl in the Mist, and it’s about Dori and Gavin. I wouldn’t give anything away.
And so Lost in Whispers takes place in the present day and it also takes place in 1940…I always mess this up, 1942. I always wanna say 1943. It’s right after Pearl Harbor and it is about a U.S. Navy nurse who has been dishonorably discharged because she is expecting a child out of wedlock. And she survived Pearl Harbor and has come to San Diego to finish out her pregnancy in a maternity home.
And I’d always been fascinated by the idea…they used to call them baby farms because it was a very practical solution back in the day when a young woman found herself in the family way, would be sent to her aunt’s house far, far away, usually to a maternity home, to wait out her pregnancy and give up her child for adoption. So for some people, they felt that was a great idea. But for a lot of these women, they suffered for the rest of their lives. They had this emptiness inside them.
Lost in Whispers took me a long time to write because, originally, it was gonna take place during Comic-Con and it just didn’t work. And it didn’t come to…it didn’t have the sparkle that Lost in the Light had.
So we were in Pearl Harbor. We were at Oahu with friends of ours. My son is a huge military buff…history buff. And we go into the museum there before you go on to the USS Arizona Memorial, and there’s this huge picture of a Army nurse who served during World War…served during Pearl Harbor.
And it was like all the lights go off and it’s like, “Yes. This is who I need to write about.” And it turns out she had her memoir. They sold it in the gift shop. And that’s what started the whole thing.
I put Roslyn right in the middle of the action. We do flashback and see her experience at Pearl Harbor because it results in her having a baby. And so the more I wrote about her, the more that she just revealed to me. I do a lot of character work ahead of time, but they always somehow take a life of their own. And that’s when I knew it’s working when he wouldn’t say that, but I would say this.
That’s why I picked that period. And then it turns out, I don’t always plan these things but, you know, Dori is dealing with motherhood, becoming a surrogate mother to Gavin’s little child, and I was like, “Hey, that’s pretty cool”. I could take credit and say like, “Yeah. I thought all of these out ahead of time,” but I didn’t. It just happened on its own.
Alexandra: That’s amazing.
When you had originally thought that you would set the book at Comic-Con, was there no historical element to it at that point?
Mary: Well, if I look at my own history, I remember going to some of the original Comic-Cons, and so that was about 30 years ago. So yes, for us, Gen X-ers that was back in the day when it was like some fold-up tables at the main hall of the Convention Center and a bunch of nerds.
I remember my friends were so big on the sky who wrote this lame Sandman comic and I was like, “Yeah, like, this is boring. It’s not Wonder Woman.” I tried to get into it and I met Neil Gaiman. I didn’t know who he was. I was like, “Yeah. I am here because, you know, I just wanted to hang out with my friends.”
My husband went a few years ago and he said, “I don’t know how to describe it. It was two hours to wait for the men’s room.”
It actually was based on a case that my technical adviser had told me about. It was his case where this young woman, she was a missing person for a long time, and he later discovered that he actually worked with a guy who murdered her and buried her body somewhere out in Julian. And it wouldn’t come together. And so it always that stories in my back pocket, but I mean now, I’ve given it away. Tell me, where the surprise is. I’m sure it’ll come to life. It’ll find life somehow.
Alexandra: Yes. Oh, they always do, yes. And so you used the word juggling earlier in the interview, and I wanted to specifically ask you how you balance, maybe that’s a better word, the different elements in the books? There’s a bit of romance. There’s the paranormal stuff. There’s a mystery going on. You’re dealing with the present day and with history.
Tell us a little bit about how you weave all that stuff together.
Mary: Well I wrote a couple of drafts of the book. I just threw it all out there. This book has been through I don’t know how many drafts. I’ve lost count. And then it came to the point where I realized, “I have a lot going on here. I need to know who, what, when, where.”
And so I take index cards and I use colored pencils, and I went through and took all of the major plot points. I come from not a professional screenwriting background, but I was…originally, wanted to be a screenwriter. I took a lot of screenwriting classes when I was at USC, and that’s how I use that three-act structure to plot out my books.
I knew when the end of the first act is and what the middle point of the second act. And I mapped it all that I had like…I don’t know, 50 cards at one point. And then I was able to move them around so I could then see how instead of it just being, like, some huge mess, they would interweave together and support one another. And that was the majority of the work right then and there.
I’ve learned a lot from writing this book and so as I’m approaching the novella, which will be a shorter form, it’ll maybe be 40,000 words, I have to remember, like, who and who’s dating who, and who’s not dating her in planning out these books. I’m planning out the series, too, because at this point, I realized I really should have an idea of where I’m going. So yeah, I learned a lot of what not to do while writing Lost in Whispers.
Alexandra: Okay, yeah. And so it sounds like you don’t use some software for your writing like Scrivener or…
Alexandra: Okay, got it.
Mary: No. I would probably get way into playing with the software than writing, so yeah, I just stick with Microsoft Word.
Alexandra: Okay, yeah.
Mary: It works.
Alexandra: Was there anything about the Prohibition era or even the Pearl Harbor incident that you learned that surprised you when you were doing the research for these books?
Mary: Yeah, I was a history major when I was in college, always loved history, and I love those untold history. So the stories of the maternity homes for one, you know, I write from curiosity really.
I’m kind of a nosy person. With prohibition, I think what surprised me the most and I didn’t think about it until I started writing about it, is how you could go from being this poor, you know, nothing of a person, not even having education, and be suddenly just have…just gobs of money and…because that’s what happens to Vicente.
It didn’t even dawn on me until I started reading that, and I thought, “Oh, no wonder these guys were just such a mess.” And because they, like modern drug dealers, were like, “Oh, I have millions of dollars at my disposal. I’ll just drown it in champagne. That sounds like a good idea.”
I think those very human details and elements surprised me that caught me a little off guard as I was doing my research.
Alexandra: We’re almost at a time, but I just wanted to ask you one final question about whether or not you’re working on another story, another Dori O paranormal mystery.
Mary: Mm-hmm, yep. I’m working on a novella.
Mary: I think I know what it’s about. But the thing I left myself with, with Lost in Whispers are so many…how should I say? Unanswered questions. So it was one of those things as “I just got to finish this thing.”
I’m also planning a spin-off series that will be a paranormal romantic series. And then, I also wanna see what happens with Meg and Richard who, you know, in Lost in Whispers are kind of dealing with some stuff.
Roslyn is still in my head and I wonder maybe there might be some more stories involving her. But I just need the time to write them. I have a lot of stories to write and not a lot of time to do it. So I gotta be disciplined and just get to work.
Alexandra: Why a novella next rather than a full-length novel?
Mary: I just need the rest. This book took about four years to write. The first draft which I totally tossed out…actually, I didn’t toss it out. I only tossed out 75% of it. Dori, her contemporary story has pretty much stayed the same, but the historical part of it just didn’t work.
It took a long time and so I feel like I’m just gonna get my toes wet, you know, and work with a novella also to satisfy the practical concern of producing work that my fans want in a timely manner, and just…yeah, just take it easy on myself. It’s kind of selfish thing.
Alexandra: No, I hear yeah. And it’s good to satisfy the fans and give them something more, you know, sooner than every four years.
Mary: Sure, yeah.
Alexandra: So this has been amazing. Mary. Why don’t you let our listeners know where they can find out more about your books?
Mary: Well, you can come to my website at marycastillo.com, and I’m also on Facebook and Instagram, and BookBub, and Goodreads if you prefer to follow your authors on those forums. And if you do join my newsletter, I send out a free sampler of all the first chapters from the “Dori” book. So if you’ve never heard of these or you’re catching up, it’s just a great way to get introduced to this mystery piece and, you know, get sucked into this world.
Alexandra: Right, exactly. Well, that’s awesome. And your books can be found on Amazon as well, is that right?
Mary: Yes, they’re on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and iTunes.
Alexandra: All the usual suspects. Great. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for being with me today. I really appreciate it.
Mary: I appreciate it too. Thank you.
Alexandra: You’re very welcome. Bye-bye.