Friday, February 18, 2011

Jo Hiestand

My special guest today is Jo Hiestand. Welcome, Jo. Please tell us a little about yourself.

Well, where to start…  I’ve lived most of my life in St. Louis, Missouri, where I was born.  I wanted to be a writer since I was in grade school but I didn’t do anything about it until I was in my fifties – I took a continuing education class through the local community college.  That writing teacher ignited my desire and I started writing in earnest.  My first novel, Death of an Ordinary Guy, was published in August 2004.

Part of the trouble with deciding to write seriously, why it took me so long to get going, is that I have too many interests. It was difficult to narrow it down. I love music – I play 12-string guitar and the harpsichord – so I thought about being a professional folksinger or a concert pianist. Photography, drawing, quilting and baking also take up large parts of my life – could I do something with that? A hobby at one point was writing a script on some topic, like autumn or the day in the life of a pond, then go out and take illustrating photographs, record the narration and plop it all together with music as a multi-media show with the projected slides, recorded narration and music. That was so cool! Could I professionally sell those to school districts for their curriculum? I toyed with the idea of setting up a tearoom, baking cheesecake, creating my own recipes and putting them in a cookbook…. Clearly, I was destined to use all this in my writing, ha ha!

I write two English mystery series: the Taylor & Graham mysteries use a different English custom as the backbone of each book’s plot. In April, there will be eight published books in this series. The McLaren Case Mysteries series saw the light of day last year; it features ex-cop Michael McLaren who now investigates cold cases on his own. The second book, Swan Song, will be published in April 2011. I’m more excited about this release than any of my other books because I will have a book signing at Tutbury Castle, in England – where part of the novel takes place.


A few short stories appear in three L&L Dreamspell mystery anthologies, and some of my articles also have been published in magazines, community newsletters and newspapers.

I lived in England during my stint at professional folk singing. It was then that my love of All Things British was born. I insist for accuracy in my novels  from police methods and location layout to the general “feel” of the area  so I’ve wandered back innumerable times to Derbyshire for research. Through one of these adventures I acquired two friends in the Derbyshire Constabulary. They’ve answered British police procedural questions and read my manuscripts to see that all is well.

As far as classroom education is concerned, I graduated from Webster University with a BA in English and departmental honors. I’m a member of Sisters in Crime (being the founding president of the Greater St. Louis chapter), and Mystery Writers of America.

An awesome biography, for sure, Jo.
Tell us about your latest book. Is it available in print, e-book, and Kindle formats?

I have two books coming out in April this year. A Well Dressed Corpse is book eight in the Taylor & Graham series. Corpse deals with the odd Derbyshire custom of well dressing. The local legend of a shuck (ghostly black dog) and the disappearance of a young woman twenty-three years earlier to the current murder are also part of the story. I tried something new with Corpse, thought; I’ve woven newspaper articles, diary entries and stories from library books throughout the book. These emphasize what’s going on in the story. Hope it’s received well!

Swan Song is the second in my newer series featuring ex-cop Michael McLaren. In this book, a popular folk musician is murdered after singing at a castle’s medieval fair reenactment. Unbeknownst to McLaren, someone he loves tries to help him solve the case and ends up in great danger. So McLaren not only has to solve the case but also rescue his love!

Both books take place in Derbyshire, England and are published by L&L Dreamspell. They will be available in trade paperback, e-book and Kindle formats.

Do you think your writing has improved since your first attempt? If so, in what way?

Without a doubt, yes! I wrote my first novel when I was in high school. I didn’t know a thing about plotting or editing or that certain publishers accept certain genres. It was a terrible book and I still cringe when I think about it. Through reading authors I admire I’ve learned about plot and pacing and characters. I’ve learned how to write in a more compact style and let the reader draw assumptions. I ‘show’ now that I can write descriptively, so I think that brings the reader into the story.

Were any of your books more challenging to write than the others? If so, why?

Horns of a Dilemma was the hardest to write, at least so far. That’s book five of Taylor & Graham. It’s the first book that a friend of mine -- a St. Louis-area police detective -- co-authored with me. Paul had been helping me before this, though, by supplying information and writing fight scenes for me. But with “Horns” we took a chance and he actually wrote some chapters as one of the characters. This was tremendous fun for us both and we continued the co-authorship in the next book, The Coffin Watchers. But it was a bit of a challenge at first to figure out how to write together.

Also, the plot was a bit more complicated than the previous four novels. Horns involved current information about an endangered animal species, so I had to research that. I also had to research a bit about another country and MI-6. It was a fun book to write but it took more time to assemble all the information.

How do you develop characters? Setting?

Characters are the heart of my stories. They drive the plot. So, I create a mind map on a piece of paper. I put my victim in the center of the page, with a circle drawn around the person’s name. From there, lines like the spokes of a wheel radiate outward. These are the characters who are connected to the victim, including the killer. They all must have some relationship and I jot down phrases about each person. For example, if the victim is a photographer, the characters could be his wife, a gallery owner, a rival photographer, a magazine that’s used his photos, his brother-in-law, the landlord of his studio, a client… You get the idea. People who are connected to him. From these characters and their personalities I figure out who would have a reason for hating the guy enough to kill him. I think this works better than a plot-driven story because the characters never do anything against their personalities. It’s believable.

Setting is in Derbyshire, England. I tend to use small villages because I like the closed society of a village – they all know each other and someone usually has reason to murder his neighbor! But my books are not cozies – you might refer to them as a cross between a cozy and a police procedural. I think the cozy’s restriction of everyone knowing everyone heightens the tension.

I’ve lived in England and have vacationed there extensively, so I know the region quite well. Since I have the personal experience of the area, I populate it with my stories. Even if I do create fictional villages, I use real towns of Buxton, Ashbourne, Chesterfield, etc and some real places in those towns. So, for the most part, the setting flows from my having been there.

How does your environment/upbringing color your writing?

I grew up reading The Three Musketeers, Rebecca, Jane Eyre, Kidnapped. I loved authors such as Walter de la Mare, Daphne du Maurier, and Charles Dickens... Then, in my adult pre-published years, I devoured every book of the Golden Age mysteries of Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey. I loved the mood of the writing as well as the locations. Without thinking about it, this atmospheric feel has crept into my writing in the form of my scene descriptions and location choices – dilapidated stone barns, thunderstorm in the forest, midnight on the moors….

I’m a nature lover – trees, the land, birds, wildlife. These elements crop up in my writing as descriptive scene writing and as character traits. Brenna Taylor, the detective-sergeant in my Taylor & Graham series, is a bird watcher and she gets into trouble occasionally while doing a bit of bird watching on a case. So my upbringing has helped create Brenna.

Any current projects?

I just finished book three in the McLaren series. In December 2010 I’d gone to Scotland for a quick visit – I got an idea for another McLaren book while there, so I’m plotting that story right now.

Before I write McLaren’s fourth book, though, I’d like to take a break from penning mysteries and write a stand-alone. Something completely different. Something for which I’ll need a pen name. I’ve just got the beginnings of an idea but it’s not quite matured yet.

A 15-minute one-act play of mine won a contest last year and ended up being produced in a local community theater. That was a lot of fun so I recently wrote another short play and am about to submit it for production consideration. Maybe that one will see the spotlights!

Where can folks learn more about your books and events?

My books are listed on their series’ websites: and

Each site has an events calendar that is kept up-to-date.

Jo, it has, indeed, been a pleasure to have you here. Continued success with your writing. I hope your castle signing is a smashing success! Please post pictures from it on Facebook for all to see.

Thank you for offering me a spot on your blog, Susan. This was great fun! 


Sandy said...

Jo's writing is so descriptive that I feel like I am on location of where the story takes place! As one who has eaten many of Jo's baked goods, I hope that a tearoom is the next chapter in her life...

Great interview!

jo Hiestand said...

LOL. If a tearoom is the next chapter, it will probably be in a retirement home...or I'll deliver. Bakewell Tarts on Carts, anyone? ;-) jo

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Jo, traveling to Scotland for research? I thought the British hated the Scots. LOL

Actually I enjoyed the way you and Paul blended in Horns of a Dilemma. If it was the hardest to write, it was worth it.

Betty Gordon said...

Jo, great interview. Susan knows just the right questions to ask.
I was in England quite a few years ago and when there, I seemed to know how to get around w/o anyone telling me. Who knows...perhaps in another life .
Betty Gordon

Jo Hiestand said...

Betty, it doesn't astonish me about another life. I know I was there in another life!

And Will....Paul writes again in the new book "A Well Dressed Corpse," out in April. Just hard to keep him away from the computer! ;-)

Thanks for the feedback.

Judy said...

Since I have never travelled to England, Jo's books take me there mentally!!! (If only is a refreshing pause!) I'd love some of those "Tarts on Carts"!!! Keep up the good work, Jo!

Anonymous said...

Jo - In your interview you said you wanted to be an author since you were younger, but didn't start writing until much later in life. Was there something in your life that got you back into it?

jo Hiestand said...

Judy, I'm going over in September. You want to be my baggage handler? You'll get all the books you can eat....or a shot of Scotch, whichever you prefer! ;-)

jo Hiestand said...

Hi, Anonymous! Thanks for the question. I remember having an overwhelming desire to be a student in that continuing ed class that the community college offered. It may sound goofy, but it was such a strong feeling that I couldn't ignore it. I got into the class that beckoned to me, really connected to the teacher. His opening sentence inspired me. He said, "There will never be anyone in the world who will string together twelve words as you do. You are a unique writer." He really fired up the sleeping coals in me, so I started writing. Only takes one great teacher in your life.

joydeb said...

Jo, great interview. You make mine dull by comparison. Interesting the way you plot out your mysteries. I have trouble just following mysteries on TV. Good luck with your next book.

jo Hiestand said...

Hi, Joyce. I plot the way Ngaio Marsh plotted (one of the Golden Age of Mysteries queens). I don't know if she used the mind map technique, but she did start with character and see which among the acquaintances had reason to kill the guy. I think mysteries are hard to follow on TV. If you miss one snatch of dialogue, you may have missed a clue. I LOVE British dramas, like Masterpiece Theatre, but I usually watch them twice before I get everything. I'm looking at the location to see if I've been there; I'm looking at the room interiors because the great houses are so lovely; I'm looking at the costumes; I'm trying to get character names straight in my head; I'm trying to listen to the accents; I'm trying to follow the plot. So it's usually the second time 'round viewing that I understand the story!
Thanks for your comment!

david said...

a great interview. how nice that you can write and use two continents from personal experience. if you're ever in minneapolis, sisters-in-crime has a very big presence here.

jo Hiestand said...

Hi, David -
My author friend Esther Luttrell and I do small author talks around the midwest. We might get to Minneapolis some day...who knows?!!
I feel lucky that I have the English help of my police detective friends as well as others in England. I'll never take any of that for granted. Thanks for your comment. jo

Tina Paradowski said...

Hi Jo - I admire anyone who can write and paint a picture into the mind of the reader. You are truly a talented writer, baker, etc, etc. I learned more about you from this interview I did not even know!! Keep up the great work!!

jo Hiestand said...

Tina, maybe I should be nervous that you learned something more about me, ha ha! Well, we don't usually talk about our younger days when we're together, so now you've got some fascinating info for your next cocktail party!!1 ;-)

Pam D said...

Fascinating interview.
I have a question about needing to use a pen name. In talking about your up-coming stand alone novel you said it was “Something for which I’ll need a pen name.” Why do you think you’d need a pen name? Do you think being well known in one genre – in this case mysteries – is an impediment to readers taking an author seriously if she writes something outside that genre? Having read many of your stories, I think your writing could easily cross the sometimes perceived genre-literature divide!

jo Hiestand said...

The only reason I am going to use a pen name is because I don't want followers of my mysteries to see this stand alone, buy it on the assumption it is a mystery. They would be very upset and disappointment and I'd feel awful since they wasted their money. A lot of authors have different names for the different genres they write. Look at mystery author Donald Westlake. He had 16 pen names, among them John B. Allan, Judson Jack, Carmichael, Curt Clark, Timothy J. Culver, J. Morgan Cunningham, Richard Stark, Edwin West. So my use of a pen name is just to protect the reader against being disappointed that the book isn't a mystery.

Susan Whitfield said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...


A great interview!
I didn't realize that you were such a renaissance woman! Music, art,culinary,literary skills-wow I'm tired just typing them all!

I loved your book, can't wait to read the next one.


jo Hiestand said...

Well, those are things that interest me. I'm not trying to appear Clever. I'm just an ordinary guy ( He got killed in my book....bad example....)

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed reading your interview, Jo ... And really curious to know what your future stand-alone will be about.

jo Hiestand said...

Hi! Well, the stand alone will be a book about a man who loses his job due to the economy, and he and his wife are facing being homeless 'cause they can't make their house payments. So they move to a handyman's special cabin in the sticks and try to live on their meager talents of handcrafts. This sounds pretty dismal the way I've explained it, but I'll strive to make it humorous, like a sophisticated 'Green Acres.' I want to blend in my original recipes, sketches and nature writing, too. All in all, it'll be different from English mysteries, written more tongue-in-cheek and humorously (I hope).

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful interview! I know a great many things about you, your writing and your life, but I was really engaged [by the excellent writing style perhaps!] and eagerly read the whole thing.
Susan asked the right questions and your answers were informative and interesting. You go girl!

jo Hiestand said...

Thank you for the nice comment, Mary Anonymous. I'm glad you found the interview worthwhile. It was fun for me.

Sue said...

What a great interview! Susan Whitfield did a wonderful job bringing out the interesting aspects of your life/ career. You are such a talented lady! I remember all the fun times we had in scouts...... and especially our folk group! Great harmonizing ( most of the time, lol!)I am so proud of all your accomplishments and think about you so often! Can't wait for your new books!

jo Hiestand said...

Hi, Sue -
I appreciate the feedback. Ah, those were the good ole' days in Scouts. Sigh... Campfire smoke, mosquitoes, blisters, chigger bites.... Fond memories.

Suzy said...

The interview was so interesting that it makes me want to read all Jo's books!

Anonymous said...

I loved your first book. Sounds like they've gotten even better since! I think it's great that you can use your travels as inspiration for your work.

As a writer myself, I was wondering if you've ever had to throw away a large amount of work and just start over? And how you realized that you needed to do it?

Such an interesting biography. Most authors are 'closed books.' Thanks for sharing.

jo Hiestand said...

Suzy -- So great to hear from you! Thanks for logging on and leaving the comment. I appreciate it!

Anonymous Writer -- It's also good to read your comment. Thanks. It's not my nature to be a 'closed book.' In my opinion, that's what we're on earth for -- to help each other and to learn from each other. I instigated the St Louis Sisters in Crime chapter for that reason: I wanted to learn from our speakers and from fellow members. What's that proverb about teaching someone to fish...If no one taught anyone else, we'd all starve. Granted, writing isn't like that, but I still think the world would be a pretty grim place if we didn't share knowledge and give each other a hand up. I was helped by that continuing education teacher and by other authors and I want to keep passing the torch.
I did throw out several chapters of a book. This was at the beginning of my writing attempts. I kept trying to rework it but I knew deep within myself that it didn't flow, that I was forcing my character to do something just to make the plot work. I was heartsick that I threw out pages and pages and had to spend all that time to write something else. But I wasn't happy with what I'd written and I knew it never would be any good. So I took a deep breath, dumped the paper into the waste can, and went on from the breaking off point. That actually taught me a powerful lesson, hard as it was do let those chapters go. I learned that I had to think thru the plot and answer all the "what if" situations before I began writing. I learned that I had to rely on my characters' personalities to form the plot, to rely on them, because then I wouldn't create an unrealistic story that forced my characters to do silly things. So, yes...long way to say I have written bad chunks and I knew just about right away it was bad, but I kept fooling myself that it wasn't -- until I listened to my writer's voice. That help??? ;-)

Mary Lou said...

A signing in a castle! How cool is that! I'm ready to buy Well Dressed Corpse just to find out about this well dressing oddness. And to think if you followed a different path I might be buying cheesecake from you rather than books.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jo,

I was impressed with the interview and am curious about the 'Sisters In Crime' group. Does it consist of all women or can men join as well? Good luck at the castle for the book signing, and I hope to check out your website for pictures of that for sure!

Susan Whitfield said...

Anonymous, men can join Sisters In Crime. Locate a group near you.

jo Hiestand said...

I'm behind the times....

Hi, Mary Lou! I can still bring cheesecakes to the Sisters meetings, ha ha! And yes, I think the castle signing will be EXTREMELY cool. A good chunk of "Swan Song" takes place at the castle, so it seemed like a great place for a book signing. The castle curator will have the event posted on the castle internet site, as well as do other publicity, so I hope it's a success. But the neatest thing is that visitors from all over the world come to the castle, so this is a huge chance for McLaren to be read by people from other countries.

And hi, Anonymous --
Men can join Sisters in Crime. We have several male Sisters and they are some of our best members. So check us out sometime -- we have interesting programs and writing critiques occasionally. And you can be certain photos of the castle book signing will be posted on my websites. Thanks!

Colleen said...

Jo, I am not a writer and not sure I like my comments public. You are a true inspiration with so many accomplishments. And now the castle signing - thoughts are bouncing around as to whether this is my time to travel to see "The Castle". When reading your books I know I need to read carefully looking for the extras, hidden puns, such as play on words. You are talents shine through.

jo Hiestand said...

Colleen, thank you for your message. I'm honored you feel that way about my writing. And hey, if you wanna see The Castle, maybe this is the time to do it -- I sure would love a friend to be there!