[Whistles, fireworks, champagne corks popping]
A Borrowing of Bones is the first in a fabulous new police procedural series featuring former soldier Mercy Carr and her bomb-sniffing Belgian Malinois, Elvis. Both of them suffer from PTSD. Publishers Weekly calls it “a series to watch,” and Lisa Gardner says it’s a “one-sit read.”
Bones has a twisty mystery, a budding romance, and a glorious setting (Vermont), but what makes me yearn for the next one is the relationships Paula built between her characters, both human and canine.
We thought it would be fun and helpful for our CA readers to conduct a short interview with Paula about some of the technical aspects of crafting this book.
CA: Paula, the relationship between Mercy and Elvis is key to this story. As a writer, how is showing the relationship between a dog and a human different than building one between humans? What tools do you rely on instead of dialog?
PM: Well, Mercy talks to Elvis, even if he doesn’t talk back. Just like I talk to my dogs. Dogs do communicate with us, and they understand far more than we give them credit for. (Our beagle Freddie understood virtually every word for food, from treat to oysters to lunch.) That said, dogs are all about action: They want to get going. Writing about them keeps my human characters on the move. Which is a good thing.
CA: How did you give Elvis and Susie Bear such distinct personalities without over-personifying them? Was that a worry for you—not giving them too many human qualities, too much insight, too large a role in figuring out the mystery?
PM: I grew up with dogs. My dad always had hunting dogs: Weimaraners and Vizlas and German shorthaired pointers. These were clever, well-disciplined dogs who did whatever the Colonel told them to do. On my tenth birthday, I got my first puppy of my own, a black miniature poodle named Rogue. He was wicked smart, and he knew me better than I knew myself. I was an only child, an Army brat who moved all the time, and Rogue was my best friend. I’ve had dogs (and cats) ever since.
They all had singular personalities, so I think of dogs as distinctly individual as people.
I’ve seen their heroic qualities up-close and personal, from the aforementioned food-obsessed Freddie who scared off an unwanted suitor to the shaggy black rescue mutt named Shakespeare who woke me up in time to save me from the fire engulfing my kitchen.
Elvis is a composite dog character based on my dad’s great dogs and the fierce, fantastic dogs I met through Mission K9 Rescue, an organization dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating, and finding forever homes for military working dogs. Susie Bear is inspired by our own rescue Bear, a goofy, friendly, ready-to-save-anybody-anywhere Newfoundland retriever mix—the male version of Susie Bear.
I know that dogs can do anything—including solving mysteries.
CA: Reviewers have said that fans of CJ Box and William Kent Krueger will love this book, and I take that to mean, in part, that your development of your Vermont setting is as evocative and integral to your story as Wyoming and Minnesota are in their books. Can you share some tips for how you give your setting so much power and presence without slowing the pace so the story drags?
PM: I’m so relieved to hear that. When I was in my twenties, I went to my first writers’ conference, the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. The fabulous writer and teacher Bill Downey read the first 50 pages of my (very bad) initial attempt at fiction, and he was very encouraging, God bless him. But he did point out that there was no setting in my story. None. Nada. Zip. I realized then that there was never any setting in my stories. I blamed it on my being an Army brat. You’d think that my moving all the time—Germany to Georgia, Ohio to Oklahoma, New Orleans to New Jersey, Florida to California—would have inspired me to set my stories in some of these swell places. Instead, I ignored setting, because I was never any place long enough to know it well.
As a writer, I had to learn to pay attention to setting, and go deep.
As for Vermont: As a kid I spent a lot of time walking the dogs in the woods with my dad, a forestry major who passed his love of nature on to me. So, I’m a sucker for the Green Mountains. I love Vermont—my idea of heaven—and I try to do her justice.
CA: You’ve been an agent for a long time, and shepherded many novels through the publishing process. What took you by surprise when you were writing your own book, or did your experiences with other authors prepare you for everything?
PM: I wish! I think what surprised me most was how much I still had to learn, even after decades as a writer, acquisitions editor, and agent. That goes for craft as well as the business of being an author. Even though I’d written and published a lot of nonfiction books, the challenge of building a career as a novelist in today’s tough publishing landscape can be daunting.
CA: How’s the second book coming? What challenges do you face as a writer with the second in a series that you didn’t tangle with when writing the first one? Do you have a title yet?
PM: After spending a lot of time and energy helping my clients beat Second Book Syndrome, I naturally fell victim to it myself.
The challenge is to write an even better novel the second time around, not easy when you went for broke with the first book.
But the good news is you already know your characters, hanging out with them again is fun. With any luck, the fun eventually trumps the challenge. As our sister Career Author Hank Phillippi Ryan told me, the second book is the hardest book you’ll ever write. The first draft was a slog, to be sure, but now I am focused on revision. Editing is an iterative process—and I love it. No title yet….
CA: We and the whole Career Authors community wish you lots of joy and success with A Borrowing of Bones, Paula. We are celebrating your book launch with you, and thank you for taking time out for this interview.
PM: My pleasure! I’m thrilled to be part of the mystery community—and of course Career Authors!
Drop on by our Facebook page to congratulate Paula today. We hope we will shortly be celebrating book debuts with many of our Career Author readers. Let us know about your successes!