Interview with Cozy Mystery Author Rodney Strong

Give me a brief summary of your life till now (education, work, etc) and how it led you to write.

I’ve always written, right from early stages of school where I would write plays for my classmates to put on. Over the years I’d drift away and then come back to the creative process, dabbling in different forms and genres, from songs, to plays, to animated feature film scripts (unproduced). I spent twenty years working in the corporate world, both in private and government agencies. and not really enjoying it, but liking getting paid. I have two young children and kept saying to them that they could do anything they wanted when they grew up and decided it was hypocritical to say that to them if I wasn’t following my own dream. So I quit my job and plunged into writing fulltime.

The concept behind your Hitchhiker series is intriguing. What gave you the idea of a dead person with unsettled business jumping into a living person — in this case, Oliver — and pushing him to solve their quandary so they can rest in peace?

This was one of those ten-second things that sprang into my head one day as I was leaving a cemetery. I was driving past the really old gravestones and my mind wandered to the fact that sometimes you hear about people using the names off old graves to create new identities for themselves, and I suddenly wondered, what would happen if the dead person didn’t like that? And Violet was born (or died and came back). I was originally going to have them as your standard typical ghost but decided it would be a nice twist to have them as just a voice in his head instead, although that decision has drawn the ire of one reader who said that’s not what ghosts do.

Is Oliver a version of you? If so, how are you alike and different? If not, what inspired you to create him?

Oliver and I share many similarities, such as the belief that there is a washing fairy that creates never ending piles of washing to clean and fold. I decided to make him a writer because it took away the complications of him having a fulltime job that would get in the way of murder investigations. He’s a little more of a pushover than I am, but we are quite similar otherwise.

All his family is loosely based on mine, although I’ve had several readers say that Jennifer is too accepting, so I’ve had to break to my wife that she’s too nice.

Amanda’s a complex soul, an anti-hero readers can love. How did you research con artist techniques and craft her character? Is she based on an actual person? She was in quite a pickle the last time we heard from her.

I love Amanda. She is a combination of several strong willed women in my life. The ones who are mostly completely in control but underneath there’s a vulnerability and sense that there’s a lot of baggage.

She was actually only supposed to be in the first book, but somehow made herself a main character, which does seem to happen a lot in my books.

I did some research on cons and con artists, but we’ve only really explored her cons from the edges so far. I’ve started writing a companion piece where Oliver is responding to her 911 call, which goes into the con game in more detail, although I’m not sure that’ll see the light of day.

Alice has her own series! Age is truly only a number for her. Will she and Vanessa continue to defeat skullduggery at the Silvermoon Retirement Village?

Most definitely. See my comment above. Alice was supposed to be a bit player at the end of Murder in Paint, but when I decided to give Amanda a break in the third book, Alice immediately sprung to mind, and I had a blast developing her world. I’ve started thinking about the next book already, but that might have to wait until after the next Hitchhiker novel.

I definitely wanted to show that retirement is just a word and doesn’t mean older people are put out to pasture. I’m looking forward to expanding the world further and finding out the backstory of some of the others at the village.

What’s your research process like? What does it involve? How do you create the hitchhikers and their complex backstories? How did you choose the poison for Poker Chips and Poison?

Some writers plot out their entire story before starting. I tend to go in with a very loose outline, so the research happens as the book is written. With the hitchhikers the research usually starts when I work out when they were growing up, then it’s finding out what Wellington was like back then and the language used. I’m lucky that I grew up in Wellington so know the city very well and we have a National Library that has very comprehensive records of newspapers and photos going way back.

The poison was one of those things that evolved as the book developed. I didn’t want the cliched arsenic or something similar. We’re pretty lucky in New Zealand not to have many poisonous plants but this one fit the bill and there is a recorded death due to being stung so I decided to use that.

What’s your writing routine? Do you have a dedicated office, or do you write at the kitchen table? Do you write longhand or type everything? Do you outline your stories or let the characters take you where they want to go? Do your characters speak to you?

I write at the dining room table, and type directly into the laptop. I’ve tried writing longhand in the past but it’s too slow and messy and I got frustrated, so switched to typing.

One of my cats loves that I’m sitting there. She jumps onto the table and demands attention which is a really nice way to have a micro pause.

I drop my two kids off at school in the morning then try and write for a few hours before picking them up again. I manage to average about 1,000-1,500 words per day on a good day. And zero on a bad day. I do get distracted with household things so I’ve also started going to a local café. I find if I sit there and drink my hot chocolate and type for an hour I can get almost my entire word count for the day done because I’m not checking emails etc.

As I said above I don’t tend to outline my stories. I know generally where they’re going, but I like to surprise myself as well as everyone else. In Murder in Paint I wasn’t even sure who did it until two thirds of the book was written.

The characters definitely speak to me, and some are very vocal if I’m trying to do something that doesn’t fit with how they would speak or act. Which is a good thing, because it shows that they are three-dimensional.

Do you have a set number of books planned for each series, or do you plan to keep the characters going until they tell you they’re finished?

No, I’d like to keep going as long as possible, although Alice is 97 which means the clock is ticking for her.

I think the key will be to alternate books, which will help keep them fresh.

What writers do you admire, past or present?

I admire Roald Dahl, because he was such a fantastic writer that all these years after his death children are still captivated by his work.

I also admire action writers like Matthew Reilly because it must take a huge amount of effort and coordination to keep all those characters and details accurate. I try and keep my books a little simpler because I’d find that exhausting.

What do you like best about being a writer? What do you like least?

I love that I get to spend a few months creating this wonderful thing, and then I get to focus on a new wonderful thing, so my day is always different even though I have a routine. And getting feedback from readers is particularly rewarding.

In terms of least, writing is quite an isolating experience so I do find I have to force myself to get out and have adult conversation some times. It’s also not a 9-5 job so often I’ll be logging back onto my computer at 10pm to do some more stuff because of deadlines, etc. There’s also the negative side of feedback. I try not to read reviews but if you get a bad one on something you’ve poured your heart and soul into it can really knock your confidence.

What little personal quirk would you like to reveal to your readers?

It’s not really a quirk about me, but the very first book I put out was called Troy’s Possibilities. It was about a man who lived different possible futures for himself. It was sort of a time-bending romance with the other main character being a woman called Elissa. Both Troy and Elissa turn up in all my other books in cameos. It’s sort of an in-joke for me as most of the cozy readers wouldn’t have read the other book.

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