Give me a brief summary of your life till now (education, work, etc) and how it led you to write.
I have worked most of my life in business, mostly on the business side of publishing. I grew up on the East Coast, but moved to California for graduate school, and fell in love with the natural beauty and the weather (which is not to say I don’t miss New England at times — every year in the fall and around the holidays, at a minimum.)
I’ve kind of always had a love of writing. (Or maybe it’s more like Dorothy Parker said: I love having the finished product.) Putting sentences together is a form of creativity that I find so engaging. There’s always a way to do it better! Before graduate school, I thought I might become a business journalist. People like James Stewart, Michael Lewis, and Bethany McLean were idols of mine, because they wrote about business in such engrossing ways. But I also craved variety, plus I enjoy putting the different pieces of a business together, so I wound up on the business side of media.
In recent years, I’ve worked as a consultant. This has created opportunities to write a fair bit of nonfiction—white papers, columns, ebooks, articles, etc. I also launched a line of nonfiction books. I initially considered a traditional publisher relationship for my nonfiction book, but with my experience as a publisher, it only seemed to make sense to do it myself. I had a leg up on production side of things.
Just how did feisty Bea Sickels introduce herself to you?
Though I had experience in nonfiction, I was intimidated by the idea of writing fiction for a long time. I think I always secretly wanted to try it—I can still remember writing and “publishing” my wacky stories as a little girl, using my grandmother’s old Remington. But my nonfiction aims for a very narrow target and is rather technical, and this made me wonder if I had the creativity to write something that was pure entertainment. I just kept hemming and hawing for years (literally), unsure of whether I could summon the creativity.
The unfortunate person who was stuck listening to most of my whining about this is a successful romance author (and a dear friend). She writes very sweet stories under a pen name, and one night we were joking about how, as readers, we never really know how closely authors resemble the impressions we form of them. (In her case, she probably does match up pretty closely to what readers envision. But what if she didn’t?) We were just riffing on this idea and having fun, and I started noodling about an author character whose real image was completely different from what readers expect.
I actually wrote the first draft of The Return of Betty Snickerdoodle as a story for this friend alone. I thought: let me see if I can entertain her, just her. If I can, then maybe it will be worth refining the idea and eventually publishing. She (very, very kindly and patiently) let me present the story to her as a serial. Without her encouragement all along the way, I’m not sure I could have done it.
You’ve surrounded Bea with multicultural characters like Angela and Aseem. She is also excited about the Betty Bros once she meets Oliver. She’s an excellent example of open-mindedness. How did you keep her crankiness nonjudgmental?
I love this question! Bea is an equal-opportunity crank! 😊
One source of her perspective is poker. If you’ve ever played poker in a casino or a cardroom, at least here in California, it immediately becomes clear that it’s an amazingly diverse community. People of every age, race, economic/career/ educational background, etc., are drawn to the game. (Perhaps the one group notably underrepresented is women—but Bea actually likes that and uses that to her advantage.)
I think Bea’s attitude would be something like “I don’t care what they look like, only what they play like. And whether or not they’ve got money in front of them!”
In poker, you’re judging and evaluating your competitors, but there is danger in underestimating someone’s skill or misinterpreting their playing style based on their personal style. Sometimes personal appearance gives useful clues about a player’s skill, sometimes not. She’s well aware of this, having watched other players come and go, making false assumptions that cost them big.
Ultimately, Bea prizes logic and rationality. She doesn’t care too much what others think—either what they think about her, or what they think about what she thinks about them. She gets impatient about things she thinks are illogical or pointless—but she can change her mind in the face of an evidence-based argument.
Though Bea is not from New England, I also think an attitude I felt growing up there — “live and let live,” “mind your own business” — is a small part of her personality. Maybe this is another reason she’s drawn as an author to the idea of sweet, old-fashioned, community-oriented Christmas celebrations in New England.
Another factor has to be the setting of the books, of course: Napa, San Francisco, Sacramento. Lots of diversity in these parts of Northern California, with slight variations in the demographic mix in each part of the region.
Are you a poker whiz like Bea?
I’m a moderately experienced player. I know the game well enough to understand what makes a great player, but I am definitely not a great player myself. (Sigh.)
It’s a fascinating game! There are lots of ways to approach it. That’s part of what makes it so much fun. There’s also a lot to learn about people, life, negotiating, decision-making, etc. from poker. You can meet people from any walk of life at a poker table—from criminals to CEOs, from math geniuses to street-smart players who rely on tells and intuition.
It’s not for everyone, though. I think some people will appreciate the basic idea of Bea as a poker whiz but won’t necessarily want loads of poker description in the books. So I am trying to be careful not to overdo it. I do hope that Bea can make it to the World Series of Poker at some point, though. That would be fun — and a good excuse to put Bea in Las Vegas.
Just how does Bea stay alive on a diet of pizza, not-egg mcmuffins, and iced coffee? (Not that it doesn’t sound heavenly!) Do you think she’s ever eaten a green vegetable?
This is a chief concern of Angela’s. A few years back, she persuaded Bea to add green pepper to her pepperoni pizza on occasion, to ward off scurvy.
Personally, I’m more worried about her sodium intake, but nothing seems to raise her blood pressure. She’s genetically gifted, it seems.
Is it possible she and Perry will act in their feelings for each other? After all, she’s hardly a panther!
LOL! Hmmm. One thing I can say for sure is that Bea and Perry always have fun when they get together.
Does Bea prefer Bob Barker or Drew Carey as host of The Price is Right?
With Bea, I think it’s safe to say the game’s the thing more than either host. Still, though she probably likes them equally, she’s had more time with Drew, since her daily routine of watching the show only really got going in recent years. So she might have a slight preference for Drew. (Plus, Drew has been known to play in celebrity poker tournaments. I bet Bea would love to get a shot at playing with him.)
What’s your research process like? What does it involve?
My research process is so far pretty random. Many of the ideas in The Return of Betty Snickerdoodle came from my own experiences with publishing and social media, and the settings were familiar to me. It didn’t require too much research, except for some of the small details. But in A Sleuth Is Born, I had some kernels that needed to be researched more carefully. I also love technology and sciency stuff, so I included bits and bobs of that in book two (just some dollops for fun — keeping in mind they’re still cozies and not procedurals).
It often seems my plot ideas come from things I know just a little bit about, but still want to know more. Some things I’ve been investigating for future books include winemaking, forestry, off-shore banking, and counterfeiting. I don’t know if any of them will make the final cut, but I enjoy the process of exploring. (It’s like my bad habit of getting distracted on the internet has been transformed into valuable work. What’s not to love?)
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?
Because of my work as an independent consultant, I have an office with a desk (a very messy one — a sign of true genius, according to some undoubtedly very messy scientists). I write at the desk much of the time, but also sometimes on a laptop on the sofa. I write longhand sometimes, too.
I wish I could get a little better at outlining. My current pattern is to pants it for a while, then outline a bit when I feel stuck or am concerned about barreling ahead in the wrong direction.
I like to get started by imagining the situation and the characters being themselves in it. I think of it as a bit like the Sims. I can let them wander about and see what they do, and also guide them when I want to. This is a highly entertaining aspect of the process!
What writers do you admire, past or present?
The list is so long … where to begin? Particularly relevant to Betty Snickerdoodle, I think, are the humorous fiction authors I love: Carl Hiaasen, M.C. Beaton, Janet Evanovich, and others.
I listened to Janet Evanovich’s audiobook of How I Write. She had a few things to say that I found instructive. For example, she talked about viewing her books as pure entertainment, and how hard she works to make them easy and fast reads. This idea of being an entertainer first resonated with me. I am learning to think of being an author this way: it’s my job to make the story fun. And she’s right, it’s not that easy to write a fast read. In a way, it’s liberating for us mere-mortal authors that she (of all authors) said this, because I find her writing just effortlessly fun to read.
With respect to M.C. Beaton, I adore the Agatha Raisin series — it’s a big source of inspiration for me. I love that you’ll be reading and out of the blue something absolutely hilarious pops up. (Don’t drink coffee while reading!) Agatha Raisin is such a memorable character; I’m an adoring fan. And I’m so impressed with Beaton’s productivity, and with the way she’s maintained such a prolific career over decades.
Carl Hiaasen is one of the first authors who opened my eyes to how much humor is possible in fiction. And his wacky plots! OMG, the creativity!
There are so many authors I love, I feel a little guilty and fearful that I might have left a key influence unrecognized here. 🤭
What do you like best about being a writer? What do you like least?
Loves: the chance to play and be creative. Wordsmithing — I actually like the editing process (at least until it starts to drag on). Having a finished product that sprang from your own mind.
Dislikes: writer’s block (I know, who doesn’t dislike it?). The uncertainty and stress that can occur when the words are not forthcoming. The challenge of knowing whether you’re hitting the mark (will people like it?).
What little personal quirk would you like to reveal to your readers?
I actually asked my friends if I had any interesting quirks. Answer: no. I’m boring. But I will share one habit I have that may not be all that unusual among writers, but that nonetheless delights me. When I get stuck on a plot point (or even a structural issue in a nonfiction piece), I sometimes find the answer to the problem comes to me in a dream. Those occasions make joyful mornings!
Book Review Gal’s opinion: No one who loves Agatha Raisin and Carl Hiaasen is boring!