Frequently Asked Questions

To see the newest questions & answers added, scroll down and look for the red NEW! 

Questions about....

San Celina

Benni Harper Series

Food

Writing Process

Characters and Towns

Earlene


Click on any question below to go directly to the answer.

San Celina

Why is the town in your series called San Celina? Isn't that improper Spanish? Shouldn't it be Santa Celina?

Do you sell San Celina Police Department T-shirts?

Top of Page

Benni Harper Series

Speaking of errors, why are there so many spelling, grammatical, time/place errors in your books? It drives me crazy!

Why in Delectable Mountains (page 213 in hardcover edition) is Benni delighted that her purple truck is restored to its original color? What happened to her truck?

What are the order of the books in the Benni Harper series?

Where do you get the quilt pattern histories you put in the front of your books?

Where can I buy your books? How can I get hardback editions of your earlier books?

Why don't you have more/less about quilting, mystery, sex, Dove, Gabe, Emory, etc., in your books?

Do you have audio books?

Why did you use quilts as a theme for your series?

Sometimes I get confused about the timing in your books.  It doesn't seem to add up.  When do these books take place?

Top of Page

Food

Where can I get the recipe for bacon gravy, atole, chocolate fried pies, etc?

What is tri-tip steak and where can I buy some?

Top of Page

Writing Process

NEW!  Why are you now writing books out of the Benni Harper series?
Do you plan on not writing any more Benni Harper books?

NEW!  Will there be a sequel to The Saddlemaker's Wife?

Do you get any "credit" when your books are checked out of the library or when they are bought at a used bookstore?

In the acknowledgements of Seven Sisters you credit Tom Bazley for giving you one of the best lines in the book. What was it?

When you research your books, do you go to the library or buy your books?

Do you outline your books?

Do you bounce ideas off your husband, friends, family?

Are there ever things you've written that you wish you could take back?

How do you start writing?

How do you get a book or short story published?

Where do you get your ideas?

Top of Page

Characters and Towns

Why does Hud's grandfather, Iry, call him T-Hud?

Is the town of Sugartree, Arkansas, based on a real town?

 You stated that Benni got her first kiss in Arkansas Traveler from Duck, then you said she got it from Jack in Steps to the Altar.  What gives?

How do you pronounce Elvia's name? 

Are any of your characters based on real people?

Will Benni and Gabe ever have children?

Why, if San Celina is based on San Luis Obispo, didn't you just name the town in your books by its real name?

Top of Page

Earlene

NEW!  What do you love the most about having fans and being a public person? What troubles you the most?

What do you do when you're not writing?

What are your favorite quilt patterns?

Do you quilt?

How much of Benni is you?

How do we convince you to sign at our bookstore, library, quilt guild?

Top of Page


Q:   Will there be a sequel to The Saddlemaker's Wife?

A: I'd love to write one! The sales were good for the hardback and we'll have to wait and see how the paperback goes. I certainly left it open to write a sequel (though, take note, I did tell you in the prologue what eventually happens with Ruby...she does come back to Cardinal). A lot depends on my publisher, whether they think it's worth paying me to write the sequel. If it sold to the movies and more people bought the book as a result, my publisher might want a sequel right away. It all, I'm afraid, had to do with sales figures, as does most thing in the arts these days.


Top of Page

Q:   Why are you now writing books out of the Benni Harper series?
Do you plan on not writing any more Benni Harper books?

A: I'll answer the second question first. I love writing the Benni Harper books and plan on writing them as long as you all buy enough of them to keep Berkley publishing them! I'll only stop writing the Benni books if something in my life (such as my health or a loved one's health) keeps me from it or if no publisher wants to publish them. Benni and her extended family are almost as dear to me as my real family and if I ever stopped writing them, I would mourn the loss more than anyone. That said, writing a series with established characters can, after a time, be creatively limiting. The genre in which I write, cozy mysteries, has its boundaries that, though I've done my best to push the envelope, keeps me corralled within a certain specific framework. I have stories I'd like to tell that don't fit within the boundaries of the Benni Harper stories and characters I want to explore that I can't fit into this series. The Saddlemaker's Wife was my first novel outside the series, and though it was difficult to write, I felt a certain freedom to tackle some issues that wouldn't fit with the Benni Harper books.

With this new book I'm writing, Love Mercy, I'll be trying something that is kind of between The Saddlemaker's Wife and the Benni books. It is tentatively planned to be a trilogy so that I can explore these characters in depth, yet not be held to the long and sometimes, limiting, responsibility of a series. Benni Harper will probably be my only series, but I like the idea of writing more than one book about the same characters. A trilogy seems to be a perfect compromise.


Top of Page

Q:   What do you love the most about having fans and being a public person? What troubles you the most?

A: I think the thing I love the most about my readers is how supportive and enthusiastic they are.  A writer spends so much time alone that coming out in public feels much like the way a mole must feel.  I venture out into the sunshine with my eyes squinted, amazed to see there are other people out there who are as interested in my fictional world as I am. I often feel like my fans are on the journey with me as I explore the lives in San Celina and I'm always interested in their thoughts and feelings about Benni, Gabe, Dove, Elvia and the rest of my fictional San Celina family.  And the overwhelming support I receive when hard things happen in my life like my father's fall and declining health and my dog, Boo's, health problems, has often brought tears to my eyes and made me feel less alone.  I feel that if I was stranded anywhere in this country (not to mention Canada, Germany and Australia), I could get online, ask if I had any fellow San Celinians out there to take me in, and I'd find shelter for the night.

As for what troubles me, I guess I'd have to say I'm a bit dismayed and confused when people write or tell me they are upset about things that my characters have said or done and they assume that whatever it is represents my personal view.  For example, in one of my books I had a character make a slightly derogatory comment about a musician which was consistent with this character's viewpoint, but was not at all something I felt.  A reader wrote me an email and raked me over the coals about it.  Though I usually don't answer negative fan mail (is that an oxymoron?), I felt I needed to point out to this reader that the comment was made by my character, not me.  Since I have characters that believe totally the opposite of each other, I don't understand why some readers don't get that it is the characters talking, not me. It's fiction and fiction needs to have characters who believe all sorts of different ways.  I guess that's the most difficult thing for me to understand and deal with. 


Top of Page

Q:   What are the order of the books in the Benni Harper series?

A:  

Fool's Puzzle
Irish Chain
Kansas Troubles
Goose in the Pond
Dove in the Window
Mariner's Compass
Seven Sisters
Arkansas Traveler
Steps to the Altar
Sunshine and Shadow
Broken Dishes
Delectable Mountains

Top of Page

Q: Speaking of errors, why are there so many spelling, grammatical, time/place errors in your books? It drives me crazy!

A:  If it drives you crazy, can you even imagine what it does to me? I and all the editors, copy editors, proofreaders, etc. do the best we can in catching errors, but we are all just human. Sometimes the errors are mine and they just aren't caught by the many people who read my manuscripts. Sometimes the errors happen after I send the final manuscript in. It's not that people don't care about their work. Almost every person I've worked with in publishing cares deeply about putting out a good, accurate book. But with the merging of so many publishers, the laying off of so many employees, most people who are still working in publishing are horrible overworked. Like any business where the employees have more work than they can handle and are on a deadline, errors happen. Can they be fixed? Usually. If I am told about the errors between the printing of the hardback edition and paperback edition, I can ask that they correct the errors. After the paperback is out it is almost impossible to get anything changed as it costs my publisher too much time and money to do that. So, if there's an error in one of my paperbacks, it really does no good to tell me as there isn't anything I can do about it (for example my HUGE error in Kansas Troubles where I call the Kansas City Chiefs a baseball team! Hey, I blame that one on my husband, Allen, who is from Kansas and did read the manuscript. It slipped by him completely! I personally know nothing about any kind of ball team). I realize that errors are frustrating to many readers out there (especially English teachers), but it is something that is beyond my control. Trust me, no one hates seeing an error in my books more than I do. I feel compelled to say one more thing about this. There have been some readers who actually scold me for these errors and tell me they will never read one of my books again because of them. That saddens me greatly and I hope that this explanation helps them see that to stop reading an author you enjoy over some mechanical thing the author has no control over is heartbreaking. (P.S. I now know the baseball team's name is the Kansas City Royals!) 

Top of Page

Q:  Do you get any "credit" when your books are checked out of the library or when they are bought at a used bookstore?

A:  The only sales that "count" to a publisher (and it is sales of a book that determine whether an author is continued to be published since publishing houses are for-profit companies) are of new books. So I get "credit" when the library buys a book or multiple books, but my publisher does not care one bit how many times it is checked out since that doesn't make them any money. If a book is checked out a lot or has a lot of holds on it when it initially comes out, the library might decide to spend more of its budget the next year and buy a couple more of my next book, so I suppose it helps in that way. As for used books, they support the used book store, but the author (and publisher) gets nothing when those books are sold. It might cause a person to like my books enough to purchase them when they come out new, the same with remainder books. Authors get no part of the money you spend on remainder books. But, many people (including me) have tried out a new author by purchasing a remainder and then went on to buy the author's books. This is always an awkward thing for a writer to discuss because pushing our books on readers is not something that many of us like doing. But, the truth is, if a writer does not sell enough books, their publisher stops publishing them. It's as simple as that. If you like a writer, buy their books. It's the best way to keep them writing. I understand that people like to loan books out, check them out of the library, that things are tight for many people. But if you don't buy books, they won't be there anymore. At least, the books you like. 

Top of Page

Q:   Why in Delectable Mountains (page 213 in hardcover edition) is Benni delighted that her purple truck is restored to its original color? What happened to her truck?

A:  This is definitely a case of menopausal brain freeze on my part. She is referring to when her truck was vandalized in Sunshine and Shadow and it had to be repainted. Why in the world I didn't realize that in my fictional world that was a year and a half earlier...well, I just don't know. I guess after writing twelve Benni Harper books in twelve years as well as living my real life I just lost track. Ideally that would have been caught by my editor or copy editor, but since I've been published I've had four editors and I-don't-know-how-many copy editors (who are, apparently, freelance contractors). Because of that the people reading my books for errors usually haven't read the whole series like my fans have (and some of you have read them very recently which is why you know the details better than even I do) so they wouldn't catch an error like that. At least fifty of you did catch it, so here's the explanation, as feeble as it is. Mea culpa!

Top of Page

Q:  Why does Hud's grandfather, Iry, call him T-Hud?

A:  In the Cajun language it is a shortened version of 'tit which is a shortened version of petite. It's like saying "Little Hud," kind of the Cajun version of junior. Though Hud is not anyone's junior, his grandfather uses it as a loving nickname and has probably called him that since he was a little boy. 

Top of Page

Q:   In the acknowledgements of Seven Sisters you credit Tom Bazley for giving you one of the best lines in the book. What was it?

A:  I don't remember the exact page or which character said it, but the line was "When you're losing, only the feedman knows your name." Tom Bazley was married to my good friend, Clare. They were racehorse trainers at Los Alamitos racetrack and when I heard him make that comment one night when we were watching one of their horses, I thought it was so funny and so particular to the industry, that I had to use it. 

Top of Page

Q:   Where do you get the quilt pattern histories you put in the front of your books?

A:  First, I have about 200 quilting reference books that I consult, as well as articles from magazines and newspapers that I clip. There are very few books that talk about the history of the patterns simply because so many of the histories were oral and, therefore, not recorded. The best books I've found are "Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them" by Ruth E. Finley and "The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt in America" by Carrie A. Hall and Rose G. Kretsinger. In the last few years, I've used the Internet more, but mostly it's pouring through magazines, newspapers and books looking for a smidgen of history that I can expand on. 

Top of Page

Q:  Why is the town in your series called San Celina? Isn't that improper Spanish? Shouldn't it be Santa Celina?

A: Yes, San Celina is improper Spanish. It should actually be Santa Celina since San is male and Santa is female.  I originally did it as a joke (though I've since regretted it since I get so many letters).  I grew up in La Puente which is also improper Spanish (it should be El Puente--Puente means 'bridge' and it is male).  So I named San Celina improperly just as a lark (as I used Derby, Kansas, because my husband used to visit there every summer as a boy).  I never realized my books would ever be published and that people would question why I did things.  Celina is named for Celina, Texas, which is just a name I saw on a map and liked the way it sounded.  I give a fictional explanation for San Celina's name in Dove in the Window which, hopefully, satisfies my readers.

Top of Page

Q:  Do you sell San Celina Police Department T-shirts?

A:  No, unfortunately I can't sell them.  To do that I'd have to get a resale license, pay sales tax and do all the work of ordering them, taking the money, shipping them out.  It's not only too much work, (you don't want me to take time away from writing, do you?) but I don't have the room to store the amount of T-shirts I'd need to keep on hand.  I will continue to give them away as contest prizes and it's not as hard to win one as you think!  Though I get about 2500 hits a week on my website, I usually only get about 200-300 entries in the contests.  So, see, your chances are good! Don't give up!

Top of Page

Q:  Is the town of Sugartree, Arkansas, based on a real town?

A:  Like most of my settings, it's a mixture of more than one place.  Though those of you who've ever been to Searcy, Arkansas, probably recognize the courthouse on the cover.  That painting is very similar to Searcy's courthouse though I gave the art department at my publisher many pictures of courthouses all around Arkansas.  I would say Sugartree is a combination of many of the small towns I visited on my two-week research trip there such as Magnolia, Searcy, Conway, Hope and many others.  The 'tone' of the town really came from my experiences growing up in a small Southern Baptist church here in Southern California.  Though I didn't grow up in a small town, a small church (about 150 people) has many of the same wonderful and insane qualities.  It's the church (Immanuel Baptist Church in La Puente) where I met my husband in Sunday School when we were fifteen years old.

Top of Page

Q:  Where can I get the recipe for bacon gravy, atole, chocolate fried pies, etc?

A:  I'll try and post as many recipes for the things I mention in my books as I can.  The problem is many of the recipes are things I make up so I haven't a clue as to how they are made!  Some things are based on real recipes and those I'll put on the website as quickly as possible.  Sometimes I have to really hunt around for them because I don't cook much anymore and my cookbooks are very disorganized!  (See website for new recipe for bacon gravy.)

Top of Page

Q:  Where can I buy your books? How can I get hardback editions of your earlier books?

A: All my books are still in print.  If your local independent bookstore doesn't have them, they can order them.  If they tell you they aren't in print anymore, they are just uninformed.  Often the distributor will be in between printings and there might be some lag time as to when they can get books, but all of my books are definitely still in print.  You can buy them at any of the major chains, i.e., Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-a-Million, Amazon.com or check out some of the independents I have listed under 'Links.'  You can sometimes get signed books from these places such as The Poisoned Pen, The Button Lady, The Fabric Patch, and Cotton Ball Quilt Store.  To find hardback editions of my earlier books is more difficult.  When the paperback comes out they no longer print hardback editions.  These are often hard to find because there is a concrete number of them.  Try Amazon.com or any of the online bookstores that sell used books.  Also try your local used bookstores.  They often have copies for a fairly inexpensive price.  Remember, a hardback of Fool's Puzzle will not only be harder to find than one of my newer hardbacks, but might be a little pricey.  Book collectors buy hardback books as investments.  But I've noticed prices often fluctuate with the economy and when things are tough, the price of collectible books goes down.  Irish Chain in hardback is the hardest one of my books to find because the least amount was printed (common with second novels).

Top of Page

Q:  You stated that Benni got her first kiss in Arkansas Traveler from Duck, then you said she got it from Jack in Steps to the Altar.  What gives?

A:  My actual words in Steps to the Altar was Benni received her first "grownup" kiss from Jack under the pepper tree at the Carnegie library. I will assume that most of my readers will understand the difference between the kiss she got from Duck when she was 12 (which Emory had to pay Duck to give her) and the more serious and intimate one she shared with Jack when she was 15.  

 

Top of Page

Q:  What is tri-tip steak and where can I buy some?

A:  I had to actually do some research on this one! Tri-tip is a cut of steak that is very easy to buy in California but apparently not many other places.  I went to a butcher in Arroyo Grande who explained to me that tri-tip is a part of the beef that is ground up and used as scrap meat in other places of the country.  Apparently, to get a tri-tip, the butcher had to cut the whole carcass of beef a special way and it is not done that way in other parts of the country. I didn't' realize, until he told me, that butchers carve beef in different ways in different areas of the country.  The closest someone outside of California could come to a tri-tip steak is top sirloin steak or a sirloin tip roast that you would cut at an angle when it was broiled. To make it authentic Santa Maria-style barbecue you must eat it with salsa on top, pinquinto beans (or pink beans), sourdough bread and salad with ranch dressing. That's the typical Santa Maria-style feast. If you want to know more about it, the Santa Maria Historical Society has a book about it. Call 1-800-331-3779 to order it.

Top of Page

Q:   How do you pronounce Elvia's name?   

A:   L-vee-ah (emphsis on L and ah)

Top of Page

Q:   How do we convince you to sign at our bookstore, library, quilt guild?

A:   First, I have to tell you, I often wish I were two people! One to write and one to go out on the road. I really enjoy talking to my readers. But, alas, there is only one of me. 

Whenever I have a book come out, my publisher schedules my booksigning tour. Since they are paying for it, I have to go where they send me. I'm not always sure myself why they choose the places they do, but they have marketing and publicity departments who spend a lot of time figuring it out. They do take suggestions from me, but the final decision (since it's their dollar) is up to them.

That said, they can be influenced by a lot of interest in my coming to an area. If my books sell particularly well in a certain area (i.e. Ohio...I'm a big seller there so I've been sent there quite often) and there is a bookstore who really wants me to come (which means they'll put a lot of effort into getting me local publicity), that can often convince my publisher to send me there. Unfortunately, there have been times I've suggested places because I told my publisher a lot of my fans were from an area, they sent me there, and not many people came. It happens and my publisher takes note. So, if you want me to come to your town, bug your local bookstore to contact my publisher at least six months before I have a book out (and my books always come out in May) and do your best to convince your family and friends to come out!

As for libraries and quilt guilds...the problem for me is simply time and money. My publisher doesn't pay for me to come to libraries or quilt guilds and even if I charge more than my normal fee, it often is just too time-consuming for me to fly across the country for one quilt guild meeting or one library talk. Don't forget, I make my living by writing books, not by speaking engagements. I do more speaking engagements in Southern California simply because it usually only takes up a day of my time instead of three or four. I have to have enough time to write my books (not to mention, have a life!)

One thing I am doing this year which makes a lot of sense (and is taking incredible efforts on the different guild's part as well as mine) is that I'm signing at four guilds in California's Central Valley. It's a good six to seven hour drive to the furthest one and then I work my way down the state. If we can work something out like that, it might be possible to come to areas further away than an hour or two.

Top of Page

Q:   How do you start writing?
A:   I'm asked this question often.  First, if you want to write, read. Read in the area you want to write in.  Read in other areas.  Just read a lot.  Then go to your local library and ask the librarian to show you to the writing section.  There's many, many books written (and still being written every year) on how do learn any kind of writing you can imagine.  There are also many wonderful monthly magazines on writing such as The Writer and Writer's Digest.  You can read these for free at the library or buy them at your local bookstore.  Your local community college most likely has beginning writing classes, often for a very reasonable fee.  This is how I started writing when I was 27, by taking an evening community college writing class.  There are many writing sites on the Internet.  Go to one of the search engines such as Google or Dogpile and type in writing.  Go to your local bookstore and look in the research section.  That's where most writing books are. 

Though talent and the art in writing is often innate, I believe the craft can be learned.  Like any craft, though, it takes time and hard work.

I wrote short stories for 10 years before I wrote Fool's Puzzle and was published.  I had about 150 short stories rejected.  And most of them should have been.  That was my apprenticeship, my writing school, so to speak.  I took about 10 or 11 creative writing classes and own and have read about 200 writing books.

Top of Page

Q:  How do you get a book or short story published?
A:   There are also lots of books at both the library and your local bookstore that address this in detail. There's books that list agents, editors and publishers and tell you what their requirements and submission rules are. If you have taken the time to study writing and finish a novel or a short story, take those same skills you learned to study these books and what they have to say. If you have written a novel, you almost always will need an agent.

There are many good books about how to acquire one. The writing magazines tell you about conventions and writing groups where you can learn about publishing and often meet agents and editors. The best thing to do is get involved in the writing world. Like any other business, this is one that depends many times on having an "in" even if you have a wonderful manuscript.

But it doesn't have to be much more than having a creative writing teacher recommend your manuscript to their agent (that's what happened to me). But it is also possible to get an agent through sending a query letter describing your book. Again, all of this is covered in many wonderful writing books in much greater detail than I can give here.

Top of Page

Q:   Why don't you have more/less about quilting, mystery, sex, Dove, Gabe, Emory, etc., in your books?
A:   I try to spread the 'page time' equally among all the aspects of my novels.  Because I write a series that isn't easily categorized as strictly a mystery, a quilting novel, a mainstream novel, or a romance novel, and because I've acquired such a large cast of characters, it is a fact of life that each of those elements and characters will at some time take a backseat to another.  Otherwise my books would be a thousand pages long (which would not be okay with my publisher!)  So I try to give each of the elements and characters equal time and consideration and if the current book doesn't have enough of the parts of my books that you enjoy, rest assured, that element or that character will take a front seat in a future book.  But don't be afraid to tell me which are your favorite characters or parts.  I have been known to bring characters back because of fans' requests.  That's how Isaac became a permanent part of the series.

Top of Page

 Q:   Do you have audio books?
A:   A few of my later books are now on cassette tape and CD.  I have no idea why they chose to only buy a few of my books.  That is something that the recorded book company's buyer decides. Right now Sunshine and Shadow, Broken Dishes and, soon, Delectable Mountains are recorded.  They are unabridged and the company who did them is Recorded Books.  You can find them on www.recordedbooks.com   The woman who reads them, Johanna Parker, was an actor I chose from three I was able to listen to.  She does a wonderful job bringing them to life.

Top of Page

Q:  Why did you use quilts as a theme for your series?
A:   Quilts are a theme of my series mostly in terms of being the titles of the books and the fact that quilts play such a large part in the personal and professional life of my main character, Benni Harper.  I never intended it to be a marketing strategy as many of the quilt fiction books are these days, though, of course, both my publisher and I have taken advantage of the connection.  I initially used quilt patterns as titles because they have always been so evocative and they suggested stories to me much like an overheard stranger's conversation or part of a family's story does.  I have thought and spoke about how much making a quilt and writing a novel are very much the same physical and creative process.  A quilter takes scraps of fabric and rearranges them into a new pattern, then stitches them back together into a whole piece.  Writers perform a similar task taking pieces of family history, people we've met, things we've read and heard, half-truths and out-and-out lies and turn them into stories.  I also acted on the old saying--write what you know.  Whenever I stopped writing because of discouragement, I always turned to crafts, specifically the folk arts such as quilting, stitching, and basket weaving as a creative outlet.  I've always been drawn to folk art rather than fine art because it was the type of art I saw my grandmothers create.  It makes sense that it would eventually find its way into my fiction.

Top of Page

Q:  Are any of your characters based on real people? 
A:  Everyone would love it if I could tell them Dove and Gabe (two of the series favorite characters according to my fan mail) actually existed, but I must confess, they are, as all my characters are, based on physical and emotional traits from a large pool of people in my life.  Dove's strength and tenacity is definitely a product of my own two grandmothers who had (and have--my maternal grandmother, the one from Arkansas, is still alive at 96) made it through many tough situations and came out fighting.  My mother and mother-in-law, both of whom have passed away, were also strong women in terms of not buckling into the poverty and hardship they experienced in their lives.   But they weren't quite as gentle and loving as Dove.  That came from other women I've met in my life.  The first is Ann Lee, a woman I met in a writing class over twenty years ago who is a poet and has treated me with a gentle love and acceptance that helped me grow as a writer and a woman.  Another is Helen May, a woman I met over twenty years ago who has had MS since her early fifties (she is in her eighties now) and has lived in a board-and-care home since I have known her.  Her courage and positive spirit has always been an inspiration to me.  Both of them have traits I'm sure have helped form Dove.  Gabe's part Hispanic, part Anglo background was created because two of my nieces are bicultural.  I have watched with fascination as they've grown up with a foot in two cultures--their mother's Hispanic one and their father's (my husband's brother) Kansas-born, Anglo one.  They are lovely, compassionate, intelligent girls who have dealt with some of the prejudice they've encountered in a mature way.  I'm very proud of them and, yes, like Gabe, they are gorgeous!  And that's not just a proud aunt talking.

Top of Page

Q:  What do you do when you're not writing?
A:   Unfortunately, I don't have much free time anymore when I'm not doing something that involves writing.  This turned out to be a much more time-consuming profession than I realized!  I answer and send a lot of letters and postcards to fans and friends.  I like to watch some television in the evenings--my favorite programs are Any Day Now, That's Life, West Wing, Judging Amy.  I love the magazine shows because I can do things while I'm watching/listening to them.  I find the POV series on PBS wonderfully fresh and interesting and it even helps me as a writer.  I read, of course--about two fiction books a week now (down from five or six when I wasn't writing full time).  I like to ride horses when I can.  I have a standing riding engagement with my friend, Kathy Vieira, up in Paso Robles whenever I go up there.  I enjoy going up to San Luis Obispo and poking around, looking for new story ideas.  I travel when I can.  It helps that I have friends, like Jo-Ann Mapson, who moves to wonderful places like Alaska so I can visit them!

Top of Page

Q:  What are your favorite quilt patterns?
A:  I have always loved the Schoolhouse pattern.  The way the houses line up neatly across a quilt somehow appeals to my sense of order.  I also like Crown of Thorns, both for its beautifully pieced complexity and its spiritual connotations.  Broken Star intrigues me as a pattern and a possible book title.  I also love Jacob's Ladder and Broken Dishes.  Broken Dishes is going to be the name of my 11th Benni Harper novel.  I'm not sure what the story is about but I love the possibilities of the pattern's title.  I also like Shoo Fly just for its simplicity and the picture it paints in my mind of someone shooing flies from a just baked pie.

Top of Page

Q:   Will Benni and Gabe ever have children? 
A:   The answer is probably not but I say that with a great big probably because a writer should refrain from saying never especially when you're writing a series.  The first thing that happens when you say never is your characters decide they simply have to do the thing you said they'd never do.  But the reason I say probably not is simply this: I try to write these books in as realistic way as possible.  The murder mystery genre itself begs from its readers a huge 'suspension of disbelief' as most average human beings do not experience one murder in their lives much less the dozens that mystery protagonists do.  That said, I do try to make my characters and their lives as believable and real as I can.  I feel that if Benni became pregnant and still involved herself with reckless and dangerous situations (and this is virtually demanded by the genre, though as my readers know, I try to push the envelope on that as much as possible) then I, and I'm willing to bet, my readers, would not respect or like her very much for endangering her child or herself.  In mysteries, giving your characters children, especially very young ones, adds a definite logistical problem many times.  Benni couldn't simply lock her child in the backyard like she does her dog, Scout, when the child is in the scene's way.  I've always felt that if she were to become pregnant, I would have to end the series there.  That is not to say there won't be babies in San Celina!  I think Benni and Gabe would make wonderful godparents or grandparents. 

Top of Page

Q:  When you research your books, do you go to the library or buy your books?
A:  I do both, plus I also use the Internet more now, though you have to be careful about information you find on the Internet. Usually I try to verify it with another source before I believe it. I buy more books than I used to because one, it's a tax write off now (biggest bonus of being a writer!) and because I often need to refer to the book(s) throughout the writing of my own book. And I like to underline and make notes...a no-no in a library book! If I just need some beginning information on a subject, I'll often go to the library, sometimes the children's section, because they have basic information books on many subjects. I actually find the "Dummie" and "Idiot" books very helpful too.

Top of Page

Q:  Do you outline your books?

This is a common question asked of writers. First, keep in mind, there is no right or wrong way to write a novel, there's just your way. My personal answer is, no, I don't outline. But that's just how I write. Because I don't outline, I usually have a lot of rewriting and "fixing" to do after I finish the first draft. Many writers do like to outline because they like to see where they are going (even if they don't stick to the outline and many don't). I've tried it and the most I've discovered I can do is outline a few chapters ahead of time. I like the spontaneity of not knowing what's going to happen each day. Every writer has their own method from getting from A to Z and I believe, whatever it takes to get there, that's the right way to write a novel.

Top of Page

Q:  Do you bounce ideas off your husband, friends, family?

I definitely talk about my books to Allen. He knows me better than anyone else so I often don't have to explain myself as I'm working something out verbally. He's a good listener and I can often tell if the idea is too off-the-wall by the expression on his face. But, he also isn't a fiction reader or another writer, so I have to take that into consideration. I talk about my ideas and plots to a few close friends. It's something I do whenever I visit my friend Jo-Ann Mapson. We also talk about what we're writing by email. I often tell my webmaster, Tina, what I'm working on or thinking about working on. She's my ideal reader, that is, someone who reads for pleasure, reads widely and is open-minded. She also buys books, which endears her to me and all writers. She puts her money where her mouth is. I highly prize her opinion, as well as that of her husband, Tom, who is also a big reader. 

Top of Page

Q:   Are there ever things you've written that you wish you could take back? 
A:   Not major things because I really think about and ponder what I write and I rewrite extensively before it sees print.  I take the responsibility of being published very seriously.  I have strong moral codes based on my faith in God and the Bible and I think it is obvious in my writing.  On some subjects, I do try to present more than one point-of-view such as in Seven Sisters when Benni and Hud discuss the possibility of eternal justice or in Arkansas Traveler when Benni and Dove disagree on capital punishment.  Though I know what I believe (though sometimes, as with capital punishment, I am torn because my emotions say one thing and my intellect and spirituality say another--thus the Benni and Dove scene) I also respect and am interested in other people's points-of-view.  I feel if a person is strong enough in their own beliefs, other beliefs should not scare or threaten them.  And I cannot expect someone to listen to what I believe if I am not willing to listen to them. 

But, there are some small errors that do drive me a little crazy!  For example, a Japanese name was spelled wrong in the first edition of Irish Chain (Yamakoa should be Yamaoka) and I've tried a couple of times to get my publisher to change it in the paperback reprints but my request always falls through the cracks.  Once something is in paperback reprints it appears to be very difficult to get a mistake corrected.  So I always feel I must apologize to every Japanese reader I meet.  I swear, I'll get it changed yet!  Another funny mistake was in Dove in the Window, the hardback edition.  I wrote about an expensive caviar that cost $24.99 a pound!  Well, that should have been an ounce.  A friend of mine caught it and it was, thankfully, corrected in the paperback edition.  Small errors like those often get through the publishing process even with the many people who read the manuscripts.  I think we just have to give everyone a huge cup of grace and realize that most people in publishing are greatly overworked and stressed out and errors just sometimes happen. 

Top of Page

Q:   Sometimes I get confused about the timing in your books.  It doesn't seem to add up.  When do these books take place?
A:   Timing in a series is a touchy thing.  It is very difficult to write a series
in "real time," that is, each book coinciding with today's exact date.  First, by the time you read the book, it is already almost two years old as it takes me a year to write a book and my publisher a year to publish it.  So even if I wrote my books in "real time" (which I don't) it would be dated by the time you read it.  Authors handle this problem in a variety of ways.  Some, such as Agatha Christie, chose to never age their characters at all.  Some age their characters slowly but keep them up with modern times, somewhat illogical, but it can work.  I have chosen to age my characters slowly, but in actual time.  This was necessary because I dated the characters in a way that demands this.  For example, I say Gabe was in Vietnam in 1968 when he was 18, which dates the series there.  But I've aged them slowly, taking 8 years to write two years in their lives because I wanted to explore Benni and Gabe's early marriage and because I didn't want Dove, who was 75 in Fool's Puzzle, to age too quickly.

 Here's a timeline of my series.

Fool's Puzzle - Nov/Dec 1992
Irish Chain - Feb 1993
Kansas Troubles - July 1993
Goose in the Pond - Sept 1993
Dove in the Window - Nov 1993
Mariner's Compass - Apr/May 1994
Seven Sisters - Sep 1994
Arkansas Traveler - Oct 1994 
Steps to the Altar - Feb 1995

Sunshine and Shadow Mar/Apr 1995
Broken Dishes Jan/Feb 1996
Delectable Mountains Nov 1996

Top of Page

Q:   Where do you get your ideas?
A:   Like most writers, it is an unpredictable mixture of childhood memories, my own wants and desires, stories I've been told by friends, family, fans, strangers, things I either read about or see happen.   Often I "make" things happen, that is, I try to be in a place where something can happen.   To do this I make it a point to spend time with all sorts of people--ranchers, people in retirement homes, horse trainers, cops, attorneys, secretaries (they always have the best stories and usually know where all the "bodies are buried"), teachers, nurses, accountants, housekeepers (also a font of information), waitresses, journalists, quilters, priests, firefighters and librarians.   Whatever my story calls for (and often the idea is sparked by a article in the newspaper or a magazine--I have a box called "story ideas" where I keep these articles), I seek out people who are knowledgeable about it.   And some of my best characters actually come from my fans.   Benni's third assistant, D-Daddy, came from one of my readers.   She and her daughter came to a book signing of mine where they were the only people there for about an hour.   We commenced to talking about cattle ranching and she told me she was raised on a cattle ranch in Florida by her D-Daddy and Memaw.   Well, I instantly fell in love with that name and gave it to Benni's new assistant.   I made him Cajun because I just love the Cajun culture and am fascinated by it.   I never know where an idea will come from, so I always have, as my second grade teacher would say, my "listening cap" on.

Top of Page

Q:   Why, if San Celina is based on San Luis Obispo, didn't you just name the town in your books by its real name?
A:   When I wrote Fool's Puzzle, I was completely green when it came to the publishing world.   I had no idea what was okay to do and what wasn't.   I didn't want to take the time to look into legalities so I just fictionalized San Luis Obispo so I wouldn't get sued by anyone!   As luck would have it, I made a good choice because it gave me a lot of freedom in changing things around to fit my needs.   For example, the library in San Celina is not based at all on the San Luis Obispo library, but on the Huntington Beach Library.   The reason why is because I worked at the Huntington Beach Library for five years and so knew it very well.   Also, the jail in San Celina (where Benni spends some time in Fool's Puzzle) is actually based on my local jail where a field sergeant was kind enough to let an officer give me a tour.   I didn't know anyone in San Luis Obispo when I wrote the first three books so I couldn't ask anyone (or was afraid to ask) for a tour of the SLO jail.   (I have since seen it...as a visitor not an occupant).   Some of the other cities, I used their real names (like Morro Bay) because I didn't think I'd ever write this many books and would never have to use them.   But I made almost everything in "my" Morro Bay fictional, though you'd recognize many of the landmarks if you went there.   In Kansas Troubles, I did use all the real names of cities and I was right, it was more difficult to do that (and your mistakes follow you forever!)

Top of Page

Q:   Do you quilt?
A:   I have made a few quilts in my life, back in the eighties when I first started writing.   I was in my late twenties.   I discovered I was a better writer than quilter, though I've never lost my love for them...or the fascination with the people who make them.   Quilters are such a varied group of people and quilt for so many different reasons.   Yet, when they get together, they have this one common bond and I find that refreshing, especially in today's rapidly impersonal environment.   I am fascinated also by the history of them, especially the names.   I do still buy fabric, which qualifies me for fabricolism, if nothing else.   I do limit myself to western fabric only (and have two, going on three boxes full).   I especially like to look for it in antique stores and get pieces of old fabric from the forties and fifties.   Writing takes up so much of my time that I don't know if I'll ever get to do crafts (I especially like counted cross stitch) or quilting again.   I'll continue to buy fabric and patterns with hope, though.

Top of Page

Q:   How much of Benni is you?
A:   A lot of her is me, of course, but I gave her vastly different family dynamics so there's parts of her that aren't at all like me. How we're alike: We both are short, blonde, like to wear simple clothes like jeans, T-shirts and boots, love chicken-fried steak (and fried anything), no-bake cookies, oral history, horses, the wide open spaces. We both have smart mouths (and finally I've found a way to make mine pay off--I was always getting in trouble in school, ask any of my former teachers) and tend to speak before we think. We both are awkward in fancy social situations and have soft spots for people in trouble. We both wish we had longer legs. We both have roots in the South (my mother was from Arkansas) and do know that you're supposed to eat grits with butter and salt, not milk and sugar.
     How we're different: She's better rider than me, having grown up on horses.   She likes to camp.   I prefer Marriott Courtyard hotels (or the Four Seasons, if truth be told and I was ever chosen by Oprah).   She's a pampered only child.   I'm the second of four girls.   She hates to shop.   I find shopping extremely relaxing.   I'm more of a loner than she is and have not had as much emotional support from family and friends throughout my life as she.   I'm more street smart than she is.   My first job at seventeen was in downtown Los Angeles near the garment district.   She grew up a country girl in a small, insulated environment, where I grew up in a large, multi-cultural one.   Neither of us are man haters, though we don't buckle under to them either.   In her, I wanted to show a woman with strength who was not necessarily bitter or angry at men.

Top of Page


Page updated February 4, 2007   Copyright © 2007   All rights reserved.   Problems or comments?  E-mail  Webmaster.