Authors of the Month
Sandra Carey Cody [Dec 2010]
Chosen by MyShelf.Com reviewer Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban, Ph.D.

Authors Carolyn J Rose & Mike Nettleton Sandra Carey Cody is the author of the Jennie Connors mystery series, published by Avalon Books. Put Out the Light, Consider the Lilly and By Whose Hand are currently available in book stores and libraries. These stories explore the challenges facing a single mother as she learns to balance independence with family and career responsibilities.
Sandy’s latest novel, Love and Not Destroy, examines the ways in which destiny is shaped by family secrets. It is set in a museum of antique tools and folk art in a small town near Philadelphia. The new protagonist is Peace Morrow, a young woman who was found in a basket as an infant. Twenty-two years later, a homeless man is murdered in exactly the same spot. Peace can’t believe it’s a coincidence and thus begins a search for identify that explores the nature of family, of loyalty and responsibility.

I met Sandra two years ago at a book signing event, in that small town near Philadelphia where her new novel takes place. In between signing our books and talking to the readers, we shared our experiences in the writing world and became friends.

Today Sandra has been kind enough to answer in writing and in more detail what we shared that day. I am certain her detailed explanations of her writing process will interest readers and inspire aspiring writers.

As always, her love for her characters and her trade shines through her answers.
I hope you enjoy reading the interview as much as I did recording it.


Big Grabowski coverCarmen: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

Sandra: Not until I was well into my adult years. Ever since I can remember, I’ve had stories and bits of dialogue going on in my head, but they were my private world and it didn’t occur to me to share them with anyone else. I’ve loved books for as long as I can remember, but I had to reach a certain age to realize that they are written by ordinary people – people like me.

Carmen: What part of writing do you most enjoy?

Sandra: Making up the characters. I have a wonderful time inventing imaginary people, figuring out what they look like, what their hopes and dreams are, what they are afraid of, what kind of secrets they’re hiding. I love to create contrasting characters and play them off each other. It’s like doodling – pure fun.

Carmen: What part do you least enjoy?

Sandra: Plotting. There’s no doodling here. It takes hard, concentrated effort to come up with adventures for the people I’ve created. Somewhere along the way, I become so attached to them that it’s hard to make bad things happen to them and, of course, without bad things, there’s no story. I’m happy to say, however, this is becoming easier. I’m gradually learning to enjoy plotting. It’s not pure fun, but it’s no longer pure torture. I still think it’s the hardest part of writing.

Carmen: What comes first? Characters? Story? Setting?

Sandra: I start with my characters, usually one specific person, then move on to the people who surround this individual – family, friends, co-workers. Setting is next; it grows out of some aspect of the cast of characters. Where would these people be? What would bring them together? I have to say, though, that in my latest novel, To Love and Not Destroy, setting came first. There’s a wonderful castle-like museum in the town where I live and I had to write about it. Story comes last because the plot follows the characters. Their secrets, fears, hopes and dreams shape the story. Their reactions to other characters and the situations in which they find themselves result in a series of actions that become the plot.

Carmen: Where do you find inspiration?

Sandra: Everywhere: people in the supermarket, an old man walking a dog, a single leaf clinging to an otherwise bare tree, the museum mentioned above, funny things my friends say and do. Nature, especially this time of year. The newspaper is a gold mine of ideas. Inspiration isn’t a problem. Discipline to shape inspiration into a story – that can be a problem.

Carmen: Tell us about your Riverview Manor mysteries.

Sandra: The published books in the series are Put Out the Light, Consider the Lilly and By Whose Hand. Left at Oz, the prequel to the other books is scheduled for release in mid-2011. Avalon Books is the publisher. There’s a brief description of the books on my website:

The stories are set in a retirement community and explore the challenges facing a single mother as she learns to balance her newfound independence with family and career responsibilities. My protagonist, Jennie Connors, is Activities Director in this surprisingly quirky place. Her job is to keep the residents busy, happy and out of trouble. She is a single mother with two young sons and an ex-husband she doesn’t hate. Here, I wanted to go against stereotype and show two good people who couldn’t make their marriage work, but are determined that their children not be damaged by their choices. This doesn’t mean sparks never fly between the two. The residents play a large part in the books. Again, I wanted to go against stereotype – no boring old people sitting around talking about the good old days. The folks at Riverview are smart, curious and just bored enough to stir up trouble. I have a great time making up a history for each of them and giving them unique experiences and personalities that come into play when the occasional murder needs to be solved. I enjoy the interaction between the different generations.

Carmen: How much of your fiction is based on personal experience?

Sandra: Quite a bit - I have two sons with the same age difference as Jennie’s boys and there’s a lot of my sons in Tommy and Andy. My mother lived in a retirement community very much like Riverview and I spent a fair amount of time visiting her there, so I had a chance to get to know the residents and to hear their stories. I don’t use the actual stories, but listening to them taught me to see old people as the young people they once were. As for the ex-spouse, I’ve been married to the same man for more than half of my life, so that part is based on observation from years of working in a law office. About investigating a murder – for that, I have to go completely on imagination. Thank goodness!

Carmen: What other projects are in the works?

Sandra: To Love and Not Destroy is not part of the Jennie Connors/Riverview Manor series. It is set in a museum of antique tools and folk art in a small town near Philadelphia and examines the ways in which destiny is shaped by family secrets. The new protagonist is Peace Morrow, a young woman who was found in a basket as an infant. Twenty-two years later, a homeless man is murdered in exactly the same spot. Peace doesn’t believe this is a coincidence and thus begins a search for identify that explores the nature of family, loyalty and responsibility. This story was conceived as a standalone, but has grown to a trilogy. The first chapter is posted on the blog, And, of course, I have more adventures planned for Jennie and the folks at Riverview.

Carmen: How do you plot your mysteries?

Sandra: I start with the victim. What is it about this person that would make someone cross the line and take a human life? Since I write traditional mysteries, I need several suspects, so the victim needs to be a complex character, threatening enough that three or four people have a reason to want him dead. Starting with what the sleuth knows about the victim, I reveal his complexities, his hidden life and his connections to the other people in the story. I think about any secrets he may have had or something he may have known or done that would push the other characters into a corner. And I try to make him human so the reader actually cares that someone killed him. (I’ve blogged about this on the two blogs in which I participate: and

Carmen: Do you base your characters on real people?

Sandra: Not really. They are a composite of actions, attitudes, quirks, etc. that I observe in real people and then combine in ways that I think make a believable character, someone to whom interesting things are likely to happen.

Carmen: Are you ever surprised by what your characters do that you had not planned?

Sandra: All the time, especially the residents at Riverview. One of my favorite characters is Nathaniel Pynchon. Nate is an 84-year-old former actor; he’s arrogant, selfish and a born troublemaker. He constantly does things that take my plot in unexpected directions – and I love him for that. There are six elderly women I call the tea ladies; they pretty much sit on my shoulder and tell me what they will or won’t do. For me, this is the most fun part of writing.

Carmen: How detailed is your outline when you sit down to write your novel?

Sandra: It’s fairly detailed, but subject to change. Once I have the characters in mind, I make something happen that forces the protagonist out of her comfortable world. This sets the plot in motion. I figure out what my protagonist’s goal is and what obstacles she has to overcome to reach that goal. I plan scenes that show her meeting challenges and dealing with setbacks. In theory, before I start the actual writing, I have a completely plotted novel, but as I put the words on the page, a lot of changes are made. I realize things about the characters or the setting that open up new possibilities. I find gaps in logic have to be filled in. Every story needs surprises, but once a surprise has occurred, it has to make sense. By the time I reach the end, the story is usually completely different from the original outline. I like that. Writers need surprises as much as readers do.

Carmen: Who are some of your favorite writers?

Sandra: That’s a tough one. There are so many. I love writers who create memorable characters: Jane Austen and Charles Dickens (of course), William Faulkner (hard to follow sometimes, but I love spending time with his characters), F. Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Wallace Stegner. Some of the more current writers whose books I enjoy are Jacqueline Winspear, Elizabeth George, Donald E. Westlake (he always make me laugh out loud), Alexander McCall Smith. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

Carmen: What other interests do you have?

Sandra: I’m a quilter. Unfortunately, both writing and quilting require a lot of time so quilting has been put on the back burner lately. I enjoy gardening, getting my hands in the dirt. I like walking, especially when I make time to go to a park or anywhere near a river or lake. If it’s a windy day, so much the better. I love the feeling of wind in my face. I like baking (not cooking, just baking, I have a terrible sweet tooth).

Carmen: What refreshes you creatively?

Sandra: If I had to pick one thing, it would have to be reading. Nothing inspires like a good book. Being with other writers and talking about writing always makes me itch to get back to my own work. And, to be honest, sometimes getting away from writing for a while is what I need to get those juices flowing.

Thanks for asking. Answering your questions has reminded me what a complex, wonderful thing a novel is and how lucky I am to be living the dream of being a writer.


2010's Honorary List


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