By Susan McBride
I first heard of Charlene Weir when she won the Malice Domestic contest sponsored by St. Martin's Press in 1991. Her entry, The Winter Widow, introduced us to Susan Wren, a police chief in tiny Hampstead, Kansas, and opened our eyes to this author's clever and descriptive writing style. The oft-feared Kirkus Reviews even labeled her "A writer to watch," an amazing feat in itself! She continued to earn praise with subsequent books in the series-Consider The Crows, Family Practice and Murder Take Two. Her latest addition, A Cold Christmas, is out just in time for the holidays and provided the perfect excuse for an interview.
Susan McBride: Tell us about A COLD CHRISTMAS. What type of investigation does Susan Wren get involved in this time around?
Charlene Weir: The most severe cold spell in history has Kansas in its grip. A savage flu has swept through the entire police department, leaving Susan frantically trying to cover too many hours with too few able-bodied officers. She's overworked, having to do everything herself and hoping to get home for Christmas. She's just barely hanging on when a furnace repairman gets murdered in the church organist's basement.
SM: How did you get the idea for the plot? And where do you get your ideas from in general (the newspaper, our of thin air)?
CW: I was visiting my sister, who is a church organist, and she said, "I would rather play for a funeral, than a wedding any day." I thought that was a great first sentence for a mystery. Alas, somehow it just didn't work as an opening sentence, but it did get me started.
Being a writer yourself, you probably know that it's impossible to say where ideas come from. The newspapers, television news, books, thin air, osmosis, dreams, all of the above, none of those, everywhere. And just any idea won't do. Any number of perfectly good ideas get discarded until I come across something that resonates, sets a spark hummring in my mind. A sentence, a word, a face, an individual, a piece of music, a mood.
SM: Where did Susan come from? And what attracted you to the idea of her being a small-town Kansas police chief?
CW: I've done five books now with Susan and it's hard to go back and remember exactly how she came about. I wanted an amateur sleuth, because I knew nothing about law enforcement and didn't want to make a whole lot of stupid mistakes. After several re-writes I finally admitted to myself that the book didn't work. Okay, I'll make her a reporter. I gave it my best. That didn't work either. I guess, Susan simply wanted to be a police officer. The first book got set in Kansas because I'm from Kansas. I didn't know I was writing a series. I only meant to do one book.
SM: What drew you to writing mysteries? Did you read them as a kid?
CW: I've always read mysteries, starting way back there with Nancy Drew. Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Dorothy Sayers, Erle Stanley Gardner, I read them all. I came to writing by accident. At the beginning of a long illness, I read mysteries. One day I said to my husband, I've read so many of these, I should be able to write one of my own. He looked at me and said, "Well?" We have since divorced, but he pushed me into a life of crime.
SM: How do you begin when you're starting a new book? Do you know the crime, the victim and the killer beforehand?
CW: I begin with whatever it is that sets a spark off in my mind. Sometimes it's a character, sometimes a crime, sometimes a victim. Sometimes I know the killer and sometimes that only becomes clear as I write.
SM: Are you an outliner, a note-taker, or do you fly by the seat of your pants?
CW: I think a detailed outline is the only way to write a mystery. Unfortunately, I can't do that. Whenever I try, my mind comes up with a list of items I need at the grocery store, or the lyrics of an old song, or replays conversations I had with a friend. I leap in at the deep end, thrash around a lot, and hope I can make it to the other end.
SM: What's the most fun about writing? The part you least enjoy?
CW: The most fun is the first re-write. (You realize I said first. There are many more after that and they are not at all fun. Sometimes I get to a point where I hate the book.) When I have a draft, I'm no longer terrified that this mess will never work out. Now I can put in all the color and the flowers and fancy stuff.
The part I least enjoy is the first draft. There is nothing scarier than a blank computer screen, or a blank sheet of paper.
SM: Anything in the works you'd like to talk about?
CW: I'm just struggling with the start of a new book. It's not even formed enough to talk about.
SM: How can readers contact you?
Though Charlene Weir's protagonist may be a police chief, the Susan Wren books are not police procedurals in any true sense of the category. Which is what I like about them. Though Susan heads a very small department in tiny Hampstead, Kansas (and getting smaller by the day with the flu viruses taking folks down one by one), her methods of investigation go beyond the station house walls and include lots of observation about the citizens of Hampstead.
In this case, a seemingly innocuous--though decidedly creepy--furnace repairman named George Holiday is murder in the basement of Caley James, a divorced mom of three who plays the organ for a local church. Holiday's face and hands have been burned in the furnace itself, which makes Susan Wren believe this was personal. But who would want to murder a heating repairman right before the coldest Christmas on record? And what does Caley James have to do with it, if anything?
Susan is also battling a decision about whether to leave Hampstead to take a two year job in San Francisco investigating cold cases. And will she get home for the holidays? (Though she isn't sure that's actually a good thing what with how demanding her lawyer father is!) All in all, A COLD CHRISTMAS is a wonderful way to spend a few hours this winter. Weir provides an entertaining and intriguing mystery that will appeal to readers who like their police procedure on the lighter side.
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