Thursday, September 8, 2011

Interview with Author Deborah Sharp

Celebrating Day 3 of Random Acts of Publicity 

Sharp: Training her lens on a disappearing Florida
Mystery writer Deborah Sharp is a former reporter for USA Today. She traded the sad stories of the news business for writing mysteries, set in a little-known rodeo-and-ranches slice of her native Florida. Her books are funny, with a Southern-fried edge: Think Stephanie Plum with a plate of BBQ and a couple of cousins named Bubba.

Deborah's “Mace Bauer Mysteries'’ debuted with Mama Does Time (Midnight Ink, 2008). To research her second, Mama Rides Shotgun (2009), she saddled up for a cross-Florida, six-day trail ride. Dressing up as a tacky bride was almost as grueling for 2010's Mama Gets Hitched. For her fourth book, Mama Sees Stars, Deborah plans several red-carpet soirees in honor of her title character's grab at Hollywood stardom. Trouble is, Mama's big closeup might just end in murder.

Deborah’s short fiction and essays have appeared nationally, and she's been interviewed on the "Today" show. She lives in Ft. Lauderdale with husband Kerry Sanders, a TV reporter. No kids. No pets. They had goldfish once. Turned out badly.

Visit Deborah at; or direct your lonely-heart and etiquette questions to Mama at For a limited time you can download Mama Does Time for FREE by clicking here (if you have Kindle) or here (if you have a Nook). Lots of events this month and next: a couple of big galas to launch Mama Sees Stars in Delray and Fort Lauderdale, and Sharp will be speaking on a panel about marketing yourself as an author. Click here for the full schedule.

Questions for Deborah Sharp

 You were a journalist first, and only turned to writing fiction at age 50, is that right? Had you fooled around with writing fiction before, or were you really a newbie?

Hollywood lands in
 lil 'ole Himmarshee
I fooled around with fiction only minimally. Like most reporters, I had that Manuscript-That-Shall -Not-Be-Named sitting in a dark drawer for about 10 years. I had no idea what I was doing. Shifts in point-of-view all over the place, it clocked in at about 100 pages (or a third of what it should have been), and the main character was a dark loner, a hard-hitting reporter on the trail of a serial killer (gee, how original!).

When I turned 50, I grew weary of writing sad stories and quit the paper. Now, I had the time to finish that long-neglected mss, but I didn't like the character  anymore. Bad sign. If I didn't like her, who would? I got myself into some writing classes (Thank you, Joyce Sweeney and the Thursday night group!), started going to conferences, read a lot more, and learned how to write fiction. I knew I wanted to do something much lighter and COMPLETELY different from news. I spotted an ad in a newspaper of an older woman driving a turquoise convertible, and the idea for Mama just popped into my head. What if, I thought, there was a body in the trunk of that shiny blue convertible? And what if Mama couldn't explain how it got there? I wrote a short story (my first-ever), which morphed into Mama Does Time, which then became the series.

What skills did you bring with you from journalism to fiction? What skills did you have to learn from scratch?

Discipline, observation, research skills, a tendency to eavesdrop, and a good ear for dialogue are some of the best things I learned from being a reporter. On the other hand, I did have to learn how NOT to reveal my entire story in my first paragraph. Not a good
thing for a mystery writer!  Seriously, I had to learn to e-x-p-a-n-d my writing, especially coming from USA Today, the home of brevity. Writing in scene, putting in characters' thoughts, emotions, and motivations ... all these things were new to me, as was actual
plotting. Remember, newspaper reporters who make things up risk getting fired. Fiction writers get rewarded for it.

How did you settle on a genre? Did cozy mysteries call to you, or did you consider and discard other genres before settling in with Mace Bauer and her Mama?

After that initial misstep with the dark manuscript, I never really considered any other genre but light-hearted mysteries. That's what I like to read, and I knew it was what I wanted to write. My books are ''cozies'' in the sense the violence is not bloody or graphic, no one gets autopsied on the page, and they're fairly PG-13, but I usually call them ''traditional'' or ''funny.''

"Cozy to me conjures up crochet-covered teapots and old ladies with cats (not that there's anything wrong with that!). My middle-Florida mama and her three grown girls are a little rougher-edged. The tomboyish main character Mace, who works in a nature park and traps 'gators and other nuisance critters on the side, could crush some of those tea-sipping, cat-petting protagonists under her work boot."

Got any idea how many books you’ll run with Mace? Do you have ideas kicking around for future series or stand-alone novels?

The newest release, Mama Sees Stars, is my fourth book. I’m contracted to write # 5, “Mama Gets Trashed,’’ which will be out in 2013. I have lots of ideas for more. In fact, think of a title, and I could probably write a book: Mama Hunkers Down (a hurricane threatens, events in the storm shelter go murderously wrong); Mama Hits the Jackpot (Mama and Mace sail off on a gambling cruise, someone comes up snake-eyes); Mama Goes Wild (Mama joins Mace at a nature preserve, where the wildlife is the least-dangerous threat) . . . Stop me when you've heard enough.

I still love the characters, and have no plans to do anything else. I'm too lazy and uni-tasking to add another series, or write a stand-alone, like a lot of my colleagues do. I do have a recurring nightmare, though. Suppose the series goes on so long that I get crazy
fans like Kathy Bates in ''Misery?''  I can almost hear the shouting as my kneecaps shatter: "You KILLED off the Mama character! I'll kill you!''

What’s your technique for plotting your novels? Do you begin with an ending? (I’m assuming you’re not a seat of the pantser, since few mystery writers are, but if you are, tell us about that).

Good assumption; I'm the opposite of a seat of the pants writer. I usually do know the ending when I start, though that can change. I also write long, detailed outlines. They're 35 pages or so (for a 300-plus page book), complete with fully fleshed out dialogue
in some scenes. Other parts of the outline might be a bit sketchier, for example, I'd instruct myself, ''Mace and Carlos need to fight in this chapter,'' or, ''Note the sights, sounds, smells of the woods here,'' so I don't forget to put in some description occasionally.

Your central Florida settings are so richly detailed (including the characters that people them). Are you a native Floridian? How much is Himmarshee based on a real place?

Thanks for that nice compliment. One of the things I try to do in the books is show a still-wild, natural part of Florida that most people don't even know we have. I am a native, born in Fort Lauderdale. My dad's people were the Griffins, among the early pioneers in Davie, Fla. I grew up riding my horse through orange groves and ranches in then-rural Davie, on land that's mostly planted now in strip malls and subdivisions. Himmarshee is about half the feeling I remember from those days, and about half today's Okeechobee, a ranching town just north of the lake. I was going to actually set the series in Okeechobee, where my husband and I have some land along the Kissimmee River. But once the Wal-Mart moved in, I realized the little community had gotten too big for what I wanted to create in the books.

What’s your revision process like? Have you ever tossed out a whole book, or a large part of one? How do you judge what’s not working?

See above, about the Manuscript-That-Shall -Not-Be-Named. That one was really just too hopeless to revise, and I vow here and now I will never self-publish that stinker for the Amazon Kindle, like some of my mystery colleagues are doing with early ''work'' from their pre-published days. Some stuff is meant to stay in the drawer.

I know this breaks a cardinal rule new writers are taught, but I tend to revise as I write. It's the way I learned it in the news business, and I still write that way. That's kind of easy for me, since I usually do my first draft in long-hand. (I know, I know. Dinosaur.) As I'm typing it into the computer, that's already a second draft, since I'm improving/revising as I go. As to how to know what's NOT working, I read out loud as I write, and can generally hear if something is clunky and needs to go. I also still occasionally attend writing group, and other writers' ears on your stuff is a big help. Before I send my mss's to the publisher, I give them to a few trusted readers, including my  agent, a former newspaper editor of mine, and my husband, whose TV-trained attention span is quick to tire if something isn't working.

What piece of advice would you give fiction writers hoping to break in? What piece of advice helped you the most when you were hoping to break in?

Here are my top 3 tips for novice writers:

1. Join a writers' group for the benefits of sharing your work with others and learning from critiques.

2. Try to attend seminars or writing conferences held by professionals in your genre, whether it's travel writing, romance novels, journalism...whatever. Joining Mystery Writers of America and attending the Florida chapter's annual national conference, Sleuthfest, was a huge help to me. In fact, I met my Midnight Ink editor at one of the conference's pitch sessions. Like in any business, networking is a valuable tool for meeting people who may help to get you published.

3. This one seems obvious, but write. Paul Theroux says: "You can't WANT to be a writer. You have to be one.''

What do you do when you need inspiration?

I honestly find the best way to get inspired is just to sit in a chair and clear your head. Then, start writing ... even if it doesn't have anything to do with your current project. Sometimes, I just sit in a public place and watch people, writing down what they're
doing, wearing, saying. Eventually, that gets my creative juices flowing and I find I'm back to my project. That, and looking at my bank account does it, too!

What's the weirdest compliment you've ever gotten from a reader?

One man told me he loved the fact my chapters are so short. I thought that must be because the pacing heightens the narrative tension, each chapter leaves him wanting more, some blah-blah literary stuff ....
''Nah,'' he interrupted. "My doctor's got me on a high-fiber diet ....''
"Every morning I take your book into the can with me. I can read a quick chapter, do my business, and get on with my day.''
Uh, thanks?

And thanks to you, Gail, for inviting me here today. I've enjoyed it!


  1. Great interview. Thanks. I don't know who is more entertaining: Mama or Deb.

  2. Loved the interview, Gail. It was insightful and delightful (and I downloaded the free Kindle version of Mama Does Time!)

  3. Hey, y'all ... thanks so much for stopping by, and thanks to Gail for this fabulous ''Random Act of Publicity.'' Such great questions, from my fellow (recovering?) journalist.
    Amy and Joanne: You girls are da' bomb! Will join Jo on Saturday to share some yummy food and hear all about her and Amy's fabulous WICKED GOOD.
    Louis: Thanks so much for downloading. Maybe your mama would like to read that one, too ;-) ?

  4. As a fan of the first four Mama books, AKA Mace Bauer Mysteries, I'm thrilled to hear that Mama Goes Wild, Mama Hunkers Down, and Mama Hits the Jackpot are already brewing.

    This series keeps getting better and better. I LOVED Mama Sees Stars and can't wait for number 5--Mama Gets Trashed.

  5. Hiya, Victoria ... thanks for the kind comments. What's up in the world of yacht-chefing and memoir-writing?

  6. Thanks so much for sharing, Deborah! I haven't read Mama yet, but she's now on my TBR list. By the way, I live in Jupiter and am in Gail's Wednesday night group. It's always nice to meet a fellow native Floridian!

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

  7. Hi, Becca ... nice of you to stop by and say Hi. Jupiter is one of my favorite spots in Fla. Good luck with your writing, also childrens/YA, like Gail?