Friday, May 27, 2011

Guest Author Day with Sandy Semerad

Can you tell us a little about how you started writing; was it something you have always wanted to do?

I started making up stories in my head when I was seven, after my father died. However, I learned the craft of writing as a journalist--newspaper reporter, columnist, broadcaster, editor--after I earned a B.A. in journalism from Georgia State University in Atlanta.

Since moving to Florida, the stories in my head became increasingly complex and I had to write them down to keep the characters straight.

I never thought about writing as something I always wanted to do. Making up stories is something I need to do and writing them down became a natural progression.

What do you consider to be the key elements of a great story?

A successful story must have good writing, solid structure (plotting) and strong, believable characters.

Usually, the story starts when the protagonist is confronted with a serious problem that requires her to become extraordinary.

Conflict is always increasing, driving the plot forward and making the reader worry about the protagonist.
There’s a sense of urgency in all exciting stories and the tension continues to build.

When I write, I ask this question: How can I make this worse for my protagonist?

Great stories are peppered with complex characters and conflicts that attack their weaknesses.

In the end, the reader must feel satisfied. In mysteries, this usually means the killer is caught and justice is served.  

Could you tell us a little about how you develop your characters? Who has been your favorite character to write? The most challenging?

As I mentioned before, my characters begin to live in my head and become real to me before I start writing.

I develop a back story for them, starting with where they were born and includes every aspect of their lives.

I want to know my characters as well as I know myself before I begin the writing process. However, once I start writing and get in that zone, my characters frequently surprise me.

I suppose my favorite character is Lilah Sanderford in Mardi Gravestone. I loved living through her.

Maeva Larson in Hurricane House brought enormous challenges, because she a catastrophe investigator (CAT) and though I have a friend who is a CAT and shared experiences with me, I still had to learn about her and it took me a while to understand what makes her tick.

Have you ever found that you didn’t like your Hero or your Heroine? If so, what did you do to change that?
When I first wrote Maeva in Hurricane House, she could be rude, and I’m a southern woman who prefers kindness. So, after I read the first and second drafts of Hurricane House, I decided to alter her actions and dialogue to make her a nicer, though keep her strength. After all, nice does not make a steel magnolia weak.

If you were to start again, with the knowledge you have now, what would be the first thing you’d do?

I’d started writing down the stories in my head sooner.

Can you tell me a bit about your most recent/upcoming release?

Yes, Hurricane House is about a hurricane that hits a Florida fishing village with a murderer at large. Catastrophe investigator Maeva Larson, though suffering from the death of her fiancé, must find the murderer before he kills again. In her search for the killer, she follows strange clues from a crystal necklace and a special dog.

Is there a genre you haven’t done that you would like to explore in the future?

Both my books have a dose of the paranormal, but I think I would explore more of that genre.

Also, I like stories that enlighten without preaching. Stories that make a difference and promote positive change. I’m now working on a story based on a murder trial I covered as a reporter in Atlanta. It will contain both fact and fiction.

If you could throw a party with any five people (living or dead) who would you pick and why?

Wow, what a tough question. Trying to narrow it down to five is the hard part.  

My father—who died when I was seven—would be my first choice. Then I would include my mother who is dead now, but her spirit lives on, of course. Unfortunately, I never got to tell her how much I loved her before she died.

Oprah, because I selfishly want to give her my books, and meet her.

William Shakespeare—for obvious reasons—he’s a genius and I could learn from him.

Jesus Christ—I have so many questions to ask him.

I could go on and on but you asked for only five.

Do you listen to music when writing? Do you feel like some stories write themselves a soundtrack with specific music? If so, what book and what kind of music influenced it?

I have listened to music while writing--classical and popular, blues and jazz when I wrote Mardi Gravestone, set in
New Orleans during Mardi Gras.

In Mardi Gravestone, Lilah’s love interest is a musician and music influenced that book enormously.

In Hurricane House, I listened to Fleetwood Mac while thinking about the book, not while writing, and in some of the scenes, a few of those were songs playing as characters interacted. And there’s a local pianist, Nancy Veldman, whose music is in one of the scenes. Nancy’s music is said to have healing powers.

What are your thoughts on love scenes in romance novels, do you find them difficult to write?

I find them exciting to write and I include romance in my mysteries. Yet, I’ve been told I can be quite graphic in my descriptions, which may be true, and I think it is indeed a challenge to write about love scenes that are titillating, but not offensive. 

What are some of your favorite things or hobbies to do?

I could easily become a hermit. I love to write and read. I love to walk P-Nut my dog. I love to cook.

Exercising is something I do most every day. My daughter Andrea gave me Jane Fonda’s DVD “Prime Time, Fit and Strong” for Christmas and I love it.
I love to travel and fortunately, travel is part of my day job with Village Profile. As I write this, I’m in Wimberley, TX working on a project for the Wimberley Chamber.

What do you have coming up next for you? Care to share any details with us?

I’ve gotten a new web site designed and a local film maker recently did a book trailer for Hurricane House, which I’ll use to promote the book. Book signings are in my future this summer.

My latest writing project, that I alluded to before, concerns a murder trial I covered in Atlanta and the racial conflicts that murder and trial unearthed. It’s also a love story, fiction, yet based on truth.

Who are some of your favorite authors, and if we were to visit your home, what books would we find on your bookshelf, end table, floor or e-reader?

I’m always reading. I love Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Janet Fitch’s “White Oleander” is also a masterpiece. Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” another masterpiece. And I’ve probably read all of Mary Higgins Clark’s books. She’s a great storyteller, as is Sue Grafton. I’ve enjoyed Dean Koontz’s books. Other authors on my bookshelves are: Harlen Coben, Jennifer Gardner, Nora Roberts, Lee Childs, William Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies. I could go on and on, but this should give you an idea.

If you could be any character of any book or movie, who would you be?

Lilah Sanderford in Mardi Gravestone

Where can readers find you on the web?

And on facebook and Twitter.

Sneak Peek into Hurricane House by Sandy Semerad

“Hurricane House is wonderfully macabre, a crackling mystery,” says award-winning mystery writer Jeremiah Healy.

Still grieving the death of her fiancĂ©, Maeva Larson vacations on Paradise Isle, Florida,“the luckiest little fishing village in the world” where she finds the dead body of Miss Florida, Tara Baxter, floating in the Gulf. The cause of death is uncertain, and when a hurricane blows ashore, another woman is found dead and two other women are reported missing. As a catastrophe insurance investigator, Maeva knows the storm has destroyed precious clues, but she thinks her CAT credentials will allow her to find out what happened to these women.

Sean Redmond, acclaimed mystery writer and Paradise Isle resident, pursues Maeva from the first moment they meet. She tries to resist him, but then succumbs to his charm, until she reads a section of his latest manuscript, which is too close to the truth to be fiction. Uncertain of Sean, yet hoping he is not a murderer, she follows the clues from a crystal necklace, a hitchhiker, who may have seen the killer, and a black dog named Onyx. No doubt this dog possesses special powers and Maeva decides to trust Onyx’s instincts while risking her own life.


I gulped a mouthful of salt water as the undertow pulled me down, sucking like a vacuum.

At first, I battled the coursing water, making wide circles with my arms and kicking my legs fiercely. Then I remembered what I'd learned in a lifeguard class. Don't fight the undertow. Let it take you to the bottom. So I commanded my body to relax.

When my toes touched the floor of the gulf, I began to swim parallel to where I thought the shoreline might be, and search for a weak spot in the undertow. My lungs burned and expanded like a balloon about to pop. My fingers touched something black and slimy. I froze, thinking shark.

In my panic, I collided with a sand bar and crawled crablike on top of it. I took several deep breaths and looked around for someone to help me. By then, my muscles trembled from exhaustion, and I didn't think I had the strength to swim back to the jetties. The undertow had carried me to the gulf's side. The boats and the crowd watching the fireworks were at least a football field away on the harbor side. The jetties separated the two and they were at least three hundred feet away.

I waved my hands above my head and yelled, "Help." I could feel the shifting of the sand bar, soon to wash away.

When no one answered my cry for help, I jumped from the sand bar and swam back toward the jetties. Halfway there, my fatigued muscles demanded rest. So I floated on my back for a while until I bumped into an object in the water.

When I flipped over to see what I'd collided with, I screamed. It was the unthinkable: a woman's nude body. I gagged and swam doggie-style, backwards and forwards, studying the corpse. I noticed she'd lost one of her feet. Oh, my God. Did a shark do this?
A boat, fifty feet away with a boom box blasting I'm Proud to be an American, cruised nearby. I yelled, "Help, help," as I pulled the body toward the jetties. I watched the boat, hoping for a response, but it sped past, ignoring me, but sending a wave, tossing me backwards. I lost my grip on the body and imagined the remains of this poor woman getting caught up in the undertow, never to resurface again.

Though exhausted, I swam after the body. When I reached out to grab it, a cruel wave pushed it away. Eventually, the tide changed and I was able to recapture the corpse. This time, I positioned my body on top of the dead woman as if she were a float. Thankfully and finally, the waves seemed to be working in our favor, pushing us toward the jetties. The corpse and I soon collided with the rocks and I felt like kissing the boulders, though I didn't think I had the energy to pull myself up and get out of the water. I gripped a gigantic rock, put my feet in between two of them and was finally able to jump up. Then I got on my stomach and tried to reach the corpse, but my arms weren't long enough to gain leverage. Thankfully, the waves were pushing the body against the boulders, not taking her away.

I unzipped my waist pouch to withdraw my cell phone. The pouch was waterproof, but after my near drowning, I didn't expect the cell to work.

I punched in 911. A woman answered, "What's your emergency?"

"I've found a…dead body…in the …near the jetties," I stuttered and shut my eyes, fighting my panic. You'd think from the way I acted I'd never seen a dead body, but I've seen several as a catastrophe insurance investigator, or CAT, as we are called. I've dealt with victims of floods, tornadoes, hurricanes. "Calm down," the 911 lady said.

"What's your name and location?"

My voice quivered, "My name is Maeva Larson. I'm in Dolphin on Paradise Isle at the end of the jetties, near where they're exploding the fireworks. I'm wearing white shorts and a white top. I'm five-one, have short red hair, and I'm the only one out here on the jetties."

"You said you found a body?"

"Yes, a woman."

"And she's dead?" the operator asked.

"Yes, dead," I snapped, trying to keep my voice steady.

"I'll stay on the phone with you," the operator said, her voice low and soothing.

"No, no, don't, I'm okay," I said, though I felt anything but. "I just need someone out here
now. Hurry, please."

After I closed my cell phone, I studied the dead woman. Her gold necklace glinted in the moonlight. The necklace had a gold pendant in the shape of a crown and looked  familiar. Too familiar, like the one Tara Baxter had worn the afternoon Geneva VanSant invited me over for wine and finger sandwiches.
Tara had won the Miss Florida contest, and Geneva had received an award for an article about a female hitchhiker. The party was to celebrate both events.

After the get-acquainted hellos, I noticed the crown necklace, "Lovely. Appropriate for your title as Miss Florida." I remember lifting my glass of red wine to Tara in a toast. "Here's hoping you become the next Miss America."

"From your lips to God's ear," Tara had said and sipped her drink.

"Is that necklace something the winner gets?"

Tara chuckled and said. "No, Maeva, my mother had it designed for me."

I didn't want to believe this dead body was Tara, but I saw no other alternative. On her right hand was a heart-shaped pinky ring. I was certain Tara had worn a similar ring.

What was taking the responders so long? I wondered. The fireworks had ended. The crowd on the beach was moving on. The waves kept crashing the jetties, smacking Tara's body into the rocks. As I watched her, I began to sob like a frightened child. Never had I felt so alone and powerless.

Available from Treble Heart Books,
Also available from Amazon and everywhere books are sold


angela claire said...

This sounds really good! I love the concept of a hurricane

Sandy Semerad said...

Thank you Angela for talking the time to read the interview and excerpt. I hope you'll read Hurricane House and Mardi Gravestone.

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