Margaret Mizushima is the author of Killing Trail: A Timber Creek K-9 Mystery to be released December 8, 2015 by Crooked Lane Books. Her fiction has won contest awards, and her short story “Hayhook” was selected to appear in the 2014 Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers anthology Crossing Colfax. She lives in Colorado with her husband and a multitude of animals.
Time to chat with Margaret!
What is your latest book?
My debut novel is Killing Trail: A Timber Creek K-9 Mystery. It’s about a K-9 Deputy, Mattie Cobb, whose dog Robo finds the body of a teenage girl buried in the mountains near her hometown of Timber Creek, Colorado. When she takes an injured dog that they found at the gravesite to local veterinarian Cole Walker, she learns that his daughter might know something to help solve the crime. Together they discover clues that set Mattie and Robo on the deadly trail of a killer.
Is your recent book part of a series?
Yes, Killing Trail is first in the Timber Creek K-9 mystery series, and release of hardback and paperback versions is scheduled for Dec. 8, 2015 with a Kindle version to be released soon after. Crooked Lane Books will release the second book in the series approximately one year after the first. These mysteries feature a K-9 Deputy, her dog, and a veterinarian who work together to solve crimes against animals and their humans.
What are the special challenges in writing a series?
It’s important to write each book so that it stands alone. Each mystery must have a story arc while the characters in the story will have a character arc that spans the series. It’s a challenge to provide a tight mystery plot in each book while weaving in just the right amount of personal detail for the characters. A writer needs to offer bits of each character’s history but still focus on the character’s present goals and action. There seems to be a sweet spot where a character’s past influences his present, and that’s what the writer tries to hit.
How did you choose the genre you write in? Or did it choose you?
I had written several novels prior to this mystery series, all mainstream or romance. Then I started reading wonderful mysteries by many different authors, and I became intrigued by crime fiction. I’m also fascinated with mysteries that contain two protagonists who work together to solve crimes, and I like the idea of developing a love interest between those two characters. I attended a workshop at a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers conference on how to structure and write a mystery, and then I went home and got started on the first Timber Creek story. And yes, my two protagonists will eventually fall in love.
Can you tell us about your road to publication?
I finished the first draft of Killing Trail several years ago and found an agent for it shortly thereafter by pitching the story at the Pikes Peak Writers conference in Colorado Springs. We entered into a representation agreement, she provided some edits, and I revised the story. I had a few rejections right away and then didn’t hear from my agent for quite some time. Months later, my current agent, Terrie Wolf, contacted me with the news that she had purchased the literary agency from my first agent. Terrie was interested in the story, she offered representation, and we subsequently entered into an agreement as well. I continued to pitch my story to editors at various writers’ conferences while Terrie also shopped it around. We received some rejections, some near misses, and some “I’m thinking about its, but no one made an offer. I pitched the work to Matt Martz of Crooked Lane Books at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers conference in Sep. 2014, he asked to review the manuscript, and then passed it to another editor at his house, Nike Power. She loved the characters. She suggested some revisions in the plot, which I agreed to do, making sure I met her deadline for my revised draft. After reading it, she approved of the entire work, and made an offer for the first two books in the series. I enjoyed working with Nike on the book’s revisions, and I’m happy to say that she remains my editor. The process of finding a publisher took some time, but persistence finally paid off.
What else have you published?
Every few years, the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers organization publishes a themed anthology, opening up submissions to its membership for short stories that match that year’s theme. I was thrilled to have one of my short stories, “Hay Hook,” selected for the 2014 anthology, Crossing Colfax. All fifteen of the stories are set on Colfax Avenue in Denver, Colorado, a street once described as “the longest and wickedest street in America.” Crossing Colfax is an eclectic collection offering history, mystery, science fiction, paranormal, and more from the street’s past, present, and future. “Hay Hook” is a mini-thriller about a veterinarian who makes a stable call to treat a colicky horse and discovers the owner’s dead body. He tries to save the life of the sick horse, but ends up risking his own when the killers follow him back to his clinic. As you can see, I like to include veterinarians in my writing. I’ve been married to one for over thirty years, have assisted him countless times in his practice, and have a ready consultant for research.
How much research was involved in your book? How did you go about it?
I did quite a bit of research for Killing Trail. In many ways, I felt better prepared to develop Cole Walker’s character—having observed my husband’s work over the years—than I did for developing the female character, Deputy Mattie Cobb. I was fortunate that two K-9 trainers let me shadow them and ask them questions. One trainer led a sort of “picnic table” discussion, asking several officers who’d come for training that day to tell me about mistakes a rookie handler might make. In a short span of a few minutes, they came up with more helpful ideas for challenging Mattie than I could have imagined on my own. Another time, I shadowed a retired female trainer who’d once worked the streets of Bellingham, WA with her police service dog Robo. After her clients left, we sat for a time while she told me tales of Robo’s prowess, fueling my imagination and inspiring me to ask permission to use her late partner’s name. (And no, he didn’t die in the line of duty. He became her pet after his retirement and died of old age.) My best ideas have come from these times in the field. In addition, I’ve attended programs presented by police officers at writing conferences, purchased countless reference books on police and crime scene procedures, and found consultants who will answer question as I write, invariably coming up against scenarios that I never intended to create. But when you’re writing, that’s just the way things happen.
Is it important for you to know the ending of a book before you write it? The title?
For me, I don’t need to know the title of the book before I start, although I think it’s very important to know the theme (and sometimes themes), and the title often evolves around theme. I wrote Killing Trail under a working title. I thought the title I came up with, Timber Creek K-9, was weak, but it felt like the best I could do at the time. I’ve never considered titles my forte. My agent provided input that publishers often change titles anyway, so not to worry too much about it.
Once Crooked Lane Books purchased the manuscript, my editor and her staff, my agent, and I held an email brainstorming session to come up with the title Killing Trail: A Timber Creek K-9 Mystery. It truly was a team effort. I thought it was fun and a great team-building experience.
Enough on title, let’s talk about knowing the ending. This brings to mind the question, are you a pantser or a plotter? I wrote my first mystery by the seat of my pants, but by the time it sold, I had revised it numerous times and then went on to make even more content revisions with my new editor. This revising activity took place over a series of several years prior to contract, and for several months after. I won’t have that kind of time to write my second book, so I’ve considered the value of becoming a plotter. Now, plotting is my plan, and I intend to stick to it. But time will tell if I can follow my outline as the story unfolds.
How often do your characters surprise you by doing or saying something that is totally unexpected?
This brings us to the reason why so many authors are pantsers. Fiction writing often strikes a mysterious course into the unknown. And we authors have no choice but to follow where our characters lead us. Well, there is the choice to rein them in and make them do things our way, but that’s not always so interesting. So off we go. Why does this happen? Fiction writing is like participating in a dream, or a movie with deep emotional nuances, that runs inside the author’s mind. And when we reach that dream state, our fingers often tap out unplanned things on the keyboard, a sort of Ouija board for storytelling. So as a mystery writer, it’s okay for me to follow that dream when it comes to subplots and character development, but I want to stick to my outline for the main plot of the story. Or at least I think I do—unless something more exciting takes over. And if it does, I guess I’ll burn the midnight oil and revise.
Where do you live now? If you had to move to another state, where would it be?
I live in Colorado on a small acreage that we call a “ranchette.” My husband and I moved here over thirty years ago to establish our veterinary clinic and an Angus cattle business, although I commuted into the city to practice as a speech therapist for most of those years. We also raised two daughters here, both of whom live on the west coast now. I love Colorado, and I doubt if I ever move. During the nine months between March and December, I head to the high country every chance I can get to hike. Rocky Mountain National Park is one of my favorite spots on earth. But another place that calls to me is Kauai so living there during the winter would be…well…paradise.
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