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Interview with Sally Carpenter

Thank you for spending some time with us today. You have an impressive history! First of all, tell us what it's like to be an actress.

Actually, acting was a only a small part of my life. Over the years, I’ve performed in high school, college, and community theater. For a short time, I acted with Covenant Players, a professional, full-time acting ministry. I’m not on stage nowadays, mainly because writing takes the bulk of my time and energy, but I still use my public speaking skills as a lector/scripture reader at my parish.

It’s no accident that the protagonists in both of my cozy mystery series are actors. In my Sandy Fairfax Teen Idol series, Sandy was, at age 18, a 1970s pop singer and star of the smash hit TV show Buddy Brave, Boy Sleuth. Now it’s 1993, and he’s 38 years old. Like all teen idols, his career crashed after his heartthrob days, and now he discovers that making a comeback can be murder, as bodies pop up in his gigs. I call it the Teen Idol series because real-life pop stars are branded for life, no matter what other careers they pursue after their heyday. As Michael Nesmith of The Monkees said, even if he won the Nobel Prize, his tombstone would still read “Monkee Mike.”

How did your acting career contribute to your writing?

I had a fabulous acting teacher in graduate school. She taught the methods that actors use in developing a character, which work just as well in writing. After all, a novelist is basically “acting” as she writes a character.

I recommend that writers take an acting class or two as a good way of learning how to build three-dimensional characters.

Acting serves my characters as well. Noelle’s talents help to to uncover crime. Sandy uses his music, dancing, and singing to put smiles on faces and provide relief from the cares of life. His ministry is to uplift the downhearted through joy and entertainment.

What motivated you to begin writing?

I’ve always been a storyteller. My baby book, which goes up to age eight, states that I loved to hear and tell stories. I grew up in the country, too far to get into town, and the only entertainment available was reading books and watching TV. As a kid, I made up stories with my stuffed animals and pictures cut out of magazines. I told stories while drying dishes. My first nationally published piece was a short puppet play I wrote when I was in high school.

Theater led me, in a roundabout way, to writing novels. About 20 years ago I was working on a theater degree with a focus on playwrighting. Every year, the one-acts written for the playwrighting class were submitted to a regional college theater festival. Two of my plays were finalists in the playwriting competition; few students are selected twice. One of the plays, “Starcollector,” was about an aging teen idol who meets his biggest fan. The play had a staged-reading at the festival. One of the judges said, “I see a bigger story for these two characters.”

Flash forward to 2008. I was working my day job at a community newspaper. A press release came across my desk about a mystery writers’ panel scheduled at one of the local libraries. Something inside my head said, “You need to go that.” Must have been the Holy Spirit, because I didn’t like mysteries, except for Sherlock Holmes and Columbo.

I attended the panel discussion. Five local mystery authors from the Sisters in Crime writers group talked about their work. When they finished, I asked how I could join SinC. My teen idol character seemed right for a mystery. Since then, I’ve published five novels and a short story with Sandy and two books with Noelle.

How do novel writing and play writing differ?

A script is just dialogue. The director and actors add the stage directions, and the designers create the sets, costumes, and lighting. The playwright might revise the script specifically for certain actors. The script is limited by the size of the stage and the number and type of actors available.

A novelist has a broader palette to work on. Plays are constrained by physical space and budget. But a writer can make the setting as grand and fanciful as she desires, as computer pixels are free. My latest book would be too pricey to film due to the huge cast and the setting: a massive amusement park.

A novelist does everything. She not only creates the characters, but determines their facial features, their gestures, how they walk and move, what they wear, how the buildings look, what the weather’s like, etc. It’s a little like being a god (but not the holy God).

What do you like best about the cozy mystery genre?

They’re clean, funny, and bright. Cozies have no graphic sex, little or no profanity, and the violence is off stage Last year, I reread three of my Sandy Fairfax books and found a bit of adult language. I cringed (was that the Holy Spirit again?), so I revised the books into clean reads. New ebooks and print copies will have the changes; old used print books will not.

I don’t read or write dark or depressing books. The world has too much gloom as it is. I want to cheer up people through humor and a happy ending, much like the Bible gives us hope and comfort through the “happy ending” of the resurrection. Working on my books last year provided a healthy escape from the pandemic, rather than stewing in the news.

In the police procedure genre, the focus is on the crime. Cozies emphasize quirky characters more than the mystery. Writing about a realistic police station doesn’t interest me, but watching an “everyman” amateur sleuth stumble into clues does. The average person can be a detective; no experience is required.

Noir and hard-boiled mysteries are too unpleasant. They focus on depravity; even the good guys are flawed. In cozies, the crime is solved, the culprit is brought to justice, and order is restored in the community. Cozies present the Christian view that righteousness will triumph over evil, and that sin is punished.

How do you convey a faith message in your books?

The Teen Idol series has an ongoing arc of Sandy, who is estranged from his family, reconnecting with his kin. He’s divorced with two kids (his ex has custody), and he’s trying to re-parent after years of neglect.

In the first book, Sandy is making his first public appearance in years, and he must regain his self-confidence. He’s also a recovering alcoholic who recently quit cold turkey and is coping with his feelings. But his fans still love him, and they support Sandy in his struggles.

Since my publisher is not a Christian press, I can’t write overtly religious messages. But I sneak in side notes of Sandy praying when he’s in a tight spot.

What does your writing routine look like?

I work a full-time day job to pay the bills, so my writing is limited to evenings and weekends. I’m very low-tech; I don’t use writer software programs except for Word. I sketch out an outline on paper.

First drafts are handwritten with pen and paper. I can’t compose on a computer; staring at a blank cursor drives me nuts, and I stop and edit as I type. Composing on a computer feels too much like a job. After I write out a few scenes and chapters, I type them up and start editing.

Are you a plotter or a pantser?

Definitely a plotter. I don’t see how a person can write a mystery otherwise. To me, writing a book is like a road trip. You can use an atlas to plan the route and stops so you go directly to your destination in good time. Or you can take a lot of scenic detours that leave you miles out of the way. I tried pantsing on one of my books. By page 50 I was stuck and hated what I had. I threw out everything except chapter two, which then became chapter one.

I start with the ending. Who is killed? How and why? Then I work backward to establish red herrings and clues. I’ll modify the story along the way, but I mostly stick to the outline.

You hold a master’s degree in theology. What facet of theology are you most eager to share with others?

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Academic study can get very dry, complicated, and critical. It’s important to take a breath and return to the basics of why one is studying theology in the first place.

Tell us about tae kwon do. What are the benefits to pursuing skill in this martial art? How difficult is it to earn a black belt?

I earned my black belt when I was 41 years old. It took practice and dedication, but my school was geared for the common person, not super athletes. The hardest part for me was doing board breaks with kicks. My instructors and friends worked with me to get that right. I wouldn’t say martial arts are difficult, just a lot of detail to memorize in the forms.

Every student starts at the same place, the foundational white belt, which is fair and your classmates are not ahead of you. You only compete with people of your same belt.

Martial arts are great for kids as they learn courtesy, respect, discipline, goal setting, and self-confidence. My school taught TKD as defense, not to use for bullying. I took part in a number of tournaments and did well, mostly in sparring (fighting). It’s also a fantastic way to lose weight.
Patti Shene Gonzales hosts Step Into the Light, a weekly interview style blog talk radio show, where she promotes those who share God’s love through writing and other ministry outlets. She hosts writers, published and unpublished, on her two blogs, The Over 50 Writer and Patti’s Porch on her website at Patti is published in two anthologies and local publications and has three western novels in progress. When not writing or reading, she is doing volunteer work for her church or attending her only granddaughter’s sports activities. Patti lives in Colorado with her devoted feline companion, Duncan.

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