Sunday, January 31, 2010

Interview with Patricia Wynn

Patricia Wynn is the author of 10 romance novels from Harlequin, Fawcett, and Dorchester, and is the author of the Blue Satan mystery series. She is also the founder of Pemberly Press which publishes mysteries "for readers with eager minds". Finally, she is the founder of the Texas Lyme Disease Association, which she still serves long distance as a member of the Board of Directors.

Welcome Patricia!

Like many mystery authors, you also write romances. What connection do you find between these two genres?

I’ve always been a fan of mysteries with romantic subplots and romances with mystery subplots. They make for a good combination. Both genres have satisfying endings: i.e., boy gets girl and murderer is caught, which are reassuring messages for an escape reader like me. Otherwise, they have different structures and genre requirements.

Tell us about your Blue Satan mystery series.

The Blue Satan series combines all the things I like best in fiction: mystery, romance, history, and adventure. It draws on my favorite literary traditions: the great romantic adventure classics like The Scarlet Pimpernel and Andre Dumas’s books (The Count of Monte Cristo, The Man in the Iron Mask, etc.); the romance and social satire of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer; and classic British whodunits; but also historical novels that convey social and political issues in times of unrest.

It takes place in the early years of George I’s reign, beginning in 1715, the year of a major Jacobite rebellion in Great Britain. (The Jacobites were followers of James Stuart and attempted several times to restore the Stuarts to the throne.) There’s a lot of political intrigue and espionage along with swashbuckling action.

My detectives are a duo: Gideon Viscount St. Mars, who’s been accused of a crime he did not commit and becomes the highwayman Blue Satan, and Hester Kean, waiting woman to her cousin Isabella, the Countess of Hawkhurst, who has access to court society. Gideon detects at night and using disguises, as well as occasional male force, while Hester pursues her inquiries in the light of day. Their romance develops over the course of the series, and the series plot questions are whether they will marry and whether Gideon’s name will ever be cleared.

You travel to England for research. Can you tell us about your methods once you get to that country? Are you digging through archives? Visiting sites that were around in the 18th century?

I’ve had different goals on different trips, but I’m on the go from the moment I land to the second I leave. The first time I went for research on this particular series, I tried to see every building in London and Westminster that was built before 1715 to get a sense of what the city would have looked like, and artifacts from the Stuart period to see what was in use. The Museum of London and the Geoffrey show furniture and objects by era. Some of the great houses, like Leeds Castle and Penshurst, have smaller museums with collections like dog collars and weapons, and older pieces of furniture, so I can see how houses were furnished, what the upholstery was like, quaint objects, etc.

On that first trip I also explored Kent, the setting for some of the first two books, in particular the villages I planned to use, like Hawkhurst , and the Weald, which was once an immense forest. I visited smugglers’ villages, like Rye in Sussex. At all these places, I bought books of local history with pictures of ancient houses to help me since my visual memory is so bad. I took notes on plants and birds, every detail I could find to give my writing authenticity.

On my most recent trip, which was in January, I particularly wanted to see what the dawn was like that time of year for the opening scene in my next book, A Killing Frost. Then, I spent every day in a library or museum libraries, looking at books and maps from the period, searching for possible cover art (I find the pictures that are used for my covers), and visiting some of the museums I’ve missed, like the Museum of Garden History at Lambeth.

Next trip will have to be after March when the National Trust properties are opened to the public. I want to visit Ham House, which is supposed to be the best preserved and most complete collection of 17th century fashion and power. I’ll visit as many houses as I can, and will hope by that time that the new Galleries of Modern London at the Museum of London will be open, which will cover London from 1666 on. It can be very frustrating to discover that what you’ve gone to see is closed for renovation or, as on my last trip, for the only week of the year that the British Museum Library was closed.

What happens if you can’t find the information you’re looking for? Do you leave the subject out? Or make an educated guess?

I really hate to guess, because that’s when I make mistakes, but sometimes I have to. For instance, there are no records of the interiors of most of the houses I might like to use to set a scene. I can’t even discover the exact layout of St. James’s Palace in 1716, for instance. So I use what has been published and have to be vague about the rest. Many of the churches were torn down and rebuilt, or destroyed in the Second World War, and of course, they go through transformations over 300 years. It may take me three hours to find a detail of an old church I can use, which will only result in three sentences. By and large, I do research and try to weave my story around what is known, but if I need to put a scene in one of the royal palaces, then I do my best to find out what it really was like. So many of the personal accounts for the years 1715-16 were destroyed because people were afraid of being arrested for treason and they burned their letters and journals.

Your various books have earned critical acclaim, a nomination for the RITA Award, a Silver Medal from PMA , the Benjamin Franklin Award for Best Genre Novel, and a starred review from Library Journal. While the awards are impressive, did these accolades translate into increased sales and recognition of your books?

The Benjamin Franklin Award and the favorable reviews from Library Journal have probably increased my sales to libraries and attention from reviewers. Otherwise I can’t tell they’ve had any impact. Public libraries only buy books that have been reviewed in a major review publication. My accolades have not been of the kind to be seen widely by readers, but they may help me get wider reviews.

You are the founder of Pemberley Press, a charter member of The Author’s Studio and a member of the Independent Book Publishers Association. Pemberley Press specifically publishes historical mysteries. Do your books stand a chance against those released by the larger publishing houses?

Yes and no. My distributor, Independent Publishers Group, has a nationwide sales force and relationships with every wholesaler, chain, and many independent bookstores , so the distribution is good and the books are easily available. I’ve seen my hardcover releases on the New Fiction shelves at some Barnes & Noble stores. That said, the major publishers have the money to pay for placement of their books in stores, like on end caps and at the front of the store. They can also publish in mass market format, which reaches more readers. It would be very hard to win an Agatha Award, for instance, with a book that comes out in hardcover original, for the simple reason that not enough people will buy it and read it in order to vote. And the economies of mass market are such that small presses cannot publish in that format. There is also some bias against small press among institutional buyers, although readers never notice who published a book.

One of my authors, Marion Moore Hill, has impressive sales by anyone’s standards, but she tours widely and frequently. She’s developed the Deadly Past mystery series, which has struck a chord with readers, and she’s an example of how an author can help make her own success by getting her titles into stores.

What were the major obstacles involved in setting up an independent publishing house?

My biggest mental obstacle was fulfillment. I could not imagine storing and shipping out books, but I contracted with Publishers Storage & Shipping in Michigan to fill my orders. That was before I landed such a good distributor. The learning curve was very high on digital typesetting with a layout program. I also had to establish a relationship with every single wholesaler, which was time-consuming, but at least possible when I started. Ingram had opened a window to small press, which they subsequently narrowed, forcing small presses to use a distributor. I believe they did this because processing returns to so many small entities became too onerous, but as I used a fulfillment house, I was never forced out of Ingram. Now my distributor maintains these relationships and handles all orders, and if I were to go back to being my own distributor, I would have to re-establish them. As the book business has become digitized, the technical aspect of the interactions between publisher and wholesaler and even fulfillment houses has become more sophisticated, and I would find learning all that a daunting challenge.

If an author wanted to submit to an independent publisher, what advice would you give her to make certain that the house is reputable?

I would contact the press’s authors and ask them what their relationship is like, what the general terms of their contracts are, whether they are paid on time and if bookstores seem able to get their books. This last can be spotty. The chains have their own internal systems and some independents will only buy from Ingram. That is not the publisher’s fault, but occasionally an author will discover that a certain bookstore cannot or will not carry her book because 1) it’s not in their system yet; or 2) it’s not at Ingram, and they will not buy directly from the publisher or even another wholesaler. This still occasionally happens with Pemberley titles. Ingram now charges a 60% discount on publishers that do not maintain a certain level of sales, which makes them prohibitive for some small presses to deal with. Those same publishers may sell well through Baker & Taylor. One well-known mystery bookstore in PA will only acquire books directly from the major NY publishers and refuses to deal with Ingram or small presses. So there will be variations, but if the books are easily orderable and the publisher pays on time, that should be reputable enough.

Two cautions, however. Just because a book is orderable doesn’t mean it will be stocked in every bookstore. Barnes & Noble, for instance, will order an unknown author’s books for a signing, but will not usually stock them otherwise, even if they are designated as “stock” books. Except for perpetual top sellers, authors’ backlists are not routinely carried, but will only appear in stores for a 3-4 week period upon release, or not at all. There are too many competing titles every month and booksellers must make the decision whether to risk their shelf space on a title that is not by a well-known author. That is why it’s smart for authors to get out and schedule signings – to get their books into the stores.

Also, do not be confused by the difference between a small press and a publishing services company. A small press undertakes all the costs and activities of publishing and has a contract with an author for royalties. The author pays a publishing services company for editing, book design, printing, and fulfillment. Books from publishing services companies are rarely if ever sold through bookstores.

What’s next on your agenda?

I’m working on the fourth Blue Satan mystery, A Killing Frost. It opens in January, 1716, when the Thames River had frozen solid and a fair was held on the ice. St. Mars’s groom Tom discovers a frozen body on the ice, dressed in a most peculiar manner and leaning grotesquely against one of the booths. The dead man was a friend of Harrowby, Lord Hawkhurst, who asks Hester to investigate. St. Mars helps her uncover the murderer, of course, while also attempting to free a Jacobite rebel from Newgate. Lots of fun will be had by all!

You can visit Patricia at her web site and her books are available from Pemberly Press or booksellers such as Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.  

1 comment:

  1. This was a fabulous interview with a very talented lady. Both Pat's discussion on research and her information on starting her own publishing firm will be interesting to many writers. Thanks, Pat, for dropping by our blog. Gayle

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