Author Interviews

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Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Author interview no.517 with mystery writing duo Crystal Sharpe (revisited)

Back in October 2012, I interviewed author Crystal Sharpe for my WordPress blog. I hope you enjoy it...
Welcome to the five hundred and seventeenth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with Virginia Cornue and Linda Lombri, co-authors of the new Sandra Troux Mysteries series written under the pen name of Crystal Sharpe. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello ladies. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Virginia & Linda: We both live in Montclair, New Jersey where we are single Moms raising teenage daughters whom we adopted from China.  Although our lives have some parallels, we did not actually meet until 2006 when we took our daughters back to China for a heritage tour designed for American families with daughters adopted from China.  Four years after we met, we were talking about the process of writing and how we each were drawn to it.  It was during that conversation that the concept for our mystery series was born.
Virginia:  After years of writing academic papers, press releases, grant proposals, plays, and essays, I still did not consider myself a writer.  I found my “voice” and my identity as a writer after I launched my own blog in 2007.  The feedback and inspiration I received turned me into a “writer”.
Linda: I was first inspired by reading the Nancy Drew mystery series starting at the age of eleven.  At first I wanted to BE Nancy Drew.  Then, I decided that when I grew up, I would be like Carolyn Keene (a pen name for the series’ author) and write mystery stories about a brave girl detective like Nancy Drew.  My subsequent career in Marketing always had writing as a major component, whether for reports, promotional and educational materials, advertising & PR, and various projects.  My ambition to write books, however, remained on the “to-do” list until late 2010.
Morgen: What a wonderful story about how you met. I hope you’ve written about it. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Virginia:  After a career in non-fiction educational writing, I am now exploring the world of novels, including mysteries.
Linda:  I still do a lot of business and PR writing in my freelance work.  When it comes to books, I am currently involved in the mystery genre and that of family history / memoir writing.
Morgen: I mentioned in the introduction that you write the Sandra Troux Mysteries under the pseudonym, Crystal Sharpe. What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Virginia:  I have published two books under my own name.  They are The Dragon Daughters Return, a cultural tour of China about middle school-age girls and their adoptive families; and Draw on Culture: China.
Linda:  I have published articles in a global trade publication called Digital2Disc, which serves the home entertainment industry.  The Mystery of the Ming Connection is my first published book.
Morgen: You both write on different topics, have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Virginia:  I have never had a rejection of any literary work. But then, until recently, I never attempted to publish beyond the academic world.
Morgen: I have less than 30 but don’t submit often either. :)
Linda:  A number of years ago, I collaborated on a book proposal for a photo / education book about a blue-collar Dad who participated in his daughter’s birth (before it became an accepted and expected event).  It was entitled The He Man’s Guide to Natural Childbirth.  Although the concept of the proposal received positive response, we were not able to sell it as a photo book and complete it. After a few rejections, we dropped the project.  It was disappointing, but a good learning experience. About 10 years ago, I wrote a photo memoir based on my adoption experience from my daughter’s point of view. Mommy and Me Are Family had some positive response but no real publishing interest, so I did not pursue further. However, I am planning to update it and self-publish later in the year.
Morgen: That’s the great thing about self-publishing, there will always be readers out there, just not enough publishers willing to take them on. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Virginia & Linda:  For e-publishing an agent is not necessary, so we do not have one.  Even in traditional print publishing today, literary agents do not seem to be as essential as previously.  However, a good agent can get writers stronger contracts and more upfront money. They can perhaps offer not only entry to a print publisher but also provide a good critique of the work.  However, they can become an unnecessary layer in the process now that self-publishing has lost its taint.
Morgen: I agree. You mentioned e-publishing, are your books available as eBooks? Were you involved in that process at all? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Virginia & Linda:  The Mystery of the Ming Connection, which is the first book in the SANDRA TROUX MYSTERIES, is only available as an e-book.  We researched several e-book distributors and chose to go with BookBaby, which has a seamless, customer-service-friendly process.  We followed their specifications for formatting the manuscript and arranged for a professional cover design on our own, which we then submitted to them in pdf format.  At the present time, both of us read traditional paper books, but we are beginning to explore e-books at a personal level.
Morgen: Most of the authors I’ve spoken to have said they prefer to hold a book but many have eReaders (myself included; I’ve just switched from a Kindle Touch to an iPad2) and love having the choice, especially for books such as yours (and, currently, mine) which are only available as eBooks. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Virginia & Linda: These days authors, whether self-published or traditionally published, have to do most of the marketing and PR work themselves.  We are learning on the fly.  Our first step was to produce a promotional leave-behind of our book and issue a launch press release to local press channels.  Then, we created a web site and blog, as well as accounts on Facebook and Twitter.  We recently appeared at our local library to talk about e-publishing and our book experience.  We are learning as much as we can as fast as we can and will broaden our PR campaign as we go.  We will have a formal and more aggressive publicity strategy in place by the time our second book is ready for release.
Morgen: It’s all a learning experience isn’t it, and new sites seem to crop up all the time (RebelMouse being the latest one I’ve joined and like, is totally automated, although the latter just picks up from Twitter whereas RebelMouse has my Facebook postings too… did I say I love technology :)). Do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Virginia & Linda: I think we are both fond of our three s/heroes in the book, and each one would be considered favourites compared with other characters.  However, the lead character of Sandra Troux would be our favourite if we had to pick just one. We often joke about who would play our characters on film.  In fact, when we are stuck on developing the plot for the next book, we fantasize about casting the movie.  Of course, Sandy Troux would be played by Meryl Streep.  Her romantic interest would be Liam Neeson.  BFFs Bobbi Power could be played by Sigourney Weaver and Lizbet Sheridan might be played by Whoopi Goldberg or Wanda Sykes.  Christopher Plummer would make a great Dallas Troux (Sandy’s father) and his wife (and former housekeeper) Anna Green Troux just has to be played by Betty White.  What a cast!
Morgen: Absolutely. I’d like to see Meryl and Liam act together, and Christopher and Betty for that matter. And Whoopi and Wanda are hilarious in whatever they do. As you say, what a cast! Did you have any say in the title / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Virginia & Linda:  Titles are of course very important for any book.  A book’s cover art and title are your first selling tool so both have to be engaging, exciting and accurately reflect the plot and spirit of the book.  As self-publishers, we are fortunate that we have complete say in both title and cover.
Morgen: What are you working on at the moment / next?
Virginia & Linda: We are working on the second book in the Sandra Troux Mysteries: Masquerade on the Net.  And, we have begun the process of brainstorming the title and plot lines for a third book.
In addition, both of us have other writing projects in work.  Virginia is editing So Much Blood: The Civil War Letters of C.S.A. William W. Beard, 1861-1865 and writing Mary: An Imagined True Family Story.  Linda is writing Tapestry and Patchwork: A Family History Sampler, and plans to update Mommy and Me Are Family.
Morgen: Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Virginia: I try to write something every day, whether it is academic, business, or fiction. 
Linda: I do manage to write most days, but that includes my business writing. I would like to develop the discipline to write my fiction for at least an hour or two a day, but I am not there yet.
Morgen: Me too, although I’m not far off. My daily 5pm fiction takes me half-an-hour or so a day (usually the morning’s dog walk). Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Virginia & Linda: So far, we have gotten our ideas and plotlines via a series of brainstorming sessions.  We brainstormed a lot of possible topics to include during our early days of developing a marketing plan and a reader questionnaire.  We’ll do a general plot session for our books and then several follow up sessions for, say, 5 or 6 chapters at a time.  Then we each take a chapter and run with it.  We do a sort of literary leap frog, by alternating writing and editing chapters we have each done and then reviewing where we are and where we want the plot to take our characters.
Morgen: That sounds like a good way of working. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Virginia & Linda: We began the process of writing a book that is modelled after the first Nancy Drew books, so our main characters do mirror the ones in the ND series.  The core characters do have names with some similarity to that series.  However, we have worked to integrate various names from our families and friends, as well as names authentic to the culture we are writing about. That’s where internet research comes in handy.  We will often fine tune names that do not feel right. To keep our characters believable, we have infused them with qualities of people we know or what we ourselves might aspire to be like in the situations they find themselves in.
Our method: Brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm.  We began Ming Mystery by following the original narrative arc of the Nancy Drew series.  But, as we wrote, we deepened and expanded the character development, the historical and cultural environment, and the political point of view while cleaving to the general action oriented thrust of the original series.
Morgen: Your joint emphasis is clearly on fiction, tells us more about your other writing.
Virginia:  I did not think of myself with a writing career until I began writing my blog in 2007.  However, I have scores of essays, speeches, bits of memoir, blog posts, two novels, and inspirational aphorisms stored on my computer’s hard drive.  Now with the efficacy of e-publishing, I can see how they can be launched into the world.
Linda:  My non-fiction is relegated to business writing and the memoir book I am currently researching.  I have an idea for a short story that might be a good candidate for an article or Kindle Single, but that remains to be developed.
Morgen: It’s finding the time, isn’t it? Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Virginia & Linda: We do a lot of editing.  Mystery of the Ming Connection went through about 9 drafts until we were happy with its form.  That process included incorporating comments and critiques from our beta readers.  However, the more we write together, the better the work is evolving.
Morgen: I like to think that writing, like playing the piano or painting, is just about practice. You gain more confidence too, the more you do something. Do you have to do much research?
Virginia & Linda: Absolutely!  Our first book took place in Seoul, Korea and in two cities in China (Beijing and Xian).  Although we have both been to China more than once, and Virginia lived there for two years, the culture, cuisine, people, events, and locales had to be researched to make the experience as real as possible for our readers.  Neither of us has visited Korea so research was particularly important for that part of the story.  Our next book takes place in Russia and Nigeria as well as the U.S.   We are researching those countries in depth, both in historical and current context.
Morgen: Isn’t it great being a writer now with all this information (the internet) at our disposal. What point of view do you find most to your liking?
Virginia & Linda: The Mystery of the Ming Connection is written in a third person narrative.
Virginia:  It depends on the project or genre.  The tone of my China culture book was appropriate for the first person since it was an art activity book.  Dragons Daughters was in third person.  My upcoming book on my Great Aunt Mary may be written in first person or third person depending on how I frame the narrative.  My academic writing is usually in a specialized third person narrative.
Linda:  I have written instructional / educational materials using the second person.  However, most of my writing, particularly in business, has been in the third person.  I may write some of my family memoir book in the first person when appropriate; otherwise it will be in third person.
Morgen: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Virginia & Linda: Of course, there are always going to be early and current pieces that are just ideas or story fragments that just don’t work.  On the other hand, these fragments could end up edited and re-purposed for another work one day.  Nothing about writing is a waste – there is always something to learn.  Bits and pieces that do not work in one novella or essay may work in something else.
Morgen: I was chatting about this subject yesterday with children's author Ashley Howland and I said I cringe when writers tell me they deleted something they didn’t like or that didn’t work. I do wonder whether they regret it later. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Virginia:  My favourite part is the opportunity to express myself.  My least favourite part occurs when I feel overwhelmed or scattered due to juggling single parenthood, personal social life, household obligations, professional commitments, etc., etc., etc. And a new favourite is collaborating with Linda. That is really, really fun and satisfying.
Linda:  My favourite part is getting my ideas on paper and watching stories, characters, plotlines, etc. take on a life of their own.  The least favourite part is when I feel blocked or what I have written just does not work.  It is also frustrating not to have the amount of time I want to write, since I also have to support my family.
Morgen: Marketing is usually the answer I get to ‘least favourite’ and I can relate to it as it’s so time-consuming but that’s what I struggle with; fitting everything in (or not fitting, as the case may be). What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Virginia & Linda: Start anywhere and aim to write, badly or not.  You can always revise but if you don’t begin somewhere, you’ll have nothing to improve upon.  Of course, learn your craft through extensive reading and then by writing in any and all genres that appeal to you.  Get someone or a group of people you respect to read and critique your work.  Get connected to other writers via blogs, web sites, online and in person writing groups; participate in book clubs, publishing trade shows, etc.  Finally, just keep writing and refining.
Morgen: Absolutely. You can’t edit a blank page, and other writers / readers are so supportive of each other. I liken us to learner drivers, we all now how hard it is to ‘pass’. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Virginia & Linda: Gloria Naylor, Phyllis Wheatley, Emperor Wu (the first female Emperor of China), Jane Austen, Abigail Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Eleanor Roosevelt, Stephen Hawking, Thomas Edison – just can’t keep it to three people! We would have a multi-cultural potluck dinner with each person bringing a dish.
Morgen: A buffet, my favourite. You can certainly have that many (as long as I can bring fish & chips, I’m from England!). :) Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Virginia:  Never give up.  And what my mother always told me:  “Do YOUR best, honey.”
Linda:  Be true to yourself.  And don’t sweat the small stuff…and remember, it is ALL small stuff.
Morgen: They do say a successful writer is one who didn’t give up (and I have no plans to). Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Virginia:  I am teaching a course in Cultural Anthropology part time at Rutgers University (grading and commenting on student papers).
Linda: I am working to get my Marketing Communications consultant business flourishing as well as editing a Vegan cookbook.  And, I have been very involved in the college application and scholarship search process with my daughter, who will start college in the fall.
Morgen: Linda, you might like to read my interview last Saturday with Isabel Hood, she’s produced a vegan cookbook. :) What do you do when you’re not writing?
Virginia:  Nothing these days.  Who has time?  (Like faux finishing, pottery and tai chi)
Linda:  I’ll watch a TV program or DVD to unwind, and I also like to read and knit, and to get out and walk more often when the weather is warmer.  (I don’t have time for past love of photography and modern dance)
Morgen: What a shame. Someone needs to invent something that slows time down… by half would be good. :) Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful?
Virginia & Linda:  One that was really useful was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones (  Although there are loads of websites on writing out there, they take up too much time that should be spent writing!
Morgen: I’ve not come across Natalie before, so thank you. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Virginia:  I am on LinkedIn, GoodReads and Facebook.  It is on my list to join “Sisters in Crime” and a couple of other mystery writers’ groups, but time is limited at this point due to family obligations.
Linda:  I am on LinkedIn and have joined a couple of e-book groups as well as MarCom and business groups.  I am also a member of the NJ chapter of Women in Communications.  I’ve joined GoodReads and Kobo’s author web sites too.  They all can be valuable but much too time consuming, I think.  I have not yet figured out an effective balance.
Morgen: Sisters in Crime have recently opened in the UK and it’s on my ‘to do’ list to join (probably nearer the time I have my crime novel ready to self-publisher). What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Virginia & Linda: It seems to be a great time to be a writer.  And if you are inclined to explore e-publishing and self-publishing, there are many more choices introduced into the market every day.  There’s plenty of help around – more and more books, web sites, writer groups, networking opportunities, etc.  The digital age provides many new outlets for your work if you are willing to put in the time necessary to explore the best approach of you.
Morgen: Absolutely. eBooking isn’t as hard as people think – I created a page (how to create an ebook) which explains how to do it (fairly simply, I will be expanding upon it). Where can we find out about you and your work?
Virginia & Linda: Go to our website:
To Facebook and Twitter: SandraTrouxMysteries.
Virginia’s blog:
Send us an email at
Or write to us at Suite 88, 41 Watchung Plaza, Montclair, NJ 07042.
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Virginia & Linda: Even though the economy is shaky, the new channels afforded by e-publishing make it possible to write and be read.  That makes it an extremely hopeful, positive and optimistic time for writers.
Morgen: And I am. :) Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Virginia & Linda: Can you tell us about your readership and the kind of feedback you receive from author blogs? Could we set up a Skype session or have a “download” party with your readers?
Morgen: Good question. I have an average of 200+ hits a day, about half from the US, a third from here in the UK then the rest dotted around the world. A download party sounds like fun – I’d welcome anyone interested to comment in the spaces below this interview. Thank you Virginia, Linda, for joining me today.
I then invited Virginia & Linda to include an example of their writing and this is an excerpt from Chapter 15: The Bracelet Beeps, ‘The Mystery of the Ming Connection’…
...She grabbed the reins of a nearby horse, vaulted into the saddle, hoisted spear and galloped off after the escaping assailant.
An expert horsewoman, Sandy guided the stallion halfway up the slippery stone slope of the Great Wall roadway.  She raised her spear and was prepared to throw it like a javelin, when she saw the horseman’s steed rear up and throw its rider.  He hung onto the side of the Great Wall long enough for Sandy to hear him shout:  “Long live the new Taina Ziping master!  Death to all Westerners who interfere again!  Hail, the new Taina Ziping World Order!”  Then, he lost his grip and fell thudding to his death.
Sandy had no time to think about what she alone had heard – for the horseman’s stallion had failed to regain its footing and was sliding dangerously down the slope of the Great Wall toward her at increasing speed.  She turned and manoeuvred her own horse to safety just as one of the expert animal wranglers appeared and interceded, saving the poor out-of-control horse from injuring itself or anyone in its way...
Virginia Cornue, PhD, is an author and part time professor of Cultural Anthropology at Rutgers University.  She received her B.F.A in Dramatic Arts from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill and did masters work at the New School for Social Research.  Virginia co-founded and/or directed a number of non-profit organizations: The National Organization for Women – New York City chapter; The Service Fund of NOW; the Women’s Funding Coalition-NYC; and Newark Emergency Services for Families.  She was the  recipient of the 1998 Susan B. Anthony Award for Service and Advocacy for Women and the 1989 Newark (NJ) Humanitarian Service Award.
Virginia has had many lives including a professional career in theatre; radio producer, union organizer; women’s rights activist, organic gardener; painter of faux finishes; and China, gender and organizational consultant.  At fifty, she became the adoptive mother of her now teenaged daughter.  They live with their cat, Taylor, in Montclair, New Jersey.
Linda Lombri is in the midst of reinventing herself and embarking on a new career as marketing consultant and author.  Like many, her career at a major packaging company was cut short by the recession, and she was given an early “retirement.”
She’s been a test kitchen home economist, a teacher, a consumer affairs representative, an educational writer and editor, a project manager, a needlework craft expert, a small business entrepreneur, a corporate marketing communications director, a green packaging marketer, and of late a freelance communications specialist, magazine writer and cookbook editor.  She’s worked for several Fortune 500 companies in the food, fashion and consumer packaging industries, and served business clients from a variety of markets in her own business.  A graduate of CUNY’s Queens College with a M.S. degree from Drexel University, Linda lives in Montclair, New Jersey with her college bound teenage daughter whom she adopted in China.
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