Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people’s stories, for as long as she can remember. She survived growing up through reading, cutting her mystery teeth on Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark and, of course, Nancy Drew. As an adult, she finds escape from the world of software documentation through creating her own fictional murder and mayhem. She lives near Pittsburgh with her husband and two teenage children, and fantasizes about owning a dog – one of these days. (Headshot courtesy of www.erinmclainstudio.com)
Bruce Robert Coffin recently had occasion to chat with Liz about her new novel, Root of All Evil, which will be released on August 14th.
Tell us about your latest novel, Root of All Evil.
Reports of a new meth facility reach the Pennsylvania State Police. At the same time, rumor is a man previously accused of meth production is back in the Laurel Highlands. It’s a connection even Trooper First Class Jim Duncan’s trainee can make. Meanwhile, Sally Castle’s colleague is being uncharacteristically nervous and reticent. What’s he hiding? Sally is determined to find out. When the two investigations converge, it uncovers disturbing secrets in the county justice system—secrets worth killing to keep.
So how did Root of All Evil come to be?
This came from a bit of overheard conversation. I forget exactly where I was, but I heard a person on a cell phone call say, “You better fix this. I mean it!” They were pretty upset. Of course, my brain started thinking. “Who better fix what? Why is this person so angry? What will happen if it isn’t fixed? Who needs to do the fixing? What if…?” In the first draft it was an overheard conversation, but in the final manuscript it’s a note that’s found on one of the character’s desk.
The Laurel Highland Mysteries is set in an area near and dear to your heart. Tell our readers about your town.
The Laurel Highlands in southwest Pennsylvania encompasses Cambria, Fayette, Somerset, and Westmoreland counties. There’s a lot of natural resources in the area: camping, hiking (part of the Great Allegheny Passage), fishing, whitewater rafting, cycling, etc. OhiopyleState Park is centered around the town of Ohiopyle and the Youghiogheny (pronounced “yock-o-ganey”) River. There are several resorts; the best known are Nemacolin and Seven Springs. Renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright built two houses there: Kentuck Knob and Fallingwater (built for Kaufmann’s founder Edgar J. Kaufmann, Sr.). There’s a lot of history, too. A young colonel by the name of George Washington skirted Ohiopyle Falls during the French-Indian War. Washington’s decision to go to Pittsburgh by road led to a skirmish with French forces, and Washington subsequently surrendered at Ft. Necessity. This incident led to the first British taxes on the American colonies and, 22 years later, to the Revolutionary War.
What brought you to mystery writing?
Reading mysteries. I’ve loved mysteries since I read my first Nancy Drew. That led to Agatha Christie, which led to Mary Higgins Clark, which led to Frederick Forsyth and Robert Ludlum. My husband asked if I’d ever consider writing something else. My response: “Like what?”
How much of Sally Castle do you see in yourself? What about the other main characters who populate your novel?
Once upon a time, I thought I’d be a defense attorney. Then I learned that it’s more paperwork than passionate speeches in court. But I still believe a lot of the things Sally believes: primarily, every person deserves a fair hearing under the law. I like to think there’s a little of me in all my characters, even my villains. I share Jim Duncan’s belief in justice and protecting those who may not be able to protect themselves. I share Aaron Trafford’s and Colin Rafferty’s desire to do right by my family. My bad guys just go to extremes.
Why do you feel this is important, and what would you want a reader to take away from reading these books?
As I was writing, the idea of “how far would you go to get what you want?” kept coming to me and how it applied to all the characters. It’s a question I think people need to ask themselves and be honest with the answer. And recognize that you can go too far in the quest for a good cause. Every person reaches a point where they may say, “Is this further than I can morally go?” I hope this book shows a little bit of the fall-out when people go too far. I think all my characters ask themselves this question and the difference between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” is how they answer.
What makes a good book or engaging story?
For me, it always comes down to the characters. Are these people I’m invested in and want to follow for 300 pages? They don’t have to be “likeable” (Dennis Lehane’s The Dropcomes to mind), but I have to want to follow them. Especially the protagonists and major secondary characters. If I can hang with the characters, I can forgive little plot lapses or “I see where this is going.” If the characters don’t capture me, I start picking apart the plot and that’s when my enjoyment tapers off. Since the adage is “write the book you want to read,” that’s what I hope I’m doing with my stories.
Are there writers with similar themes to yours? Who are your influences (can be writers, or even artists, musicians, or others) and what is it about their work that attracts you?
I don’t know if these writers share themes, beyond the “search for justice,” but I will automatically buy anything from Hank Phillippi Ryan. Same with friend and critique partner Annette Dashofy. I love Catriona McPherson’s stand-alone thrillers, and enjoyed Rhys Bowen’s firststandalone, In Farleigh Field. And this Bruce Robert Coffin guy<insert grin>. In all cases these writers have drawn wonderful worlds and characters. Their dialog is tight and well written, the characters feel “real” to me, and I’m invested in their stories. Musically, I’m drawn to old country and classic rock (70s and 80s) because those songs are stories.Read Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics and you’ll see what I mean.
Is storytelling mostly entertainment, or does it serve other functions? Do you have particular goals other than telling a good story?
My #1 goal is entertainment. The real world is so depressing at times, so if I can get a reader to say, “Thanks for giving me a few hours of fun,” I’m be thrilled. That said, if I also make people think a bit, and maybe go deeper on what they believe, it’s a bonus.
Any other goals you’ve set for yourself, professionally or personally?
For the last couple of years, I’ve been focused on The Laurel Highlands Mysteries and what I was going to do with it. Now that it’s found a publisher, at least the first three books, one goal is to be able to write a fourth. I’d also like to finish the final installment in the middle-grade fantasy adventure series I write as “M.E. Sutton.”
Some writers write fast and claim not to rewrite much. Do you do this, or painstakingly revise? When you send the book off to the publisher, are you happy with it, or just tired of it?
I do write fast. I’ve conditioned myself to turn off the Inner Editor for what I call Draft Zero and just pump out the words. Because of this, I can have a rough draft down in 30 days. That draft usually clocks in around 90,000 words and is typically a bit bloated. Then comes the revision. A pass for to get it ready for my critique group, a pass after they’ve had at it, a pass before it goes to the publisher. I don’t know if that’s “painstaking” or not – depends on your definition. Butby the time it goes to the publisher I am both happy AND glad to send it on!
Who are some of the authors you enjoy reading? Favorite genre?
See above the above answer for some contemporary authors. I also enjoy Lori Rader-Day, Karin Slaughter, and I’m looking forward to Keenan Powell’s next Maeve Malloy. When I need “comfort food,” I’ll pick up an Agatha Christie and I re-read the entire Harry Potter series almost every year. My favorite genre is crime fiction of all kinds, but I try to read across genres. I love a good biography.
If an aspiring writer came to you for advice, what words of wisdom would you offer?
Read as much as you can, write as much as you can. I think it was Stephen King who said if a writer doesn’t read, you can’t write. Truth. Read your preferred genre, but try other things, too. You never know where you’ll pick up a good trick.
Stories can be told using a variety of different mediums. Can you see your book as a film, audio, etc.? How would that alter the telling?
Somewhere along the line, I read advice to try and see your book as a movie so yeah, I can see The Laurel Highlands Mysteries as film. Although I think some of the slower scenes, particularly in the McAllister sub-plot, that would get cut. Film doesn’t give you the time to step back like books do. And I’d love to hear a good narrator bring all these characters to life in audio.
What’s the next step in your writing world? Where do you hope to go from here?
The immediate next step is getting the second book, Heaven Has No Rage, ready for submission to the publisher. It’s already scheduled for release in August 2019. I also recently completed a historical mystery that I’ve tagged “Rosie the Riveter meets Sam Spade.” I’d like to see that in print at some point. And finish the middle-grade series.
Tell us a fun fact about yourself.
I am a second-degree Black Belt in taekwondo.
Where can folks purchase your novels?
The usual suspects: Amazon and Barnes & Noble online. Being with a small publisher, I don’t know if B&N will stock the book, but you can probably special order it. Same for your local independent bookstore (I know a couple people who ordered that way).
Web page: http://lizmilliron.com