Episode 13: Heather Weidner

Secret LivesDebut author Heather Weidner melds together the lighthearted fun of a cozy mystery with the action and juicy cases that come with the territory when you’re a private eye in her first novel, Secret Lives and Private Eyes.

Heather has been steeped in mystery all her life: she’s a policeman’s daughter (she mentions how she donated crayons to the SWAT team) and she’s currently the president of the Central Virginia chapter of Sisters in Crime. Plus she has a kickass Pinterest board! Too much fun.

She also gives a big shout-out to several writers who helped her along the way: Mary Miley, Mary Burton, Teresa Inge, Lyndee Walker (LyndeeWalker.com) and Maggie King (MaggieKing.com).

And of course, The Poe House.

As always, if you’d rather read than listen, the transcript is below. Enjoy!

Transcript for Interview with Heather Weidner

Laura Brennan: My guest today is a debut author Heather Weidner. Her mystery, Secret Lives and Private Eyes features PI Delanie Fitzgerald, who is thrilled to take on an assignment that doesn’t involve straying husbands. She’s less thrilled when it turns into a high-profile murder case. Heather is also a short-story writer and the president of the Central Virginia chapter of Sisters in Crime.

Heather, thank you for joining me.

Heather Weidner: Thank you so much for having me Laura.

LB: Congratulations on your debut novel.

HW: Thank you! It’s been a long time coming.

LB: Well now, you are a short story writer too. That’s a very different genre.

HW: It is, it’s very contained and you’re limited in the number of characters that you can have, and the subplots. So I like writing both. I get to experiment with different characters and different styles. But in a novel setting you have many more characters and plot lines that cross and zigzag and sometimes look back on themselves.

LB: Now, Delanie, how did you come up with that particular character?

HW: I am part of Sisters in Crime in Central Virginia and we have a lot of speakers that come to talk to us. And we had a female private eye and I had just started my story and I thought, wow, this would be a great opportunity. I wanted a female sleuth, I wanted someone that was strong and that was willing to take some chances, take some risks and have some fun. So, it would give her some freedom — she’s not really law enforcement so she can poke around and things and get herself into some situations, sometimes that she probably shouldn’t, but…

LB: Yes, Delanie does have a knack for getting herself into things.

HW: Sometimes it’s humorous and sometimes it’s dangerous. She’s sort of my alter ego, except she gets into way more trouble than I do.

LB: One of the nice things about the book is that it’s not your typical lone wolf PI with no ties to the community. She’s very tied.

HW: Right. She grew up in Central Virginia. Her father was a police officer, her parents are deceased. She has two older brothers who like to be very protective and don’t like her job, they don’t like what she does so they’re constantly giving her feedback about get a real job, stop doing this. She has a partner that she’s known since college but he has an alter ego as an ethical computer hacker, so she tries not to ask too many questions about where his information comes from. And they have a sidekick that was in the office, which is Duncan’s dog — her assistant, her helper — and he has an English bulldog named Margaret.

LB: It’s just an interesting mix of genres because the PI novel tends to be sort of a very lonely place for your protagonist. And more traditional mysteries or even in the cozy world, it tends to be more a more connected world. Did you deliberately mixed genres?

HW: I’d like to take credit for it but I think it just happened naturally. I tend to read a lot of cozies, so I tend toward that side. I’ve loved the British tradition but I also like the hard-boiled, American detective fiction of the 1920s and ’30s. So I think there’s a little bit of all of that. But she is part of a larger community here in central Virginia. And she’s got a wide variety of friends, too, sometimes they help her and sometimes they sent her on a wild goose chase.

LB: You mentioned you read a lot. Are mysteries your first love?

HW: They are. I have loved them since Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and Agatha Christie, and then just moved on into Alfred Hitchcock and Sherlock Holmes, and then all of the classics. And the best course that I took as an undergraduate was Dr. Magnuson’s literary and detective fiction. Which, it didn’t even feel like a college course, because it was all about the traditions or the history of the mystery.

LB: Oh, what a great college course.

HW: It was fabulous! It was the best course I’ve taken in undergraduate or graduate school.

LB: So, what kind of research did you do for the PI part of the novel?

HW: Well, we actually have a private investigator who is a member of our chapter, so she answered some of my questions for me. And I’m very fortunate, my father is a retired police officer from Virginia Beach. So he’s my best source. And he helps me stay out of trouble with my Google searches because I have lots of questions like, “Dad, what does a meth lab smell like?” And, “If I throw a body over here and it sits for couple of days, what really happens?” Sometimes there are things that you can’t talk about in polite company, but he’s very willing to help me out and to answer some questions that are research based. Things that, I want to make sure that it’s right for my readers.

LB: Oh, it does, it feels very genuine. That’s why the research question came up in my head, because it feels very genuine, everything that she encounters.

HW: And I grew up as a cop’s kid, so you have an interesting, unique life. One of my first jobs, I was about four years old, after he was finished shooting on the range, it was my job to pick up the shell casings.

LB: After he finished, of course.

HW: Oh, yes, yes. No shooting. It wasn’t dangerous. And this was another time, it was back in the 70s, before they had a lot of equipment that they do now, he melted down a bunch of my crayons and made bullets so they could practice with the SWAT team. So I donated my crayons for the Virginia Beach SWAT team.

LB: That is hilarious.

HW: I don’t think my childhood was normal.

LB: Now you did research beyond just the PI aspect. You came up with some really fun quirky things for Delanie.

HW: I took the liberty of moving the Sears catalog house. There aren’t many in Chesterfield County, Virginia, but there are some throughout the state. So I thought, wow, that would be a really interesting house for quirky Delanie to live in. They were purchased between the 1920s all the way up through the 40s. People ordered their home through the Sears catalog and it came by rail and they had it assembled. So I thought this is perfect, it’s quirky, it’s small, quaint, cottage type of house, but it fits her personality. And it was interesting when I wrote about it on my blog, I had several people who were aficionados of the Sears homes comment that there aren’t too many of the model that I picked out. But one lady was very kind and sent me one, a picture of one, from Illinois. So they do still exist. And some of that comes out of my own personality. I just have so many interests. I do my family’s genealogy, I love history, I love to travel. And living in central Virginia, there is so much history here. We have everything from Jamestown to Appomattox Courthouse. Virginia is so popular with Revolutionary War fans and Civil War fans.

LB: So you weren’t ever tempted to move the series to someplace more urban and gritty?

HW: Richmond is probably our largest city, our capital, and it does have an urban flair to it. So I kind of juxtapose that and some of the downtown strip club scenes are in the urban environment. While the rock star whose hiding in plain view if it really is Johnny Velvet, lives in the rural part of Virginia. And that is nice about this area, that you can drive 30 minutes to an hour and you’re either at the beach, you’re in the mountains, you’re in a rural setting or maybe a little grittier in an urban… I write what I know, and I’ve lived in Virginia all my life and I love the area. Hopefully that comes through, that people would want to come and see parts of Virginia, because it really is an amazing state.

LB: The other thing I wanted to ask you about, I want to do it without spoilers, but — damn, Chaz!

HW: He’s my favorite, and he grew to be my favorite. He started out as this little, tiny side character, but he took on a life of his own.

LB: He is fantastic.

HW: I started out, he was grittier, but then I wanted to show another side of him. Because I didn’t want him to be just this flat villain. Because there is another side, he does some things in the book that really surprise people. But he has horrible table manners, he has no filter, he will just say anything. But he’s an interesting foil for Delaney because it causes her to have to react to him. The book started out originally with Johnny Velvet as the key plot line, and it still is. But there was another plot line with Chaz, and they get entwined as the story goes. And she, Delanie, the detective, has to figure out the connections between the two, because they are so intertwined. But, I’m an 80s girl and I love 80s music so that’s where Johnny Velvet came from. I just had the thought of, what would it be like if you lived next door to a rock star from the 80s and he’s famous and you didn’t know it.

LB: It’s a great premise and it’s fun the way the different storylines interweave. What was your processor writing that?

HW: I start out as a plotter, somebody who outlines and direct character biographies and then I go on Pinterest and find people who look like what I think my characters would look like, and I build the Pinterest boards. And then I start writing. And when that happens, I become a pantser, which is someone who writes by the seat of their pants. The outline sort of takes a backseat and I go where the story goes. That’s what happened with Chaz, his character just grew. And he was funny and he was interesting and sometimes he was a little lewd and gross but, we all have that one friend who just sometimes is over the top.

LB: Yes. Yes, we do. And so does Delanie now.

HW: Yes, she does. And I don’t think he’s going anywhere, he’s now part of her life.

LB: So tell me a little bit about the dog.

HW: Margaret the wonder dog is Delaney’s partner Duncan Reynold’s sidekick. It’s his best friend, his companion, and probably his baby. But then she is also very protective of Duncan. We’ve had dogs in our lives all the time, so I just always try to have a dog somewhere in my short story or my novel.

LB: Now, short story versus novel: which do you enjoy more?

HW: I like them both for different reasons. I love the novel because I can explore deeper topics and more characters and I can go deeper into their lives and their motivations. But sometimes when I’m stuck or in between projects, I like to work on short stories because I can also experiment with those. I can use different cities that I don’t normally use. I can use grittier murders that — I tend in my novel or my series, they tend to be lighter and fun and humorous, and most of the gruesomeness happens off scene.

LB: Yes, which is also an interesting choice for a PI novel. It’s very refreshing, it’s a very refreshing book.

HW: Well, thank you so much. I try to write what I like to read and hopefully others like that, too.

LB: So, you are very involved in Sisters in Crime, which some people might not know much about the organization. Can you give a little precis of it?

HW: Sure, it’s an international chapter to support female mystery and thriller writers. But we do have male members, and we the call them ‘misters.’ Currently I’m president of the Central Virginia chapter. We’re about five years old now, but we’re growing strong. We have quite a few mystery and thriller and romantics suspense writers here in Virginia. We have a critique group, we’ve put out to anthologies and we have a social media support group for our authors. I’m really excited to be part of this group, the national chapter, the local chapters, and then I’m also a part of an online group called Guppies, which is Great Unpublished. And they have been so supportive through this process, they’ve been helpful, they’ve provided ideas, beta reads, they’ve provided social media help. Anytime I have a question, somebody jumps in and has an answer. So I just appreciate all of the folks who donate their time and their energy to help debut writers.

LB: Well, now the other thing about Sisters in Crime that I think a lot of people don’t realize is that it’s not just for writers. I know our local chapter is open, the meetings are open to nonmembers as well. So it’s great for readers to be able to come in and, you know if you love mysteries, there’s nothing like watching a real PI as you did, or an FBI agent.

HW: Oh, that’s so true. And we have a lot of guests, and we actually have a couple of retired librarians. And one is on our critique group, she doesn’t write but she likes to be a beta reader which is really helpful for the rest of us who are writers because it gives us a different perspective.

LB: What has been sort of the biggest thrill?

HW: I get so excited to see it finally in print. After many many years and months of word processing and paper and electronic files and edits, when that box of books comes with your name and your face on it, that is just, for me, that is the most exciting thing. And then to have other people who have seen it and read it say, I really like this, or I bought your book, or congratulations, this is wonderful. And I do appreciate Sisters in Crime again for that because the support, but we also support each other. And we do have quite a few debut authors and we have quite a few seasoned authors in our chapter. And it makes for a good mix. I have learned so much from these ladies who donate their time.

LB: Any of those writers you want to give a shout out to?

HW: There are so many to name and I know I’m going to leave somebody off. But Mary Burton, Lindy Walker, Mary Miley, Maggie King, and Teresa Inge have been so fabulous with sharing their time and their energy and their support. So I do appreciate all that our ladies do. And that is just an abbreviated list because we have so many, many helpful people in this organization.

LB: So, being a debut author, I noticed from your website that you are going on a lot of readings and book signings and a tour of your state for sure, so — exhausting?

HW: It is exhausting, but it is so much fun. We have put out two anthologies with the mystery by the sea chapter which is out of Virginia Beach. The first book we did probably 55 signings over a year and a half through Virginia Maryland and North Carolina, and were doing the same for volume to which just came out in February. But it is a wonderful opportunity because it’s a fundraiser for our chapter but it also highlights our authors and the work that they do on their own. So it is amazing. We did three book signings last weekend, we were in Norfolk and Chesapeake and then on Sunday we were in Williamsburg.

LB: So you’re an old pro then at marketing?

HW: And I thought I was just going to sit at my desk and write brilliant books. I didn’t realize how much marketing actually goes into it. And whether you’re Indie or you’re traditionally published, it’s expected across the board that you’re going to be part of social media and you’re going to do presentations, and…

LB: But it must be quite a thrill, though, to be able to actually meet in person your fans.

HW: Oh, it is so amazing. And then when people come up and talk about, I ‘ve loved Nancy Drew since I was five, too! There’s a camaraderie, peers and excitement. There are so many mystery lovers out there and I love talking to all of them. But the biggest thrill I had was at the Poe Museum. We do their birthday bash every year in January. And Dr. Hal Poe came, he’s a descendent of Poe, and he asked us to sign his copy of the book, which was so exciting. Oh, and I got to meet Dashiell Hammett’s granddaughter at Bouchercon this year. And that was also — I’m such a fan girl. She was so kind and so nice and she talked about her grandfather and his writing. It was just a thrill to be near somebody that was related.

LB: And that’s interesting because Dashiell Hammett — he also had no problem playing with the hard-boiled PI genre. Nothing could be more entertaining than The Thin Man.

HW: And they’re still so relevant today. I don’t think they’re dated at all. I mean if you go back and read some of them, you can see the hard-boiled genre and the traditions of the American PI and detective and police work which is very different from the British tradition. But it resonates today. The themes are the same.

LB: So, now, Delanie, can we look forward to more?

HW: Yes. I’m working on the second book right now, it’s going to my critique group. And she is still getting into trouble in central Virginia.

LB: Thank you so much. I’m so excited for you. Congratulations on your success.

HW: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity. It was so much fun to talk to you.