Tina deBellegarde lives in Catskill, New York with her husband Denis and their cat Shelby. Tina writes the Batavia-on-Hudson Mystery series which debuted September 2020 with Winter Witness. Her short stories appear in the Mystery Writers of America anthology A Stranger Comes to Town and the last two editions of Best New England Crime Stories. Find her winning flash fiction online at Retreat West, Ad Hoc Fiction and Reflex Press. When she isn’t writing, Tina is helping Denis tend their beehives, harvest shiitake mushrooms, and cultivate their vegetable garden. She travels to Japan regularly to visit her son Alessandro. Visit her website at www.tinadebellegarde.com
You’ve recently published Winter Witness, a murder mystery that takes place in a small NY town in the Catskill Mountains. What led you to write this book?
When I moved to the Catskills and started taking walks like Bianca does in Winter Witness, it became obvious to me just what a perfect place it was to stage a murder. There were cliffs, isolated hiking trails, speeding trucks paired with winding streets, abandoned quarries, aging resorts, deep lakes, and steep waterfalls. I decided to set my novel in a deceptively quiet town like my new home.
I have been drawn to murder mysteries since I found Martha Grimes in the 1980s. What I love about her Richard Jury series is that you can revel in the small village life and unravel not only a murder mystery but the intricacies of the characters’ lives as well. When I sat down to write, I wanted more than a murder mystery, I wanted characters to live on the page. A small town gives us a perfect backdrop to get to know our characters because in Batavia-on-Hudson everyone knows everyone, just like in my home of Catskill. The intimacy of the village makes the characters’ interactions more immediate.
I love murder mysteries because they are incubators for character studies. Just as our real lives are full of secrets and dreams, growth and evolution, choices and consequences, murder mysteries are about so much more than the murder. Coming of age stories, romances, and other dramas play out as well. The murder is merely a device to drive the characters’ stories forward.
How do you build your characters? Do you base them on real people, on bits and pieces of real people, or are they completely fictional?
Many of my characters are composites of people I know or have met. No character is based on any one person alone. Some I made up completely, but I wonder if that is even true. I always say that there is an enormous amount of autobiography in every piece of fiction because we use our own experience to understand the workings of our characters. Even if we make them up entirely, we imbue them with reactions and decisions based on our own personal experiences. We don’t write in a vacuum. So yes, they are made up, but based in some vague reality.
I keep a character bible, where I develop their backstory and personality traits. Once that is done, characters become real for me and when I place them in a scene they clearly act a certain way because they now have unique personalities.
What was your publishing process like?
My experience was positive but slow. I had no idea how to break in. I’m sure I’m not alone. In the early stages of my manuscript I attended mystery conferences and I found them a tremendous resource. Malice Domestic is a great fan based conference. New England Crime Bake is a wonderful mystery writers’ conference with craft workshops, pitch sessions and critique sessions. I found the community welcoming and supportive, and not competitive at all.
I pitched my book and had some interest, then I submitted the opening of my manuscript and received helpful feedback. I incorporated the feedback into my novel and then set it aside. I wasn’t ready to face the realities of trying to sell my book. Since this was what I considered the best version of Winter Witness, I was nervous about discovering that nobody might want it.
During this break, I started writing short stories. I have heard that many writers start in reverse. They write shorts and then grow into novel writing. But short stories were new to me and I was so excited to stretch my writing muscles in that direction. I discovered I love writing short fiction. I submitted pieces and got some recognition and publications. One of my short stories was picked up by Level Best Books for their annual Best New England Crime Stories anthology.
I also discovered that Level Best Books had expanded from anthologies to novels a few years ago. Since the anthology was launching at New England Crime Bake and I would be seeing the editors there I thought the timing might be right. I sent in my manuscript of Winter Witness, and I was thrilled to hear from them just before the conference. We met for breakfast there and they offered me a three book deal to launch my Batavia-on-Hudson series. I got to skip the agent stage and went straight to the publisher.
Level Best is a relatively small press, and I believe we are a good fit. The press has a solid presence in the mystery writing community and we are growing every day. It has been a very personal experience working with my editors. In fact, the entire community is tight knit. We host a monthly Zoom meeting where we share our news, ask the editors questions, and get guidance from more seasoned authors. Overall, I am thrilled to be with them.
Describe a typical writing day for you.
Oh, how I wish I had a typical writing day! I have tried and tried and not succeeded in creating a routine. It seems that just as I think I have something that works, it goes off the rails. I have a beautiful little writing cottage that my husband and his brother surprised me with. They built it one spring before we had moved here full time. I was still teaching and when my school year ended, and I came up for the summer, there it was. Ideally, I would wake up, exercise and write for the first half of the day.
More often I fit it in when I can. I can say this though, that as long as I am committed to my writing and doing so daily, that getting my head in and out of my writing is very easy. The writing flows and there is no time lost getting reacquainted with my work. When I have to step away from it for any length of time, when my writing isn’t regular, it is always like starting a new project. I have learned that writing daily keeps me limber and in character. When that happens I don’t need a routine, or a cottage. I just need my laptop or a notepad. Keeping the story fresh and alive in my head is the best writing practice.
Who are some of your favorite authors and/or books?
I grew up on women authors like Anne Tyler, Gail Godwin, Sue Miller, Alice Adams, and Muriel Spark. These women shaped my writing and my view of the world. They made me believe that a woman’s story was worth writing. They focused on the internal lives of their female characters and they did it with beautiful prose. They are all masters of character development. I have always felt that even if their books had no plots, I would read them anyway.
Since my son lives in Japan, I have immersed myself in Japanese contemporary literature. I love Japanese literary sensibilities. And I also love the slow burn, slice of life story that is typical of a Japanese novel. Haruki Murakami, Yoko Ogawa, Aoko Matsuda, Mieko Kawakami, Banana Yoshimoto. So many good ones.
As far as particular books are concerned. The Man with the Load of Mischief by Martha Grimes is my favorite traditional mystery. It was after reading this book that I knew I could have an audience for a book like Winter Witness. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett is one of my favorite literary pieces. Her ability to develop characters and relationships under the extraordinary circumstances of a hostage taking was spectacular. On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong is a poetic novel. You “feel” every word. There are so many small perfect nuggets in that book that it ushered me into writing flash fiction.
Where do you stand on the oxford comma? My readers want to know!
Ah! The $64,000 Question! For most of my life I rejected the Oxford comma. Once I got into writing seriously, I realized that I couldn’t live without it. I used to rewrite a sentence to clarify. Now, since my prose matters so much, I prefer the flexibility the comma can give me. It means the prose as I wrote it can stand.
What do you want readers to experience when they read your work?
I wrote a book about a small village inhabited by characters that I hope readers will want to return to over and over. I want them to think and to feel, to relate and to empathize, and I want them to relax and enjoy. (Notice the comma) I think we read for many reasons, but one of those reasons is that we relate to the emotions of the characters on the page. I like to create characters who are ordinary people leading ordinary lives, but prove to be extraordinary just the same.
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