A Conversation with Award Winning Author Terry Shames

Welcome to a conversation with the award winning author of the Samuel Craddock mysteries. Terry Shames is the author of A Killing at Cotton Hill, Last Death of Jack Harbin, Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek, A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge, The necessary Murder of Nonie Blake, An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock, and A Reckoning in the Back Country. She is the co-editor of Fire in the Hills, a book of stories, poems, and photographs about the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire.

Terry grew up in the small town of Lake Jackson, on the Gulf Coast of Texas, attending Brazosport High School where she was heavily involved in theatre, acting and directing, and the school chorus. She is fascinated by the convoluted loyalties and betrayals of small-town residents. After graduating from the University of Texas she joined the CIA and was trained as a computer programmer and analyst at Langley, Virginia.

The next several years Terry moved from Washington, D.C. to Denver, Colorado, eventually settling in San Francisco. The stress of the computer world having taken its toll and deciding to concentrate on writing she attended San Francisco State University where she obtained her MA in English and Creative Writing.

Terry now lives in Berkeley, with her husband and two rowdy terriers. She is President of Northern California Sisters in Crime and on the board of Northern California Mystery Writers of America.

Thank you, Terry, for agreeing to be our guest today.

James:                  When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

Terry:                    When I was in the fifth grade, I read a sci-fi story called The Asbestos Man. As near as I recall, that story made me want to be a writer.

James:                  What was it about “The Asbestos Man” that stirred your creative juices?

Terry:                    I guess reading that story, it was the first time I realized there was an actual person writing it. I had been an avid reader from the time I was in first grade, but I had never thought much about how the books I read came into being. “Magic,” I must have thought. And in a way I was right. It is magic. But reading the story in fifth grade, I actually pictured someone sitting down to write the story, and I thought, “I could do that.” A funny aside: when I was in second grade, for two years my family lived on a small farm outside of town. I was very much into Nancy Drew and used to wander around the farm looking for “clues.” So I think at that time I wanted to be a detective, not a writer. The writing part came later.

James:                  What are common traps for aspiring writers?

Terry:                    I can’t say for other writers, but for me it was not taking myself seriously enough. I thought if I sent in something “pretty good,” that an editor would be delighted to help me make it saleable. It took me a long time to realize that I had to send in the very best work I could, not some lazy approximation.

James:                  Does a big ego help or hurt writers?

Terry:                    Interesting question. Maybe it does take a big ego to think you can put words on a page that many people will want to read and will enjoy them. But I do know that when I started getting fan mail, I was surprised. I think a lot of writers are. I do run across the occasional wannabe writer who is absolutely certain that their work is brilliant, but I don’t think it’s the norm, and I doubt it helps. I have met some famous writers, and a big ego is the rare exception. And if they are egotistical, it’s about things that have nothing to do with their writing.

James:                  Interesting observations, Terry.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

Terry:                    In the ninth grade, I turned in a short story that I knew was good. The teacher read it aloud without attribution, and I watched my fellow students sit spellbound by the story. It was exciting and terrifying to realize I had the power in words to mesmerize people.

James:                  What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

Terry:                    I took a weekend workshop arranged by two writers I admired, Cornelia Read and Sophie Littlefield. They featured some truly inspiring speakers, some great professionals in the field of writing and crime fighting. It was among the top few workshops I ever attended, and unfortunately it was a one-off. I still remember large swaths of the talks that were given. The two writers were incredibly generous in helping those of us who were struggling to get published. I directly credit the things I learned with helping me focus my creative efforts to the Samuel Craddock series.

James:                  I understand that your Samuel Craddock series, set in the fictitious town of Jarrett Creek, is based on the fascinating people, landscape and culture of the small town where your grandparents lived. How do you select the names of your characters?

Terry:                    This is where magic comes in. For some reason, every one of the characters in the Samuel Craddock books appears with their names. I don’t have to think about them. Every now and then I realize a name is too much like another one, and I have to think of a replacement, but usually one pops right up.

James:                  Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?

Terry:                    Not deliberately, but after about the fifth book I realized that, quite unconsciously, I had strong clues to the solution right in the beginning few pages.

James:                  I’ll have to keep my eye out for those hints.
How long were you a part-time writer before you became a full-time one?

Terry:                    I was a computer programmer/analyst for ten years, and afterwards worked in real estate for a few years. During that time, I always wrote, sometimes I’d go to my car at lunch and write. When I got married, I was working on a book while I was working in the real estate business. I wouldn’t go to bed until I had written five pages of my first draft every night. My husband said he never saw me, and suggested that I quit my job and let him support me. It was a tough decision. I liked being financially independent. But I decided to take him up on it.

James:                  All your readers are glad you did.
What are some day jobs that you have held?  If any of them impacted your writing, share an example.

Terry:                    I started working when I was a junior in high school, because I knew if I was going to college I had to pay for most of it myself. I was a secretary at an insurance and real estate office until I graduated. In college I worked typing papers for rich kids, and then got a job as a secretary for a law professor. In the summer after my freshman year in college, I worked as a waitress, and then the next two summers at Yellowstone Park.  Meanwhile, during school I continued to have part-time secretarial jobs. After college, I worked for the CIA for two years as a computer programmer/analyst, and then moved west and continued in that field. I got burned out from the computer business and went into real estate. They all impacted my writing either because of interesting people I met or interesting situations. Everything I’ve ever done is fodder. I’m working on a book now that has at its heart an incident that happened when I was in real estate. I was fascinated by the couple that walked in off the street and eventually bought a house from me. They stuck in my mind and now I’m writing about them—or at least my interpretation of them.

James:                  Be careful not to divulge any CIA secrets.
If you had the opportunity to live anywhere in the world for a year while writing a book that took place in that same setting, where would you choose?

Terry:                    Botswana. I love the countries I visited in Africa and would go back in a heartbeat. But whether or not I would write is another story. I lived in Italy for 18 months in the early 1990s, and was so enchanted that all I did was explore Florence and the surrounding countryside every day. I ended up hardly writing at all.

James:                  Botswana, what an unexpected choice.
What behind-the-scenes tidbit in your life would probably surprise your readers the most?

Terry:                    I’m avid about exercise. I exercise every day. I go to step classes, do strenuous walks, and do the elliptical trainer and the stationary bike. (Not all in one day!) I used to windsurf until it got boring, then my husband and I took up sailing. I never liked sailing much, because I don’t like to be confined, but I certainly got good at being the first mate. And I did love the swimming and snorkeling part. People might also be surprised to know that I love almost all kinds of music, but I’m partial to rhythm and blues and African music.

James:                  What was the hardest part of writing your author bio?

Terry:                    I read author bios that seem very natural, sometimes funny, very inviting, warm and intimate. For some reason I freeze when I write my bio. The bio always sounds stiff and awkward. In person, I think I’m pretty warm and friendly, but I can’t seem to translate that into a bio.

James:                  What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Terry:                    Not writing? What is that? Seriously, I love to cook and entertain. I love to have people over. I like to wander around. I know, that sounds weird. But I like to go somewhere that I don’t know, a street in my city that I’ve never been to, or another city and just wander around. I’m not a big shopper, but I like to peer in shop windows, maybe wander inside. I’m also a big basketball fan. Warriors!

James:                  What question do you wish that someone would ask about your book, but nobody has? What is your response to that question?

Terry:                    I have been asked every question imaginable, including some that I thought were rude or condescending. I always try to give a serious answer, no matter what. I guess regarding my current book, I’d like for someone to ask me where the character of Loretta came from. I would say that she has two underpinnings. One, she serves as a Greek chorus. She’s the voice of the town, translating the townspeople for Samuel when he’s solving a crime. But the other might surprise people. I think that Loretta might be who I would be if I had stayed in a small town. She’s generous, a little nosy, a little presumptuous, a little prissy. But at heart she’s a good person and if I can say that about myself, it’s satisfying to write about Loretta.

James:                  Pick one excerpt from one of your books you would like to share with readers.

Terry:                    I really got a kick out of writing the first few pages of my recent book, A Risky Undertaking for Loretta Singletary:

A RISKY UNDERTAKING FOR LORETTA SINGLETARY

Chapter 1           

It has been a quiet week; so quiet that Wendy Gleason and I were able to sneak off to drive the bluebonnet trail yesterday. It’s the peak of bluebonnet season and the views across the fields were spectacular. Wendy kept wanting to stop to take pictures. I asked what she was going to do with so many photos. “You must have taken a hundred.”

“When I’m a dotty old lady in a rocking chair, I’ll take them out and remember how much fun we’ve had today.”

We’re at that stage in getting to know each other where everything looks a little brighter when the other one is around. We took a picnic and had lunch in somebody’s field. We laughed a lot. I hadn’t been that relaxed in months.

 should have known the lull wouldn’t last. Today the weather blew up blustery and chilly, a weak winter storm making one last effort before spring sets in for good. I got caught in a rainstorm an hour ago, and before I had time to go home to change clothes, I got a call from Robert Caisson’s wife. She said the Caisson brothers were in the backyard in a standoff with guns and she was afraid they were going to kill each other.

When I arrived the two were still outside, sopping wet from the rain, both holding outsized pistols, and shouting at each other. In their forties, they’re big men, at least 6’2” and 230 pounds. I demanded to know what they were upset about, but they ignored me. T.J.’s wife, Daria, said it was too stupid for her to bother telling me.

It’s starting to get dark and cold, which I hope will put an end to their nonsense. I’m standing on the back porch in wet clothes and wet shoes, getting madder by the minute. I’m scared if I get out there and try to talk to them, one of them will shoot me. Meanwhile, I have to listen to them holler at each other like third graders. The conversation so far has gone like this:

“Daddy always favored you and you think you should have anything you want.”

“Bull. You’re Mamma’s little pet. No wonder you’re so full of yourself.”

“I’m going to shoot you and be glad to spend time in jail just so I don’t have to listen to any more of that,”

You couldn’t hit the side of a barn. You’re mad because I was always a better shot than you.”

“Fellas,” I holler. “You sound like a bad TV western. You’re acting like children. Come on inside and let’s sit down and talk.”

Neither of them so much as glances my way. If it weren’t for me being the chief of police and charged with keeping the peace, I’d go home and let them keep this up all night. But I’m afraid eventually one of them is going to make good on his threat.

I go back inside. “Darla, where is T.J.’s wife?”

“She has the kids over in Bobtail.  She took all of them to a movie.”

“How many kids are there?”

“Each of us has a pair of them. The older ones are just a few months apart, and the younger ones are a year apart. They’re good kids.” She isn’t looking at me while she talks. She’s watching the door to the backyard, hoping, as am I that the two men will come inside. “I swear to God, I hope they kill each other,” she says.

I would protest that she doesn’t mean that, but she might. Darla is a scary-looking chunk of a woman who wears cowboy outfits and motorcycle boots, and wears her dishwater blond hair down to her waist. She and her husband belong to a motorcycle club, and they tear around the countryside on weekends. Oddly enough, although all the motorcycle people look savage, I’ve never heard of them giving the law any trouble.

I asked about T.J.’s wife because of the four of them, she’s the most mild-mannered. I was hoping to call on her to help smooth things out. With that option gone, I step back outside. “If you boys don’t cut this out,” I holler, “I’m going to take you both in and you can spend the weekend in a jail cell.” I might as well have been yelling to an empty yard.  “Put the guns down!” I put all the authority I can muster into my order.

T. J. finally looks my way and says, “Chief, get out of here. We have to settle this between us. He’ll come to his senses eventually.”

“Like hell I will!” And just like that Robert’s gun goes off.

T. J. yells and spins and drops to his knees.

Robert flings his gun down and leaps backwards. “I didn’t mean to shoot. The gun went off by itself.”

Darla comes screaming out of the house and stomps to Robert’s side and says, “You damn fool. You don’t have the sense of a goose.”

“Are you sorry he didn’t shoot me?”

“I swear, you two…” She stomps back into the house with Robert right behind her.

Neither of them has paid the slightest attention to T.J., who is moaning on the ground. I go over and see that he’s bleeding pretty heavily. “One of you call 911,” I yell. “He needs an ambulance.”

“He can call the ambulance himself,” Robert calls back.

“I’ll call them,” Darla says.

I put pressure on the wound, which is high on the right side of his chest, not life-threatening, until the paramedics arrive. I gladly hand over responsibility for the injured man to them. Then I go inside and tell Robert to get his jacket, that I’m taking him to jail.

“What do you mean taking me to jail? I told you I didn’t mean to shoot.”

“Mean to or not, you did. Now are you coming quietly or do I have to call for backup?”

“Robert, you better go with the Chief because if I have to look at you for one more minute, I’m going to kill you.”