Today I’m taking part in the BFOR BLOG BLITZ and am sharing my interview with cozy mystery author Karen Nortman. Books for Older Readers (BFOR) is a group that was established in October 2017 to promote books with older protagonists and/or themes such as ‘second chances’ which tend to appeal to readers in mid-life or beyond. I will give you more information later along with the Facebook and website links, but right now I want to tell you about my special guest.
Karen Musser Nortman, after 22 years as a secondary social studies teacher and 18 years as a test developer, returned to her childhood dream of writing mysteries. Her first series, The Frannie Shoemaker Campground Mysteries, sprouted from numerous camping trips in Iowa and through at least 24 other states. These mysteries center around a group of retirees who camp together and sometimes stumble over dead bodies. Six of the books have been designated IndieBRAG medallion honorees and three have been finalists in Chanticleer CLUE and Mystery and Mayhem contests. Most of the books are based on actual campgrounds.
Karen has two other series. The Time Travel Trailer series follows the adventures of Lynne McBriar who buys a vintage camper that turns out to be a time portal. The first in the series, by the same name, was the 2015 category winner in the Chanticleer Paranormal contest. The Mystery Sisters is a new series involving two seventy-something sisters who travel the country in a 1950 Studebaker, argue, annoy their relatives, and solve mysteries.
Karen has three children and eight grandchildren. She also loves reading, gardening, and knitting, and can recite the 99 counties of Iowa in alphabetical order.
Hi, Karen! Thanks so much for taking the time to visit with me today. I’ve read most of your books and have really enjoyed them. Since your books are mostly based on places you’ve been, I feel like I know you. But I still have lots of questions, so let’s get started.
Which came first, camping or writing?
I’ve always loved to write but did not do so seriously until after I retired. We tent camped with our children when they were young and then, as they got busier, we got away from it. In 2006, we decided to get back into it but not sleeping on the ground, so we bought a used travel trailer and have been avid campers ever since.
As a camper myself, I know that the lifestyle can be addicting – as can writing! When did you publish your first book, and what inspired you to write it?
I received a Kindle for Christmas in 2010 and that spring was looking for a light mystery to download for a camping trip. I thought it would be fun to read a camping mystery but at that time there weren’t any. I began to consider what a great setting campgrounds are for mysteries. You have a variety of characters—many of whom are strangers—but you go about your daily chores and recreation in close proximity. There are lots of mishaps and humorous incidents. Because many are strangers, things happen that could have a sinister explanation. For example, once some people were camped across from us and on Friday night had a big campfire. The next day their vehicle was gone and we didn’t see anyone for three days. Their trailer was still there when we left and we never found out what happened. It was likely a family medical emergency or perhaps broken water pipes at home or some other simple explanation. Or it could have been that a serial killer murdered them all and stole their truck. We never found out. Nature is also a factor that can create threatening situations.
So when I retired that summer I decided I would start a series involving a group of retired friends. I particularly wanted my characters to be typical sixty-somethings—not decrepit fussbudgets named Mabel and Gertrude. (Those names are from an older generation.)
I love how your imagination works! I have noticed that your books, at least the ones I have checked, are self-published. Have you always gone this route? If so, why?
When I finished my first book in 2012, Bats and Bones, I began looking for an agent. There was some interest and I was really excited when an agent in New York who handles several successful cozy series asked to see the full manuscript. After I sent it, I read that you need to allow an agent at least six months to look at a full manuscript; if they take you on, another year to find a publisher; and another year to actually get the book in print. I was 69 at the time—I was afraid that I might not live long enough to see my book published!
At the same time, I read quite a bit about the emerging self-publishing scene. I withdrew my manuscript from the agent and published my book through Amazon’s Kindle Direct and CreateSpace programs. That first one involved a pretty big learning curve but I have it down pretty well now.
I like the fact that I have complete control over my schedule, my covers, my pricing, and my book design. I worked for eighteen years for ACT, the testing company, where a typo or poorly worded question could result in a lawsuit, so I think I am a pretty good editor. We also formatted all of our tests for print so I had experience in that. Marketing is the big challenge but it is my understanding that, unless you are Stephen King or Louise Penny, you have to do your own marketing anyway.
So true! When you began to write, why did you settle on cozy mysteries as your genre of choice?
I have always loved mysteries, including police procedurals and thrillers, but my favorites early on were Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. Later Martha Grimes and numerous cozy writers attracted me. Cozy mysteries are very character driven and I love good characters. In a series that’s especially important so that each book is like spending time with old friends. Sometimes I think I should put my efforts into more serious writing, but then I get a message from a reader, like the one who said my books were just the escape she needed during her mother’s Hospice care. That’s very gratifying.
Yes, knowing that your stories have touched someone is one of the best parts of being a writer. I began my writing with memoirs, so I wrote about my experiences. Have you ever experienced any of the mysteries you have written?
We have experienced some incidents that became the catalyst for a book. For example, we were pulling our camper through New Mexico a couple of years ago when we were stopped in a roadblock. They were looking for two escaped convicts who they thought may have stowed away in a camper, car trunk, or pickup bed because there is nowhere in that part of New Mexico for anyone to hide along the road. Our camper had been locked since morning and they let us go on. But later I realized that sometimes we forget to lock the outside storage compartments and two of them were big enough for a person. Fortunately, we had no stowaways but the incident became the germ for The Space Invader.
I’ll bet you were more careful about locking those compartments after that! When you begin a project, what does your writing process look like?
Most of my books have centered around an event, location, and/or activity. The Frannie Shoemaker books include ones about biking, storytellers, county fairs, geocaching, snowstorms, New Mexico and the Michigan UP. Once I decide what the ‘theme’ is, I think about how a crime might be connected to that activity. Geocachers wander around in remote areas looking for hidden caches, so it stands to reason that they might also find a body. (To Cache a Killer) When we toured the Michigan UP, I was intrigued by the glass-bottom boat tours to view shipwrecks, but what if a dead body appeared in the viewing window (Real Actors, Not People)? In Foliage and Fatality, the second Mystery Sisters book, the sisters volunteer to help at a haunted house fund-raiser. What better place to hide a dead body?
Then when I know what the crime is, if I’m smart, I figure out a time line. How was the murder committed? What was the killer doing before and after? How can he/she be caught? If I don’t take the time to outline that and just start writing, I paint myself into a corner and have to rewrite.
And rewrites are not a writer’s favorite thing to do. Speaking of favorites, which has been your favorite series or character to write?
That’s like asking if I have a favorite child. Each series has been enjoyable for different reasons. Frannie and her friends are, I think, typical retirees. They have strong friendships, but not without some irritations. They have pet peeves and limitations. They have solid marriages and respect for each other. They also have long standing jokes and insults that just confirm their membership in the group.
The Time Travel Trailer series is special to me because I love history. The original book was intended as a stand alone and started because I have always wished I could have known my grandparents as two-year-olds or pre-teens or newlyweds. I enjoy researching the historical periods that the trailer travels to. The next one may be connected to the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa in 1959—the night the music died. I grew up near there and the Surf was the hot spot in our lives.
The Mystery Sisters series is patterned after my grandmother and her sister-in-law who did travel the country in an old Studebaker and argued all of the time. So this way I get to travel with them.
The Mystery Sisters is your latest series of books. Have we seen the last of Frannie Shoemaker?
Absolutely not. I wanted to get three Mystery Sisters books out to establish the series, and I just finished the third, Double Dutch Death. I have already started the next Frannie, Corpse of Discovery. The location is based on Lewis and Clark State Park on the Missouri River in western Iowa. There is an annual celebration there of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (the Corps of Discovery) and it includes a fur trader reenactment. An event with hatchet throwing contests and knife makers sounds like it has lots of possibilities for a murder.
Wow! I can’t wait. Thanks so much for stopping by and giving us an inside look at Karen Nortman.
You can find Karen and her books at the links below:
Books for Older Readers has a website where you can find lists of books and authors that will appeal to all ages but have a special attraction to those of us in middle age and beyond because of the age of the characters and/or the subject matter. The book lists feature short descriptions, book covers, and buy links. BFOR also has a Facebook Group where you can interact with other authors and readers who share your interests and concerns.