Behind the Scenes with Maggie Toussaint

Maggie Toussaint

Research: The interview that wasn’t

In the course of writing fiction, I’ve interviewed policemen, firemen, arson investigators, fishermen, boat captains, boat mechanics, shooting instructors, poison ladies, florists, newspaper editors, artists, accountants, the Coast Guard, and more. I’ve bought books on each of these subjects and other crime-related topics.

flamingo

But . . . there was one interview I didn’t do. I’ll come right out and say it: “I was too chicken.” I’ll be the first to admit I have a good imagination. I also do a lot of online research and checking of facts before I write. Except, I kept dragging my feet about this one particular research subject matter: a clothing-optional enclave.
I had access to one. Indeed, I’d long wondered, over than the obvious answer, what are they doing out there? This particular place came to be near my stomping grounds after I was grown and gone. Needless to say, my curiosity had been whetted.

woodsWhy would they locate in the deep woods? Didn’t they far ticks and snakes? Why expose tender body parts to mosquitoes, gnats, and black flies? Just thinking about insect bites in those place was enough to make me squirm in my eat. But, the place endured, and my curiosity simmered. When I was challenged to write a different sort of book, I knew having a community like this in the mystery would make for an interesting dynamic.

I’m an armchair traveler and not overly adventurous, if you want to know the truth. I was raised in the Deep South to be modest and traditional. I have intellectual curiosity about many subjects, but the thought of being around people in their birthday suits going about their everyday lives didn’t tempt me.

brick wallFinally, through general groaning and moaning about my research predicament, I learned a childhood friend had visited the nearby community. The Hallelujah chorus began resounding in my head. Less than an hour later, I had an in-depth, birds-eye view of her experience. One of the lines she kept telling herself while she was there visiting a student and his parents, along with another fully-clad teacher, was “Don’t look down.” I felt that cautionary vibe so intently, I had my sleuth think those very words. It was what I would’ve thought if I’d had the courage to face this particular fear.

Granted, I took a little license with the characters and the setting I created for this cozy mystery, but that’s what an author does. Takes a story and makes it her own. Adds this. Takes away that. Embellishes a little.

Murder-in-the-Buff_500
Part of the charm of this plot, to me at least, is the conflict created by this lifestyle and my inhibited sleuth, and the journey both make to solve a homicide. Time passes, and Murder in the Buff gets published. It sells nicely. I carry copies of it along with my other books to events. All is fine until . . .

I’m selling books at a local festival, and a large man drops in the spare chair next to me, a stranger, and says, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you.” I had no idea who he was, but he told me in a very direct, and to me, loud, manner, that I’d written a book about his place, and he thought I had no right to do that seeing as how I’d never been out there, how I’d never followed that path.

path
Okay. I’m quite literally sweating bullets at this moment because I suddenly clue in to where this man lives. In those woods. I check to make sure he’s fully clothed, and he is. Whew. I explain that I was unable to go (good answer, right?) but that I’d spoken with someone who had visited out there for generalized information. He was still a bit upset, though he wasn’t speaking as loudly, when he demanded a name.

Because I was also a reporter at that time. I clammed up. Sources didn’t have to be revealed. But I wanted this person to move along, so it made sense to respond.

butterfly

I mentioned my friend’s name, and suddenly he was smiling and happy and soon moved along. We did not become best friends. Far as I know, our paths have never crossed again. And I never went out there. Some things just do not need to be seen to be imagined.

And if you’re curious about Murder in the Buff, check it out on my bookshelf.

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Vacations I have Known

I love where I live. From my deck, I have a perfect view of the twice daily tides at the Georgia coast. Watching the ocean rise and fall and seeing the birds which come to fish for their supper is very special to me.

Given this penchant for staying home, I must confess that the vacations I take these days involve family or book conferences. Interestingly, the two are starting to merge. I’ll oftentimes look for book events near my family so that I can do both on one trip.

In recent years, I’ve visited these cities for book events: Orlando, Savannah, Kennesaw, Birmingham, Colorado Springs, Baltimore, Washington DC, Nashville, and Chattanooga. I look forward to seeing my writing friends and fans at each venue and to seeing the local sights.

I have a standing date with a dear friend for Thai food in Nashville and a metro/museum travel buddy in DC. I enjoy taking side excursions with writing friends who have become like family to me over the years.

With my family, I’ve hiked and biked and boated and called owls. I’ve seen natural and manmade attractions through the eyes of my kids, and those are some precious memories indeed.

Maggie at North Rim   Maggie Grand Canyon

Recently, I undertook a campaign to digitize many of our family snapshots. Despite all the great scenery in the pictures, I found myself flipping through those shots and finding pictures of us on our journey. I saved the joyful pictures, of course, but also the ones of us exhausted or trying new things.

Events that stand out in my mind were unexpected moments, such as trying to get all of our vacation-sized suitcases in a tiny Mustang convertible we rented in Hawaii, the sudden sleet storm which sent our Navaho ponies on a wild gallop through Canyon de Chelly, snowskiing down an access trail and finding ourselves downhill from the ski lift. These moments stand out, not as uh-ohs, but as moments where we pulled together and made it work.

Maggie Car   Maggie Beach

The single theme of all those vacations to the seashore, the mountains, the West, the Big Cities, and Paris, was the camaraderie, the sharing of the journey. One of the truths I’ve learned is that life isn’t always about the destination. It’s about the journey and those we share it with.

Thank you for being part of my journey here at Booklover’s Bench.

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What interesting information did you learn while researching your latest book?

A real life incident inspired my what-if moment for Gone and Done It, the first book in my new paranormal mystery series.

Gone and Done It, a paranormal mystery by Maggie Toussaint

To get to the good part, we have to back up first.

Georgia is one of the original 13 colonies, and the area where I live on the coast was considered prime territory by early settlers. In colonial times, some settlers were buried in smaller family cemeteries on the family’s acreage. One such unmarked cemetery was on a bluff overlooking the river.

Fast forward about 240 years or so, and the river changed course, eating into the riverbank so much that an iron coffin emerged from the mud! No one around here had seen anything like it in their lifetime.

Coffin

In time it was discovered who the Revolutionary soldier in the coffin was, and Col. John McIntosh was treated to a big celebration as he was buried again in nearby Mallow Cemetery.

That realization of burials on family land and the idea that records for such burials could easily be lost, especially since our local courthouse burned twice in its history, was the launch moment for Gone and Done It.

In the opening scene of my mystery, my landscaping sleuth, Baxley Powell is planting a tree for a client and uncovers human remains.

Do you listen to music when writing?

I adore music. I tap my feet. I sing along. I’ve been known to chair-dance. Music transports me to a fun place, and therein lies my problem. I can’t focus on writing if I’m listening to music.

Music

I’ve tried instrumental music, classical music, classic rock, soft rock, country, inspirational, international – well, you get the picture. Even when there are no lyrics, music dilutes my focus on writing.

But that’s only for the first draft. I can edit to background music, and I can market to anything. It’s only when I’m trying to distill something directly from the story ether that I need complete and utter focus.

What’s your advice for aspiring authors?

Surprisingly, my answer to this question has changed through my writing career. At first I advised write, write, write. A few years later, I suggested new writers should hone the basics of their writing craft. A little further downstream, I advised aspiring authors to build a network of authors to learn from each other.

But the publishing world is changing. More authors today are publishing their own books. They feel there’s no need to wait five to ten years to land a publisher.

So here’s my advice: Don’t be in a hurry to publish that first book. Make sure someone besides you edits your book, and in general, family and friends do not count as editors.

Here’s why you need to take this step. A poorly edited book will hurt you more than the seemingly interminable delay of polishing your prose. Readers expect plot holes to be filled, spelling to be correct, characters to leap off the pages, and more.

Pay attention to the feedback you receive. Even if you don’t agree with what the editor said about a particular passage, chances are another edit of that text will clear up any chance of confusion.

Be kind to readers! They keep us in business!

Early bird or a night owl?

Early bird – especially when it comes to writing. My brain is freshest first thing in the morning. At that time, there are fewer phone calls or interruptions.

Coffee or tea?

Tea

I’m from the South, and tea flows through my veins. Growing up, we drank iced tea, which is now widely known as Sweet Tea. Because I drink a LOT of tea, hot and iced, I switched to unsweetened tea. It’s much better to get my daily calorie requirement from a balanced diet instead of my tea pitcher. Hold the caffeine-free stuff for someone else. If I can’t have sugar, I want the “high-test” version of tea with caffeine.

Where I Live

I live in a seaside town on the coast of Georgia. My town of Darien was laid out by General Oglethorpe in the same style as Savannah, with beautiful city “squares” that are now parks. We have many beautiful, historic live oaks, some growing in the center of the road, so the road curves around them. Long veils of Spanish moss trail from the oaks, and anything that isn’t moving, making this the perfect setting for a mystery and suspense author.

I love that I was able to move back to my hometown after living so many years in Maryland. The tempo is different here, the days are sunnier, even the air smells like sea and sunshine. It’s wonderful being back home.

This delightful fountain is in Vernon Square, flanked by two churches, one of which survived the Civil War Burning of Darien. Other homes fronting the square were once owned by timber barons during our timbering heyday.

Fountain in Georgia

My Work Habits

Believe it or not, I tidied my office up a bit for this picture. Usually there are stacks of papers and projects on every surface. I use an ergonomic keyboard and have a bigger monitor so that I can see the screen without wearing reading glasses.

Not only do I write “hybrid” stories by blending mystery and romance, I also have a blended writing style. I generally start with an inciting incident and then rough in just enough detail that I have a vague road map of where I’m going. Then I write to those plot points. Some days it comes out easy; others it’s like pulling teeth. Regardless, I stay planted at the keyboard until I reach my word count or editing goal for the day. Trial and error taught me to write first thing in the morning, since that’s when I’m most creative.

My mornings look like this: breakfast with two cups of hot tea, accompanied by reading the paper and doing the puzzles. Then it’s off to the computer to pull my words out of the story ether and channel them onto the screen. After that I reward myself with email and internet time, squeezing in chores, family, and part-time job as needed.

Maggie Office