Here at Literative, we enjoy spotlighting authors and their works, in the hopes of not only promoting their work, but also of inspiring up-and-coming writers. This week, we’re focusing on Anna Celeste Burke, author of the Jessica Huntington Desert Cities Mystery Series. Surprisingly, her journey as an author began in her second year of graduate school, publishing scholarly journal articles. The jargon used made her feel confined, limited, so she began writing fiction as a creative outlet. After retiring from a university job as a professor, she opted for a life of leisure and fiction writing in the Palm Springs desert resort cities.
Let’s dive into what she had to say about her process and experience.
How do you come up with your ideas? Are they inspired by real-life events? Or do they come from somewhere else entirely?
“Bits and pieces of the real world work their way into my books. Betrayal, divorce, relationship problems, the toll the Great Recession took on marriages and families, those are real issues that found their way into book 1 of the Jessica Huntington series, A DEAD HUSBAND. Troubles I’m familiar with, in part, because I spent so many years trying to figure out how to help individuals facing such challenges. The celebrated, but off-his-rocker, Hollywood producer in book 2, A DEAD SISTER, also draws a bit from real life. Part of Mr. P’s persona and antics are taken from ‘players’ who inhabit the Hollywood media world. The story in A DEAD DAUGHTER revolves around a ruthless character inspired by the kind of lust for money that too often ends in an Enron, Worldcom, or Tyco kind of fiasco. Some of the settings and locations where Jessica’s escapades lead her are real. There really is a La Quinta Resort & Spa, a Mission Inn & Spa, A Beverly Wilshire Hotel, etc. Having said that, I like to make stuff up. That’s what I do, so Jessica, Bernadette, her family and “Cat Pack” of friends are all figments of my imagination, as are the dirt bags they track down.”
How long does it take you to finish a book?
“I’m trying to write and publish two books per year. Each book is about 100 to 125 thousand words. I’m trying to get the first draft produced more quickly by doing less editing along the way. We’ll see if that helps improve my productivity. I am also toying with writing a third series, spinning off a couple members of Jessica Huntington’s “Cat Pack”. That series would be comprised of shorter books, more in the 50-60,000-word range.”
Do you outline your plot first or do you come up with the story as you go (pantser)?
“I generally have a clear idea about how a book begins and how it ends before I start writing. After I write the first four or five chapters I then sketch out the rest of the book. For me, a 100,000-word book is comprised of about 30 chapters and I use that chapter headings as an outline for the book. I put myself somewhere in between on the plotter-pantser continuum.”
What do you think is the most important part of a story?
“For me, the most important part of the story is the character and character development. I continue to read a series because I like the lead character. Well, let me modify that–I’m not sure I really ‘like’ Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes–they are both very irritating men. Kinsey Milhone rubs me the wrong way at times, Stephanie Plum needs to make a choice between Ranger or Morelli, so like isn’t the correct word. I like characters that stand out, intrigue me in some way. Character arc–the direction in which a character develops over time is even more important to me. I’m working hard to figure out the pace and direction in which Jessica’s life will take her. I can’t wait to see how she turns out.”
How much do you think your environment (geographic, population, etc..) impacts your writing?
“The setting matters a great deal in my books. Palm Springs and other parts of Southern California are integral to each story. The beauty of the desert, the glitz and glam of Hollywood, spas, shopping, all set the scene for the particular kinds of cases that come Jessica Huntington’s way. An entirely different vision of the Coachella Valley will emerge in the Betsy Stark series. A social worker, with a penchant for snooping, she sees a side of society that doesn’t show up in photo ops and postcards. The backdrop of the desert will be every bit as important in the telling of her stories.”
How was the publishing experience for you? Did you go alone or get any help?
“After using traditional publishing outlets for my academic work, I have turned to self-publishing for my fiction. CreateSpace and Kindle Direct both provide lots of support, at a minimal cost, for authors who want to self-publish print and ebooks. I produce my own covers using photo art from Dreamstime or another stock photo outlet, Photoshop and a template provided by CreateSpace. There are a number of other platforms out there that other authors use, but I know much less about them. I don’t have a professional editor, but my sister is quite good at it and has taken a crack at editing the first four books I have written.”
What have you found to be the best way to market your books?
“Talk about a mystery! Marketing is tough and time-consuming. I have a website, a blog, author pages on Amazon, Goodreads, and Facebook. I did not even have a Twitter account until January 2014, but have since produced more than 200, 000 tweets and have nearly 16,000 interesting followers on Twitter. I try to maintain a presence on a lot of other social media sites aimed at bringing authors and readers together. It is daunting to keep up with it all!”
How do you find your courage? A lot of new writers are scared of putting themselves out there to be judged. So much so, that many of them never even take the first step. What advice would you give to them?
“Just write. Do what you can to separate the creative process from the evaluative one–in your own mind! I still work at this because I tend to look over my own shoulder way too much. There will be time, later, to choose just the right word, the precise turn of phrase or bit of dialogue that will convey your intentions. In fact, the faster, more productive you become at getting that first draft out, the more time you’ll have to read and revise, pour over a thesaurus studying synonyms until you find the exact word you were looking for all along. When you write a lot of words, fast, each word becomes a little less precious, a bit easier to part with when you finally unleash the beast and turn your inner critic loose on your work. People who judge other people will judge you whether you write a book or not! So, why not go for it? Give them plenty to mull over. Beyond all of the hard work, ratings and reviews, there is the joy of creation that you can only experience if you write the book. They can’t ever take that away from you. When you hold the lovely little book in your hands there’s nothing quite like it, I promise. What a pity to deny yourself that wonderful moment.”
What lesson have you learned the hard way?
“Everything always takes longer than you think it will. You can never edit enough to defeat the evils of awkward sentences, dangling participles, typos, and all the grammatical errors that haunt the written word.”
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?
“I love interacting with other readers and authors, so I hope you’ll find me in one of the places where I hang out. On my website, my Facebook author page, Twitter, Goodreads, About.me, LinkedIn…there are lots of places to ask me questions or leave comments. Even if it’s just to say hello, I’d love to hear from you!”
Anna Celeste Burke was a pleasure to interview, her passion for mysteries clearly evident. We’d be lying if we said we aren’t pretty jealous of the Palm Springs desert resort cities, but it is what it is. If you would like to know more about this author, please feel free to follow her on Facebook and Twitter. In the meantime, we’d like to wish Burke good luck on her next project, the Betsy Stark Series.