California Literary Review

Mystery Writer Vicki Stiefel

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April 3rd, 2007 at 9:30 pm

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Vicki Stiefel

Vicki Stiefel is a novelist, photographer, nonfiction writer, animal lover and more. Her three mystery novels, The Dead Stone, Body Parts and The Grief Shop, feature Tally Whyte and her sidekick, Penny, a three-legged German shepherd. Vicki, who lives in New Hampshire with her husband, novelist William G. Tapply, is currently working on the fourth in the Talley Whyte series. More information can be found at her website, www.vickistiefel.com.

It appears you are a bit of a late bloomer in writing book-length manuscripts. Why did you decide to write your first book – and why a mystery?
Although I’ve been writing long fiction for more than seventeen years, my first published novel, Body Parts, didn’t appear on the shelves until 2004. I’m a late-bloomer, for sure. My first novel, which was awful, was romantic suspense. It rightfully went nowhere. After Emma tanked, I wrote another romantic suspense, and then another one. The second almost sold, which in this business means nothing except that editors and agents were now at least reading my work. The third novel was a finalist in a national competition. Again, no sale. The fourth was my first mystery/thriller and my fifth, Body Parts, sold, much to my unending joy. I do not take any of that process for granted! Heck, my first books stank!
How long did it take you to write that first book?
I’m assuming you mean my first published book, which was Body Parts. In total, the novel took eighteen months of sweat, joy, revision, research, more revision, and utter giddiness at times at writing what I assumed would be yet another unpublished work of fiction.
Have you ever worked as a grief counselor for victims of homicide?
No, I haven’t. My dear friend, Donna Cautilli, counseled the families of homicide victims in Philadelphia. It was she who led me through the maze of counseling folks that have suffered such terrible tragedies and introduced me to several other homicide counselors.
Your novels are primarily set in Boston. Are you from the Boston area?
I lived in suburban Massachusetts just outside of Boston for more than fifteen years. Hard to believe, actually. I frequently visited Boston, and in terms of writing about life in Boston, I did lots of research that included talking with friends who live in Boston, traveling around the town, and visiting settings that I write about in my books. Talking about research…. I do extensive research with police officers, forensics professionals, and just about any people or places that will make a particular novel I’m writing read as “real.”
Do you have an agent? Have you from the start, or did you acquire one after selling the fifth novel, Body Parts?
I sold Body Parts because I have an agent. Peter Rubie took me on after reading first my query letter with three chapters, and then the whole book. I queried about 40 agents. I’m dead serious. About ten wanted to see the entire novel, and from those ten, about four were seriously interested in me as a client. Acquiring an agent is a brutal process, but it’s almost impossible to be published in fiction by a national house without one. I didn’t sell Body Parts, Peter Rubie did. Agents also negotiate contracts and do a lot more. BTW – I must say this: never pay an agent to look at your work. They earn their money from selling work they believe in, not from reading manuscripts from folks aching to be published.
I know your husband, William Tapply, is a successful mystery writer, as well. Has he taught you how to write mysteries, or does he “merely” serve as your first reader, or none of the above?
I met Bill about fifteen years ago because I joined a workshop that he was starting up in his home in Acton, Mass. I had already completed two novels, and Bill and the amazing workshop participants really grew my writing. He’s been a huge influence, although my writing was going toward mystery before I met him. Another seminal influence in my fiction writing has been Dwight Swain and his books on writing. He was a marvel – a great writer and an even greater teacher. His Techniques of the Selling Writer really put me on the path of how to write fiction. Funny thing is that I’ve always been a passionate reader. I’ve studied literature and taught it in high school and beyond. Yet until I read Swain’s book, I never understood how great novels were put together. The glue is Scene and Sequel, and I couldn’t write without understanding their principles. BTW – Bill and I always critique each other’s first drafts.
Do you work from an outline, or do you just start out and see where your characters take you?
I must know why the major incident – the murder, the betrayal, whatever – takes place. I must understand the causality. Once I get that idea affixed on a concrete incident or motive or want or fear, I write a brief synopsis and off I go with page one. I have a general idea where I’m going, but Tally and Company take me there. They often surprise me, which is the great fun of writing fiction. I do not and cannot outline, although it’s quite a wonderful way to construct a novel. I get bored stiff and give up around chapter three. This, of course, only pertains to fiction.
Do you know who “dun it” when you begin?
I think so, but the killer or, better yet, the “precipitor,” often changes along the way.
Why the three-legged former police dog? Do you live with dogs, have a special affinity for them?

I love animals and, particularly, dogs. Also, I found Canine Corps dogs to be fascinating – loyal, smart, determined, and sweet as can be in most cases. The reason Penny is a three-legged former Canine Corps dog is that a healthy, working dog would never be given up by her partner. Just wouldn’t happen. So this way, Penny had to be mustered out of the Canine Corps, and since her partner got a new CC partner, he was forced by the size of his apartment to give Penny away. Penny and Tally share a great bond. The police cannot keep a three-legged dog on active duty, yet other than her “leggedness,” Penny is wonderfully able and healthy.
Are you working on a fourth mystery featuring Tally now, and can you tell us a tiny bit about it?
Always. When an Anasazi (or Old Ones or Ancestral Puebloans, as they are often called) pot from 700 A.D. breaks at a museum, an ancient skull is found inside. Shocking, yes. Yet Tally believes that the skull belongs to a 21st Century woman, which appears quite impossible.
Who are your favorite mystery writers?
William G. Tapply, of course. But in truth, he’s a master. I also love Sue Grafton, Michael Connelly, Stephen White, Robert Parker, Archer Mayor, and a host of others. Mystery writers are, first off, great writers in terms of building compelling and complex characters. And, after all, that tends to be why I read – for the characters. I also love a meaningful and exciting plot. I don’t care for showy writing much. I find it a distraction. In addition, I’d like to mention some of the wonderful television writing that keeps me on my toes. Some of the Brit series, such as Waking the Dead, Murder City, Wire in the Blood, and Life on Mars, really raise the bar for characterization, plot, and setting. They’re damned good, and I’m deeply impressed that they portray un-plasticized people in gritty settings. I also love the American series Veronica Mars for its characterization and clever dialogue.
Other writers who have influenced you?

I read from infancy. It was such a magical window on the world and beyond. I’d have to say – no kidding – Homer, Jane Austin, Shakespeare, E.M. Forester, William Thackery, and many, many more. They’re all a part of the fabric that makes up me as a person and me as a writer.
What other kind of writing do you currently do?
I write some non-fiction, including travel pieces. I’m working on a non-fiction book now, too, in addition to Tally’s adventures. I’m also brewing another, additional series.
I believe you belong to mystery writers’ groups and attend conferences. To which groups do you belong, and how is this activity, involvement important to you? Would you recommend a beginning mystery writer join some group – and if so, which would be a good one to start with?
I belong to Sisters in Crime, SinC/New England, Mystery Writers of America, and the International Association of Crime Writers. I find these groups incredibly important. I first joined SinC/NE and SinC, and I’d always suggest an aspiring mystery or thriller writer, male or female, join that organization. SinC is incredibly nourishing. It’s a great networking group and has outstanding programs on writing and forensics and other areas applicable to crime fiction and non-fiction. Ditto for MWA. Attending a good conference is the best thing any aspiring writer can do. Truly. I attended some marvelous smaller conferences, such as the current New England Crime Bake. Wow – how incredibly helpful. I learned tons, and, I continue to learn. Writing cannot be a static pasttime or you’ll lose your way. I met so many other wonderful people and writers and police (etc.) professionals when attending conferences. It’s not only helped in concrete ways, but it’s “juiced” me up to keep going, to keep writing and submitting and trying my damnedest to get published. It has also helped immeasurably to hone my craft. A small-to-medium conference is a nourishing event for any writer. We learn that there are others out there just like us. We glean tips, small and large. And we have fun. Writing can get awfully intense. But it can be a helluva lot of fun, too.
Do you have an on-going writers’ group and, if so, how often do you meet and how is that helpful?
Bill and I hold workshops here in New Hampshire, and we also do some online workshops. Not only do I teach these, but I learn from our students and participants. I’m also a member of a group of published writers, except the distance is so far that I am unable to attend the group meetings much anymore. Fortunately, Bill and I critique each others work, and that’s a huge growing experience.
I see you also do photography. Commercial photography or art photography? And do you combine your writing and photography, say, in travel pieces?
Photography has always been a passion, and I’ve done it for years and years. I’ve done commercial, editorial, and art photography. My “tag” line as a photographer is Words and Images, because that’s what I do. They’re two different sides of the same coin. I’m lucky that I can write and photograph and have two careers at once. When I do travel pieces, I often combine writing and photographs. But that’s always at the request of the particular magazine’s editor. Some mags want their own photographers to photograph a particular story. More often, I get the double assignment, which is great. I also do commission work, such as “Your Life, Your Day,” where I’m hired to photograph a person for a day. It’s a slice-of-life type portrait that I really love.A few of my art pieces contain words or poems, which I believe, add complexity to an image. But, believe me, I am anything but “artsy,” a label that I find really pretentious. I guess you’d say I just take “snaps.” Yeah – I guess the words that I’d find most flattering are: She writes good words and takes good snaps. Each must speak for itself. Know what I mean?

If you weren’t a writer (and photographer), what would you like to be doing? I know you’ve done a lot in the past, but what “job” would you entertain?
I always wanted to be a musical comedy performer on Broadway. You may have noticed that I’m not! I have way too many interests, but the most satisfying “job” I’ve ever had was teaching high school students. I loved it. I love teaching of any kind. Of course, in another life, I’d love to be an architect. I’d still like to perform musical comedy. In another life, of course.

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