I have two writing names: Peg Herring (my real identity) and Maggie Pill (more about that later). Peg was traditionally published for a decade, meaning I had an agent and a nationally known publisher. I started with historical fiction but branched out as my interests led to different mystery subgenres. Readers often comment on the variety I offer. I hope that’s a good thing.
The Stories behind My Books
In real life I was an educator, so I began writing historicals like Macbeth’s Niece and the Simon & Elizabeth Mysteries, featuring Elizabeth Tudor. Both were popular with readers, and I had a great time with them. However, I’m unwilling to keep writing a series once it feels to me like it’s done. Despite editors and fans who encourage it, I won’t stretch a story arc just to put another book out. It’s better for me and my readers if I move on to other standalone books or series, whatever my boiling little brain comes up with. As an example, I was midway through writing the Dead Detective Mysteries, when I had to spend several months in Richmond, Virginia. As I walked the historic district, a street-person who called herself Loser appeared before me as if she were real and whispered a story of redemption from trauma. I had to write that book, and luckily, my publishing house loved the idea and agreed to take on both series.
That’s how it goes with me. Inspiration strikes whether it’s convenient or not. Both the Loser Mysteries and The Dead Detective books were hits with readers. Still, when those stories seemed complete (three books for Loser and four for Seamus the dead detective), I couldn’t make myself fake my way through another one.
My other persona, Maggie Pill, came into being when I wanted to write a cozy mystery, a little funnier and lighter than a traditional mystery. Cozies are very popular, but my work as Peg Herring was well-received by both readers and critics. I wondered, What if I can’t write funny?
To protect Peg’s reputation, I used parts of my grandmother’s name (Margaret Pillsbury) and wrote a book called The Sleuth Sisters. The premise is that two sisters start a detective agency, but they don’t want to include the third sister, who is bossy and manipulative. (You can guess how that turns out.) I self-published it in e-book form, and within a few months a fan wrote to ask when it would be out in paperback. I had to learn how to create one of those, and after I did that, someone asked why they couldn’t get the book in audio. (Sigh.) I learned how to do that too, and I was extremely lucky to get the Cerny American Studio in Chicago to do the narration. The success of the first book led to a second installment of the sisters’ adventures, then a third, etc., etc. Since I have two sisters to suggest story lines (either directly or by accident), the series continues with no feeling that I’ll run out of good material.
Though I didn’t realize it, I’ve always been a storyteller. In junior high I wrote stories for my friends to read. As a teacher I wrote to entertain my students and give them examples of how entertaining writing can be. My publishing career took off when some students suggested I write a play for our drama club. We staged the show, and after hearing a lot of positive comments, I sent it to a few publishers. The play sold immediately, and while it took me six years after that to get a novel published, it was too late. I was bitten by the writing bug.
Dealing with Creative Block
When the ideas don’t come, I either go for a drive or a walk. We live in rural Lower Michigan, which means everywhere we want to go is a fairly long drive. That’s okay, because riding/driving in a car is a great creative stimulus for me. In addition, we own a good-sized chunk of property, so I can walk in woods and fields anytime I want to and let my mind go its own way. So far, one of those things has always solved any problem with writer’s block.
Biggest Mistakes Writers Make
There are many things a writer can do wrong, but one of the biggest is skipping input from people who aren’t your mom. Too many eager writers publish without advice from objective readers, both professional and beta. I pay for both content and copy editing, and I use professionals, not just friends who got really good grades in English class. I pass out advance copies to readers to see their reactions to the story as a whole. Yes, it’s my story, but I need to know it works for someone who lives outside my head.
Tips for Choosing Titles and Covers
I always paid for cover art until recently, when my favorite cover artist left the business. Since then I’ve mixed it up, with professionals for some books and some I do myself (mostly re-releases of my books when the original publishing contract ends). I’m not a natural in the art arena, but again, input from others is a good thing, and I’ve been paying attention for a long time. I make several drafts, show them around, and see which elements readers find enticing. Then I fine-tune, using what I learned from those early years with publishing houses (when I usually had no say on the cover art).
Titles often evolve naturally with writing the book. I look for words and phrases that work for the story but are also proven to attract mystery readers. Professional advice says if a book isn’t selling, you should change the cover/title. I don’t do those things lightly, but I’m not afraid to.
Bad Reviews and Negative Feedback
I don’t read reviews if I can possibly avoid it. My publishers used to email them to me, and while they were all positive, I still took even the slightest criticism like a cannonball to my chest. I like Deepak Chopra’s view: What other people think of you is none of your business.
During the writing process, I do listen to feedback. Even when I disagree with the editor/reader, their reaction tells me that something pulled them out of the story at that point. It’s worth considering eliminating, revising, or at the very least, rewording that segment.
Improving the Creation Process over Time
As I write, I become more aware of how I write, which is both a curse and a blessing. I’d like to go back and shorten some of my early work. Too many words. Too much explanation!
The nuts and bolts of writing get easier. I know my pitfalls and can sometimes avoid them. You get a feel for story arc, although I don’t think many of us escape the muddle in the middle entirely. That feeling that you’ll never be able to write yourself out of this mess is all too familiar, but after years of letting the creative process work, I know it will recede with time and patience.
The Best, Worst and Most Surprising Moments
Most aspiring writers think that once some agent or publisher notices their work, the way to stardom is clear. We can’t imagine what a small pebble we’ll be in the ocean of published books until we experience it. Here’s the truth: You aren’t the best writer in the world, or even in your genre. (And if you are, it’s likely no one will notice until after you’re dead.)
The best moment for me was learning I’d been offered a contract. The second best was the first time I walked into a bookstore and saw my book on the shelf. The third was when I walked into a mystery convention and a woman ran up to me and said, “Are you Peg Herring? I’ve been waiting for you to arrive so I could tell you how much I love your books.” Similarly, a few years later: “Are you really Maggie Pill?” (Um, define really.)
The most surprising thing for me was how small the advance was. No Ferrari for my husband’s next birthday.
While there’s nothing I hate about writing, here are some things I’ve realized over time.
*Where you live has an effect on sales and opportunities for networking. I simply cannot meet the number of readers that someone who lives in NYC or LA can, nor can I rub elbows with agents, publishers, and other writers in order to mutually benefit our careers.
*Who you know has an effect on recognition and awards. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, just that it’s true in writing, as in all things.
*Each new project begins to look like work. There’s still a thrill at starting Something New, but I also understand what it will take to turn my idea into a book someone might want to read.
Personal Satisfaction vs Reader Preferences
I definitely write for myself first, and that’s one of the great things about self-publishing. As noted above, I have series that might have continued for the sake of sales, but when I’m done, I’m done, and there’s no publisher to say, “No, Mr. Doyle, you may not kill Sherlock Holmes.”
That said, I do respond well to reader approval. The Sleuth Sisters Mysteries have continued longer than I expected. We’re at seven books, when I’d always thought five was about my limit. The books are comfortable for me, since the setting, characters, and backstory are familiar, so it hasn’t been a hardship. So far, a new adventure seems to pop into my head about the time the last one releases.
Emotions and Creativity
I love the scene in Romancing the Stone where Joan Wilder sobs as she writes the final pages of her latest book. Writers live inside a story for months, even years, and we experience the joys and sorrows of our characters almost as if they were our own. Our most vital job is to help readers feel the same way we do about those non-real people on the page.
I have to get the bones of the story down first: the crime, the investigation, and the wrap-up. Then I go back and get creative with description, character development, figurative language, and subplots. Those things come to me only after I know who did what to whom.
Plans for Future Books
Maggie Pill will start a new series this fall with a book called Once upon a Trailer Park. It’s set in an over-55 RV community in Florida, and I hope I don’t lose any friends because of it. The story is funny and suspenseful, and if Maggie is good, it will be out in plenty of time for Christmas.
Peg Herring has two books out in what will be a three-book series. KIDNAP.org and PharmaCon concern a young woman fed up with powerful people getting away with cheating and greed. She and her oddball “gang” take on one crook at a time, forcing them to go straight or suffer the consequences. I’ll start on Book Three sometime late this year and aim for a spring pub date.
Quirky Facts about Me
*I once set the stage on fire during a production of The Wizard of Oz. It was just a little one.
*I have a 25-year-old cat who is sitting on my desk as I write this. Sleeping, of course.
*Since I’ve never been in a real fight, I often act out physical conflict scenes in my office in order to figure out what has to happen. It’s probably pretty funny to watch.
*Due to a mix-up with library scheduling, I once had to deliver my Mystery Talk in the kiddie’s room, which had only those tiny little chairs and mats to sit on. (That was one time I was glad the audience was sparse.)
Peg’s website: http://pegherring.com
Maggie’s website: http://maggiepill.maggiepillmysteries.com
Peg’s Amazon page: https://www.amazon.com/Peg-Herring/e/B002JK5FKY