An Interview with C. Hope Clark
C. Hope Clark is a South Carolina writer. She writes and publishes a newsletter, Funds for Writers. She has a trilogy of Carolina Slade mysteries to her credit (set in rural South Carolina) and her newest book, set in Edisto Island South Carolina, features my favorite beach and a character that brings Massachusetts sass to her southern roots. The mysteries are fun and worth reading. Setting plays a large role but as a writer, Clark has done something many of us can only dream of. In ten years of hard work, she created a setting (platform, the marketers call it). The newsletter helps other writers find markets and funding for their work. This work has created a legion of fans, most of us eager to read her work. Why? Because we already see her as a friend, and so are willing to read her books.
Clark rewards us with books that are well constructed, fun mystery reads. By continuing her newsletter (in two versions, one paid, one unpaid), she also continues to be the “big sister” to many of us, giving us writing advice (from many sources) and providing us with listings of potential places to market our poems, stories, essays, novels, hopes and dreams. Even if you don't have ten years to invest before publishing your first book, her experience will be of interest. Clark is an excellent “craftsman” in the writing trade and her answers on how she uses setting and develops her books will be of interest to all of us who love to read (and write) mystery.
At the end of the interview, I have included a review of her latest novel, MURDER ON EDISTO.
Q: How did your newsletter, Funds for Writers help, once you started to write your own fiction?
A: My Funds for Writers history has served me more as an education and conduit in the profession than sales, I think. You have to match markets to sell books, and my readers for FFW aren't all mystery readers, so I cannot bank on them to make all my purchases.
FFW has opened doors for me to conferences, editors, and people in the business by giving me credibility. If they like FFW, then they assume I apply the same work ethic in my fiction. That's more powerful. So it’s not a direct platform, but admittedly it has helped show that I’m serious about my profession. And yes, some of my readers are curious to see how my teachings in FFW are presented in my fiction.
Q: How important and difficult is platform building, before, after and while a person is writing?
A: It’s easier said than done. I started with freelance writing in magazines and Funds for Writers. My platform has helped pave some ways for me, but it’s more than just finding followers. I had to write in a different direction to get off the ground – in magazines and online – but over time, my name became known.
For instance, posting an article on a dozen websites means you are more Google-able. Publishing in a magazine means you reach thousands. I tell attendees at conferences that more people will read your magazine article (and therefore your bio) in a weekend than read your book in a year. Use these types of venues to platform build. If you think of it as being “seen” and “known” then it’s clearer. But telling people you are an author as you’re writing the book won’t cut it. You have to SHOW instead of TELL, and if that means guest blogging, growing your blog, freelancing, speaking, and so on, then you do it. Become known as a writer first, an author second.
Q: When did you start your Funds for Writers Newsletter?
A: I started it part-time in 1999, working out of my bedroom when I came home from work.
Q: How many subscribers do you have now (free and how many paid).
A: 40,000 total with 1500 of those with the paid subscription. The paid group consists mainly of people seriously seeking grants, contests and markets. There's a certain number that rotates on and off both newsletters, but there’s also a hard core of followers who have been with me for ten years or more. A good group of people. (Note from interviewer – I am one of her hard core of followers)
Q: When did you start to charge for the “complete” edition?
A: Once I retired from the day job (administrative director for a small federal agency in SC), I offered a paid subscription just so I didn’t have to throw away so many markets, grants and contests. The free version just isn’t big enough to contain all I find, and I didn’t want all that research to be ignored. The paid edition’s birthday is 2003.
Q: Will you keep writing this newsletter ?
A: I will keep TOTAL and the free Funds for Writers for a long, long time. However, I let WritingKid and FFW Small Markets go on hiatus when I landed contracts for novels and a publisher began commanding more of my time.
Q: When did you start to write fiction?
A: Probably 1997 or so. I had been offered a bribe at the federal job once upon a time, and it was a real stressful situation. So like most people who have a stressful event, I thought about a memoir. It just never gelled, so I turned it into fiction. It took me two years to write it part-time after work. I couldn’t sell it, so I threw it on the shelf for four years and focused on Funds for Writers which was taking off at the time. It took having dinner with a published mystery author to pick up the book again. She convinced me that I’d regret it if I didn’t edit it and try again. But my novels are the only fiction I’ve ever written. I don’t write short stories.
Q: What made you choose the mystery genre?
A: I like being challenged. I want to be kept guessing. I want characters that are invested in an outcome. I want the author to drop clues and dare me to figure it out before he shows me. I’ll read suspense as well. Occasionally a thriller. I struggle reading so many of the other genres, but excellent writing can entice me sometimes to experiment outside of my comfort level with mystery. For instance, I’ve never read Harry Potter because YA isn’t of interest. We all have our niches.
Q: I’ve heard you speak about your job in Agriculture. Please elaborate a little on how that influenced your choices for the plot in the first mystery, LOWCOUNTRY BRIBE.
A. I was offered a bribe, called in the federal agents, and we never made the case. The guy got away because he never came across with the money though we had the bribe on tape, but the government didn’t want to prosecute without the deal consummated. However, I became friends with the federal agent, and we began dating. Just under two years later, we married. So many people told me what a cool story that was, but I didn’t want to write a romance, so I took my story, added bodies, twists and turns, some new characters, and I created a mystery.
My husband, to this day, serves as my technical advisor, keeping my terminology and firearms straight! But I also wanted to promote the fact that there are more than the alphabet boys in federal law enforcement (DEA, ATF, FBI, NSA, etc). There are also Offices of Inspector General’s with a law enforcement arm – the guys with badges and guns and arrest authority. They deserved attention too, I felt.
Q: What made you decide to get an agent for your work?
A: I went after a literary agent because I felt an agent would make me more credible. It took 72 queries to find one, and only then after I did research for agents who were raised in the South, went to school in the South, grew up rural, or represented clients who fell into those categories. Why? Because agents who only knew urban culture were not enjoying my country crime. I eventually found an agent who raised horses and lived in the country, and she helped me land the first contract for LOWCOUNTRY BRIBE. We parted ways after TIDEWATER MURDER, book two in the trilogy of Carolina Slade mysteries.
Q: Did you sell Carolina Slade as a series or did you plan on one and then when she was so successful did you make her into a series?
A: I went after publishers and agents, and I also entered the manuscript into contests that offered publishing prizes. I was a semi-finalist in the 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award when I landed my agent, and I’d already been turned down by a couple of houses, but I thought the agent would open more doors, so I didn’t seek many publishers in the outset.
But as with any series, you have to sell the first book as a stand-alone with the potential of a series. No publisher will contract with a debut novelist for a series. Though I’d been writing commercial nonfiction for years before this point, and I had established Funds for Writers, neither mattered when it came to convincing a publisher I was worthy. I had to prove I could write fiction and that it would sell. They wouldn’t contract book two until book one had proven itself. However, by the time they contracted TIDEWATER MURDER, book two, I was finishing up PALMETTO POISON. You have to keep writing, because one day they’ll ask why you didn’t. Always have something more to offer.
Q: Is this trilogy finished or are you taking a break with the switch to Edisto and new heroine, Callie Jean Cantrell, a southern girl who lived and worked in Boston as a police detective and returns to the south, specifically to Edisto Island for personal healing?
A: Actually, the Slade mysteries are not a trilogy, but a never-ending series in my mind. It’s not over. My publisher, Bell Bridge Books, asked me to take a break and diversify with the second series because they were certain that a different kind of mystery would widen and deepen my following. Slade will be published again, whether this publisher or another publishes it. Or maybe I will self-publish it. Who knows? But my publisher has been pretty supportive and loyal, so expect Slade to come back.
Q: I love how the countryside plays a big role in the mystery itself and am really looking forward to hearing more about Edisto which is, for me and my family, a very special, magical place. Can you speak a bit about that locale and the role it will play in the mystery?
A: Edisto is a magical place. It’s the only beach in SC that’s maintained its natural self. It’s highly protected so that it doesn’t become neon and commercial like other beaches tend to be. Very family oriented and secluded. Edisto has always been a place I escaped to in order to settle my soul or clear my head. I see it as a place to heal, and I wanted to depict it that way. So that means tearing my protagonist apart right at the beginning of the book, and sending her to Edisto to recover, but I don’t make it easy for her. The place is basically a character in itself, feeding the characters, the crime, the healing, and the family interactions. Most of the natives of Edisto move there to leave another life behind and start anew. It’s understood, and you don’t have to know what the guy you meet used to be or what problem he left behind. That is how it is at Edisto. When my publisher said I could set this new series anywhere I wanted in SC, I jumped on Edisto Beach.
Q: Do you photograph places you intend to use in the mysteries?
A: Sometimes, but I use Internet research as well. I visit the places, too, taking notes, and I make sure I connect with someone who lives there, to get an inside idea of the area. Of course I make excuses to go back quite often.
Q: How does Callie Jean Cantrell in MURDER ON EDISTO compare to Carolina Slade.
A: They are quite different, yet... My editor much preferred Callie Jean Morgan to Carolina Slade. Slade has a sharper edge and more humor. She’s a daredevil to a certain degree. Callie, however, is a former detective, so she has more polish. She’s calmer, focused, but she’s full of internal flaws. Callie’s a more private person who’s reluctant to let anyone enter her world. Slade is all over the place, plowing through her world. Just two entirely different characters. I didn’t want to write a template. They have in common that they care deeply and they believe in justice.
Slade is someone I’d love to be. She says what she thinks and takes chances. She took more chances than I would have, but I admit I think like her, hopefully with less randomness to the actions. She’s strong-willed and very caring of her family. I get all that. Callie is more methodical, again someone I’d like to be, but she’s more reserved. I might not be as patient as she is. She’s very accepting of people but always at arm’s-length. It makes her social life challenged. I get that, too.
Q: Do you plan to make Edisto a series?
A: Absolutely. I’m working on book two right now and have a synopsis for book three. After that, we’ll see what’s next – Slade or Callie or a third series. I do have a third series fermenting in the recesses of my brain. Who knows?
Q: How do you use social media to market your work and what do you think about the value of social media marketing versus the old fashioned book tour, which I know you also do?
A: I think social media is a God-send that writers underestimate and belly-ache about too darn much. It’s free, it’s far-reaching, and it’s as good as you let it be. Yes, there’s a learning curve to using it well, but hey, would authors prefer to go back to traveling to meet people? I think not. As for the book tour stuff, a lot of that occurs due to my Funds for Writers connection, so I capitalize on it and mesh my fiction in with it. If I’m visiting family, I try to set up a signing or speaking engagement. I accept workshop offers. My next all-day workshop will be in Wisconsin in April. I appear when asked, usually, with a preference to the Carolinas, but if compensated enough to justify the time away from writing, I will pack a bag and go. To me you need both – the online marketing and the face-to-face marketing. Those personal eye-to-eye connections last for a long time. As a result of tours, I’ve made fast fans and friends in Nebraska, Iowa, Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Arizona and so on. There’s a special feeling between author and fans when conversations are allowed to take place in person rather than electronically. But admittedly, the online connections can be strong if managed well, not to mention you get your biggest bang for your time online, reaching way more people for the time invested in marketing.
Q: What else would you like to tell the mystery readers about yourself, writing mysteries, and the books you write?
A: My books are very location driven, and I write about places I want people to remember in my home state of South Carolina. The state is about way more than Myrtle Beach and Charleston, and I love setting being considered a character in my tales. Yes, there are parts of me in the books, and parts of people I know. No writer writes without using some of his experience. I enjoy being asked if a scene is real or a person someone I know. It means that I’ve woven fact and fiction together well enough to blend them such that fact is unrecognizable. That’s awesome to me. But when you see Slade afraid of the ocean, and loving her bourbon – when you see Callie enjoying her Neil Diamond records and her gin and tonic – then consider yourself seeing a little bit of me. That’s one of the most fun parts of writing fiction.
Please click here to read a review of MURDER ON EDISTO.
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