Interview with Margaret Chittenden

by Claire E. White

Originally from England, Margaret "Meg" Chittenden now plies her trade in Washington State, within splashing distance of the Pacific Ocean. With the help of her husband Jim, who does quadruple duty as chauffeur, navigator, research assistant and videographer, Shandy, a feisty cocker spaniel with a great singing voice, and Annie, a relentlessly mean calico cat who moonlights (literally) as a mighty hunter, Meg has created stories and novels that have pleased fans the world over. A popular and prolific author, she has written
Photograph of Meg Chittenden
numerous short stories, articles, three children's books, a how-to for writers and 27 novels in many genres, including romance, mystery, suspense and mainstream. For the last 28 years she has been writing 5 days a week. Her novels have appeared on Waldenbooks and B. Dalton's bestseller lists, and have been widely reprinted abroad. A sought-after speaker and teacher, she has spoken at writers and readers gatherings worldwide, from California to Japan. She is a member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference Literary Council and a recipient of their Achievement Award. She is on the faculty of the Hollywood Network, profiled in Contemporary Authors and Something About The Author, and a member of Mystery Writers of America, American Crime Writers League, Sisters in Crime, Romance Writers of America and the International Association of Crime Writers. Meg is also a devoted subscriber to DorothyL, the online mystery digest.

When she's not writing, or talking about writing to readers or aspiring writers, Meg enjoys working out at the gym, beachcombing, canoeing, hiking the rainforest, reading, and traveling the world in search of stories. Her latest novel, published in November is a Kensington hardcover entitled Dead Men Don't Dance and is the second in her new mystery series starring feisty amateur sleuth Charlie Plato. Meg shared her thoughts with us about romance writing, mystery writing and the most common mistakes beginning writers make.

How did you get your start writing romance novels?

I started writing in 1970 and in the next few years published some articles, quite a few short stories in Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, Boys' Life and so on, plus four romantic suspense novels and one occult suspense novel. Then in 1979, George Glay, a senior editor at Harlequin, visited Seattle, called and invited me to lunch. I met him at the Four Seasons and he invited me to write for a new line he was just starting called Superromance, which was intended to be "longer and hotter" than previous romance novels. He dangled print runs in huge numbers in front of my dazzled eyes and I agreed immediately.

How did Rosalind Carson come into being? Is she still around?

My middle name is Rosalind. (My mother read As You Like It, while she was expecting me. Thank God I wasn't a boy!) My husband's middle name is Carson. So I put the two together. It worked well as when people called him Mr. Carson, he didn't mind. The reason for the pseudonym by the way was that I expected to continue doing other books and wanted to keep my real name separate. As it happened I enjoyed myself so enormously I only wrote two "other" books in the next few years. In 1989, I discarded the pseudonym and have written everything under my own name since then.

What do you enjoy most about writing romances?

I'm not writing romance novels at the moment, but what I enjoyed was the chance to explore relationships. Also, at that time exotic settings were acceptable, (readers seem to prefer American settings now.) and I could travel to exciting places to do my research. In search of stories, I visited London, Paris, old Quebec City, Bermuda, Tokyo, Cornwall. I also wrote some American settings, but I really enjoy traveling.

Has your husband read your romance novels?

My husband is not a big reader. He reads newspapers, and a few magazines. He doesn't read my books whatever they are. Nor does he read anybody else's books. This is not a problem between us.. Jim does the driving on research trips, (I have faulty depth perception, so can't drive.) He takes photos of settings and makes videos when that seems necessary, and generally helps me a great deal.

Several of your novels have featured the supernatural in some way. Are those elements difficult to integrate into a romance?

Not really. I've not written romances that focused only on the love story. I've always had some kind of story--mystery, intrigue, family relationship--against which the love story was set. A paranormal story is very easy to plot as there are so many ways you can go with it.

Have you ever considered writing a fantasy novel?

You mean like Tolkien? No, not really. I wrote two reincarnation novels, a mystery titled Forever Love, and a romance titled This Time Forever, because I was interested in reincarnation theory and wanted to explore it. I found it fascinating. I even had myself hypnotically regressed to my former lives. The person who took me through these experiences taped everything I reported and I used most of the material in those two books. I also wrote a couple of ghost stories that proved very popular. They were very romantic and pleasant ghost stories, by the way. I don't do villainous ghosts. I've written only two novels that I would call dark. I would have written more paranormal books but editors keep telling me readers don't want them any more.

What made you turn your hand to mystery writing?

Just about all of my romance novels included some kind of mystery. I've always loved, and read, mystery novels. When Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky burst on the publishing scene, I loved their books on sight. I knew immediately that I wanted to write a mystery series.

What was the inspiration for Charlie Plato and CHAPS?

In 1989 there was an earthquake in San Francisco Bay area. My daughter Sharon was living on the San Francisco Peninsula. She was doing her weekly wash in the laundry room of the apartment complex she lived in at the time. The force of the quake knocked her to her knees, so she thought she should probably pray. What she prayed was--Please God don't let me die doing laundry! Immediately after that she went to her apartment to check on
"...many beginners look down on genre writing and are convinced their writing can't be classified in any way. Usually, in such circumstances, it can be classified, not always in a complimentary fashion."
her pet rabbit, who had been hopping around loose. She found him in her clothes closet under all the clothes that had fallen from their hangers. He was totally stiff and stretched out and obviously dead. She carried him to the couch and sat with him on her lap and cried. And after a while he twitched and came back to life. When Sharon told me these stories I immediately knew that was how my series was going to start. The plot developed from there. I should perhaps mention that I have no imagination -- I write from life. My life, your life, my kids' lives, anything I hear about or see or experience. It took me about six months to develop the series. I put together a synopsis of the first book, Dying to Sing, and two sentence descriptions of five further adventures, along with titles. I added studies of the continuing characters and sent it off to my agent who shopped it around without success until it went to Kensington where Jennifer Sawyer, a wonderful editor, liked it. Jennifer suggested I focus the whole series around the Country Western Tavern, CHAPS, which was in the stories, but not the focus of them. I immediately saw how that could work, rewrote the package and sent it back and Jennifer bought it. Then of course, she left Kensington very soon after. All my editors get promoted, or pregnant, or leave or get fired. Story of my writing career. My current editor, who is also wonderful, is male, so at least I'm protected from one eventuality this time.

How has Charlie evolved since the first book?

Cover of Dead Men Don't Dance
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She's learning some patience, I think. She's getting over her failed marriage. She's not as much of a loner. She's still hung up on Zack and still determined that she won't get involved with him. I'm very interested in readers' responses to that situation. They often compare it to the TV show Moonlighting and tell me not to let them get together or the series will go kaput. Several men have said Charlie should nail Zack and get it over with. A lot of women agree with me, and Charlie, that getting involved with Zack would destroy Charlie's self-esteem. But some women think she should go ahead. I don't ever want that part of the story to overwhelm the mystery story. I'm not writing romantic suspense here. And what is between Zack and Charlie is not romantic. A friend and I decided it was more hormones than anything else. A hormonic mystery.

Do you really line dance?

You're putting me on the spot here! Yes, I do, after a fashion. Jim and I took some lessons--as I said, he's very helpful--and we weren't doing badly at all, but then we learned that the way we were being taught wasn't quite the way people in various country western dancehalls were doing them. It was a sort of Line-dancing Lite! We bought some videos, but the instructors on them were facing out and it's very difficult to reverse the steps. I can line dance well if there's an instructor who walks the dancers through the steps several times before adding music. (Just as Charlie and Angel do in the series.) The problem is that the same steps are used in several dances so it's easy to get confused. I've done better at Billy Bob's in Fort Worth and The Saddle Rack in San Jose--the latter is the inspiration for CHAPS. I've also visited all the country western sites on the worldwide web--there's one in Japan!--and have acquired step charts for the most popular dances.

What do you enjoy most about teaching novice writers?

Seeing lightbulbs flash over their heads as my words make sense to them. When you teach aspiring writers you have people who really really want to learn. Hearing from them that I've actually helped them to improve their plotting and characterization and so on is exciting to me. It's very rewarding when someone who listened to me give a lecture in 1988 comes up to me in 1997 and tells me s/he's been publishing steadily and is quite sure some of the credit should go to me.

What is the most common mistake you see beginning writers make?

Worrying about getting an agent and getting an editor's attention and making lots of money before they can really write. Also, many beginners look down on genre writing and are convinced their writing can't be classified in any way. Usually, in such circumstances, it can be classified, not always in a complimentary fashion.

How did you come to write How to Write YOUR Novel?

I had been writing for 25 years. During that time I had given many many workshops and panels and keynote speeches. I always write my stuff down, as I have a fear of going blank in front of an audience. So I saved all of this stuff. I had also written several articles for The Writer magazine, since I think about the mid-70s when Sylvia Burack, the editor and publisher, read a short story of mine in Ladies' Home Journal and called me to ask me to write an article for the magazine. So then Sylvia called me in 1994 and asked me to write a book that would deal with the nuts and bolts of writing. It was probably the most difficult book I've ever written, but it was also a labor of love.

I've been very lucky in that editors have often offered me opportunities. Though in the beginning I received a lot of rejections, I've sold steadily ever since I sold the first article I ever wrote.

In your book, How to Write YOUR Novel, in the last chapter you talk about self promotion for authors. How important is self-promotion for authors today?

Cover of How To Write YOUR Novel
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Too important, unfortunately. I say unfortunately, even though I enjoy tootling around doing signings and talks about writing, publishers do promotion for a few authors, but the rest of us have to arrange our own. It is possible to do that, though some bookstores, usually independent general bookstores, don't want anything to do with "Lesser-known authors." I quote that phrase because someone in a bookstore said it to me recently while explaining her store couldn't do a signing for me without co-operative money from my publisher, and without the arrangements being made by my publisher's publicist. On the other hand, independent mystery bookstores have been wonderful to me and always extend a welcome. And to be fair, Barnes and Noble and Borders have been very kind to me too. And Waldenbooks and B.Dalton have put me on their bestseller lists from time to time.

How has the publishing industry changed from the time you wrote your first book?

Tremendous changes have taken place. My first two books were for children. Both publishers are out of business. Publishing houses were separate entities when I started, some of them run by families into three generations. Gradually they are all being absorbed into a few huge conglomerates. In some, money has become more important than quality. In many instances, (though not yet all) the thinking is that if a certain kind of book isn't making a fortune for the company then it can't be any good and should be discontinued. I don't believe books are doomed, but I do think there are some disturbing things going on.

What is the most disturbing trend you see in the mystery genre?

The same as in other genres. The blockbuster syndrome. The New York Times Bestsellers get most of the advertising money and the
"I do most of my research on the Internet. If I can't find what I need, I e-mail experts I've found through the Internet or on mystery digests or bulletin boards."
prominent places in bookstores. Some of the general chains like Target are now putting their emphasis on the bestsellers. I've stopped buying bestsellers because the authors don't need me. Also, it seems to me that a writer starts out wanting to write really good books. If s/he succeeds in getting on the bestseller lists, then s/he starts writing bestsellers, which aren't necessarily the same as good books! I go looking for new writers instead. The mystery bookstores do their best to promote new writers. But it would help a lot if the publishers would do more for the mid-list writers. Or at least do something.

Let's talk about the Internet now. How useful do you find it?

Extremely... I live in the back of beyond and I don't drive. The Internet has saved my sanity! I do most of my research on the Internet. If I can't find what I need, I e-mail experts I've found through the Internet or on mystery digests or bulletin boards. I've also made a huge number of friends across the country and in other countries through the Internet. I love the feeling of community. And I've learned a lot about mystery writing through various websites on the Internet.

How useful is it having your own website?

Very. This is one way I can get out some promotion to people who are interested in "listening." And it doesn't cost me a fortune. I've tried to provide entertaining pages on my website with the help of my web designer, Teresa Loftin. (I do the text, she does everything else!) I didn't want a site that was only there to sell books. I do describe my books on it, and put the first chapters up for those who want a sample, but we also remodel fairly often, I have a writing tip of the month that brings a lot of visitors, and a guest page for people to sign on. Teresa and I keep most of it light and humorous. I think websites that take themselves too seriously don't help the author a whole lot. I also have a bulletin board on the Hollywood Network where I answer questions on fiction writing.

How did you come to reside in the U.S.?

I married an American and it seemed a good idea to live in the same country! Jim was in the air force. (No, I wasn't a war bride. I'm not *that*old! This was years after World War II!) We met at a birthday party in London when Jim asked me to dance because I was suntanned. I had just returned from a vacation on the Cornish Riviera. He wanted to know where I'd found the sun. It was July and he was freezing. Three years after we were married, I became an American citizen.

Tell us about hiking the rainforest.

The Quinault rainforest is about an hour's drive from my house. Huge old trees, fairly steep trails, wildlife, birds. Very peaceful and Awe-inspiring. There's a short looping trail, and a longer more taxing trail. I love to walk these trails whenever I have a chance. Rain or shine. Nearby is a great old lodge on Quinault Lake that features good food and some old cabins. They also have some spiffy new quarters for guests, but we always request one of the older cabins when we spend the night. Last New Year's Eve we hiked the forest with friends in the afternoon, ate dinner at the lodge, danced until 2 a.m. to some really wild rock music (my favorite kind) spent the rest of the night in cabins, had breakfast at the lodge and hiked the forest again. A wonderful way to greet the year. We may do it again this year.

Rumor has it that you're a world class shopper. You've been given $10,000 and dumped in the middle of Seattle. You have one hour to spend the money. What do you buy?

Gifts for everyone I love--a large number of people. Question: What would I do with the extra fifty minutes?

What's on your fantasy personal wish list for Christmas?

A digital camera! What a great invention! I'm not sure Santa Claus can afford it, but if not, I'll get it myself eventually!

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