Wednesday, February 9, 2022

The Lessons We Learn (from the questions we ask): Catriona interviews Liz Milliron

Catriona writes: I am trampling over all the lines in hobnailed boots here. For a start, it's not my day (it's not even my week) - so thanks to Dietrich for stepping aside. And then, I didn't let our returning guest - Liz Milliron - loose on the QotW. Instead, I floated an "interview" as the form of her guest post. But you know what? Even that was just me asking what I wanted to know about the Home Front Mysteries, which I love. Who could resist a woman making planes for Bell in 1940s Buffalo (by day) and solving crimes when the sun goes down? Not me.

But, I usually go on the basis that what I want to know when I'm in reader-mode (or fangirling to be more accurate) is probably what others want to know too. So . . . here goes:

C:Hey! Betty’s back! And that is cause for great rejoicing. Could you introduce the new book?

L: Sure thing and thanks for having me! The Lessons We Learn opens a few months after the end of book two. It’s March of 1943 and Betty is still working at Bell, but she’s got her side-hustle as a private investigator going. When the story starts, we learn that Lee’s father, John Tillotson, is missing. Lee is not particularly upset about this. Why? Well, his father isn’t a great guy, to tell the truth. It’s not all his fault. He had an accident the previous summer and to deal with the pain he started drinking heavily. And he’s not a nice drunk, either. Lee finds home life a lot more peaceful with his dad gone and he’d just as soon things stay that way. Of course, it’s not so simple. Not long after Lee’s birthday Mr. T turns up dead and we soon learn it’s murder. Lee soon catches the attention of the police, and not in a good way. It’s up to Betty to find out what’s really going on and keep her best friend from spending the rest of his life behind bars.

C: The setting of the series is a joy. Is the research getting easier as you get deeper into the series?

L: Yes and no. The good part is I have a lot of stuff I can reuse in terms of setting. I don’t need to do quite so much for slang or clothing. I do need to keep tabs on what was going on in WWII, but I’m not writing a book about the war, so I don’t need to spend hours researching history.

However, I try to use something interesting about Buffalo in every book. This time around it was Central Terminal, the Fruit Belt neighborhood, and the area by the grain elevators. Those aspects always require more research than I planned on doing (I tried kind of winging it in this book with near-disastrous results so no more of that).

I suppose I could make it easier by not wanting to use a lot of the facts I learn about history and Buffalo, but where’s the fun in that?

C: So with all that focussed research into fresh aspects, how far do the books stand alone? Is there a series arc?

L:The mysteries are pretty well contained in that each book deals with one crime (or related set of crimes) and the Bad Guy gets his or her comeuppance in the end. I hope I do a decent job with character backstory as well (at least my critique group says I do), so a reader could pick up any of the three books and not be lost. In that sense, the books aren’t connected at all.

But while there isn’t a series arc per se, there is definitely a character arc and I’ve been planning it from the beginning. I think that journey is pretty interesting and I know watching the characters grow and change is what keeps me coming back to my favorite series.

If a reader does start with this book, they can completely enjoy the story without reading the first two. However, I hope they are interested enough in Betty and her friends to go back so they can enjoy seeing that growth.

C: I'm glad you brought up the characters. Betty's back-up are a splendid bunch. But do your feelings about specific characters (I’m assuming you have feelings about them!) change from book to book?

L:Oh definitely. Lee has been the guy Betty could count on for the first two books, but he frustrated me quite a bit this time around (You know how it is – you put a character on the page and the next thing you know, he’s making his own decisions.). But I forgave him by the end.

What really surprised me in this book was Detective Sam MacKinnon. I didn’t intend for him to have as big a role as he did, but he kind of insisted. Very stubborn of him and a little infuriating. I’ve always seen him as a friend to Betty, but by the end of this book I realized he’s a true mentor and just as invested in her success as a detective as anyone in her family – and maybe even more so.

C: So, circling back to the plot of The Lessons We Learn, specifically. Can you talk a bit about the decision to kill off Mr T? (I am trying to care. I am failing: you wrote the impact of his behavious too well!)

L:This question makes me realize my decision to kill off Mr. Tillotson had less to do with him and more to do with Betty. I knew this book would complete her growth (see the answer about character arcs above) and I wanted a high-stakes investigation for her - proving the innocence of her childhood friend. Perhaps I knew this subconsciously when I set up Mr. T as an abusive drunk in the last book. But even though Mr. T doesn’t appear on the page (his one line of dialogue is hearsay), I learned a lot about him while I wrote. Enough that I kinda felt bad about killing him. Had I stayed out of his life, he might have been able to redeem himself.

It also makes me realize that no matter which series I’m writing, that first victim has to evoke some kind of emotion for my characters. Why would they care? Even when the victim is not a particularly nice person, there has to be some motivation beyond “I’m getting paid to do this.” It doesn’t mean the detective has to like the dead person. Maybe the victim exposes a greater wrong that has to be corrected. I think that’s generally my thought process in selecting Victim #1 and starting the story.

There are also people I don’t set out to kill, but…it happens. I’ve had a couple of occasions where I really liked a character, but he or she winds up getting killed. Because I’m not a plotter, I’m never quite sure when it will and hopefully my readers are caught off guard, too. There’s always a feeling of regret for these deaths. “Sorry, I don’t want to kill you, but I have to.” 

This is not to say I haven’t written characters I’ve enjoyed killing because I have. There are characters I’ve invested with some terrible personality flaw or they are just horrible people and I take satisfaction in dealing them their just desserts. As I heard Reavis Wortham say once, “Some people just need killing.”

C: Trust him! Wasn't that once a genuine defence in  . . . Texas (I'm semi-guessing)? "Needed killin"! It's things like that that mean I never ever wish I lived in the past. I'm happy just writing about it, and reading about it in books like THE LESSONS WE LEARN. Thank you for giving us a peek at the process, Liz.

BIO: Liz Milliron is the author of The Laurel Highlands Mysteries series, set in the scenic Laurel Highlands of Southwestern Pennsylvania, and The Homefront Mysteries, set in Buffalo, NY during the early years of World War II. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Pennwriters, and International Thriller Writers. A recent empty-nester, Liz lives outside Pittsburgh with her husband and a retired-racer greyhound.   


Liz Milliron said...

Thanks for hosting me, Catriona! Yes, it was in Texas. If I remember the story correctly, Reavis's grandfather was a sheriff. There was a guy who just disappeared and Reavis's grandfather said, "Some people just need killing." Or something close. Scary - and I'm with you on being glad I didn't live back then.

Catriona McPherson said...

Welcome back, Liz, and congratulations on Betty Book 3!

Josh Stallings said...

Thank you both for a brilliant interview. “You know how it is – you put a character on the page and the next thing you know, he’s making his own decisions.” - this both the a great moment as a writer and a truly infuriating one.

“that first victim has to evoke some kind of emotion for my characters. Why would they care?” This spot on, both as a writer and a reader I need to know why.