Mystery author Sybil Johnson loves to read and write “cozies” – the lighter side of the mystery genre. Firstly, for their sheer escapism. And secondly because – unlike in real life – justice always prevails.
Hi there: I’m your host Jenny Wheeler, and today Sybil is talking about why she dropped out of computer programming to become a successful mystery author.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- How Sybil woke up one day and had a story in her mind she just had to write
- Why she chose cozy mysteries as her genre
- What her readers like best about her Aurora Anderson murder series
- How her love of decorative art influences her work
- Why she prefers online writing courses
- And the two key attributes for writing success
Where to find Sybil Johnson:
And now to Sybil:
Jenny: Hello there Sybil, and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Sybil: Thanks for having me.
Jenny: Sybil was there a “Once Upon A Time” moment when you realised you had to write fiction or your life would be incomplete? If so what was the catalyst?
Sybil: Well I never actually thought I would write fiction. I have always loved reading mysteries and other types of fiction as well, but one day, towards the end of a computer contract I had – and I didn’t had nothing else planned – I woke up and had this vision in my mind about a woman – who was maybe 28 or 29 – finding her painting teacher dead in her garden. And I thought “That would be an interesting story – maybe I should write it.”
Jenny: The thought just popped into your head.
Sybil: Yes it just popped into my head.
Jenny: A lot of people don’t act on those “popped into their head ideas” because they realise that actually writing a mystery, there’s a lot of work!
Sybil: Yes and that’s why I never thought I would write one because I thought it would be too hard to plot. But you know what, I ended up doing it. . . It took me ten years – that was my first book, Fatal Brushstroke – but I ended up doing it, eventually.
Jenny: Great! Now Aurora – Rory Anderson in the series – has a close resemblance to you in several aspects – she is a former computer programmer – and you said you did that for 20 years – and like you she is also a tole painting enthusiast. Could you tell us about the similarities and differences?
Sybil: Yes she is a computer programmer and that’s what I was for 20 years. She’s a lot younger than I am now, she is six feet tall – I always wanted to be six feet tall so I figured I make her that – and let’s say she’s a better painter than I am – I figure if you are going to have a painter as your heroine you may as well make her a good one. She is adopted and I am not, and I think she’s a lot braver than I am.
Jenny: So tell us a little about tole painting – it plays quite a large part in the story – her mother has an art shop – what is it’s attraction for you?
Sybil: Tole painting – known as decorative painting as it’s called now, has a folk art tradition from around the world, and it emerged in a modern form in the late 60’s and really its hey day was in the 90’s, although it is still going on now. I tend to use the two terms (tole and decorative) interchangeably.
Really it is just decorating objects using paint – typically acrylics though some people use oils – and you learn different strokes – classic strokes – and you have patterns. What’s really nice about it is you don’t have to come up with your own designs, there’s a great industry of people out there who create patterns and designs and you can use those. You can use techniques you’ve learned to create something really great.
Jenny: It sounds like a bit of a parallel to quilting – a kind of folk art with manual applications using different materials- would that be a way to think of it?
Sybil: Yes you could think of it that way . . .
Jenny: You mentioned that you took a long time to do the first book – did you have any idea it would be turning into a series? You’ve now done three books – Paint The Town Dead was Book Two and A Palette For Murder has just been published.
Sybil: Yes I always did think it would be a good as a series. I didn’t know what the other books were going to be when I started the first one, but yes I thought it could be a series.
Jenny: Have you been writing fulltime ever since you started, or have you been maintaining a little bit of computer work?
Sybil: Pretty much full time. At the beginning I did a bit of part time work, but mainly I was full time, but it still took me 10 or 15 years… it’s a lot of work learning writing, so I took breaks here and there.
Jenny: And who were your mentors? Did you read books, go to workshops?
Sybil: I took two online writing courses. First I started writing by myself, because I thought I knew how to write . . . ha ha ha – then I took a couple of on line courses to get feedback.
I really like online, because If someone makes a comment about your work, you can go off in a corner and cry somewhere and then you can come back and really take in what they are saying. You don’t have to be staring at them while they are saying these horrible things . . .! And I read a slew of writing books, mainly writing mysteries, and a little bit on short stories.
Jenny: You’ve just been on a panel speaking on the topic “How Cozies Changed my Life” – Cozy mysteries that is….. What attracted you to “cozies” – and did they “change your life?”
Sybil: I like “cozies.” They are generally series, and in towns or environments that you want to revisit and go back to, but primarily because you are solving a mystery and justice always prevails at the end, which is something that doesn’t always happen in real life all the time. It’s nice to have some escape that you go to . .
Jenny: Yes that would also explain the increase in interest in mysteries generally as well?
Sybil: One of the rules – justice – it has to happen at the end It doesn’t mean someone is convicted on the crime or even arrested but justice does prevail somehow.
Jenny: And changed your life?
Sybil: Mysteries – well they’ve always been part of my life since I discovered Agatha Christie in high school. I’m not sure what I can say . . . My life was certainly changed by becoming a writer of mysteries . . .
Jenny: How have you overcome that often mentioned problem for mystery writers of explaining how an “ordinary person” who is not a detective keeps bumping into dead bodies?
Sybil: It is always an issue with my editors. They have to have a reason to investigate the mystery. It isn’t a huge factor for me as a reader of mysteries, but for some people it is. They have to have a reason to investigate – either they’ve been accused of the crime – which is what happens in Book One – Fatal Brushstroke – but I think you can only use that device once – or something is affecting a friend or a business – there has to be some motivation to look into it.
Jenny: What do your readers tell you they like best about the Aurora Anderson series?
Sybil: A lot of people really like the setting – the beach cities. I live in a beach city, and I like to use things that happen in beach cities. I’ve based the books on the cities around me… Vista Beach is a made up city, but it’s really based on Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Redondo Beach in Southern California. In the third book, A Palette for Murder, there is a chalk art festival and that’s loosely based on the chalk art festival in Redondo Beach. And at Manhattan Beach we just had a pumpkin race. People put wheels on pumpkins and race them down the hill, and I’m working on a Halloween mystery now, so the pumpkin race features in that.
Jenny: Oh cool!!! I did wonder if Vista Beach was fictional or a real place. Moving on from specific books to more general talk, is there one thing you’ve done in your writing career more than any other that’s been the secret to your success.
Sybil: Persistence. I think that’s true of anything in life. If you really want it, if you get knocked down you just keep on learning. If things need to be changed, you need to change them. I think a lot of people don’t accomplish their goals because they don’t keep trying, and that’s one thing about writing, you have to be willing to learn. If someone gives you a critique, you first of all have to decide if you are going to accept that critique and then listen and change things.
Jenny: You are traditionally published, and probably self publishing wasn’t as big as it is now when you first started writing. Are you happy with where you are?
Sybil: I am happy with how I’ve done it, but self publishing has changed a lot and I’d be happy to consider change in the future. I have friends that do both, traditional and indie, and I would consider it now.
Jenny: If you were doing something very different from Aurora it probably could make sense. I was thinking about that because I see you are a fan of ancient languages and you are learning Ancient Egyptian and Coptic. Is this ever likely to result in a historical mystery?
Sybil: I am a fan of ancient languages, and I might do a historical mystery sometime, but it probably would not be ancient Egypt! I am fascinated by California during the Gold Rush and so I have an idea for a mystery that takes place in San Francisco in 1850 which is pretty much the height of the Gold Rush… As for Ancient Egyptian and Coptic, I just haven’t thought of any idea yet but I might in the future.
Jenny: How did you get attracted to ancient languages, because you’re never going to get to speak them are you?
Sybil: Well in some ways that’s the beauty of it! In ancient Egyptian they actually don’t really know what it sounded like, they can only guess from Coptic which is the most recent trace of it. It is really only spoken today as a liturgical language in the Coptic Christian churches. We learn a version which is slightly different from the liturgical one, called Sahidic.
Jenny: How did you get into that?
Sybil: I used to take extension courses at UCLA and they were offering an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs course and I thought that would be very interesting and ended up doing several courses. From that I have a group of friends and we get together on our own and work on things.. The professor that took those courses now lives in Louisiana and every Monday night we call her and translate texts together. It’s quite fun!
Jenny: We were talking about the beach cities: If you were going to organise a literary “magical” tour for your series where would you Tripadvise people to go?
Sybil: Certainly driving down the Californian coast from Malibu on south, each of the beach cities is a little bit different. Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, they are all next to one another, then go on down to the Palos Verdes Peninsula and then down into Orange County and Huntington Beach. If you stop at each one you will find they are quite different in terms of the people who live there and the things that happen… There are different annual events . . . .Because we don’t have snow they will bring in snow and have a snow event…
With decorative painting, the National Museum Of Decorative Painting is in Atlanta Georgia, so hop over there and see that.
Jenny: Have you seen that?
Sybil: No! I just heard about it, so it’s on my list of places to go!
Jenny: Is there a mystery in your own life which would provide the plot for a book?
Sybil: My mother who is 95 asked me to find what happened to here grandfather because he disappeared when she was young so I did look into that. We discovered what happened to him – (nothing too unusual but we found answers.)
Sybil As Reader
Jenny: The series is called “The Joys of Binge Reading” Have you ever in the past been a “binge reader” Tell us about past sins!!!! And do you have a current series or author – or more than one – you’d like to recommend to listeners. And why?
Sybil: Not a lot in the past, I do a lot of general reading, but recently I discovered Emily James does a Maple Syrup series and they were fun and fast reads… They are probably my most recent “binge read”. then there is the League of Literary Ladies by Kylie Logan and Laura Disilverio’s Mall series…
I notice when I do binge read they are cozy mysteries.
Jenny: And I guess in the past you’ve been an Agatha Christie reader.
Sybil: Oh yes, years ago I read them all and then more recently I decided to read them again in order because I thought that would be interesting.
Jenny: If you were starting your writing career all over again, what if anything would you change?
Sybil: No I don’t think there is anything I would change. I have made mistakes but we all do and they have brought me to where I am now, so no. the only thing I might like to change is to write faster. I am a fairly slow writer, so it would be nice to write more because I have so many stories I have to tell. But I have noticed I am getting faster. It’s a bit like programming, when you first start programming you need to write down stuff and think about it a little more, and then as you keep on doing it you get faster at it.
Jenny: Doing mysteries you probably have to do quite a lot of plotting in advance. How do you approach that, do you do a lot of outlining? –
Sybil: I work between a plotter and a pantser. I always know who did it, what the crime was, and a list of suspects. I know how the story starts and how it ends, and I have key points within the story itself that I know I need to get to… So I have plot points A B C D sort of thing and I know I have to get from A to B. So those things may change as I go along but at least I have some plan for where to get to. I always know who committed the crime but how she gets to learn about that might change or some of the events in between.
Jenny: What is next for Sybil the writer – new projects, things in the pipeline?
Sybil: I have a contract for three more books in the series I am working on Book Four which is due in a few months, it’s a Halloween themed story, All my books are set two months apart so then I will be doing a Christmas one and a Valentine’s Day one.
Jenny: How long does it take you to write a book?
Sybil: Well I have a year on the contract A year for each book…
Jenny: Do you work to a word count for each day?
Sybil: I have tried in all sorts of things. The minute I set a word count my brain freezes, so I do it by scenes. I set myself a certain number of scenes, or a scene, per day.
Jenny: You’ve written quite a few short stories as well – are you still doing short stories?
Sybil: I have lots of ideas . . on this block where I live we have had constant construction going on for seven years, so I have lots of ideas about how to kill off contractors . . (Laughs)
Jenny: And you’ve been president of the Sisters In Crime chapter in your area?
Sybil: That’s right I served on the board of Sisters in Crime LA for six years, one of those as president, and currently I am a liaison person with libraries for the organisation. That basically means Sisters in Crime gives libraries a thousand dollar grants. I am the one who tells them they have been chosen and organise the presentation.
Jenny: Where can readers find you on line?
From there you can find me on Facebook and Twitter and I blog regularly on the Type M for Murder blog. We are a fairly diverse group – living in different places, all at different places in our writing, different viewpoints.
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