An Interview with Mystery Writer, Hiker and Author Joan H Young

Part of the Kenno's Blog series.
By Ken Brown
Editor, You Can Learn Series
June 5, 2012
I had the opportunity this weekend to ask some questions of author, Joan H Young. She has just published book 3 in the Anastasia Raven Mystery series, Paddy Plays in Dead Mule Swamp. I believe Joan can do anything, but one of the things she does well is mystery writing.

Joan is the first (and so far, only) woman to walk the 4,000 miles of trails of the North Country Trail. She spends time each week doing what she really loves, writing. The years spent hiking allow Joan the ability to describe the world around her helping you to feel what her characters see, hear, feel and smell. The setting for the mystery series is the Northern part of Michigan. A place of swamps, trails, lakes, small towns, interesting people and mysteries.

The Anastasia Raven Mysteries are fast paced cozy mysteries that can be enjoyed curling up by a fire with a cup of coffee and spending the afternoon reading. I recommend Joan's stories to mystery lovers everywhere. The books are well paced, with moments to relax and take a breath before things get exciting again. I would liken it to just sitting and listening to a friend tell you about an exciting adventure they had.

How long have you been writing?

Author Joan H Young

Author Joan H Young. You can find more about Joan at Shark Bytes and Tales.
My first attempt at an entire book was at the age of seven, when I wrote three installments in the story "The Adventures of Skippy the Field Mouse." I left fiction behind for a long, long time but in the past few years have again been writing short stories, and now the Anastasia Raven mysteries.

How closely do your characters match people you have known in real life?

So far, no character is a copy of any one particular person. Of course, there are little bits of many people I know in all of the fictional people. The physical description of one person in a story came from a chance meeting at a gas station, but the personality of that person was completely manufactured. Some of the things that characters do are drawn from real life. That makes their actions easy to describe. The recurring characters in the books are definitely mixtures of myself and people I know, although I may not have specific models in mind.

What kind of advance work do you do before you write a mystery? Do you have a story arc, an outline, or a structure for the story before beginning? Do you know who the killer is before you start the story?

Personally, I have to have the "real story" in my head before I start writing a mystery. Once I know what really happened, then I can work backwards to decide what pieces of the truth will be found first, and when. Then I write a loose chapter-by-chapter outline. The hardest part for me is to throw in some red herrings that seem believable, but mysteries that are too linear aren't as interesting. I'm trying to become better at this.

That said, sometimes characters throw authors surprises. I may get to a point in the story where I had planned a particular action or reaction, but when I'm right there the character says, "Nope, that's not what I would do in this situation." It happens to me often in short stories, and has happened once in an Anastasia Raven book.

Does Dead Mule Swamp remind you of a location close to home?

Interesting question! A piece of hiking trail I maintain goes through a real place called Dead Horse Marsh, which is where the name comes from. However, the swamp and its environs are loosely based on all the small towns I've lived in and near for my entire life. That includes locations in New York, Indiana, and Michigan.

What do you think about the ability to self-publish electronically with Smashwords?

I love the freedom and flexibility that electronic publishing brings to authors. Smashwords is one of the best venues. Owner-founder, Mark Coker, really works to create a platform that is helpful to writers. He's interested in more than his own bottom line. One almost has to also publish on Amazon for credibility, but Amazon is most interested in making money. Authors make almost twice as much per sale on Smashwords, and Smashwords offers many formats which do not require proprietary software.

Do you expect a paper publisher will pick up your Dead Mule Swamp series if you have some success as an eBook writer?

That would be awesome, but I don't know if it will happen. I'd need to have a lot more success with sales for a traditional publisher to even notice.

How much time do you spend researching places, historical events or people while you write your novels?

Since I've set the mysteries in a fictional county, I am free to invent my world as I see fit as long as I am true to history in general. The books aren't fantasy, so American History can't be totally overlooked! For example, in News from Dead Mule Swamp, the object which was the historical basis of the plot was real. I encountered it in a museum in North Dakota, and decided it was useable. I can't say more without giving things away. The other two books in the series which are out haven't required much research. I did make a call to local law enforcement to verify a couple of drug questions.

At this point, the need for research has been very minor. This is largely because I chose to set these books in a rural area, with an amateur sleuth, settings where I am quite comfortable.

Are there any techniques you can share with us to help us get over those "I don't want to write today" blues?

Writing is more than putting words on paper. A long time ago, I read a motivational essay which proposed that anything worth doing is worth spending five minutes a day on. Now, that sounds pretty lame. But, even if I am having a complete block with words, maybe I can think about how to transition from one place in the story to another, maybe I can think about place names, or character names, or Forest County "history." Maybe I can edit chapters I've already written in draft.

In the end, though, if you want to end up with a written product, you have to write words. I don't write every day. My schedule is fractured, rather than structured, so I write at different times, and for different lengths of time. I'm also enough of an artist that sometimes things just "work," and I write for hours, even days with hardly a break. However, I've made becoming an author enough of a priority that I choose to write even when I don't feel like it.

What book that you wrote has given you the most joy in writing and sharing with others?

That would definitely be my non-fiction work, North Country Cache. It's a collection of essays about 2300 miles of hiking on the North Country National Scenic Trail. Hikers and non-hikers alike say it is moving, funny, and enjoyable, not just a journal of daily hiking activities.

Do you have a writer's group that helps critique your work?

I belong to a local group that meets twice a month. I'm not much of a joiner, and was practically dragged there, kicking and screaming, initially. However, the members offer highly professional advice. Several are published authors in their own genres. I can't imagine writing without that kind of feedback and encouragement at this point. I'm also a member of the online Accentuate Writers Forum. Everything I said about the other group applies, but we basically meet all the time!

You have published books that people have paid to read. How does it feel to be a professional author?

North Country Cache was my first published book (2005), and the book gave me credibility. Lots of people say they are writing something, but I actually have a book in hand to sell and show to others. I've now sold well over a thousand copies of that book, which is something of a milestone for self-published books. However, due to an overly-optimistic print order, I have yet to finish paying for the printing.

Paddy Plays in Dead Mule Swamp

The cover photo for Paddy Plays in Dead Mule Swamp. Get the book at Amazon or Smashwords.
Once I finished hiking the trail, that added even more credibility. I also write an outdoor column for two news organs. And, with the addition of fiction, I'm spending so much time writing I really have to call myself a writer.

All of that feels good. However, I have to say it would all feel a lot better if I could sell enough books to actually make a living. That takes a lot of hard work at marketing. Meanwhile, it still seems to be something of a time-expensive hobby.

A description of the book, Paddy Plays in Dead Mule Swamp, from the author and publisher.

When Anastasia Raven agrees to keep Paddy, her cousin's Irish Setter, for the summer, she didn't understand the mischievous nature of a large puppy. Ana has become a volunteer with Family Friends, and she meets Corliss Leonard and his granddaughters, Star and Sunny, whose mother disappeared seven years ago. Ana, however, has no interest in trying to solve cold cases, but just wants to help the girls. Star and Sunny fall in love with Paddy, but can the dog solve their problems?

How do you know how many words to make your stories? I thought a few years ago I read that 100,000 to 120,000 words was normal for fiction. What do you think?

For a light novel 50-70K is standard. Over 100K is "epic," if you are trying to get an agent to look at a first work, you don't want to go over 80K. When I wrote News from Dead Mule Swamp I didn't know how to guess its length when writing. Now I have a better idea of the amount of complexity needed to get a standard length.

Who Does Your Covers?

I did News and Hollow Tree. Farah Evers did Paddy, and will do Bury the Hatchet in Dead Mule Swamp (the one I'm just working out the plot on). See link to her web site at

How Many Books Do You Write a Year?

The short story, The Hollow Tree at Dead Mule Swamp, which is free, came to me in a brain wave and I wrote it in 4 days (15K words). I spent 6 months on Paddy. News came out Dec 1, 2011. I'd like to try for 2 books a year.

Many thanks to Ken for his encouragement, and enthusiasm for my cozy mysteries.

Thank You Joan

Joan, thank you for taking the time to share your story with my readers. I have really enjoyed your first two stories in the Dead Mule Swamp mystery series. I just purchased Paddy Plays in Dead Mule Swamp and I am looking forward to more time in Dead Mule Swamp with your interesting characters.

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