Welcome to author Donna Marie Nowak who we pulled away from her old movies and stash of notebooks to answer a few questions for us.
Describe your current writing spot or space.
I’ve always written anywhere and everywhere — sometimes in notebooks, on pieces of paper, on my computer. I’m still the same years later. I started writing as a little girl and by the time I was 12, I’d written over 100 short stories, 4 novels (in notebooks), and did countless cartoons. (I am also a cartoonist). I sometimes jot ideas on little pieces of paper or write good lines on a slip of paper. I’m not always at the computer.
What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
If I’m working on a book where I have a deadline, I’m very driven. I could sit for hours and write. If I’m doing a novel, it is usually a more leisurely experience. I become very consumed in the project at hand and then it’s as many hours editing and reading and proofing. I immerse myself in it.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
I wrote a 500-plus page book on Joan Crawford which took me four years of intensive research. If I’m writing a book, it will take at least a year.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
My favorite medium is short stories and since I started voraciously writing as a child, I have many half-finished short stories and drafts of novels — sometimes manuscript-sized drafts. I’d say with unfinished books, there may be as many as five, although some may be mere unfinished novellas. Sometimes I was pursuing an idea and it eventually turned into something else. I still believe in some of these unfinished drafts — a few of them are the same idea with variations — and some of them turned into other books that were completed, but I’m very driven to write, so there will always be drafts. I have no shortage of ideas, so I can’t keep up with them sometimes. And they don’t all work out.
Do you write under a pseudonym? If not, have you ever considered it?
I do plan to do some books under a pseudonym, but have not done so as of yet.
What comes first for you, the plot or characters?
What comes first is an idea. One time I had an idea that I wanted to write about the death of a clown, of a clown who was like a cartoon character and seemingly immortal, but touched by murder. I have my cozy amateur sleuth and the characters in her universe just grew. I always have an idea and I don’t know where I’m going with it sometimes, but it takes shape as it goes along. Sometimes I write scenes out of context and then weave them all together and often I’m amazed how magical the process is.
I have ideas for every book in my amateur sleuth series. I plan the titles and have vague ideas, so I have the entire series planned out. I don’t have all the plots solidified at all, but the germ of the idea is there and other ideas on where I’m going to go with each book. I also get ideas for scenes for these books that I’m going to create.
For instance, in a book for my “Miss Bell” series, I wanted to set the finale at Beach Blanket Babylon in San Francisco (a show that is now closed, but it involves the actors wearing huge headpieces like the New York skyline). I had a funny idea for that which I felt would work for the finale in that particular book. Once I have an ending, I know I will have a book.
How do you select the names of your characters?
I love finding unusual names for characters. I’m a huge fan and aficionado of classic films and British literature and I get many ideas for character names from old movies, British television and from graveyards. I jot down the names on tombstones sometimes if they are unusual. Or sometimes I hear an unusual name in real life and I use it for a character. I heard of someone named Sidonia Bitter, for instance, and I used it in a “Miss Bell” story.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
Well, you don’t want to get too corny. I try not to get too hung up on it or self-conscious. People are people. I get lost in being in the heads of all these various characters and I’m sure in my mind I’m talking in their voice, so I don’t find it all that difficult to portray a character of the opposite sex.
Can you hear your characters talking?
I write in my head sometimes at night and sometimes it is the dialogue of certain characters. I try to work out the scenes that way and come up with lines that work.
How much time do you spend on research before starting a book? While writing?
As I said above, I spent four years writing my Joan Crawford book and that involved creating a master list of every single film and the sources for every single film (over 80)(including stories, plays, novels, etc. that became Joan Crawford films) and reading every single biography/autobiography on her and every available biography/autobiography of people who had known her and mentioned her in their books. Plus tracking down bootleg copies of her silent films. I watched every single film and television appearance of her very large canon of work, plus read all the stories, books, etc. that were sources for the films. I was going to the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center (which is a phenomenal research library, second to none) every single day from the time it opened until it closed to find rare stories, microfilms, manuscripts, plays (that were made into Joan Crawford films), etc. Plus talking to people — scores of people.
For individual short stories, I research whatever the topic may be. For Sparky Goes to Doris Day’s Hotel, which is a “Miss Bell” short story (and also was a radio play), I got the floor plan for the Cypress Inn, Doris Day’s dog-friendly hotel in Carmel, and also talked with people and even consulted a local tour guide, so I would have the appropriate atmosphere and flavor. Plus learned what I needed to know about dog shows.
What kind of research do you do for a book?
Everything I mentioned above. I didn’t do anything online when I did my Joan book. I used the library and other sources. I bought many, many wonderful, original magazines and books from the 30’s, 20’s, 40’s, etc. as well for that book. I also did a television book where I did use the Internet, but also got interviews with people on both sides of the camera who were part of the shows or tele-movies I was talking about. I try to do whatever research is necessary for the project at hand.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I am an arts-oriented person. I also draw. I used to dance – tap, ballet, jazz, you name it. I took many, many dance classes in New York. I love the theater. I love watching television, but usually for classic films or retro TV. I am a voracious reader. I’ve read many out-of-print books, but as far as mysteries, I have many favorite writers, yet Agatha Christie still tops the list for me. I don’t think anyone came close to mastering the form the way she did. She was like a master magician and achieved slight-of-hand with some of her works. I love learning new things and I love traveling. I like circuses, houses of wax, funhouses, ghost tours. But reading is a wonderful adventure.
Do you ever Google yourself?
Yes. But I Google a lot of other people, too.
What is your favorite childhood book(s)?
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett and Murder Takes the Veil by Margaret Ann Hubbard. Two other top favorite novels are The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. I loved Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass as well.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
I don’t think I would tell my younger writing self anything. For every stage and year of life, there is something new. You just have to honor who you are at different points in your life, but there is usually a thru-line. Each stage of life has its own brilliance. So trust your process at whatever stage you are at.
How did you get the inspiration for your current amateur sleuth?
Miss Bell was inspired by a friend who always wore big picture hats and worked for cultural institutions like New York City Ballet. In order to deal with sometimes very snooty people, she required that people call her “Miss Bell.” (That always made me laugh.) Miss Bell, my character, then evolved into her own person.
I wanted her to be good at many things like classic adventure/mystery heroines with a somewhat over-the-top fashion sense like Joan Collins in DYNASTY or Hyacinth Bouquet on KEEPING UP APPEARANCES. She is a plus-sized woman over fifty and has an indomitable spirit and chutzpah. I was inspired by the classic private eyes and amateur sleuths of literature with some P.G. Wodehouse thrown in.
My main aim is to entertain and amuse. Miss Bell’s hometown of Sugar Loaf Falls was inspired by Cold Springs, New York. Every book and short story in the series begins with the letter “S”; her poodle’s name is Sparky; and she lives on Scarborough Lane in fictitious Sugar Loaf Falls, New York. My Maltipoo’s name, Scrappy, is hidden in each illustration in my books..
I am a freelance writer and cartoonist with over 100 publication credits, including books, national magazines and radio. I’ve written and drawn cartoons all my life. By the time I was twelve, I’d written over 100 short stories, four novels, created countless cartoons, charcoal drawings, and reviews, not to mention ballots and other things. Aside from fiction and nonfiction, I also am a theater reviewer for Broadwayworld.com and a former book reviewer for Kirkus.