I first met B.J. “Barb” Daniels years ago, at Bouchercon, the international mystery convention, in Denver in 2000. Already a successful author of romance and romantic suspense, she was nothing but kind and encouraging to me, an unpublished but hopeful mystery writer. Part of that, I knew, was the special connection we Montanans share—and part was her generous spirit. We’ve stayed in touch over the years, and I was delighted when she came to Kalispell in the fall of 2011 to speak at the Flathead River Writers Conference. Now the author of more than 40 published short stories and 70 published books, she remains that generous, open-hearted writer who inspired me years ago.
Barb, thanks for joining us here at Montana Women Writers. Your latest book, Forsaken (HQN, October 2013), is part of your Beartooth, Montana series. Tell us about it.
Leslie, I’m honored to be here. Thank you for the kind words.
Forsaken is one of those books that I swear wrote itself. When I worked as a reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, I did a feature story about a sheep ranch that took their flock deep into the Beartooths for the summer. I met the old sheepherder and his young tender as they came out of the mountains after those long three months in a wilderness. The sheepherder hardly said a word, but his young tender was very talkative, telling me about what they had endured from the harsh weather to grizzlies attacking the sheep at night to the remote, rugged landscape where they’d camped without seeing another soul.
The story appealed to me because for decades that part really happened. Then, like all writers, I thought, what if the sheep rancher was a widowed woman just hanging on by a thread? And what if her young tender came racing out of the mountain terrified and covered with blood and now the old sheepherder, who is like a grandfather to her, is missing. Bring in a greenhorn new deputy sheriff who is determined to go into the backcountry with her because he believes they are going to find a crime scene.
What I love about this book isn’t just that my widow, Maddie Conner, is incredibly strong and capable. She is also in her mid-forties like the deputy. They have both experienced losses in their life. Neither is looking for a relationship.
We’ve been talking lately about what inspires us, and why we write stories set in Montana. To me, those are the same question. Your thoughts?
Montana has such a rich, wonderful history. Not to mention its rugged beauty. But it can also be unforgiving. It’s a place where weather matters. Montana is the perfect character for a book as well as a setting. People have struggled to live here and tame this land since the beginning. It’s not just a backdrop for a story, it is the story. Who wouldn’t be inspired by that?
When I need inspiration, I drive out in the country. We have a lot of that up here in north central Montana.
Like me, you like good food. You said recently “Whenever I put food in my books, it makes me hungry. One time a character made my oatmeal cake. I actually started to take a bite…but was shocked that I didn’t have a piece next to my computer.” What is it about writers, stories, and food?
I hate books where the characters never eat. Who forgets to eat? Not me. I love heroes who love heroines who love to eat. I want my hero to have a healthy woman who doesn’t pick at her food. Also I equate a healthy appetite with a healthy passion for other things, including life, of course, and sex.
When you spoke at the Flathead River Writers Conference, you talked about openings and gave examples of how the same opening could be written various ways. Do you start at the very beginning, as Julie Andrews sang, or do you work and rework those openings?
I’m a seat of the pants writer so I just start typing. The characters know so much more than I do. I just have to get them to tell their story.
I try to open the story at a point where something big has happened, something that will affect all the characters. I believe that “hooking” the reader is very important. I know I decide whether to buy a book by reading the first paragraph. If it doesn’t grab me through what is happening or the writing or the promise of something to happen, then I will put it back.
I try hard to write an opening that makes a reader unable to do that.
What’s the best part of being a professional writer?
Not the hours. Or the vacation and sick pay.
The best part isn’t even the freedom or getting to be my own boss. The best part is that I get to tell stories. It’s all I ever wanted. So it’s my dream come true. That along with the writer friends I’ve made along the way. Other writers are what keep us sane.
What’s the hardest part?
Actually sitting down and getting the story told. It’s hard, emotionally exhausting work. I can often imagine a book. You hear about writer’s block. To me, it’s when I’m afraid I can’t write the book I see in my head.
After all these years, and all those stories and novels, do you feel nervous when you start a book—or confident?
LOL. I love starting a new book. You know, blank page, anything goes. But I have to start with the right voice. To me, it’s a sound. Finding that “sound” is the hard part. But, sure, I’m confident. I haven’t painted myself into a corner yet.
Earlier this year, you won the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery and Suspense. You won for both your category with Justice at Cardwell Ranch and for all categories overall. What a thrill that must have been! Tell us more about that.
I was out to dinner with my editor and walking back to the hotel when a friend texted me to say Justice at Cardwell Ranch had won. I was pretty excited. Then she emailed back and said I had just taken everything. I was stunned.
I reached the hotel in time to pick up my award. It is a great award. I put it next to my Career Achievement Award for series romance suspense.
Was there a book that got you thinking, as a child, “I want to write?” What books have you passed on to your children and grandchildren?
I was a lazy reader clear into high school. I just liked a good story. I loved mysteries and read all the Trixie Beldon books. My junior year in high school, my English teacher dragged me down to the library and made me check out Exodus. I think that was when I fell in love with books and writing.
My daughter wasn’t much of a reader when she was young. I took her to a bookstore and said, “Pick out anything you want to read.” She started with witches who had taken over the school. My friends weren’t sure she should be reading stuff like that. It got her reading, though, and she quickly moved on to more advanced books. Today her home is full of first edition literature. Now she has a daughter who I know will be reading two of her favorites, A Wrinkle in Time and Charlotte’s Web.
What books are on your nightstand now?
The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison and Profiler (investigations into the criminal mind) I recently cleaned off my nightstand. I always have a stack of books around.
You are amazingly prolific. You’ve said you write ten pages every day. What secrets can you share?
I treat writing like a real job. I get up in the morning, read my emails, do what social media I do, and then I go to my office and write. I don’t do anything else until lunch time. Then I come home, have lunch with my husband, and if I haven’t written my 10 pages yet that day, I go back and don’t come home again until about 4 or 5 p.m.
The secret is not letting anything interfere with your writing time. I know, you’re laughing right now. It is next to impossible some days. I hear you. But I learned that if you don’t take your writing seriously, no one else will either.
Also I don’t wait for the “muse.” I’ve found that if I sit down at my computer determined to write, something will come. If that doesn’t work, I hit the road. Something about driving… I head for the country. On the way, I will have to pull over and drag out my old AlphaSmart (now called Neo) because my characters are talking to me. If I’m really stuck, I go out in the boat. I’ve come up with a lot of plots trolling for walleye.
You also quilt and regularly go to quilting retreats and workshops. Do you think it’s important for writers to have another creative outlet or resource, to “fill the well”?
Boy howdy. I have found that I need another creative outlet as well as time with non-writers. I didn’t realize how important that was until I moved to a small Montana town where I am the only local writer. (That, after living in Bozeman where you can’t throw a rock without hitting a writer.)
I miss other writers, but quilters have filled that need for people who are creative and doing fun projects. I love my quilter friends. They take creativity to places I can’t even imagine. Plus I love putting the different colors of fabric together. It reminds of me writing.
What’s your next book—on the shelves, and on your desk?
I have another Cardwell Ranch book coming out at the end of the month. I started the series with Crime Scene at Cardwell Ranch. (That story definitely proves how huge a part luck plays in this profession. Crime Scene was picked to go to a review group. It did so well, my publisher ended up giving away two million copies of the book to promote the line.)
Which, of course, begged for a sequel. That sequel, Justice at Cardwell Ranch, has grown into five more Cardwell books. (Always be ready to take any book you write and make it into a series. Don’t kill off all your hero and heroine’s families.)
The new book, Christmas at Cardwell Ranch, brings back one of five brothers, who are cousins of an original character. Four more brothers will be returning over the next year.
Meanwhile I have another HQN for the Beartooth, Montana series, Atonement, coming out in March and another next fall, Mercy, the one I’m working on now. I just agreed to a contract for another six books in that series, featuring the Hamilton Sisters.
Right now, I have three series going. It keeps me out of trouble. Kinda.
Leslie, thank you so much for having me. This has been fun!
Thanks, Barb! Visit her online at http://www.BJDaniels.com