Author Beth Groundwater on grammar, mysteries and whitewater rafting
Reading is about more than following a narrative or absorbing information; it can also be a profound shared experience that culminates in a better understanding of ourselves and each other. In that spirit, welcome to the Westword Book Club, which celebrates the books that inspire Denver artists.
A Breckenridge resident and self-described "river rat," Beth Groundwater writes mystery stories. After retiring from a software-engineering position in 1999, Groundwater decided to pursue her lifelong interest in writing and mysteries, and had some short stories published in anthologies before she moved on to writing the ongoing RM Outdoor Adventures mystery series for Midnight Ink Publications. In advance of Groundwater's upcoming appearance at the Broadway Book Mall, Westword Book Club chatted with the author about mysteries, her struggles with grammar as a young writer, and her own book club.
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Westword: What are you currently reading?
Beth Groundwater: I'm just starting An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon, the latest book in her very successful Outlander series. The next book will be coming out in March, 2014, so I'm catching up on the series before then. I follow quite a few series and am a varying number of books behind on all of them. I don't have a problem with that, because I always have something great waiting to be read next on my Goodreads.com TBR list! My two most recent reads before this were Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger, and Barrel Fever, by David Sedaris.
In your bio, you mention that a middle-school English teacher discouraged you from writing by missing the creative forest for the grammar and usage trees. Do you think that insistence on prescriptive grammar education model has discouraged other creative children? Is grammar less troublesome these days?
I do think that teaching correct grammar and punctuation is important, because writers of all types need to be proficient in both for their prose to be accepted -- by bosses, customers, editors, readers, or whoever the audience for a particular piece of writing is. However, content should always be of primary importance. And, in grading school writings, creativity in that content should never be stifled in favor of promoting correct grammar and punctuation. Yes, I think some well-meaning English teachers who have focused on the format of writing over the content have unknowingly discouraged other creative children. I just hope that those discouraged children have been able to overcome that at some point (as I did after a few years) and regain their joy in creating unique content. Grammar is less troublesome for me personally these days, because I've learned the rules. My editors have complimented me, in fact, on how clean my manuscripts are, in terms of grammatical errors.
Westword: Fatal Descent, your most recent book, combines elements of the Agatha Christie-type drawing-room mystery with the setting of a nature survivalist tale. What made you decide to set a murder mystery against the backdrop of the canyon lands?
I was fascinated with the concept of writing a typical English manor-style mystery, where the sleuth, victim, unknown killer and other suspects are all locked up in a remote place together and the sleuth has to solve the murder by him or herself. I wanted to update that concept by applying it to my modern-day outdoor-oriented RM Outdoor Adventures series. I went to my go-to river ranger expert for the series, Stew Pappenfort, the head ranger for the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area. I explained to him that I wanted to isolate my river ranger/rafting guide sleuth Mandy Tanner on a remote whitewater river with a murder victim and group of people who could have done the deed, so that she had to figure out who the killer was on her own without police help. I asked him where such a place existed in the Rocky Mountains, and his immediate response was Cataract Canyon, on the Colorado River in the Utah canyonlands. It's very remote, and the rapids are hairy. I took that 100-mile river trip from Moab, Utah, to Lake Powell myself with an outfitter in the fall of 2011 and agreed that, yes, the setting was perfect for what I wanted to do.
Which books that you read during childhood still inspire you?
I was fascinated then (and still am) with puzzles and with how the human mind works, especially when twisted by mental illness. Books that I read in my youth and that still inspire me include the Nancy Drew series, Agatha Christie mysteries, Gothic romantic mysteries by Victoria Holt and the Bronte sisters, and everything ever written by Edgar Allan Poe.
What are your most frequently recommended books? Which books do you find yourself hyping to your book club, or to children, friends and other writers?
Since I write in the subgenre of outdoor-oriented mysteries, I also read widely in that subgenre. Also, I read many mysteries set in the West or written by Colorado authors. Mystery authors I enjoy and recommend include William Kent Krueger, Dana Stabenow, Craig Johnson, Margaret Coel, Kathy Brandt, CJ Box and Christine Goff. I also enjoy Sharon McCrumb's Appalachian series.
How long have you been meeting with a book club? What was the last book that you read with your club?
I was in a book club in Colorado Springs for many years (maybe eight or nine?) before my husband and I moved to Breckenridge. One of the first things I looked for in my new home was another book club to join. I like being in a book club that does not focus on mysteries, because it pulls me out of my genre and I get to read many good books that I otherwise would never have found. The last book I read with my current club was Proof of Heaven, by Eban Alexander, a nonfiction book about a near-death experience this neurosurgeon had while in a coma after succumbing to a life-threatening infection. It made for a very stimulating and interesting discussion of all of our beliefs about the afterlife and what happens when you die.
You moved through a few different careers before publishing your first stories. Do you ever have regrets about not starting sooner, or is there a kind of freedom in writing from a place of stability? Do you feel freer to write what you like with less concern about how it sells?
Yes, I feel freer to write what I like because I didn't start writing fiction in earnest as an adult until after I comfortably retired from my career as a software engineer. Since I don't need to write to eat, I can write to please myself. For instance, I have many mystery author friends who write work-for-hire series for Berkley Prime Crime, where the publisher owns the rights to the characters and the series concept, and the author uses a pen name versus their real name, because Berkley can choose to assign the series to another writer whenever they want. These authors make more money than I do, usually, from these series, but they don't have full creative control and they can't put their real name on their work. Those are two things I really value. My two mystery series (Claire Hanover gift-basket designer and RM Outdoor Adventures) and their protagonists were designed by me alone and belong to me, and I can put my own name on everything I write.
Were there any writing manuals or style guides that proved instructive when you were getting started as a writer?
I wrote a lot of nonfiction technical documents while I was a software engineer, being a rare commodity: a software engineer who could write. So when I turned to fiction, what I really needed to learn was how to tell stories versus how to construct a sentence or paragraph. So I read Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey, James N. Frey's How to Write a Damn Good Mystery, Dwight Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer, Debra Dixon's Goal, Motivation and Conflict and Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel. I read many other how-to books and attended many workshops, but these are the books I most recommend to other fiction writers.
Has Colorado's community of writers been a helpful resource for you? They seem very supportive of one another.
Oh, yes, immensely so. Through Pikes Peak Writers (PPW) and Rocky Mountain Fictions Writers (RMFW), I found critique groups to join, made contacts with agents and editors and learned so, so much about the craft and business of writing fiction. I know I would not be published now without the help I received from both of these organizations. I always suggest to beginning writers that they join at least three groups: a critique group, a local writing organization such as PPW or RMFW that offers workshops and learning opportunities, and the professional organization for their genre which, in my case, is the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.
Beth Groundwater is participating in Broadway Book Mall's Mystery Weekend, which runs July 13-14. Groundwater will be signing copies of <.em>Fatal Descent at 3 p.m. Sunday, July 14; sleuth-smiths Bonnie Biafore, Liesa Malik and Mike Befeler are also booked to appear. For Groundwater's entire bibliography and more information about upcoming appearances, visit Beth Groundwater's official website.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.