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  • Bill Chastain

TOYS AND GAMES: Author Terry Shames

Author Terry Shames is a recently discovered treasure.

If you haven’t tried out her Samuel Craddock mysteries, I highly recommend. I’ve been hooked since reading the first book of the series, A Killing at Cotton Hill. They are set in the fictional town of Jarrett Creek, Texas, and feature ex-Chief of Police Samuel Craddock.

Terry Shames coverI recently had the chance to catch up with Shames to pick her brain through a Q&A about a number of subjects. Here’s what she had to say.

BC: What journey did you take to becoming an author? Your beginning? Big break?

TS: In the 80s I went to graduate school at UCSF in creative writing and wrote a mystery for my MA project. With that book I got an agent, but he was unsuccessful in selling it. Wrote another mystery, got another agent with the same result. Then did it again. Same result. In the late 90s I stopped trying to get published while my son was in school. Then when he was a senior in high school in 2005 I decided to go for it! I took a workshop that had a big effect on me. I realized that I had been writing from my desire to be published rather than from my desire to tell a story that was mine to tell.

I guess you’d say that was my big break—I broke with the past of writing what everyone else was writing and began to write something I was passionate about. I found an agent almost at once, but it took over a year for her to sell it in this competitive market.

BC: What do you enjoy most about being an author?

Terry Shames Photo Terry Shames

TS: I have been very lucky. My reviews are consistently glowing and I have an enthusiastic readership. I actually like giving talks and being on panels, promoting the books. It seems like after so many years of striving, I’m getting rewards. Who wouldn’t love that? But it’s still the writing that I love the most (except when I don’t!).

BC: Advice for budding authors given the current climate of the book business?

TS: I just wrote a blog post about that called “The Pigeon Theory.” It will be posted on my blog Wednesday, July 15 at In short, what I’m saying is that pigeons are everywhere—like certain kinds of crime fiction. The best thing you can do to get your work out there is to write a rare and exotic bird—a subject, setting, or character that hasn’t been overdone and that you feel passionate about.

After the book is written, my advice is to be professional. Look into self-publishing or any of the different ways of traditional publishing and make a decision about which one you really want to do. If you decide to self-publish, look at how professionals do it. They get the best editorial help they can, arrange for great covers and a product that looks and feels good. If they are e-publishing, they make sure the formatting and proofreading is top-notch.

If you decide to try for a traditional route—agent, then large or small press, again be professional. Send your work only when it is edited and formatted to perfection. Polish your query letter and then send it only to agents who represent what you are writing (no blanket submissions). If you are sending it to a publisher that doesn’t require an agent, make sure your book is as polished as you can make it. Pretend that they would be publishing it just the way you sent it to them (not going to happen, but pretend). Are you thinking, “Oh, well, it’s pretty good—they’ll make it shine.”? That’s wrong thinking. Don’t stop polishing until you think there isn’t anything anyone could do to improve it!

BC: How did you come up with Samuel Craddock? And, did you have a difficult time getting inside of a man’s head?

TS: I mentioned earlier that I attended an important workshop in which I heard the advice to write only what I could write. A few weeks later, I decided to really take that it to heart and think clearly about whose story I was equipped to tell that I had not read before. I realized that most of the crime fiction that mentioned older people at all did so in a disparaging way (a 60ish little old lady who hides in her room, smells musty and has tight little curls). My grandfather was a vital and busy man up until his death in his 80s. I decided to use him as a model and write about an older man. My grandfather at one time had been mayor of the town, but someone I thought an ex-mayor wouldn’t be a very interesting character. So I decided to make him an ex-chief of police. As soon as I started writing through his eyes, the stories came pouring out. Whenever I think of Samuel, I picture his place in the town and I know how he thinks and what he sees. I hope the magic never stops.

I never had the slightest problem writing from a man’s viewpoint. When I was a child, I enjoyed hanging out with the men in my extended family. They were always telling stories. I was especially fond of my grandfather and my father—both great storytellers. So it stands to reason that those voices were in my head. I do have a writer’s group with two men who occasionally tell me if I’ve made a misstep in a man’s thinking, but it’s rare.

BC: When do you write?

TS: If I’m writing first draft, my best time to write is first thing in the morning. I write for several hours then. When I’m editing, it doesn’t seem to matter when or where I work. I plunge in immediately.

BC: Why did you decide to write in the tense you chose?

TS: Believe it or not, it wasn’t a decision. That’s the way Samuel came to me. The first time I ever saw him, in my mind I walked out his front door and he was sitting with his back to me in a rocking chair. I saw the world through his eyes and I had a sense of being with him in the moment that demanded first person, present tense.

When I started the second Samuel Craddock novel, The Last Death of Jack Harbin (which I wrote before I had a contract), I tried to change it to past tense, because there were very few books being written in present tense, and I knew there was a widespread prejudice against it. But it was impossible to change. The words fell flat on the page. Interestingly, I have noticed many more present tense books coming out lately, so I think I caught a wave.

Many people have written saying that they usually don’t like present tense, but hardly noticed it in my books. I think it’s because I am so comfortable writing in that tense that it feels natural.

I’m working on a thriller now that’s written in third person past tense. Maybe it’s the book, not the author, that dictates the writing style.

BS: Can you give us a hint about the future of Samuel Craddock?

TS: Book 5, The Necessary Murder of Nonie Blake, will be out next January, and after that I’m going to write a prequel, showing Samuel when he was chief of police the first time. Of course that means I will be writing about his wife, Jeanne, as well, and about how she influenced his love of art. I have more ideas for stories with Samuel and I’ll continue to write them as long as there is demand from my readers—and my publisher! I’m actually thinking of writing a few short stories based on recurring characters in the books. That seems like it would be fun.

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