Claire Booth, author of the Hank Worth Mystery series, is a former true crime writer and reporter who decided to use her experience in the field to write mystery fiction—something she's always loved. Recently, Ms. Booth was gracious enough to answer some of our questions about her affinity for crime fiction, how her previous careers influence her current stories, and her latest book, Another Man's Ground!
Read this exclusive Q&A with author Claire Booth, and then make sure to sign in and comment for a chance to win a copy of the second Sheriff Hank Worth Mystery, Another Man's Ground!
What is it that draws you to crime fiction?
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love it. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and from Nancy Drew in elementary school to Agatha Christie as a teenager, I’ve always read crime fiction. Then, when I became a news reporter, I naturally gravitated toward covering crime. It was absolutely the perfect fit. I got to see and learn about the real thing.
What was the transition from crime journalist to crime fiction writer like? What, if any, challenges presented themselves during that process?
On one hand, being a crime reporter first made some things much easier. I know a lot about how the system works. But on the other hand, my journalism experience made it more difficult because I was very used to writing for newspapers—it had to be true, it needed to be fast, and there was no space for extras like adjectives. That took a long time to get over when I switched to fiction.
Given the detailed nature of crime investigation, how much research and preparation goes into the novels that you write?
I do very little preparation but a lot of research. I don’t outline my books beforehand, so I don’t know where the story is going to lead me or, consequently, what prep work I’d need to do. But once I’ve written something, then I know what I don’t know and go research the heck out of it.
How much, if any, of your writing is influenced by real crimes?
All of my stories start with something similar to a real incident, but then they veer off in completely different directions from whatever that true event was. In The Branson Beauty, a murder victim is found on a paddlewheel showboat after it crashes. A showboat really did crash on a lake near Branson several years ago, but there was no murder.
With Another Man’s Ground, I was fascinated when I learned that thieves sneak onto people’s acreage and steal plants that can be made into herbal supplements. They will actually do things like strip the bark off trees. It’s a huge financial loss for the property owners—this stuff can be worth big money. So I used this kind of crime as the inciting event in the book.
What do you want your readers to think/feel after finishing this book?
I hope that they come away with a little more insight into human nature and the complex motivations that people have for all sorts of actions. I’d also like them to feel like they really got to know my characters and the Ozark setting and were entertained along the way.
Another Man’s Ground delves into unsettling territory, particularly in relation to the gruesome homicides. How do you manage to respect the gravity of the crime while simultaneously crafting a witty and entertaining story around it?
It’s a tricky line to walk. I really do believe that the effect crime—especially murder—has on people needs to be treated with respect. Naturally, that can be a very bleak and agonizing aspect of a story. I’m helped in pulling my books back from that abyss by the family life I’ve created for my main character. Hank has little kids who always bring him back to life, so to speak. And he has a very cantankerous father-in-law who lives with them. Having those two try to get along gives me a lot of opportunities to lighten things up.
What constitutes a crime that is worth novelizing?
Something about the crime you create has to be unique. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be the crime itself. You can take an ordinary mugging and make it extraordinary through the victim, the setting, the motive, or the witnesses. Any one of those things can elevate the story into something that’s worth an entire novel.
If you could swap places with Hank for a day, what would you use your sheriff privileges to do?
I would absolutely pull over carpool lane violators and people who leave shopping carts in the middle of parking spaces. I totally consider that to be criminal behavior.
The novel takes place in a small Midwestern town where everyone knows each other. What made you decide to make that the setting?
I decided on Branson because it really is the best of every world. It’s a small town, so I get to play with that dynamic, especially with regard to local politics. But Branson also gets millions—I’m not kidding, literally millions—of visitors a year. So there’s also a big city aspect to the area and the resources they need to be able to handle that level of tourism.
I wondered what would happen if someone got dropped in from the outside and was suddenly put in charge of an entire law enforcement department in that kind of environment. So that’s what I did to my main character, Hank Worth.
What is something readers would be surprised to know about you?
I was once detained by the San Francisco Police. It was during the protests of the 2003 Iraq invasion. I was covering the story for the Contra Costa Times newspaper and wound up tracking a big group of anarchists who started vandalizing property and police cars (I’ll point out here that the protests were otherwise primarily peaceful). The police barricaded the entire group and detained everybody. They let me go when they figured out I was only reporting on the actions (my notebook, press pass, and sensible walking shoes helped), not participating in them.
What are you currently reading?
Right now, I’m in the middle of two books: Karin Salvalaggio’s latest mystery, Silent Rain, and the non-fiction Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy, which is absolutely phenomenal.
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Claire Booth is a former true crime writer, ghostwriter, and reporter. She lives in California. Another Man's Ground is her second novel, following The Branson Beauty.