M.E. Browning served 22 years in law enforcement and retired as a captain before turning to a life of crime fiction. Writing as Micki Browning, she penned the Agatha-nominated and award-winning Mer Cavallo Mysteries, and her short stories and nonfiction have appeared in anthologies, diving and mystery magazines, and textbooks. As M.E. Browning, she writes the Jo Wyatt Mysteries. The first in the series, ”Shadow Ridge,” was a finalist in the Colorado Book Awards and a silver medalist in the Florida Book Awards. ”Mercy Creek”launches October 2021. Visit mebrowning.com to learn more.
Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
The idea of writing a police procedural had intrigued me for years. After 22 years working in law enforcement, I thought writing fiction would be an easy transition, but it wasn’t. Writers are encouraged to write what they know, but it’s every bit as important to know what to leave out so one’s extensive personal knowledge doesn’t bog down the story. As soon as I read an article about the misogynism and harassment women gamers often faced, I knew I’d found my crime.
“Shadow Ridge” is the story of a Colorado police detective who investigates a female gamer’s claim she’s being terrorized by an online stalker, but a series of deaths has the detective rethinking who the true victim is and what the game really entails.
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Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
This excerpt of “Shadow Ridge” is the opening of the book and is the first time the two main characters meet.
Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book?
As a medievalist by education, I love to research and I took a deep dive into gaming. There is this notion that video games are an overwhelmingly male pastime, yet nearly half of all gamers are female. Game designers, however, still tend to be male. Early in the development of the industry, female characters were often cast as damsels in distress and their sexuality was more important than their intelligence.
In 2014, a controversy erupted over sexism and progressiveness in the industry that devolved into an online harassment campaign targeting women gamers (and to a lesser extent, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community). Strides have been made in the industry, but trolling, doxing, and worse still occur far too frequently.
Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?
I love the serendipitous turns writing can take. I don’t outline, per se, but I do know a few of the major milestones along the path of the story I want to write. That allows me to explore the story, and occasionally veer off-track without getting too far into the weeds.
Quinn, my gamer character, had a propensity to surprise me almost daily. Unlike my protagonist, Detective Jo Wyatt, Quinn is a rule-breaker and it was a lot of fun to let her run amok and see where she’d lead me—and more importantly, Jo.
What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
It was critical to make Jo Wyatt a competent, professional, female detective in a profession that is still overwhelmingly male. Too many fictional characters skirt the laws they’ve vowed to uphold and that’s not who she is. But her actions aren’t without repercussions and it’s a career that demands its toll.
During my career as a police officer, I encountered people in crisis nearly every shift. I had training as both a hostage negotiator and a crisis intervention officer and I often responded to people in the throes of mental health or addiction problems. It came as a surprise when I realized Quinn was a recovering heroin addict. I immediately knew that while she might make a lot of questionable choices, losing her hard-won sobriety would not be one of them.
Unexpected parallels emerged between these two strong-willed characters that defined their relationship and the story. Their differences remained, but empathy bloomed in their common ground.
Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?
This is the first book I wrote that has a character who embraced new and imaginative ways to swear. I tried to clean up Quinn’s speech, but she refused to let me. So far, my readers seemed to have taken it in stride.
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Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
I wish I could say I’m a disciplined writer with a set schedule, but I’m not. The first thing I need to know about a story is how my villain committed the crime. Once that’s determined, I tend to reverse engineer the story.
In a nutshell, I plot from the point of view of the antagonist and write from the perspective of the protagonist. After that, it takes a copious amount of tea, a fair amount of dark chocolate, and a lot of time in front of a computer.
Are the places you write about real?
It depends. The Mer Cavallo Mysteries (written as Micki Browning) were set in the Florida Keys and the dive sites are all real, but if something nefarious happened at a topside location, you can bet I reached for my literary license and created a new place.
It’s the same for Echo Valley, the setting of the Jo Wyatt Mysteries. I like to joke that if you look at Durango, Colorado, and erase 50 years, halve the population, and squint, you’ll see Echo Valley.
Tell us about your next project.
“Mercy Creek” is the second Jo Wyatt Mystery and it launches October 12, 2021. In it, Jo investigates a missing child. As she mines the girl’s fractured family life, Jo unearths a trove of secrets and half-lies that paint a darker picture of the girl’s parents—two people Jo has known since high school.
This story excites me because it gave me an opportunity to explore how the truths we construct when we’re young often complicate our lives as adults.