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SunLit

SunLit Interview: Mystery master Margaret Mizushima incorporates theme of family

In "Hanging Falls," she addresses newly found relatives -- and polygamy -- in a K-9 assisted murder investigation

Margaret Mizushima is the author of the award-winning and internationally published Timber Creek K-9 Mysteries. She was named the 2019 Writer of the Year by Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, and is also a member of Northern Colorado Writers, Sisters in Crime, Pikes Peak Writers, and Women Writing the West. Find her at www.margaretmizushima.com.


Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?

“Hanging Falls” is the sixth book in the Timber Creek K-9 Mystery series, and its inspiration came from a variety of sources and experiences. First of all, my protagonist’s backstory provided one of the primary themes, which is family. 

Mattie Cobb was kidnapped and lost her family when she was a child, but a DNA match has given her a sister and grandmother who live in California. At the story’s beginning, she is excited and a bit terrified about meeting these two long lost family members. But the discovery of a body at the end of chapter one throws a wrench in the works, delaying her plans so that she can assist in the homicide investigation. 

Keeping with the theme of family, the book also explores law enforcement aspects of polygamy in Colorado, different types of family relationships, and the complications of blended families.  

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?

The two excerpts I selected come from chapter one, the first from the beginning of the chapter and the second from the chapter’s end. Together they provide the reader with the book’s setting and premise as well as the protagonist’s goals and conflict. 

Both give the reader a picture of what’s in store for Mattie and her K-9 partner Robo in the following chapters.

Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book? 

“Hanging Falls” is set in the high country of Colorado at a pristine lake fed by a waterfall. Colorado residents and visitors might recognize the setting as similar to that of Hanging Lake near Glenwood Springs. 

My years hiking the Colorado mountains when I was younger influence the settings in all of my Timber Creek K-9 Mysteries, and my experience with search and rescue canine training influences the scenes created to spotlight the skillset of Robo, the German shepherd patrol and narcotics detection dog who stars in the series. 

These experiences, combined with lots of research and consultations with law enforcement officers and K-9 handlers, set the stage for the action adventure in this particular episode.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

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?

When I write a book, I usually know what happens in the beginning and what might happen at the end. I say “might” because sometimes the end changes as the story writes itself. 

This story gave me some trouble related to the reunion of Mattie and her long lost family. To me, this was the exciting part of the ongoing story and a big moment for Mattie in the series arc, and I had to keep my focus on the mystery and the investigation of the case. I love to highlight social issues in my books, and this one is full of them. 

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?

It’s always a challenge to pull the case investigation together in a way that I find satisfying. Each Timber Creek K-9 episode must provide a stand-alone mystery, work that Robo has to do, and work that the other series protagonist, Cole Walker, has to do. 

Cole is a veterinarian and Mattie’s love interest, and in addition to the clues that Mattie and Robo discover, his work needs to contribute to the case. I juggle several story lines at once, and they all have to fit together in the end.

Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? 

The strongest opinions are related to the polygamist sect that is featured in the story. These vary from appreciation of the professional way Mattie handles the situation, not letting her own feelings color the way she reacts to the people but instead staying neutral and following law enforcement protocols, to expressing outright disgust for the leaders of the sect—and anything in between. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?

I write in an upstairs bedroom in my home that has been converted to a home office. When I’m writing a first draft, I sit down every day at the computer in the early morning and stay at it until I’ve written 1,000 words. On a good day, this might take two hours; on a bad day, it can take up to six. 

I use the Pomodoro Technique and set my timer for forty-five minutes of writing and ten minutes to break. I usually need five minutes to return important phone calls, texts, or emails. The others wait until I’m done with my writing for the day. 

I can finish a 90,000-word manuscript in about four months, which leaves me a couple months to revise before submitting the manuscript to my publisher. Then we begin a series of two to three edits, going from focus on content to lines to copy edits. 

Finally, there are two rounds of proofreading and then the final copy is ready to go to print. The entire process takes 10 to 11 months. I take a short break before starting over on the next episode.

What are the rewards and challenges of writing a series rather than stand-alone books?

While the murder investigations in my series need to stand alone in each book, I find it very rewarding to be able to plan a series arc for my characters, developing their lives and backstories over the series of books. 

It can be challenging to create a new mystery in the same setting each year but I’m always interested in finding new skills for my K-9 character and new directions for my human characters to go. I love reading mysteries in a series and have enjoyed writing them as well.

Tell us about your next project.

“Striking Range”—the seventh Timber Creek K-9 Mystery—launched in September. In this episode, the past and present collide when Deputy Mattie Cobb and her K-9 partner Robo are torn between investigating her father’s cold case and the death of a young mother whose body is found near Timber Creek. 

As a deadly storm batters the area, taking its toll on the investigative team, Mattie and Robo search for the woman’s missing infant, hoping to find the baby before it’s too late. Complications arise and when Cole Walker goes missing, Mattie and Robo take to the trail to find a ruthless killer. I invite readers to join Mattie, Robo, and Cole in their next adventure.


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