When A.H. Gabhart isn't writing delightful cozy mysteries or historical novels, she loves hiking on the farm with her grandkids or baking delicious homemade blackberry pies. Her books are known to feature quirky, very relatable characters and she likes to play fair in her whodunits by leaving readers some clues as to who the murderer is. But very few actually figure it out! As our author of the day, we chat with Gabhart about Murder at the Courthouse, where a deputy sheriff is rudely awakened from his dreams of retirement in a small town after a body is discovered on the steps of the courthouse.
Please give us a short introduction to what Murder at the Courthouse is about.
Michael Keane’s stressful days as a Columbus police officer are done. He’s ready to relax into his new position as deputy sheriff in his sleepy hometown. Nothing ever happens in Hidden Springs, Kentucky—and that’s just fine with Michael. Nothing, that is, until a dead body is discovered on the courthouse steps. As Michael works to solve the case, it seems that every nosy resident in town has a theory. When the sheriff insists Michael check out one of these harebrained theories, his surprising discovery sends him on a bewildering search for a mysterious killer that has him questioning everything he has ever believed about life in Hidden Springs.
The cover of the book has a very distinct art style - tell us more about it.
My Hidden Springs mysteries are considered cozy mysteries. In a cozy mystery, the story is generally set in a small town with a cast of characters including some that bring a smile like busybody Miss Willadean, who finds the body on the courthouse steps. The covers of cozy mysteries tend to suggest this more light-hearted approach to mystery and often includes a cat or dog. My Hidden Springs mysteries all feature a cat. On the cover of Murder at the Courthouse, we see Two Bits sitting in the barbershop window across from the courthouse. I love the way the next cat, Grimalkin perched on a mailbox steals the show on the cover of the second Hidden Springs mystery, Murder Comes by Mail. On my new release, Murder Is No Accident, a calico named Miss Marble gets front cover notice.
Tell us more about Deputy Michael Keane. Who is he and what makes him so special?
Michael has old-fashioned values but with modern tolerance for different lifestyles. He wants peace in his private life and happiness. He likes the freedom of not being the “boss” in the sheriff’s office and wonders at his lack of ambition. He’s sort of coasting along waiting for whatever happens next. He is easy-going, but when faced with crisis knows how to take action. He loves his little town of Hidden Springs. The town is part of his heritage since his ancestor was a founding father. Michael’s Aunt Lindy insists he must keep the Keane family going in Hidden Springs by getting married and having a family. He’d like to be married with kids, but he’s in love with a career-minded woman who works in Washington D.C. He can’t imagine Alex ever wanting to settle down in Hidden Springs. What makes Michael special is the way he cares about people and loves his town.
Murder at the Courthouse takes place in a small town setting - what is it about small towns that inspires you?
I grew up on a farm near a small town, so that’s the kind of setting I know. I like small towns and places where people know one another and are always ready to help each other out. Plus, most of those small towns have plenty of eccentric characters to add color to any story.
The nosy residents of the town are very vocal with their theories. Why?
The citizens of Hidden Springs never have much exciting happen in their town. So when a body shows up on the courthouse steps and it’s somebody none of them know, they do plenty of talking about why and how that could happen. With Michael being such an easy to talk to law officer, they are ready to “help” with their theories. In the next two Hidden Springs mysteries, Murder Comes by Mail and Murder Is No Accident, Michael does the mystery solving without so much input from the townsfolk.
How do you prevent your readers from finding out too soon who the murderer is?
Some readers have said they figured out the clues planted in the story to know who the murderer was prior to the end. Others have said they were surprised. I just write the story and let the reader find out what Michael finds out. A mystery always has a few planted clues to help the reader along with a few that might get him or her thinking in the wrong direction, but I think you need to play fair when writing a mystery. The outcome needs to result from the events of the story and not just be tacked on at the end.
You have a knack for creating characters that readers can believe in. How do you pull this off?
I’m not sure how to answer this except to say the people come to life in my imagination. I hear them talking as I chase after them down their story trails. I do want to write about characters the reader can like. I want readers to jump into the story and live the events with the characters. Last, I always hope my main characters will find a way to crawl up into readers’ hearts and find a home while the readers are immersed in their stories.
What inspired you to let a body be discovered on the courthouse steps?
I often begin thinking about a new story with a “what if” question. What if a body of a stranger is found on the courthouse steps in a little town where murder rarely happens? That question and then the resulting body of a murder victim no one knew on the courthouse steps got the story rolling. If you are going to write a mystery, you need some sort of crime. Murder is one that gets attention.
Tell us about your writing habits - where, when and how do you write?
A few years ago, we added on to our house and now I have an office with windows on both sides of my desk. I love a room with windows. I write every day except Sunday when I’m working on a book. I try to set a goal of so many words or pages a day to keep on schedule for deadlines. I do take a few weeks off between books to research or come up with some new what if ideas. And of course, I take time out for grandkid visits now and again.
When I began writing as a ten-year-old, I wrote in wire bound notebooks, but then I transitioned to writing on a typewriter. Finally, I got a word processor and now it’s all keyboard and computers. I still prefer a desktop computer although I have written on my laptop.
Your book contains quite a couple of twists. Did you plan them all out before you started writing, or did some of them just "happen"?
I’m what they call a seat of the pants writer. That’s somebody who sits down in front of her computer and starts writing without a plot outline. I do pre-writing to get to know my characters and setting along with research if I’m writing a historical novel. To start, I have an idea of the plot, but I don’t really plan it all out. At times, the twists do just happen or a new character will suddenly step on scene. However, many mystery writers do plot out the events. But even though I don’t write out an outline, I do know some of the things that need to happen. The same thing is true when I’m writing my historical novels (as Ann H. Gabhart). In many of those, the historical events give me a basic story structure that I drop my characters down into.
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
I don’t have many secrets. Dogs like me. My dog companion right now is Oscar who is popular with my Facebook followers. I feed the birds. I love talking to my grandchildren and hiking with them out here on the farm. I can make some delicious pies with homemade crust and everything. I know how to find and pick wild blackberries to go into those pies. And I can sometimes tell a joke to make people smile.
What are you working on right now?
I’ve gone back to my historical novel roots. Next up for me is These Healing Hills, a historical set in 1946 in the Appalachian Mountains about a midwife/nurse with the Frontier Nursing Service. That novel will be released in September 2017. I’m actually working on another historical based on a true story about how a town finds a way to repay a slave in 1845 for the way he helped the town during a cholera epidemic.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
My website, www.annhgabhart.com is a great place to find out about my books. Readers can check out each title and even read sample chapters. Discussion questions are posted for interested book clubs. (Angel Sister and Scent of Lilacs have been popular book club selections.) Readers can check out my blogs (One Writer’s Journal, where right now I’m doing a mystery picture game to give away some books, and Jocie’s Heart of Hollyhill blog), read more about me, see some pictures of my family and the Shaker village I use as inspiration for my Shaker stories, and find some devotionals. You can contact me from there too. It’s fun to have readers join in the conversation on my Facebook page, www.facebook.com/anngabhart where I have popular weekly features like “Sunday morning coming down” or “Friday smiles.” I tweet on Twitter @AnnHGabhart. I post research pictures and more on Pinterest under Ann H Gabhart and I’m on Goodreads. So hunt me up and I’ll enjoy meeting you.