The Last, Best Lie
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Not many people could save a man’s life with lip gloss, car keys and three cinnamon-flavored condoms while under gunfire. But Madison McKenna can. And it’s not the least of the devices the sexy young physicist-turned-detective kludges together in The Last, Best Lie, first in the Chicago-based McKenna Mystery series. Blending wit, sensuality and science into a unique and exciting new format, this female-MacGyver uses counter-top technology and fierce determination to solve the attempted murder of her boss, Jake Thibodaux. It won’t be easy; science-savvy she is, street-smart she isn’t. Worse, Jake’s powerful ex-partner, Hunter, is determined to freeze her out of the investigation, and the local police would happily toss her in jail to keep her out of their hair. As Jake clings to life, Madison and her helpers—a charming bull-rider and his prize calf, Spinal Snap, a pair of bickering cops, and Jake’s hard-bitten mistress—delve into Jake’s past, revealing a man very different from the one she thought she knew. Even her subconscious comes to her aid, infusing her dreams with tantalizing, surreal, clues. Driven by need, Madison and Hunter form a steamy, antagonistic, partnership; until she learns that he his own motives for murder. As even more allies fall under suspicion and innocents are killed in her stead, the increasingly-desperate Madison uses science, cunning and doggedness to find the killer. And she’ll continue to school all around her in the power of technology, fueled female ingenuity, as this distinctive new series evolves.
Where are you from? Tell us a little about yourself!
I was born in Connecticut, but we moved around a lot as a child and I spent as much time in the Deep South as I did in New England. In addition, I’m retired military and was assigned to a dozen different bases across the country during my career, so I’m from a little bit of everywhere. Currently, I am in Northern Virginia.
As I said above, I am a retired military officer, having enlisted right out of high school, primarily to get enough money to go to college in order to achieve my dream of becoming a scientist. I started out as an aircraft mechanic in the late 1970’s and was the first female aircraft mechanic on the flight line at that time (not a very welcomed thing, as you can imagine, in those early years of women’s lib). I worked on both cargo and fighter airplanes and it was there that I met my husband, who was 23 years my senior and a highly decorated fighter pilot who had completed three tours in Vietnam flying the dangerous Wild Weasel mission over places like the infamous Red River Valley. (As an aside, I lost my much beloved husband/best friend/soul mate just last year, after almost 35 years of marriage and only weeks before the cover to my first book came out. Without his constant love and support, I could not have accomplished a fraction of what I have in my life.)
To return to my story, I traded in my Airman’s stripes for a commission and continued to pursue my education through the many great opportunities the Air Force affords, eventually achieving a B.S. in Physics, an M.S. in Nuclear Engineering and a Ph.D. in Physics. I led a myriad of research activities during that time.
I retired from the Air Force in 2001 and entered federal service, where I currently lead a large organization of researchers conducting a wide array of programs for the US government.
Outside of my “day job” as a director of research, I write (obviously), garden, knit, quilt and play piano, guitar and violin (although I’m pretty rusty at the latter.)
I live with my adult granddaughter and between us we have four cats, a miniature dachshund puppy and a beta fish. So between all of them, my granddaughter and I are in a constant state of either feeding, walking or cleaning up after one member of the animal kingdom or another.
Tell us about your book? How did it get started?
I am writing a series about a sassy, sexy young scientist-turned-P.I. named Madison McKenna, who uses her killer science skills to concoct ad hoc devices to stop killers and escape traps. She could probably best be described as MacGyver meets Stephanie Plum. She’s science savvy but not particularly street smart. In the first book in the series, Madison must try to solve the attempted murder of her ex-New Orleans cop-boss. Considering her to be more of a pest than P.I., the local police captain and her boss’s ex-partner–a handsome, rich business man, with whom she has a volatile lust-hate relationship—work to derail her while her boss lies comatose. But with the aid of her boss’s much younger mistress, two bickering beat cops and a handsome young bull-rider with his pet bull, Spinal Snap, not to mention her own subconscious fueling her reasoning with surreal clues, Madison sorts through cold cases to solve the crime.
As for how my series got started, I love reading mysteries, so writing one was kind of a no-brainer. But I also had an ulterior motive in writing this particular character. As you can see from my first answer, I had always wanted to be a scientist. But I grew up in the early years of women’s lib, when most of society still believed that women weren’t capable of becoming scientists or engineers. I also grew up in poverty, spending much of my childhood on welfare. I was frequently told that as “poor white trash” I would never amount to anything, much less become a scientist. While, I’ve certainly proven them wrong, I’ve never forgotten the sting of rejection or feeling of frustration and anger at people who tried to limit me because of their own narrow-minded thinking. And although things have greatly improved since my day, the fact is that there are still many such barriers that stand in the way of young women, minorities and the economically disadvantaged pursuing science careers. Some of those include the general perception, especially strong among young women, that female scientists are lame, unfeminine, unattractive and terminally uncool. So, I’ve tried to create new stereotype of a young female scientist; someone who is fun, cool, sexy and sassy. She’s clever and can stand up against bullies and she actually has boyfriends; two in fact. I wanted her to be real; to be someone who takes risks, but doesn’t always succeed and yet doesn’t let that stop her. I wanted her to be put in situations where people tried to stereotype and limit her and she succeeds despite their doubts and hers. I hope that’s what I’ve done.
I also want to add that as part of my work to encourage women, minorities and the economically disadvantaged, I am creating a small ($200/month) scholarship for high-school and college students in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines. It will begin in May of 2016 and it will be advertised on my author’s website at http://kennedyquinn.com
How do you create your characters?
I outlined in the last question how I created my protagonist. As for the other characters, they tend to be inspired from the kind of books I like reading or from people I find interesting.
For example, I was greatly inspired by the works of Raymond Chandler and Dasheill Hammett. I also love film noir and Humphrey Bogart films. In homage to those sources, I wrote the character of Madison’s boss, Jake Thibodaux, as someone who could have stepped right out of such bodies of work.
In another example, Jake’s younger mistress was inspired by the kind of women that I grew up with; born behind the eight ball, beautiful and vibrant young women who grow old too quickly under the stresses of hard lives. Yet they somehow maintain the grit and courage to take whatever life throws at them and keep going.
As a last example, one of Madison’s love interests, Zach, is a compilation of several of my favorite professional bull-riders. (As what might be an interesting side note: I got into bull riding after being stranded in an ice-storm in North Dakota. Basically, when you’re shivering under threadbare blankets in a cheap motel in the middle of nowhere for three nights, with nothing to eat but stale candy from the machine down the hall and nothing to watch on local TV but a South Park marathon and reruns of bull riding championship events, bull riding becomes quite fascinating.) Anyway, Zach is based on several of these very, very fit young men. His pet bull Spinal Snap is a mash up of two of my favorite bucking bulls, Booger Butt and Little Yellow Jacket, if that’s of any interest.
What inspires and what got your started in writing?
I think I addressed this in previous questions.
Where do you write? Is there something you need in order to write (music, drinks?)
Being that I have a very busy day job, I write wherever, whenever and however I can. I generally dictate my book into a digital recorder while I’m on my elliptical in the morning and upload it to my voice recognition software. I then edit the book at every opportunity available. I’ve worked on my book on my laptop while waiting in the dentist office, getting my hair cut, sitting on airplanes and in hotel rooms. Probably the oddest place that I’ve written is sitting on my luggage, typing on my iPad, outside the airport in Bangkok. My ride had to circle the airport three times because I was so involved in writing that I wasn’t watching for her to wave her down.
To write, all I really need is some kind of electronic device that can record my voice or connect me to Dropbox. That said, if I had my way I would start every writing session with Bourbon and chocolate. Are you offering?
How do you get your ideas for writing?
I generally start with a theme, I want to explore. In the first book, it was the consequences of people lying to themselves in order to justify their own petty needs.
Since I write mysteries, I then spend a lot of time coming up with a crime and working out clues and solution. Since I write a science-based mystery with a “female MacGyver” protagonist, a major part of the job is to come up with ad hoc gadgets for her to use as weapons or ways to escape or otherwise “save the day.” Many of these devices I actually take from real life. They can be experiments that I did in grand school, variations of things that I’ve seen in science fairs, ideas inspired by internet gadgets or things that invent myself for fun. That has been problematic at times, though. I try to build the devices at home and test them to make certain they work, whenever possible. Once I had to construct a weapon made from car keys and condoms. In order to make certain that it would hold together when thrown, I made one and threw it at the calendar on the wall. Unfortunately, as I often say, I throw like a girl and catch like a blind girl. As such, I missed the calendar. And it turns out that lubricant from certain condoms does not wash off paint. So, I ended up having to repaint the room. But, I was sick of the color anyway, so it was no real loss.
Finally, once I have the plot in mind, I simply put the characters of my world in play and let them go at it. However, there have been times when I set a course of action for them and they go off and do something other than I intended. One example is when my protagonist decided to fall for her boss’s ex-partner. I originally wrote him in as a red herring and an antagonist just to make it hard for her to succeed. But in one scene they started groping each other. And no matter how many times I rewrote the scene, they kept ending up groping. I could not “talk” them out of this new attraction. So, I finally gave in and re-conceptualized several elements of the story to accommodate this new vector. It was annoying at first, but the relationship between these two is now one of the strongest elements of the book. So, I guess you can say that get some of my ideas directly from some of my own characters.
What do you like to read?
As I mentioned above, I love the old masters of the hard-boiled genre like Hammett and Chandler. I also adore Shirley Jackson and Jim Butcher…they wrote such great characters! And I like light and fun “chick lit” as well, like Janet Evanovich. Of course, I spend a lot of time reading professional journals, particularly in the disciplines of quantum mechanics and astrophysics. So, I have very eclectic tastes.
What would your advice to be for authors or aspiring in regards to writing?
Write anywhere, anytime, anyway, anyhow you can! Write, write, write, no matter what it takes!
Enlist a good critique group. Listen to other writers whose work you respect, not just to those who like you and want to make you feel good. If multiple people tell you that something isn’t working, listen to them even if you don’t want to. And try a rewrite, even if you don’t want to. The effort itself will help you crystalize your plot and sharpen your characters, even if you don’t change very much in the end. Don’t listen to people whose writing you don’t respect and who only want to make themselves feel good by making you feel inferior. If you do you will end up writing your first chapter 89 times, until you collapse in anguish and swear to God Almighty above that you will never, ever write again. And then five months later, you’ll find that you can’t stand not writing anymore, and you’ll break out the laptop only to realize that you should have stuck with the first draft of your first chapter all along. Take a deep breath, break out the Bourbon and chocolate and write…anywhere, anytime, anyway, anyhow you can.
Anything else you’d like to share?
No, thanks. It’s late, I’ve worked a 12 hour day, I haven’t had dinner and I think I’m just going to find some chocolate…and Bourbon. And write.
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