[Interview] Bernadette Steele

Mystery author Bernadette Steele has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master of Science degree in Technical Communication and Information Design from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT).

Currently, she is pursuing a PhD in Technical Communication at IIT.

The Poetry of Murder (Oak Tree Press, 2008) is her first novel.

In this interview, Bernadette Steele talks about how she made the transition from wanting to write to becoming a published author.

When did you start writing?

I started writing when I was in college. I took a creative writing course and I wrote some short stories for the class. I also had another class in college where I wrote a play.

After college, I did not do any writing. Instead, I spent fifteen years, reading books about writing and publishing, but I did not write. I collected story ideas, articles and pieces of information that inspired various story ideas.

In 2004, I thought that I wanted to go to law school. But, law school did not work out. So, in December 2004, I decided that I should pursue something that I really, really like doing and enjoyed. I always had story ideas and I enjoy writing. Thus, in January 2005, I started writing my first novel, The Poetry of Murder.

How did you make the transition from wanting to write to becoming a published author?

I enjoy reading fiction, and I enjoy the writing process. I decided in January 2005 that I wanted to be a published author, and I started writing my novel. Even though I had spent the past fifteen years reading about how to write, I read very little about the actual process of writing. So I read a book that described how to approach a writing project. I read, The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing by Evan Marshall.

Based upon Marshall’s method, I created my own method for starting a novel. My method basically includes creating a very detailed outline of the book from beginning to end. This outline is scene-by-scene and includes items such as dialogue or how a scene would begin.

I also read a book about how to submit your novel to agents and publishers. This book was entitled, Your Novel Proposal from Creation to Contract by Blythe Cameson and Marshall I. Cook. It describes the process of creating a query letter, synopsis and the format for the manuscript. This book provided good examples of what the submission documents look like.

Finally, I used the 2006 edition of Jeff Herman’s book entitled, Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents to develop my submission list. This book was invaluable because it details what types of books the publishers and agents are interested in and their submission guidelines.

Who has influenced you most?

I have been influenced the most by Agatha Christie and Walter Mosley.

Christie’s books provide an example of what a good mystery featuring an amateur sleuth should be like. Mosley’s clear and concise prose inspires me to reach his level.

I have also been extremely inspired by John Steinbeck’s, Journal of a Novel. Steinbeck kept a journal when he wrote East of Eden. In his journal, he describes his own anxiety and self-doubt about his writing and career. It makes me feel good to know that someone like Steinbeck felt the same way that I feel.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

I have always been very unsatisfied with the jobs that I have had in the past and that I currently have. Thus, I find refuge in my writing.

Writing provides me with enjoyment and relief from the stress of my job. It provides the creative outlet that I need to deal with the stress and dissatisfaction that I have with the world of employment.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

I have two main concerns.

First, I want to write good fiction. I address this concern by working to hone my skills, seeking feedback from readers and editors, and by being open to criticism and the advice of others.

My second concern is to have people actually read my writing. I address this by working to gain exposure for my writing. I write because I want people to read and enjoy my writing. I do not write for myself.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

Like most writers who also have a regular job, my first big challenge is finding the time to write. I schedule a two-hour appointment with myself to write. I also use my vacation time to write.

My second biggest challenge is figuring out cost-effective ways to market my novel. I handle this challenge by simply researching different alternatives as much as possible.

Do you write everyday?

I write every day.

My writing session starts at lunchtime when I write in my journal about what I will write about later on in the evening, any story ideas or anything going on in my life that impacts my writing.

When I get home from work, I write for two hours. The session starts with me looking at my outline and then briefly reviewing the previous evening's work.

How would you describe your debut novel?

The Poetry of Murder is a murder mystery about an aspiring African American poet named Geneva Anderson who inherits a fortune from her aunt and who is later accused of her aunt’s murder. As a result, Geneva starts to investigate the murder of her aunt and must navigate her way through a web of revenge, deceit, and blackmail.

It took me a year and half to write the novel. It was published in February 2008 by Oak Tree Press.

Who is your target audience?

My audience consists of mystery readers, females between the ages of 25 and up and African Americans.

I was motivated to start writing for this audience because the audience demographic matches my personal demographic. I am a 38 year old, African American woman. The market is not over saturated with African American amateur sleuths.

How did you find a publisher for the book?

After sending out over eighty query letters, Oak Tree Press was the first publisher to accept my novel. Oak Tree Press is a small independent publisher.

The major disadvantage of being with a small press is that there is no advance and a lot of the marketing activities are my responsibility.

What did you find most difficult when you were working on The Poetry of Murder?

I think the most difficult aspect was the editing process. For example, I had to fix a lot of the numbers used in the text. This was a painful process. I think this situation was caused by lack of experience.

I enjoyed the plotting of the story. I enjoyed figuring out which characters did what and when and who the killer turned out to be.

What will your next book be about?

My next novel will be a historical romance about the first African emperor of Rome, Septimius Severus.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

My most significant achievement as a writer as that I finished my novel and got it published.

Many people dream of writing a novel, some start writing but most don’t finish and even fewer actually get published. Therefore, it is a great achievement for me and anyone else to finish and publish a novel.

How did you get there?

I never gave up. I kept writing. I kept submitting to agents and publishers. I knew that it was numbers game and that eventually someone would have enough confidence in my novel to publish it.


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