Deep From the Archives
This is an author interview I wrote in the 1990s.
Fool’s Puzzle by Earlene Fowler
Toss in one fresh, sassy, 34-year-old ex-cowgirl, mix in two parts of a murder almost spoiling a folk art museum quilt display, add a dash of a fifty percent Anglo, fifty percent Latino, one hundred and ten percent macho cop with gorgeous eyes, and what do you have?
You have the deliciously intense, tangy-tasting romance of Benni Harper and Gabe Ortiz, in Earlene Fowler’s first mystery novel: Agatha Award nominee, Fool’s Puzzle.
A Look Back in Time
“The year I wrote this book, I didn’t know any writers, belong to any writer’s groups, go to any conventions or query any agents or editors,” Fowler said. “I wrote it for the sheer pleasure of learning the craft and living in my story.”
For ten years before the sale of the book, Fowler sent out short stories, only to have them returned. After she took Jo-Ann Mapson’s writing workshop, though, her life changed dramatically. Mapson helped her to find an agent and, within three days of sending out the manuscript for Fool’s Puzzle, the publisher requested a three-book contract.
According to Mapson, Fowler’s basically completed manuscript was “so fresh and funny, and so well written, that I was taken aback. I was absolutely stopped in my tracks by how good it was, how polished, how professional.”
Overview of the Plot and Characters
In Fool’s Puzzle, newly widowed Benni is trying to piece both her life and her antique quilt display together. When she helps to discover a murdered artist on the eve of the display, her life tumbles into even more turmoil — something she already had more than enough of.
She discovers shocking facts about her husband’s death, while also having to deal with the annoying questions of the temporary police chief, Gabe Ortiz. Benni will be quite glad to see his back side leaving town; after all, he’s opinionated, bossy, interfering, a talented hair brusher, startlingly sexy, terrific smelling . . .
“Gabe is what every woman looks for in a man, a combination of safety and danger,” Fowler said. “You never know quite what he’s going to do, yet you trust him because he has such integrity and strength.”
Fowler said that “he adds the emotional mystery in the series. He’s as elusive as a mountain lion, which is what keeps me interested in him—not to mention what he does to Benni.”
Fowler’s Christian beliefs will prevent Benni and Gabe from tumbling into the pre-marital bed, though. “I give the major credit for my success to God,” she said, “including in my book acknowledgements. It’s only by His grace that I’m writing at all.”
One More Character to Consider
There is one more reason why Benni will behave properly, though. A woman named Dove.
Dove is Benni’s grandmother, a women it’s wise not to fool with. “She’s based on four women in my life,” Fowler said, naming her mother, two grandmothers, and mother-in-law. “These women are or were very strong women, and almost all aspects of Dove’s personality can be directly taken from at least one of these women.”
She isn’t willing to say what personality trait goes with what woman, though. “My mama,” Fowler said, “didn’t raise no fool.”
Insights into the Sequel
To find out more about Benni, Gabe, and Dove, Fowler has written Irish Chain, the second book in the series. In it, Benni helps to plan a prom for the local senior home. Just before the crowning of the lucky king and queen, though, the king and a former school teacher are found murdered.
Benni investigates the crime, learning horrible secrets about the treatment of the Japanese community during World War II. The murdered man had contributed plenty of money to help the Japanese reestablish themselves, and Benni searches for the elusive connection, much to Gabe’s dismay.
“To say they are star-crossed lovers would be putting it mildly.”
A review in the Clarion Ledger remarked that, in this second book, “Benni and Gabe get along about as well as feuding sheep ranchers and cattlemen. To say they are star-crossed lovers would be putting it mildly.”
The review also adds the following praise. “Charming, beguiling and entrancing are terms that not only sum up the book’s appeal, but Benni Harper, as well. Like its predecessor, Irish Chain is a joy.”
Inspiration for Benni and Gabe
Fowler said that Benni has many of her own characteristics, including the same sense of humor. Both women married their high school sweethearts, too. “So, it wouldn’t be hard for me to imagine how Benni felt when she lost hers,” Fowler said. “A book I read said you should always write about what moves you or scares you the most.”
And, since losing her husband has been one of Fowler’s greatest fears, she used that emotion.
Fowler added that she also has a serious side, which she tapped into to create Gabe. “He and I share characteristics, too, ones only obvious to people who know me well,” she added. “But, I’m not as cynical as Gabe, who has seen much worse things than I have. I would place the ‘real me,’ then, somewhere between both characters. Many times when they’re stating two opposites of an argument, you’re seeing me debate with myself.”
More Books, More Books, More Books!
Fowler will soon have another book out, Kansas Troubles, as well. This book, like her first two, is named after a specific quilt pattern.
“Quilts are a unique way of passing down individual family histories, which is the true story of our country,” Fowler wrote in a short piece titled “What Do Quilts and Buffalo Bill Have in Common?”
Fowler Offers Writing Advice
And, hers is different from what many other writers might provide. “Sometimes,” she said, “new writers get so wrapped up in learning about the marketing side of writing that the creative side suffers. Though it isn’t a popular stance, I believe that — especially when writing your first book — you need creative solitude that’s free of publishing predictions and numbers and probabilities.”
The story, she said, “needs to be most important, and maybe that’s why Fool’s Puzzle had such fortunate success. Perhaps my training among literary writers helped to elevate my prose. You have to have respect and love for what you’re writing, and this includes respecting the audience you’re writing for.”
While she was studying literary fiction, Fowler learned “not to be afraid of taking a chance, even if it’s little. It makes you grow as a writer, and perhaps causes your writing to stand above the crowd.”
Going Out on a Limb
She shared how the word “fresh” is often used when describing her books. “I think that’s because I’m not afraid to go out on a limb,” Fowler said. “The secret is to be vulnerable in your writing. If you’re not feeling a little embarrassed by something you’ve written — I’m referring to emotional vulnerability, not sexual acrobatics that have been done to death — then perhaps you, as a writer, aren’t truly revealing anything of yourself.”
If you aren’t willing to be vulnerable, she added, “it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to move your readers emotionally.”
Fowler’s Writing Style
When Fowler starts to write a novel, she has a general idea of what it will be about, but she never outlines or plots more than one chapter ahead. She knows the beginning scenes and ending ones, but the middle remains a mystery until written.” (Here’s more about the muddle in the middle that can bog you down!)
She constantly reads nonfiction books, magazines, and newspapers to get ideas, and she listens when people talk. “That, to me, is the most important part of writing. Plot comes out of character, with the best books being those where care is put into character development.”
She revises “extensively, compulsively, and continually,” which can include rewriting each book six or seven times, with some individual scenes being redone forty or even fifty times. “I’m an obsessive-compulsive rewriter,” she said. “My first drafts are so painful for me, and rewriting is like playing with words, and I could do that forever. Fortunately, I have deadlines, so I can’t.”
Writing Advice from a Pro
She suggests that aspiring writers “read, read, read. In your field. Out of your field. While lying in a field. Just read. Don’t ever stop.”
She also advises that you rewrite. “Learn to accept criticism, but also learn to trust your own instincts. When you feel something is right, don’t let anyone persuade you otherwise. Study other writers, good and bad, to see how to do it and what to avoid. Buy extra copies of your favorite books, too, and mark them up.”
Finally, she suggests keeping it all in perspective. “Give it your absolute best, then let it go,” she said. “Remember, writing is only one part of your life.”