Carol Potenza taught biochemistry at New Mexico State University before transitioning to a full-time mystery writer. She loves the combination of strong women sleuths, paranormal and murder, mixed with science or, as she likes to call it—BiocheMystery. She sets all her books in the beautiful state of New Mexico, where she lives with her husband, Leos, and her extremely grumpy chihuahua, Hermès. You can visit her at www.carolpotenza.com and on Instagram and Facebook at @carolpotenzaauthor.
Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?
Literally—and I mean literally—getting a Kindle one year for Christmas made me want to write. I loaded it up with my favorite authors and titles and noticed something I never had before because of Kindle’s percentage read at the bottom of the page: Big Things happened at defined percentages in books. Like a formula, but different for different genres. I was intrigued and obviously very naïve. All those advanced English Lit classes in high school and college and no one told me. But this discovered information made me think maybe I could write a book if I follow the formula. Then I learned rather quickly there was WAY more to writing a story. So, I searched around, found a wonderful writing group, and dove right in, hoping I wouldn’t hit large jagged rocks. My debut mystery won the 2018 Tony Hillerman Prize from Minotaur/McMillan.
What inspired you to start writing this book?
Maybe other authors don’t do this, but I write heroines who are like me, or, at least the me I want to be. An author friend of mine called this kind of character development “autobiographical and aspirational”. I write protagonists who are strong, brave, unafraid to confront the bad in this world, able to argue back with exactly the right words and right deeds in that moment. I write heroines who are flawed and know it but strive to be better. I write heroines who are sympathetic but sometimes choose the wrong direction and learn from it. I write heroines that are who I and my reader want to be. But in Sting of Lies, I wanted to develop a different sort of heroine to solve this mystery. One whose moral compass and social skills were still developing because of her unusual upbringing. Myrna is self-assured (read arrogant), prickly, judgmental, and frustrated because she feels like she’s been underestimated her whole life and that no one takes her seriously based on her size and looks. She’s also not afraid to lie, even if she’s really bad at it. As part of her arc, I wanted her to be confronted about these flaws by people she’s come to trust and admire. Is this character like me deep down in place I hide from my family and friends and the world? Yes—she’s autobiographical more so than any other character I’ve ever written, and it wasn’t easy personally to admit that these are my flaws, too. But deep inside, Myrna is a good person with a tender soul who wants to be better, to fit it—aspirational goals that I work on every day of my life, too. All of my characters have a part of me, and with Sting of Lies, I feel like I’ve matured enough as a writer that I’m finally ready to confront my serious personal flaws. I have a feeling this might be a lifelong project.
Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?
It was actually pretty easy to come up with this title. Sting of Lies is the first book of a four-book series. I wanted to include “lies” in all of the titles, so I will be writing Trading in Lies (a post-World War Two historical murder mystery set at a New Mexico Route 66 Trading Post introduced in Sting of Lies), Lie of the Land about how a small town led by an outsider confronts a large Clean Energy Corporation and their damaging wind farms which are responsible for conditions that harm the town’s children, and Canyon Lies and Starlit Skies, my attempt at a pulp Western-romance-science fiction mash-up that “explains” the Roswell incident. The title for Sting of Lies came about because 1) my heroine lies (poorly) and 2) the organic farm and ranch she works on uses mechanical bee drones to pollinate their crops and are ultimately linked to an environmental poisoning on the ranch.
Describe your dream book cover.
Have you ever seen the pulp Ranch Romance magazine covers? The ones from the 1940s and 1950s have this wonderful Western “girl in danger” vibe. Here is a link to some of the covers. The Ranch Romance and other pulp covers that really appeal to me are the ones where the heroine is confronting the danger herself, whether it’s an outlaw or a wild beast. I’ve commissioned a young artist to create four Ranch Romance-like covers for the Lies series. I LOVE their retro look.
What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?
I didn’t get into genre fiction writing until about ten years ago, a few years before the end of my “first” career. I trained as a bench scientist in molecular and cell biology and received my Ph.D. in Biological Sciences but did my research as a molecular biologist and plant genetic engineer and taught biochemistry at the university level. That first career flavors all my books with science, from DNA and genetics to environmental science and ecology to paleontology to time travel and quantum mechanics. I KNOW how to do research, I read primary literature, I love to bend science into science “fiction,” and love that my second career—writing—lets me continue to learn. Just FYI, if you analyze a research article, you see it follows a story arc: “Introduction” and “Methods and Materials” give your reader the background and “setting”; “Results” is the actual story and where the story takes the reader; “Discussion” is a summary of “Results,” or the consequences of your story; and “Conclusion” wraps everything up at the end. Scientific research is an excellent training ground for authors. I hope I am using it in good stead.
What books did you read (for research or comfort) throughout your writing process?
The list of books that I read for research can also tell you a lot about the plot and subplots, so let’s see if you can figure out some of the essential pieces and places in Sting of Lies. Not comprehensive and in no particular order: Route 66 The Mother Road (M. Wallis, 2001); The Poisoner’s Handbook (D. Blum, 2010); Finders Keepers (C. Childs, 2010); Black Cowboys of the Old West (T.M. Wagner, 2010); The Case of the Indian Trader (P.D. Berkowitz, 2011); Monuments Men (R.M. Edsel, 2009); The Hispano Homeland (R.L. Nostrand, 1992); The Stranger in the Woods (M. Finkel, 2017); Poison Arrows (D.E. Jones, 2007); and dozens of research articles on environmental poisonings and North American Clovis culture, and mammoth paleontology. This book was so much fun to research and to write, I hope it gives readers as much pleasure to read as it gave me.
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