The Bee Talks With… Anna Celeste Burke

Anna Celeste Burke
photo credit: Anna Celeste Burke

Today I am happy to introduce you to Anna Celeste Burke author of the Jessica Huntington Desert Cities Mystery series. Anna has been so kind to let us have peek into her thoughts about life and writing. 

So with no further ado I give over to Anna:

“How would you describe yourself in one paragraph?

I have to admit I’m a pathological optimist, even when faced with evidence that the world is not always a very nice place. I choose to believe there’s more good than bad in the world, and a happy ending to every story is just around the next bend. When troubles find you, and they always do, I think there’s a solution if you try to find one and persevere. I don’t mind hard work, love the comfort and security of my ‘home base’ in the beautiful Coachella Valley, but also enjoy challenge, adventure, and novelty. Life’s an extravaganza, bring it on!

What made you write in the first place?

Writing became a way of life as a graduate student in the social and behavioral sciences. Writing is one of the main skills you have to acquire in order to earn a PhD—a degree signifying that you are in the business of knowledge development. Along with conducting original research you have to make sense of your findings and report them. In my case that was mostly work involving policy and treatment related to substance abuse and mental illness. The final rite of passage to earn the PhD is to produce and defend what, in the social sciences, typically a book length manuscript—the dissertation. A big sigh of relief, after completing the PhD and getting a job, is soon followed by the realization that much more writing is to follow. Publish or perish is all too true!

Fiction writing was a great escape from the confining nature of scientific writing. There are so many rules to the scientific method, all that jargon, and oh the little weasel words you have to use to qualify and condition statements you make in science. There was something terrifically energizing and freeing about
fiction where you get to make it all up! While you are still bound by rules—grammar, of course, as well as traditions of plot, structure, pacing and character development—fiction is a romp. Like participating in a big raucous hoedown or a rave; an improvisational dance when compared to the structured balletic form
or the mincing steps of a minuet that circumscribe academic work. Mind you, I didn’t set out to write the great American novel, so maybe if that had been my aim, I would have experienced fiction writing differently.

A Dead Husband bookcover
photo credit:
Anna Celeste Burke

Which Author has influenced you and why?

Originally, I wrote horror fiction. Greatly influenced by Stephen King, and an earlier favorite, Edgar Allen Poe, I liked the way their work explored the terrain in which madness and evil take hold. The questions they asked about horrific events were intriguing—are heinous acts natural or unnatural? Are we all
capable of going horrific acts, like Jack, in Stephen King’s The Shining? Is Jack’s increasingly demented behavior madness or evil? You know, the sort of question any of us, sitting on a jury, might be asked to consider when a man murders his wife and child. That is, if his murderous spree doesn’t end in selfannihilation.
But what if, as in Jack’s case in The Shining, such acts are not merely unnatural but something supernatural? Does the evil turn Jack takes arise from a supernatural horror that resides in that hotel or does it awaken some latent malevolence in the man? Does that evil circumvent Jack’s humanity and turn him against his family or his behavior rooted in something more mundane—the
growing desperation and demented behavior of a man with a writing deadline, isolated by winter, trapped in a home with a family he comes to blame for the pressure he’s under? Unusual circumstances, true, but completely natural ones that turn the tiny cracks in the not-too-tightly-wrapped author’s façade, into mind-splitting chasms. I don’t know about you, but I never quite looked at Stephen King, in the same way, after that.

More recently I have begun to write the Jessica Huntington Desert Cities Mystery Series, set here in the California desert near Palm Springs. The mystery genre pursues a lot of the same questions as the horror genre, but without the supernatural thrown into the mix. Some of the earliest books I read were mystery series—Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and Trixie Belden. As an adult, I continued reading in the mystery and thriller genre. I particularly enjoy series featuring women sleuths, like the classics penned by Agatha Christie, P.D. James, and Elizabeth Peters. I also enjoy women sleuths introduced by newer writers, mostly women, by the way. Like those written by Dorothy Gilman, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Jonnie Jacobs, Rebecca Forster, and Janet Evanovich.

Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum character made me realize how much humor there was in a lot of mystery fiction—even the classics. After all, a lot of what goes on amidst the chaos of murder and mayhem heightens our awareness of the profound absurdity in the universe. We are all, at some point, as befuddled as Stephanie Plum, and my Jessica Huntington, when confronted by one cosmic joke or another. When murder or mayhem strikes, it doesn’t matter if you’re penniless, like Stephanie Plum, or financially set, like Jessica Huntington. Life is a great equalizer. The universe is an equal opportunity prankster.

Your writing ritual (if you have one)?

I have a loosely organized ritual that starts with morning coffee and breakfast, as well as a round of checks of social media sites, email, and a few household chores. By ten o’clock I like to be writing and try to have 1000 words written by the time I need to stop to fix lunch, preferably by 12:30 or so. I have an
alarm set for 1:30 so that I don’t miss lunch altogether. That has been known to happen. 

After lunch I like to put in another hour or two on writing. Sometimes that’s aimed at producing more new words and sometimes that involves editing—not wordsmith type edits, but edits aimed at keeping the story on track. I really have been trying to increase my daily output to 2500 words. 

I have exercise scheduled for 5 or 5: 30, then, dinner and a few more chores. 
After dinner I read, orwatch television, if there’s a good mystery or crime series on that night. I love Masterpiece Theater, but also watch Bones, Rizzoli & Isles, NCIS LA, Criminal Minds, or an old classic film like the Thin Man movies,
or a Father Brown, Lewis, Miss Marple, or Hercule Poirot mystery. Television and film portrayals of mystery fiction are great ways to learn about dialogue and visual representations of the action in a story.

While watching television, or after, I do my nightly round of marketing activities—setting up tweets and retweets in my scheduler, posting on Facebook, Google+ or elsewhere, retweeting, checking on various sites where I have books listed, etc. Somewhere during the week I also try to produce a new blog post—
maybe not quite every week, but close. And I have also tried to set up expectations that I will write and post one, maybe two, reviews of books I’ve read each week. 

All the work involved in marketing A DEAD HUSBAND and A DEAD DAUGHTER, the first two books in my mystery series, has been a shock. It’s taken almost the entire year, since A DEAD HUSBAND was released
December, 2013, to figure out how to integrate that into a manageable process. I released A DEAD SISTER in April and am wrapping up book 3, A DEAD DAUGHTER. My writing process is a work in progress, to be sure, so nothing is set in stone.

A Dead Sister bookcover
Photo Credit:
Anna Celeste Burke

Do you suffer from writers block and if, what do you do against it?

I don’t suffer from writers block per se, but I can too easily allow other commitments to eat into my writing time. That’s an insidious process that can stem from an activity that seems innocent enough. I was prone to chronic over-commitment as an academic, and developed some bad habits that I still work
on today—mostly that’s about keeping my priorities straight.

I also work very hard to keep the production and evaluation processes separate. I have tried to move toward less editing and just enough rereading of a new manuscript to keep the continuity and flow of the story moving. I still ‘stutter’ as I write—change words in process, rather than trusting that there will be a time and a place to do that later. I actually enjoy finding just the right word to convey the meaning of a situation, thought, or feeling, and I don’t like to overuse words, so I confess that I almost always have a window open to a Thesaurus on my computer while I’m writing.

Your advice for apprentice writers?

Read, read, read—fiction and nonfiction—across a wide range of topics and genres. 

Write, write, write—write until you have written so many words that dumping a few thousand or so no longer seems the least bit unusual.

Separate production and evaluation—harness the critic until you have a story written. Then unleash the ruthless beast, and let it whine and whimper, until you make your story better.

Know when to stop—there is a point where you just have to make your work public and take your knocks. If there’s a typo, welcome to the real world! Then, brace yourself. You’re never going to make everyone happy. Tastes vary, so some people are more inclined to like your work than others. Some people prefer chocolate while others will prefer vanilla or strawberry. Not all criticism is warranted or meant to be helpful, so pick and choose what bits of feedback you use to modify your story or change the way you do things next time.”

Thank you so much, Anna, for taking the time for this interview and letting us know so much about your writing experience.

Do you want to know more about Anna or read/buy her books: Please have a look here:

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