New Faces 13 - S. D. Tooley
by Cathy Sova
Welcome to New Faces, where you'll meet brand-new authors in the mystery arena! We're pleased to introduce S. D. Tooley, whose new mystery WHEN THE DEAD SPEAK is now on your bookseller's shelves. S.D. talks about her background and getting that first book published.

Tell us about yourself.

Other than a brief stay in Huntsville, Alabama, when I was small, my family has basically stayed in small suburbs just south of Chicago. That is where my grandparents settled after emigrating from Poland. I attended school in Hegewisch and Lansing, Illinois, and once graduating high school I moved to Calumet City. My husband and I currently reside in Indiana, a stone's throw from the Illinois border.

I'm one of those perpetual students. I take a number of classes but never enough to get any degrees. My interests are constantly evolving and I wish I was back in high school now. They never had the variety of courses in school then that are now offered. If I wasn't writing, I would be a paleoanthropologist or archeologist. There is something about digging in the dirt that always appealed to me. Now I just write about finding bones in the dirt.

Are you coming to mystery writing from another job?

I had always envisioned myself staying at one job all my life but I guess my prior comment about my interests constantly evolving also applies to working. Some of the jobs I have held are secretary, car salesperson, sales assistant, assistant to a local politician, technical writer, seminar coordinator, and my most recent and enjoyable job as a casino blackjack dealer. I stayed with the same riverboat casino for six years. But the last two was at their new location in Hammond, Indiana, on Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan can be horrible and I constantly felt seasick. (You noticed I didn't list marine biologist as one of my dream occupations!) So I quit my dealer job in April 1998 and have focused exclusively on writing.

What led you to write mysteries?

Like a lot of mystery writers, I cut my teeth on Nancy Drew books. But I advanced to Stephen King. There was something about being scared to death that appealed to me, whether it was old Shock Theatre movies with Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff, or current alien movies. I'm sure you are wondering why I don't write horror rather than mysteries. I've tried but I keep veering off toward the mystery. There is a knack to creating a believable monster. I love watching science fiction movies and television shows but my imagination can't conjure up a Star Wars or X-Files-type plot. I've compromised, though. I've managed to toss a little mythology and psychic powers so to speak in my novels.

Tell us about your road to publication.

It was long and bumpy. I have been writing for about fifteen years. It took me five years to write the first book. I wasn't very disciplined and felt if I didn't have the time to write at least ten pages a day then I wouldn't write that day. Since then I have learned that even one page a day gives you 365 pages by the end of the year. All the classes I took said to start out small, to write short stories. So I tried. I won a short story contest but short stories don't allow the writer enough time to really develop a story. I never know when to shut up (the first draft of my first book was 900 pages long). There is a knack to pacing the short story and I know short story writers who just can't write a novel. I also veered off into television scripts. I wrote two scripts for Moonlighting. Although neither was purchased, one episode was very similar to my script. But I was unagented and didn't have a legal leg to stand on.

There are four versions of my first book, When The Dead Speak. I took all the suggestions agents gave me. If a plot was too complex, I changed it. If it was too archaic, I changed it. I had an agent for two months but then her husband took ill and she had to close up shop. I thought I had a publisher in Canada but found out they were a subsidy publisher. It took six months for me to get my manuscript back. Since then the owner has absconded with the funds with the feds in close pursuit.

I shopped my final version of my first book around for seven years. After the first six months I realized how costly it was getting to send out sample chapters and return postage. So I had postcards made up with a design of my book cover drawn by an artist friend on one side, a brief synopsis of the book and boxes to "X" if the agent wanted to see sample chapters or the complete manuscript on the flip side. I mailed out close to 300 of these postcards with a query letter. I had an 82% response. The statistics are amazing: 28% said not for us, 21% said not interested, 27% said they have too many clients, 4% charge a reading fee, and 2% requested the manuscript. Naturally there are those agents who sound really interested but then refer you to a book doctor to polish it up.

Then I started sending queries to some of the big publishers. Naturally, most said they only work through agents, a few read my work. But any dreams of a six figure deal with a large publishing house were fizzling quickly. I realized money was not really a prerequisite for me. It was more important for me to see my book in print. To me that was the only way to breathe life into my characters. So I started to pursue the small publishing houses. A writer should never disregard the small and mid-sized publisher. They can do more hand-holding and give more personal attention to their clients than the larger houses.

What kind of research was involved for your first book?

I have characters that are a different ethnic background from mine. My detective is part Native American. Two other re-occurring characters in the book are full-blooded, Lakota Sioux to be exact. Other writers have said that they hear their characters' voices. And it's true. So when my characters started speaking, I knew their ethnic background. I have shelves of books on Native American history and have had an avid interest in the Native American culture for as long as I can remember. For almost fifteen years I have subscribed to Indian Country Today, the largest Native American-owned newspaper in the country. For several years I marketed Native American crafts to local stores and was instrumental in obtaining a substantial order for Lakota pottery from a large retail chain. When people ask if I anticipate objections from my incorporating an ethnic background different from my own, I just point to Tony Hillerman, James Patterson, and even Arthur Golden who wrote Memoirs of a Geisha. He not only isn't Asian, he isn't even a she.

As far as other research, I rode in a beat car one shift, toured the new Illinois State Police Forensic Science Center in Chicago, have picked the brain of a former investigator for the medical examiner's office, and have a number of forensic and police web sites bookmarked. And since When The Dead Speak is about a U.S. soldier reported AWOL during the Korean War, I absorbed a number of books on the Korean War. Since my book also involves racism during the Korean War, I found especially helpful a book by Lieutenant Colonel Charles M. Bussey who wrote, Firefight at Yechon - Courage and Racism in the Korean War.

Who are your influences as a writer?

Too many to mention. Probably the biggest is James Patterson. I love his pacing. He uses short chapters which is the format I patterned. It keeps the story moving. As far as others, I wish I had the humor of Janet Evanovich and Nelson DeMille, the analytical vision of Elmore Leonard, the discipline of Jeanne Dams, the creativity of Stephen King, the suspense-building of David Baldacci, the staying power of Sue Grafton, and the list goes on.

What does your family think of having a mystery author in their midst?

They are thrilled. One of my biggest fans is my cousin. In one of my books I have given the character her name but I made her a hooker and a drug addict. My cousin was upset, so I increased the character's bust size and now she's happy.

Tell us about plans for future books.

I have written four books thus far in the Sam Casey series (seven if you count all those rewrites). Book Two, Nothing Else Matters, should be out the end of 1999. It's about a murder on a riverboat casino. It involves counterfeit printing plates, uncovers covert torture experiments used on our own military over twenty years ago, and a renegade mercenary who was the only one to survive the experiments and has been using some of these torture techniques on his victims.

Book Three, Restless Spirit, is based loosely on an actual unsolved murder. My character touches a button unearthed at a construction site, sees a vision of the murder, hears a name repeated in her head, but it's not the name of the man soon to be executed for the murder.

Book Four, Rush to Judgment, is about a police officer framed for murdering his estranged wife and her boyfriend. All evidence points to him including DNA, footprints, and a history of marital problems. (It's kind of my ode to O.J. As someone with a vivid imagination, I see a conspiracy in every crime and an ebola virus in every cold.)

I have plot ideas for at least ten more books for the Sam Casey series but I keep tossing plot ideas into a folder so that number keeps increasing. I am almost through with the first book of a new series. My male P.I. has a shady past and seems to inherit the most bizarre cases. He has two colorful assistants: A chatty scarlet macaw named Einstein who has a photographic memory, and a young Native American woman who happens to be a shapeshifter. She can shift into a gray hawk and a gray wolf. (See, I still find a way to work fantasy and mythology into my books!)

How can readers get in touch with you?

The fictional town in the Sam Casey series is Chasen Heights and my e-mail just happens to be

Thanks, S.D., and best of luck! Readers, check out our review of When the Dead Speak.

April 5, 1999

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