Meet the Author: Sasscer Hill

flamingo road (2)Sasscer Hill is an inspired mystery writer whose books are set on and around racetracks. Her recent release is Flamingo Road, published by Minotaur Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press. She has graciously agreed to answer a few of my questions.

You were born in Washington, D.C. What were your favorite books growing up?

Growing up, my favorite author was Walter Farley and my favorite books where the Black Stallion, the Son of The Black Stallion, and the Island Stallion stories. There was a horse book called Cammie’s Choice that I loved, and of course, I read all the Nancy Drew mysteries.

You are a prolific writer of horse-racing mysteries. What prompted you to write in that genre?

As a child I loved horses, action, and adventure, and as I mentioned, I was addicted to Walter Farley’s books. In the fifth grade our teacher asked my class to write a story. Some wrote about waking up, brushing their teeth, and eating cereal. I wrote a scene with a boy and an old man trailering a horse to the races, from the viewpoint of the boy. Something was wrong, I don’t remember what, but the boy was worried. The correlation between my boy and Farley’s “Alex Ramsey” is obvious but here’s how this moment changed my life. First, I was surprised when the teacher asked me to read my fragment to the class. I was even more surprised that several kids seemed genuinely interested, and asked, “What happens next?”Sasscer Hill (3)

There is no greater compliment a writer can get than to have that question asked, and I knew I had something.  I realized maybe I had the talent needed to be an author. Unfortunately, I spent decades working in marketing and promotions for several Washington, DC associations, and two different academic book publishers. My first book, FULL MORTALITY, wasn’t published until I was in my fifties.

When I wrote FULL MORTALITY, I followed the old adage, “write what you know,” and since I lived on a farm outside DC, and raised Thoroughbred racehorses for thirty-two years, I knew a lot about horse racing. Not only that, it was my passion and that passion, I believe, found its way into my books.

Describe Nikki Latrelle, the protagonist of your first series. Is the character autobiographical in any way?

She is somewhat autobiographical because her life themes echo my own: chase the dream, fight the odds, help the helpless, and to always remember, you get what you give.

Nikki struggles to chase her dreams. What bigger dreamer is there than a jockey who risks her life to ride in a race? Like many of us, she was born fighting the odds, the odds that say we won’t get what we want.

Nikki also has a need to help the helpless. Maybe she’s searching for that sense of self-worth, or that sense we all get when we help someone, that we are, after all, a good person, that we matter to someone.

For that series, you’ve written short stories, a novella, and three novels. Which form do you enjoy writing the most?

The short stories I’ve written were usually for a Sisters in Crime anthology, or for a competition. I don’t find them satisfying as they are too much like a fragment of a novel. Writing a full novel is the hardest and the most satisfying. I would say the novella took second place in that race.

Now, on to your exciting new release–the first Fia McKee Mystery, Flamingo Road. Tell us about Fia.

Fia is a female agent working for the Thoroughbred Racing Protection Bureau (TRPB), an actual US agency. The TRPB’s mission, which of course becomes Fia’s mission, is to protect the integrity of horse racing against those that ruin the sport’s credibility by cheating, scamming, drugging horses, or threatening jockeys. Sadly, there is an endless list of bad acts and bad actors that can ruin the image of the sport of kings.

Fia’s father was murdered at Pimlico Racetrack and the case was never solved. Fia, angry and resentful, becomes a Baltimore City cop. Hot headed, she’s suspended when she guns down a perp. She winds up working for the TRPB who sends her to Gulfstream Park race track near Miami to investigate why low-level horses are suddenly winning at long odds. When a horse belonging to Fia’s fifteen-year-old niece is butchered for Miami’s Cuban-American black-market in horsemeat, Fia is pulled onto a doubly dangerous investigation that threatens her life and the lives of those she loves.

Fia McKee has two potential love interests in Flamingo Road. What writing challenges did that present?

No challenge at all. Most of us have experienced being drawn to more than one man or woman, and that conflict is fun to write about and adds an extra dimension to the story. It sure worked for Stephanie Plum in Janet Evanovich’s bestselling books! But I was surprised and a bit amused when one Amazon Vine reviewer said the fact Fia would look at two men at once kept her, the reviewer, from giving FLAMINGO ROAD a five-star rating.

When can we expect the next Kia McKee Mystery?

THE DARK SIDE OF TOWN will be out in the spring of 2018.

What would you like to tell us that I neglected to ask?

I wanted to plunge into the next Fia McKee novel which would take place at Santa Anita Park in California. I even traveled to California and took a tour of the track and the Hollywood area nearby. I wanted a murder mystery set at this well-known track surrounded by the glitz and deceit of Hollywood.

But, suppose the first two Fia McKee novels don’t sell well? What good will this idea be then? St. Martin’s Press owns the right to “Fia McKee.” If I want to sell to another big-five New York publisher, any book I write has to be something new, which means yet another series and a new set of characters.

Since I can’t afford not to hedge my bets, I’ve already started a new book–a murder mystery about the Irish Travelers here in America. By happy coincidence, the largest enclave for these people is Murphy Village, not more than forty minutes from my home in Aiken, South Carolina.

Travelers have a fascinating culture. The children are taken out of school by eighth grade, if not before, and the girls are married by contract and usually as young teens. Travelers stick to themselves and have little dealings with outsiders. Society believes the Travelers are scam and con artists. What would it be like for a girl who grows up in this atmosphere? What if she wants out? Where would she go? What would happen to her?

And so, another story has evolved, and another exploration has begun. Only time will tell which way I travel, but at least I’ll be as prepared as possible for whatever happens next.

Thank you, Sasscer. Those who enjoy mysteries with strong female characters will enjoy all of Sasscer Hill’s works. You can find a complete list here.

 

The John Tuohy Files: We Meet



The Truman Show: Is this for real?

Have you ever felt like you’ve stepped into some version of The Truman Show? By that, I mean you unknowingly became part of some crazy TV series. With the historian I interviewed, John Tuohy of Clogheen, I almost wanted to look for hidden cameras.

With “Main Street” being the only address I had, a guy in the grocery store directed me to two brown doors across the street. While they looked like residential-style doors to me, they were described as John Tuohy’s shop.

I knocked on the first. Nothing. I knocked again, and a third time, before I heard the shuffle of an approach. A small-boned, slightly disheveled man opened the door.

“John Tuohy?” I asked.

“No, he‘s not here,” he grumbled and stepped into the street. “He’s the hardest man to find. Always in and out,” he said, clearly annoyed at him or me or both.

I followed him two doors further down the sidewalk. Obviously agitated, he went on, “I’m trying to get some work done in the back and he’s not there…”


Clogheen, Co. Tipperary



I mumbled my apologies, but it was now clear that Tuohy was the target of his wrath. He pounded on the new door. “John!” A responding grunt from within. “You’re wanted out here.”

“Alright,” came the reply.

The frustrated man mumbled something sarcastic about Tuohy’s unreliability and wished me luck getting anywhere with him, then went back to his work.

A tall, white-haired man dressed in all black emerged. I introduced myself.

“What is your surname?” he asked.

“Gibson,” I repeated.
Main Street, Clogheen*
“I wrote down a G but I couldn’t read the rest of it. I looked at my calendar yesterday and saw it.”

Oh boy. After that less-than-glowing recommendation from his housemate(?), I was beginning to worry a little about what would come of this. John Tuohy was my one big Nicholas Sheehy expert on this trip.
As we walked back to his place, he told me he had been watching the home where I found him for the lady who owned it. That’s a kind thing, I remember thinking. Only later in the interview did I discover she had been dead for two years.
Had I been dropped into some wacky British comedy? More to come.
*Photo from Wikicommons, padraigobrien

The Tavern of John McHeath


The Stage Coach Inn was located about
twenty miles from McHeath’s Tavern.

Local history books provided the setting and conflict for my story, The Least of These.

The Revolutionary War was a brutal time in South Carolina when neighbors chose sides, resulting on a whopping one-third of the population as active Loyalists. This created a more true civil war than any in U.S. history. Neighbors destroyed each other’s homes, raped, scalped, and hacked each other to bits. Corpses were even dug up and abused.

A re-created tavern at the Living
History Park, North Augusta, S. C.

Real-life character Tarleton Brown and his young fictional savior, Mary Edith Dillon, sided with the Patriots. I needed a loyal subject of His Highness King George III to act as their foil.

From The Village of Barnwell by William Hansford Duncan, I learned the focal point of colonial life in my town was a tavern located on Red Hill, run by a man named John McHeath.

McHeath’s inn was famous for its whiskey. However, taverns were not only where folks went to throw back a few shots. They were often the only community buildings available. They could be used as courtrooms, schoolhouses, and even church services. To prevent drunkenness during these tamer activities, a set of wooden bars would be lowered to block access to alcohol. Even today, 

Note the bar that was lowered for
non-alcoholic activities.

we say, “The bar is closed.”

Taverns were prevalent along main thoroughfares and trading routes in the backwoods. McHeath’s Tavern served as an oasis on the Charles Town-Augusta stagecoach road where travelers stopped for food, drink, or a night’s rest, if needed. Locals showed up to hear gossip, make contacts, or enjoy a game of cards, or patrons might enjoy the occasional brawl or cockfight. I can imagine some gritty political discussions, too.

Inside the tavern at the Historic
Camden Revolutionary War Site
With that, the stage is set. Let the drama begin.

RESEARCH TIP: I learned much of this information from the tavern keeper at the “Living History Park” in North Augusta, South Carolina (http://www.colonialtimes.us/). Re-enactors are a great source of knowledge since they tend to be very passionate about their topic and strive for accuracy to the smallest detail. And like any enthusiast, they love to talk about their interest. 

Also helpful, I found a facsimile of a colonial tavern at the Historic Camden Revolutionary War Site of Camden, South Carolina. Since McHeath’s inn is long gone, it helps to have one I can enter, walk around, and get a feel for.