In this interview with Lisa Bullard, author of Turn Left at the Cow, our Bookstorm™ this month, we asked nine questions to which she gave heartfelt answers.
Lisa, thank you for your willingness to share your writing process and your thoughts about mysteries with us. Mysteries have rabid fans and you’ve written a book that’s not only smart and funny and sassy, but it’s a taut thriller. We appreciate having such a good book to read and to share with other fans.
At what point in writing your novel, Turn Left at the Cow, did you know it was going to be about an unsolved bank robbery?
That’s a great question—it makes me think back to the whole exciting process of how this story evolved over time! When I first set out to write this book, I actually imagined it as a murder mystery for adult readers. And then one day, when I had about 5 or 6 chapters written, I was revising the opening to the story, and a completely different voice marched in and took over the first-person narration—and it was the voice of a young teenage boy. He had so much energy, and I could “hear” him so clearly, that I knew this was truly his story to tell. And of course he wanted to talk to other kids more than he wanted to talk to adults! But that meant I had to rethink many other elements of the novel to instead make it a story for young readers.
I thought it seemed unlikely that a 13-year-old would be able to get involved in a murder investigation in a way that felt realistic, so I brainstormed other possible mysteries. At about the same time, I read a newspaper article about a man who was convinced that infamous hijacker D.B. Cooper was actually his brother. I used one of my greatest writing tools — the question “What if?” — and started thinking along the lines of “What if my character discovers that one of his relatives was involved in a notorious robbery?”
You’ve set Turn Left at the Cow in a small, rural town. Trav’s grandma lives in a cabin on a nearby lake. Why did you decide that the “place” for this story should be in this locale?
This location was at the heart of this story from the very beginning; it stayed the same no matter what other details changed, and to me, this setting speaks so loudly that it’s like another character in the book. It’s based primarily on the location of my family’s lake cabin, which is on Green Lake (near two very small Minnesota towns, Spicer and New London), in west central Minnesota. Since my family moved around when I was a kid, it’s the one place that I’ve consistently returned to since I was a very small child, and it’s a place that has sunk deep into my bones. Our lake cabin originally belonged to my grandparents, and I’ve spent some of the most important times in my life there with family and friends. It’s even where my parents had their honeymoon, so I’ve truly been visiting there my entire life! But of course, my story is fiction, so I did take some liberties with the setting—for example, I gave the town in the book a (nonexistent in real life) giant statue of a bullhead (fish), because many of my other favorite Minnesota towns feature giant statuary.
Travis, your protagonist, is a 13-year-old boy whose dad died before he was born. This serves as a strong motivation for him running away from his mother in California to his grandmother in Minnesota. Does your sure-footed knowledge of Trav’s motivation come from your own experience?
I have been so lucky to have a dad who has always been very active in my life. To this day, we still talk and laugh and argue with each other like we did when I was a little kid and a teenager. But many of the people I’ve been closest to throughout my life are not so lucky. I’ve been close friends with several people who lost their father when they were quite young, and my closest uncle died the summer I turned nine—so my cousins no longer had a father of their own. As my mom explained to me, that meant I needed to “share” my dad with them.
As I mentioned earlier, one of my greatest writing tools is the question “What if?” It challenges me to expand my stories beyond my own personal experiences and to live inside the experiences of a character who is very different from me. One of the biggest “What if” questions in my own life has always been: “What if I didn’t happen to have the dad that I was lucky enough to have?” I decided that this story was the place for me to try to imagine what it might be like for someone to desperately crave a relationship with a lost father.
Readers are fascinated by the “red herrings” in a whodunit, the clues that could, but don’t, solve the mystery. At what point in writing the story did you consciously work with (plant your) red herrings?
I love quirky details, and I built a lot of them into the story: for example, there’s a human head carved out of butter, a walking catfish, and a game where the winner is chosen by a pooping chicken. But I don’t want to give away any clues to readers who haven’t yet had a chance to read my story, so I’m hesitant to tell you here which details are red herrings and which details are key clues! I’ll just say that some of the red herrings were in place before I wrote a single word of the story, some of them wandered in out of the mysterious depths of my subconscious as I was writing the first few drafts, and others were things I created quite deliberately when I was revising and reached a point where I felt I needed to mislead readers from figuring out the solution too easily.
Since that’s a really vague answer, how about this? After you’ve read the story, feel free to visit the contact page on my website (lisabullard.com) and send me an email with any questions you have about the specific red herrings in my story — I’d be delighted to send you an answer!
Your story is very tense as it approaches its climax. Did you have to re-work your manuscript to achieve this?
Yes, absolutely! The entire story required many rounds of revision, but I received some key advice that really helped me make this section more dramatic and suspenseful. The novel took me about 3 years total to write, but one year in particular was very productive. During that year I took a series of classes from mystery writer Ellen Hart, and got great advice and feedback from her and the other students in the class. One of the things I learned was that you should write in short, choppy sentences when you want to create a scene that feels chaotic and quick-moving. Those short sentences push the reader forward through the story more quickly because they read more quickly. In my first draft, I had included lots of long and meandering sentences, and those had to be broken up or deleted altogether.
I had also written a lot of reflective passages in those tense scenes — paragraphs where my character was doing a lot of thinking along the lines of “How did this even happen?” But in real life, when something really high-action and stressful is happening, a person usually doesn’t have time to stop and think too hard — they only have time to react and keep moving. Stopping to figure out exactly where things went wrong comes afterwards. So I went back and took out all of those places where my character was “over-thinking,” and just had him responding to the danger of the moment as best he could.
When you write a mystery, how do you know that it’s mysterious enough?
Wow, that’s another great question. I’m not sure that I know how to answer it exactly, but I’ll do my best! To me, mystery stories are puzzles: as the writer, your job is to hand the reader all the pieces of the puzzle, but to do it in such a way that the puzzle isn’t overly easy to solve. So for example, I’ve never liked mysteries where the answer is something the reader couldn’t possibly have figured out—when there’s some important clue that the author has held back, and then on the last page, the detective says something like, “This letter that was locked in a bank vault until 5 minutes ago proves that the thief was Mr. Villain!” As a reader, I want a fair chance to put together all the puzzle pieces for myself—and if the writer still fools me after playing fair, then good for them!
So when I was writing this mystery, I knew I had to play fair — I had to give the reader all of the important clues. It was okay if I spread out the clues over the whole book. And it was totally okay if I mislead the reader into thinking that some of those clues weren’t as important as they turned out to be in the end! After all, it’s the reader’s job to put the puzzle pieces together to get the right answer — I trust my readers to be smart, so I don’t have to make it TOO easy for them!
As far as the actual writing process, I made a long list of all the clues I knew in advance, and I thought about how I could work them into the story at intervals so there would be clues all throughout. I also built in things that seemed like fake clues to heighten the suspense and to make the puzzle more exciting. Finally, as I was writing, at any point where I felt like the story was slowing down too much, I would ask myself, “What is something really unexpected or surprising that could happen to my character next?” — and that approach provided some additional clues.
I also worked to think of metaphors and setting details that would add a spooky atmosphere to the whole story, and I tried to put my character into situations that seemed dangerous. After all, another big part of mysteries is that they’re more fun if they’re kind of scary!
Do you read mysteries? How old were you when you began reading them? Can you remember some of the first mysteries you read?
I love mysteries! They’re still some of my absolute favorite books, and they’re some of the first books I remember reading. When I was in elementary school, I was lucky enough to be given a huge box full of books that had belonged to either my mom or my older girl cousins when they were younger. The box held a lot of mystery series, some of them pretty old-fashioned but still wonderful. The different series included Judy Bolton, Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, and the Three Investigators. And some of the first “grown-up” books I ever read were Agatha Christie mysteries and suspense stories by Mary Stewart. As a kid, I loved mystery stories so much that I made up my own mysteries and forced my brother and friends to “play” Three Investigators in our basement—we even wrote secret messages in invisible ink (lemon juice) and then decoded them by holding them over the toaster.
What is there about a mystery that you think appeals to kids?
It’s fun to get that little spine-tingly feeling that comes when something is a little bit scary, so that’s part of it. Many mysteries are action-packed and fast-moving (rarely boring), so that’s another part of it. But I think a big reason is that working to put together the puzzle of the story is kind of like a game—and if, as a reader, you manage to figure out the mystery before the story’s detective does, then you also feel pretty darn proud of yourself, and smart!
Can you share with us what you’re working on now? Is it another mystery? (We hope so.)
I’ve written several nonfiction books since Turn Left at the Cow was published, and now I’m wrestling with another mystery. My writing process is pretty slow when it comes to novels (and my life in the last few years has been really complicated)—plus I write a lot of my first draft in my head before any of it actually hits paper—so there isn’t a whole lot actually written down yet. But I can tell you that this story is set in the north woods of Minnesota, and like Turn Left the mystery has to do with a complicated family story and a lot of quirky small-town characters. Including Bigfoot, by the way—now there’s a mystery for you!
What an interesting, inspiring, and instructive interview, Lisa! Thanks for the good writing tips. I’m glad to hear there’s another mystery in the works!
Great interview, Lisa! Thanks so much for the peek into your process.
I love TURN LEFT AT THE COW, and I can’t wait to read your next mystery!