Interview by Brock Eastman
Featuring Murder at the Courthouse
Michael Keane’s stressful days as a Columbus police officer are done. He’s ready to relax into his new position as deputy sheriff in his sleepy hometown. Nothing ever happens in Hidden Springs, Kentucky—and that’s just fine with Michael.
Nothing, that is, until a dead body is discovered on the courthouse steps. As Michael works to solve the case, it seems that every nosy resident in town has a theory. When the sheriff insists Michael check out one of these harebrained theories, his surprising discovery sends him on a bewildering search for a mysterious killer that has him questioning everything he has ever believed about life in Hidden Springs.
Bringing with her a knack for creating settings you want to visit and an uncanny ability to bring characters to life, A. H. Gabhart pens a whodunit that will keep you guessing.
Brock: How did you come up with the idea for this series?
Ann: I’ve always enjoyed reading mysteries. So I decided why not try to write one or two. I picked a small town because that’s what I know. Hidden Springs came into being. Then a character, Michael Keane, who loves his little town and wants to protect it, sprang to life in my imagination. At this point, I thought what if things weren’t as idyllic as they seemed in Hidden Spring. What if secrets from the past were buried under that peaceful surface that would threaten to tear the town apart?
Brock: Tell us about the main characters. Who are they? What makes them unique?
Ann: My main character, Michael Keane, is a deputy sheriff in my little town. He was a policeman for a while in a big city, but didn’t like all the crime he saw there. His roots go deep in Hidden Springs and he’s happy back in his hometown directing traffic and writing up fender bender accident reports. But then a body is discovered on the courthouse steps and the town is plunged into a mystery. As Michael works to apprehend the murderer, new discoveries make him question all he has believed about his small town.
Malinda Keane is Michael’s maiden aunt and the matriarch of Hidden Springs. She raised Michael after an auto accident killed his parents and critically injured him. Michael credits his recovery to her force of character that practically willed him back to life. Malinda works to keep the town of Hidden Springs as she thinks it should be, a vital Main Street of hometown businesses.
Brock: Give us one fact about each main character that no one else knows.
Ann: Michael longs to have a family but he’s in love with a woman he thinks would never live in a small town like Hidden Springs.
Malinda was in love once and planned to marry, but her fiancé was killed in the service. After that, she poured all her energy into teaching math at the local high school and raising Michael.
Brock: In three sentences, what is this book about?
Ann: Murder at the Courthouse is about how secrets can be revealed to challenge everything we’ve believed to be true about a person or place. Michael Keane wants to keep the peace in his little town of Hidden Springs but bad things can happen anywhere. When violent death comes to call on the town, the small town peaceful image is disrupted.
Brock: Do you outline the entire book before starting, or do you write as you go and let the characters take control of the story?
Ann: I wrote my first novel because I had an assignment to outline a novel in a writing course I was taking. I hated doing outlines in school so I wrote my first novel instead. I start with my characters and a general plot idea, but then I let the characters show me their stories as we go down the story road. Sometimes I think it would be easier if I did like outlining and could plan out my books chapter by chapter.
Brock: How do you believe this story relates to the lives of readers?
Ann: Most of us have roots in place. I know I do. And this story is about how we can live in a place all our lives and think we know the people, but yet, we never know everything. Throughout the story, I have Malinda consider the blessings that come our way even in the midst of hard times by considering the Bible verses Lamentations 3:22-23. The old hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness” was inspired by these verses with its words about how each morning we see new blessings from our compassionate Lord. I hope that thought will touch and encourage readers as much as it does me.
Brock: What is your favorite genre to write for?
Ann: I have written in several different genres. My first published books were historical romances in the general market and then I published several young adult and middle reader coming of age type stories before I came over to the inspirational fiction market. In the Christian market, I’ve published my Shaker books, historical family stories, small town stories and historical romance. Now I’m writing small town mysteries. But the best part of writing for the Christian market is being able to tell the stories I want to tell and letting my characters’ faith journeys be part of the story. So, I’d just say my favorite genre is the Christian genre, and I’m glad I’ve been able to explore different sorts of stories in this market.
Brock: How many books are planned for this series?
Ann: The series will have at least three books. After that, it will be according to readers. But I do plan to write more historical stories as well.
Brock: Why did you choose to focus on a male protagonist?
Ann: In most of my Christian fiction books, I have both a male and female protagonist and sometimes a variety of point of view characters. But when I began writing these Hidden Spring mysteries, I seemed to need to mainly focus in on one character. I wanted that character to be in the center of the mystery, the one who would be working to figure everything out. I’m not sure why I decided the deputy in the story should be male and not female. That’s just what seemed to work for the story I had in mind.
Brock: Are you working on the next book in the series?
Ann: Actually book 2, Murder Comes by Mail, is going through edits now and will be released in July 2016. I’m working on book 3 and trying to figure out who did what as I write. I’m letting a house have a big part in the story, so we’ll see if the house makes it into the final title or on the cover. There will be a new cat as there are cats on both the other covers.
Brock: Can you give us a hint at the next book in the series?
Ann: In Murder Comes by Mail, Michael becomes a local media sensation after he prevents a man from committing suicide. The good feelings don’t last long as photos of victims of a serial killer arrive in the mail addressed to the “Hero of Hidden Springs.” Things go from bad to worse with Michael desperately trying to stop the killer before someone new is targeted by the killer.
Brock: Do you plot or outline the entire series before you begin writing, or do your books take on lives of their own? Or is there a combination?
Ann: I do have a general idea of the plot of each book when I begin writing, but I did not have a plot or outline for the ensuing stories except for Michael’s continuing love interest and problems with that. So the books do take on a life of their own, but that continuing thread of Michael’s personal life and the life of his aunt Malinda and other townspeople is laced throughout all the books.
Brock: Where do you like to write?
Ann: For many years, I had a desk in my kitchen and wrote whenever I could grab a few hours from my busy life as a farm wife and mother. Eventually, we built an addition onto our house that included a much needed extra bathroom and even better, for me, an office with windows. My favorite room is a room with windows and I’m glad to have such a great place to write where I can look out at the yard and fields while I’m writing. My dog Oscar, a Lab Chow mix, keeps me company in my office.
Brock: Are you a full-time or part-time author/writer?
Ann: I’ve been both. I have worked part-time in various secretarial jobs over the years, but now I’m able to work full-time. My husband has been retired for a number of years, but I can’t imagine retiring from writing. There’s always another story waiting to be told.
Brock: When did you realize you wanted to become a writer?
Ann: When I was around ten years old, I was a big fan of the Hardy Boy mystery stories. So I decided it might be fun if I could solve a mystery like they did. Since there was little chance I was going to stumble across a real mystery out on the farm where I grew up, I set about writing my own adventure starring a cuter, smarter model of myself. The rest is history. I’ve been writing ever since although it did take a few years before I saw my words in print. And I let other characters star in the stories these days.
Brock: What was your favorite book as a teen or child?
Ann: Well, there were those Hardy Boy mysteries that started me on my path as a writer. I also loved Black Beauty and Little Women. And when I was fourteen, I read Gone with the Wind over the Thanksgiving holiday break from school. I can still remember the feeling of being totally immersed in that story.
Brock: Favorite place to vacation?
Ann: I love walking on the beach at sunrise with the waves lapping my feet and the pelicans diving for their breakfast. But I also like hiking in the mountains and being among the trees. So I suppose my favorite place to vacation is anywhere I can be near the wonders of nature.
Brock: Do you have a particular drink or food you consume when you write? Like coco, raspberry tea, animal crackers?
Ann: I drink hot tea year around. That’s a gift of air conditioning that keeps it cool enough inside for that hot tea. I like black tea, unsweetened, unflavored and brewed from loose leaf tea.
Brock: Do you have a favorite Bible verse?
Ann: The Bible is full of beautiful passages and verses that speak to us in a variety of ways on our journey along life’s path. With each of my books, different verses or Bible stories seem to come to mind that fit within my story. Then after I’ve written the story and am privileged to autograph copies for readers, I try to come up with a verse that relates to the story to include with my signature. Lamentations 3:22-23 will be the Scripture reference I will use for Murder at the Courthouse. But for my recent Shaker book, The Innocent, I chose 1Thessalonians 5:17 since that story has a theme of how important prayer can be in our lives. I’ve used the blessing of 3 John 2 for several books.
But if I had to chose one verse in the Bible that speaks to my heart and wows my imagination it would be John 21:25. “And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (NKJ) Oh, what a Savior!
Brock: What advice was most helpful to you as a young writer?
Ann: When I was a young writer, I read many articles on how to write and how to submit my writing. But what helped me most to develop as a writer was simply reading. Those books I loved to read helped me learn how words could be strung together and made to simply disappear as the story came to life in my imagination. Reading fed my imagination and helped to fill my well of creativity. It still does.
Brock: What do you like about writing a mystery like Murder at the Courthouse? What are some of the challenges in mystery writing?
Ann: I liked tying all the loose ends together in my mystery to make the ending work. But it can be a challenge to give hints throughout the book as to who did what without telling too much. At the same time, those clues have to be there or the reader will feel cheated.
It is also more of a challenge to include a Christian thread in a contemporary mystery than it is to have that faith journey of my characters in my historical novels. In a mystery, it’s sometimes more about a Christian world view instead of a character’s search for faith or for a stronger faith. A mystery takes a narrower focus to be sure the mystery is on the main stage in the book. That’s not to say you can’t have character growth. You can, but you need to remember to keep the mystery in the forefront of the reader’s mind. Mystery readers like figuring out who did what while at the same time being pleased if the writer can pull off an ending that surprises them. But this has to be done fairly. By that I mean the clues have to be there pointing toward the ending when the reader thinks back about the story.
Brock: Any last words for your readers?
Ann: Only thanks for reading and I hope you are immersed in many great fictional worlds in the weeks and years to come.
A. H. Gabhart, bestselling author of many novels, including Angel Sister, Small Town Girl, and Love Comes Home; several popular Shaker novels such as The Outsider, The Believer, and The Innocent; and The Heart of Hollyhill series. Ann grew up in a small rural town in Kentucky much like Hidden Springs, but Ann is happy to report nobody was ever murdered on her hometown’s courthouse steps. Ann and her husband still live on a farm near that same little town in Kentucky. Learn more at AnnHGabhart.com.
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