Carol Potenza is the author of the 2017 Tony Hillerman Prize winning novel, Hearts of the Missing. I recently had a chance to talk with her about writing this story.
Here’s a bit about the book:
When a young woman linked to a list of missing Fire-Sky tribal members commits suicide, Pueblo Police Sergeant Nicky Matthews is assigned to the case. As the evidence leads her to a shocking discovery, she uncovers not only murder but an ominous, vengeful twist that strikes at the very core of what it means to be a member of the Fire-Sky People. With an intimate knowledge of Fire-Sky customs and traditions, the killer ensures the spirits of those targeted will wander lost forever. As Nicky closes in on the murderer, those closest to her are put in jeopardy. She realizes she must be willing to sacrifice everything–her career, her life, and even her soul–to save the people she is sworn to protect.
DF: First things first; how did you come up with the idea for Hearts of the Missing?
CP: From ‘visions’ and ghost stories told by my family members (all true!) and a Zuni petit point coral necklace with a four chambered center, like a heart. The stories are from actual experiences my relatives have had which fascinated me because I’ve never seen anything supernatural in my life. When I lost a stone from the necklace around the same time a close relative passed away, I wrote a short story to explain how the loss of the stone was linked to the death or disappearance of a loved one. The idea for the book grew from this.
DF: How long did it take to write the book?
CP: I started it in January of the year before it was selected as the Tony Hillerman Prize in March of 2017. It took me about six months to write and six months to edit to the manuscript I sent into the Prize on January 4, 2017. During that time, I pitched it to another publisher who asked for a full, but rejected it. After it was selected, the St. Martin’s Press editor gave me some edits that made the story about a million times better. It took 18 months from the time it was chosen to publication December 4, 2018.
DF: What kind of research did you do?
CP: I have ‘sources’ on pueblos here in New Mexico that were/are invaluable for questions about the police procedural processes. I did ride-alongs and visited museums and fiestas on Native American Pueblos. I traveled to Native American ruins, talked to members of different tribes in New Mexico, visited mesas, deserts, plains, rivers, forests so I could describe the scenery. And for the science, I learned it from in-depth reading of the literature and talking to doctors and nurses. And of course, Google was/is my best source. I’ve been to some pretty dark and distant places on the internet.
DF: Do you do a lot of plotting or are you a pantser?
CP: I plot in my head, but pants on the page. I always know the beginning, the science, the crime, and the ghost story. I start writing, figure out the end, then write toward it. Sometimes there seems to be an insurmountable chasm to cross, but so far, I’ve been able to build that bridge.
DF: Do you have a favorite part of the writing process?
CP: Twisting the paths of the subplots together until they form the road my protagonist, Nicky, is running down to the finish. That road is actually an arroyo that’s hard to climb out of, and, by the end, a metaphorical flash flood is chasing her, poor thing.
DF: Do you have a favorite book that influenced your writing?
CP: It wasn’t so much a book, but books by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. I love their innovation, their twisted plots, the science they layer through their work, and the suspense and action that run like a train in all their stories. I literally always learn a new vocabulary word when I read their books. In some small way, I wanted to write like them.
DF: What are you working on now?
CP: I’m editing the second Nicky Matthews book in the series, writing the third, and researching the fourth. Keeps me busy.
Here’s a little background on Carol Potenza, where you can connect with her on social media, and where you can purchase Hearts of the Missing.
Carol Potenza is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at New Mexico State University. She and her husband, Leos, live in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Hearts of the Missing, her debut novel, is the winner of the 2017 Tony Hillerman Prize. You can find her at her website, FaceBook, Twitter, and Goodreads.