Nancy Gardner, whose new novel, DREAM STALKER just came out in both ebook and paperback, likes to garnish her mystery stories with a paranormal twist.
DREAM STALKER is the first in a series of three books the New England author has planned. It tells the story of Lily Scott, a modern-day Salem witch who is able to enter another person’s dreams to find clues about potential motives and bad (murderous) behavior. Because an early experience with dream-walking turned terrifying and dangerous, Lily put her powers aside. When her daughter is accused of murder, Lily decides to once again risk encountering the evil Dream Stalker in order to find the real killer and clear her daughter’s name.
Nancy and I “met” online a few month ago. Her name popped up on Facebook’s as a friend suggestion, and I idly clicked on her profile to see who we had in common. Intrigued by a post she’d made about her upcoming book, I sent Nancy a friend request and a brief note of interest in DREAM STALKER. She surprised me by offering to send me an Advanced Reader Copy–of course I eagerly accepted–and we struck up a short online conversation.
Paranormal cozy mystery author, Nancy Gardner
Before long, the book arrived in the mail. Set in that most witchy of towns, Salem, Massachusetts, DREAM STALKER is a cozy murder mystery that checks all the boxes of the genre–small town, amateur female sleuth, dead body, cast of quirky characters– while also delving deeper into the psychology of dreams, the tensions of family relationships, the anguish of raising a difficult child, and the raw power of a mother’s love.
Though this is Nancy’s debut novel, her short stories have been included in anthologies published by Level Best Books and Cornerstone Book Publishers. Most recently, the story “Death’s Door” appears in Malice Domestic 16: Mystery Most Diabolical. Her short story, “Smoke and Mirrors” is available to her newsletter subscribers, and another, “Killer Fastball” can be purchased in Kindle ebook format.
Nancy was kind enough to agree to a Q & A interview, and I’m sure you will find her just as charming as I did. I truly look forward to the day we actually meet in person.
Maybe in Salem.
Maybe wearing pointy hats.
SRB: Thank you much for taking the time to talk about your forthcoming cozy mystery novel, DREAM STALKER. The main character, herbalist and amateur sleuth Lily Scott, uses a magical technique she calls dream-walking to solve several connected crimes. Can you talk about dream-walking (and the Dream Stalker) and whether it is something you read about or made up or a combination of both?
NG: Hi, Shelley, it’s my pleasure to talk with you and your readers—and thank you for serving as an advance reader. Your input was invaluable.
So, here’s my take on dream-walking. Lily Scott’s situation is unique, but over the centuries, many cultures have believed the soul travels when it dreams. One of my biggest challenges was to create the fictionalized dream world I call Shadow Land, where individual dream caves honeycomb a vast range of red sandstone mountains.
As to the Dream Stalker, he’s the wraith-like presence who guards Shadow Land from intruders. Because the Stalker can steal a dream-walker’s soul, Lily will use her power only in the service of justice.
The Stalker is a product of a stomach-churning experience I had twenty years ago. I awoke to think I saw a shadowy man looming over me, and I felt paralyzed. Later I learned I’d experienced what experts call a hypnagogic hallucination. These hallucinations can happen during the transition between sleeping and waking when the mind is transitioning from dream imagery to a rational state. Trust me, it is not an enjoyable experience.
SRB: Yikes! Sounds scary, but at least you got a book idea from it. What came first, the crime plotline or the dream-walking hook?
NG: Definitely dream-walking. I started playing with the idea over a decade ago because I’m interested in dreams and what Carl Jung called a person’s “shadow,” the unaccepted parts of ourselves that we hide from our consciousness.
The great cataloguer of myths, Joseph Campbell, also believed that dreams come from our shadow. Over the years, looking at these ideas influenced my beliefs, and, eventually, the plotline.
SRB: DREAM STALKER has quite a few layers/themes. Lily is dealing with widowhood, the death of a good friend, a friendship with romance potential, and, of course, her Wicca religion. The theme I found most compelling, though, was that of family relationships. Lily is estranged from both her sister, Ann, and her adopted daughter, Sarah. Can you talk a little bit about why you chose family trauma/drama as a major component in the story?
NG: Family trauma is in my DNA. I grew up with alcoholic parents, my father disappeared when I was nineteen, a family member struggled with homelessness, and an aunt spent her adult years hospitalized with schizophrenia, in addition, when I was nine-years-old, I lost my maternal grandmother before I could tell her how sorry I was for something I’d done that hurt her deeply.
The hopeful quality of Dream Stalker is my homage to all the broken families that somehow manage to repair their own fractured bonds.
SRB: DREAM STALKER takes place in the town of Salem, Massachusetts, known for the historic witch trials. Why did you choose Salem as the setting for your novel?
NG: From the 1692 Witch Trials to the current celebration of Halloween month when tourists flock to Salem to celebrate the macabre, Salem history is complicated. There is also a wonderful diversity, rich with the contributions of successive immigrant communities. And then there’s the economic diversity—all the way from historic Federal-era homes built by wealthy sea-traders to homeless encampments. Salem is a microcosm of our broader society.
SRB: Reading the book, I sensed quite a bit more backstory than you reveal. How did you decide what to leave in and what to hold back?
NG: Great question, Shelley. I’d been struggling with creating this story for a number of years until I stumbled upon a book called Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. The book details how our brains look for a central story problem that drives the action because we’re wired to want to vicariously experience what it would be like to deal with that problem.
Then I took a class with Lisa and some wonderful editors. I learned that a good story sets up a driving motivation in the protagonist’s childhood where a painful situation gave rise to a misbelief that continues to hold them back. Once I knew Lily’s core misbelief, the story took off.
SRB: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? How did you learn your craft? Did you take writing classes or join writing groups?
NG: I’ve always loved to write. But my mother once ripped up my homework assignment because it revealed too much about her. I’d thought I’d been honoring her, but she thought differently. I guess you could call that devastating experience one of my core misbeliefs. Decades later, I challenged that misbelief by plunging full-steam ahead into fiction, taking classes, reading books on writing fiction, joining writing groups, and signing up for professional editing.
SRB: I’d love to hear about your path from initial idea to completed manuscript to publication. What were some of the major milestones along the way, what sort of research did you have to do, and what has been the most rewarding part of the process?
NG: The path to writing Dream Stalker was long and arduous. As I alluded to earlier, I had issues with a writer’s block that had to be overcome. It was covid-isolation that gave me the push I needed to finish this novel.
Major milestones included deep-sixing two earlier versions of the Dream Stalker manuscript.
As to research, I love to explore Salem, search the Internet, and read books such as J. W. Ocker’s A Season with the Witch to enhance the story’s plausibility.
SRB: How did you choose between traditional publishing and self-publishing?
NG: It was an easy decision for me. One of my writing groups includes three published novelists who chose self-publishing for various reasons. Their influence convinced me to follow the path of an independent author. I like the control—for instance, I didn’t have to get permission to hire a professional narrator to produce the audiobook version.
SRB: Your husband is also a writer. What’s it like for two writers to live and work in the same house?
NG: It is wonderful, even more so during the pandemic lockdown. David and I support one another, yet stay true to our differing writing paths. For instance, David went the path of traditional publishing. I must say I’m impressed with the quality of his publisher, Encircle Publications. It was the right decision for him. His first novel, The Journalist: A Paranormal Thriller, came out in January. His next book, The Last Speaker of Skalwegian, comes out in September.
SRB: Now that this book is finished, what’s next?
NG: I’ve started book two in the Dream Stalker series. Once again, Lily will have family issues to deal with when a long-lost niece appears and is in trouble. Murder and mayhem ensue!
SRB: Where can readers buy your book?
NG: For now, Amazon offers the e-book and paperback. There’s also an audiobook version in production. I’m working out final publication details.
SRB: What is one question you wished I’d asked but didn’t?
NG: Who is your target reader? Answer: Throughout the pandemic, I envisioned a exhausted healthcare worker sitting down in an armchair with a novel that took them away from the difficult, dangerous work they performed and into a world filled with magic and adventure.
SRB: Thank you so much, Nancy, for talking about DREAM STALKER and for giving us an inside peek into the life of a cozy mystery writer. Thanks to you, I’m really looking forward to visiting Salem again!
NG: Thank you, Shelley! And here’s a Salem photo. The witch mannequin I’m standing beside helped Lily when she was running from a killer.
Witch Peek-A-Boo in Salem, Massachusetts
Check out the book trailer below!
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