Featured Mystery Author
by Robert L. Hall
The Mississippi Gulf Coast area, with its attendant gambling barges, floating high into the air just off the shoreline, its restaurants, tourist areas, attractions and entertainment is a place very conducive to material for a book and ripe for any novelist or storyteller.
Luckily for us, Wilma Jones Knox, Ph.D., also thinks so. For, when she retired as a clinical psychologist with the Veterans Administration, she turned to penning murder mysteries based on people and places in the area. She startled a few folks when she told them she had “Very good training in murder, thanks to my mother.” This was because her mother was a great reader and very fond of the mystery genre. The stacks of books her parent brought home from the library were also read by Wilma and proved to be an invaluable source for the girl to draw upon in later life in order to write her own.
Wilma was raised in a Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis. She attended Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota for two years, got her B.A. in Communication and an M.A. in Psychology at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. While in North Carolina, her parents moved to Memphis, Tennessee. Later, she moved to Pennsylvania State University for her Ph.D. in Psychology. Her first husband was William Knox, M.D. from Baton Rouge, and Wilma came to the Gulf Coast area as a bride. Later, she spent fourteen happy years with Frank Perry of Biloxi, and has lived the greater part of her life there.
Her career as a clinical psychologist included many hours of individual and group therapy, diagnostic testing, evaluations and administrative work. During her career she published about forty research publications in the fields of alcoholism and drug addiction treatments and diagnoses of various conditions, as well as graduate student problems.
“Only a psychologist would find these papers exciting,” Wilma told me, “but because of them I was named a Fellow of the Division of Clinical Psychology, American Psychological Association, and invited to give a paper in Austria. When I retired in 1997, I found I just couldn’t give up writing, so I turned to murder mysteries.
“I think every mystery writer owes a debt to Agatha Christie, but the book given to me in third grade that really affected my life was Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels. His accounts of adventures in distant lands inspired me as no other book ever has.”
How did you get started in writing, Wilma?
I started writing poetry in grade school, and tackled my writing assignments in school with great relish. Over the years I have had a number of courses in creative writing, while I was literally writing volumes into the V.A. records. I always tried to make my reports interesting so that they would be read and remembered by staff working with patients. In my first book, I used a Vietnam Veteran with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) as one of the main characters, and picked a veterinarian as heroine because of my love of animals. I also focused on a local county sheriff because of the wealth and power this position affords and the many slips made by real holders of the office of sheriff.
Tell us about your first book in the series, and the second as well.
The Biloxi Witness opens near a bayou where a brutal killing has occurred. A small muddy dog is the only witness, and veterinarian Kelly Allen can identify that dog long before her lover, Sheriff Frank Borth, can be sure of the corpse’s name. Unraveling this dangerous puzzle jars Kerry out of her clinical routine into the combative, slippery world of law enforcement. Her father dislikes the situation and it sets off his temper. Set against the folklore and notorious history of Biloxi, the story tells of people as colorful as the fun-loving Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The Biloxi Gambler has the same main characters and some of the same animals as well. An adventure in the fast lane of casino gambling forces Kerry to juggle murder clues, animal care at her clinic and brief, tender moments with her lover, Sheriff Borth. For once, Frank and Kerry’s father agree that she is facing too much danger. Worse yet, she is developing a taste for life on the edge in the company of special enforcement units who are tracking down some pretty scurrilous characters. This second adventure is rich with powerful, sly and devious people.
What is intrinsically Southern in outlook/attitude about your work?
My New Jersey editor, Carolyn Q. Wilson, lets me know when I am using a southern verbal expression that requires an explanation for the reader. Most of my settings are real and include local history and yarns, flora and fauna. I use (and acknowledge the use) of material from a local wild animal refuge and adapt material from national animal organizations, such as Alley Cat Allies and the SPCA, to a southern setting. Local food preferences for humans, such as sweetened tea, Barq’s Root Beer in a bottle, and moon pies, are included in the mix. When Kerry and the Sheriff eat out, a local restaurant is named, as well as favorites from their menus.
Tell us, please, about your writing circle and friends on the Gulf Coast.
I am a long-term member of the Gulf Coast Writer’s Association. A yearly writing contest, called “Let’s Write,” encourages entrees from all age groups. Prizes are awarded at a yearly banquet. At intervals the organization will sponsor critique sessions, and one held in the year before publication of my first book was most helpful. The group hopes to be able to sponsor a writer’s conference, called “Southern Expressions,” which is meeting this fall.
How would you describe your “style” of writing and do you have any messages you would like to express through your books?
My style of writing is essentially reportage in that I try to give an account of events and people that would be accurate if the story were true. I strive for multifaceted characters that show a mixture of traits, and a story line that includes a few sad elements. My animals are realistic and do nothing beyond normal for the wonderful pets they are. I do like to feature some of the innovative work being done to help animals. On the human wise, since I have been at several lengthy conferences at Masters and Johnson, I do include sex that is between two committed partners, not “kinky,” but a lot of fun. Kerry’s habit of compulsively reviewing school facts when stressed gives me the opportunity to include local color and Mississippi history.
Some examples would be, as here, from The Biloxi Witness, pp. 6-7:
Then, presumably, from her Masters and Johnson conference experiences, Wilma shares the following (The Biloxi Gambler, p. 150.):
What are you working on now?
Well, when I was a working psychologist, I was always caught up in the next project. As a novelist, I am working hard now on The Biloxi Traveler. It is a more difficult book to write and I only hope I can pull it off. Much of the action takes place outside of the state of Mississippi, but I want to keep the local taste of the Gulf Coast as a major element of the storyline. One of the animal characters is named Flush, as was the pet of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Researching the most famous dog in letters has been great fun for me.
I know you self-published. What advice would you give to fellow self-publishers?
Get the latest edition of Dan Poynter’s The Self-Publishing Manual and follow directions! It can be ordered at: Para Publishing, Post Office Box 8206, Santa Barbara, CA 93118-8206 or on site at: http://Parapublishing.com on their e-mail at:Orders@ParaPublishing.com .
The most difficult part of the process is promotion: independent bookstores can be a great help as well for guest spots as a speaker.
Tell us about your daily writing regimen.
I am retired from the Veterans Administration, and thus have a steady income. My daily schedule includes: feeding animals and walking dogs first thing and again at sunset—very important, because it gives me a chance to reflect on writing problems. M-W-F golf, weather permitting, T-Th bridge. It try to write some every day, although December has been a hiatus for promotional activities. Because of my schedule, the time of day I write varies.
My valued editor is Carolyn Quay Wilson of Princeton, NJ. She worked for the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and built the Master Teachers Mentoring Teachers Program. Now, she organizes classes in Princeton for students of retirement age. She is a former roommate and valued friend from Carleton College days. Several other friends help with proofreading. In my opinion, plot development has to come first in a mystery.
Each book is $12.95 plus $2.00 Shipping & Handling. Also carried by Amazon, Waldenbooks and Barnes & Noble (the last two through New Orleans’ Forest Sales and Distributing, 4157 St. Louis St., New Orleans, LA 70119. Many independent bookstores will order for customer.
© 2003, Robert L. Hall, All Rights Reserved