Catherine Leggitt is the author of the Christine Sterling Mysteries, Payne & Misery, The Dunn Deal and Parrish the Thought published by Ellechor Publishing. A native Californian, Catherine raised two daughters, taught school, and cared for aging parents before retirement drove her to the keyboard. The complete works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle–which Catherine devoured during her high school years–birthed a lifelong love for mysteries. These days Catherine crafts her own suspenseful and convoluted plots—exploring God’s mysteries through fiction.
Christine Sterling notices cracks in her happily-ever-after retirement dream almost as soon as she and husband, Jesse, settle in Grass Valley, a quiet California town in the scenic foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Jesse gleefully dives into new hobbies, but loneliness, boredom, and discontentment reduce her to snooping on neighbors, which fuels her active imagination. Jumping to conclusions is one of Christine’s best skills.
One morning, Christine spies a man she has never seen before. In the dilapidated house down the hill, lives Will Payne. His wife, Lila, barely exists in a disturbing state of neglect. Painful secrets swirl around them like smoke. Longing to rescue the emaciated woman, Christine enlists the assistance of Zora Jane Callahan. Impatient to begin, Christine disregards Zora Jane’s advice to wait for God’s timing. However, Christine’s well-intentioned efforts soon meet with strong resistance.
Bizarre incidents assault the tranquil community. Jesse returns from an out-of-town trip to find that Molly, the family dog, has disappeared. They find Molly’s dog tags beside the Payne’s garage. A mysterious brown car flees the neighborhood, and now Lila is missing, too. The same night, a four-year-old boy is struck down by a hit-and-run driver in nearby Nevada City.
Worried sick about the whereabouts of her beloved dog, Christine breaks into the Payne’s house searching for answers. Instead, she uncovers more questions. Next morning, a blazing inferno destroys all evidence of Lila’s pathetic existence. Christine, Zora Jane, and husbands, Jesse and ED, present the problem to various authority figures, but no one is interested.
When hope seems almost gone, Molly is found and they connect with Russell Silverthorne, a former Iowa deputy sheriff turned PI. With Silverthorne onboard, official interest in the complex case ignites.
Christine happens upon Lila’s brother, Alan Kliner, and Will’s sister, Helen Sterne, exiting a local motel, which adds another layer of confusion to the mix. During lengthy interviews, Will maintains an evasive attitude, Helen contradicts herself, and Alan becomes belligerent. The official investigation stalls without enough hard evidence to make an arrest. But one night Christine follows Will to his house again where she discovers him clutching a page from Lila’s poem book. In great pain, he confesses to disposing of Lila’s body after her suicide and plotting with Helen to make it appear that Lila ran away. Will sinks into unconsciousness before the ambulance arrives, leaving a tangled mass of unanswered questions regarding Lila’s demise. Was it truly suicide or was she murdered? And if so, by whose hand?
Before Helen can be interrogated again, she vanishes. Alan is apprehended breaking into the Payne house and taken into custody. When Helen resurfaces, she is searching Will’s house. Helen catches her, produces a gun, and forces Christine to help her locate treasure she believes Will hid on the property. The ruckus attracts rescue.
With Alan incarcerated and Helen facing charges for the hit-and-run fatality, Christine and Jesse hold vigil at Will’s hospital bedside, praying. Several other important puzzle pieces fall into place. In light of accumulating evidence, Helen’s attorney advises her to confess rather than endure a trial she probably can’t win. Christine learns that pain is inevitable but misery is a choice and that God has been working all along, answering prayers and weaving circumstances together for good. Armed with these new insights, she and Jesse embrace a closer connection. She also begins the journey toward a deeper relationship with God.
How did your book come to life?
My husband retired and moved us to his dream house on the other end of California–far from my friends and family. I did my best to adjust, as is my nature, but then menopause hit. What can I say? I just wasn’t myself. I began to cry out to God for mercy. His answer came in an unexpected way. One day when I was feeling particularly low, I looked out my upstairs window and really saw the little gray house nestled at the bottom of our hill. In over two years of residence in Grass Valley, we had never met the occupants of that house. Never even seen them. I sat down at the computer without even thinking what I was going to write, and a story poured out my fingers about why those people never came out. I never planned to write a book, certainly not that day. But the story insisted to be told. Sometimes I would delete whole chapters because they were too preposterous. Then the characters would insist that I put the chapters back. (I am aware that does sound a bit crazy. Maybe moderate insanity is a requisite for good fiction writing.)
In the Christie Sterling Mysteries, Christine’s best friend is Zora Jane Callahan. Her overpowering zeal for Jesus makes her fun to write. She is also obsessed with fashion. That’s right. She’s glamorous, yet honestly spiritual and wise about life.
My mother-in-law requested to be in the book, so I named Christine Sterling’s best friend after her–Zora Jane. I chose Christine’s name because at the beginning I thought of this book as an allegory, and I wanted a name close to Christian, which are the standards Christine struggles to attain. My husband chose the name Jesse for the character based on him. Sometimes I choose names from the census list of most popular names in the year the character would have been born. Minor characters are often named after relatives, such as Gene Rogers, Deputies Wright and Anderson, Fireman Jason. All my grandchildren’s names appear somewhere in the Christine Sterling Mysteries except the last one born after the books were published. Sometimes I pick the name because of an attribute of the character, as in the case of Will Payne and his sister Helen Sterne. I was thinking of willfulness with Will. Getting the name of the character just right is tough and I often struggled with it.
Okay, I admit it up front. Christine Sterling is my alter ego. Many particulars about our lives are identical, although I promise you I never broke into anyone’s house. Thought about it, but never did it. Jesse is modeled after my husband Bob. Zora Jane Callahan is a conglomerate of three wonderful role models I know. Many of the minor characters are also based on people I have met. Yes, I tend to have someone in mind when I write a character. It makes that character more real to me.
In Payne & Misery, Christine Sterling discovers the saying, “Pain is inevitable but misery is a choice.” She relinquishes her obsession with self, complaining and grumbling, and seeks joy instead. Reading about her struggle and eventual victory over complaining, it is my fervent hope that readers will begin to listen to how they talk. Does what they say come from a thankful heart? In being thankful, regardless of our circumstances, we experience the power of a joyful spirit.
Payne & Misery took me ten years and seven rewrites to complete. Each part of the writing was difficult. Whenever I attended a workshop or took an online writing class, which I did often in those early years, I discovered more about what I’d been doing wrong. Hence, another rewrite. My daughter kept all the versions this book went through, just to keep me humble, I think. For example, when I took a class about the structure of story. I nearly threw out the whole book. Who knew there was structure? It took quite a while to infuse structure where it hadn’t been before—sort of like trying to teach a jellyfish to stand up straight.
Ellechor Publishing had a couple of wonderful designers who came up with this cover from what I described to them. I absolutely love all the little details they added, the scrolling and the plaid in the book title. The dog picture they found looks almost exactly like the real Molly, who was an incredible dog. This is my favorite book cover design of the three Christine Sterling Mysteries. I think it is perfect.
Women with high standards and great faith in God–who live their faith–inspire me. Regular women like my Bible study teachers. Writer friends like the wonderful women in my online critique group and like Susanne Lakin, who encourage me to keep on writing. When I read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, I understood several things about the writing process that were mysteries to me before. Reading that book equipped me to forge ahead in search of excellence, regardless of whether my books sell or not. Earlier influences include my Mother and two outstanding high school English teachers who adored fiction and encouraged every word I wrote.
I am fascinated by human foibles. People are such complex creatures. To understand what makes us choose what they choose thrills and captivates me. Each of my books explores some common human attribute or struggle.
A couple of the initial ideas for my books came in dreams. I don’t know why. I visualize things vividly after having the dream. Also some of my ideas come from whatever I happen to be struggling with at the time. I find that if I can’t shake a certain idea or struggle in a few days, then I need to write about it.
The Internet is my primary research tool. But I also write or call experts, read background books, visit the local I’m writing about (if it’s a real place) whenever possible and take pictures, study emotional and behavioral charts such as the Personality Plus Profile , consult the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory when creating characters, and do a lot of talking to my friends and family about what I want to write.
I have always loved words. My parents read to us as children and encouraged me to write stories. I began a romantic-tragedy after the break-up of my first romance at the world-wise age of 12. Barricaded in my room, I poured out four chapters of mush. It’s incredibly over-the-top to wade through, but at the time it helped my broken heart heal. During my grow-up years, I wrote stories for my children and grandchildren, but it wasn’t until my husband retired and moved me far from family and friends that I began to write in earnest.
There are times I still don’t consider myself a writer, even after twelve years and four published books. I write because I must. I write because I cannot imagine not writing. I write because my daughter reminds me that God has called me to write. Doesn’t that sound brash? Yet it seems to be true. In myself I can do nothing.Sometimes I have stories to tell–stories that insist on being written. But the actual seat-in-the-chair getting the story down on paper in all its details is an excruciating process and one that sometimes requires more self-discipline than I can muster.If writing were easier, I’d already have at least twelve books written. When I manage to get words on paper that create a thought or feeling as it should be done, there is no greater joy. But it’s a constant struggle to crank out that beautiful sentence or paragraph or story.
At some point, I read Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, which confirmed many of my most worrisome self-doubts. Anne Lamott is a superb writer. I rest in the solace that if Anne Lamott struggles with this constant tension, I can live with it too.
Why do you write? Is it something you’ve always done or always wanted to do?
I confess that I started out writing about my pathetic life, which had spiraled into a hideous menopausal funk. I was far from my family and friends in a new home my husband promised would be our dream house. It was a beautiful place, but I was focused on my own personal misery. We had a dog named Molly, two cats named Hoppy and Roy, and a horse named Ranger. Beyond that, the similarity between Christine Sterling and me mostly ends. Okay, maybe I’m snoopy but I promise you, I never broke into the neighbors’ house like Christine did. Her adventures were her own and I merely wrote them down. (May I go on record here? I informed Christine that respectable middle-aged women do not go around breaking into neighbors’ houses. In fact, I deleted that entire scene once. But Christine insisted that she must. So she did. She is rather headstrong.)
Many years ago, I began praying for creativity. That is the key to my writing–God continues to answer those prayers. I wrote Payne & Misery entirely by the seat of my pants. That is to say, from beginning to end, I had no idea what would happen next. There was no plan. I lived the story along with Christine. The action of the characters dictated a reaction or consequences and in that way the story moved from one chapter to the next. As I needed information, I would search for it, in research or by brainstorming possibilities. This kind of writing entails a very long process with lots of rewriting. As more was revealed, I would go back and add, delete or change places where that new revelation was contradicted in previous pages. I ended up with way too many loose ends and no idea how to tie them all together. A plan makes all that uncertainty totally unnecessary so I have not written another book by the seat of my pants. I tried plotting on 3 X 5 cards. This is how I wrote the second book, The Dunn Deal. Writing plot points for each chapter on a card of its own allows the flexibility of rearranging the plot by rearranging the cards. Easy. The book came together in less time using this method. But then I discovered Angela Hunt’s Plot Skeleton. Using this construct organizes the book according to elements of good storytelling. I like this approach best so far and am now using it on a third book. Whatever the method, when I am stuck–I don’t call it writer’s block–I edit what I’ve already written. By the time I catch up to where I need new writing, I am pumped up with fresh ideas. Usually somewhere in the process, the book suddenly seems like a stupid idea and I should dump it and start over. Apparently this is normal for writers and I just need to plow through those feelings. The book always comes together in a way I didn’t anticipate and I am amazed by connections and creative ideas I didn’t think of until the whole is complete. This must be divine intervention.
I would like to take a road trip across America. In the twenty-five years I’ve been married, my husband and I have visited all the western states, Alaska and Hawaii. But there is so much more we would like to explore. My husband and I have often contemplated such a journey. I would also like to follow Route 66 from Los Angeles to Chicago as research for the book I am currently writing.
In five years, I’d love to still be cranking out books that encourage and inspire. I heard Debbie Macomber speak once. She recommended setting BIG goals. So, okay. I’d like to have a top-notch agent, a marketing and promotion assistant to do what I hate to do, a few best sellers, fifty thousand dedicated readers (or more), a movie made from one of my books, and have my books available in audio versions. But more than all that, I long for God to use the books I write to transform lives and draw readers to desire a closer relationship with the Creator.
I am currently writing a sixth novel, THE ROAD TO TERMINUS. The idea for this book came to me in a dream. In 1955, three strangers embark on road trip along historic Route 66. One is running away, one is seeking fulfillment, and one just hopes to survive. The core question of the novel concerns how often a person must hit bottom before finding the ultimate bottom where the only thing to do is change.
The complexion of publishing has changed so much in the dozen years since I started writing. I know many writers who have great success with ebooks and self-publishing. Traditional publishers have less and less budget for marketing and promotion, which means that authors must take up the slack.
The two main differences between traditional and self-pub seem to be: 1) traditional has the ability to place your book in brick-and-mortar stores, thereby giving you the possibility of greater exposure sooner. 2) They may also include an advance to kick-start your contract. Self-publishing does not offer either. All marketing and promotion is up to the author. This is my least favorite part of writing.
Of course I would continue. I do not write for good reviews. I write because I feel called to do so, because I can’t not write. Here’s how I look at reviews: the majority of readers can’t be bothered to write a review. Oh, I suppose if they read the very best book or the very worst book, they might be motivated, but in general, they read for entertainment, not to review.
Reviewers fall into two categories: the generous and the grudging. Mostly they are generous. That’s why you see so many five-star reviews. There aren’t that many books truly worthy of five-stars, but there are many helpful people who value the effort required to crank out a book. Then you have the grudging. These people have an agenda. If you push the wrong button, it triggers a bucket of venom. The name curmudgeon fits them well.
Most of my reviews are good, pointing to the positive aspects of my books. But I’ve also had a couple from the dark side. To begin with, when I read them I am insulted. Someone just called my baby ugly. So I wait a few days and read the review again to see if it has any redeeming value. Even if just a smidgeon. Surprisingly, after a cooling off period, I often see something I can use. An occasional negative review reinforces the integrity of the positive ones. Not everyone likes vanilla ice cream. In addition, the negative aspect the reviewer pointed out might be spot on. Although the review is painful, it might also be instructive. When I realized that concept, it changed the way I viewed negative reviews.
I would love to have one of my books made into a movie. Dying To Be Noticed is the one most adaptable as a screenplay. I can see it as a Lifetime movie. Can’t think of any screenwriters to mention. If I collaborated with another author to write a screenplay, I think I would like to work with James Scott Bell. He has a wonderful understanding of cinema and is a fabulous writer.
I am inspired by human foibles, mostly my own bad character traits or those of people I love. When I struggle over loving the unlovable, for example, that battle plays out in a story. In the third Christine Sterling Mystery, Parrish The Thought, Christine Sterling discovers prejudice in her heart that she never knew existed. When substance abuse derails my child and he refuses to take responsibility for his own actions, a story forms in my brain. That’s where the idea for my current work in progress came from. I am exploring how often a person has to hit bottom before they reach the final bottom where change becomes inevitable.
The writing process informs my subconscious somehow, opening layers of understanding. If I didn’t foist these struggles onto fictional characters, I don’t know how I would discover what I need to learn about myself and others and why we do what we do. Or how change occurs.
These days I use a modified version of Angela Hunt’s plot skeleton model to plot my novels. It is rather detailed, but even with this structure, as new possibilities occur to me through the writing process, quite often the plot must change. Usually these are small bunny trails, but occasionally I go off in an entirely different direction as I write. Even after the manuscript is completed, there may be plot changes due to questions raised during the editing period or suggestions from my critique group.
I’ve never tried to write a short story. After almost twelve years of writing full length novels, perhaps I should venture to that new territory one day. It might be fun to try a novella to add in a collection with other writers. Maybe when I feel that I have actually mastered writing a novel.
The other day my mother told me she thinks my writing is maturing. She said it flows more naturally and seems to be more comfortable to read. Maybe she’s right. My writing seems to be evolving into a conversational style–kind of free association, only not as frenetic. I’ve noticed this myself.
Early in this process of becoming, I began going to writing workshops and taking online courses. There was a good deal of talk about finding your voice. I had no idea how to do that, but I placed Find Your Voice on my list of goals anyway. If indeed I’ve come to find my own writing style, I think that I understand now how that may have happened.
Writing every day, even if just an email, gets the fingers and the brain working together in a new way. It’s this constant practice, constant revising, reviewing, and refining the thoughts that strengthens the ability to select the just-right word. As power over word choice develops, the writer begins arranging them in new and different ways. It’s flexing and stretching that creative muscle that makes the difference. The more you do, the better you do it. (Don’t you hate when your mother was right about practicing?)
I guess my favorite quality about myself is that I am a perpetual learner. I can never get enough knowledge. There are always new things to explore–gifts of greater awareness and understanding. I am never bored. There is always something new to think about or experience. This translates to a continual striving for excellence in my writing. I am a good observer of life and love to know the reasons behind what people do. My faith in the sovereignty of God compels me to always try to see what God is up to in tragedy and chaos.
I was blessed with a happy, serene childhood. Adopted at a few weeks of age, my father flew me home to southern California in his private plane. I grew up surrounded by orange orchards and fields of alfalfa, flowers and music. For a child who needed peace and quiet, it was the perfect cocoon. Mother and Dad were in their forties at my birth, so it was a bit like being raised by grandparents. Stable, God-fearing, staunch in their faith in God, readers, and hard workers, they provided marvelous examples of Christian maturity. My father was raised in a prairie style home in Capistrano, CA built about 1910. The most memorable feature of that house was the library–a square room with bookshelves packed with classics on all sides and a rug in the center. On the rug, a pair of well-worn leather chairs and a table with an adequate lamp provided the most luxurious reading environment imaginable. Sink in, open the pages and escape to another world. Certainly my parents’ love for reading birthed that same love of the written word in me.
Love to travel. Favorite city is Edinburgh. Love the green, the stone walls, the history, and the art. I love the way they speak. I simply adore the castle perched on top of the hill overlooking the city. We were there in August once for the military Tattoo, which was spectacular. Fireworks cascading over the castle wall at night–magnificent! I’ve been to Edinburgh twice but I don’t think I could ever get enough of Scotland.
Before I was born, my father hired a worker to help him on the farm. Dad built a little house on our property for Pablo, his wife and eventually five children. Maria cooked tortillas over an open fire in the evening. For many years, I ate dinner at Pablo’s house after I finished dinner at my house. I think that’s why I love Mexican cooking so much. If you are ever in Solana Beach, CA, eat at Fidel’s. It is the best Mexican food I’ve ever had! Especially the Tostada Suprema. My mouth waters just writing the name.
My daughter, Jule, is my greatest and most supportive fan. She reads all drafts of all my books and will not let me quit writing when I get discouraged. I bounce ideas off her on a regular basis. My husband, Bob, puts up with doing his own laundry and waits for dinner while I finish off just one more paragraph. He is wonderful support too. Jesse, in the Christine Sterling Mysteries, is modeled after him, of course. The other day he told me he doesn’t think it is very nice to mention someone’s inability to carry a tune or remember lyrics to songs. That made me laugh. To me, this tendency to sing medleys of his own creation is an endearing quality. But maybe I should have asked permission before I included it in my books.
First, I head to the mystery section to see what’s new from my favorite authors. After that, I will look for a Christian fiction section to see if there are any books by people I have met. Then I will meander to the Audio book section. I love to listen to audio books while I’m driving. Sometimes I listen to them more than once, especially if it is a book I enjoyed and I want to study how it was written.
Last year, I took the Goodread challenge and read 24 books. That averages to 2 books a month. Some months I read more, some less. I signed up again this year, pledging to 36 books. I love to read and I read fast. But sometimes life intervenes.
Currently, I am reading four books on my Kindle: (I alternate between them, depending on my mood.) Blue Hole Back Home by Joy Jordan-Lake, The Mezzo Wore Mink by Mark Schweizer, The Extroverted Writer by Amanda Luedeke, and Social Media Just For Writers by Frances Caballo. I also downloaded The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley, Death Dangles a Participle by E.E. Kennedy, and Dying for Dinner Rolls by Lois Lavrisa. Can’t wait to get into those too.
1. I was adopted at age one week and rode to my new home in an airplane piloted by my new father.
2. For two years until they closed it, I attended the last one-room school in California, next door to beautiful Mission San Luis Rey. Grades one to eight were taught in one large room. I remember that school fondly. It was great fun listening to the older kids do their lessons.
3. When I was six years old, I appeared with 3 other children from our one-room school on the old TV program, Art Linkletter’s House Party. Art asked me if I knew what “matrimony” meant. I said it was something about a bull because I heard my daddy say so. (I don’t know why I said that. I had never heard the word before. My father thought it was particularly funny because we had cows but no bulls at our farm.) Art deadpanned to the audience and said, “Well, some men think so.”
4. I completed first and second grades in one year and then went on to third grade the next year.
5. I received a scholarship to study voice in college.
Francine Rivers. Not only is she a consummate writer, but she is a woman of great faith in God. This spiritual dimension qualifies her as an incredible resource. What a pleasure it would be to study God’s Word with her and also to be able to ask questions about the writing process.
I’d also love to sit and chat with Marcia Muller, author of the Sharon McCone Mystery series. Muller has created a tight cast of characters who continue to delight even into the twenty-ninth book. I would love to hear how she plots the stories and where she comes up with fresh ideas.
Hercule Poirot was a fabulous invention by Agatha Christie. His endearing idiosyncrasies make him memorable, his “little gray cells” are constantly churning clues and making connections. I find him a fascinating character. I am also very fond of Archie Goodwin in the Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout. At first reading, Nero Wolfe–alluring in his own right– appears to be the protagonist, yet Archie Goodwin as his sidekick gets all the witty lines and solves the mysteries in his own inimitable way. Brilliant characters.
I would ask that a movie be made out of one of my best-selling novels. As a matter of fact, I fantasize about PAYNE & MISERY as a movie. Or maybe the third in the series, PARRISH THE THOUGHT. I picture Tom Selleck in the role of Jesse Sterling and Sally Field as Christine. Don’t know where they would ever find a dog as wonderful as Molly to play the dog part, though.
People-watching is one of my favorite pastimes. You can learn many valuable things about social interaction. Also, my husband and I like to guess what is going on with people in restaurants or stores. Are they married? Where did they just come from? What will they do when they leave? Can we guess their occupation? Fun to try to see clues to answer our questions.
Among the week's headlines: a library receipt kicks off a debate about the value of libraries; more media coverage of the library e-book market; and the University of California holds firm in its negotiations with Elsevier.