After I read On the Road to Death’s Door, by MJ Williams, I had to find out more about its author — or, I should say, authorS.
MJ Williams is a pen name for sisters-in-law Peggy Joque Williams and Mary Joy Johnson (nee Williams). These women balance other professional interests with their collaborative writing efforts — and I knew we’d all learn something from their experiences as a writing team.
Let’s start with the travel-writing balance. One of Peggy’s blog posts mentions that Mary Joy travels. How often do each of you hit the road? Give us an idea of your RVing experience.
Mary Joy: I’ve been retired for 11 years; I travel (as in spending more than one night away from home) maybe 20 times a year. To California where my daughter lived, to quilt shows and quilt retreats (did I mention I’m an obsessive quilter?) Once a year or so, I travel with a friend to attend a Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) event in various parts of the country—Yosemite; Santa Fe; Quebec City; St. Simon Island, Georgia; Fairhope, Alabama; St. Augustine; Apostle Islands on Lake Superior; San Juan Islands, Washington. Every few years, I fly to Greece to spend a couple weeks with my sister who lives there. I’ve done the grand tour of Europe a couple of times. I spent a week on Lake Baikal in Siberia. And I visited Brazil back in the 90’s.
Peggy: Most of my travels are to where family lives. For a number of years my daughter and her kids lived in Boston while my son and his family were in Seattle. Now my daughter is here in Madison and my son has moved to the D.C. area—I was there over Christmas and am going again for Memorial Day weekend. I have siblings and other relatives spread throughout the country. A couple of summers ago, my husband and I took the Amtrak from San Diego, where he had a conference, up the west coast to Seattle. I’ve been to Hawaii, Europe twice, Greece twice, and Japan several times. So, while I don’t travel as frequenty as Mary Joy, I do get out and about once in a while.
Surprisingly, our RV experience is very limited. If we seem to know what we are talking about, it’s due to research. YouTube is extremely helpful, as is visiting RV shows and talking with people. Mary Joy had quite a bit of camping experience as a child and as a young adult, mostly in a tent, but also in tent campers and pickup campers. And her memories of times in campgrounds helps provide some of the atmosphere in the books. When we’ve gone RVing, its been in a rental unit.
Do you write while on the road? What’s the biggest challenge to writing while traveling?
We don’t write while vacationing, except to note the setting of places we’ve visited. We did spend a week together up in Wisconsin’s Door County with a specific purpose of researching for our first book. While we’ve both been to Boston, Peggy has done dedicated research excursions there for the second book.
Describe your writing routine — is it on a regular basis, or do you catch the minutes when you can?
Mary Joy catches minutes when she can and when she is motivated. Peggy writes almost daily, though on a variety of different projects.
How do your travels influence you creatively? Do you get ideas while on the road? Or do you travel to gather research and background? Both?
Places that we’ve been inspire settings and we try to note impressions. As we mentioned earlier, for On the Road to Death’s Door, we spent a week together in Door County, Wisconsin, researching places and atmosphere—as well as drafting a fairly complete outline of the book.
The fact that at least one of you travels yet you have managed to collaborate on two completed novels astounds me, to be honest. Could you describe how your collaborative process works?
First we brainstorm the plot line, very roughly, sitting together with Peggy typing (she’s faster than Mary Joy). Then, again sitting side by side, we draft the outline, scene by scene so we have a rough idea of what happens and how it furthers the plot. Then we tend to draft the scenes separately. We can do the scenes (sometimes an entire chapter) in any order, depending on who has a vision for a particular scene, because the outline is so thorough. We each have strengths that we rely on. Peggy, for instance, can create terrific dialogue; while Mary Joy find it easy to imagine setting.
We used to exchange MSWord docs via email. Now we use Google Docs so we each have the latest version to tinker with as we go along. We have occasionally each sat at home using Google Docs, with our phones on Facetime so we can talk (or just work silently, technologically side by side).
Once we have the entire book drafted, we edit together, talking through problems with plot and language. We’ve found that is when our voices unite.
One of the things that really sucked me into “Death’s Door” were the terrific characterizations of the main character, retired Escanaba police officer Emily Remington, and her husband Stan, the bookish professor. Which parts of your real lives did you borrow and meld into these characters?
We are so thrilled to hear that Emily and Stan are captivating. One of our readers said they were a couple he’d like to sit and have a beer with. They developed personalities of their own as we wrote, although Stan, in particular, was early on based on someone Mary Joy knew.
Emily’s mindset as a retired officer is very convincing. Has either of you (or a spouse) served in law enforcement?
Neither of us have been in law enforcement (Peggy is an elementary teacher and Mary Joy was a college teacher), but Mary Joy was once married to a police officer.
Peggy’s niece, who was a member of a county sheriff’s department, gave us great feedback. For instance, after doing a beta read of Death’s Door for us, she told us that county police never use flashing lights while speeding down country roads in the fog; it’s too much like disco balls flashing against the trees and would drive them crazy! Who knew?
What made you decide to write the On the Road Mystery Series, featuring an RVing couple? Describe how the first, then the second, novel evolved.
One night at a family gathering, we talked about RVers using Walmart parking lots and the elements of a plot began to form. For the second novel, we decided to take Emily and Stan to Boston to see their grandkids (where, it so happened, Peggy’s grandchildren lived; although the three girls in the book were inspired by Mary Joy’s granddaughters).
What can readers expect from future On the Road adventures with Emily and Stan? Is a third book in the works?
We have plotted out a third novel, which takes place in Wisconsin’s Apostle Island National Lakeshore in Lake Superior; we’re only part way through the first draft, however.
Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to mention?
We know that collaboration isn’t for everyone. It’s takes a lot of compromising, and how we approach each book evolves over time. But we’ve found it to be a good experience for us. And it’s especially helpful to have a partner when it comes to marketing the book.
Where can readers find you and your books online (Web sites, social media, blogs, book pages, etc.)?
Our books are available through Amazon in three formats: Kindle, Paperback, and as an Audible audiobook.
We can also be found on Facebook at www.facebook.com/M.J.Williams.author/ .
Thanks so much for your time — and coordination! — in participating in this ellenbooks interview. We look forward to your next On the Road Mystery!
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to connect with your readers. And we are so glad you enjoyed our book. ~Peggy and Mary Joy