A Conversation with Lori Armstrong, author of NO MERCY
1) How does the landscape of South Dakota affect the story and your writing of this novel?
Many readers have told me the South Dakota setting is its own character in my books—which is exactly what I aimed for as a writer. Giving people who’ve never visited our state a glimpse into the vastness, the climate, the splendor and the horror of living in rural area where the land can be as unforgiving, brutal, beautiful, and generous as the people who inhabit it.
2) Do you think there is a dysfunctional relationship between American Indians and white residents in that area?
There’s a lingering clash of cultures even a century after our official statehood. So many settlers in this part of the country were immigrants who were eager to be assimilated into a new way of life as Americans. Not so with the American Indians who had no choice but to be relegated to reservations. The government and assorted Christian religious factions tried to eradicate their entire culture, their language, and their traditions—assimilating them against their will. So I applaud the tribe’s and individual tribal member’s efforts to reconnect with the heritage they were forced to abandon or practice in secret. But I also think there’s still a long way to go to overcome past stereotypes—rednecks versus redskins—and realize our ethnic diversity should strengthen our state, not divide it.
3) How does your former professional career with firearms color this story?
When I worked in the family firearms business, I was surrounded by guns of all makes and models, all day, every day. But I didn’t pay much attention to them beyond knowing where the various pieces were in the production processes, looking at the finished product, and logging the serial numbers in and out of the databases. Which is an odd position to be in; people assume I know way more about individual firearms than I actually do. I’m lucky that my husband and his family are still in the gun business and I have firearms experts at my fingertips at all times, which is essential as a crime fiction author.
But that’s also what intrigues me, the diverse mindsets of individuals like me who’ve been raised around guns. Some people feel indifference. Some people see guns as a hobby: target shooting and collecting. Some people see guns as tools; used to hunt and for protection. Mercy falls into all categories, as guns were always part of her life, and her history. What fascinated me was she chose her military career based on her love and proficiency with firearms.
4) This is not the first book you’ve written about Native American culture. What draws you to it?
My own ignorance. I’ve lived in South Dakota almost my whole life and I’m shocked and embarrassed by how little I know about the various Native American tribes that populate our state. In school we learned about the explorers, the homesteaders, the pioneers, and the Deadwood gold rush but an entire segment of our population and their history was ignored. Thankfully, since my days in public school system, this oversight has been addressed. American Indian history has been included in the South Dakota State history curriculum. But I am definitely making up for lost time trying to learn all I can.
5) Mercy described her family as “land rich, but not money rich.” How does a story like Mercy’s exemplify some of the struggles farmers and ranchers face today, especially in the Midwest?
Drought, high fuel prices, low cattle prices, it’s not easy to entrust your livelihood year after year to things beyond your control. Especially when ranching is a family tradition, passed from one generation to the next. No one wants the bear the responsibility for losing the family land due to poor decisions or even from unforeseen economic situations, but it happens every day. There is also the lure of securing a future not subject to the whims of the weather and the cattle market when out of state developers show up flashing a wad of cash. It’s a catch-22 for many families.
6) Mercy is a no nonsense girl who understands that she lives in a man’s world, both in the Army and in the ranching industry. Is this a feeling you indentify with?
No. I’ve worked in a male-dominated field, but my life path has been completely different and much easier. Soldiers and ranchers are the toughest people I know—whether they’re male or female—so creating a female character who is a rancher and a soldier was too potent a combination for me to resist.
7) Why did you choose to make Mercy an injured Army veteran?
Strangely enough, I was watching a TV show on Army Rangers and it bothered me that women soldiers—no matter how qualified—weren’t allowed to train within the Special Forces units of all branches of the armed forces. Then I thought…but what if they are trained and used in covert ops? And it’s purposely hidden? That simple “what if” factor garners most of my character and plot ideas.
Sadly, serious injury is a reality of a soldier’s life, especially in times of war. Mercy’s injury has forced a life and career change she didn’t want, but when she visits the VA to deal with her disability, it drives home the point she’s been far luckier than many of her fellow soldiers.
8)What is it about mysteries that you enjoy so much?
The resolution. It heartening to start a book, knowing the bad guy (or girl) will get his or her comeuppance in the end, yet true justice isn’t always meted out by law enforcement agencies.
9) Would you consider writing outside the genre?
I do write outside the mystery genre, but I stick with rural themes in the contemporary western erotic romances I write under the pen name Lorelei James. Writing steamy romances allows me to delve into the main character’s relationship to intimacy, whereas in mystery, I’m dealing with the main character’s relationship to violence.
10) What’s your creative process like?
There is no magic fairy dust, nor do I await the mysterious muse to inspire or browbeat me. I love writing for a living. But it is a job, so I park myself in the chair every day and get to work. Usually when I start a mystery I know who dies, who did it, and why they did it. I also know the 8 to 10 “black moments” or points where the story changes direction, be it a plot point, another body showing up, or a change in character motivation. I don’t write extensive outlines, unless my editor asks for one, but I do write a three to five page synopsis that serves as a sort of roadmap. Of course, I’ve been known to travel off road; those unplanned journeys are often the most inspiring. Then again, I’ve had a flat tire or two on an off road detour, where I had to change it out and start over. But I’ve also stumbled across plot threads that pop up out of nowhere—a road that leads to the beautiful scenery you can see in the distance but can’t quite get to, and that is equally rewarding.
11) What projects are you working on next?
I’m currently writing the next book in the Mercy Gunderson mystery series, tentatively titled MERCY KILL, which has a release date of Jan. 2011.