8 Questions with Award-Winning Mystery Author Micki Browning

Award-winning author Micki Browning worked in municipal law enforcement for more than two decades and is an FBI National Academy graduate. She retired as a division commander – wonderful fodder for her current career as a full-time writer.

Micki BrowningHer mystery, Adrift, set in the Florida Keys, won the 2015 Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence and the Royal Palm Literary Award for best unpublished mystery and unpublished book of the year. It was published in January 2017 by Alibi- Random House.

Micki also writes short stories and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in dive magazines, anthologies, mystery magazines and textbooks.

Micki resides in Southern Florida with her partner in crime and a vast array of scuba equipment. She’s currently working on Beached, the second in the Mer Cavallo Mysteries. Learn more at www.MickiBrowning.com

MB: Thank you Laurie, I’m so pleased to be your guest today!

LS: I loved the opening to this mystery. I don’t want to give anything away, but let’s just say it’s not your average dead-body-on-page-five first chapter.

MB: Thank you! I actually struggled a bit with this beginning because I knew I was bucking genre norms, but Adrift could not have started any other way.

LS: Are you a plotter or a pantser? How long did it take you to write Adrift, and what is your process?

Adrift by Micki BrowningMB: Adrift took about a year and a half to complete. I started out as a pantser—but mysteries require a bit of planning. That said, I hate outlining. I have yet to envision a story from start to finish before I’ve written half the book. I recently finished Beached, the second in the Mer Cavallo Mysteries. I knew what I needed in the end, but it wasn’t until I was writing the final confrontation that the details finally coalesced. Now I like to think of myself as a hybrid pantser/plotter. The milestones I need to visit along the way are clear, but the path I travel is often serendipitous.

LS: Florida is a fertile setting for mysteries and crime writing in general—Miami and Key West, in particular, offer lots of crazy for writers to work with. Key Largo, on the other hand, has a quiet, laid-back vibe. What challenges or advantages does this present as a mystery setting?

MB: I lived the life I wrote about in Adrift. After I retired from a twenty-two year career in law enforcement, my better half and I decided to leave Colorado and decompress in the Keys. The closest thing to snow in the Keys is a shaved ice and living there allowed us to dive almost any day we wanted. In the process, I became a professional divemaster and worked in one of the local dive shops. So as a setting, it was perfect. I know Key Largo. I know the dive industry. I’ve seen the crazy. The only drawback is that it’s a small community. That said, a LOT of people pass through. No telling what secrets they have.

LS: Your background is in law enforcement, yet you chose to make your main character a scientist. What inspired this choice?

MB: Most mystery writers would love to have my background, so it strikes them as odd that I chose to write about an amateur sleuth. But the fact is I had just retired, and I wanted a bit of distance from the profession. It seemed natural to write about someone who loved the ocean, loved her job, and was smart. I also wanted her to be a bit of a fish out of water. Adjusting to the laid-back life in the Keys was a difficult transition for Mer. As a newcomer to the area, I was able to capitalize on some of my own experiences learning about a new place.

LS: I love the subtle humor and snarky social commentary, such as when everyone on the boat is posting to YouTube, or my personal favorite, “It’s octopuses! Why can’t people get that?” It reminds me of Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, if Warshawski worked on a dive boat. Do you plan to bring up issues in each of your books, or do these things just pop out as you write?

MB: Oh, good question! It’s fun to write through the eyes of characters because nothing is off limits. But it has to come from the characters not the author. If it is true to the character, it’ll pop out!

LS: What have been the biggest lessons you’ve learned in the process of writing and marketing your first published novel?

MB: Celebrate the little things! Writing isn’t easy (at least it isn’t for me), and nothing in the publishing industry moves fast. Once a book is released, marketing never really stops. It also helps to have friends who write. They understand that wine and chocolate are both celebratory and consolatory indulgences.

LS: What’s the most fun thing about being a published author? Least fun thing?

MB: I’ve wanted to write a book ever since I was a little girl, so Adrift is truly the realization of a dream. I still pinch myself. Querying, on the other hand, was not a fun process. The feedback was fabulous, but rejection is hard. Hence the wine and chocolate…

LS: Sooner or later, I always have to ask about food. Mer is unable to resist when her neighbor grills a juicy tri-tip. Do you have a favorite recipe for Santa Maria-style steaks or any tips?

MB: For the uninitiated, Santa Maria Valley is located along the Central Coast of California. The regional staple is Santa Maria-style barbecue—a beef tri-tip seasoned with salt, black pepper a bit of garlic and then grilled. And not just any grill, either. All around the valley—outside grocery stores, next to produce stands, behind restaurants—you’ll encounter behemoth iron grills that have wheel cranks to raise and lower massive grates over oak-wood fires. Stands will sell plates of sliced tri-tip along with beans, fresh salsa, tossed green salad and slabs of grilled French bread. It’s standard fare for weddings, retirement parties, and impromptu lunches. It’s fabulous. To this day, I can’t eat a steak without salsa. When I first landed in the Keys, no one carried tri-tip. Now that cut of beef is easily found in all the markets. Maybe Mer got the word out! As far as a recipe, it’s beyond simple: Grill tri-tip to medium rare. Add salsa (I recommend fresh and spicy). That’s it. Bon Appetit!

 


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I Am So Over Gardening

Here’s a photo from about a year ago showing my backyard vegetable garden:

garden.501

Here’s a photo of that garden now:

scarygarden3

The only things growing there now are one insane Italian parsley plant and a rogue tomato vine that is only thriving because I was was completely unaware of it until I went outside to dump something into the compost pile a couple of weeks ago. (There’s another trend I’m getting over; more on that later.)

I’ve lost count of how many times I have tried and failed to grow tomatoes. My mother, who effortlessly grew lush, eight-foot-tall tomato plants in boxes on her deck, tried to help me out by sending me the boxes she used, which were supposed to make the gardening process practically automatic. They were self-watering, and all I had to do was refill them occasionally and watch out for pests. Right. Fail, fail, fail.

I tried buying big, healthy plants. I tried starting my own seedlings. I tried inside, outside, upside down. There was apparently no way on earth a tomato would come to fruition in my care. Then, outside, in the middle of winter, there suddenly appears a healthy, fully grown tomato plant, as if to say, “Ha ha, Laurie, look at us! We are better off without you!” The plant is not staked, is surrounded by weeds, has not been watered or fertilized, and yet there it is, strong, healthy and rebelliously producing fruit. This is just the final proof that plants don’t like me.

My delusional adventures in gardening began about two years ago. I believe this can be partially attributed to identity crisis following my earlier-than-planned departure from the newspaper industry. This coincided with the major economic downturn that had many people looking toward getting back to basics, and so I jumped onto a national bandwagon of growing organic food at home, and planned to also hop on the home-canning trend, too. We would be stocked up with healthy, flavorful organic vegetables year-round!

Despite a lifelong history of having plants generally ignore my friend requests, I planted squash, cucumbers, corn, tomatoes and peppers, with marigolds in between that were supposed to repel insects. The squash, as you can see in the top photo above, sprouted up beautifully. Then, just as quickly, it developed an incurable disease and rotted. The cucumbers spread wildly but never grew much past cocktail gherkin size. Two rows of corn provided a nice snack for the squirrels, and you know how it went with the tomatoes. The only success I had was with peppers, but this brings me to a major problem I learned about gardening, which is, if you do grow anything, you end up with too much of that thing, so you end up eating salsa with everything for weeks and still have to go to the store to get onions and all the other things you don’t grow.

I know a lot of successful gardeners, and they’re probably shaking their heads right now, wondering what’s wrong with me. Maybe some will side with the plants and unfriend me. However, I don’t think I’m the only one that feels this way. Last spring I interviewed a local landscaper for a story on upcoming home and garden trends, and he told me that he was getting fewer requests to put in vegetable garden beds. In fact, the major upcoming trend seemed to lean toward paving over the backyard altogether and maybe putting in some artifical turf. (This is in Florida. If you’ve ever cared for a yard here in the summer, you will understand this.)

The other thing I may abandon is composting. I never did that right, anyway. You’re supposed to invest in, or build, a nice compost bin and use official composting techniques such as layering with leaves or newspapers and flipping it all around occasionally. I never did any of that. I just piled some bricks in a corner and dumped my kitchen scraps out there. Sometimes I put leaves on it. It worked fine for a while, though it pretty much disappeared under weeds before I actually got to apply it to the garden. Now I suspect that it’s behind our recent fruit fly invasion. It has also occurred to me that I am taking away valuable organic material from the landfill. Wouldn’t it help the landfill to put good things in it, too?

I’m still dumping things in the yard as I ponder this, and in my defense I will say that I do recycle everything. Oh, and I haven’t killed the herbs, so I plan to keep them going. The tomatoes and I will remain civil but will probably never really be friends.

Are you a great gardener? Or are you ready to give up?

Deleon Springs: A Hike and a Swim in ‘Old Florida’

Being an outdoorsy kind of girl who spent most of my life on lakes, rivers and trails in Arkansas, I enjoy exploring my new environment in Florida and sharing my love of nature with my son. Invariably, when I report one of our adventures to one of my Floridian friends, they’ll sigh wistfully and say something about that particular place being “a bit of ‘Old Florida.’ ” I’m not exactly sure what they mean by “Old Florida,” but I’m guessing it has a lot to do with giant, moss-covered live oaks and not so much to do with condominiums and strip malls. It’s all still fairly new to me, and I’m trying to see as much of it as I can while it’s still here. (Not condos and strip malls, but they cannot be avoided.)

Inspired by my son, who was inspired by a run of hiking- and camping-themed PBS cartoon programming the other day, I dug out one of my hiking books to see if there was a new trail to explore nearby.  “A Hiking Guide to the Trails of Florida” by Elizabeth F. Carter is a trusty old standby that I purchased when I first moved to Florida. I was intrigued by the description of the Wild Persimmon Trail, described as a moderate-difficulty, 4.4-mile trail in Deleon Springs State Park. Over the years I’d heard about the park, which features a large spring-fed swimming area and picnic tables under big live oaks. A morning hike followed by a picnic lunch and a swim in the spring sounded like the perfect day trip for Trevor and me.

Deleon Springs State Park nature trail by Laurie Sterbens

Tall oaks, palms and ferns line the nature trail at Deleon Springs State Park.

Despite the planned hike, I woke up early and went to the gym while Trevor and his dad were still sleeping. In my former life, hiking could be a vigorous workout. Hiking with a 6-year-old boy is more of an exercise in patience: Walk six feet, see a bug. Agree this is a cool bug. Repeat.

One of the highlights, for me, of our planned outing was that it provided a perfect opportunity to use our picnic backpack. I love the picnic backpack. It opens up to reveal everything you need for a lovely romantic wine-and-cheese picnic, with insulated storage and even a wine-bottle-sized pocket on the side. Trouble is, most of the places where you might go to have a picnic in Florida are run by the state and alcohol is prohibited. And of course I’m not going to head out in the early morning to chug wine with a small child anyway. But my water bottle fits in that side pocket, and the picnic backpack suited our purpose perfectly, filled with sandwiches, snacks and juice box drinks for Trevor.

There is a restaurant right next to the swimming area at Deleon Springs State Park, the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant, and I’d heard for years about the wonderful pancakes that diners can make themselves on griddles at each table. Lunch is also served there, but since I was in both money- and calorie-conserving mode, I opted to pack lunch for this trip. Also, we just wanted to have a picnic. We have the backpack.

When we arrived at the park I requested a map from the park attendant and was dismayed to find that the small map in the brochure didn’t indicate specifically where the Wild Persimmon Trail was located. A quick drive through the park revealed only entrances to the park’s shorter, paved nature trail. Since we had arrived a little later than anticipated and not seeing a choice, we decided we’d just walk the nature trail before lunch and swimming.

We eventually found an unpaved path when we attempted to avoid a large group of teenage boys from a youth group picnic who’d decided to explore the nature trail at the same time. Nothing can destroy a peaceful nature stroll like a stampeding herd of teenage boys. We ducked onto a trail beyond a sign that said it led to a place once known as “Monkey Island.” (I later learned that back in the 1950s the park had a “jungle cruise” that led past an area where several monkeys were kept. I believe this is an example of that “Old Florida” people keep talking about.)

We followed the trail to its apparent end and found, oddly, some sort of wooden table or bench, and large fallen trees blocking the road. No island, no monkeys. Disappointment. But we did enjoy the trail along the way, with its tall oaks, twisting palms and huge, brilliant green ferns. It felt like a giant Jurassic-sized dragonfly might buzz by at any moment. Trevor happily spotted large spiderwebs every 10 feet or so, and I agreed that the spiders were cool.

By this time we realized I’d forgotten a crucial step in Florida wetland hiking procedure: I’d left the bug spray in the car. Our casual stroll under the palms became an urgent speed walk back to the car before insects devoured my child. It was then that we found the entrance to the Wild Persimmon Trail. A sign posted at the trailhead stated that this hike would take about three hours, so it would have to wait for another day, and probably for a companion older than 6.

We chose a picnic table in the shade of the park’s many massive, ancient live oak trees, with a view of the swimming area, which, despite it being a weekday, was lively and noisy with group picnics and families. Beyond the swimming area, canoers paddled in the Spring Garden Run. Canoe, kayak and paddleboat rentals are available at the park for exploring the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. For us, canoe rental was also an option for another day, when two sets of adult arms would be available.

The spring-fed swimming area at Deleon Springs State Park has a year-round temperature of 72 degrees.

After lunch I chose a shady spot near the steps leading into the spring and set up a folding lounge chair, which was fortunately left in my trunk from a recent beach trip. Many visitors brought chairs or lounged on towels or blankets on the grassy area surrounding the spring. Meanwhile, Trevor grabbed his mask and quickly made his way down the steps into the crystal-clear water, which ranges from 18 to 30 inches in depth and is 72 degrees year-round. Seventy-two degrees sounds very pleasant when you’re talking about the temperature outside. Seventy-two degrees when you’re talking about water is cold. There were lots of people bobbing around above the sandy bottom of the spring during our visit. I was not one of them. Trevor, however, swam for hours and had a blast. We’d brought his snorkeling gear, but he also enjoyed playing on his boogie board, another beach-day leftover in my trunk.

Our day trip ended predictably around three in the afternoon, when the thunderstorm clouds began rolling in. But with fishing, canoeing and the famed pancake restaurant still to be experienced at Deleon Springs, we’ll be back soon.