Last year, while browsing that nifty ‘customers who bought this also bought…’ list on Amazon, I stumbled across an exciting looking mystery novel called Absolute Liability, the first book in the Southern Fraud Thriller series. I enjoyed reading it so much, I decided to ask fellow indie author J.W. Becton (a.k.a. Jennifer Becton) to pop over to do an interview.
Some of you may know her as an historical-fiction author, writing popular Jane Austen spin-offs like Charlotte Collins. Today, she’s giving us an inside look at her new Southern Fraud Thriller series. We’ll find out what sparked her interest in extreme insurance fraud, the challenges of writing mysteries vs. historical-fiction, and find out a little about the series’ second book, Death Benefits!
Tell us a little about Absolute Liability and the Southern Fraud Thriller series.
The Southern Fraud Thriller series resulted from my love of mysteries and my desire to read a book about a strong female character who worked in law enforcement but not in the typical professions of police officer or FBI agent. I also wanted to take advantage of a different setting—the South—which is filled with all kinds of quirky interesting people.
Each book in the Southern Fraud series focuses on Julia Jackson and her job at the Georgia Department of Insurance in which she investigates extreme cases of insurance fraud. In addition to her official law enforcement work, Julia is conducting a personal, secret investigation into the identity of the man who raped her sister seventeen years ago. So while Julia is tangling with some wacky and potentially homicidal fraudsters, she is also on a more intimate quest to bring justice to her sister and reunify her family, which was torn apart after the rape.
What prompted you to go from writing historical fiction to thrillers?
I grew up watching mysteries on TV with my father, and so these types of books also became my first loves. Before I ever read Jane Austen, I read Agatha Christie. But I adored both authors and genres equally so my dream was to write both types of books. Thanks to the changes that have taken place in the publishing world, I have been able to do just that.
What is the biggest difference between writing a book like Charlotte Collins and writing the Southern Fraud series?
This is a very good question. Both genres—thrillers and historical fiction—had their unique challenges, but I found mystery/thriller writing much more difficult. Timelines must be precise, and information must be revealed at just the right moment so that readers don’t feel as if they’ve been treated unfairly. In my view, readers must have the opportunity to figure out whodunit at the same moment as the protagonist (if not before). I despise reading mysteries in which the killer is introduced five pages before the end in a wild plot twist. I don’t mind being fooled by good writing, but I hate being the victim of cheap tricks like that. It is difficult to achieve a balance between suspense and timely revelations that lead everyone to the ultimate conclusion, and I spend a great deal of time rewriting and reorganizing the plot points until I feel the book is fair. Of course, that is up to the readers to decide.
In historical fiction, the biggest challenge is accurate depiction of the time period and mentality of the characters according to the social mores of the day. No matter how much research an author does, there will always be mistakes when trying to recreate a world of the past. I try my best to get it right and to keep my modern sensibilities out of it, but it is sometimes difficult.
Where did you get the idea to delve into insurance fraud investigating?
My in-laws run an independent (and not at all fraudulent) insurance agency, and my father-in-law once worked as a claims adjuster, so I often hear stories about their work. And some of it is hilarious! The scams that have been tried on them were sometimes so over the top that it was hard to believe they were true. And then I ran across an article about state insurance investigators, who turned out to be real law enforcement officers with the power to arrest and not fuddy-duddy number crunchers as I expected, and that’s when the idea for Southern Fraud began to form.
I absolutely love writing about unexpected characters, and what protagonist is more unexpected than an insurance fraud investigator? I had great fun taking a character type often seen in a negative light—everyone hates insurance companies, right?—and transforming her into a heroine.
What kind of research did you do?
I’ve had the most fun with research for Southern Fraud! I began with a good base of stories from my in-laws and augmented it with research from the Coalition against Insurance Fraud, the Insurance Journal, and other insurance related news stories. Sure, it sounds dry, but some of the extreme cases of fraud described in these articles are hysterical. I also had the opportunity to tour the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (NC) crime lab, where I saw what a real forensics lab was like and how it was run (spoiler: it’s not like TV at all). I also have the honor of getting to pick the brains of my military, law enforcement, and fire department friends, and this year, I attended the Writers’ Police Academy, which was a tremendous help and inspiration.
How did you develop the characters of Julia Jackson and Mark Vincent?
When I began Southern Fraud, my vision was to strive for the same feel as the TV crime dramedies I enjoyed as I was growing up. I wanted to find a balance between suspense, action, humor, and a touch of romance. But most importantly, I wanted my heroine to be more realistic than those I’ve been reading lately: neither a daft, bumbling idiot who trips her way through investigations nor a hard-as-nails, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later Dirty Harry type. I wanted her to be a good girl who tried hard and had a bit of an edge and a few snarky thoughts now and then.
And Julia needed a partner, and thus Vincent came to be. In Vincent, I wanted to create a man who was a bit of an homage to a strong but silent-type of hero who lets his actions speak for him. He has secrets and lots of military experience, but he’s never going to be one to ramble on about them. However, everything Vincent does reveals something about him and his mysterious past.
What can we expect as the series progresses?
As Southern Fraud progress, Julia will continue her investigations into some rather extreme cases of insurance fraud, and with each book, she will get one step closer to discovering the identity of her sister’s rapist and bringing him to justice. There will also be a few tastes of romance here and there and definitely some surprises along the way.
I read that you love horses. Will we ever see Julia riding?
I do love horses, and I have the honor of owning my dream horse, a gorgeous (even if I do say so myself) black Arab x Saddlebred mare that I love more than almost anything. I could go on (and on and on) about the subject of horses for pages, but for the sake of your readers’ sanity, I’ll prevent myself. Although I don’t have any plans to write any riding scenes in Southern Fraud, I am coauthoring a nonfiction book on overcoming horseback riding fear with Laura Daley, a professional horse and people trainer who helped me overcome my own fear issues.
When will Death Benefits, the second book in the series, be available? Can you give us a taste of what that will be about?
Death Benefits is currently in the hands of my proofreader, and as soon as she is finished, it will be released! I worked very hard on the book, and I really hope it will be a worthy successor to Absolute Liability. You can read a free sample of Death Benefits here.
Here’s the back cover copy:
Fraud investigator Julia Jackson is back in action, and her next assignment throws her straight into the crosshairs of a bevy of desperate people…and one man who will do anything to keep his secret safe.
Late one night, a car burns on an untraveled rural road, and the discovery of a body—charred beyond recognition—in the driver’s seat sets in motion a series of deadly events. And when the wife of the supposedly deceased driver demands her husband’s million-dollar life insurance policy payout before the autopsy can be completed, fraud investigators Julia Jackson and Mark Vincent must determine exactly how the victim died and at whose hands.
As Julia and Vincent interview witnesses and tangle with a host of angry suspects, another man is working behind the scenes to erase his mysterious connection to the body by any means necessary.
Soon Julia and Vincent realize they are not dealing with an average death benefits scam, but with a potential serial killer instead.
Besides the Southern Fraud series, do you have any other books in the works?
As I mentioned earlier, I am coauthoring a book on overcoming horseback riding fear with Laura Daley, and I’ll also be starting on At Fault (SF3), which will focus on some strange cases of auto insurance fraud. I’m very much looking forward to 2012 and to continuing my journey in the self-publishing world.
Amy, thank you so much for inviting me to your blog, and I look forward to getting to know and your readers better!
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You can purchase all of Jennifer’s ebooks at Amazon.com. And for those of you who are Amazon Prime Members, you can borrow her books for free from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library! You can purchase the paperback editions of her books at most major retailers.
Thanks for joining us today, Jennifer!