In researching her latest mystery, Deadly Currents, Colorado Springs author Beth Groundwater encountered more adventure in a year than most writers have to cope with in a lifetime.
"I started with a friend of mine who was a rafting guide," she says of her research process. "She put me in touch with the man who runs the rafting outfitter that she works for; she gave me the names of a couple river rangers, and I worked my way up to Stew Pappenfort, who is the senior ranger for the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area. He invited me to observe one day of their three-day swiftwater rescue training class that they teach seasonal river rangers every spring."
After a day of watching rescues, taking notes and snapping photos, she'd gathered plenty of material for Mandy Tanner, Deadly Currents' river ranger heroine. She also discovered just how much has changed since she first encountered the sport 30 years ago.
"I'd done a lot of whitewater canoeing back in the 1980s. That was before the time of self-bailing rafts, and the kayaks were long — they weren't little play kayaks like they are now," she reminisces. "When I started talking to rafting guides and the people that worked on the river, I went, 'Oh!' You know, they talk the same way about life on the river and reading the water and how much they enjoy riding the waves, as they did back in the '80s. It's just a new generation now."
Some writers might back down from using such a highly technical, physically demanding and culturally specific milieu for what is essentially a soft-boiled mystery tale, but Groundwater viewed it as more of a joyful return. Then again, Groundwater's path to prominence as a published author of three novels has followed much the same path.
She began writing in her teens, but dropped out of the fiction world for a career as a software engineer before rebooting her writing habit as she prepared to retire. While reinventing oneself as a mystery author might seem like a challenge after a lapse of 20 years, Groundwater brought a formidable level of determination and focus to the myriad hurdles of getting published.
"When I started writing, I got feedback that my characters were not three-dimensional, so I actually spent a year focusing just on characterization — taking workshops, reading books about it, doing character interviews with my characters, trying to delve deep into their backgrounds — and now the feedback that I get is that people love my characters."
Problem found, problem addressed, problem obliterated. In action, Groundwater's approach to writing is almost scary in its precision. Perhaps that's because her single-minded M.O. owes a great deal to her former incarnation as a code geek.
"Being a retired software engineer, I'm more comfortable with a computer environment," she explains. "So very early on, I figured, 'All right, I'll focus a fair amount of my promotion online.' I have a website and a blog and I participate in lots of Yahoo! groups and have a Facebook page, and I don't know if you've heard of Goodreads, it's a social network for readers ... [I've] just become active in those groups and do a lot of chatting online and talking to people so they know about me.
"Particularly in the creative fields, it's not so much what you know, but who you know. You've got to be making contacts with everyone you can find who works [in your field], so that you can use those contacts to find a job. And it's the same thing with finding an agent or an editor or a publisher. You have to work your contacts."
Into the wild
Ultimately, Groundwater's success story is the kind that aspiring authors need to hear. It bears witness to the fact that it's not a bolt from the blue that turns writers into authors, no matter what J.K. Rowling or Elizabeth Gilbert might say. Unlike their paths to author-dom, Groundwater's results can be duplicated — at least by those with an endless capacity for hard work.
"You have to be persistent and be willing to get your work out there and get rejection letters," she says. "I was rejected by 89 agents before the 90th one signed me on."
Of course, it also helps if they, like Groundwater herself, have an appetite for adventure. As she wraps up our interview with some juicy details about Deadly Currents' sequel, in which death stalks a fly-fishing tournament, Groundwater gleefully divulges the best part of her new outdoor-mystery-author gig:
"Now all my whitewater rafting trips are business expenses!"