Soapbox Spotlight: Joyce Strand

Thank you for joining me for another installment of Soapbox Spotlight!  Today’s Spotlight is with mystery author Joyce Strand.  She has written two mystery novels already, and has a lot in common with me in that she was raised in Williamsport, PA (where I went to Lycoming College) and finished her education at George Washington University (near where I grew up in Washington DC).  See what she has to say about her writing experience and her latest novel, Open Meetings.

Tell us a little about yourself, Joyce.

Like my main character, I headed corporate communications at Silicon Valley high-tech and biotech companies for more than 25 years. Currently, I live in Southern California and do what my two cats tell me. I also love eating fine pastas and drinking California red wines. And attending Broadway musicals. I have written and published two Jillian Hillcrest mysteries, and am working on a third in the series.

Can you tell us about your main character?

Jillian Hillcrest is head of corporate communications at a small biotechnology company in Silicon Valley, named Harmonia Therapeutics. Her routine of writing press releases, speaking at conferences, and arranging interviews–all change due to the intrusion of murder. With the help of a determined homicide inspector, her ex-husband–whose attentiveness to her suggests he wants to amend the “ex”– and a retired intrusive neighbor, Jillian connects disparate pieces of the puzzles to help solve the crimes.

More on Jillian:  Prior to joining Harmonia, she also did PR for almost 10 years at a high tech company. She grew up with her mother in a small town in Pennsylvania, although they moved to California when she was in high school, and her mother now lives in southern California. She never got to know her father, as he was killed in the Vietnam War. She got married right after graduation from Cal to Chad Bradbury, who is a marketing executive at a biotech company in Alameda. They divorced after 10 years of marriage, and, quite frankly, are not sure why. They enjoy each other’s company, and go together to fine restaurants, plays, and trips to the wine country.

Jillian has her own website, Facebook page, and blog.  She tries to keep her fans up to date on her activities, and frequently offers clues to readers to win a free book.

Wow, that’s a clever idea!  What do you love about independent publishing?

Control and pace. I choose the cover, the type face, the editor, the distribution.  And I do the marketing. I don’t need to wait to find an agent, and then wait for the agent to land a publisher, and then wait for the publisher to decide whether to publish, and then wait for the publisher to find the optimal time for them to publish. I hasten to add, however, that as my own publisher I am very demanding and require a well-edited book with an excellent cover and inside design.  I do spend a lot of time editing and improving.

On the other hand, the problem with independent publishing is that I am in control, and I have to choose the cover designer, the type face, the editor, the distribution – and I have to pay for everything.  Then I have to spend hours and hours marketing.  

Yeah, all that control can definitely be a downer!  How much of the book is based on real events?

All the Jillian Hillcrest mysteries are inspired by actual California cases, although most of the books are fiction. The first mystery, On Message, is motivated by an infamous San Diego case involving embezzlement and murder of a retired biotech executive turned angel investor.  Open Meetings is inspired by a San Francisco-area case involving a network of criminal ex- and current police.
In addition, the back story of public relations and a corporate PR executive’s activities are based on my own experiences. Of course, I never encountered any murder cases, nor did I ever walk in on my CEO and CFO in bed together, but I did perform many of the described functions and intend that the reader comprehends the routine of a PR pro and how the murders and crimes intrude on that routine.

How important do you think villains are in a story?

Without villains, there could be no heroes. Whether the villain is a tornado, a serial killer, a mother-in-law, or a bank robber, we need villains to set up the predicaments that our protagonists overcome.  So villains are crucial to a plot.  Books would be very boring without villains, I think.

What are some of your favorites (foods, color, musicians)?

Book:  James Clavell’s SHOGUN because the author made me feel like I was in feudal Japan, watching the chess-like moves of the rise of the Shogun, and feeling the reactions of the characters. 
Musical:  Les Miserables or Wicked – both have superb music, compelling plots, and deliver a message while entertaining.
Food: Roast duck or duck confit or Peking duck and pasta, especially penne Bolognese
Musician:  Wynton Marsalis – he can play either jazz or classical trumpet and reach out to me, and make it seem so easy.

How long have you been writing?

I think I have always been writing. In school, I asked for essay questions over multiple choice. I chose to do projects that involved writing papers and reports.  In college, I asked to do an independent study that involved a comparison of Camus and Sartre resulting in a 150 page essay with my own existential poems initiating each chapter. I wrote a doctoral dissertation, which is simply a non-fiction book – I loved writing it. Then when I started my career, writing was a core skill so I fell easily into the art of marketing and public relations.  Throughout my career I wrote hundreds of press releases and background documents; and published dozens of ghost-written articles.  So, when it came time to write a novel, I had a core skill to draw from, although I freely admit that writing fiction is different than drafting marketing documents.

What first attracted you to this genre?

I have been reading mystery stories, such as Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, since I was a child. I grew up in a small town where there was little else to do than reading. Fortunately we had a great library. My parents refused to buy a television.  There was one movie theater.  In the summer my friends and I would go on bicycle hikes; in the winter the town flooded a field so we could ice skate.  In between I would read.  Mysteries were my favorite from the beginning.  I still love them, and currently have 20 loaded on my Kindle just waiting for me.

What inspired you to write your first book, and what was it?

I would have to say that I consider my first book to be my doctoral dissertation, which was a discussion of the transition of Brazil from a military dictatorship to a democracy. However, in my current mystery genre, my first book was On Message – the first Jillian Hillcrest mystery.  I wrote it because I was out of work, and could not find a job – after more than 25 years as a public relations professional.  My husband recommended it, and given that I had always enjoyed reading mysteries, and I find writing therapeutic, I decided it was a great idea!

That seems to be a common theme with authors on their first book.  What do you look for in a cover?

A good cover reflects the subject of the book and the genre.  That is, a serious mystery should be somber; a humorous mystery can be whimsical.  Perhaps more important, the title and author names should be prominent and should standout so that a reader notices them among a group of other books.

What’s your writing process?

First, I determine the plot – which means that I decide on the crime, which I pull from current California cases. Since I write a series, I have fleshed out the main characters, although each book has different villains and victims, so I also outline their characteristics before starting. Then I determine the beginning and the end of the book.  Third, I sit down and start to write a first draft.  I let the characters lead me to bridge the scenes. 

Writing the first draft usually takes me four to six months. When I finish, I let the manuscript sit for at least a week.  Then I edit it – multiple times.  This process can take an additional month.  When I am satisfied that I have a reasonably good first draft, I turn it over to 2-3 readers.  Then I write Draft 2 based on their input.  For the second novel, I cut almost 15,000 words at this point.

When I have a second draft that I like, I send it to another group of readers – this leads to Draft 3.  I edit this draft, and then send Draft 4 to a professional editor.  Of course, this means lots of changes and Draft 5 becomes the close-to-final, but still requires changes, as I finalize the mystery. I agonize for several weeks or months before I agree with myself that the book is ready for publication.

Multiple drafts is definitely the mark of a brilliant writer.  Congratulations on your latest work, and thanks for joining us today!

Thanks for having me, Raynetta!

You can find Joyce at the following links:

Blog: http://StrandsSimplyTips.blogspot
Book Trailer:

You can find Joyce’s books at the following links:

On Message

Open Meetings


  1. Yes — I cut 15,000 and then added at least that many words back. Then my professional editor cut some more and I added some more. And 15000 words is approximately 30 pages. I tend to get verbose!

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