1) Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get into writing?
I’ve wanted to be an author since I was little. But you know . . . life happened.
In between raising four children, I worked as an American Sign Language Interpreter for more than thirty years, primarily in college classrooms for fifteen different majors. I attend classes with the deaf students and overhear both the most inspiring and the most inane professors you could imagine. At faculty meetings, I’ve seen the jockeying for position that happens on a daily basis. The academic world involves drama and intrigue that even a talented fiction writer could not make up. It’s the perfect setting for a mystery series.
The Cassandra Sato mysteries began as a NaNoWriMo project in 2014 where I mashed up many of my life experiences together to create a fictional college campus with a funny, strong-willed main character. Writing 50K words in one month proved that I could fulfill my lifelong dream to write a novel. It took me five more years of polishing and learning before publishing the first book, Death by Dissertation in 2019.
Once I checked off that huge item on my Bucket List, I set my sights on a bigger goal. Months of searching for my purpose here on earth led me to start the Duke the Deaf Dog ASL Series. In Never Mind, children and parents alike learn how it feels to be left out because you communicate differently than others. No one of any age likes to be brushed aside with a “never mind.” Farts Make Noise, the second in the series addresses the topic of manners and which things make soft or loud noises.
More than 90% of children who are born deaf or hard of hearing have parents who can hear. My research showed that very few books with deaf or hard of hearing characters focus on young children. I wanted to write a children’s book series that deaf children could feel connected to, because I believe every child can love reading if they find a story they enjoy.
2) What inspired you to write your book?
The Cassandra Sato mysteries are inspired by many real-life experiences. Years ago, I met one of my best friends while my husband and I lived in Hawai’i. I’ve often wished she lived closer to me in Nebraska so we could hang out together in person. Of course, who in their right mind trades the sunny skies and sandy beaches of paradise for miles and miles of cornfields? Right, no one.
When I began writing my novel during National Novel Writing Month in November of 2014, it was my chance to finally bring my wishes to life. So, I invented Cassandra Sato (who is only a little like my real-life friend) and moved her to Carson, Nebraska, to see how she’d handle the face-freezing winters and ethnically homogenous people.
3) What theme or message do you hope readers will take away from your book?
In the first two books of the series, Cassandra’s predicament as a fish out of water helped readers relate to her difficulties getting used to her new home in Nebraska. Now that she’s settled in a bit, for Dead of Winter Break, I threw in a few obstacles to disrupt her plan for a quiet, restful winter break between semesters.
Winter in the Midwest isn’t for wimps and Cassandra quickly learns what it feels like to shovel snow off her driveway. She has a new dog, Murphy—her first pet ever—and she’s learning some ASL so she can chat with her Deaf students and colleague, Dr. Bryant. All of these changes push Cassandra to her limits.
By the end of the holidays, Cassandra has to decide the depths of her commitment to her long-term career goals and balancing those with a healthier home life. Can an orphaned dog worm his way into her heart?
4) What drew you into this particular genre?
Mysteries and thrillers are my favorite genres to read so it was a natural choice when I started writing seriously. My books are light-hearted PG-13 because reading is an escape for most people and the real world is too serious and crazy, especially this year.
College communities are microcosms of the larger world and the perfect setting for shenanigans, mayhem, and murder. I think we all struggle to fit in somewhere, whether it’s a new job, with classmates, or who we want to be when we grow up. This series touches on all of those emotions, while also making you laugh. Because when I’m overwhelmed by life, laughter is the best way for me to deal with difficulties and move on.
5) If you could sit down with any character in your book, what would you ask them and why?
Marcus Fischer is one of the guys who’s romantically interested in Cassandra, but so far, they’ve had a mostly business relationship. We know he was stationed in Iraq during his time in the military and that he has an injured knee, but Fischer’s pretty tight-lipped about his past. I’d ask more about his time overseas because I think those experiences have made him the quiet, deliberate guy he is today. Fischer will have to come to terms with his secrets if he wants to move on with his life, whether he and Cassandra get together or not.
6) What social media site has been the most helpful in developing your readership?
Cozy mystery readers in general tend to hang out on Facebook where I’ve joined several very active reader groups. Since I read mysteries and thrillers myself more than any other genres, it’s natural to chat with fans and other authors. The best advice I’ve read about social media says to just be yourself and actually talk to people instead of bombarding them with sales pitches. Since I’ve been stuck working from home for months, I’ve found it easier now to take a while each day to chat with people in the reader groups.
I’m also present on Twitter, but mostly there I support other writers or talk about sports. I haven’t developed relationships with many people from Twitter. Instagram has potential for conversations, but I use it mostly for sharing personal photos and book updates. Other authors use Instagram more than I do, and I’d love to engage there more next year.
7) What advice would you give to aspiring or just starting authors out there?
Against all popular advice, I still struggle to write every day on my works in progress. Usually ideas and dialogue are percolating in my head while I’m doing other tasks, but the only way to finish books is to sit in the chair and write the words. I know that’s what everybody advises. Because they are right!
When you’re just getting started, it comes down to fear of being uncomfortable. Is your discomfort at not finishing that manuscript worse than the fear you feel while you’re writing or revising? You don’t have to be great at something before beginning. The more you write, the better you will get.
When you feel like vegging on the couch bingeing TV or napping instead of writing, remind yourself how good it will feel when you finish that day’s words. I can’t honestly say I enjoy writing first drafts. It feels like an angsty headache mixed with heartburn and looks ridiculous when I scroll back and re-read it. However, I am addicted to the satisfied feeling I get when I have finished my day’s word goal.
When a reader leaves a sincere review about why they liked the books, or emails me a question, I love the feeling of having written about characters they enjoyed in a story that touched them. It feels great!
The main thing I’ve learned is to just get started. Don’t wait any longer to pursue your dreams and goals. If I can do it, so can you. Good luck!
8) What does the future hold in store for you? Any new books/projects on the horizon?
Right now, I’m finishing up the text for the next children’s book so I can get that off my plate and into the illustrator’s magic hands. Next, I’m working on the draft of book four in the Cassandra Sato series coming out in early summer of 2021. I have so many ideas for the series, I’ll probably do a few short stories in 2021 to fill in between the full-length books. Although I became an author fairly late in life, I’m having so much fun I plan to do this for a long time!
About the Author
KELLY BRAKENHOFF is an American Sign Language Interpreter whose motivation for learning ASL began in high school when she wanted to converse with her deaf friends.
Kelly writes the Cassandra Sato Mystery series including DEATH BY DISSERTATION, a 2020 RONE Award Mystery Finalist, DEAD WEEK, “a diverting whodunit,” (Publishers Weekly), and DEAD OF WINTER BREAK, a holiday themed cozy new for 2020!
NEVER MIND, and FARTS MAKE NOISE are her children’s picture books featuring Duke the Deaf Dog and illustrated by her sister, Theresa Murray. The Duke books have quickly become popular with children, parents, and educators for promoting inclusive conversations about children with differences.
The mother of four young adults and a hunting dog, Kelly and her husband call Nebraska home.