Phyllis Entis is the author of the Damien Dickens Mysteries series, which includes The Green Pearl Caper, The White Russian Caper, The Chocolate Labradoodle Caper and The Gold Dragon Caper. Her debut novel, The Green Pearl Caper, was a Library Journal SELF-e Selection. Phyllis is a free-lance writer and retired food safety microbiologist with degrees from McGill University and the University of Toronto. In 2007, ASM Press published her non-fiction book, Food Safety: Old Habits, New Perspectives.
Phyllis lives in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California with her husband and their Australian Cobberdog, Shalom. When she’s not writing, Phyllis usually can be found walking around town, browsing in the local library, or enjoying her garden.
How did you get interested in writing fiction, and how did you first get published?
I’ve always been a voracious reader of both general fiction and the mystery/crime genre. Like most girls, I cut my detective teeth on Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton, and other teenage detectives. After I ‘officially’ retired, I decided to exercise my brain by joining a drop-in writing group. We would be given a ‘prompt’ and scribble furiously for 20 minutes or so, then read our rough work out loud to the rest of the group. One of the prompts triggered a scene where a slinky dame enters the office of a downtrodden PI and hires him for a job. Something about the characters stuck with me and I decided to try and expand the flash fiction into a book and The Green Pearl Caper was born.
I tried to go the traditional publication route for the first book, without success. After a while, I decided to self-publish and haven’t looked back. The ebooks are published through Amazon. I use CreateSpace for the paperbacks and ACX (royalty share program) to produce the audiobook editions.
You write cozy mysteries. What draws you to that genre?
My mysteries aren’t truly cozy. They fall somewhere between cozy and noir. I like to think of them as classic PI fiction (some people have referred to them as ‘retro’ detective novels). The newest release, The Gold Dragon Caper, is the ‘noir-est’ of the four books thus far.
Your books, starting with The Green Pearl Caper, are set in 1979 and 1980. What led you to select that date for your books?
I chose the 1979-1980s (the 4th book is set in 1983) as an era with which I was very familiar. Also, much like Sue Grafton, I didn’t want to have to deal with rapidly changing technology (smart phones, iPads and the like). I wanted to be at the beginnings of the high-tech era so that Damien and Millie had to rely on their own brain power instead of leaning on a bunch of gadgets to solve the mysteries.
You are a retired food safety microbiologist. First, what does a food safety microbiologist do, and second, how did you turn from that to writing fiction?
A microbiologist is a scientist who specializes in the study of bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. As the term implies, a food safety microbiologist’s area of interest is in keeping the food supply safe for human consumption. In my own case, I began my career by working for Canada’s Health Protection Branch (Canada’s equivalent to the FDA), first in Winnipeg then in Montreal. After spending some years at the lab bench running tests on food samples (looking for things like Salmonella), I moved into a managerial role, overseeing the operation of three separate labs.
In 1979, my husband and I decided to quit our jobs and open our own company dedicated to developing rapid test procedures for use by food manufacturers. We worked together for more than 20 years, finally selling our business in 2001. With time on my hands, I turned my attention to writing my non-fiction book. Once it was released in 2007, I began to blog about food safety issues and recalls. I continued blogging until 2013, when I got tired of repeating myself as each new food poisoning outbreak was an echo of one that went before.
In the spirit of ‘a change is as good as a rest,’ I decided to try my hand at fiction. The Green Pearl Caper was my first effort. I hadn’t planned for it to be the first in a series, until readers started asking when the next installment would appear. I’m now starting to think about book #5.
Besides your Damien Dickens books, you have written a non- fiction book, Food Safety: Old Habits, New Perspectives. Will you tell us something about that book?
During my years of working in government and in the food industry, I was struck by the number of illness outbreaks and food recalls that could have been averted by learning from past experiences. When my husband and I sold our microbiology business, I decided to try my hand at a book that would look at the subject of food safety from the perspective of breaking bad habits and learning better ones. Although the book was published by the American Society for Microbiology and was sold mostly to the professional community, I did my best to write it in a way that would make it accessible to the general public. I knew I had succeeded when one of my Australian colleagues described my writing style as reminiscent of James Patterson (in his best days).
How do you organize your writing? Do you plan it all out in advance, or do you write from the seat of your pants?
I’m more of a seat-of-the-pants writer than a planner. I start with a rough idea of where I want the story to go. In some cases, it’s an idea for the location of a climactic scene (eg., the drawbridge scene in the second book). Other times, it’s an idea for the ‘reveal’ (as in book 4). I usually have a few false starts and the occasional wrong turn before I find the best path to the finish line. However, I enjoy the process of solving the mystery alongside my main characters.
What kind of research do you perform for your books, and how do you do it?
Most of my research is via the Internet. When I settle on a locale (or locales) for my novel – where possible, places I’ve visited over the years – I search for information on the locations from the era. Often I can find info on-line. Sometimes, I have old photos I can use. Also, I research current events from the era so that I can slip a news story, sports event or weather report into the narrative for authenticity. Where I can’t find the info on-line, I have reached out to organizations. For example, I wanted to situate the Las Vegas Public Library correctly in The Gold Dragon Caper. I contacted the research librarian by email and she was kind enough to give me the correct 1983 street address for the main library.
In addition to location, I do my best to achieve accuracy in weapons, telephones, and other physical items from the era. For the food safety plot in The Chocolate Labradoodle Caper, I was able to draw on first-hand experience, supplemented with some fact checking to ensure accuracy.
Your food safety career played a role in your book The Chocolate Labradoodle Caper. How did your career figure in? What made you decide to use this topic?
I started writing The Chocolate Labradoodle Caper shortly before we lost our Australian Labradoodle to a fulminating cancer of the spleen. Quintzy’s death hit us both hard and my husband challenged me to write a mystery that did not contain a death. Of course, the book needed to include a dog, and I chose one of my favorite puppy pictures to grace the cover. The food safety plot derived from a couple of episodes in my own career, which I conflated to suit the story.
You design your own book covers. How do you do that?
I am fortunate in my relatives – one in particular. My cousin is a gifted photographer with an eye for layout and she helped me to design all four covers in the Damien Dickens series. We start off by trolling through royalty-free images on pixabay and other similar sites until we hit the ‘Aha’ image. Hilary came up with the idea of using two colors for the main title and also hanging some sort of trinket from the “C” in Caper each time. The rest is mostly trial and error, playing with font colors and placement until it looks right.
What authors have influenced your writing career?
There are several authors who have influenced me. In the mystery genre, I would say Louise Penny (for her superb use of writing and the way she weaves themes from the world of art, literature and cuisine through her books), Sue Grafton for the deftness of her 1st person POV, and Jacqueline Winspear (because I love her Maisie Dobbs character). Among the classics, I love the character sketches of Charles Dickens.
To get the audiobook of The Gold Dragon Caper, click on the image below:
You can read more about Phyllis at the following sites: